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Metatone Jumps the Shark II - The Economist on capital, labour and productivity

by Metatone Fri Feb 28th, 2014 at 07:08:19 AM EST

Here's how the author sums up their piece - which is well worth reading in full:

Labour markets: A theory of troubles | The Economist

Since this post is long and not exactly bursting with colour, I'll go ahead and share the gist of the story in hopes of enticing you to read on: because we rely on market wages to allocate purchasing power we have resisted technology-driven reductions in employment, and because we have resisted that decline in work we have trapped ourselves in a world of self-limiting productivity growth. Enticed? Good.

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The long run... US agriculture and immigration

by Metatone Thu Dec 5th, 2013 at 10:44:38 AM EST

A few hopeful signs that this period we live in, where a large pool of labour has entered the world economy and as a by-product put "capital" in an incredibly strong position can come to an end:

Farmers Face Labor Shortages As Workers Find Other Jobs

FRESNO, Calif. -- With the harvest in full swing on the West Coast, farmers in California and other states say they can't find enough people to pick high value crops such as grapes, peppers, apples and pears.

In some cases, workers have walked off fields in the middle of harvest, lured by offers of better pay or easier work elsewhere.

The shortage and competition for workers means labor expenses have climbed, harvests are getting delayed and less fruit and vegetable products are being picked, prompting some growers to say their income is suffering. Experts say, however, the shortage is not expected to affect prices for consumers.

But farmworkers, whose incomes are some of the lowest in the nation, have benefited, their wages jumping in California to $2 to $3 over the $8 hourly minimum wage and even more for those working piece rate.

The shortage - driven by a struggling U.S. economy, more jobs in Mexico, and bigger hurdles to illegal border crossings - has led some farmers to offer unusual incentives: they're buying meals for their workers, paying for transportation to and from fields, even giving bonuses to those who stay for the whole season.

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Recommend a book

by Metatone Wed Nov 20th, 2013 at 04:53:51 PM EST

I've been asked for a list of books by someone who wants to become more aware of politics and economics.

They have a long trip coming up, likely without internet - hence the need for books, rather than me just saying "Read ET."

All suggestions welcome!

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Investment and Employment in the Internet Age?

by Metatone Sun Aug 18th, 2013 at 05:44:49 PM EST

Jarod Lanier has taken a lot of (largely deserved) flak for his clumsy statement comparing Kodak and Instagram in employment terms - and using that as a "proof" that the Internet age is undermining employment.

Including in gmoke's review of his book here.

And yet... many people wonder if there is something going on...

So I thought it would be interesting to apply some more figures from the Industrial and Internet sectors and see what we can see.

I used Enterprise Value (which tries to correct Market Cap with data on borrowing and cash reserves) as some measure of the investment by the financial system in the companies. I didn't include any banks because the metric doesn't compute properly for them. EV figures from Yahoo, except for the Twitter estimate, which is from Forbes (Twitter is not yet a public company.)

Employment figures are from news articles around the internet, mostly reputable. Amazon's highlights a calculation problem - it's not clear how various corrections are made for full time vs part time. At least half of the 88,000 are part time.

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LQD: the 70s again.

by Metatone Mon Jul 22nd, 2013 at 04:47:00 AM EST

A couple of days ago Krugman posted a very interesting graph on his blog:

Unprecedented Globalization - NYTimes.com

A couple of weeks ago I posted a chart showing the long-term trend of world trade in manufactures relative to world production. The paper I took the chart from, however, only went up to 2000. And I decided to update it for the next edition of Krugman Obstfeld Melitz. And it's pretty striking:

You see the interwar trade decline; the growth in world trade after World War II didn't return to 1913 levels of globalization until around 1970. But since then, trade has grown incredibly. Interestingly, the big tariff cuts in GATT rounds had already happened; what we're looking at here is trade liberalization in developing countries plus containerization, and the emergence of massive vertical specialization (iWhatevers being made in many stages in different countries).

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LQD: A different failure mode

by Metatone Mon Jul 8th, 2013 at 01:26:05 AM EST

Economics and Politics by Paul Krugman - The Conscience of a Liberal - NYTimes.com

I've been having a strange reaction to recent news about economic policy. Stuff is happening: the Fed bungled its communications, doing its bit to undermine modest economic progress; the European Commission is sorta kinda relaxing its demands for austerity; the Bank of England appears to have issued forward guidance that it's going to issue forward guidance; and so on. But with the possible exception of Abenomics, it's all pretty small-bore stuff.

