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, August 16, 2015

Should regulation be allowed to limit the enjoyment of opportunities created by technological progress?

Two conflicting stories are being told about technological progress: the first has it creating widespread opportunities, while the second has it reducing real wages and creating misery for large numbers of people. The first story is a much more credible. That means, among other things, that governments should stop protecting vested interests that are trying to prevent technological innovations.

Machines are certainly replacing labour. As discussed in a recent post on this blog, new technologies are displacing routine jobs, including many jobs requiring technical and professional skills. This technological change is often described as labour-saving, for obvious reasons, but like many other economists I prefer to call it labour-augmenting, because its impact is like that of an increase in labour supply. (Think of robots.) Technological change also creates new jobs - often involving creative application of technology to solving problems – but the overall impact is less labour being required per unit of output. In other words, the story is about rising average labour productivity.

At an aggregate level, innovations that raise labour productivity tend to increase the demand for labour because they make labour more productive. High labour productivity is associated with high real wages rather than with low real wages: international comparisons show that real wage levels are more or less proportional to average productivity levels. It is almost axiomatic that countries with high average productivity (national output or national income per unit of labour, Y/L) will have high real wages (SL*Y/L where SL is labour’s share of national income).

Actually, real wage growth has not been quite proportional to labour productivity growth in those countries where labour’s share of national income has fallen over recent decades. The median labour’s share of income for OECD countries has fallen from 66.1% in the early 1990s to 61.7% in the late 2000s. That implies (on my calculation) that real wages 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 high-income countries.

As discussed in an earlier post, 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. In other words, investment levels have been too low.

This is consistent with the OECD’s recent analysis in The Future of Productivity which indicates that while the slowdown in the contribution of investment to GDP growth in the United States, Europe and Japan was accentuated after the GFC it was evident in the period 2000-07 (Figure 5, p 20). Investment in information and communication technology – a major source of labour augmenting technological change – remained relatively strong despite the overall weakness of investment.

Investment levels in Australia and Canada have remained strong until recently, mainly reflecting investment in mining to service a construction boom in China.  Looking to the future, however, Australia is unlikely to be immune from the malaise affecting the US, Europe and Japan, unless it follows superior economic policies.

The weakness of investment does not mean that governments should be scrambling to put in place an array of new investment incentives, but it does mean that they should be seriously considering removal of regulatory and tax impediments to innovation. The OECD’s recently updated Policy Framework for Investment provides a checklist of questions that are just as relevant to stagnating high-income countries as to the developing countries they were originally designed to assist.

There is a discussion of some aspects of government failure in high-income countries in my recent post on the policy implications of widening diffusion gaps. Last week’s post relating to the competitiveness of cities raised the relevant question of whether powerful interest groups that stand to lose will have the political clout to slow down innovations that have potential to reduce transport costs e.g. Uber. The issue I want to raise now is whether excessive regulation to protect intellectual property rights is likely to limit the opportunities created by technological progress.

The idea that protection of intellectual property rights could ever be excessive may seem to be morally suspect to some authors and inventors. Questioning whether people have an unlimited natural right to ownership of their intellectual creations might seem akin to questioning whether people have a natural right to the fruit that grows on their trees. Even so, individual claims to ownership of land and fruit trees are viewed as unethical in some traditional societies.

Arguably, laws regarding property rights have tended to evolve in market economies over many centuries in ways that now serve the individual interests of the vast majority of citizens in living peacefully and enjoying economic opportunities.

Viewed in that context it makes sense for claims to property ownership to be assessed in terms of what it is reasonable for people to expect. For example, it seems to me that it would be unreasonable for property owners to view passers-by who pick fruit from branches overhanging the boundary of their property as having breached a claim to ownership that is worthy of being enforced. It is possible that view might reflect my ignorance of reasons why such picking of fruit might be viewed as a crime in some jurisdictions. My point is merely that the property owner’s claims need to be balanced against the reasonable expectations of other citizens.

The economic benefits of copyright and patent laws derive from the incentive they provide to authors and inventors to engage in creative activity. The granting of such monopoly rights could therefore be expected to result in more technological progress and higher productivity growth than would otherwise occur. However, the exercise of such monopoly rights imposes a cost on users and can restrict adoption of new technology. In this context it seem reasonable to expect that the aim of government involvement in enforcing intellectual property claims would be to achieve an appropriate balance between providing incentives for creative activity and diffusion of technology.

