Work and beyond (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

A little while ago, Ross Douthat tweeted a link to this Aeon article of mine, reflecting on Keynes ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, which gave rise to some interesting discussion (Memo to self: Find out about Storify). Now he’s addressed the topic in the New York Times, linking directly to Keynes essay. There’s some interesting food for thought here. Unfortunately, it’s mixed up with some silly stuff reflecting his job as the NY Times token Republican, in which capacity he has to do some damage control over the exposure of the latest Repub lie saying that Obamacare will cost 2.5 million jobs. As Douthat delicately puts it “this is not exactly right”. But, although his heart clearly isn’t it, he tries to construct a narrative in which the Repubs might be right for the wrong reasons, or, in an even less-felicitous defence, mean-spirited and inaccurate but justified by the success of Reaganism thirty years ago.

More interesting though, is Douthat’s discussion comparing idealised hopes for a post-work society with the reality in which well-educated professionals are working longer hours than ever, while many at the bottom end of the income distribution, particularly poorer men have withdrawn from the formal labour force altogether (presumably, relying on disability benefits or scraping a living in the informal economy). One possible solution to this problem, is simply to give the poor more money, for example, in the form of a basic income, and not worry about whether they choose to work. Douthat isn’t too happy about this idea, saying

Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted. The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.

But this position elides a bunch of crucial issues.

First, while work may be necessary to “dignity, mobility and social equality” in a market society, it certainly isn’t sufficient. For unionised US workers in the mid-20th century, earning middle-class incomes in relatively secure jobs and expecting better for their children, work was, arguably both necessary and sufficient to achieve a fair measure of these things. But an at-will employee, juggling two or three tenuous jobs that pay $7.25 an hour, and looking at a steady decline in real income, is scarcely getting much in the way of dignity, let alone mobility or social equality.

Equally importantly, market work isn’t the only kind of work people can do, and certainly not the most valuable. Most obviously, there’s the raising of children. The US the developed countries that does not provide any kind of paid parental leave, and even the legislative provision for unpaid leave (12 weeks a year for mothers in firms with more than 50 employees, nothing for fathers) is incredibly stingy. The idea that the ‘rugged individualists’ who block any improvements to these conditions actually care about the dignity of the working class is simply laughable.

I don’t need to tell Douthat any of this. It’s all in his book Grand New Party with Reihan Salam, notably including a proposal for a full year of paid parental leave. The book received cautiously respectful reviews from many in the centre and centre-left, but fell entirely flat with its intended audience in the Republican Party.

I’ll have a bit more to say about the kind of technological determinism that seeks to explain labour market polarisation as arising from computers and the Internet a bit later. For the moment, I’ll repeat the conclusion of my Aeon essay that a response to technological change that will preserve the link between work, dignity and equality will require both a reduction in total hours of work and an expansion in the range of social contributions regarded as work, beyond those that generate a market return

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Macroeconomics made easy?

In my book, Zombie Economics, I started the account of macroeconomics with the observation

Macroeconomics began with Keynes. Before Keynes wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, economic theory consisted almost entirely of what is now called microeconomics. The difference between the two is commonly put by saying that microeconomics is concerned with individual markets and macroeconomics with the economy as a whole, but that formulation implicitly assumes a view of the world that is at least partly Keynesian.

Long before Keynes, neoclassical economists had both a theory of how prices are determined in individual markets so as to match supply and demand (“partial equilibrium theory”) and a theory of how all the prices in the economy are jointly determined to produce a “general equilibrium” in which there are no unsold goods or unemployed workers.

I went on to observe how the pre-Keynesian approach had been revived by the “New Classical” school, and how the apparent convergence with “New Keynesian” economics had been shown to be illusory after the failure of Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models to deal with the 2008 financial crisis and the subsquent, still continuing, depression.

With all of this, though, I still never thought of academic macro, in either saltwater or freshwater form, as being a simple reversion to the pre-Keynesian notion of general equilibrium, with no concern about aggregate demand or unemployment, even in the short run. It turns out that, at least for a large segment of the profession, this is quite wrong. I’ve just received a book entitled Big ideas in Macroeconomics: A nontechnical view by Kartik Athreya, an economist at the Richmond Federal Reserve who made a splash a few years back with a piece entitled Economics is Hard. Don’t Let Bloggers Tell You Otherwise, which, unsurprisingly, did not endear him to bloggers. As a critic of mainstream macro, I’m briefly mentioned, and I just got a review copy.

The new book is an attempt to simplify things, and indeed it has proved enlightening to me and also to Herb Gintis who contributes a blurb on the back, commending it as an accessible and accurate description of the dominant way of thinking about macroeconomics.

The easiest way to see why the book is so striking is to list some topics that do not appear in the index (and are not discussed, or only mentioned in passing, in the text). These include: unemployment, inflation, recession, depression, business cycle, Phillips curve, NAIRU, Taylor Rule, money, monetary policy and fiscal policy.

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After the car industry (revised and updated)

Quicker than I expected, Toyota has announced that it will be abandoning motor vehicle manufacture in Australia by 2017. That presumably will flow through to components manufactures of all kinds.

The impending end of the car industry constitutes the effective end of large scale manufacturing in Australia, at least as the term is ordinarily understood. The remaining manufacturing sector consists mainly of basic processing of agricultural and mineral products for export, along with food and beverages for the domestic market. Elaborately transformed manufactures, on which such high hopes were pinned in the 1980s and 1990s have been declining for years, and will be confined to niche markets once we stop exporting automotive products.

