Paradigm Premises and Insights into Stagnating Global Economic Growth

SOURCE ITEMS

Why does political instability afflict Europe and the United States? The answer is that just as the great transformation of the world economy between 1850 and 1890 generated political instability, so too does the globalization of the present era. In addition, the second great transformation of the world economy is larger than the first, and thus, not surprisingly, generates greater churn. … Those countries able to keep unemployment and inequality within bounds will be more stable. The greater the levels of inequality and unemployment, the greater the political instability and the smaller the chance of achieving stable economic growth.

David W. Brady, Globalization and Political Instability, The American Interest, March 8 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016.

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Political instability reduces the likelihood of defining and implementing a reasonably comprehensive, coherent, and sustained economic-policy agenda. The resulting persistence of low growth, high unemployment, and rising inequality fuels continued political instability and fragmentation, which further undermines officials’ capacity to implement effective economic policies.

Michael Spence and David Brady, Economics in a Time of Political Instability, Project Syndicate, March 23, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2016.

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We tend to focus on the problem of the moment — the subprime crisis, the euro crisis, the China slowdown, the oil bust. But surely these events are connected. What threads link them? I’ve been collecting possible story lines for a while now. … Put these all together, and what do you get? A Great Muddle, perhaps. Some stories overlap. At least two of them contradict each other. They don’t all add up to any kind of consistent narrative.

Justin Fox, Eight Story Lines Explain the Global Economic Crisis, BloombergView, March 10, 2016, Accessed March 24, 2016.

COMMENTS

Statements about what can be done and should be done in a particular arena of human activity rest on foundation premises about how that part of our world works. These premises establish a paradigm for gathering and interpreting data about the world. They pull certain things into view and push other things out of view.

Professor Brady says we are in an era of transformation in the world economy.   Everyone knows that things are changing rapidly and in big ways and Brady is far from alone in concluding that a transformation is underway. This is an important development because the term transformation connotes change that reaches past surface phenomena, change that runs deep into the machinery of a system.

Such deep-running change often exposes weaknesses in a paradigm that worked well in the past. This is the case for theories of economic growth.

The field of economics is in turmoil because of the unpredicted crisis of 2008 and the persisting economic growth stagnation. In the search for answers, the paradigmatic premise that humans act rationally is now widely questioned. But, other premises should be getting more attention.

One premise worth questioning is that systemic continuity is a given. This premise is embraced across the fields of economics and politics. It is reflected in two assertions that are widely made and widely accepted.

The first is that this time is really not different. Although a few economists have argued that the financial crisis of 2008 is unusual, the dominant view is that it is not fundamentally different from numerous other financial crises in the history of capitalism. Brady affirms this view by comparing the transformation of the world economy in our time to the transformation in the 19th century. He sees it as more destabilizing, but not fundamentally different. After the transformation has played itself out, life can return to what we call normal.

The second assertion is that government policy interventions can restore world economic growth. In the past, economic growth has stagnated and stalled, but in every case it was sooner or later restored. Now is no different. By adopting the appropriate economic policies, governments can restore economic growth to levels that restore full employment and steadily increase human wealth and well-being.

The concepts of transformation and systemic continuity do not sit together well. This is a telling juxtaposition to which economists should be giving more attention. Perhaps as I have been arguing in this blog, it isn’t bad policies that are limiting global economic growth; perhaps it is existential limits to economic growth that make all policy interventions fall short.

Perhaps economists, including Brady himself, should set aside the premise of continuity and explore all the implications of applying the concept of transformation to our current circumstances.

Supply Chains, Productivity, and Economic Growth: The Global Context for Understanding U.S. Employment Growth

SOURCE ITEMS

Canada’s gross domestic product contracted for a second quarter in the three months through June, a Sept. 1 report will show, according to almost all economists in a Bloomberg survey. The economy probably shrank by 1 percent, even worse than the 0.6 percent first-quarter drop.

“When Canada hurts, U.S. exporters do, too,” Bricklin Dwyer, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York, wrote in an Aug. 27 note to clients titled “Canada (not China) matters more.”

Jeanna Smialek, Uh-oh, Canada. China Pales as a Risk to U.S. Growth, BloombergBusiness, August 28, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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Moody’s Investors Service has revised downward its forecast for GDP growth in the G20 economies to 2.8% next year, from 3.1%. Moody’s says that the revision mainly reflects the impact of a more marked slowdown now forecast in China and more prolonged negative effects of low commodity prices on G20 producers than earlier expected.

Moody’s has slightly revised downwards its GDP growth forecast for China in 2016 to 6.3%, from 6.5% previously. Recently published economic indicators show that China’s slowdown in exports and investment has continued into Q3 2015. In addition, signs that employment growth is weakening point to a more marked and broadly-based deceleration in the Chinese economy than previously expected.

