Archive for the ‘Predictions’ Category
David Broockman and Christopher Skovron, the authors of the paper, “surveyed every candidate for state legislative ofﬁce in the United States in 2012 [shortly before the November election] and probed candidates’ own positions and their perceptions of their constituents’ positions on universal health care, same-sex marriage, and federal welfare programs, three of the most publicly salient issues in both national-level and state-level American politics during the past several years.” They then matched the results with estimates of the actual district- and issue-speciﬁc opinions of those residing in the candidates’ districts using a data set of almost 100,000 Americans.
Here is what they found:
Politicians consistently and substantially overestimate support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues. The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average. . . . Comparable ﬁgures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal ofﬁce holders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.
The following two charts illustrate this bias when it comes to universal health care and same sex marriage.
As Matthews explain:
The X axis is the district’s actual views, and the Y axis their legislators’ estimates of their views. The thin black line is perfect accuracy, the response you’d get from a legislator totally in tune with his constituents. Lines above it would signify the politicians think the district more liberal than it actually is; if they’re below it, that means the legislators are overestimating their constituents’ conservatism. Liberal legislators consistently overestimate opposition to same-sex marriage and universal health care, but only mildly. Conservative politicians are not even in the right ballpark.
The authors found a similar bias regarding support for welfare programs. Perhaps even more unsettling, the authors found no correlation between the amount of time candidates spent meeting and talking to people in their districts while campaigning for office and the accuracy of their perceptions of the political positions of those living in their districts.
One consequence of this disconnect is that office holders, even those with progressive views, are reluctant to take progressive positions. More generally, these results speak to a real breakdown in “the ability of constituencies to control the laws that their representatives make on their behalf.”
One of the biggest obstacles to improving economic conditions has been majority belief that our current economic system is capable of delivering steady improvements in living and working conditions. Because of that belief, it has been easy for economic and political elites to convince large numbers of people that current economic problems must be the result of too much government spending, or immigrants, or unions, or taxes or . . . . In other words anything but capitalism itself.
However, there are now signs that the times may be changing.
A New York Times blog post by Thomas B. Edsall discusses some recent polling data which suggests that growing numbers of Americans, what many analysts are calling the rising American electorate–unmarried women, young people, Hispanics, and African Americans–are open to serious economic change.
For example, Edsall summarizes the results of one poll as follows:
When voters were asked whether cutting taxes or investing in education and infrastructure is the better policy to promote economic growth, the constituencies of the new liberal electorate consistently chose education and infrastructure by margins ranging from 2-1 to 3-2 — African Americans by 62-33, Hispanics by 61-37, never-married men by 56-38, never-married women by 64-30, voters under 30 by 63-34, and those with post-graduate education by 60-33.
Conservative constituencies generally chose lowering taxes by strong margins — whites by 52-42, married men by 59-34, married women by 51-44, all men by 52-41; older voters between the ages of 50 and 65 by 54-42.
The constituencies that make up the rising American electorate are firmly in favor of government action to reduce the gap between rich and poor, by 85-15 among blacks, 74-26 for Hispanics; 70-30 never-married men; 83-15 never-married women; and 76-24 among voters under 30. Conservative groups range from lukewarm to opposed: 53-47 for men; 53-47 among voters 50-65; 46-54 among married men; 52-47 among all whites.
One of the clearest divides between the rising American electorate and the rest of the country is in responses to the statement “Government is providing too many social services that should be left to religious groups and private charities. Black disagree 67-32; Hispanics disagree 57-40; never-married women 70-27; never-married men, 59-41; young voters, 66-34; and post-grad, 65-34. Conversely, whites agree with the statement 54-45; married men agree, 60-39; married women, 55-44; all men, 55-43.
Edsall also cites a 2011 Pew Research Center Poll that is even more suggestive of support for fundamental change. Although it is impossible to know what people mean by the terms capitalism and socialism, the table below, taken from the poll, suggests that opposition to capitalism is at significant levels among many of the groups that comprise the rising American electorate.
Polling data is not the same as political action of course. But the negative views of capitalism and surprisingly strong support for socialism among many in the population must be worrisome to those who continue to benefit from existing economic relations.
