Some facts, and claims, about the 21st Century Economy

In the process of working on my book-in-progress, The Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, I’ve been trying to integrate a number of facts about the economy of which I’ve been more or less aware for a while, along with claims I want to make, and put them together into a coherent account of the economic system prevailing (in advanced/developed economies( in the 21st century and how it differs from the industrial goods economy of the 20th century.

As a step towards this, I’ve put together a list of factual claims which I think can be established reasonably firmly, along with claims I want to make that will be more contentious. My plan is to put this together into a coherent analysis, including supporting evidence. So, I’m keen to get good supporting links for any of these points (I have quite a bit, but more would be helfpul). I also want to be sure I’m not missing contrary evidence, and to adjust the claims if necessary, so please point this out also.

Facts (I think)

  • Most economic activity in the 20th century, including services such as wholesale and retail trade, was fairly directly related to the production and distribution of goods
  • This is no longer true: most economic activity is now related to human services, information services and finance, and these are at most indirectly related to goods production
  • Real interest rates for government debt and high-grade corporate debt have been below zero since the GFC and seem likely to remain there permanently under current conditions
  • Massive issues of government debt during the pandemic crisis haven’t changed this
  • Net private business investment (non-residential) has been declining relative to GDP/national income since at least 2000
  • Service industries less capital intensive than goods industries
  • Information economy firms (Facebook, Google etc) invest very little even counting R&R
  • Government investment in traditional infrastructure has been falling since 1970s, at most partially offset by private infrastructure
  • Corporate profits high, mostly derived either from financial sector or from “intangible” assets in IT.

My claims

  • Finance sector profits even higher if payments to managerial level in finance sector are treated as part of profit
  • Intangibles = monopoly
  • Revenue and profits in finance and Internet do not arise from sales to final consumers, and bear no obvious relationship to consumer welfare
  • Implies similar regarding wages for market work
  • Incentives don’t work in in this kind of economy (if they ever did)
  • Unmet needs for public investment in human services: health, education, aged care, early childhood, social work
  • Capacity to meet these through short term increase in public debt, long term increase in taxation

Budget reax

I have a couple of articles responding to the most momentous budget in Australian history. For those who’ve forgotten, it was introduced on Tuesday.

Here’s one in The Conversation on environment and energy policy (heavily edited and done in a hurry, so there are a few points I would have written differently).

And here’s one in Independent Australia, headlined Budget like its 2019, on the government’s failure to learn from the catastrophes of the last year.

Inequality and the Pandemic, Part IV: Possibilities

Another in my series of extracts from my book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. So far I’ve looked at luck the limited relationship between returns and social value and the fact that risk-taking is mostly done (involuntarily) by the poor, not the rich. Now I’m going to consider possibilities for reform

The biggest lesson of the pandemic, and indeed of the decade since the Global Financial Crisis is that (just about) anything is possible. The decades in which the ‘Washington Consensus’ held sway narrowed the range of thinkable policy options to the marginal differences between hard (think Newt Gingrich and Margaret Thatcher) and soft (Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) versions of neoliberalism.

Economic policies that had prevailed during the decades of widely shared prosperity in the decades after 1945 were simply ruled out as the kind of thing governments don’t do any more. This was particularly true in relation to income distribution.

Let’s start with the minimum wage. When the Federal minimum wage of $0.25 cents an hour was introduced in 1938, national income [more precisely, Gross Domestic Product] per person was $674 per year. Over the next thirty years, the minimum wage grew roughly in line with GDP, reaching its maximum purchasing in 1968. Since then, the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation, let alone income per person, which reached $65000 in 2019. If the minimum wage had risen at the same rate, it would now be just under $25/hour. In fact, the Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. Many states have higher rates, but the average is still only $11/hour.

Minimum wages set a floor, but for most workers, what matters is the bargain they can strike with their employers. In the mid-20th century, labour’s side of this bargaining process was mostly undertaken by unions – even non-union workers benefitted from this process. Unions have vanished from most of the US private sector today, a development paralleled to a greater or lesser extent in much of the developed world.

In the neoliberal framing of the issue, the decline in unionism is the inevitable consequence of a modern flexible economy. In reality, the primary cause of declining union density is the passage of anti-union laws, beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1948 (outside the US, the process began later and is less complete, but the sequence of events is generally the same). As the International Monetary Fund (long a guardian of economic orthodoxy) has observed, the weakening of unions may be responsible for as much as half the decline in the labor share of national income.