And that's disappointing. We had what felt like an epic intellectual debate over austerity economics, which ended, insofar as such debates ever end, with a stunning victory for the anti-austerity side -- and hardly anything changed in the real world. Meanwhile, the pain caucus has found a new target, inventing dubious reasons for monetary tightening. And mass unemployment goes on.

So how does this end? Here's a depressing thought: maybe it doesn't.

Thus starts Krugman's blog today. As usual, I recommend you read it all, it's not that long and it's interesting. I post this though more out of psychological interest than anything. I think most of us in part cope with our political malaise using that old Marxist theory in the back of our minds - the notion that as things roll along badly, eventually it sows the seeds of change. We fear a descent into fascism or failed states, we hope for (flavour depending on who you ask) the rise of the left.

However, as Krugman suggests, there's another way for our societies to fail, not with a bang, but a whimper, a fall back into permanent high unemployment, poverty and inequality:

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Histories of Neoliberalism?

by Metatone Sat Jun 8th, 2013 at 10:08:27 AM EST

Over the years, I've made quite a few references to "The Right Nation" by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It wasn't written to be a history of the way the right created what may be called the "neoliberal project" but in the course of the book, that's what it does.

This convinced me, along with the documentaries of Adam Curtis and all the discussions over the years at ET that part of "how we got here" is that the right engaged in a cultural project on whole range of levels, including:

  • Writing a narrative of the 70s that justified their economics
  • Working to undermine collective action as a justified response to anything

and many more.

All this alongside other projects in influencing academics and politics in a more direct fashion.

So anyway, over this time it seems to me that I haven't read a definitive history of all this - so I'm looking for book recommendations:

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants - Europe and the Mongol Empire

by Metatone Tue May 14th, 2013 at 01:38:44 AM EST

Since Niall Ferguson is back in the news it seemed like a good time to write about Jack Weatherford's excellent book - Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World as it is a great antidote to many previous attempts by Ferguson and others to rewrite the history of the world and create a narrative of inherent European superiority. As usual, serendipity was the key element.

Fundamentally, Europe's renaissance was built on the flowering of civilisation inside the Mongol Empire:

Although never ruled by the Mongols, in many ways Europe gained the most from their world system. The Europeans received all the benefits of trade, technology transfer, and the Global Awakening without paying the cost of Mongol conquest. The Mongols had killed off the knights in Hungary and Germany, but they had not destroyed or occupied the cities. The Europeans, who had been cut off from the mainstream of civilization since the fall of Rome, eagerly drank in the new knowledge, put on the new clothes, listened to the new music, ate the new foods, and enjoyed a rapidly escalating standard of living in almost every regard.

Of course, Ferguson and his ilk would leap to the "never ruled by the Mongols" as the first evidence of European superiority. However, this seems to be a real misunderstanding. Rather, when the Mongols invaded in the East of Europe they won some huge victories and large areas of territory. However, the booty gained was not on the scale found in other areas neighbouring the Mongol Empire - notably the Sung Kingdom in China and the Muslim states in the Middle East. Thus, the Mongols turned their armies back towards more profitable regions. In effect, Europe escaped being part of the Mongol Empire because it was too poor and backward to be a target.

This turned out to be a stroke of luck, because Europe was able to receive the benefits of all the cultural and technological advances in the Mongol Empire through trade, but it was separate when a cataclysm destroyed the fabric of the Empire.

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Corporate Profits and Aggregate Demand

by Metatone Sun Apr 28th, 2013 at 04:16:31 AM EST

Some random reading on the internet got me thinking today:

Apple's new pitch to investors | Felix Salmon

Apple is trading at an astonishingly low valuation, with a p/e ratio in single digits, because it has now become that animal investors like least: a slow-growing tech stock. Either one is fine on its own, and both slow-growing stocks and fast-growing tech stocks can support much higher multiples than Apple is seeing right now. But conservative investors, who like slow-growing stocks with high dividends, are constitutionally uncomfortable with the volatility inherent in the tech world. And technology investors, who are happy taking that kind of risk, want to see substantial growth. Apple, notwithstanding the fact that it's one of the most valuable companies in the world, is falling through the capital-markets cracks.

