Showing posts with label Inequality and income security. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Inequality and income security. Show all posts

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Which are the countries in which people have the best opportunities for psychological well-being?

This might seem like an odd question, so I will begin by explaining why I think it is worth considering.

Psychological well-being was identified in a recent post on this blog as one of five basic goods that a flourishing human would be expected to have. The post listed a range of aspects involved in psychological well-being: emotional stability, positive emotion, satisfaction with material living standards, engagement in doing things for their own sake and learning new things, perception of life as meaningful, a sense of accomplishment, optimism, resilience, vitality, integrity, and self-respect.

It seems reasonable to expect that opportunities for individuals to experience some of those aspects of psychological well-being might be greater in some countries than in others.

In compiling my list of aspects of psychological well-being, my starting point was the definition of psychological flourishing adopted by Felicia Huppert and Timothy So in their article ‘Flourishing Across Europe’ (published in Soc.Indic.Res. in 2013). These authors view psychological flourishing as lying at the opposite end of a spectrum to depression and anxiety. They identified 10 symptoms of flourishing (competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem, and vitality) as the opposites of internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety (DSM and ICD). The study has previously been discussed on this blog.

My main modification to Huppert and So’s list is the addition of satisfaction with material living standards. In my view, people who feel miserable because they are dissatisfied with their material living standards are deficient in psychological well-being, even though they may not be suffering from the symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Despite my desire to modify the measure of psychological flourishing constructed by Huppert and So, it strikes me as providing a good basis for international comparison of psychological well-being. Unfortunately, this measure is only available for European countries, and for one year, 2006. That leads me to consider whether life satisfaction is a satisfactory alternative measure.

Is life satisfaction good enough?
The chart shown above suggests that, at a national level at least, the percentage of people who are satisfied “with how life has turned out so far” (ratings of 9 or 10 on a scale of 0 to 10) is a good predictor of psychological flourishing. In a simple linear regression, the percentage with high life satisfaction explains 83% of the inter-country variation in the percentage who are flourishing. (The chart was constructed using life satisfaction data from the 2006 European Social Survey used by Huppert and So to construct their psychological flourishing indicator.)

The idea that life satisfaction could a good enough measure of psychological flourishing might appear to be at variance with the findings of Huppert and So.  As discussed in an earlier post, Huppert and So found that only 46.0% of people who met the criterion for flourishing had high life satisfaction, and only 38.7% of people who had high life satisfaction met the criterion for flourishing.
However, the appropriateness of life satisfaction as an indicator of psychological flourishing depends on the purpose for which the indicator is to be used. If you want to know about an individual’s psychological well-being, it is hardly surprising that a single question about life satisfaction has been found to be a poor indicator. If your focus is on average psychological well-being at a national level, life satisfaction seems to be a good enough indicator because much of the measurement error at an individual level washes out in calculating national averages.

The countries with highest average life satisfaction
Average life satisfaction data from the Gallup World Poll is published annually in the World Happiness Report. This data set covers many countries and measures life satisfaction according to the Cantril ladder scale, with a rating of 10 being given to the best possible life and a rating of zero is given to the worst possible life.

In the 2018 survey, average life satisfaction ratings were greater than 7 in 15 countries: Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden, New Zealand, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany and Czech Republic. Average ratings tend to be fairly stable from year to year, but a decade earlier, Ireland, Spain, U.S, Israel, Belgium and France had average ratings above 7, and U.K, Costa Rica and Germany had ratings below 7.

Regression analysis undertaken by John Helliwell et. al. show that almost three-quarters of the variation in national annual average life satisfaction scores among countries can be explained by six variables: GDP per capita, networks of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. That list of variables has a strong overlap with determinants of other basic goods in my list of the five basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have. (See other posts in this series, here, here and here.) Apart from GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, however, the data used in the analysis of Helliwell et al are based on perceptions of survey participants rather than objective measurement. (The analysis is a pooled regression using 1704 national observations from the years 2005 to 2018.)

Since my focus is on identifying countries where a person chosen at random would have the best opportunities, the median life satisfaction for each country would be a better criterion than the mean. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to such data at a national level. Estimates of median life satisfaction for broad regions (based on data here) suggest that median life satisfaction is typically lower than the mean. The difference between mean and median tends to be small for countries with relatively high life satisfaction: Western Europe (6.6 for mean cf. 6.4 for median) and North America and ANZ (7.1 cf. 6.9). The difference more substantial in some other parts of the world e.g. South East Asia (5.4 cf. 4.8).

Avoiding and reducing misery
In considering which countries offer the best opportunities for psychological well-being, countries with high average life satisfaction would be less attractive to risk averse people (most humans) if a relatively high proportion of the population of those countries nevertheless lived in misery. However, available evidence suggests that factors that lead to high life satisfaction also tend to reduce misery. For example, it is apparent from the graph below that the regions of the world with highest average life satisfaction tend also to have the lowest percentages with low life satisfaction.

A study by Andrew Clark et al for the World Happiness Report 2017 used data for the U.S., Australia, Britain and Indonesia to examine how much misery would be reduced if it was possible to eliminate one or more key determinants. The factors considered were poverty, low education, unemployment, living alone, physical illness, and depression and anxiety disorders. The authors found that the most powerful impact would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders.

Life satisfaction is not a particularly good indicator of individual psychological well-being, but it seems to be a good enough indicator to use in international comparisons.
Countries with the highest average life satisfaction are characterised by relatively high income levels and life expectancy, accompanied by perceptions of strong social support, freedom and low corruption. The percentage of the population who are dissatisfied with life tends to be relatively low in such countries.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

How will human values evolve as we approach the social singularity?

As explained in a recent post, Max Borders has coined the term, social singularity, to describe the transformation in social organisation that could occur following mass adoption of secure networking technologies. Some existing mediating structures could become obsolete, new forms of coordination could emerge and we might collaborate as never before.

