Perspectives on the UK’s productivity problem: the end of the puzzle?

workersThe UK’s productivity problem continues. Output per worker has barely grown since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Why is this a problem? Because if we want rising living standards, we must have rising productivity over time.

In theory, rising productivity in our economy gives us choices between increased income and increased leisure time. We can choose on a spectrum between more income for the same hours worked and the same income for fewer hours worked, in other words, more leisure time. Depending on how we in society value work and leisure, increased productivity should make possible increases in human welfare.

Today, output per hour worked in the US is at a similar level to that in France and Germany. However, total hours worked per head in the US have tended to outstrip those in the latter two countries, meaning that output per head remains higher there.

Americans are on average richer (although greater inequality means that many of them are not), but they achieve these greater riches by working longer, while their French and German counterparts have more leisure time, including a shorter working day and longer holidays. This is down to collective economic and social choices, although these are also necessarily political in nature, and far away from simple choices freely made by individuals, as some might choose to believe. Continue reading

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When protectionism worked (and why it probably won’t today)

The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott writes here about the potential of Trump’s trade war to herald a return to the 1930s, a decade of rising protectionism and shrinking world trade.

He makes the important point that the EU and China run trade surpluses, and are therefore likely to suffer more than the US from tit-for-tat protectionist policies. However this does not mean that, to quote Mr Trump, trade wars are ‘good and easy to win’.

I have often written about the case for selective and temporary protection for infant industries in developing countries. For several decades after World War Two, the threat of the spread of communism gave the US, as global capitalist hegemon, a strong incentive to promote successful capitalist development across the world. Developing countries were therefore given policy space to promote their domestic industries, even as trade became more free in the rich world. Continue reading

Michael Pettis on rising trade tensions

With Donald Trump’s apparently escalating trade war very much in the news, here are some wise words from Peking University’s Michael Pettis, taken from the final pages of his 2013 book The Great Rebalancing – Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy (p.192-194). They seem particularly relevant right now.
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Journeying through the world of economics: a personal note

2018 marks 24 years since I first took an interest in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘dismal science’. Not a particularly notable landmark, though it is more than half my life. And I certainly have not spent all that time with my nose in books about economics, although I have spent quite a bit of it like that, maybe more than is good for me.

Apparently it was the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle who coined the phrase dismal science in the 19th century. I am sometimes inclined to agree, when observing a malfunctioning economy and its malfunctioning stewards in government and business. But more often I am prepared to be optimistic that we can find solutions to the problems of humanity. Some of them might even come from studying economics!

Keynes looked forward to a time when the economist’s role in society would be akin to that of dentists, as humble, competent fixers of minor problems. Notwithstanding a call from the UK’s current environment secretary during the campaign for Brexit to pay less attention to experts, economists and their ideological categories of supply, demand and growth have become extremely powerful and accepted, even if with passivity, resignation or incomprehension. Continue reading

John Maynard Keynes – a brief intro

Here is a nice video introduction to the life and work of John Maynard Keynes, whom many regard as the greatest economist of the 20th century. Keynes’ goal was to save the capitalist system from its worst defects, particularly mass unemployment, through intelligent government interventions, at both the national and international level. For Keynes, it was more about economic reform than revolution.

As an economics student I was strongly influenced by leftist Keynesian ideas, which I later found out are broadly termed post-Keynesian. I often tried to make that come across in my essays. Some of my teachers didn’t like that, as such ideas tend to be outside the mainstream.

Since then, I have explored political economy more widely, including the work of Marx and modern-day Marxists. I have become a little disillusioned with Keynesian policies, or at least the prospect of our political masters coming together to put them into practice. I now see industrial and social welfare policies as equally important at the national level, both for the developed and developing nations.

As a result, I have become less of a post-Keynesian, and more aware of the limits to successful interventions under capitalism. I try to be more flexible ideologically, but I still find Keynesian ideas useful and they remain important to progressive thinking.