Monday, June 30, 2014

Why are economists talking about income distribution?

The distribution of income was once at the core of economics because it helped to explain differences in growth of wealth and population in different nations. Interest in income distribution then shifted to the implications of income inequality for social justice and aggregate happiness. Around the middle of the 20th Century, however, most economists realized that they had no particular expertise in contemplating such matters. Economists retained some interest in income distribution because many governments pursued distributional objectives and it made sense to consider how such objectives might be pursued at least cost. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that income distribution became somewhat tangential to the main interests of most economists.

The situation seems to have changed radically over the last few months, following publication of Thomas Piketty’s book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. The interest that leading economists have shown in the book seems to stem from two factors: the increased public interest in income distribution since the GFC; and respect for the amount of intellectual effort that the author has put into his book.

While the author may deserve some praise for his statistical efforts, in my view he does not deserve any praise for the clarity of his exposition. The main point being made in the book, over and over again, is that r (the rate of return on capital) tends to be greater than g (the rate of growth of national income) and that r > g  implies that “the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high”. I mistakenly thought that an explanation of the significance of this inequality might flow from the two “fundamental laws of capitalism” expounded by the author.

The first “fundamental law” is merely a definition of capital’s share of national income:
α = r × β , where α is capital’s share of national income, r is the rate of return on capital and β is the capital/income ratio (K/Y).
Although r > g could imply that β will rise (if we make the heroic assumption that the capital stock grows by r% per annum) it is still possible for α to fall if r is falling.  
Piketty’s second “fundamental law” is about the long-run implications of savings and economic growth rates for the ratio of capital to income:
β = s / g    where s is the savings rate.
When you put the first and second laws together you get:
α = r × (s / g)  .
That implies that what happens to capital’s share depends on what happens to r, s and g. The significance of r > g is not obvious in that context either. 

I am not alone in having difficulty in grasping the significance of r > g. Scott Sumner noted on The Money Illusion the difficulties he experienced with Piketty’s verbal explanation.

However, even if the distribution of income is becoming more unequal, why should that be of concern to us? It seems to me that the best answer is that distributional considerations are relevant to judgements about the quality of different societies. When I looked at these issues on this blog a couple of years ago I concluded that the distribution of opportunities is the relevant variable. Other people may make different judgements about such matters, but I find it hard to see how a society can be judged to  be better if it sacrifices opportunities available to low income earners in order to achieve greater income equality.

If we are interested in the economic opportunities of people who rely solely on labour income, it seems to me that Robert Solow made a highly relevant point in his review of Piketty’s book, entitled “Thomas Piketty is Right”:
“The labor share of national income is arithmetically the same thing as the real wage divided by the productivity of labor. Would you rather live in a society in which the real wage was rising rapidly but the labor share was falling (because productivity was increasing even faster), or one in which the real wage was stagnating, along with productivity, so the labor share was unchanging? The first is surely better on narrowly economic grounds: you eat your wage, not your share of national income. But there could be political and social advantages to the second option.”
(The significance of this point has previously been noted by others, including David Henderson.)

However, I don’t think we can assume that an increase in capital’s share will always be associated with higher real wages. What happens if technological progress makes capital a close substitute for labour? If a substantial component of the capital of the future can be thought of as a work-force of robots, the economic consequences might be a little bit like introducing slave labour to compete with the existing workforce. Real wages might fall under such a scenario, even though national income could be expected to continue to rise.

I wrote about that possibility on this blog a few years ago. It is a more challenging scenario than the one painted by Piketty, but I don’t think we should be losing too much sleep over it. There is still potential under that scenario for nearly everyone to be made better off than at present as a result of the introduction of new labour-saving technology. Governments may need to remain involved in wealth re-distribution to ensure that happens, but there is scope for them to do that in ways that are consistent with a high degree of individual liberty.

