Pandemic of inequality

The Levy Institute has just published a short paper on the inequalities associated with the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. It can be found here. A summary of the paper is below.

The costs of the COVID-19 pandemic—in terms of both the health risks and economic burdens—will be borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable segments of US society. In this public policy brief, Luiza Nassif-Pires, Laura de Lima Xavier, Thomas Masterson, Michalis Nikiforos, and Fernando Rios-Avila demonstrate that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to widen already-worrisome levels of income, racial, and gender inequality in the United States. Minority and low-income populations are more likely to develop severe infections that can lead to hospitalization and death due to COVID-19; they are also more likely to experience job losses and declines in their well-being.

The authors argue that our policy response to the COVID-19 crisis must target these unequally shared burdens—and that a failure to mitigate the regressive impact of the crisis will not only be unjust, it will prolong the pandemic and undermine any ensuing economic recovery efforts. As the authors note, we are in danger of falling victim to a vicious cycle: the pandemic and economic lockdown will worsen inequality; and these inequalities exacerbate the spread of the virus, not to mention further weaken the structure of the US economy.

The authors focus on the greater likelihood of ill health among the poorest in the population, and how they are more likely to suffer serious complications should they contract Covid-19.

They also repeat the case often made in papers from the Levy Institute, that high levels of inequality have weakened aggregate demand and growth, not least in the US. This has been associated with high levels of household and corporate debt, and played a major role in the historically weak recovery from the 2008 crisis. If steps are not made to reduce inequality, not least in access to healthcare, the US economy is likely to continue to perform poorly over the long term. This will be in addition to the shocks resulting from the response to the pandemic itself.

Minskyan processes and the coronavirus shock

The Levy Institute has a brief paper here by Michalis Nikiforos on how the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has hit already fragile economies, making the likely eventual economic outcomes particularly damaging. His main focus is the US, but the analysis can be applied to other advanced economies.

The abstract of the paper is below:

The spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) is a major shock for the US and global economies. Research Scholar Michalis Nikiforos explains that we cannot fully understand the economic implications of the pandemic without reference to two Minskyan processes at play in the US economy: the growing divergence of stock market prices from output prices, and the increasing fragility in corporate balance sheets.

The pandemic did not arrive in the context of an otherwise healthy US economy—the demand and supply dimensions of the shock have aggravated an inevitable adjustment process. Using a Minskyan framework, we can understand how the current economic weakness can be perpetuated through feedback effects between flows of demand and supply and their balance sheet impacts.

In the paper’s conclusion, he outlines the necessary policy response including, importantly, that:

“unlike the response to the 2007-9 crisis, the assistance provided to large corporations come with strings attached – so that they do not return to the same old (destabilizing) practices once the emergency has passed.”

This was written before the $2 trillion US support package passed through Congress. It seems as if the author’s hope has not been fulfilled.

How Abraham Lincoln’s political economy ‘trumped the Free Trade British System’

I have written before on the oft-neglected American School of political economy, drawing on the work of Michael Hudson here and here.

Along the same vein, November’s issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics features an article by Emir Phillips. It is included as the Editor’s Choice, so you can read it for free on the journal website or by downloading the pdf.

Here is the abstract:

The Whigs could legitimately emphasise what Hamilton’s Report had not touched upon: urban labourers made unemployed by import competition could not shift to ‘collateral employments’ with the presumptive ease asserted by Free Trader Democrats. More than anything, it was the structural cyclical instability (Minsky moments) that engendered a new party (Republican) to exert political pressures for government involvement in the management of the economy (mercantilism). Economic beliefs played the most fundamental role in Lincoln’s career, and his mercantilist views, in conformity with Hamilton, Clay and the economist Carey, were key determinants in effectuating the Industrial Revolution within the United States through tariffs, government-supported macro-projects and structurally stimulating aggregate demand through a national currency. Permeating Lincoln’s political economy was a fierce non-neutral view of money wherein banks created the funds to ignite the American System. Henry Clay, Henry Carey and Abraham Lincoln were seeking to supplant the Ricardo–Malthus long-term model of economic growth (emphasising distribution within a relatively stagnant economy) with one of expanding productive powers and rising wage levels. These interventionist issues are still quite relevant since US economics students are taught modernised versions of the doctrines of Ricardo and Malthus which were controverted more than a century ago by the American School, and more specifically by Abraham Lincoln.