One can only imagine that far more people will come to hold these views if government leaders succeed in using the artificially created “fiscal cliff” to further cut key social programs. People want action on jobs, not cuts in government spending, regardless of whether those cuts are accompanied by tax increases on the wealthy.
There is growing talk that the economy is finally on its way to recovery—“A Steady, Slo-Mo Recovery”—in the words of Businessweek.
Here is how Peter Coy, writing in Businessweek, explains the growing consensus:
Job growth is poised to continue increasing tax revenue, which will make it easier to shrink the budget deficit while keeping taxes low and preserving essential spending. All this will occur without any magic emanating from the Oval Office. It would have occurred if Mitt Romney had been elected president. “The economy’s operating well below potential, and there’s a lot of room for growth” regardless of who’s in office, says Mark Zandi, chief economist of forecaster Moody’s Analytics.
Something could still go wrong, but the median prediction of 37 economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators is that during the next four years, economic growth will gather momentum as jobless people go back to work and unused machinery is put back into service. “The self-correcting forces in the economy will prevail,” predicts Ben Herzon, senior economist at Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm in St. Louis.
Before we get lulled to sleep, we need some perspective about the challenges ahead. How about this: we face a 9 million jobs gap, and this doesn’t even address the low quality of the jobs being created.
The chart below, taken from an Economic Policy Institute blog post, illustrates the gap.
As Heidi Shierholz, the author of the post, explains:
The labor market has added nearly 5 million jobs since the post-Great Recession low in Feb. 2010. Because of the historic job loss of the Great Recession, however, the labor market still has 3.8 million fewer jobs than it had before the recession began in Dec. 2007. Furthermore, because the potential labor force grows as the population expands, in the nearly five years since the recession started we should have added 5.2 million jobs just to keep the unemployment rate stable. Putting these numbers together means the current gap in the labor market is 9.0 million jobs. To put that number in context: filling the 9 million jobs gap in three years—by fall 2015—while still keeping up with the growth in the potential labor force, would require adding around 330,000 jobs every single month between now and then.
Unfortunately, our “job creators” only created 171,000 net jobs in October. And that was considered a relatively good month. The chart below, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, gives a sense of what we are up against.
Of course, weak job growth in the past doesn’t mean that we cannot have strong job growth in the future. On the other hand, such a change would require consensus on radically different policies than those currently being discussed and debated by those in power.
Market advocates have had their way for years now—one of the consequences has been the growing dominance of industry after industry by a select few powerful corporations. In short, unchecked competition can and does produce its opposite.
As John Bellamy Foster, Robert W. McChesney, and R. Jamil Jonna explain:
This [development] is anything but an academic concern. The economic defense of capitalism is premised on the ubiquity of competitive markets, providing for the rational allocation of scarce resources and justifying the existing distribution of incomes. The political defense of capitalism is that economic power is diffuse and cannot be aggregated in such a manner as to have undue influence over the democratic state. Both of these core claims for capitalism are demolished if monopoly, rather than competition, is the rule.
The chart below highlights the rise, especially since the 1980s, in both the number and percentage of U.S. manufacturing industries in which four firms account for more than 50% of sales.
Number and Percentage of U.S. Manufacturing Industries in which Largest Four Companies Accounted for at Least 50 Percent of Shipment Value in Their Industries, 1947-2007
As the table below shows, the concentration of market power is not confined to manufacturing.
Percentage of Sales for Four Largest Firms in Selected U.S. Retail Industries
|Industry (NAICS code)||1992||1997||2002||2007|
|Food & beverage stores (445)||15.4||18.3||28.2||27.7|
|Health & personal care stores (446)||24.7||39.1||45.7||54.4|
|General merchandise stores (452)||47.3||55.9||65.6||73.2|
|Book stores (451211)||41.3||54.1||65.6||71.0|
|Computer & software stores (443120)||26.2||34.9||52.5||73.1|
As impressive as these concentration trends may be, they actually understate the market power exercised by leading U.S. firms. The reason is that many of these firms are conglomerates and active in more than one industry. The next chart provides some flavor for overall concentration trends by showing the growing share of total business revenue captured by the top two hundred U.S. corporations. Notice the sharp rise since the 1990s.
