Friday, January 10, 2020

The Real Cause of "Secular Stagnation": Extreme Inequality

Much has been made of the concept of "secular stagnation", namely, that the current and future long-term potential for economic growth has slowed dramatically compared with the not-too-distant past.  Larry Summers defines it as "a prolonged period in which satisfactory growth can only be acheived by unsustainable financial conditions".  And at least since the Great Recession, the data do indeed seem to bear this out.  Most notably, for decades now the American economy has been requiring lower and lower interest rates to get the same effect in terms of boosting aggregate demand, the sine qua non of economic growth.  One can even argue that, relatively speaking, the United States will have had a whopping "lost two decades" of growth from 2000-2020.  We are "turning Japanese", and not in a good way either.

But why is this happening, exactly?  Some blame demographic changes, particularly population aging, as one of the causes.  But while this theory is interesting, it only seems to explain, at most, a tiny portion of the overall trend of secular stagnation.  In fact, a recent study by the American  Economic Association found that there is essentially no robust correlation between population aging and economic growth (or lack thereof).  Why?  Advances in automation and robotics seem to offset the putative adverse effects of an aging workforce to the point where the effect of aging is practically negligible.

In fact, another recent study finds the ideal total fertility rate (TFR) in terms of standards of living overall is in fact in the 1.5-2.0 range, basically the same as what the TSAP has long advocated since our founding nearly a decade ago in 2009.  Yes, really.  Take that, birth dearthers!

Others blame the decline in EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) as cheap and easy fossil fuels are increasingly less readily available than in the past, as well as the planetary limits to growth.  That is indeed true in the very long run at least, and all the more reason to end our inane and insane addiction to growth for the sake of growth, the ideology of the cancer cell which eventually kills its host, by the way.  Though meanwhile, renewable energy technologies are making massives strides, which again looks like it will offset such trends at least partially.

But in the relatively near term at least, the biggest elephant in the room by far in terms of the causes of secular stagnation would be the extreme level of economic inequality in this country that is now back at Gilded Age levels.  Or should we say, at banana republic levels these days.  The top 1% controls roughly 40% of the nation's wealth, the top 20% controls roughly 90%, and the bottom 80% is left to fight over crumbs.  Wages have lagged behind the cost of living for decades despite exponential increases in technological progress and resulting increases in labor productivity.   The oligarchs at the top took nearly all of the gains.  And the rest of us simply cannot afford to keep spending enough to keep the economy going without digging ourselves deeper and deeper in debt.  Eventually, something has to give, since there is not enough aggregate demand, and increasing debt clearly cannot be sustained forever.

Thus, a more accurate definition of "secular stagnation", would be, in the words of the Economic Policy Institute, "a chronic shortage of aggregate demand constraining economic growth".  They really hit the nail right on the head here.  After all, one person's spending is another person's income, by definition, and any business without enough customers will clearly not stay in business for long.

Which, by the way, was also one of the causes of the Great Depression and the long period of secular stagnation that followed until WWII.  The Roaring Twenties also had similarly extreme inequality as well, along with a wildly unregulated financial system.  And we also had a trade war from 1930-1934, which further deepened the Depression.  The only real difference now (aside from the levels of debt today) is the Feral Reserve's monetary policy, but even that will run out of ammo very fast (as interest rates are already low) unless their methods are truly overhauled to accomodate today's realities.

But what about in the long run?  Well, the Keynesian punch line to that is, "in the long run, we are all dead".  Seriously, though, an inequality-induced chronic shortage of aggregate demand not only reduces actual economic growth in the short run, but also reduces potential growth well in the future as well.  That is because less demand today leads to less business investment tomorrow, degrading the economy's productive capacity over time and thus leading to significantly less growth in the long run as well as the short run, creating a vicious cycle and downward spiral.  Hoarding such ludicrous amounts of wealth at the top of the pyramid clearly has serious consequences for the economy and society, and with much larger effect sizes than originally thought.

Thus, policies designed to tackle economic inequality would be beneficial in this regard.  In addition to more progressive taxation of both individuals and corporations (like it was before Reagan) and/or the Universal Exchange Tax and/or Georgist taxation on natural resources, that would also include things like Universal Basic Income (UBI) as well.  And nationalizing the Feral Reserve to make it a truly public national bank that creates money interest-free would be even better still, since usury (interest) and debt-based currency are essentially the biggest weapons of the oligarchy.  Problem solved.

In fact, in our Monetarily Sovereign federal government, Congress can simply spend new money into existence without the strings of interest attached, and without any corresponding increase in tax revenue either.  Rodger Malcolm Mitchell notes this in his Ten Steps to Prosperity, which includes, among other things, Medicare For All, free college for all, and a form of UBI as well.  Interest rates can still be used by the central bank as an inflation-fighting tool, but the creation of money will be decoupled from it.

(Note to Japan:  You should do the same thing as well, especially the helicopter money (QE for the People) and UBI.  Then you will finally get out of your 30 year funk, and possibly even raise your birthrates a bit.)

At the very least, in the meantime, we need to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour to give the lowest-paid workers a boost, which will also have a positive spillover higher up the wage scale.  Also, macroeconomic policy (both fiscal and monetary) should seriously prioritize very low unemployment over very low inflation, since tight labor markets have long been known to give workers much more bargaining power relative to employers. And labor unions also need to be revitalized as well.  Yesterday.

So what are we waiting for?

1 comment:

  1. These are good policy prescriptions for the absurd amount of income inequality in this country. Unfortunately, these policies might never be implemented. According to Chris Hedges from the truthdig website, our government is unwilling to implement those reforms and the corporations are holding the government hostage in order to pursue more neoliberal policies. In this situation, I can only expect more drastic neoliberal policies than the reforms outlined in this article. Both the Democratic and Republican Party are beholden to neoliberalism and the corporations which donate to them.