In his book, The Social Singularity, Max relies heavily on spiral dynamics to discuss the way cultural values may evolve as we approach the social singularity. Spiral dynamics was developed by the psychologist Care Graves and popularised by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. It postulates that at different stages of development different values become dominant to help people to function in the life circumstances in which they find themselves.

The spiral is summarised in the graphic shown at the beginning of this post (copied from the toolshero web site). In brief, at first stage of the spiral, survival values are dominant. At the second stage, the dominant values are those of the tribe or clan. At the next stage, we have values related to power, glory and conquest. Then we have loyalty and deference to higher authority. This is followed by the values of science and commerce, and then the ethics of care and the politics of equality.

As we approach the social singularity, prior value systems will be transcended: more people will come to see themselves as interdependent beings, requiring some autonomy and respecting the autonomy of others. Beck and Cowan described the final, holistic, stage as an integrative system that “combines an organism’s necessary self-interest with the interests of the communities in which it participates”.  Max comments:

“This way of seeing the world is neither rugged individualism not crude communitarianism. It requires seeing ourselves through others and others through ourselves”.

What evidence do we have that humanity is heading in that direction? Questions have been raised as to whether spiral dynamics is firmly grounded in evolutionary biology and anthropology, but from the little I know of ancient history it seems to provide a plausible account of the way different cultures have emphasized different virtues. If we look at the economic history of the last few centuries, the story told by spiral dynamics seems consistent with the work of Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey about the emergence of a culture of economic growth, first in western Europe and then spreading to other parts of the world. The theory also seems consistent with the empirical work of Ronald Inglehart and Chis Welzel on value change, based on the World Values Survey. As noted on this blog a few years ago Chris Welzel’s book Freedom Rising provides evidence that as societies have advanced in terms of technological sophistication and education, emancipative values - relating to autonomy, choice, equality etc. - have more widely shared and the dominant life strategies of populations have shifted from an extrinsic focus on material circumstances to an intrinsic focus on emotional qualities.

That research doesn’t tell us how dominant values might evolve in the years ahead, but Max Borders makes clear that he sees people who are comfortable with subversive innovation – innovation that has potential to replace existing mediating structures including government agencies - as “the standard bearers for a future in which a better world can be dreamed by visionaries, socially constructed, and hard-coded into existence”. Max adds:

“As dreamers and doers, we are prepared to forgo the spectacle of elections and the blood sport of campaign politics. We want to take a vantage point from high above, looking at how we can reweave the latticework of human interaction to create a great reconciliation between private interest and community good."

If we view spiral dynamics and the values of the social singularity in normative terms, Robert Nozick’s suggestion that the pursuit of higher layers of ethics can be thought of as building on the ethics of respect, seems highly relevant. As I noted some years ago, Nozick saw four layers of ethics:

·         The most fundamental layer - the ethics of respect - mandates respect for the life and property of other people.

·         The second layer – the ethics of responsiveness – mandates acting in a way that is responsive to the inherent value of others, enhancing and supporting it, and enabling it to flourish.

·         The third layer – the ethics of caring – ranges from concern and tenderness to deeper compassion, ahimsa and love to all people (perhaps to all living creatures).

·         The top layer – the ethics of Light – calls for being a vessel and vehicle of truth, beauty, goodness and holiness.

Subversive innovation offers a basis to hope that the ethics of Light could one day pervade the cultural values of many humans rather than those of only a few saints and sages.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Does your constitution mandate free trade?

The Constitution of Australia, like that of the United States, mandates free trade – up to a point! Both constitutions mandate free trade between the states, and leave federal governments free to impose barriers to international trade to the extent that they wish.

It is debatable whether a constitutional requirement for free international trade would have made a huge difference to trade policy in either country. The requirements for free trade between the states have not guaranteed free trade between the states - judges have not always ruled against trade barriers imposed by states to protect local interests. Many judges seem to capable of being highly imaginative in their interpretation of concepts such as free trade.  

The relevant constitutional question is whether free trade is mandated by the real constitution - the set of dispositions that influence what most citizens will accept as legitimate actions by politicians and bureaucrats who make up the government. That depends ultimately on the views of individual citizens.

Why should your constitution mandate free trade?  I hope you share with me the belief that individuals have a natural right to engage freely in mutually beneficial transactions with one another, even though third parties may be disadvantaged. If so, you would probably consider it to be objectionable for a government to levy a discriminatory tax on the sales of the producer from whom you wish to purchase, in order to encourage you to purchase from a rival producer. You may well assert that you have a right to choose to buy from whatever source you wish, for whatever reasons you might have, free from any such third-party interference.

The logic of this argument does not cease to apply merely because buyers and sellers may be separated by national borders. National borders are artificial constructs that do not alter the natural right of individuals and firms to engage in mutually beneficial transactions. Donald Boudreaux has written persuasively on this topic: “International Trade Is Simply One Manifestation of Competition”.

Should an exception be made in situations where foreign governments subsidize their exports? No, if foreigners are sufficiently misguided to subsidize their exports there is no reason why domestic consumers should not benefit from any price reduction that this causes. In a market economy, if foreign subsidies result in an expansion of total imports, this can reasonably be expected to result in exchange rate and relative price adjustments to make exporting more profitable and bring about an expansion of exports. Production for the domestic market that is displaced by increased imports will be offset by increased export production.

Some economists still, no doubt, maintain that unilateral free trade is not optimal on grounds such as the optimal tariff argument, and the potential for the use of existing trade barriers as bargaining chips to obtain better access to foreign markets. Policy advisors who recommend departure from free trade to obtain such gains risk opening the way for much larger economic losses because they are dealing with fallible real-world governments, rather than the omniscient and benevolent governments assumed to exist in their economic models. In the real world of politics every departure from a simple rule opens up opportunities for interest groups to advance their interests at the expense of the broader community. 