The most important point that should be made about Piketty’s book is that it suffers from the limitations of any analysis which seeks to hover in “the economy’s stratosphere, gazing down on the only phenomena visible from such a distant perch – big statistics such as population growth or the share of national income ‘claimed’ by the very rich”. The quoted words are by Donald Boudreaux, who made the point effectively in his review:

“Instead of actually looking at the behavior behind his statistics, the author serves up ad hoc and ultimately unpersuasive theories about the "behavior" of his big statistics themselves, including such hulking impersonal aggregates as the return to capital and the ratio of national wealth to national income. He imagines that such aggregates interact in robotic fashion through a logic of their own, unmoved by individual human initiative, creativity, or choice.”

Monday, June 23, 2014

How can desirable economic reforms be pursued more effectively in Australia?

Soon after the Abbott government was elected, I speculated on this blog that it could end up looking quite similar to the Fraser government which held power in Australia from November 1975 to March 1983. It seemed likely that there would be plenty of tough talk without much economic reform.

Perhaps I should apologize to Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. The government has made some tough decisions in its first budget. I don't endorse everything they have proposed, but it is good to see a government proposing action to deal with a looming problem before a more painful adjustment becomes unavoidable.

Nevertheless, it still seems quite likely that the end result will be tough talk and not much action. These days the budget speech is just the starting point of a political negotiation. The final outcome is likely to be strongly influenced by minor parties in the Senate, which are seeking to increase their popularity by fanning the flames of interest group opposition to spending cuts.

The minor parties only pose a problem because the government does not at this stage have strong public support for its policies. Minor parties do not like to be seen to be obstructing popular government initiatives.

In an article in the Australian Financial Review a few weeks ago (May 28, 2014: ungated version here) Ian Marsh suggested that adverse public reaction to the budget reflects a more fundamental problem which afflicts any government trying make bold reform. He gives several examples: 
“The Resource Super Profits Tax was released in May 2010, and was followed by a public opinion firestorm which unseated Kevin Rudd. WorkChoices led to the downfall of John Howard’s government. Refugees and climate change destroyed Julia Gillard. Earlier, John Hewson was undone by Fightback and sponsorship of indigenous reconciliation and a republic contributed much to Paul Keating’s defeat. In all cases, an unprepared public opinion delivered a populist verdict.”

My problem with that list of examples is that I think public opposition was justified in some instances.

Nevertheless, I think Professor Marsh is on the right track when he suggests:
“There is no infrastructure through which more complex political narratives can be aired or debated. Political leaders have almost no capacity to build a supportive public opinion for significant policy change.
There is only one recent exception: John Howard’s sponsorship of the GST. He won the ensuing election but lost the popular vote. It was a dangerously close call.”

If we had adequate institutional infrastructure in place it might help to ensure that governments propose policies that deserve public support, as well as helping to promote broader public understanding of the need for policy changes.

Marsh seems to be correct in claiming that big policy change requires a solid base in public opinion, or bipartisan agreement. He noted that the big parties broadly adopted the same economic rationalist program during a short period of “acknowledged crisis” between 1983 and 1993. But bipartisan agreement evaporated after the crisis receded:  
“After 1993 the crisis receded, and normal politics resumed. But differences between the parties had narrowed. So how were they to distinguish themselves? Opportunism and manufactured difference were the new currencies of debate.”

Ian Marsh endorses proposals for a change in the role of the Senate to create the public conversation needed to build a support for significant policy change:
“The late Liberal senator David Hamer suggested converting the Senate to a committee house with ministers no longer appointed from that chamber. The Australian Senate would be more like its American progenitor. At present this seems the most likely path for the needed reform”.

However, I find it hard to see how that proposal would promote better outcomes. Despite its admirable Senate, the US seems to have even greater problems in pursuing desirable economic reforms than we do in Australia.

More radical change is required if we want Senators who are capable of getting beyond party political opportunism and the representation of narrow interest groups (including wealthy individuals). In my view we should consider a system of selecting Senators that has less political party and 'big money' involvement. For example, Senators could be chosen using a two stage process:

  • Sortition (random selection) could be used to select candidates from volunteers who have the written endorsement of a minimum number of voters (e.g. 100). 
  • Approval voting’ could be used to weed out those whom the electorate considers to be least likely to make a useful contribution. 

