Part of the excellent Al Jazeera documentary series about Russia, which addresses the problems facing many Russians today. The global economic crisis, conflicts with neighbouring countries and the drop in oil prices all played their part in the demise of the Russian people. There is a very good interview with the former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenk who held the position during Yelstin’s reign. He explains very simply how you grow your economy and that there must be money in the banks so that companies can borrow and invest. Buying US Treasury Bills was loaning money to the US and paying for their deficit. Meanwhile the infrastructure and public services declined rapidly causing a lot of anguish amongst the people. You can’t suddenly jump from a socialist system into the free market. Worth a look.
With the departure of the UK from the EU there have been many questions asked about the future of UK trade. No longer having the free access to EU markets both with imports and exports does mean increasing costs for consumer and producer.
New Zealand’s Experience
A similar situation arose in 1973 when the UK joined the then called European Economic Community (EEC). As part of the Commonwealth New Zealand had relied on the UK market for many years but after 1973 50% of New Zealand exports had to find a new destination. However with the impending loss of export revenue New Zealand had to make significant changes to its trade policy. In 1973 the EEC took 25% of New Zealand exports and today takes only 3%. Add to this the oil crisis years of 1973 (400% increase) and 1979 (200% increase) and protectionist policies in other countries and the New Zealand economy was really up against it.
What did New Zealand do?
1. It negotiated a transitional deal in 1971 with agreed quotas for New Zealand butter, cheese and lamb over a five-year period, which helped to ease the shift away from Britain.
2. New Zealand was very active in signing trade deals of which Closer Economic Relations with Australia was the most important in 1983. The other significant free trade deal was with China in 2008. Below is a list of New Zealand’s current free trade deals and a graph showing the changing pattern of New Zealand trade:
With brexit around the corner it will be imperative that the UK starts to develop trade links with non-EU countries of which New Zealand might be one. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in New Zealand and its fifth largest bilateral trading partner.
In 1776 Scottish economist Adam Smith talked of the economy as the invisible hand. Here he emphasized the self-regulating nature of the economy as individuals, firms and companies independently seek to maximize their gain which may produce the best outcome for society as a whole. The capitalist systems seems to rely more on the relentless growth of consumer spending and, although it can lead to dramatic improvements in standard of living, it does require people to become resolutely addicted to products/services and be prepared to get into significant debt.
Today, an economy is a much more intricate machine which aims to allocate scarce resources to satisfy the utility of economic agents such as individuals, firms and government. The dominant model for many years has been “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium” (DSGE) and it takes all the characteristics of an individual (this person is typically called the representative agent) which is then cloned and taken to represent the typical person in an economy.
Therefore it assumes that all individuals and firms have identical needs and wants which they pursue with total self-interest and complete knowledge of what they desire. DSGE also takes into account the impact of shocks like oil prices, technological change, interest rates, taxation etc. However a couple of areas that it doesn’t represent accurately is the financial sector and the instability of markets – booms and slumps. A new task will be to include the banking sector into the models as macroeconomists assumed it to be a screen between savers and borrowers rather than profit orientated organisations prepared to take big risks with increased leverage and sub-prime lending. For example as house prices increase banks are willing to lend more money to speculators who bid up the price above what is the fundamental value. The opposite applies if banks become more risk adverse and marginal buyers are forced out of the market causing prices to drop. By representing the financial sector in an economic model you go some way to help solve the major problem with DSGE and other models in that they are useful only if they are not unsettled by external factors like a banking crisis.
Keynes said “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”. To achieve this there needs to be structural reform in the discipline.
An emerging field called agent-based modelling has grabbed the attention of some economists. This is where large amounts of data is collected from individuals who are unique to each other in they have different motives and actions in the market place. The behaviour of these individuals overlap and interact which generate predictions through a messy process but similar to what happens in real life, unlike DSGE and the clean old-fashioned macroeconomic models. Agent-based modeling has also shown promise in other disciplines like Physics and involve real-world problems. The example used by John Lanchester (New York Times magazine) is how Brazil nuts seem to end up towards the top of the mixed-nut package and nut research has since found real-life applications in industries such as pharmaceuticals and manufacturing.
With a better sense of what is influencing behaviour in the economy, economists might become less blinkered by their own theory, and better able to foresee the next crisis. Meanwhile, they would be wise to repeat (daily) the words: “My model is a model, not the model.”
Macroeconomic models need to be adapted to take account of the events of the last 20 years. For so long typical macro model has been DSGE but as yet no model includes the impact of recessions and the eighty-year depressions. Economics failed to predict or prevent the GFC and this was based on conceptual faults which included a refusal to engage with the role of the banking and finance system in the economy.
Dani Rodrik of Harvard University splits economists into two camps: hedgehogs and foxes.
Hedgehogs take a single idea and apply it to every problem they come across.
Foxes have no grand vision but lots of seemingly contradictory views, as they tailor their conclusions to the situation.
Maybe more fox like behaviour is needed.
Here is a good overview of President Obama’s economic legacy from PBS’s Paul Solman. Did his efforts to turn the country around after the 2008 financial crisis constitute a robust recovery, or too little, too late? Economics correspondent Paul Solman assembled a panel of economic experts to discuss employment across racial groups, the types of jobs created and the obstacles the president faced in enacting his economic agenda. Some of the comments are as follows:
- He saved us from a great depression.
- Over 15 million jobs have been added; 22 million more people have health insurance coverage than they did before.
- If we characterise an economy as being in a catastrophe at unemployment rates greater than 8 percent, the black unemployment rate is still above 8 percent. So, frankly, black Americans are still in a great depression, or great recession at the very least.