Moody’s revises forecast for G20 economies’ growth downwards to 2.8% in 2016, Press Release, Moody’s Investors Service, August 28, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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International production fragmentation, in which manufacturing or services activities done at home are combined with those performed abroad, has now taken centre stage. This represents a major point of departure from the so-called “Fordist” production system – exemplified by the American automobile industry – where all economic activity was organised within a single firm located on one site or in close proximity (Feenstra 1998).

Increasingly, firms across advanced and developing countries add value along these global supply chains by completing a specific task associated with the production of a finished product and then exporting it. This may be an important part or component required in the production of a good. It may even be a service that is a vital intermediate input in further production.

Albert Park, Gaurav Nayyar and Patrick Low, Supply Chain Perspectives and Issues: A Literature Review, Part I, World Trade Organization, 2013. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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I prefer to date the slowdown in productivity growth from the end of 2010 because productivity growth (in the nonfarm business sector) averaged a bountiful 2.6% per annum from mid-1995 through the end of 2010, but only a paltry 0.4% since. Other scholars prefer earlier break points. For example, productivity growth averaged 2.9% from mid-1995 through the end of 2005, but only 1.3% since.

Either way, the drop is large, and the scary thing is that we don’t understand why.

Alan S. Blinder, The Mystery of Declining Productivity Growth, The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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In advanced economies, where plenty of sectors have both the money and the will to invest in automation, growth in productivity (measured by value added per employee or hours worked) has been low for at least 15 years. And, in the years since the 2008 global financial crisis, these countries’ overall economic growth has been meager, too – just 4% or less on average.

Hence the question on the minds of politicians and economists alike: Is the productivity slowdown a permanent condition and constraint on growth, or is it a transitional phenomenon?

Michael Spence, Automation, Productivity, and Growth, Project Syndicate, August 26, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2015.

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This paper offers an integrated analysis of outsourcing, offshoring, and foreign direct investment within a systems view of international business. This view takes the supply chain rather than the firm as the basic unit of analysis. It argues that competition in the global economy selects supply chains that maximise the joint profit of all the firms in the chain. The systems view is compared with the firm-centred view commonly used in strategy literature. The paper shows that a firm’s strategy must be embedded within an efficient supply-chain strategy, and that this strategy must be negotiated with, rather than imposed upon, other firms.

From the Abstract, Mark Casson & Nigel Wadeson, The Economic Theory of International Supply Chains: A Systems View, International Journal of the Economics of Business, Volume 20, Issue 2, 2013. Accessed August 27, 2015.

COMMENTS

Most economists explain a slowdown in a nation’s economic growth in terms of stagnant productivity growth. Yet it is seriously questionable whether such a thing as the productivity of a nation is a meaningful statistic at this late date in the development of the world economy.

Global supply chains now distribute production processes across multiple nations. Even the local bakery is, even if unwittingly, often part of supply chains that transcends national borders. The development of the global supply chain system has reached such a level of maturity that some researchers argue that the supply chain, not the individual firm, is the key competitive unit in the world economy.

The implications for measuring productivity seem obvious. If the competitive unit is a supply chain, then it is the productivity of a supply chain as a whole that is relevant to economic growth. If supply chains cross national boundaries, then measuring the productivity of only the part that is within a national boundary will obscure the positive or negative impact on total supply chain productivity of the “foreign” firms in the supply chain. The competitive position of the supply chain will not be correctly understood.

In the aggregate, measuring the productivity of a nation’s firms rather than the productivity of the supply chains in which the nation’s firms operate will lead economists and policy makers to misunderstand their nation’s prospects for economic growth. That, in turn, will lead to misguided expectations about employment and wage growth.

Debt Got Us Here; More Debt Will Keep Us Here

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

The Federal Reserve opened a new chapter Thursday in its efforts to stimulate the economy, saying that it intends to buy large quantities of mortgage bonds, and potentially other assets, until the job market improves substantially.

Binyamin Appelbaum, Fed Ties New Aid to Jobs Recovery in Forceful Move, New York Times, September 13, 2012.

 COMMENTS

The likely outcome of the Federal Reserve’s new round of bond buying is another round of investment bubbles, another financial crisis, and another round of concentrating the world’s wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

The underlying problems are 1) income growth for the majority of the world’s people and 2) downward pressure on global GDP growth from limits to the earth’s carrying capacity.

The tradeoff between job growth (which is dependent on rapid GDP growth) and high rates of inflation is a problem tied directly to the finite carrying capacity of the earth.  We started hitting those limits in the 20th century.

Debt growth in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s worked fairly well as a way to sidestep stagnant income growth for the majority of the world’s middle class people, but it no longer works because of the carrying capacity problem.  As the world economy is currently structured, a jump in global demand from debt growth or from a radical redistribution of wealth sufficient to push job growth to acceptable levels would push prices toward the stratosphere.

The solution to the world’s employment problems is not more debt and it is not classical redistribution of wealth, its a global economic transformation that ends the tradeoff between employment and inflation.

The Global Policy Crisis Keeps Growing Because We’ve Never Seen This Kind of World Economic Crisis

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry. … One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. … Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. … The first is how nation-states fit into a globalized world economy.