A recent issue of The Economist (August 8, 2015) notes that a high proportion of patents (40-90%) are never exploited or licensed out by their owners. The authors suggest that “the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils”. The authors suggest that patents should come with a blunt “use it or lose it” rule, so that they expire if the invention is not brought to market.

A recent article by Brink Lindsey also argues that current laws regarding copyright and patents in the US are retarding growth of productivity by raising the price of copyrighted and patented products excessively and inflating the costs of innovation. He suggests some modest reforms to rein in the vast expansion in reach of copyright and patent law during recent decades:  removal of criminal liability for copyright infringement; removal of liability for non-commercial copying; reducing copyright terms from life plus 70 years to 14 years; and ending patent protections for software and business methods.

It seems paradoxical that while there is recognition in some quarters in the US that current intellectual property (IP) laws have over-reached, the US government is actively engaged in trade negotiations to impose dubious intellectual property regulations on international trading partners. Australia’s Productivity Commission noted in Trade and Assistance Review 2013-14 that under the Australia-United States Agreement (AUSFTA) copyright protection was extended to the life of the author plus 70 years, compared with life plus 50 years under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
The Commission added:
“The relevance of trade related IP issues for Australia has gained even greater prominence because of the potential reach of the proposed TPP in this area. Potentially, the IP chapter in the TPP could be extensive and go beyond the provisions contained in the TRIPS Agreement and AUSFTA. For example, based on US media access to the current draft text, it appears likely that the TPP will include obligations on pharmaceutical price determination arrangements in Australia and other TPP members, of an uncertain character and intent. The history of IP arrangements being addressed in preferential trade deals is not good. Indeed, to the extent that the return to IP holders awarded by more stringent IP laws outweighed the benefits to the broader economy, the provision would also impose a net cost on both partners, lowering trading and growth potential across the bloc.”

Let us hope Australia’s trade negotiators do not end up paying too high a price for the sweet deal they are still seeking on sugar exports to the US market.

The Australian Government has now asked the Productivity Commission to undertake a public inquiry on intellectual property. Further information is here.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Will Sydney become internationally competitive?

International competitiveness is a useful concept to apply to cities that are competing globally. Major cities are in competition to attract people with scarce skills and entrepreneurial ability, and to maintain reputations as attractive places for people to do business, invest, innovate and develop skills.

Liveability is important, but it does not encompass everything that is important. International competitiveness also involves natural advantages - including location, human resources and business culture - the regulatory environment and the efficiency of organisations providing infrastructure and other services.

Unfortunately, there is probably as much room for confusion in writing about the international competitiveness of cities as there is in writing about the international competitiveness of industries. Advocates of various industry interest groups in Australia have sometimes argued that they need tariff protection, import quotas, subsidies and tax concessions in order to become internationally competitive. I have the impression that such advocacy has diminished in recent years, but that might be because it is now a long time since I was paid to listen to it. The important point is, of course, that internationally competitive industries should be able to thrive without government assistance.

Similarly, the representatives of particular cities sometimes argue that they need central government assistance to fund infrastructure that will help make them internationally competitive. The merits of such claims are particularly difficult to assess in Australia, given overlapping responsibilities for funding of federal, state and local government activities. Nevertheless, the point stands that within a sensible funding framework, internationally competitive cities should be able to thrive without central government subsidies to fund infrastructure.

Another potential problem in talking about the international competitiveness of cities is that some people will assume that if a city is lacking in some aspect of competitiveness this can be remedied by more intensive planning and regulation by an ‘entrepreneurial state’. We don’t hear the term ‘Australia Inc.’ so often these days, but it is not difficult to find academic commentators who have faith in the ability of governments to perform entrepreneurial miracles. The recent contribution of Roy Green, Ian Marsh and Christos Pitelis to the CEDA publication ‘Australia’s Future Workforce?comes to mind in this context.