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A soundbite on Thatcher...

by Metatone Tue Apr 16th, 2013 at 12:20:18 PM EST

In The Guardian, Lucy Mangan has a good column on her personal experience of growing up in the Thatcher era. It's worth reading in full, but I'd like to draw attention to one little section:

Lucy Mangan: why I won't forget Margaret Thatcher in a hurry | Life and style | The Guardian

At school, things started disappearing. Milk, obviously. Playing fields. Sports and science equipment, overhead projectors, art materials broke, wore out, got used up and weren't replaced. When I started school, there was a textbook per pupil. By the time I left, we were down to one for every two or three.

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Metatone Jumps the Shark - Tom Friedman on economic equilbiria

by Metatone Mon Feb 18th, 2013 at 02:29:58 AM EST

[Moustache of Understanding Alert]

I've been banging on for years (as have others here, but I do it in a slightly more tortured style)  about the fact that economics has assumed linkages and beneficial equilbria in analysis. And now I know I've jumped the shark, because Tom Friedman is quoting people saying similar things in his latest column...

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The 70s redux...

by Metatone Thu Jan 10th, 2013 at 05:35:07 AM EST

Benjamin Studebaker has published an interesting blog on this topic:

Stagflation: What Really Happened in the 70′s « Benjamin Studebaker

If you argue long enough about economics, you are bound to run into the stagflation argument. The stagflation argument claims that the big state and stimulus caused high inflation, high unemployment, and poor growth during the seventies. Usually this argument is not fully argued by those who believe in it-it is merely asserted, and the rest of us are expected to accept that it is simply the case that the seventies happened that way. Today I'd like to endeavour to illustrate what actually happened in the seventies, what the real causes of stagflation were, and what sort of lessons might be pulled from it.

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Krugman asks: What's the matter with Italy?

by Metatone Tue Nov 27th, 2012 at 04:00:34 AM EST

And it seems to me, ET is a good place to look for people with some theories of an answer:

Economics and Politics by Paul Krugman - The Conscience of a Liberal - NYTimes.com

Italy is often grouped with Greece, Spain, etc. in discussions of the euro crisis. Yet its story is quite different. There were no massive capital inflows; debt is high, but deficits aren't. The most striking thing about Italy is a remarkably dismal productivity performance since the mid to late 1990s. Here's a comparison of Italian with French productivity, as measured by output per worjer, from the Total Economy Database:

I've been reading many attempts to explain what happened; while there's a lot of interesting stuff about everything from regulation to firm size to export mix, I really don't see anything that feels like a slam dunk.

And no, it's not just a too-big welfare state -- France's welfare state is even bigger.

I'm not going to answer this; truly, I don't know. But it's important.

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TYR on choice and action

by Metatone Sun Sep 23rd, 2012 at 06:21:53 PM EST

I've written about Learned Helplessness in our current political ideologies, but The Yorkshire Ranter has blogged a far more cogent description:

Economic reality is yesterday's political choice » The Yorkshire Ranter

Economics is an agenda-setting system. Here's a working example - Noah Smith engaging Robert Gordon (who is in his turn drinking from the poisoned well of Tyler Cowan). Gordon's big idea is that y'know how things aren't so great? Well, they're always going to be awful, so there's nothing can be done about it! And therefore, we don't need to discuss any action and shut up.

He argues this for the following reasons. One, he thinks technological progress is slowing down. Two, he thinks the US labour force won't grow as fast as it did. Three, educational attainment has "plateaued", based on the OECD PISA comparison. Four, high income inequality means structurally weak demand from the "consumer" (aka labour) sector. Five, globalisation. Six, the environment. Seven, "debt" of whatever sort.

Well, the first of these is an arguable proposition. Personally, I can think of plenty of people who are convinced that technical progress is accelerating, others who think it is slowing down, and still others who think (like David Harvey) that it is illusory or even undesirable. I would argue that both the declinist and Kurzweil-ist views are wrong for the same reason: they are both exercises in cherry-picking the data. Singularitarians love computing and sometimes genetics, because both fields give you an instant optimism hit. Declinists prefer to pick problems that remain unsolved and projects that failed, because that's what their prior assumptions are set to. Both views are dependent on prior value judgments.

But I have a more subtle and useful critique. Economists tend to think technology is exogenous. Historians of technology couldn't disagree more. In their view, technical progress happens through learning-by-doing. This has an important corollary - you learn nothing by being unemployed except that it sucks, and a set of survival strategies that aren't much use except in the context of being on the dole. Technology is, in part, endogenous, and therefore it is influenced by macroeconomic policy.

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by Metatone Sun Sep 2nd, 2012 at 03:45:14 AM EST

This is a very short piece - inspired by recent discussions both in my diary about the 1970s and Migeru's latest Eurozone diary.