These are general trends. Here, thanks to Zocalo (which draws on the work of Barry Lynn), we get a picture of the market dominance of just one corporation–Procter and Gamble. This corporation controls:
• More than 75 percent of men’s razors
• About 60 percent of laundry detergent
• Nearly 60 percent of dishwasher detergent
• More than 50 percent of feminine pads
• About 50 percent of toothbrushes
• Nearly 50 percent of batteries
• Nearly 45 percent of paper towels, just through the Bounty brand
• Nearly 40 percent of toothpaste
• Nearly 40 percent of over-the-counter heartburn medicines
• Nearly 40 percent of diapers.
• About 33 percent of shampoo, coffee, and toilet paper
A recent Huffington Post blog post, which includes the following infographic from the Frence blog Convergence Alimentaire, makes clear that Procter and Gamble, as big as it is, is just one member of a small but powerful group of multinationals that dominate many consumer markets. The blog post states: “A ginormous number of brands are controlled by just 10 multinationals . . . Now we can see just how many products are owned by Kraft, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, P&G and Nestlé. ” See here for a bigger version of the infographic.
And, it is not just the consumer goods industry that’s highly concentrated. As the Huffington Post also noted: “Ninety percent of the media is now controlled by just six companies, down from 50 in 1983 . . . Likewise, 37 banks merged to become JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and CitiGroup in a little over two decades, as seen in this 2010 graphic from Mother Jones.”
Not surprisingly, there are complex interactions and struggles between these dominant companies. Unfortunately, most end up strengthening monopoly power at the public expense. For example, as Zocalo reports, Wal-Mart, Target, and other major retailers have adopted a new control strategy in which:
these retailers name a single supplier to serve as a category captain. This supplier is expected to manage all the shelving and marketing decisions for an entire family of products, such as dental care.
The retailer then requires all the other producers of this class of products — these days, usually no more than one or two other firms — to cooperate with the captain. The consciously intended result of this tight cartelization is a growing specialization of production and pricing among the few big suppliers who are still in business. . . .
It’s not that Wal-Mart and category copycats like Target cede all control over shelving and hence production decisions to these captains. The trading firms use the process mainly to gain more insight into the operations of the manufacturers and hence more leverage over them, their suppliers, and even their other clients. . . . Wal-Mart, for instance, has told Coca-Cola what artificial sweetener to use in a diet soda, it has told Disney what scenes to cut from a DVD, it has told Levi’s what grade of cotton to use in its jeans, and it has told lawn mower makers what grade of steel to buy.
And don’t think that such consolidation within the Wal-Mart system makes it easier for new small manufacturers and retailers to rise up and compete. The exact opposite tends to be true. . . . This [system] boils down to presenting the owners of midsized and smaller companies, like Oakley or Tom’s of Maine, with the “option” of selling their business to the monopolist in exchange for a “reasonable” sum determined by the monopolist.
This was the message delivered to many of the companies that in recent decades managed to develop big businesses seemingly outside the reach of the Procter & Gambles, Krafts, and Gillettes of the world. Consider the following:
• Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont ice cream company that reshaped the industry, was swallowed by Unilever in 2000.
• Cascadian Farm, one of the most successful organic food companies, sold out to General Mills and was promptly transformed into what its founder calls a “PR farm.”
• Stonyfield Farm and Brown Cow, organic dairy companies from New Hampshire and California, respectively, separately sold con-trol to the French food giant Groupe Danone in February 2003 and were blended into a single operation.
• Glaceau, the company behind the brightly colored Vitamin Water and one of the last independent success stories, sold out to Coca-Cola in 2007.
The practical result is a hierarchy of power in which a few immense trading companies — in control of and to some degree in cahoots with a few dominant supply conglomerates — govern almost all the industrial activities on which we depend, and they back their efforts with what amounts to police power. This tiny confederation of private corporate governments determines who wins and who loses in this country, at least within our consumer economy.
Of course the growing concentration nationally is matched by a growing concentration of power globally, with large transnational corporations from different nations battling each other and, in many cases, uniting through mergers and acquisitions. We cannot hope to understand and overcome our current problems and the structural pressures limiting our responses to them without first acknowledging the extent of corporate dominance over our economic lives.
The media has focused on the lack of jobs as a major election issue. But the concern needs to go beyond jobs to the quality of those jobs.
