Hurricane Harvey: Good News for Jobs; Bad News for Wealth

SOURCES

Harvey to be costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with an estimated cost of $160 billion

USAToday Headline, August 30, 2017.

COMMENTS

The massive destruction of property caused by hurricane Harvey will certainly increase demand for goods and services – for building materials, machinery, and appliances for countless construction projects; for health care services and disaster related government services; and for countless personal items that have been lost.  Even though the disruption of Gulf Coast businesses and industries has idled workers in that area, the longer term impact on job growth will be large and positive.  The U.S. might finally see wage growth and more people coming back into the labor force.

Yet, there is a catch.  Massive destruction like we have seen with hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey reduces the total wealth in the U.S.  On average, the quality of life in the U.S. declines.  That means that most if not all of the added jobs will only only contribute to replacing lost wealth, not adding to the total stock of wealth.  (It is also worth adding that many of the goods that go into restoring the lost wealth will be imported, so some disaster induced job growth will be exported to low wage parts of the world.)

The bigger point is that we have to see Harvey’s impact on job growth as part of an epochal change in  job growth for the U.S. and for the world economy.  Three forces are coming together to accelerate the destruction of existing wealth in the world economy: climate change, which is producing more extreme weather events and putting negative pressures on the world’s agricultural industries; increasing civil strife and wars, which are destroying massive amounts of existing wealth in some places and forcing up the costs of protecting existing wealth everywhere on the planet; and the aging of the massive amount of wealth items produced and put in place over the course of the 20th century, which is accelerating the rates at which those items of existing wealth must be repaired and replaced.  These forces are transforming global employment.

In these historical circumstances, there will be plenty of jobs for the world’s people, but they will all be devoted to protecting existing wealth (military and policing forces, home security services, property insurance services, etc.) and to replacing wealth that is being lost.  Plenty of jobs, but a very big social justice question is emerging in this era of no net wealth growth: how do we fairly allocate jobs and income when trickle down wealth growth has come to an end?

A Return to Full Employment With Mixed Signals: This Time is Different for the World of Employment

SOURCE ITEMS

Chart-Employed Full Time Trend

St. Louis Federal Reserve, Accessed December 13, 2015.

—————

The Netherlands seems to be undergoing a sort of industrial revolution in reverse, with jobs moving from factories to homes. The Dutch labor market has the highest concentration of part-time and freelance workers in Europe, with nearly 50% of all Dutch workers, and 62% of young workers, engaged in part-time employment – a luxury afforded to them by the country’s relatively high hourly wages.

Sami Mahroum and Elif Bascavusoglu-Moreau, Is Jobless Growth Inevitable? Project Syndicate, March 25, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

 —————

Inequality, exclusion, and duality became more marked in countries where skills were poorly distributed and many services approximated the textbook “ideal” of spot markets. The United States, where many workers are forced to hold multiple jobs in order to make an adequate living, remains the canonical example of this model.

Dani Rodrik, The Evolution of Work, Project Syndicate, December 9, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

—————

Forced labor permeates supply chains that stretch across the globe, from remote farms in Africa and the seas off Southeast Asia to supermarkets in America and Europe. Almost 21 million people are enslaved for profit worldwide, the UN says, providing $150 billion in illicit revenue every year.

Erik Larson, These Lawyers Want Slave Labor Warnings on Your Cat Food, Bloomberg, December 10, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

—————

Over all, the Labor Department data painted a picture of an economy that is growing steadily and creating jobs at a healthy pace, even as wage gains remain subdued and many Americans are still stuck on the sidelines of the recovery.

Nelson D. Schwartz, Robust Jobs Report All but Guarantees Fed Will Raise Rates, New York Times, December 4, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

—————

In reality, the 35-hour workweek has become mostly symbolic, because a multitude of loopholes allow companies to work around the law. French employees work an average of 40.5 hours a week — more than the 40-hour average in the European Union — and have high productivity.

Liz Alderman, Smart Car Standoff Pits Social Progress Against Global Competition, New York Times, December 12, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

COMMENTS

A question emerged after 2008 that unsettled the field of economics and is still unanswered: is this time different? Was the financial crisis of 2008 an economic crisis of a unique kind in the history of capitalism; or was it just a very severe version of a routine kind of economic crisis?