(The next 1970s diary is coming soon...)

I've been musing on simple models of how we increase societal income/wealth/well-being.

Particularly if we consider countries in the European periphery - we need to find a way to improve their wealth that isn't dependent on out-trading other countries.

PerCLupi didn't like the word "income" as it puts us into a particular frame, but I think it's important not to lose sight of the system as is, as well as the system we'd like.

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So what really happened in the 70s?

by Metatone Thu Aug 23rd, 2012 at 04:04:39 AM EST

It's been apparent for quite a while that the core myths of neoliberalism sit on the foundation of a neoliberal/right-wing narrative of what happened in the 1970s.

For many of the people now in power, the period of oil crisis and stagflation was a formative experience regarding economics. For people of my generation - not yet in power, but now adults in our 30s, sort of the middle of the voting populace - the 70s are the times we heard about from our parents and the media, with much neoliberal spin about unions etc.

Two interesting bloggers have brought up the 70s recently and there's lots of food for thought. Both posts are too long to quote in full:

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SRW - Wealth as Insurance

by Metatone Tue Aug 7th, 2012 at 05:24:47 PM EST

Over at his blog, Interfluidity, Steve Randy Waldman has a really interesting post on Wealth as Insurance which operates in a zero-sum game. He proposes that this propels certain patterns of wealth accumulation and employment.

interfluidity » Trade-offs between inequality, productivity, and employment

I think there is a tradeoff between inequality and full employment that becomes exacerbated as technological productivity improves. This is driven by the fact that the marginal benefit humans gain from current consumption declines much more rapidly than the benefit we get from retaining claims against an uncertain future.

Wealth is about insurance much more than it is about consumption. As consumers, our requirements are limited. But the curve balls the universe might throw at us are infinite. If you are very wealthy, there is real value in purchasing yet another apartment in yet another country through yet another hopefully-but-not-certainly-trustworthy native intermediary. There is value in squirreling funds away in yet another undocumented account, and not just from avoiding taxes. Revolutions, expropriations, pogroms, these things do happen. These are real risks. Even putting aside such dramatic events, the greater the level of consumption to which you have grown accustomed, the greater the threat of reversion to the mean, unless you plan and squirrel very carefully. Extreme levels of consumption are either the tip of an iceberg or a transient condition. Most of what it means to be wealthy is having insured yourself well.

An important but sad reason why our requirement for wealth-as-insurance is insatiable is because insurance is often a zero-sum game. Consider a libertarian Titanic, whose insufficient number of lifeboat seats will be auctioned to the highest bidder in the event of a catastrophe. On such a boat, a passenger's material needs might easily be satisfied -- how many fancy meals and full-body spa massages can one endure in a day? But despite that, one could never be "rich enough". Even if one's wealth is millions of times more than would be required to satisfy every material whim for a lifetime of cruising, when the iceberg cometh, you must either be in a top wealth quantile or die a cold, salty death. The marginal consumption value of passenger wealth declines rapidly, but the marginal insurance value of an extra dollar remains high, because it represents a material advantage in a fierce zero-sum competition. It is not enough to be wealthy, you must be much wealthier than most of your shipmates in order to rest easy. Some individuals may achieve a safe lead, but, in aggregate, demand for wealth will remain high even if every passenger is so rich their consumption desires are fully sated forever.

Our lives are much more like this cruise ship than most of us care to admit. No, we don't face the risk of drowning in the North Atlantic. But our habits and expectations are constantly under threat because the prerequisites to satisfying them may at any time become rationed by price. Just living in America you (or at least I) feel this palpably. So many of us are fighting for the right to live the kind of life we always thought was "normal". When there is a drought, the ability to eat what you want becomes rationed by price. If there is drought terrible so terrible that there simply isn't enough for everyone, the right to live at all may be rationed by price, survival of the wealthiest. Whenever there is risk of overall scarcity, of systemic rather than idiosyncratic catastrophe, there is no possibility of positive-sum mutual-gain insurance. There is only a zero-sum competition for the right to be insured. The very rich live on the very same cruise ship as the very poor, and they understandably want to keep their lifeboat tickets.