However, there is one argument that makes it difficult for the real constitution to mandate free trade. With great reluctance, I am now willing to concede that it may be becoming more difficult for politicians to endorse free trade because many people are choosing to cast their votes for candidates who oppose it. Even though the gains from free trade vastly outweigh the losses, the uneven distribution of losses makes the outcomes of free trade seem unfair to many people. A substantial proportion of voters in many countries now seem to be saying that their disposition is to favour protection of existing jobs rather than the opportunities that free trade offers.

Over the longer term, the pursuit of policies to preserve existing jobs will, of course, be inimical to the specialization and technological progress which provide the basis for everyone’s future prosperity. Nevertheless, many voters and their representatives seem to be more concerned to preserve existing jobs than to promote future prosperity. Our democratic systems seem to be mutating from systems of social cooperation to promote the interests of everyone, to arenas for the “war of each against all” that Thomas Hobbes imagined as the only alternative to an all-powerful dictator “to keep them all in awe”. Are we powerless to prevent this war of each against all?

This poses the kind of constitutional dilemma discussed by one of the 20th Century’s best economists, James M Buchanan, in The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, 1975. Buchanan wrote:
If there exist potential structural changes in legal order which might command acceptance by all members of the society, the status quo represents a social dilemma in the strict game-theoretic terminology. Even if we consider ourselves far removed from the genuine Hobbesian jungle, where life is brutish and short, the status quo contains within it elements or features that are in principle equivalent. Life in the here and now may be more brutish than need be, and certainly more nasty. If after examination and analysis, no such potential for change exists, the legal-constitutional order that we observe must be judged to be Pareto optimal, despite the possible presence of discontent among specific members in the body politic”.

Buchanan was particularly concerned about ways to reform the rules of the political game to promote fiscal responsibility. That problem has worsened since the 1970s. The type of reforms he hinted at involved agreement by those who sense that they are vulnerable to having wealth expropriated via the political process to a mechanism for limited wealth transfer on condition that others agree to rules that overtly limit governmentally directed fiscal transfers.

I doubt whether rules to promote fiscal responsibility are feasible in the absence of a broad consensus concerning the role of government in distribution of the benefits from economic progress. Perhaps that is also a context in which the real constitution can mandate free trade. Current proposals being advanced in various quarters for guaranteed minimum incomes are relevant to this discussion. It seems to me, however, that proposals to ensure widespread opportunities for those displaced by import competition and technological change to improve their skills, and earn higher incomes, are probably more deserving of support. I might try to spell out reasons for that view in a later post. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Will the Swedes maintain their positive attitudes toward non-European immigration?

Attitudes toward non-European immigration are much more positive in Sweden than in other EU countries. This is illustrated in the following chart, based on a Eurobarometer survey.

EU countries in which the highest proportion of the population have positive feelings toward non-EU immigration

Note: SE = Sweden; DK = Denmark; FI = Finland. Norway is not a member of the EU.
Source: Eurobarometer 82; Survey Nov.2014; QA 11.2 (Abridged)

The high proportion of Swedes who have positive attitudes toward non-Western migration sits somewhat oddly with the difficulty that Sweden has had in integrating such migrants. That is apparent in Michael Booth’s book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, which I began to discuss in my last post. Booth writes of “newly arrived immigrants being shunted off to places like Rosengård, where they are given just enough money to live on but often face insurmountable obstacles to progressing further in society”. He suggests that the Swedish welfare state creates “ghettos” for “clientification” of new arrivals. I guess clientification has come to describe the process by which people become dependent upon welfare because government welfare agencies pretend to run businesses in which welfare beneficiaries are viewed as clients.

Michael Booth notes that newly arrived migrants becoming dependent upon welfare is in sharp contrast to the situation in the US, for example, where immigrants generally have to work hard to survive. That comment presumably refers specifically to illegal Mexican immigration into the US. It brings to mind Milton Friedman’s comment to the effect that illegal Mexican migration is a good thing because illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare benefits. Friedman also made the more general point that it is not possible for a welfare state to maintain open borders because that would disproportionately attract the kinds of migrants who are likely to become eligible for welfare benefits. (He was, of course, more favourably disposed to open borders than to welfare states.)

It is worth noting at this point that immigration programs are sometimes seen as making a net contribution to welfare systems. Immigrants to Australia have tended to be of working age and to have useful skills, so that, on average, their tax contributions have tended to exceed the welfare payments made to them. That probably reflects immigration policies designed to attract migrants with useful skills and would not apply under an open-borders policy with migrants immediately eligible for welfare benefits.

It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the ongoing positive attitudes of the Swedes toward non-European immigration stems from social cohesion that has been created by the welfare state. The Scandinavian countries with less positive attitudes to immigration also have large welfare states. Moreover, the weight of evidence seems to support the view that high levels of trust and social cohesion in the Scandinavian countries prepared the way for the welfare state, rather than vice versa. Michael Booth tends to support that position – he reports interesting interviews with protagonists on both sides of the debate.  The international evidence that I have presented in an earlier post supports the view that people in high trust societies tend to have greatest support for moving toward a more humane society, with more redistribution of income to reduce inequality. 

Michael Booth makes the point that many Danes take pride in the fact that they pay a lot of taxes. This is apparently a way for them to say how successful they are. Booth notes that the pride that Danes take in paying tax does not prevent them from evading tax by shopping enthusiastically on the black market. Evidence from a tax audit suggests that many Danes also engage in income tax evasion when they have an opportunity to do so.

It would be reasonable to expect that a high proportion of Danish taxpayers are proud of the support that they provide to other Danes who rely on welfare payments. High levels of inter-personal trust would be likely to make such sentiments more common in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries than in most other parts of the world.