Even if the Senate played a more constructive role, however, we would still need political leaders who are willing to take unpopular decisions.

Postscript 1:

I have been asked whether the change proposed in selection of Senators would require a constitutional amendment. I don't think it would, although I do not pretend to be an expert in such matters. The Constitution provides:

"The Parliament of the Commonwealth may make laws prescribing the method of choosing senators, but so that the method shall be uniform for all the States" (Section 9).

The proposed change would, of course, require the support of the major parties, but that is not impossible.

Postscript 2:

Ian Marsh has responded as follows:

"I accept what you say about the US. Our political world is different. The argument is developed at much more length in my 2012 book Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal. In an earlier study (1995) I had a detailed account of how a similar system worked prior to the emergence of the two party system in 1909 (Chapter 10). That first decade of federation is my template. I am not opposed to random selection etc. I just think its so far from the norms of representative democracy that it won't happen - at least short of some major crisis and/or decades of the development of public opinion. Deliberative democracy (on which this idea is based) is to my mind an invention of the US where the structure of power is frozen by the constitution. In Australia (and Britain and NZ) these things are governed by convention. Thus there is a possibility of peaceful change from within. That's what happened in 1909. Regards, Ian."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Will we continue to allow economic development to provide better opportunities for people to have happy lives?

Some friends who have visited my blog have told me that they have had some difficulty in understanding the purpose of my recent series of posts related to emancipative values. This post is dedicated to those people.

Recent posts on my blog have been concerned with the future of human flourishing in wealthy countries. Is the future likely to bring greater and more widespread opportunities for people to live happy lives in wealthy countries?

 Before attempting to summarise my answer that question I need to show how economic development produced better opportunities.

My story begins a few centuries ago when it was normal for the vast majority of people in all parts of the world to be preoccupied with obtaining adequate food and shelter. The threat of famine was never far away, even though there were seasons when food was bountiful and some centuries when the pressure of population on food supplies was reduced in the aftermath of plagues.  For the most part, people lived in small communities isolated from the outside world. They often lived under the threat of being robbed by their own rulers as well as by people in neighbouring communities. It was common for people who did not share the religious beliefs of their rulers to be persecuted and to be deprived of property and even their lives. Violence was rife despite widespread religious observance.

Everyone should be aware that the process of economic development began in earnest a couple of centuries ago with the industrial revolution in north-eastern Europe. Important technological innovations had previously occurred in various parts of the world, but this was the first time that technological advances led eventually to a sustained improvement in material living standards for large numbers of people.

A range of factors help to explain why the industrial revolution occurred when and where it did, but values and beliefs that became more approving of markets, experimentation, innovation and entrepreneurship were of crucial importance. Market exchange promoted more trustworthy behaviour, which reduced the cost of doing business and encouraged innovative investment activities. The new values and beliefs favoured greater economic freedom, including by removing regulatory barriers that had been protecting traditional patterns of production from competition. Firms were free to use new technology that enabled them to produce at lower cost and they were free to sell those goods to consumers.

Over the following couple of centuries, economic development provided greater economic opportunities to vast masses of people, first in Europe and then in many other parts of the world. As people satisfied their basic material needs to a greater extent they gave higher priority to such matters as having freedom to choose what kind of work to do, where to live and who to live with, having a say in community decisions and ensuring equal rights for women and members of ethnic minorities. That is what we mean by the growth of emancipative values.

So, will economic development continue to produce better opportunities for people to live happier lives in wealthy countries? There are several aspects to this question, but the one that concerns me most is that prevailing values in high income countries might take us further towards an ‘entitlement culture’ that will threaten economic freedom and further economic development.  

It is not hard to find evidence of the emergence of an entitlement culture in wealthy countries. Interest groups that might have had their origins in removal of discrimination or providing minimal opportunities to needy groups now often make a lot of noise in seeking additional entitlements for the people they represent. That tends to result in more government regulation of business, higher government spending and higher taxes i.e. a decline in economic freedom.