- The failure by the Obama administration to focus on economic growth.
- A long-term infrastructure program would have made a great deal of sense, and frankly still does today. But that’s not what the Obama administration proposed. I think we need to have a more holistic structural agenda for lower-income Americans, rather than just treating it as a problem of recession and recovery.
- We needed bolder, stronger, more fundamental, not tinkering, ideas to really structurally change the U.S. economy.
You will no doubt have heard about the battle of ideas – Keynes v Hayek. In the 1930’s this was probably the most famous debate in the history of economics – the battle of ideas -government v markets.
Now there is Chinese version of the debate:
Justin Lin (Keynes) versus Zhang Weiying (Hayek) – both are Professors at Peking University. Lin is on the right of the image below.
Their latest debate is about industrial policy and the concept that the government can set the example of how to run successful industries – in the 1980’s textiles and today renewable energy. Although China’s growth record would seem to justify this some have seen these state run industries produce little innovation. Lin believes that countries that have a comparative advantage should receive help from the government whether it be in the form of tax cuts or improved infrastructure. Furthermore, because resources are limited the government should help in identifying industries which have earning potential. This assistance includes subsidies, tax breaks and financial incentives — aimed at supporting specific industries considered crucial for the nation’s economic growth.
Zhang sees this industrial policy as a failure in that he believes government officials don’t know enough about new technologies. He uses the example in the 1990s, when the Chinese government spent significant money on the television industry only for the cathode ray tubes to become outdated. He is also concerned about industrial inertia with local officials following the central government’s direction which tends to lead to an overcapacity. Zhang, however, credited the free market — not politically motivated government subsidies — with game-changing innovations that benefit society eg. James Watt and the steam engine, George Stephenson’s intercity railway, and Jack Ma’s innovative online marketplaces under Alibaba.
China’s ongoing transition to a market-based economy has relied on labour, capital and resource-intensive industries. But the transition’s negative side effects have included structural imbalances and excess capacity in certain sectors. Moreover, some state-owned enterprises such as telecoms have been challenged by disruptive innovators, such as social networks.
Zhang said industrial policy can foster greed. For example, companies may collude with government officials to win special favours. And policymakers can make mistakes, given that even the most well-informed intellectual cannot always predict market trends. Other economists have contributed to the debate stating that a lot of the most successful companies have not had any government assistance in their early years.
However the debate is sure to continue – what works best ‘Markets or Governments’?
The Economist – 5th November 2016
I posted on this issue last year when Kim Hill (Radio NZ) interviewed Paul Mason – author of Post Capitalism (now out in paperback). Mason makes the point that we are going to live through a long transition from capitalism – the state and the market to post capitalism which is the state, the market and the shared collaborative economy. With technology taking a lot of the jobs in traditional industries in the UK he states that further development in this sector is not the way of creating new jobs. He talks about delinking work from wages by just paying people to actually exist – rather than tax to exist.
Liam Dann (NZ Herald) wrote a piece about Amin Toufani’s presentation at SingualrityU summit in Christchurch where he talked about people in the labour force having to learn, unlearn, and learn again – unlearning should be core competency. However as there maybe many people who will struggle with this concept Toufani believes that a universal basic income (UBI) may need to be adopted – see RSA video below.
Recent events – UBI
- Switzerland held a referendum on a basic income in June this year but it was comprehensively turned down.
- Finland is going to run a U.B.I. experiment in 2018
- Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator firm, is sponsoring a similar test in Oakland USA.
Why has the UBI become such a popular talking point?
- The automation of a lot of jobs has left people very concerned about redundancy.
- The modern economy can’t be expected to provide jobs for everyone
- The UBI is easy to administer and it avoids paternalism of social-welfare programmes that tell people what they can and can’t do with the money they receive from the government.
- Potentially drives up wages and employees will compare their wages with the UBI.
- Easier for people to take risks with their job knowing there is the UBI to fall back on.
- It takes away the incentive to work and lowers GDP
- UBI – not cheap to administer and would likely cost 13% of GDP in the US
- In the Canadian province of Manitoba where the UBI was trialled, working hours for men dropped by just 1%.
- The UBI would make it easier for people to think twice about taking unrewarding jobs which is a good consequence.
- In the developing world direct-cash grant programs are used very effectively – Columbian economist Chris Blattman.
- In New Jersey young people with UBI were more likely to stay in education
If the U.B.I. comes to be seen as a kind of insurance against a radically changing job market, rather than simply as a handout, the politics around it will change. When this happens, it’s easy to imagine a basic income going overnight from completely improbable to totally necessary.
James Surowiecki – New Yorker – 20th June 2016
I came across this interview on PBS News (Making Sense of Financial News) in which Paul Solman interviews economic historian Adam Tooze about the historical context of Trump’s economic policies. Tooze wrote an excellent book about the economics of World War II Germany entitled “The Wages of Destruction” – well worth a read.
He refers to Trump’s policies as nationalism, with a commitment to the redevelopment of American manufacturing and industrial jobs. He cites the following historical events which Trump has seized ownership of.
- 1933 and 1938 – the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the origins of the modern public sector – government-driven infrastructure spending.
- 1950s, in which the Eisenhower administration brings about the modern interstate highway system.
He does have concerns about Trump’s aggressive trade policy of protecting United States manufacturing industries and sees a depreciating US dollar, higher US interest rates and a collapse in the market for US debt. However Trump’s rhetoric only applies to approximately 15% of the US labour force. Tooze believes that the appeal of Trump to the voters was that he offered hope for ordinary Americans to be able to earn a living based on the historical context of nationalism.