China’s ‘unbalanced economy’ needs greater state control for growth

In this very brief interview, Michael Pettis argues that in order to sustain growth in the wake of the global pandemic, the Chinese government will need to ramp up public spending. The response to Covid-19, both in and out of China, has hit private consumption, investment and exports hard. Increased government spending is the only element of aggregate demand remaining.

He also repeats what he has said for some years, that the ‘underlying’ growth rate of the economy is much lower than the headline rate and the government’s targets due to massive investment in unproductive sectors and projects. This means that eventually even the headline growth rate will have to fall towards the underlying rate, possibly leading to a ‘lost decade’ for China.

 

The Debt Delusion – Living Within Our Means and Other Fallacies

JWeeksDebtDelusionJohn Weeks has a new book out, The Debt Delusion, which takes a progressive line in debunking a number of what he terms the myths that surround fiscal policy.

Weeks is an Emeritus Professor of Development Studies at SOAS, and coordinator of the Progressive Economy Forum. He is heavily critical of austerity and proposes an ‘anti-austerity’ agenda on tax and spending for today’s policymakers.

Weeks has long been critical of mainstream economics in general, not least in his previous book for the layman, Economics of the 1%.

Summing up his proposed fiscal policy framework, he writes (p.182-3): Continue reading

Fighting Inequality Can Strengthen the US Economy

A one-pager free download from the Levy Institute on how higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans coupled with a comparable increase in public spending can not only redress political but also economic inequality while boosting consumption and aggregate demand in a sustainable fashion and reducing the dependence of these factors on rising debt levels. A brief summary below:

“Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently proposed to increase the rate of taxation on very high incomes and net worth. One of the primary justifications for such policies is that reducing inequality would help safeguard political equality. However, Dimitri B. Papadimitriou, Michalis Nikiforos, and Gennaro Zezza show how these tax policies, if matched by comparable increases in government spending, have the potential to boost aggregate demand while helping reform the unstable structure of the US economy.”

Austerity: 12 Myths Exposed

Social Europe has produced a booklet attacking many of the myths surrounding austerity. It is free to download here. Below is a short extract from the preface:

Austerity: 12 Myths Exposed debunks commonly held beliefs in support of austerity as a solution to addressing stagnation and economic crisis. Austerity staples like ‘live within your means’, ‘Swabian housewife economics’, ‘public spending hampers private investment’ and the new authority of alleged maximum debt and deficit levels, such as the Maastricht criteria governing the eurozone, are tackled and taken apart. While this booklet does not provide a full recipe for the end of austerity, those who are looking for alternatives will find a range of arguments needed to clear the pathway towards paradigm change. One thing is clear: austerity is a tool of national and international financial interests – not a solution to the problems caused by them.”

 

Tax, redistribution and economic performance: the micro and the macro

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to be elected to the US Congress, has made headlines recently with her arguments for much greater marginal rates of tax on the highest earners. Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis yesterday posted this helpful piece on some of the economics and politics of such a policy. He is broadly in favour, and makes a good case for it.

Wren-Lewis is something of a New Keynesian, coming from the centre-left of mainstream thinking. The post covers plenty of ground, but tends to only focus on the microeconomics, while neglecting the macroeconomics, of higher taxes and redistribution. Continue reading

Equality and growth – no conflict?

“To lay a factual foundation to the argument for raising the American income floor, we need to sweep away the remnants of an older view that policies cannot promote both equality and growth. The older view assumed an “efficiency-equity trade-off.” If such were true, then nothing could be done to foster economic growth without the collateral damage of greater inequality, or greater equality without the collateral damage of less growth.

History does not confirm such a trade-off. To remember why, first consider a simple point about the political process…A dominant historical outcome has been that vested interests have blocked initiatives that would promote growth and/or equality. A conspicuous example is the suppression of mass public schooling – an investment that clearly promotes both equality and growth. Our second consideration comes from the numbers: history does not record any correlation – negative or positive – between income equalization and economic growth, either in our new American history over the past 360 years or world history over the past 150 years. The correlation does not emerge, regardless of whether “growth” means the GDP per capita growth rate or its absolute level, and regardless of whether “equalization” means the share of social spending in GDP, some measure of policy-induced redistribution, the level of pre-fisc income inequality before taxes and transfers, or even the rate of change in any of these.

Economists have explored the effects on income per capita growth of three kinds of egalitarian variables: tax-based social spending and its composition; fiscal redistribution, measured by the gap between pre- and post-fisc inequality; and the greater equality of pre-fisc incomes before taxes and transfers. An empirical literature using contemporary world evidence finds that the growth effect of equalizing incomes is not significant. History agrees. American experience does not reveal any clear effect on GDP of greater tax-based social spending or more progressive redistribution from rich to poor. Indeed, recent analyses suggest that greater pre-fisc equality has a positive effect on growth. This result supports the argument that egalitarian investments in human capital simultaneously achieve more equality and more growth. While these statistical results can be and have been debated, they do not support any claim that equalizing incomes must lower growth. American income history offers no support either.

If there were any fulcrum at which historical insight might be applied to move inequality, it would be political…no nation has used up all its political opportunities for leveling income without harming economic growth. Improving education, taxing large inheritances, and taming financial instability with regulatory vigilance – the opportunities are there, like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2016), Unequal Gains – American Growth and Inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, p.261-2.