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Ha-Joon Chang - Austerity Never Worked

by Metatone Mon Jun 11th, 2012 at 09:09:15 AM EST

Not news to ET, but it's worth marking it being said:

Austerity has never worked | Ha-joon Chang | Comment is free | The Guardian

It is increasingly accepted that these policies are not working in the current environment. But less widespread is the recognition that there is also plenty of historical evidence showing that they have never worked. The same happened during the 1982 developing world debt crisis, the 1994 Mexican crisis, the 1997 Asian crisis, the Brazilian and the Russian crises in 1998, and the Argentinian crisis of 2002. All the crisis-stricken countries were forced (usually by the IMF) to cut spending and run budget surpluses, only to see their economies sink deeper into recession. Going back a bit further, the Great Depression also showed that cutting budget deficits too far and too quickly in the middle of a recession only makes things worse.

As for the need to cut social spending to revive growth, there is no historical evidence to support it either. From 1945 to 1990, per capita income in Europe grew considerably faster than in the US, despite its countries having welfare states on average a third larger than that of the US. Even after 1990, when European growth slowed down, countries like Sweden and Finland, with much larger welfare spending, grew faster than the US.

As for the belief that making life easier for the rich through tax cuts and deregulation is good for investment and growth, we need to remind ourselves that this was tried in many countries after 1980, with very poor results. Compared to the previous three decades of higher taxes and stronger regulation, investment (as a proportion of GDP) and economic growth fell in those countries. Also, the world economy in the 19th century grew much more slowly than in the high-tax, high-regulation era of 1945-80, despite the fact that taxes were much lower (most countries didn't even have income tax) and regulation thinner on the ground.

The argument on hiring and firing is also not grounded in historical evidence. Unemployment rates in the major capitalist economies were between 0% (some years in Switzerland) and 4% from 1945-80, despite increasing labour market regulation. There were more jobless people during the 19th century, when there was effectively no regulation on hiring and firing.

So, if the whole history of capitalism, and not just the experiences of the last few years, shows that the supposed remedies for today's economic crisis are not going to work, what are our political and economic leaders doing? Perhaps they are insane - if we follow Albert Einstein's definition of insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". But the more likely explanation is that, by pushing these policies against all evidence, our leaders are really telling us that they want to preserve - or even intensify, in areas like welfare policy - the economic system that has served them so well in the past three decades.

For the rest of us, the time has come to choose whether we go along with that agenda or make these leaders change course.

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$1,000,000,000,000 or what we must remember

by Metatone Sat May 19th, 2012 at 01:24:35 AM EST

Yesterday, the paper edition of The Guardian had the following story on the front page:
Cost of Greek exit from euro put at $1tn | Business | The Guardian

The British government is making urgent preparations to cope with the fallout of a possible Greek exit from the single currency, after the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, warned that Europe was "tearing itself apart".

Reports from Athens that massive sums of money were being spirited out of the country intensified concern in London about the impact of a splintering of the eurozone on a UK economy that is stuck in double-dip recession. One estimate put the cost to the eurozone of Greece making a disorderly exit from the currency at $1tn, 5% of output.

Officials in the United States are also nervously watching the growing crisis: Barack Obama on Wednesday described it as a "headwind" that could threaten the fragile American recovery.

Only of course, the paper headline was just: $1,000,000,000,000

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End of the state as we knew it?

by Metatone Fri Apr 20th, 2012 at 02:00:04 AM EST

Over at Flip Chart Fairy Tales is an interesting post. I don't know what to make of it, so I thought - diary time...

The end of the state as we knew it | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

Two reports about the cost of ageing and its fiscal impact came out last week. The IMF's Financial Stability Report concluded that the cost of longevity has been consistently underestimated. By 2050, it says, if people are living for even three years longer than current models predict, it would add 50 percent to the estimated costs of ageing. In short, then, governments and pension funds may have got their sums quite seriously wrong. The IMF calculates that, by 2050, the costs of ageing, including healthcare, welfare spending and pensions, will increase by 5.8 percent of GDP in the advanced economies.

The OECD's report on fiscal consolidation, also out last week, came up with a very similar figure. If current levels of benefits and care are to be maintained, it estimated an increase in age-related spending of 6 percent of GDP by 2050. These figures don't differ that much from the ones I pulled together from various sources last year. The consensus there was around 4 percent of GDP by 2030, so add another twenty years and 6 percent looks like a reasonable guess. It's impossible to predict so far ahead with any accuracy but the general consensus seems to be that ageing populations are going to cost a hell of a lot.

The problem, as both reports point out, is that the economies with the highest percentage of oldies are also the ones with the highest public debt levels. The increased costs of ageing, says the IMF could, by 2050, see the UK's debt rising to 130 percent of GDP, the US and Germany's to 150 percent and Japan's to 300 percent!

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