Tuesday, 29 January 2013


Following an article in the WSJ by Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry clearly titled ‘The Myth of a Stagnant Middle Class’, we have had a bit of a flurry of replies - both pro, with even nominal left wingers like Matt Yglesias more or less agreeing and, of course, against.


Boudreaux and Perry’s thesis is that, since the middle class has now more ‘stuff’ than 30 years ago, there has been no middle class stagnation. The three items most often trotted out by liberals such as myself to counter this thesis are a) education and b) health care whose price have been rising relentlessly (our never ending crisis seem to have calmed both down a bit, though) and c) housing costs.


On Heath care, Boudreaux and Perry get it spectacularly wrong: They say “[n]o single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years—a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950. These longer life spans aren't just enjoyed by "privileged" Americans”.

Actually, they are.

Monday, 28 January 2013


My post in reply to Dr Raghu Rajan on education and unemployment was actually timelier than I initially thought: In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read several articles directly or indirectly discussing the evolution or indeed the very future of Labour.

One development, on-shoring (or the re-localisation of industrial activity in Developed countries) was seen as a general positive while another, the ever greater level of automation in the industrial sector was seen as a potential threat to the very need for (human) workers.

“It's quite possible that, say, 50 years from now the production of nearly all goods and services will be automated. And this might usher in a golden age of solar-powered plenty that allows us all to reach new pinnacles of human potential. Let's just stipulate this for the sake of discussion.
But what happens while we're busy getting there? Answer: the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work. Liberals will continue to think that perhaps this can be solved with better education. Conservatives will continue to insist that people without jobs are lazy bums who shouldn't be coddled. The lucky owners of capital won't care. Their numbers will decline, but the ones who remain will get richer and richer. The rest of us will have no jobs, and even with all this lovely automation, our government-supplied welfare checks will be meager enough that our lives will be miserable.”

Wednesday, 23 January 2013


This post is in reaction to two articles I saw recently and will be a bit shorter than usual.

Paul Krugman (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/inequality-and-recovery/), commenting on a piece written by Joe Stiglitz (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/19/inequality-is-holding-back-the-recovery/) states the following:

"[...] we’re talking about the financial crisis aftermath, not the crisis itself. What role does inequality play?
First, Joe offers a version of the “underconsumption” hypothesis, basically that the rich spend too little of their income. This hypothesis has a long history — but it also has well-known theoretical and empirical problems".
Krugman then spends some time discussing theoretically the idea that the wealthy save too much and showing that the data doesn't really jig with that hypothesis...
But I basically disagree in the sense that this is not how I would interpret the 'underconsumption hypothesis'. There certainly was no lack of consumption in the run up to the crisis (and indeed some have argued that it had all been excessive and 'unsustainable' and wanting to return to the status quo ante was foolish) and people really did want all the things they bought (with the possible exception of some speculative real estate). The real problem is not consumption but how it was financed. Using debt was and is and always will be unsustainable beyond 'a certain point'. See Minsky for more details.
So maybe 'underconsumption' is the wrong term but the way inequality fucks up the economy is by driving the 99% to use excessive leverage to keep their consumption going.
And, to be complete, my bet is that, had we not have seen such an explosion of debt levels, we would have seen either a drop in consumption or a revolution by the middle classes...
[Paul Krugman] "So am I saying that you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs? Well, yes. You don’t have to like it, but economics is not a morality play, and I’ve yet to see a macroeconomic argument about why it isn’t possible".
Yeah, well, yes but full employment, however desirable, isn't actually the main objective of economic growth. The main objective of economic growth is to provide people with material safety and, above and beyond, the material means of enjoying their life. Work or employment is just a tool to get there. Germany (or the US) has maintained a pretty low level of unemployment but has a significant chunk of employed people classified as 'working poor'. I am not sure that working and being poor is massively superior to being poor and unemployed. It probably has some benefits (self-estime, possibility of progression, work ethics...) but it's not a panacea.
I don't care if people are working as personal trainers and yachts sailors - As long as they're paid middle class salaries. As long as the middle class is thriving, economic growth - and the components of consumption - will NOT be a problem.
"Joe also argues that high income inequality depresses tax receipts, fueling fiscal fears. Again, I have trouble with this point: our tax system isn’t as progressive as it should be, but it is at least mildly progressive even when you take state and local taxes into account. So I don’t know where this is coming from".
Mildly progressive might not be enough to maintain tax receipts in line with expenditures. Indeed, given how the US debt keeps on climbing despite Obama's capping per capita public spending, I would say that it's obvious the real issue is that the government, just like people prior to the crisis, is using debt to finance its consumption. Guess what? If it is unsustainable for individuals, it will eventually be unsustainable for the state. Ask Greece.

"I wish I could sign on to this thesis, and I’d be politically very comfortable if I could. But I can’t see how this works".

Mr Krugman, I was happy to help. :) . My own liberal socialist leanings aren't just a matter of genetics or education. My training as an economist and my understanding of the world through the tools of economics were and are fundamental as to why I defend a 'progressive' economic agenda.