An immediate policy implication of the end of car production is that it’s time to drop a bunch of policies whose rationale was to support the domestic industry. The most obvious candidate is the FBT concession, just reinstated by the Abbott government. But there’s also the maintenance of some of the worlds weakest fuel efficiency standards, driven by the desire not to tilt the playing field against Falcons and Commodores. More generally, a whole range of pro-car policies will need to be reassessed, given that they increase our dependence on imports and therefore our vulnerability to terms of trade shocks.

The other big policy implication is that there is no longer any reason for Australia to have fuel efficiency standards much weaker than those in the rest of the world. The original rationale was to protect local icons like the Falcon and Commodore. Now that all cars will be important, we should demand that they meet the same standards as in their home markets.

Finally, in political terms, the Abbott government’s toughminded attitude on the end of manufacturing represents a striking contrast with its eagerness to help favored groups like the financial sector (including the salary packaging industry) and primary industry. This produces bizarre contradictions. For example, as Peter Touhey of the Victorian Farmers Federation recently noted, the Coalition government is spending more than $1 billion to upgrade privately owned irrigation infrastructure in the Goulburn valley region, but is then unwilling to come up with $25 million to keep the processing end of the industry open.

A conversation with Arthur Gietzelt

There’s been quite a lot of discussion about the political views of former Senator Arthur Gietzelt, who died recently at the age of 93, and in particular about claims[1] that he was a secret member of the Communist Party.

Although it’s scarcely conclusive, this is one of the few occasions when I have some direct evidence to contribute to a discussion of this kind. In the aftermath of 1975, I formed the view (ill-advised in retrospect) that I could help fix Australia’s problems by becoming a Labor party staffer. I wanted to move to Sydney, so I applied to all the shadow ministers based there, receiving replies only from Doug McClelland and Arthur Gietzelt.

I can’t remember much about McClelland, or even for sure if I met him. As I recall, he was associated with the Right, but didn’t have the thuggish persona that generally went with that group, especially after the rise of Graham Richardson.

But, although I didn’t get the job, I did have a brief conversation with Gietzelt, who said something to me along the following lines “When I was your age [I was in my early 20s at the time], we all thought the Soviet Union was the way of the future. But you young people will have to find a different way forward”. My politics then were much as they are now, on the left, but strongly anti-communist, and of course, I was puzzled as to how the left should respond to the resurgence of neoliberalism/market liberalism, represented at the time by Malcolm Fraser(!). So this resonated with me in a number of ways, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I took it to mean that Gietzelt had once been a communist sympathizer (whether a party member or ‘fellow traveller’) but had ceased to be so. That wouldn’t be totally inconsistent with an association with the then Communist Party of Australia, which had broken from Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but that wasn’t the impression I had: I assumed that his views had changed well before that, presumably in the wake of the Hungarian invasion and Kruschchev’s secret speech.

As I say, this is scarcely decisive evidence, but Gietzelt had no reason to mislead me, and no need to say anything at all to me along these lines: in all probability we were never going to meet again, and we didn’t.[2] So, my own guess is that, if Gietzelt was ever a member of the Communist Party, it was well before he entered the Federal Parliament.

[fn1] Made most prominently, I think, by Mark Aarons, who, however, wasn’t drawing on personal knowledge but from a reading of ASIO files – scarcely a reliable source as anyone who remembers the ASIO of the Cold War era will attest

[fn2] It was a long time ago, and it’s possible that I was still a candidate for the job. But presumably, in that case, a secret CPer would be dropping hints in the other direction, to see if I was likely to be OK with the idea.

Some thoughts on energy storage

A lot of the discussion of my last post on energy issues was devoted to discussion of energy storage. Rather than get involved in that, I thought I’d collect my own thoughts on this. Broadly speaking, Here are some observations, labelled for convenience and partly derived from this study by the US Department of Energy

(a) Any reversible energetic process represents a potential storage technology. Reversibility entails that some energy is stored (as potential or chemical energy) when the process goes one way, and released when it goes the other. Of course, the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that we will always add entropy (that is, lose useful energy) in this process
(b) Any technical or social change that shifts the time at which energy is finally used replicates the effects of storage
(c)Energy storage is in much the same position as renewable electricity generation was, say, 15 years ago.
(d) There are a lot of potential approaches, most of which have been developed in niches where particular characteristics are required. For example, car batteries need to store a lot of energy for given weight, household batteries need to store energy for a long time and so on. The needs of a renewable-dominated electricity system are very different and will require substantial modifications of these technologies
(e) With one big exception, there is currently no price incentive, in most jurisdictions to use storage technologies and therefore none are used
(f) The big exception is off-peak hot water. Coal and nuclear systems generate baseload supply when it is not needed for consumption. Price incentives are used to encourage people to store the resulting excess energy in the form of hot water
(g) There’s no technological obstacle, given the availability of smart meters, to changing the timing of hot water systems to reflect actual availability of excess electricity rather than reflecting the assumptions of a coal-based system
(h) All of this applies to electric cars. Even ignoring the possibility of feeding power back into the grid, the economics of electric cars would be drastically improved if they could be charged using low-cost power in times of excess supply (in the case of solar PV, around midday when lots of cars are sitting in parking lots)
(i) Something I just found out from the DoE study: Electric car batteries are considered unfit for services when they fall to 80 per cent of their original charge capacity (recall that energy density is critical for car batteries). But they still have a long potential life as static storage devices. This enhances both the economics of electric cars (since the battery has resale value) and of storage (since the opportunity cost is zero)

Here’s an older post, with a really simple example of how the argument works, once you get away from the fixation on replicating the characteristics of a coal-fired system.

Monday Message Board

Last week was pretty much a blur for me, with loads of work and other commitments. It’s already time for another Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topi. Civil discussion and no coarse language please. Side discussions and idees fixes to the sandpits, please