However, different attitudes seem to apply in Denmark when tax revenue is used to pay welfare benefits to newly arrived migrants. In recent years Denmark has taken the path of applying a two-tier welfare system with different provisions for new arrivals. Denmark has also adopted a more restrictive approach to immigration.

This brings me to politics. The Danes, Norwegians, Finns and Swedes all have anti-immigration parties that poll a substantial proportion of the popular vote (over 20 percent for the Danish People’s Party). The Swedish Democrats have been less influential than the xenophobic parties in the other Scandinavian countries. They obtained a lower percentage of the vote (13 percent in the last election) but the main reason they have been less influential is because they have been shunned by the other parties in Sweden. My source for this information is an article by Alberto Nardelli and George Arnett on the rise of the anti-immigration parties in the Nordic States (published in The Guardian, 20 June 2015).

I hope the vast majority of Swedes will continue to set an example to the rest of the world by maintaining strongly positive attitudes toward non-European immigration. However, that looks to me to be a forlorn hope - unless they can find a sensible way to restrict welfare benefits to immigrants (perhaps accompanied by special policies to assist refugees to find jobs). In my view, other countries, including Australia, should also consider moving toward a two-tier welfare system. Immigration to countries with costly welfare systems has a lot in common with having new members join a club that exists to provide benefits collectively to its members. It is much easier for current members to remain positive about having new members join if they are required to make appropriate contributions before being eligible for the full benefits of membership.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Are the Scandinavian countries almost nearly perfect?

This question is prompted by Michael Booth’s book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People. The author is English; he is married to a Dane and lives in Denmark. The subtitle (of the version I read) suggests that the author has exposed “the truth about the Nordic miracle”. The book is indeed informative, but the author’s main aim seems to be to entertain readers with his observations on the different character traits of the people in the five Nordic countries – Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland - and what they think of each other.

The book could be viewed as essential reading for people thinking of spending time in Scandinavian countries. Visitors might need to be warned, for example, that Swedes tend not to be as well-mannered as observers of the on-court behaviour of Swedish tennis players might expect. Booth describes their behaviour when boarding public transport as “breathtaking rudeness” (but he comes from a country in which people do tend to apologize excessively).

The book also has much to offer people, like myself, with an interest in explanations for the high average happiness levels of these countries (as recorded in numerous international surveys) and those attempting to understand why Scandinavian welfare states have not yet collapsed.

The book was recommended to me by Jim Belshaw, an old friend and fellow blogger, because of my interest in happiness research. Jim has recently visited Denmark and has written on his blog about hygge – which translates as cosiness and has some similarity to the Australian concept of mateship – as well as about ethnocentricity and migration.

Michael Booth is bemused that the Danes tend to be consistently close to the top the world happiness rankings: even by comparison with the British they seem to be “a frosty bunch”. He suggests that the Danes are among “the least demonstrably joyful people on earth, along with the Swedes, the Finns and the Norwegians”. The author suggests that many Danes are themselves similarly bemused: “they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is”.

It is often difficult to know when Booth is being serious, but he offers several more or less plausible explanations for the apparent contentedness of the Danes. These include low expectations resulting from their turbulent history, and a facility for denial of the costs of being Danish - including the high taxes and the loss of freedom of expression and individualism associated with hygge and Jante Law (the social norms of a small town). Such speculation is fun, but it may not be necessary to an understanding of why the Danes tend to be relatively satisfied with their lives. The relatively high average happiness levels of the Danes and other Scandinavians can be largely explained (statistically at least) in terms of such variables as average income, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), healthy life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life choices, generosity and relative absence of corruption. There is a good discussion in World Happiness Report 2015 (pages 21-26).

There is another possible explanation for Scandinavian happiness that I was hoping Michael Booth might have had some fun with. Last year Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald published exploratory research findings suggesting that cross-country differences in happiness are associated with “genetic distance from Denmark”. Apparently, the closer a country is to the genetic makeup of Denmark, the happier are the people in that country, other things equal. The study seeks to control for a fairly wide range of other variables. One part of the study is based on information on the incidence of people with short alleles (those who draw the short straw in terms of the serotonin-transporter gene) who have a genetic predisposition to overreact to stressful events. I was hoping that Michael Booth might have speculated about whether there might be something in the cultural heritage of the Scandinavians that could explain their genetic makeup. Unfortunately, the research paper was probably not published before his book was finished. When Booth did comment he cast doubts on the validity of the research findings, citing “the Dane’s record high consumption of antidepressants, which would appear to contradict the report’s assertions regarding clinical depression”. Well, who knows? More research might be required.

The thought of Scandinavians as being “almost nearly perfect” raises the question of how well these countries rate in terms of the “good society” characteristics, which I have previously proposed on this blog (in my most popular post) and in Free to Flourish as criteria that nearly everyone would consider to be important. For convenience, relevant information is summarised in the table below. The table shows data for the top 20 countries, according to their average ranking on the three criteria: peacefulness, individual opportunity and economic security. The shading - from green, through yellow to red - denotes levels of performance on each criterion from relatively strong to less strong for these top performers. (The indexes combine 15 indicators, using methodology described in Free to Flourish.)

It is obvious from the table that the Scandinavian countries are relatively good societies - according to the criteria I espouse. They rank very highly in terms of peacefulness and economic security - although, apart from Norway, they do not rank so highly in terms of individual opportunity. Equal weighting of the criteria might not be appropriate. If I had to choose whether it would be better for my grandchildren to live in a country offering greater individual opportunity or greater economic security, I would choose individual opportunity. However, my personal priorities are probably not widely shared in the Nordic countries. I wonder to what extent those priorities are shared among the large numbers of people who have migrated to Sweden in recent years.