As a report by the National Employment Law Project makes clear, we are experiencing a low wage employment recovery. This trend, the result of an ongoing restructuring of economic activity, has profound consequences for issues of poverty, inequality, and community stability.
The authors of the report examined 366 occupations and divided them into three equally sized groups by wage. The lower-wage group included occupations which paid median hourly wages ranging from $7.69 to $13.83. The mid-wage group range was from $13.84 to $21.13. The higher-wage group range was from $21.14 to $54.55.
The figure below shows net employment changes in each of these groups during the recession period (2008Q1 to 2010Q1) and the current recovery (2010Q1 to 2012Q1). Specifically:
- Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
- Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
- Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.
The next figure shows the lower-wage occupations with the fastest growth and their median hourly wages. According to the report, three low-wage industries (food services, retail, and employment services) added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years, 43 percent of net employment growth. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections these are precisely the occupations that can be expected to provide the greatest number of new jobs over the next 5-10 years.
As the final figure shows, the decline in mid-wage occupations predates the recession. Since the first quarter of 2001, employment has grown by 8.7 percent in lower-wage occupations and by 6.6 percent in higher-wage occupations. By contrast, employment in mid-wage occupations has fallen by 7.3.
Significantly, as the report also notes, “the wages paid by these occupations has changed. Between the first quarters of 2001 and 2012, median real wages for lower-wage and mid-wage occupations declined (by 2.1 and 0.2 percent, respectively), but increased for higher-wage occupations (by 4.1 percent).”
A New York Times article commenting on this report included the following:
This “polarization” of skills and wages has been documented meticulously by David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A recent study found that this polarization accelerated in the last three recessions, particularly the last one, as financial pressures forced companies to reorganize more quickly.
“This is not just a nice, smooth process,” said Henry E. Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia, who helped write the recent study about polarization and the business cycle. “A lot of these jobs were suddenly wiped out during recession and are not coming back.”
Steady as she goes is just not going to do it and changes in taxes and spending programs, regardless of how significant, cannot compensate for the increasingly negative trends generated by private sector decisions about the organization and location of, as well as compensation for production.
I was recently interviewed by David Delk on his Populist Dialogue cable TV program. I shared my criticism of free trade as a corporate project, looking in particular at the Transpacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement (which the president is aggressively promoting) and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (which was recently passed).
The 30 minute program can be watched here or below.
Its election season and Republicans and Democrats are working hard to demonstrate that they support dramatically different policies for rejuvenating the economy.
While the Democratic Party’s call for more government spending makes far more sense than the Republican Party’s call for cuts in government spending (see below), the resulting back and forth hides the far more serious reality that our existing economic system no longer appears capable of supporting meaningful social progress for the great majority of Americans.
The chart below helps to highlight our economy’s worsening stagnation tendencies. Each point shows the 10 year annual average rate of growth and the chart reveals a decade long growth trend that is moving sharply downward.
As David Leonhardt explains:
The economy’s recent struggles arguably began in late 2001, when a relatively mild recession ended and a new expansion began. The problem with this new recovery was that it wasn’t especially strong. From the fourth quarter of 2001 through the fourth quarter of 2007 (when the financial crisis began), the economy grew at an average annual rate of only 2.7 percent. By comparison, the average annual growth rate of both the 1990s and 1980s expansions exceeded 3.5 percent.
This mediocre expansion was followed by the severe recession and weak recovery brought on by the financial crisis. The combined result is that, in recent years, the economy has posted its slowest 10-year average growth rates since the Commerce Department began keeping statistics in 1947.
In fact, the economic growth figures for the period 1995 to 2007 were artificially propped up by a series of bubbles, first stock and then housing. Once those bubbles popped, average growth rates began steadily falling.
The weakness (and unbalanced nature) of our current weak recovery is well captured in the following chart from Catherine Rampell, which compares the percent change in various indicators in the current recovery (which began in June 2009) with previous post-war recoveries. The first point to stress is that the current recovery lags the average in all indicators but one: corporate profits. The second is that government spending has actually been falling during the current recovery, no doubt one reason that the percent increase in so many indictors remains below the average in previous recoveries; the public sector is actually smaller today than it was three years ago.