This phrase gained currency from the publication of the book, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Carmen Reinhart Kenneth Rogoff.[1] They argue that the financial crisis of 2008 is not different. But others disagree.

In a 2012 article, Lawrence King et al make the argument that this time is different because it is the result of a level of financial liberalization and a degree of free market economics that did not exist before the 1970s.[2]

A few of our world’s best and brightest economists expressed their uncertainty and sense that this time is different in this way:

“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. … we knew that we had entered a brave new world…”[3]

Different Seems More Likely Than the Same

After 2008 optimism about a return to robust economic growth has been the rule. But actual economic growth has not rewarded that optimism. A few economists have been trying to explain this poor record.

Robert J. Gordon, professor of economics at Northwestern University, recently asserted that “It is time to raise basic questions about the process of economic growth, especially the assumption – nearly universal since Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s (Solow 1956) – that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever.” He went on to propose that U.S. economic growth may grind to a halt because the kinds of technological innovations that drove rapid U.S. economic growth are not on the horizon.[4]

Professor Gordon was speaking only about the U.S., but the logic would apply to all of the world’s affluent nations.  Moreover, the World Bank and other global institutions have repeatedly warned of below par levels of global economic growth, in some cases for years to come.

Weighing anecdotal evidence, some discernible trends, and expert opinion, it seems reasonable to conclude that this time is different for economic growth.

That means this time is almost certainly different for the world of employment.

A Different World of Employment

In mainstream theories of economic development, the future of work is directly tied to the future of economic growth. Economic growth is the engine that pushes us toward the ever expanding prosperity goals that make for widespread affluence: high profits, high wages, and full employment. When economic growth slows down something has to give in the world of employment.  We are trapped in a long period of slow economic growth, so the employment trends of the past cannot continue.

We can be fairly certain that workers in the U.S. and other affluent nations will not experience the kind of return to full employment with high wage conditions we have known in the past. In the context of global competition and slow economic growth,  the world’s economic and political leaders are pressing hard to cap and reduce wage bills at all levels of employment. We have entered into an era of global degradation of employment.

In affluent nations they  are forcing working people to choose between fewer jobs and fewer hours at higher compensation levels or more jobs and more hours with lower wages and less valuable benefits.  In the rest of the world, where such a choice has seldom existed in any meaningful sense,  global competition and slow economic growth mean an end to the dream of jobs that will deliver better lives.  Everywhere, employment rights and workplace protections are falling away.

What we don’t know quite yet is how the ongoing degradation of the world of employment will play out in national and global politics. At the moment it appears that the world’s political and economic leaders have chosen to promote a free-for-all battle struggle among working people by defining rights to crumbs from the capitalist table using the old reactionary lines of difference – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and nation. And, at the moment, too many workers in affluent nations are falling into this trap, as shown by the rise of Trumpism in the U.S., the growth of reactionary movements across Europe, and the destruction of governing institutions that embody common interests, and the rise of militaristic movements intent on redrawing national boundaries.

Intentionally engendering antagonisms can’t solve the fundamental problems for global economic growth, so the right wing policies can have only one ultimate outcome – a global catastrophe in multiple forms. Hopefully, this  will become clear to the world’s working people well before such a catastrophe becomes unavoidable.

———————-

[1] Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press, 2009.

[2] Lawrence King, Michael Kitson, Sue Konzelmann and Frank Wilkinson Making the same mistake again—or is this time different? Cambridge Journal of Economics 2012, 36, 1–15 doi:10.1093/cje/ber045.

[3] 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.

[4] Robert J. Gordon, Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds, VOX, September 11, 2012. http://www.voxeu.org/article/us-economic-growth-over.

1st Quarter 2014 Economic Decline: Not Unique and Not Due to Idiosyncratic Factors

SOURCE ITEMS

Gross domestic product fell at a 2.9 percent annualized rate, more than forecast and the worst reading since the same three months in 2009, after a previously reported 1 percent drop, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. It marked the biggest downward revision from the agency’s second GDP estimate since records began in 1976.

Jeanna Smialek, U.S. Economy Shrank in First Quarter by Most in Five Years, Bloombert.com, June 25, 2014.

—————

A combination of shrinking business inventories, terrible winter weather and a surprise contraction in health care spending drove the first-quarter decline, which is the worst since the first quarter of 2009, when the economy shrank at a 5.4 percent rate.

