As the true scale of the financial crisis became apparent after Lehman’s collapse, the initial policy response across much of the world was textbook, drawing on the lessons from both Japan and the Great Depression. Central banks provided unlimited liquidity, banking sector meltdown was averted, monetary policy was eased aggressively, while fiscal policy was used to shore up demand. A repeat of the massive falls in output seen at the start of the 1930s was thus avoided.
But as time has gone on, the lessons of the 1930s (and Japan) have been increasingly ignored. The policy response to the euro crisis has been to ladle increasing amounts of austerity on struggling countries. The result has been ever-weaker growth, requiring more austerity, but with no return of market confidence. The UK government, meanwhile, citing the threat posed by (mythical) bond vigilantes decided that it could turn economic history on its head and deliver the world’s first growth-boosting fiscal contraction. The result has been an inevitable double-dip recession. Fiscal policy has remained more supportive to growth in both the US and Japan, with growth outcomes commensurately better. But a fiscal cliff looms in the US, while the political debate remains around how to cut the deficit, regardless of the strength of the economy.
Central banks, on the whole, have been more supportive of growth. But in the US, Japan and the UK, they have been reluctant to embrace unconventional policy wholeheartedly. And the ECB, while recently taking commendable steps to ease the euro crisis, has proved leaden-footed in the extreme in terms of supporting growth, raising rates even as the crisis brewed and eschewing QE. Even now its official interest rate is the highest of all the developed world’s major central banks.
But, with the recovery from the crisis proving, as many had predicted, much slower than would typically occur after a normal recession, recent weeks have seen signs that the policy debate is beginning to change.
In terms of monetary policy, the Fed’s QE3 and its new emphasis on targeting unemployment marks a major change in focus, away from inflation and on to output. And in the UK, one of the leading contenders to take over as BoE Governor next year, Adair Turner, on the 11th of October raised the prospect of unconventional monetary policy having to go significantly further than it has to-date, with the BoE effectively writing off at least some of the £375bn of Gilts it has purchased under QE. Doing this would effectively turn QE into direct deficit financing and ease the government’s fiscal constraint (imagined or otherwise). The thinking is that would make QE more powerful, especially if the government were to react by relaxing its austerity drive.
In terms of fiscal policy, meanwhile, the past week saw the IMF publish evidence that deficit reduction at present may be having a much larger impact on growth than it previously thought. Given this, it argued that governments should adopt a more pragmatic and medium-term approach to fiscal consolidation, taking greater account of the growth implications of their actions at a time when the private sector in the developed economies remains in retreat. And even the German government, faced with a sharp economic slowdown, is reportedly mulling an easing of fiscal policy via tax cuts in an attempt to boost growth.
But while the debate may be changing, there seems little prospect that policy itself will change dramatically, in the near term at least. The IMF’s call to lay off countries that are missing their deficit targets due to weaker-than-expected growth received short shrift from the German Finance Minister. There is no sign that the policy prescription of ever-greater austerity for the periphery is going to change. The UK government, meanwhile, continues to ignore all of the evidence that tightening fiscal policy while the household sector is simultaneously deleveraging is both crushing the economy and making the underlying fiscal position worse. It looks set to announce further cuts in spending in December. And although Adair Turner may rightly be coming to the conclusion that increasingly unconventional fiscal policy is required, he is currently an outside bet to replace Mervyn King, while even if he was appointed Governor he would have to get any such policy past the nine-person MPC, a committee that has so far proved fairly unimaginative in its implementation of unconventional policy. In Japan, on current plans, a planned increase in the consumption tax is only a year and a half away, while a far more aggressive BoJ policy response is highly unlikely to come before Governor Shirakawa steps down next spring. In the US, finally, while we can expect an announcement of more Treasury purchases from the Fed come the New Year, a more dramatic change in policy tack appears unlikely in the near term. And if the fiscal cliff is reached without agreement, then the US economy is going to suffer a budgetary contraction on a par with the euro periphery – with all of the deep recessionary consequences that would entail.
So, with no major changes in policy on the cards, growth looks set to remain mediocre or worse across the major developed economies, with the downside risks dominant. But the longer that growth remains lacklustre, the greater the evidence will be that austerity is simply crushing economic activity, with potentially disastrous implications for long-term fiscal sustainability. And the stronger will be the case for new approaches to policy. The past weeks have given us a taste of what those initiatives may be – a moderation of fiscal tightening and perhaps also much greater coordination of fiscal and monetary policies. But, for now, with many politicians continuing to ignore economic theory and evidence and pressing ahead with premature fiscal tightening, the global economy looks set for many more quarters of below-par growth. The big danger is that policymakers see the light too late, by which time the long-term damage to their economies in terms of destroyed potential output will be irreversible.