There are influential theoretical arguments in economics supporting policies which promote growth by, on the one hand, increasing and, on the other, reducing inequality. The above conclusion to Lindert and Williamson’s comprehensive historical study of American growth and inequality is either ambivalent to or in support of a positive relationship between reduced inequality, certainly at its current level in many countries, and faster growth.

Their argument is that the forces generating inequality are largely exogenous (they come from outside the economic system), and so can be altered through policy without harming growth.

Clearly there are limits to this. Perfect equality of incomes and wealth would destroy the incentives required for economic activity. Ever-increasing inequality could also lead to the sort of social division and political instability which would be destructive of the status quo. Neither extreme is sustainable.

From a macroeconomic perspective, greater inequality can promote or reduce growth, depending on the economic context. If productive investment is constrained by a lack of savings, redistributing income and wealth to those economic agents who tend to save a larger share of their income, such as the wealthier members of society or firms, would provide the resources for that investment by increasing the economy’s savings rate. In this situation, greater inequality can boost growth.

This is an argument often associated with Marxist thinking and the central notion of the rate of profit or surplus in providing the resources and motivation for new investment. Growth is “profit-led”.

By contrast, if productive investment is constrained by a lack of consumption spending, then redistribution to those who consume a larger share of their income, normally the poorer members of society, will boost consumption and stimulate investment. In this case, reducing inequality can boost growth, while policies which increase it will lower growth.

This latter argument finds support in Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking, so that spending for consumption helps drive investment spending. Growth is held back by “under-consumption” and is “wage-led”. If this is the case, then a strong argument can be made for win-win progressive policies which boost household incomes and wages and reduce inequality while raising growth.

Inequality shapes and is shaped by both economic and political forces. There is perhaps “plenty to play for” in terms of policies which promote greater social justice under capitalism, without undermining its foundations. In today’s climate, they are surely essential to sustaining those foundations.

Ha-Joon Chang: taxation is not theft

In a modern capitalist economy, taxation is not theft but a necessary source of funding for all sorts of public goods and services that make the economy and society function well. It also shapes behavioural incentives in ways that can further promote social welfare. This is worth reiterating. Many of us may not like paying taxes. Some public spending may be wasted, and it often benefits particular groups at the expense of others, although this is inherent to politics. But it remains an essential element of the good society.

Freedom, welfare and state intervention

An insightful quote from economist Lars Pålsson Syll, who blogs here, on the nature of freedom and its relationship to welfare and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s concept of capabilities. The latter, contrary to the beliefs and wishes of many libertarians and neoliberals, can be enabled via state intervention:

“State intervention does not necessarily mean that our freedoms are restricted. They can, on the contrary, enable and increase real freedom. Talking about freedom in abstractu counts for nothing. What really means anything is – as Sen has often stressed – capabilities. What joy does the freedom of movement give the disabled person if no one enables him to use this freedom? What good does it bring us to have freedom of the press if there are no newspapers or journals where we can put forward our views? When estimating welfare more weight should be laid on positive freedom (ability to achieve desired goals) instead of only negative freedom (absence of outer restrictions). Welfare is, as already pointed out in Sen’s Tanner Lecture 1979, best understood in terms of capabilities . Positive freedom is a kind of capability to function that has a direct value of its own, while the resources that can increase this capability only get an instrumental value in so far as they help us to achieve that which we really value – our capability to function under different circumstances. It is not possession of commodities or perceived satisfaction that at first hand give a measure of well-being, but our capability to make use of our possessions. To focus on capability means emphasising what goods enable a person to do, and not the goods in themselves. A metric of goods or utilities does not get hold of the fact that the point of our belongings is to create possibilities of choice. Functioning and capability are what matters. What makes us value our car is not the fact that we perhaps own it, but that we can use it to take us where we want to get. Even if freedom is something important in itself, it is most often not for its own sake that we search for it.

Libertarians are oblivious of the fact that some persons’ entitlements can restrict the freedom of others, and that the want of property not only restricts the self-determination of the property-less but also makes him an instrument of others’ freedom. To this they respond that the more resources there are in society, the more the rich invest their capital to make production effective, and the richer all members of society become. In the libertarian society the egoism of the rich is linked fruitfully with the rest of society.”

Lars Pålsson Syll (2016), ‘Neoliberalism and neoclassical economics’, in On the use and misuse of theories and models in mainstream economics, College Publications on behalf of the World Economics Association, p.142-3.

“America First”, Fiscal Policy and Financial Stability: a report on the US economy

What does the future hold for the US economy, given its current trajectory and recent changes in government policy?

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, of which distinguished former associates include post-Keynesians Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley, has just published its Strategic Analysis report on the medium-term prospects for the US.

Godley is recognised as having predicted a severe recession in the US some years before it began in 2008, due to the unsustainable build-up in private sector debt, particularly among households.

Minsky is also well known for his ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and its implication that ‘stability is destabilising’ in the financial sector of capitalist economies: periods of stable economic growth can create fragile balance sheets in the private sector, which often lead to stagnation or crisis. Continue reading

Trump’s budget balls-up – via Michael Roberts

President Trump’s economic team have release their plans for the federal budget over the next ten years. It is a combination of wildly optimistic economic growth forecasts, vicious cutbacks in public services and environmental measures; and significant cuts in corporate taxes and personal taxes for the rich. But what is exercising mainstream economists are the […]

via Trump’s budget balls-up — Michael Roberts Blog