However, the results of my research provide some optimism that the entitlement culture can be prevented from taking over and bringing economic development to an end, along with the emancipation that has accompanied it. While economic freedom has fallen in some wealthy countries (e.g. US and Japan) it has risen in others (e.g. Sweden and Norway). There is evidence that the priority that people give to economic growth has risen in some wealthy countries in response to economic crises (e.g. Sweden) and that when this has occurred, economic freedom has tended to rise.

Most importantly, it is a mistake to think that there is some kind of battleground in society with people with high emancipative values on one side pushing for an entitlement culture and materialistic people on the other side pushing for higher economic growth. I could not find much evidence of a tendency for people with high emancipative values to give lower priority to economic growth – even after I went looking for it!

If you want more information on the  research that lies behind this post you will find relevant links in my last post

Monday, June 9, 2014

Can the people in wealthy countries continue to climb the emancipation ladder?

This article is my attempt to provide an overview of the series of posts I have been writing about emancipative values.

A good place to start is by explaining what I mean by an emancipation ladder. The basic idea is that the opportunities for individuals to live happy lives are constrained by the circumstances in which they live. The opportunities available to people on the bottom rung of the ladder are heavily constrained. They are likely to be illiterate, to live in small communities with poor communication with the outside world and to be preoccupied with satisfying basic material needs. As these constraints are lifted, more people are able to climb to higher rungs of the ladder, where opportunities are greater. Climbing the ladder may not make our lives blissful, but it emancipates us from the constraints imposed by predation, persecution and poverty.

The concept of emancipation that I am using here owes a great deal to Christian Welzel’s book Freedom Rising, which I reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago. Professor Welzel’s research suggests that as a consequence of economic development people have tended to adopt emancipative values - showing more concern about such matters as personal autonomy, freedom of choice, having a say in community decisions and equality of opportunity. In an increasing number of societies, larger numbers of people have come to recognize the value of civic entitlements - such as the right to vote - and have used their growing material resources, intellectual skills and opportunities to connect with others to take collective action to achieve such entitlements. The process is ongoing, with greater concern being shown for opportunities available to ethnic minorities, gender equality, entitlements of the disabled etc. as material living standards have risen and emancipative values have strengthened.

However, the people in wealthy countries can expect to experience great difficulty climbing further up the emancipation ladder if social norms and ideologies turn against economic development. As societies become wealthier, economic development becomes less dependent on factories belching smoke and does not necessarily involve vast property developments that destroy the natural beauty of the landscape, but it still requires ongoing advances in technology, innovation and productivity growth. If economic development ceases we can expect our societies to become meaner, with greater disputation over whether different groups in the community are getting a fair share of the national economic cake. (Benjamin Friedman made some valid points about such matters in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which I discussed here a few years ago.)

My understanding of the economic development process suggests strongly that the chances of economic development are greatly improved when prevailing social norms and ideologies support economic freedom i.e. the rights of individuals to use their resources for purposes they choose, including endeavours involving the voluntary cooperation of others. As I see it, the most plausible explanations of why the process of economic development began when and where it did - in north-eastern Europe a couple of centuries ago - are those which emphasize changes in norms and ideologies that legitimised systematic experimentation in the realm of technology as well as in science, and became more approving of innovation and markets. (For example, the views of Joel Mokyr and Deidre McCloskey, which I wrote about here.) Research explaining current differences in per capita incomes in different countries (including some referred to in another post ) suggests that a strong economic culture – with emphasis on interpersonal trust, respect for others, individual self-determination and individualism – is complementary to economic freedom in fostering economic development.

The relationship between economic freedom, average incomes levels and emancipative values is summarised in the chart below for 54 countries for which comparable data is available.

The question of whether people in wealthy countries will continue to be able to climb the emancipation ladder hinges on whether their values will remain sufficiently supportive of economic freedom. Are emancipative values developing in ways that increasingly emphasize personal freedom and individual responsibility, or are they morphing into an ‘entitlement culture’ that will threaten economic freedom and further economic development?