Most teachers of economics at some point have to address the existential question from students: Is more output always good? Nicholas Oulton does has a nice punchy essay called "Hooray for GDP!", written as an "Occasional paper" for the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Oulton summarizes the main arguments against focusing on GDP in this way:
- GDP is hopelessly flawed as a measure of welfare. It ignores leisure and women’s work in the home. It takes no account of pollution and carbon emissions.
- GDP ignores distribution. In the richest country in the world, the United States, the typical person or family has seen little or no benefit from economic growth since the 1970s. But over the same period inequality has risen sharply.
- Happiness should be the grand aim of policy. But the evidence is that, above a certain level, a higher material standard of living does not make people any happier. ...
- Even if higher GDP were a good idea on other grounds, it’s not feasible because the environmental damage would be too great.
Oulton then addresses each question, not attempting any kind of exhaustive review, but by providing a selective sampling of the arguments and evidence. Here are some of his answers, mixed with my own.
Yes, GDP leaves out a lot that matters, and a lot that should matter. There's no surprise in this: Every intro econ textbook for decades has taught this point. My favorite quotation on this point from a 1968 speech by Robert Kennedy.
Oulton makes the useful distinction that GDP is a measure of output that is not and was never intended to be a measure of welfare, but that per capita GDP is clearly a component of welfare--that is, when one makes a list of all the factors that benefit people, a higher level of consumption of a wide range of goods and services is an item on that list. In addition, per capita GDP is a broader indicator of welfare because looking around the world, GDP is clearly broadly correlated with health, education, democracy, and the rule of law.
For thinking about social welfare, it is often useful to look at statistics other than GDP. For example, here's one of my earlier posts about economists attempting to estimate "Household Production: Levels and Trends."
My own favorite comment on this point is from a 1986 essay by Robert Solow ("James Meade at Eighty," Economic Journal, December 1986, 986-988), where he wrote: "If you have to be obsessed by something, maximizing real National Income is not a bad choice." At least to me, the clear implication is that it's perhaps better not to be obsessed by one number, and instead to cultivate a broader and multidimensional perspective. But yes, if you need to pick one number, real per capita GDP isn't a bad choice. To put it another way, a high or rising GDP certainly doesn't assure a high level of social welfare, but it makes it easier to accomplish those goals than a low and falling GDP.
Yes, it does. Again, GDP is a measure of output, not of everything that can and should matter in thinking about society. I've often noted on this website that inequality of wages and household incomes has been rising in recent decades, and that I believe this trend is a genuine problem.
But even though high and rising inequality is (I believe) a problem, that doesn't mean that high or rising GDP is the cause of the problem It's not at all clear that being in an economy with a higher level of GDP leads to more inequality. From a global perspective, many economies with the greatest level of inequality are in Latin America or in Africa. Many high-income countries in western Europe have much greater equality of incomes than the U.S. economy. Periods of rapid economic growth in the U.S. economy--say, back in much of the 1950s and the 1960s--were not associated with rising inequality.
Oulton writes: "Inequality concerns are real but there is still a case in my view for separating questions of growth from questions of distribution." In my own mind, this analytical distinction started in earnest (although I'm sure there were predecessors) with John Stuart Mill's classic 1848 text, Principles of Political Economy, where the first major section of the book is about "Production" and the second major section is about "Distribution." In Mill's "Autobiography," he writes that he came to appreciate this distinction, and indeed to view it as one of the central distinguishing features of his book, as a result of discussions with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. Mill wrote:
"The purely scientific part of the Political Economy I did not learn from her; but it was chiefly her influence that gave to the book that general tone by which it is distinguished from all previous expositions of political economy that had any pretension to being scientific.... This tone consisted chiefly in making the proper distinction between the laws of the Production of wealth—which are real laws of nature, dependent on the properties of objects—and the modes of its Distribution, which, subject to certain conditions, depend on human will."