Similar points may be made about income tax rates. Work by economists such as Diamond and Saez suggests that income tax revenue would be maximized with a top marginal rate of 70 per cent. And, on almost any plausible assumptions about the relative value of additional income to the rich and the poor, the socially optimal marginal rate would be only marginally above this.

It’s true that there were plenty of loopholes (though perhaps fewer than today). Still it seems clear that a good many high income earners faced an effective marginal tax rate equal to or greater than the 70 per cent rate recommended by economists like Diamond and Saez. They may have reduced their work effort as a result, but any impact on the economy as a whole was undetectable.

High minimum wages, strong unions and progressive taxes worked well in the past. But in considering the possibilities for a post-pandemic world, we need not think in terms of turning back the clock, even if doing so would be an improvement on the disasters wrought by decades of neoliberalism. Rather, we can imagine new paths that combine the best of the past with innovations made possible by the advance of technology.

Some of these new possibilities, such as Universal Basic Income and guaranteed free access to college, have already been raised, notably in the context of the Democratic Party primary campaign. Others, such as the need to redress growing inequality between potentially home based information workers and in person service providers, are emerging from the pandemic. Much remains to be worked out but one thing is certain: a return to the pre-pandemic economy, neither possible nor desirable.

(links to come when I get some more time).

What’s left of microeconomic reform?

I happened to mention on Twitter that I now use the word “reform” without scare quotes, even when I think the reform in question is a bad one. In fact, that’s my default assumption when I see the word, at least in the context of economic policy. That led me to think about how much fof the 1980s and 1990s microeconomic reform program still stands up. Here’s the result from Threadreader (via @ScooterBodgie)

Having privatised telecomms and (most electricity), government is now building/commissioning broadband network and electricity generation and storage. Competition and choice in human services comprehensively disastrous with for-profit providers (aged care, VET)

PPP model broken ever since GFC (based on UK PFI, which Conservative government tweaked, then dumped altogether)

Outsourcing has been disastrous in many cases, most recently quarantine and contract tracing (again, UK further down this road, moving to insourcing). Outsourcing policy advice a particular problem

Financial deregulation produced GFC, hugely costly financial sector, promised benefits never delivered

Labour market reform has made workers worse off (OK, this probably counts as a success for those who introduced it).


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.

Inequality and the pandemic, Part 3: Risk and reward

So, far I’ve argued that the inequality of incomes in our society is largely a matter of luck rather than inherent personal ability, and that it is only distantly related to the social value of the contributions people make through their work. These conclusions undercut the idea that taxing those on high incomes will harm society by reducing incentives to work for the most able and social valuable workers. Although the evidence was already strong, the pandemic has brought these points into even brighter relief.

Now I want to consider the claim that we need inequality in order to encourage people to take risks. The simplest response is to point to the empirical fact that high income earners take (or, more accurately, are subject to) less risk than average not more[1].

Hardy and Ziliak (confirmed in general terms by many other sources) give the numbers

in any given year since 1996 the level of volatility among the bottom 10% was 81% higher than the volatility among the top 1%, and this level nearly doubled since 1981

Here’s a graph illustrating this point.

Income risk by income group

This graph shows that those at the bottom of the income distribution experience higher variance than anyone else. But using the variance as a measure understates the problem, since what matters most in an assessment of risk is the discretionary income remaining after unavoidable commitments have been met.

The statistics confirm what anecdotal evidence tells us every day: once someone has made it to the top of the income distribution, they will never become poor as a result of bad luck or business mistakes. Failed business owners wash their debts away with bankruptcy and return to the scene only marginally diminished. Failed CEOs are given multi-million dollar parachutes to soften their fall. Even personal bankruptcy isn’t commonly a problem: careful use of homeowner exemptions, irrevocable trusts and well-timed (but not too obviously well-timed) gifts can allow a bankrupt 1 percenter to live far better than a solvent member of the (shrinking) middle class, let alone a poor person.

If anything, our institutions encourage too much risk-taking at both ends of the income distribution. The rich can take risks secure in the knowledge that (with the current tax system) they will keep most of the benefits of bets that payoff while shifting most of the losses from unsuccessful bets to others. The poor take more voluntary risks because any chance of escaping the bottom of the distribution in a highly unequal society is worth a shot. And freely chosen risks seem less worrying when you are subject to so much risk that is out of your control anyway.