The more contentious issue is whether these societies will remain “good” in the future. Michael Booth provides some hints in his discussion of productivity in Denmark:
I have read numerous articles in Danish newspapers of which the gist has been ‘Well, things are going well for the other Scandinavian countries so they will probably go well for us too,’ in which no mention is ever made of Norway’s colossal oil wealth or Sweden’s manufacturing supremacy and major public sector reforms. Denmark’s economy is far, far weaker than its neighbours’, and the country is facing far more serious problems, but the Danes are oddly reluctant to address their private debt levels or their gigantic welfare state”.

So, what about Finland and Iceland? There is apparently more to the Finns than taciturnity, modesty, trustworthiness and binge drinking. As well as Santa and forestry, they have a substantial electronics industry (think Nokia). Research and development spending is relatively high as a percentage of GDP and relatively little of this is public money. The Finnish education system seems to be relatively good by OECD standards (average PISA scores are very high) for reasons which seem to be related to the high regard for teaching as a profession and the simplicity of the Finnish language. The future economic growth prospects of Finland have been rated highly by the World Economic Forum, among others.

Iceland’s economy was almost wiped out by the GFC, but it now seems to be recovering. That is an interesting story, but it doesn’t deserve space in this post because the population of Iceland is tiny (about 330,000). That is less than the population of Canberra (which is admittedly somewhat bloated).

Since I have mentioned population I should note in passing that world-wide interest in the Nordic countries seems to be disproportionate to the size of their populations. The total population of the Nordic countries is only about 25 million – not much larger than Australia's. Sweden is largest, with 9.6 million people; the populations of Denmark, Finland and Norway (5.6, 5.4 and 5.1 million respectively) are all smaller than that for Victoria (5.8 million).

Coming back now to the question of whether the Nordic countries will remain good societies, it looks as though Norway will continue to be helped along for a few more decades by the rents from oil resources, while the Swedes and Finns will probably get by without too much trouble on the rents from their past investment in intellectual capital. All the Nordic countries will be helped by their high levels of social capital (trust) which seems to make changes in policy direction relatively easy to achieve as they endeavour to make their welfare systems more affordable. At this point I should mention the impact of immigration.  (So, I have mentioned it.)

Before I end this long post I want to give you a better indication of the flavour of the book by referring to some of the author’s comments on what the people in the different Scandinavian countries think of each other. According to Michael Booth, their Danish neighbours regard the Swedes as stiff, humourless, rule-obsessed and dull, and the Finns see them as “slightly foppish”. These days the Norwegians have enough money to rise above ancient resentments – they pay Swedes to wait on their tables and peel their bananas (to make a sandwich spread). The Swedes, who are wealthier than their other neighbours, tend to remain aloof from regional resentments, but they are inclined to make sanctimonious comments about anti-immigrant policies adopted by the Danes.

The overall impression I am left with, however, is that the lingering resentments among the Nordic countries are fairly tame by comparison with those among the different national and regional groups in the British Isles.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Will future technological advances provide widespread opportunities for human flourishing?

A range of issues related to this question have been discussed in a recent series of posts on this blog. My conclusions are summarised below.

Recent trends in productivity growth do not provide persuasive evidence that the rate of technological advancement is slowing.

On the one hand, we have techno-pessimists such as Robert Gordon who argues that technological progress is slowing down.  On the other hand, we have techno-optimists such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee who argue that the global economy is on the cusp of a dramatic growth spurt driven by smart machines taking advantage of advances in computer processing, artificial intelligence, networked communication etc.

My post discussing these issues notes that the evidence does not support the view that there was a general slow-down in productivity growth in high-income countries prior to the global financial crisis and great recession. In only about half of the countries covered by the OECD data was the rate of multifactor productivity (MFP) growth during the 2001 to 2007 lower than that in 1995 to 2001.

It seems likely that the slow-down in measured productivity growth in the US and some other countries may be attributable, in part, to difficulty in measuring the outputs of the information and communications technologies (ICT) industries - particularly free content provided on the internet.  As means are found to require users to pay for more internet content it seems likely that will, of itself, make the productivity numbers for ICT industries look better even though underlying productivity will not have improved.

A post discussing recent OECD research on technological diffusion gaps at firm level suggests that there is a technological diffusion problem rather than a slow-down in technological advances. Productivity growth of global frontier firms has remained relatively robust, despite the slowdown in productivity growth in many OECD countries during the 2000s. A widening technological diffusion gap is particularly evident for service sector firms.

Technological innovation is likely to destroy a substantial proportion of current jobs, but it will not necessarily be more disruptive than it has been in the past.

As discussed in my post Is average over?’ there is strong evidence of job polarization in the US. Research by David Autor shows that the occupations experiencing loss in employment are in the middle of the distribution, with the locus of displacement of middle-skill employment moving over time into higher skilled categories.  The pace of employment gains in low wage, manual task-intensive jobs has been increasing since the 1980s. The growth of high-skill, high wage occupations decelerated markedly in the 2000s, with only a modest recovery between 2007 and 2012. Autor suggests that the deceleration of growth of high pay jobs was associated with macroeconomic events which led to a sharp deceleration in computer investment (the bursting of the dot-com bubble, followed by the collapse of the housing market and the ensuing financial crisis).

Australian research, published in a recent report by CEDA (discussed here) shows a similar pattern of job displacement. The jobs that are disappearing involve routine tasks, not just low-skilled tasks. Researchers estimate that over the next 10 to 15 years about 40% of jobs have a high probability of being susceptible to technological change in Australia.

Growth in labour demand will occur in occupations that tend to involve perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and/or social intelligence. Many jobs will be concerned with the creative application of technology to solving problems.

In recent years enough new jobs have been created in Australia at a rate sufficient to replace those that have disappeared.