The question here, of course, is how "happiness" is judged. It's true that on surveys which ask people to rank how happy they are on a scale from 1-10, the happiness level of people in high-income countries isn't much higher than a few decades ago. There is an ongoing argument over how to interpret these results. Is happiness really "positional"--that is, I judge my happiness relative to others at the same time, and so if everyone has more consumption, happiness doesn't rise? Are these kinds of survey results an artefact of the survey itself: that is, someone who answers that they are "7" on the happiness scale in 2010 isn't saying that they would also be a "7" on the happiness scale if they had a 1970 level of income. Here's a post from last May on the connections from economic growth to survey questions about happiness, with some emphasis on how it applies in China.
My sense is that most people actually get a lot of happiness from the goods and services of a modern economy, and they would not be equally happy if those goods and services were unavailable. Oulton makes an interesting argument here that there is a battle between process innovation and product innovation. If both process innovation and product innovation rise together, then people have higher productivity and incomes, and happily spend those incomes on the new products that are available. If process innovation rises quickly, but product innovation does not, then people would have higher productivity and incomes, but nothing extra to spend them on--and thus might opt for much more leisure. Oulton has a nice thought experiment here:
"Imagine that over the 220 or so years since the Industrial Revolution began in Britain process innovation has taken place at the historically observed rate but that there has been no product innovation in consumer goods (though I allow product innovation in capital goods). UK GDP per capita has risen by a factor of about 12 since 1800. So people today would have potentially vastly higher incomes than they did then. But they can only spend these incomes on the consumer goods and services that were available in 1800. In those days most consumer expenditure was on food (at least 60% of the typical family budget), heat (wood or coal), lighting (candles) and clothing (mostly made from wool or leather). Luxuries like horse-drawn carriages were available to the rich and would now in this imaginary world be available to everyone. But there would be no cars, refrigerators, washing machines or dishwashers, no radio, cinema, TV or Internet, no rail or air travel, and no modern health care (e.g. no antibiotics or antiseptics). How many hours a week, how many weeks a year and how many years out of the expected lifetime would the average person be willing to work? My guess is that in this imaginary world people would work a lot less and take a lot more leisure than do real people today. After all, most consumer expenditure nowadays goes on products which were not available in 1800 and a lot on products not invented even by 1950."
Of course, over the last century or so workweeks have gotten considerably shorter, and in that sense, people have chosen to take some of the rewards of process innovation in the form of more leisure. But most people prefer to follow a path where they can earn sufficient income to enjoy the results of product innovation. As I like to point out, the modern economy offers a fair amount of freedom in terms of work choices. Throughout their lives, people often have a choice about whether they will choose to follow a job path that is less demanding in time and energy, but also provides lower income. Some people seek out such choices, but most do not.
Oulton quotes from a 2012 Royal Society report that is concerned about overpopulation and a sustainable environment. He writes: "In its preferred scenario GDP per capita is equalised across the world at $20,000 in 2005 PPP terms by 2050 (Report, page 81). The UK’s GDP per capita in 2005 was $31,580 in 2005 PPPs so this would imply a 37% cut. When they think about economic growth natural scientists tend to think about biological processes, say the growth of bacteria in a Petri dish. Seed the dish with a few bacteria and what follows looks like exponential growth for a while. But eventually as the bacteria cover most of the dish growth slows down. When the dish is completely covered growth stops. End of story."
Of course, the world economy isn't a petri dish, and people aren't bacteria. Economist have been drawing up models of economic growth with fixed amounts of land or minerals, or where economic activities emit pollution, for some decades now. Oulton summarizes the basic lesson: "These models all have in common the result that perpetual exponential growth is possible provided that technical progress is sufficiently rapid."
In other words, it's certainly possible to draw up a disaster scenario where resource or environmental limitations lead to grief at a global level. It's also possible that with a combination of investments in technology and human capital, economic growth can at least for a considerable time overcome such limitations. For an example of analysis along these lines, the United Nations has put out the first of what is intended to be a series of reports on how changes in different types of capital can offset each other (or not), which I posted about in "Sustainability and the Inclusive Wealth of Nations."
As Oulton notes, the practical question here is not whether resource and environment limits must eventually bind at some distant point in the future, "but only whether it makes sense to advocate growth over the next 5, 10, 25, 50 or 100 years."
In the U.S. economy, 15% of the population is below what we call the "poverty line," and their life prospects are diminished as a result. About 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than $2/day.
I do not see a practical way of raising the standard of living for these people, or for their children, unless rising GDP plays a central role.
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