But the economy was hit by an unlikely combination of negative forces that conspired to turn what seemed set to be another quarter of so-so growth into a considerably more gloomy experience.

 Neil Irwin, Economy in First Quarter Was Worse Than Everybody Thought, New York Times, June 25, 2014.

—————

That’s one of the findings in a report published today called “Risky Business,” commissioned by some of America’s top business leaders to put price tags on climate threats. For example, by the end of the century, between $238 billion and $507 billion of existing coastal property in the U.S. will likely be subsumed by rising seas, and crop yields in some breadbasket states may decline as much 70 percent.

Tom Randall, Climate Forecast: A Heat More Deadly Than the U.S. Has Ever Seen, Bloomberg.com, June 24, 2014.

COMMENTS

Economists and other experts continue to describe economic bad news as temporary and to predict a return to “normal”. This is wishful thinking. The world we once knew is now on its head: frequent encounters with combinations of economic growth stopping events is the new normal.

  • Extreme weather is not temporary: we are well into a new weather world that is changing everything about what can be expected for growth in the world economy.
  • Reduced health care spending is not a surprise: any way you cut it, in the U.S. a huge part of health spending is funded by the federal government; cut federal spending and you cut health care spending.
  • Declining consumer spending is not temporary: consumer incomes have been stagnant or falling for decades, the labor force participation rate has been falling for decades, and neither trends in union membership nor trends in government wage protection and employment policies suggest that wages will rise and labor force participation will rise.
  • Geopolitical upheavals like the current insurgency in Iraq are here to stay: rising income and wealth inequalities have produced a world filled with hundreds of millions of people who are big losers; they are all looking for ways to reverse their fortunes.

 

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.

Things Come Undone: One Reason Global Economic Troubles Are Becoming Chronic

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

We humans devise all sorts of methods for obstructing or “damming” the second law [of thermodynamics] for considerable periods of time. A mundane example: We paint iron to prevent it from rusting.

Frank L. Lambert (Professor Emeritus, Chemistry), Entropy Is Simple — If We Avoid The Briar Patches!, Occidental College website, February 2008.

__________

Our scenario shows that over the coming twenty years the world evolves from being mostly poor to mostly middle class. 2022 marks the first year more people in the world are middle class than poor. By 2030, 5 billion people – nearly two thirds of global population – could be middle class.

Homi Kharas and Geoffrey Gertz, The New Global Middle Class: A Cross-Over from West to East, Wolfensohn Center for Development, Brookings Institution, 2010.

COMMENTS

When we add a new person to the world we create a need to increase the amounts of energy and materials devoted to the production of food, clothing, shelter and other necessities that keep people alive.  We know this almost intuitively.

We are less aware of the fact that every time we add a new item of wealth (social or material) to the world we also create a need to increase the amounts of energy and materials devoted to maintaining our stock of wealth and to replacing items of wealth when they wear out or break.  We know that our cars malfunction and wear out, weeds grow in our gardens, our toys break, and alienated youth vandalize our buildings, but we tend to see these processes and events as personal or local losses, not as losses to our global stock of wealth.

Essentially, the world’s stock of wealth is an enormous and ongoing confrontation with natural forces that work to undo the things that we have done.  The more wealth the world’s people create, the larger and more costly that confrontation becomes.

This means that growing the world’s middle class (a class associated with enormous amounts of personal and social wealth) comes at the cost of devoting more and more of the world’s available energy and resources to repairing and replacing existing items of wealth.  The rates at which energy and materials are produced must continuously increase in order to produce enough to both maintain the existing level of wealth and add new wealth.

The world is finite.  At some point the rates at which energy and materials must be extracted from natural systems just to repair and replace existing items of wealth bump up against the natural and institutional limits to those rates of extraction.  Economic growth (net increases in global wealth) slows and then stops.

The global economic troubles that began with the 2008 financial crisis seem to have become chronic.  Most economists argue that the world economy continues to be troubled because the world’s governments are not pursuing the correct policies.  A few, though, admit to being perplexed by the persistence of the world’s economic troubles.

Perhaps the heart of the problem is that the world is already bumping up against limits.  Perhaps economic policies no longer work as well as they once did because the policy goal (economic growth) is becoming less and less attainable.

And if economic growth is becoming less attainable, so too is the job growth associated with economic growth.