As usual, the pandemic illustrates this point in spades. Throughout his career, Donald Trump has relied on his ability to cash in his (relatively rare) winning bets while shifting the losses onto others. Now having gambled with his own safety and that of anyone who listens to him, he is guaranteed the best medical care money can buy, while thousands of less fortunate victims of the pandemic die every week.

fn1. The idea of the top 1 per cent as entrepreneurial risk-takers is part of a complex of spurious factoids, including ‘executive stress’ and the idea that this stress in turn causes ulcers.

Inequality and the Pandemic Part 2: Merit

Unequal incomes are regularly justified by claiming that high incomes reflect a larger contribution to society. This has never been true as a general proposition.

Some high incomes, like those of skilled surgeons, reflect a contribution well above the norm. Others, like those of entertainers and sports stars, reflect services that are highly valued by our society whether or not they make it a better place.

Others on high incomes make only marginal contributions to society or cause active harm. The massive growth in the number and incomes of lawyers and finance professionals over the past forty years has not been matched by any obvious improvement in justice, financial security or the rational investment of capital.

Read More »

Outsourcing: what we pay for is what we get

Ross Gittins makes some obvious, but important, points about what is lsot when vital public services are contracted out. As he says, economists have known this since the work of Oliver Hart, last century, but it’s only now penetrating the policy establishment. In the UK, which led the charge for outsourcing under Thatcher, insourcing is the New Big Thing.

Unlike Hart, I’m not in the running for the Economics Nobel, but I’ve spent much of the last thirty years supplying empirical support for his theoretical analysis.

Inequality and the Pandemic, Part 1: Luck

Here’s an extract from my contingent* book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic commissioned by Yale University Press. Comments and compliments appreciated, as always.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us several things about inequality, or rather, it has dramatically reinforced lessons we, as a society, have failed to learn. The first is the importance of luck in determining unequal outcomes.

Some of us will get Covid-19 and die or suffer lifelong health consequences. Others will lose their jobs and businesses. Many, however, will be unaffected or will even find themselves better off. Some of these differences may be traced to individual choices that are sensible or otherwise, such as deciding whether to wear a mask in public places. But mostly they are a matter of being in the wrong (or right) place at the wrong (or right time).

Moreover, this isn’t specific to the pandemic. From the moment we are born, luck plays a critical role in our life chances. Our families may or may not be in a position to help us succeed, and may or may not hold together through our childhood. Moreover, this isn’t specific to the pandemic. From the moment we are born, luck plays a critical role in our life chances. Our families may or may not be in a position to help us succeed, and may or may not hold together through our childhood. A child born into the bottom 20 per cent of the US income distribution has only a 4 per cent chance of ending up in the top 20 per cent. The opposite is true at the other end of the distribution with the striking exception of Black children, especially boys.

These facts have been known to social scientists for decades. Yet until recently, in the face of glaringly unequal outcomes, most Americans comforted themselves with the idea that the United States was a land of opportunity where everyone who worked hard had a fair chance of doing well. This was true a century ago, but now there is more mobility between economic classes in European countries than in the US.

That’s not to say everything in Europe is rosy. Piketty examined the UK and France as well as the US and found growing inequality in all three. It seems likely that other European countare are on the path towards what Piketty calls a patrimonial society, where inherited wealth is the most important determinant of success.

Luck doesn’t end with the lottery of family background. Young people who enter the labour force during a recession will experience permanently reduced life chances compared to those who enter during a boom. And at an individual level, lucky or unlucky breaks of various kinds are much more important than many of us like to believe. Robert Frank provides detailed evidence in Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

The pandemic has reinforced this lesson in the most brutal way possible. As is usual, the poorest members of society have been most exposed both to the risk of death and disease and to economic hardship. But everyone is vulnerable, and it is a matter of chance whether any of us gets infected, and whether the consequences are harmless, severe or fatal. Similarly, exposure to economic damage is largely random, depending on the way in which the pandemic affects different industries and regions.

The randomness of economic success implies that concerns about the incentive effects of high taxes on those at the top of the income distribution are misplaced. If the lucky winners in the economic lottery are discouraged from working (something unlikely to happen on a significant scale until marginal tax rates exceed 70 per cent), there are plenty of unlucky runners-up who can replace them.

  • Contingent because I’m writing on the assumption that Biden wins the US election, and takes office. While a Trump win would be an object lesson in the importance of luck, it would render any commentary on responses to the pandemic pointless as far as the US is concerned and would have drastic consequences for the rest of the world for which I have no analysis to offer at the moment