The relative strength in the performance of corporate profits helps to explain why the two established political parties feel no real pressure to focus on our long term economic problems; corporations just don’t find the current situation problematic despite the economy’s weak overall economic performance.
Even more telling of the growing class divide is the explosion in income inequality over the last thirty years, which is illustrated in the following chart.
In other words, while corporations have succeeded in raising profits at the expense of wages, those in the top income brackets have been even more successful in raising their income at the expense of almost everyone else. Notice, for example, that median household income in 2010 is roughly where it was in the late 1980s while the median income of the top households racked up impressive gains. Thus, the very wealthy have every reason to do what they are currently doing, which is using their wealth to ensure that candidates restrict their economic proposals to reforms that will do little to change the existing system.
The takeaway: without a mass movement demanding change, election debates are unlikely to seriously address our steady national economic decline.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that our biggest economic challenge is runaway government spending. The reality is that government spending is contracting and pulling economic growth down with it. And worse is yet to come.
Perhaps the best measure of active government intervention in the economy is something called “government consumption expenditure and gross investment.” It includes total spending by all levels of government (federal, state, and local) on all activities except transfer payments (such as unemployment benefits, social security, and Medicare).
The chart below shows the yearly percentage change in real government consumption expenditure and gross investment over the period 2000 to 2012 (first quarter). As you can see, while the rate of growth in real spending began declining after the end of the recession, it took a nose dive beginning in 2011 and turned negative, which means that government spending (adjusted for inflation) is actually contracting.
The following chart, which shows the ratio of government consumption expenditure and gross investment to GDP, highlights the fact that government spending is also falling as a share of GDP.
Adding transfer payments, which have indeed grown substantially because of the weak economy, does little to change the picture. As the chart below shows, total government spending in current dollars, which means unadjusted for inflation, has stopped growing. If we take inflation into account, there can be no doubt that total real government spending, including spending on transfer payments, is also contracting.
The same is true for the federal government, everyone’s favorite villain. As the next chart shows, total federal spending, unadjusted for inflation, has also stopped growing.
Not surprisingly, this decline in government spending is having an effect on GDP. Real GDP in the 4th Quarter of 2011 grew at an estimated 3 percent annual rate. The advanced estimate for 1st Quarter 2012 GDP growth was 2.2 percent. A just released second estimate for this same quarter revised that figure down to 1.9 percent. In other words, our economy is rapidly slowing.
What caused the downward revision? The answer says Ed Dolan is the ever deepening contraction in government spending:
What is driving the apparent slowdown? It would be comforting to be able to blame a faltering world economy and a strengthening dollar, but judging by the GDP numbers that does not seem to be the case. The following table (see below) shows the contributions of each sector to real GDP growth according to the advance and second estimates from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Exports, which we would expect to show the effects of a slowing world economy, held up well in the first quarter. In fact, the second estimate showed them even stronger than did the advance estimate. The contribution of private investment also increased from the advance to the second estimate, although not by as much. Exports and investment, then, turn out to be the relatively good news, not the bad, in the latest GDP report.
Instead, the largest share of the decrease in estimated real GDP growth came from an accelerated shrinkage of the government sector. The negative .78 percentage point decrease of the government sector is the main indicator that we are already on the downward slope toward the fiscal cliff.
If current trends aren’t bad enough, we are rapidly approaching, as Ed Dolan noted, the “fiscal cliff.” That is what I was referring to above when I said that worse is yet to come. As Bloomberg Businessweek explains:
Last summer, as part of its agreement to end the debt-ceiling debate (debacle?), Congress strapped a bomb to the economy and set the timer for January 2013. Into it they packed billions of dollars of mandatory discretionary spending cuts, timed to go off at exactly the same time a number of tax cuts [for example, the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll-tax holiday] were set to expire
The congressional deficit supercommittee had a chance to disarm the bomb last fall, but of course it didn’t. And so the timer has kept ticking. The resulting double-whammy explosion of spending cuts and tax increases will likely send the economy careening off a $600 billion “fiscal cliff.”