Some authors have suggested that the world faces a period of extraordinary economic disruption over the next few decades. My reflection on economic events over the last 40 years (in this post) suggest to me that perceptions of extraordinary disruption are a product of the economic stagnation in many high-income countries during the last decade.

During the 1970s I was under the impression that the pace of change was quickening, but that was an illusion. The economic disruption occurring in the wake of the first oil price shock and the emergence of stagflation certainly involved a quickening in the rate of change relative to the abnormal stability of the 1950s and 60s. Looking back now, however, economic change over the last 40 years seems to have been less about quickening than about fits and starts.

I suspect that when people look back in 40 years’ time they are they are not likely to perceive that the first half of the 21st century was extraordinarily disruptive. They are more likely to perceive this to have been a period of fairly normal disruption, with the pace of change being similar to that occurring on average since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

There is potential for future technological advances to lift average real wage levels in high-income countries.

At an aggregate level, innovations that raise labour productivity tend to increase the demand for labour because they make labour more productive. International comparisons show that real wage levels are more or less proportional to average productivity levels.

Real wage growth has not been quite proportional to labour productivity growth in high-income countries where labour’s share of national income has fallen over recent decades. As discussed in this post, average real wages in high-income countries have typically been growing at a rate around 0.35% per annum less than the median labour productivity growth of 1.64% per annum.

In most countries the most plausible reason for the failure of real wages to keep pace with the growth of labour productivity is that capital deepening (the growth of capital per unit of labour) has not been sufficient to offset the labour augmenting (or labour saving) bias of technological progress. (See my post discussing the elasticity of substitution between capital and labour.) In other words, investment levels have been too low.

A slowdown in the contribution of investment to GDP growth was evident the United States, Europe and Japan in the period 2000-07 and was accentuated after the global financial crisis.  Investment levels in Australia remained strong until recently, mainly reflecting investment in mining to supply inputs to the construction boom in China.

Investment in natural resource development has had a modest direct impact on demand for labour in Australia, but the impetus it has provided to overall economic growth in Australia had a more profound indirect impact. The impacts on labour demand of the growth of urban centres as hubs of highly innovative activity are similar in some respects.  As discussed in my post on the competitiveness of cities, when cities become attractive places for location of technology-intensive activities that tends to increase demand for many categories of labour including teachers, nurses and building workers.

Technological advances offer the potential for ongoing improvements in the quality of life.

It is sometimes suggested that because most people in high income countries are already highly satisfied with their lives, the additional opportunities provided by technological advances are not worth having. However, the benchmarks that people use when asked to evaluate the quality of their lives tend to change with changes in their perceptions of what might be possible. As noted in an earlier post, survey data indicates that a substantial proportion of people who claim to be completely satisfied with their lives (above 40% in some countries) are in complete agreement with the proposition that “because of science and technology there will be more opportunities for the next generation”.

In my last post I considered whether the disruptions associated with technological innovations cause a great deal of anxiety and unhappiness. There is a great deal of evidence many people who lose their jobs or feel that their jobs are threatened do suffer anxiety and unhappiness. However, these feelings are strongly associated with the state of the economy and the prospects of obtaining alternative employment.

Discussions of technological unemployment tend to focus unduly on potential job losses and to overlook the impact of new technology on economic growth and the associated expansion of employment opportunities. Many people will lose jobs as a result of technological change at some point in their lives. Most will readily find alternative employment, but some people are likely to have their lives severely disrupted by the high levels of unemployment that may persist in some regions where declining industries have been major employers.

If governments want to ensure that technological advances provide widespread opportunities they should stop protecting narrow interests.

Recent OECD research on technology diffusion gaps (discussed here) suggests that the ability of firms to learn from the global frontier is stronger in economies where there is less protection of domestic interests through international trade barriers, product market regulation, employment regulation and bankruptcy laws that that leave people with valuable skills employed in zombie firms. The research also suggests that skill mismatches can be exacerbated by high transactions costs in housing markets (e.g. stamp duties on transfers).

The competitiveness of cities as locations for technology-intensive activities is likely to be adversely affected by powerful interest groups opposed to increases in population density and innovations that have potential to reduce the cost of transport, including congestion costs. (See post on competitiveness of cities.)

There is increasing recognition that excessive regulation to protect intellectual property rights is discouraging the diffusion of new technology and limiting the opportunities created by technological progress. As discussed in a post on this topic, the economic benefits of copyright and patent laws derive from the incentive they provide to authors and inventors to engage in creative activity. If granted appropriately such monopoly rights could therefore be expected to result in more technological progress and higher productivity growth than would otherwise occur. However, in recent decades these regulations have been used to provide monopoly rents to holders of rights far beyond those required to provide incentives for creative activity.

* * *
My general conclusion is that if governments were to do no harm we could be much more confident that future technological advances would provide widespread opportunities. That is probably too much to ask, but it might be reasonable to expect governments to do less harm than at present. For example, if governments want to help unemployed people who live in regions of persistently high unemployment, they should consider welfare measures designed specifically to assist those most affected (including relocation and early retirement). This is likely to be a less costly approach than the alternatives of supporting uncompetitive firms and industries through subsidies, tariffs, anti-dumping measures, government procurement policies etc. or funding uneconomic infrastructure projects. 

This series of posts has focused on likely trends over the next few decades and has not addressed longer term issues that may emerge as robots come to play more important roles in our lives. I might have something to say about those issues after reading and thinking more. One day I might even feel able to write sensibly about the implications of the 'singularity' for individual human flourishing.

I think William Nordhaus may be writing sensibly about the timing of the 'singularity' and its implications for real wages in his paper: "Are We Approaching an Economic Singularity?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

How will future technological advances impact on the quality of life of people in high-income countries?