Chrystia Freeland, The three questions of global importance, Reuters, June 21, 2012.

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In an era of globalization, there are no innocent bystanders. There are certainly no oases of prosperity in the face of yet another major shock in the global economy. America’s growth mirage is an important case in point.

Stephen S. Roach, The Great American Mirage, Project Syndicate,  June 27, 2012.

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The possible conclusions are stark. One possibility is that those investing in financial markets expect economic policy to be so dysfunctional that the global economy will remain more or less in its current depressed state for perhaps a decade, or more. The only other explanation is that even now, more than three years after the US financial crisis erupted, financial markets’ ability to price relative risks and returns sensibly has been broken at a deep level, leaving them incapable of doing their job …

J. Bradford DeLong, The Perils of Prophecy, Project Syndicate, June 27, 2012.

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If we are to thrive as a global community of almost 10 billion – the projected population by 2050 – these new models are not optional, they are an absolute necessity.

From the Introduction, Outlook on the Global Agenda 2012, World Economic Forum.

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As a world economic crisis developed in 2008 and lasted longer than most economists predicted, it became increasingly clear that beliefs about macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy needed to be thoroughly examined. … By the end of this fascinating conference, we knew that we had entered a brave new world and that the crisis is generating enough questions to fill our research agendas for years to come.

From the Preface: Olivier J. Blanchard, David Romer, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz, In the Wake of the Crisis: Leading Economists Reassess Economic Policy, MIT Press, 2012.

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We are living in very unusual times,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief executive of Pimco, the world’s largest bond manager. “History may not be as reliable a guide as it’s been in the past.”

Jeff Sommer, Flights to Safety Can’t Hide the Dangers, New York Times, May 12, 2012.

COMMENTS

A significant number of economists and policy experts have wondered whether this global economic crisis is different – for two reasons: very few experts saw such a severe crisis coming and, even after absorbing that surprise, very few expected the crisis to be so resistant to policy interventions and to persist for so long.

The crisis is different this time – because it is embedded in a confluence of historical developments that the world has never seen before.  It involves the following developments:

  • Global climate change is damaging agricultural, tourism, fishing, and other weather sensitive industries, forcing producers to invest in very costly efforts to move and/or modify productive activities
  • The scale and scope of global production is running up against absolute resource limits, substantially curtailing practices that once were common and allowed market based productive activities to increase at low cost:
    • discovering easy to extract oil, natural gas, and mineral  deposits
    • opening up frontiers (territories not organized under western models of political authority) to invading waves of farmers, miners, loggers, entrepreneurs, and investors
    • adapting to dwindling fish stocks by fishing farther from shore and deeper
    • finding and harvesting virgin forests
    • abandoning aging and polluted cities, rivers and lakes (increasingly costly to maintain) to build newer cities in regions where rivers and lakes are untarnished
  • The centuries long era of incorporating the world’s territories and peoples into the western system of nation-states and coercing and bribing the world’s peasants, tribal peoples, and unpaid family and community workers into labor and consumer markets has come to an end; this has all but eliminated one of the primary ways in which the growth of demand for goods and services generally kept pace with the growth of productive capacity
  • The global spread of advances in productive technology, which entails the substitution of machine energy for human energy and machine thinking for human thinking, is slowing the growth of demand for goods and services by reducing opportunities to gain income through work.

This confluence emerged in recent decades and has permanently damaged the capacity of the world economy to generate the large pulses of consumer demand that historically called forth the productive investment responses that produced pulses of demand for labor.  The pulses of demand for labor increased wages and moved families from the ranks of the poor into the ranks of the middle class.  Over the longer term, more wealth was also pumped into the hands of the people at the top, preparing those people to respond to the next pulse of consumer demand.

Today, there is no mechanism for generating that heartbeat of economic growth.  The confluence of forces has damaged both phases of the cycle.

On the demand side, the first response to the confluence was a massive increase in global debt levels.  Debt growth sustained the growth of demand.  However, debt growth had to come to an end.

Today, with global debt levels very high and with global corporations wielding enormous political power in the world economy, it is not politically feasible to generate a Keynesian pulse of global consumer demand (either by massively expanding global debt levels or by  redistributing a large amount of wealth from the affluent to the have-nots).  But, even if the world economy’s leaders did find a way to generate a large pulse of consumer demand, it would largely fail to restart world economic growth.

On the supply side, the productive investment responses to a large pulse of consumer demand can no longer produce the employment and income gains that they produced in the past.  The ratio of machine energy to human energy in the world economy is so high now that demand for labor would not increase sufficiently to drive up global wage levels to the degree that was the case in the past.  Moreover, and more importantly for the long run, increasing the production of goods and services in the context of a world of resource limits that are becoming more difficult to overcome will drive up consumer prices. Whatever wage gains are realized will be offset by a higher cost of living..

From time to time in the history of the capitalist world economy, its magic has faltered and then been restored. This time the magic will sporadically flicker on for a while here and there in the world economy, but it will not be restored.  Something else will happen.