My interest in the international competitiveness of Australian cities was aroused by a couple of other contributions to the CEDA publication (which I have previously written about here).  Steven Callander makes the point that Australia needs liveable cities in order to be good at innovation: 
“Turning a city into a great place to live is often taken as an end in itself, and in many respects it can and should be. Yet it is also a starting point for innovation. … Moreover, the benefits are widespread: When a city becomes a ‘brain hub’, jobs for plumbers, teachers, nurses and other local services are created at a rate of five to one over other cities, raising salaries and standards of living for all. A more liveable city attracts knowledge workers who affect change that makes the city ever more liveable”.

Fiona McKenzie makes the point that growing population is likely to add to costs of urban congestion with increasing city density placing more pressure on infrastructure, the environment and the social fabric of cities.

Sydney is generally ranked fairly highly as a global city. With regard to liveability, The Economist ranks Sydney in 7th place, behind such cities as Melbourne and Toronto; Hong Kong is 31st, Singapore and San Francisco are 52nd, London is 55th and New York is 56th. Sydney is ranked 10th in Mercer’s quality of living index, behind Vienna, Zurich, Auckland, Munich, Vancouver, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva and Copenhagen. Singapore is in 26th place in this index.

Sydney also ranks fairly highly in indexes that cover a wider range of aspects relating to competitiveness. A T Kearney’s Global Cities Index ranks Sydney as currently in 15th place, with prospects of rising to 11th place. These indexes are intended to measure global engagement and cover business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement. The current world leaders are New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, but those cities are expected to be overtaken by San Francisco and joined by Boston in the years ahead. A T Kearney’s current rankings put Sydney behind Singapore and their prospective rankings put Sydney ahead of Singapore.

Sydney ranks in 11th place in the Global Urban Sustainable Competitiveness Index (GUSC) which covers economic dynamism, social cohesion, environmental quality, cultural diversity, technological innovation, global connections and government management. The world leaders according to this index are London, New York, San Jose, Paris, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Singapore is in 12th place. It is worth noting that the rating given to Sydney by the GUSC is 0.698, far below London’s rating of 1.000.

The other index I have looked at is PWC’s cities of opportunity index, which ranks Sydney in 9th place behind London, New York, Singapore, Toronto, San Francisco, Paris, Stockholm and Hong Kong. Sydney’s overall rating is equal to 89.4% of the highest overall rating (London’s). The graph below suggests that Sydney’s competitiveness in relation to the PWC’s indicators varies from world best to being a long way from world best. (The best performing cities in the world are shown in brackets).

In some instances where Sydney’s performance is relatively poor, this is attributable to natural disadvantages. But poor policy performance has contributed to Sydney’s relatively low rating on some indicators, including transport and infrastructure. For example, Sydney’s performance in terms of numbers of licensed taxis relatively to total population is abysmal. Perhaps Uber might make it easier for people to get around in Sydney in future, provided it is not excessively taxed and regulated to protect the incumbents.

Unfortunately the competitiveness indexes I have looked at do not provide a very clear picture of how Sydney stands relative to cities in other parts of the world in terms of restrictions on economic freedom associated with regulation of incumbent service providers and artificial scarcity created by land-use regulation. A recent article by Brink Lindsey suggests that such regulation constitutes ‘low- hanging fruit’ that could readily be picked in the United States if politicians become interested in lifting economic growth.

The general impression these indexes give me is in that Sydney is in some respects already an internationally competitive city. Sydney may not have what it takes to become a major centre for software development, like San Francisco or Boston, but it has good prospects of becoming a major centre for highly innovative service sector activities in the Asia-Pacific region. The main downside risk, in my view, comes from powerful interest groups opposed to increases in population density and innovations that have potential to reduce the cost of transport, including congestion costs.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What are the policy implications of widening productivity diffusion gaps?

When I read the suggestion in the foreword of the OECD’s recent publication The Future of Productivity that governments should be “reviving the diffusion machine” to “promote inclusive growth” my initial reaction was that the OECD would have a difficult task persuading me that markets could not deal with diffusion of new technology without government help. However, it turned out that I had grasped the wrong end of the stick. The OECD researchers have been investigating whether diffusion gaps might be linked to government policy failures. Reviving the diffusion machine involves, among other things, reducing government regulation that prevent markets from functioning efficiently.