As discussed in earlier posts, I am fairly optimistic about the potential for technological progress to continue to provide widespread economic opportunities for people in high-income countries. In this post I want to consider two arguments advanced by people who are pessimistic about the potential for technological advances to continue to improve the quality of lives of people in high income countries. 

The first argument of the pessimists is that because most people in high income countries are already highly satisfied with their lives, the additional opportunities provided by technological advances are not worth having. As I see it, this fails to recognize that the benchmarks that people use when asked to evaluate the quality of their lives tend to change with changes in their perceptions of what might be possible. It would be unreasonable to expect that peoples’ perceptions of what it means to be living the best possible life will remain unchanged over the next 50 years.

Introspection is probably sufficient to persuade most readers that it is possible to be highly satisfied with life and nevertheless perceive that there is potential for the lives of future generations to become even better in some respects. Some formal evidence that this happens was provided in an article on this blog last year. Using World Values Survey data for a range of high-income countries the article demonstrates that a substantial proportion of those people who claim to be completely satisfied with their lives (above 40% in some countries) are in complete agreement with the proposition that “because of science and technology there will be more opportunities for the next generation”. The corresponding percentages who completely disagree with that proposition are tiny.

The second argument of the pessimists is that the disruptions associated with technological innovations cause a great deal of anxiety and unhappiness. 

It is obvious that many people who lose their jobs or feel that their jobs are threatened do suffer anxiety and unhappiness. As previously discussed here, rising unemployment has been associated with declines in life satisfaction in countries of southern Europe following the global financial crisis.

A recent article by Rainer Winkelmann has drawn several important conclusions about the relationship between unemployment and life satisfaction from German panel data:
  • Over the last three decades, average life satisfaction of unemployed people – around 5.5 to 6.0 on a ten point scale - has always been at least one point below that of employed people.
  • Life satisfaction tends to decline prior to unemployment and does not fully rebound to pre-unemployment levels four years after an episode of unemployment.
  • About half the people who became unemployed experienced no reduction in life satisfaction. Unemployed people experience a substantial reduction in life satisfaction (and find a job more quickly) when they have a strong work ethic.
  • Duration of unemployment seems to have no impact on the life satisfaction of people who are unemployed.
  • There is a strong association between the aggregate unemployment rate and average life satisfaction levels even for employed workers, reflecting the negative impact of perceived job insecurity.

 Australian data also suggests that the level of job insecurity is strongly related to the state of the economy. The Household Financial Comfort Survey (conducted by Me Bank) shows marked fluctuations from quarter to quarter in perceptions of how easy it would be for workers to obtain another job if they become unemployed. In June 2015, casual workers were most pessimistic about finding another job (85% said it would be difficult), followed by self-employed workers (63%) part-time workers (63%) and full-time workers (51%). However, NAB’s Quarterly Australian Consumer Anxiety Index suggests that job security is a much less important source of anxiety for Australians than government policy, cost of living, ability to fund retirement, and health.

Discussions of technological unemployment tend to focus unduly on potential job losses and to overlook the impact of new technology on economic growth. It is far from obvious that technological innovation reduces employment opportunities at an economy-wide level. The chart below shows the annual rates of growth in employment and multi-factor productivity (probably the best measure available of technological innovation) for the period 1995 to 2013 for those high-income countries for which comparable OECD data is available.

 The chart certainly does not show a general pattern of low employment growth in countries with relatively high levels of technological innovation. If anything, it suggests the opposite. The modest growth in employment in Korea may reflect limits on growth in available labour since the unemployment rate in that country has been relatively low (less than 4% of the civilian labour force in each year of the last decade) and a rising percentage of the age 15 to 64 population is in employment.

High rates of growth in employment at a national level will not necessarily prevent the emergence of persistently high levels of unemployment in regions where declining industries have been major employers. This poses a policy problem in helping older workers to cope with the changes in their circumstances. The current policy framework in Australia seems to provide incentives for many such people to migrate from long term unemployment to disability pensions. The problem is likely to be exacerbated by increases in the age at which people become entitled to aged pensions. Past experience suggests that regional development policies do not provide a panacea for regions that have little to offer investors other than an aging unskilled workforce. It is difficult to see the problems being resolved by adopting an NZ style investment approach to removing people from unemployment benefits as proposed in the McClure report (discussed here) but, hopefully, I am wrong about that.

In a chapter in the CEDA report Australia’s Future Workforce? Andrew Scott suggests that one of the lessons learned from the decline of employment in manufacturing locations since the 1970s “is that you cannot just take middle-aged workers out of factory environments, put them into classrooms and then expect them to immediately learn new skills for new jobs in that unfamiliar setting”. He suggests that the approach to active labour market policies adopted in Denmark has much to commend it. I will remain unpersuaded until I see a good cost benefit study of the policies adopted in Denmark, comparing the approach adopted there to a range of alternatives including offering early access to aged pensions (at say, age 60) at a lower than normal rate of benefit, to unemployed people in regions of high unemployment.

To sum up, I don’t think there are strong grounds for pessimism about the ability of technological progress to provide widespread opportunities for people in high-income countries to improve the quality of their lives. It is important to recognize, however, that many people will lose jobs as a result of this process at some point in their lives. Most will readily find alternative employment, but in regions that are adversely affected by technological unemployment some people are likely to have their lives severely disrupted.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Does capital deepening reduce labour's share of national income?

The share of wages and other labour remuneration in national income has been declining in most high income countries over the last few decades. I have previously argued that if we are concerned with the well-being of the poor, we should be more concerned about trends in real wages than about trends in the distribution of income between labour and capital. That is still my view, but it hasn’t stopped me trying to understand the reasons why labour’s share has been declining.