The main points that have emerged from my research are as follows:

The results of this research provide some grounds for optimism that wealthy countries will maintain sufficiently high levels of economic freedom to enable their citizens to continue to climb the emancipation ladder. However, as I see it, actual outcomes are likely to depend on the quality of the political institutions that have evolved in different countries.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Do people with strong emancipative values give lower priority to economic growth?

This question is worth considering because previous posts in this series (links here) have discussed how economic development has been associated with the strengthening of emancipative values and more widespread opportunities. This means that the ongoing generation of more widespread opportunities for individual human flourishing depends on a substantial proportion of the population maintaining a fairly positive attitude towards economic growth.

The measure of priority given to economic growth that I have been using comes from World Values Surveys (WVS) which asks people to choose from four options what they consider to be the most important aim for the country they live in over the next ten years.  The options are: a high level of economic growth; strong defence forces; people have more say about how things are done at their jobs and in their communities; and trying to make our cities and countryside more beautiful. I have used the percentage for whom economic growth is first choice as an indicator of priority given to economic growth.

The perception that non-economists have of economic growth may be a much more defensible concept than growth in per capita GDP as conventionally measured. I don’t have concrete evidence, but I suspect that when non-economists favour economic growth what they have in mind is expansion of economic opportunity, rather than a particular income concept.

Before looking at the evidence I thought that people who have strong emancipative values would tend to give relatively low priority to economic growth because “people have more say” is one of the items which Christian Welzel used in constructing his emancipative values index for his book, Freedom Rising. By definition, people who give highest priority to 'more say', give lower priority to economic growth.

My main focus is on the extent to which the priority given to economic growth by people who hold emancipative values differs from that of the population as a whole in wealthy countries. Except where indicated, I have selected indicators from the latest WVS round which correspond to components of Welzel’s index. Countries included in the analysis are those with relatively high incomes for which data is available in the latest round of surveys i.e. 2010-14. (New Zealand is excluded from the analysis because of a high non-response rate on the question relating to priority given to economic growth.)

As a preliminary exercise, Chart 1 compares the overall average priority given to economic growth in each country with that given by members of different demographic groups. There does not seem to be any consistent pattern of difference between various groups within countries, except perhaps a tendency for young people to give lower priority to economic growth.

Chart 2 compares the overall average with priority given to economic growth by people with different views on desirable attributes for children to learn at home. Independence and imagination reflect positive emancipative values, whereas obedience is considered as negative. Perhaps those who see imagination as a desirable quality may be slightly less enthusiastic about economic growth, but otherwise there does not appear to be a consistent pattern.

Chart 3 compares the overall average with those of groups expressing strong views on whether divorce, abortion and homosexuality are justifiable. Again, there does not seem to be any consistent pattern.

Chart 4 compares the overall average with the priority given to economic growth of people favouring gender equality. The chart shows some interesting facts e.g. people in Australia who strongly disagree that men make better political leaders than women are much less likely to view economic growth as having high priority than are other people in Australia. However, no consistent pattern of difference between the different groups in different countries is obvious.

Chart 5 compares the overall average with the priority given to economic growth of people who see protecting freedom of speech and giving people more say in government decisions as particularly important. In this instance a fairly clear pattern is evident – a lower percentage of those holding emancipative views give high priority to economic growth.
This chart also shows the growth priority of those who consider protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs. This item is not a component of Welzel’s emancipative values index, but it also worth considering the priorities of those who see environmental protection as having high priority. As would be expected given the wording of the question those who consider protecting the environment should have high priority are less likely to give high priority to economic growth. However, the difference is not as large as I thought it might be.

The general conclusion that I draw from this exercise is that there is not a consistent tendency for people with strong emancipative values to give lower priority to economic growth than is given by other members of the populations of wealthy countries. People who attach great importance to having “more say” seem to be less inclined than the rest of the community to see economic growth as having high priority, but that observation does not apply consistently to people who attach importance to individual autonomy, respect choices that individuals make in their personal lives and favour gender equality. As a general rule, the differences in economic growth priorities of people in different countries are more marked than the differences between different groups within countries.