The article tells the story of how 19th century Whig-Republicans, and Abraham Lincoln in particular, accelerated industrialisation in the US through government intervention in the economy, such that

Mercantilist nationalism (Republican Party of 1860) confronted both the Free Trader Jacksonian-Democrats and the US Constitution, and created a commercially linked Nation whose industrial productivity over the next 60 years (all US Presidents without exception were Republican until President Wilson) supplanted England as the world’s workshop (p.1455).

The policies used included a combination of tariffs to protect domestic industry from English manufactured exports and raise government revenue, investment in transport infrastructure, particularly railroads, and management of the national currency to sustain aggregate demand and investment in industry.

The American System or School saw capital and labour as potentially complements, in that investment in productive capacity in increasing returns industries, namely manufacturing, would stimulate rising productivity and output. This would enable both profits and wages to rise, so that both capitalists and workers would benefit from economic development, resulting in some form of social harmony and supporting national democracy. Thus

[b]y 1845, Lincoln perceived these United States as entirely dependent upon certain economic activities subject to increasing returns, with each regional section being a synergetic phenomena built upon a mutual dependency created by finely knit and interlocking network of rail, divisions of labour and raw inputs into a manufacturing Northeast. Within this matrix, social mobility (‘equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness’) was enchained to industrial productivity to the benefit of all Americans. The increasing returns found in Northern manufacturing created the synergetic element that made the United States greater than its parts (the States). The Republicans were then the National Capitalist Party, with wealth creation and not Constitutional adherence as its abiding precept (p.1455-6).

What sort of big government? Corporate welfare versus the common good in the US

For me, the argument is over. Big government is all-pervasive and inevitable in today’s democratic capitalism. Markets and states are or should be complements, not alternatives, in any society which is both wealthy and continuing to develop and improve the lives of its citizens in the widest possible sense.

This is not an argument for socialism, although there are some on the right who see big government as an evil leading inevitably to a totalitarian and repressive state. This remains a possibility, but it was big government that saved a system on the edge of collapse during the financial crisis, however imperfectly. Crises may be inevitable under capitalism, but it remains the job of government to improve economic and social performance by harnessing the dynamic potential of markets so as to serve the common good.

In today’s US, an unlikely president is unashamedly trying to subvert and dominate the system for his own ends. The process may seem incoherent, but perhaps it mostly boils down to serving a thirst for power and attempting to fill what some have called an ’emptiness’ at the heart of the man.

If one takes Trump’s recent State of the Union address as an accurate description of his political achievements and the state of the US, rather than analysing what he has actually done, one could be forgiven for thinking that all is well there. It is not.

This post is not an analysis of Trump’s achievements in office, rather a discussion based on three books which take a critical view of US capitalism and society, reaching beyond the current political cycle. Although each takes a slightly different perspective and more or less covers a different period in US history, the thread which links them is the idea that its economy and society are being held back by an excessive concentration of power. Continue reading

Trump’s trickle dries up — Michael Roberts Blog

An interesting take on Trump’s economic stimulus and current and prospective US economic performance from Marxist economist Michael Roberts. The full post is at the link below.

“The economy now has hit 3 percent. Nobody thought we’d be anywhere close. I think we can go to 4, 5, and maybe even 6 percent.” – Donald Trump, Dec. 16, 2017 Well, Trump’s boast turned to dust in 2019. US GDP grew by 2.3% in 2019, well below President Trump’s promise of 3%+ growth. […]

via Trump’s trickle dries up — Michael Roberts Blog

Prospects and Challenges for the US economy

Here is the latest Strategic Analysis paper from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College on the prospects and challenges for the US economy over the next few years. The Levy Institute is officially nonpartisan, but much of its output is in the post-Keynesian tradition, and influenced by luminaries such as Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley.