My interest has been aroused, in particular, by the claims of some researchers that capital deepening (increases in capital per unit of labour) have contributed to the decline in labour’s share of national income. For example, the OECD’s Employment Outlook 2012 provides the following answer to the question: What explains the decline in labour’s share?
Total factor productivity (TFP) growth and capital deepening – the key drivers of economic growth – are estimated to jointly account for as much as 80% of the average within-industry decline of the labour share in OECD countries between 1990 and 2007”.

The message that seems to be giving is that if a country or a region has the institutions, people and natural advantages needed to attract substantial additional investment, don’t expect the associated capital deepening (increase in capital to labour ratio) to have a strong positive impact on demand for labour. 

There are some circumstances where that might be a reasonable proposition. For example, as Dean Parham has shown in work for the Productivity Commission, the growth of the capital-intensive mining sector in Australia during the 2000s was strongly associated with the decline in labour’s share of national income over the same period.

However, the circumstances of Australia’s mining boom are somewhat peculiar. If it is generally true that capital deepening doesn’t have a strong positive impact on demand for labour I might need to make some fundamental revisions to my views about how economic systems work.

Dear reader, the next few paragraphs are somewhat abstruse, but please bear with me because I need your practical wisdom about production technology and the elasticity of substitution between capital and labour.

The elasticity of substitution between capital and labour is the critical factor determining the impact of capital deepening on demand for labour. It can be defined as the percentage change in capital deepening for a 1% change in the ratio of the wage rate to the rental price of capital (making the standard assumption that factors are paid the value of their marginal products). The sensitivity of the impact of 1% capital deepening (a 1% change in the capital to labour ratio) on labour’s share of output and real wages is shown below (assuming labour’s share of national income is 62%, the median for OECD countries).

The graph is drawn under the assumption of zero technological change. The underlying equation for percentage change in labour’s share is Equation 3 of Robert Lawrence’s recent working paper for the Peterson Institute on the decline in labour’s share in the US. The equation for the change in real wage is as derived in the end note below.

The OECD’s assertions about capital deepening reducing labour’s share were backed up by what appears to have been a fairly sophisticated econometric study by Samuel Bentolila and Gilles Saint-Paul (published in 2003) subsequently updated by OECD staff. These analyses suggest that capital and labour are gross substitutes (i.e. the elasticity of substitution between them is greater than 1) and attribute the decline in labour’s share to both capital deepening and capital augmenting technological change (i.e. technological change that has an impact similar to adding more capital).  

However, other econometric studies suggest that the elasticity of substitution between capital and labour is less than 1. For example, Robert Lawrence’s recent analysis of the decline in labour’s share of US income provides econometric evidence that it is attributable to technological change being so strongly labour augmenting (labour saving) that it has more than offset the positive impact of capital deepening. His results suggest that as a result of technological change “effective capital-labour ratios have actually fallen in the sectors and industries that account for the largest portion of the decline in labor share in income since 1980”.

I will leave it to others to attempt to unravel the mysteries of these conflicting econometric findings. It probably makes more sense for me to focus here on considering which set of results seems more plausible in terms of what you and I know (or think we know) about production functions at the level of the individual firm.

Think of any firm in any industry. In order to keep the analysis simple, assume that the firm leases the capital equipment that it uses and that the firm is small enough not to have any impact on either the rental price of capital or the prevailing wage rate. In the hypothetical situation I want you to consider there is no potential to change technology, only the potential to vary the amount of equipment or labour that is hired (and to vary other inputs in proportion to output). Now, consider to what extent the ratio of capital to labour is likely to change if the rental price of capital equipment declines by 10%, thus causing an increase in the ratio of the wage rate to the rental price of capital.

The answer that some readers may come up with is that the ratio of capital equipment to labour is fixed by existing technology, so that it will not change even if output changes in response to the lower input costs. For example, there is not much point in having more taxis than drivers or more desk-top computers than staff to use them. That corresponds to Wassily Wassilyevich Leontief’s assumption that the elasticity of substitution between capital and labour is zero.

The assumption of zero substitution possibilities is too extreme in my view, but I can’t think of an industry where it would be reasonable to expect a change in the wage rate to rental price of capital ratio to result in a more than proportionate change in capital deepening. Perhaps the time is approaching when firms will be employing both driverless vehicles and human-driven vehicles, so a decline in rental price of driverless vehicles could easily displace humans. But I don’t think that time has yet arrived. (Of course capital equipment can often be substituted for labour by introducing new technology, but the elasticity of substitution relates to unchanged technology.) Perhaps these comments just reflect the limits of my experience. Please enlighten me if that is so.

My bottom line is that unless I am persuaded otherwise I will cling steadfastly to the belief that capital deepening normally tends to raise real wages and labour’s share of national income, and that the decline in labour’s share of national income in high-income countries is attributable to labour augmenting technological change.

Endnote: some of the math behind the graph
Assume CES technology and that labour and capital are paid their marginal products. The rate of growth in the real wage is given by:
(1)     d log W = [(Ϭ – 1)/Ϭ]g + [1/Ϭ][d log (Y/L)]      
where W is the real wage rate, Ϭ is the elasticity of substitution between capital and labour, g is the rate of labour augmenting technological change, Y is output and L is labour input, so Y/L is average labour productivity.
We also know that the rate of growth of output is given by:
(2)    d log Y = SL(d log L + g) + (1-SL)(d log K + h)
where SL is labour’s share of output, K is capital services, h is capital augmenting technological change, if we assume constant returns to scale and Euler’s theorem.
Substituting (2) into (1) and rearranging terms I obtained:
(3)    d log W = g + (1/Ϭ)(1 – SL)[d log (K/N) – (g – h)]      (Both times I tried!)

The graph is drawn assuming no technological change i.e. that g and h are both zero. However, it is apparent from (3) that technological change tends to have a positive impact on real wages (assuming g>0). This impact is diminished when technological change has a labour-augmenting bias (g>h) and amplified when it has a capital-augmenting bias (g