The fiscal contraction will actually be even worse, since the extended unemployment benefits program is also scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
So, what does all of this mean? According to Bloomberg Businessweek:
If Congress does nothing, the U.S. will almost certainly go into recession early next year, as the combo of spending cuts and tax hikes will wipe out nearly 4 percentage points of economic growth in the first half of 2013, according to research by Goldman’s Alec Phillips, a political analyst and economist. Since most estimates project the economy will grow only about 3 percent next year, that puts the U.S. solidly in the red.
One can only wonder how it has come to pass that we think government spending is growing when it is not and that it is the cause of our problems when quite the opposite is true. Painful lessons lie ahead—if only we are able to learn them.
Paul Krugman, a leading proponent of the deficit spending side, puts it like this:
For the past two years most policy makers in Europe and many politicians and pundits in America have been in thrall to a destructive economic doctrine. According to this doctrine, governments should respond to a severely depressed economy not the way the textbooks say they should — by spending more to offset falling private demand — but with fiscal austerity, slashing spending in an effort to balance their budgets.
Critics warned from the beginning that austerity in the face of depression would only make that depression worse. But the “austerians” insisted that the reverse would happen. Why? Confidence! “Confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet, the former president of the European Central Bank — a claim echoed by Republicans in Congress here. . . .
The good news is that many influential people are finally admitting that the confidence fairy was a myth. The bad news is that despite this admission there seems to be little prospect of a near-term course change either in Europe or here in America, where we never fully embraced the doctrine, but have, nonetheless, had de facto austerity in the form of huge spending and employment cuts at the state and local level.
There is no doubt that the European experience has put those supporting austerity on the defensive. As the New York Times explains:
Britain has fallen into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s, according to official figures released Wednesday, a development that raised more questions about whether government belt-tightening in Europe has gone too far. Britain is now in its second recession in three years. . . .
In a packed British Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron had to defend his austerity drive against critics like Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labour Party, who called the economic numbers “catastrophic.”
The raucous scene was the latest manifestation of growing popular frustration with the strict fiscal diet that has been prescribed by the European Central Bank and German leaders in response to the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis. While Britain is not a member of the euro zone, its economic fortunes are closely linked with those of the currency union.
The discontent was on view in French elections last weekend and played a role in the collapse of the Dutch government on Monday. Greece, Spain and Italy have been the scene of mass demonstrations for months, but the turmoil now seems to be spreading to countries that were not seen as being at the heart of the crisis. Britain joined Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain in recession.
Of course, as Krugman notes, that doesn’t mean that the austerity defenders have given up. Here is the solution to the crisis put forward by Mr. Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, as reported by the New York Times:
He urged national leaders to take steps to promote long-term growth even when it is politically difficult. Some leaders have raised taxes or cut infrastructure projects, when instead they should be reducing government operating expenses, Mr. Draghi said.
Tragically, those in Mr. Draghi’s camp continue to blame Europe’s crisis on too much government spending when its roots lie far more in the collapse of speculative bubbles driven by private financial interests and German austerity policies. Of course, this understanding would require taking a critical stance against dominant capitalist interests; far easier to make the working class pay.
However, we should also be careful about assuming that the bankruptcy of the austerity strategy proves the wisdom of relying on deficit spending to solve our economic problems. The fact of the matter is that spending to stimulate growth will not solve our problems. The reason is that existing economic structures operate to generate what the United Nations Development Program has called “savage growth.” Savage growth refers to a growth process that enriches the few at the expense of the many. In other words, a process that is neither desirable nor sustainable. Therefore, unless we change the nature of our economy, deficit spending will just temporarily postpone the start of a new crisis.
Here are two charts from an Economic Policy Institute report that highlight the workings of savage growth in the United States. The first shows a sharp divergence, beginning in the mid-1970s, between productivity and hourly compensation for private-sector production/nonsupervisory workers (a group comprising over 80 percent of payroll employment). In other words, the owners of the means of production have basically stopped sharing gains in output with their workers. This wedge between productivity and compensation helps explain both the growth in inequality and the need for debt to sustain consumption.
The second provides a closer look at post-1973 trends. A key point: median hourly compensation basically stopped growing starting early in the 2000s, even though the economy continued to expand for several more years, and it continues to fall despite the end of the recession.
In sum, if we are serious about improving economic conditions we need to move past the austerity-deficit financing debate and begin pressing for adoption of trade, finance, production, and labor policies that strengthen the position of workers relative to those who own the means of production. Anything short of that just won’t do.