Minsky and Godley were instrumental in highlighting the interdependence of the real and financial sectors of the capitalist economy and the role of the latter in contributing to its periodic instability.

The post-Keynesian or ‘left Keynesian’ tradition is a broad church, but is generally critical of capitalism while suggesting policies which attempt to mitigate its defects, in particular the presence of unemployment, inequality and instability. It emphasises the importance of aggregate demand and macroeconomic categories and relationships.

The Levy Institute publishes a short Strategic Analysis on the US economy like this one every year. It is accessible while being based on a stock-flow consistent macroeconomic model that Godley spent the final years of his life helping to build.

The paper highlights the risks to the US over the next few years of an overvalued stock market, overstretched and fragile corporate sector balance sheets, an overvalued dollar, a slowing global economy and the US administration’s erratic trade policy. It is well worth a read.

Richard Koo on global stagnation, globalisation and the trade war

In the short video below, Richard Koo, originator of the idea of balance sheet recessions, argues that the current global economic stagnation is largely due to private sector firms as a whole in most of world’s largest economies acting as net savers rather than net borrowers and investors, despite very low interest rates. This is weakening aggregate demand and is compounded by the failure of the other sectors in the major economies, namely households and governments, to compensate by borrowing and spending to counter this weakness.

Of course, the US government is running a budget deficit, which has sustained moderate growth there, but for the largest economies taken together, private sector saving is proving to be a drag on continued recovery.

Koo doesn’t go into the reasons for this behaviour, although he has argued elsewhere that the private sector in many countries is attempting to save in order to pay down high levels of debt, producing a balance sheet recession, or stagnation at best. Fiscal policies that boost demand as well as policies that increase private investment opportunities in general would help to counter this.

He also touches on the US-China trade war as adding to global weakness, and notes that it is unlikely to end anytime soon, due to the job losses in the US which decades of current account deficits have reflected. As Koo puts it, free trade has created enough losers economically to make it a political problem in the US, and one that contributed to the election of Trump.

Aside from the trade war, it is quite likely that rising inequality has contributed to global weakness. With much of the income from economic growth accruing to the already wealthy, who save a larger proportion of it than poorer groups, significant increases in consumption in advance of the financial crisis relied on higher household debt since it is less able to be supported by rising wages for the majority.

In economies such as Germany and Japan, the result has been weaker growth, rising public debt in Japan, and a soaring current account surplus in Germany, while in the US and UK the result has been higher household debt and current account deficits. These trends sustained each other for some time, but the resolution of such imbalances may well be the source of much of the current global turmoil which has followed the crisis of more than a decade ago.

This interpretation suggests a need for policies which reduce inequality and increase wages, boosting consumption in a more sustainable fashion, and therefore increasing private investment opportunities. Greater public investment in infrastructure would also help. In a number of countries this has been constrained by policies focusing on austerity and reducing public debt, which have in many ways proved economically and socially damaging.

Michael Hudson: Trump’s new tariffs on China help pay for his corporate tax cut

A video interview below with the always original Michael Hudson on the Real News Network (transcript here). He discusses the impact of Trump’s tariffs, the failure to bring back manufacturing production to the US, and how the President is managing to isolate America and unite much of the rest of the world.

US profits revision — Michael Roberts Blog

Last Friday, the US real GDP growth figures for the second quarter of 2019 were released. The annualised rate of real GDP growth slowed in Q2 to 2.1% from 3.1% in the first quarter. This was the slowest growth rate since the end of 2016. US real GDP was 2.3% higher than in the same […]

via US profits revision — Michael Roberts Blog

The G20 and the cold war in technology — Michael Roberts Blog

Last weekend’s G20 summit in Osaka resolved nothing substantial in the ongoing trade and technology war that the US is now waging with China. At best, a truce was agreed on any further escalation in tariffs and other measures against Chinese tech companies. But there was no long-lasting agreement reached. And that’s because this is […]

via The G20 and the cold war in technology — Michael Roberts Blog