The growing diffusion gap in OECD countries is shown in the graphs below. The graphs have been reproduced elsewhere, including by Timothy Taylor, the conversable economist, but they deserve to be widely published.

 The frontier firms are the top 100 firms in terms of productivity levels in each year. These firms are from a range of different countries and many are very much global firms. The data for non-frontier firms is the average of all other firms. Charts for multi-factor productivity show a similar pattern. See the supporting paper by Dan Andrews, Chiara Criscuolo and Peter Gall, Figure A2.

The graphs suggest that productivity growth at the global frontier has remained relatively robust, despite the slowdown in productivity growth in many OECD countries during the 2000s (as previously discussed on this blog). It is interesting that the productivity divergence between top performers and the rest began to widen prior to the financial crisis. That is particularly evident in the case of service sector firms.

The authors acknowledge that the productivity gap is consistent with winner-take-all dynamics or “superstar effects” as well as slower diffusion of new technologies. However, the former explanation is discounted because the divergence is not confined to the ICT sector where winner-take-all dynamics might be expected to be most important. For a discussion of this point by Dan Andrews see the video of the launch of The Future of Productivity at the Petersen Institute (Dan’s response to the relevant question is near the end of the session).

Regression analysis suggests that the ability to learn from the global frontier is stronger in economies that are more open to international trade and more integrated in global value chains (GVCs). The productivity of national frontier firms is negatively influenced by cumbersome product market regulation, and positively influenced by quality of education systems, R&D subsidies, closer R&D collaboration between business and universities, and stronger patent protection. In some economies where national firms have productivity that is close to the global frontier, the impact of those firms on national productivity is muted because they are undersized. The difference between the size of national frontier firms and global frontier firms tends to be smaller in industries with higher job layoff rates, less stringent employment regulation and bankruptcy laws that do not overly penalize failure.

The growth of innovative firms is restricted by high rates of skill mismatch in many countries.  The authors suggest that skill mismatches can be exacerbated by high transactions costs in housing markets (e.g. stamp duties) and bankruptcy legislation that leaves people with valuable skills employed in zombie firms.
The report suggests:
“It is important that young firms either grow rapidly or exit but no longer linger and become small-old firms”.

That set off alarm bells in my mind. What the authors meant to say, presumably, is that governments should reform regulation that assists low-productivity firms to hold resources that could be used more efficiently elsewhere. The idea that young firms should grow rapidly or exit brought to mind memories of the phrase “get big or get out”, coined by an Australian agricultural economist in the early 1970s, and used by industrious bureaucrats and politicians to justify questionable interventions in the normal functioning of credit markets.

A question some of my readers might be asking themselves at the moment is how well Australia scores in relation to the policy variables noted above. The question is not easy to answer because Australian data is not included in some parts of the analysis.
  • Australia’s participation in GVCs is relatively low for a small economy. (GVC participation is measured in terms of imported inputs used in exports and exports used as inputs in other countries’ exports.) This reflects Australia’s remoteness, but it may nevertheless make it more difficult for Australian firms to maintain close linkages with the global frontier.
  • Some OECD data on product market regulation (Koske, I et al,2015, The 2013 update of the OECD’s data base on product market regulation …) suggests that Australia is among the best for OECD countries. Our regulation is apparently more restrictive than that for the Netherlands, UK and Estonia, but less restrictive than for Greece.
  • In 2013 Australia’s score on the OECD’s data base on restrictiveness of labour market regulation – covering ease of dismissal etc. - was 1.94 out of a possible score of 6 (higher scores indicate more restrictions). Australia’s score implies somewhat less restrictions than the OECD average (2.21) and Greece (2.41), but more restrictions than New Zealand (1.01) and the US (1.17).
  • The World Bank’s Doing Business ratings suggest that Australia’s performance in resolving insolvency (rating of 81.6%) is somewhat better than the OECD average (76.9%) although not as good as the US (90.1%) or Canada (89.2%). The average time required to resolve recover debt in Australia is 1 year, considerably lower than for the OECD average (1.7 years) the US (1.5 years) but higher than for Canada (0.8 years).

The fact that some of Australia’s policies look relatively good by comparison with OECD averages is hardly grounds for complacency.  OECD averages are heavily influenced by some of the most sclerotic economies in the world which have had woeful productivity performance over several decades.