The Federal Reserve Bank recently released 1,197 pages of transcripts of its 2006 closed door meetings. As the Wall Street Journal comments: “The transcripts paint the most detailed picture yet of how top officials at the central bank didn’t anticipate the storm about to hit the U.S. economy and the global financial system.”
Federal Reserve officials suspected that housing prices were peaking (see chart below). But since they didn’t believe that prices had been driven up by a well entrenched bubble, they were not very concerned that they were coming down.
The Financial Times described the general Federal Reserve stance as follows:
Almost every Fed policymaker concluded that weaker housing would cause a slowdown in consumption and investment but expected that to offset strength elsewhere in the economy, leading to continued growth overall.
“Housing is the crucial issue. To get a soft landing, we need some cooling in housing,” said Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, in his summing up of the economic situation in March 2006. “I think we are unlikely to see growth being derailed by the housing market.” . . . .
Indeed, a number of Fed officials saw the housing slowdown as welcome news that would help resolve a potential threat to the economy. “As to housing, we are in fact, as all have noted, squeezing out of that sector the speculative excesses that developed with the low interest rates of recent years — and doing so is unavoidable if we want to correct the sector,” said Thomas Hoenig, then president of the Kansas City Fed, at the September 2006 meeting of the FOMC.
The transcripts show that the Federal Reserve was so confident that the economy was on solid footing that many officials were, according to the Wall Street Journal:
offering praise for outgoing Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who attended his final Fed meeting in January 2006. Timothy Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now Treasury Secretary, playfully offered this forecast about Mr. Greenspan’s legacy: “I think the risk that we decide in the future that you’re even better than we think is higher than the alternative.” . . . .
The transcripts also suggest that Fed officials misgauged the potential for housing problems to spill over into the broader economy.
“Our recent financial-market data don’t, in my view, provide a convincing case for a substantial increase in the probability of a much weaker path for growth going forward,” Mr. Geithner said at a meeting in December 2006.
So how did the best and the brightest get it so wrong. Perhaps the major reason is because it served their interests to pretend there was no housing bubble. The recovery from our 2001 recession was driven by consumption and that consumption was supported directly and indirectly by the housing bubble. In other words stopping the bubble would have revealed the weakness in our economy and the need for serious structural change. It was far easier and more lucrative for those at the top to just let the bubble go on expanding and pretend that it didn’t exist.
The following chart from the New York Times puts the movement in housing prices highlighted above into a longer term perspective, revealing just how strong speculative pressures were in the housing market.
As Dean Baker, one of the very few economists to warn about the dangers of the bubble, explains:
First, what happened is very straightforward: we had a huge run-up in house prices that had no basis in the fundamentals of the housing market. After 100 years in which nationwide house prices just kept even with the overall rate of inflation, house prices began to sharply outpace inflation, beginning in the late 1990s.
By 2002, when some of us first noticed the bubble, house prices had already risen by more than 30 per cent in excess of inflation. By the peak of the bubble in 2006, the increase in house prices was more than 70 per cent above the rate of inflation.
This was a huge problem – because this bubble was driving the economy. It drove the economy directly by creating a boom in residential housing construction. We were building housing at near record pace in the years 2002-2006. This was in spite of the fact that we had an ageing population and record levels of vacancies at the start of that period.
The other way in which the bubble was driving the economy was through its effect on consumption. The bubble created more than US $8tn in ephemeral wealth in housing. Homeowners thought this wealth was real and spent accordingly. The result was a massive consumption boom that sent the saving rate down to zero in the years from 2004-2006.
In reality, a lot of the consumer spending driving growth was financed by home refinancing, which helped many housholds compensate for stagnant wages and weak job creation at the cost of a sharp rise in debt. As a Wall Street Journal blog post pointed out, “From 2000 to 2007, household debt doubled from $7 trillion to $14 trillion, with debt related to housing responsible for 80% of the increase. By 2007, the household debt to GDP ratio reached its highest level since 1929.”
As we now know only too well, the collapse of the housing bubble reverberated through the economy, including the financial sector, triggering the Great Recession. Tragically, many of the “best and brightest” remain in leadership positions today, still arguing for the soundness of economic fundamentals.