The economics of Bob Crow

Frying down in Rio: Union baron Bob Crow soaks up the sun on Copacabana beach

Bob Crow, 1961 – 2014

The reactions to the sudden death of RMT leader Bob Crow from friends and foes alike were unanimous about one thing; he was good for his members. Indeed, most of those who ride London’s underground can only dream of the tube drivers’ basic salary of £44,000 and 52 days holiday a year. But how much of this was due to Bob Crow?

A private enterprise will not pay a worker more than it thinks that worker will add to turnover, if it did it would be losing money on the employment. The private sector enterprise has only three sources of funding; debt (bank loans, corporate bond issues), equity (selling shares), and income. If it loses money and exhausts these sources by paying workers above a level commensurate with their productivity it will go bust. No matter how determined or skilful the union representative, the workers’ marginal productivity sets a cap on their wages.

But the situation is different for public or government backed enterprises, such as those Bob Crow faced across the negotiating table. They have a fourth source of funding; the taxpayer. In these circumstances unions can push pay claims ever higher. If a union seeks to push wages above a level commensurate with worker productivity and the public enterprise exhausts the funds it can raise from debt, equity, or income, it doesn’t go out of business; it receives taxpayer support. For the public enterprise, unlike its private counterpart, on the other side of the bottom line isn’t bankruptcy, it’s a bailout funded by taxpayers. This is why trade unions continue to thrive in the public sector but are largely absent in the private.

Indeed, despite their extravagant remuneration the productivity of tube drivers, what they add to output, is actually rather small. The big value adding inputs into the production of tube travel are mostly capital inputs; boring machines, trains, track, IT systems, ticket machines etc. It is quite possible, in fact, for tube trains to run without drivers at all. Indeed, as far back as the 1960s the Victoria line could have been built to run without drivers. It was only the insistence of trade unions that saw a role created for drivers to sit in the cab and press a couple of buttons – drivers who could become their paid up members. To avoid union headaches Margaret Thatcher built the Docklands Light Railway to run without drivers in the 1980s, which it has ever since with a safety record comparable to manned tube lines. If a factor of production, in this case labour, is being applied to production needlessly it is wasteful and unproductive. It should not be receiving high wages.

If Bob Crow was aware of the economic possibilities for his members offered by recourse to taxpayer’s money he was also acutely aware of the politics of the situation. He knew, as a former RMT employee put it to me, that “Boris wants to get re-elected as mayor and/or become PM. If he screws up the tube his chances of either are lessened. He has to balance the damage caused by, on the one hand ‘giving in to the unions’ and, on the other, chaos on the underground. The fact that he has to balance those factors makes the union’s position a strong one.”

Such was Bob Crow’s terrain and, like a Wellington, he understood it well. But it did not make him a labour relations genius any more than the Mediterranean coast and Qattara Depression made Montgomery a military genius. His membership prospered not so much because of his skills as a leader, but because of their status as public or semi-public employees whose pay claims were underwritten by the taxpayer. Bob Crow played his hand well but he had a strong hand to play. Those hoping for a more emollient approach from his successor ought to remember that they will inherit that hand.

Motown breaks down

The 2,500 seat Eastown Theatre hosted The Who and The Kinks. The Cass Tech High School taught Diana Ross and John DeLorean. Michigan Central Station, almost 100 feet long, 230 feet wide, and graced with 14 grand marble pillars, once had Franklin Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and Thomas Edison pass along its platforms.

Nowadays these buildings are just three of the 78,000 abandoned and blighted structures in Detroit. Reminders of a bygone golden age, the authorities can’t afford to demolish them.

The decline and fall of Detroit, which recently filed for bankruptcy, is a staggering tale. In 1950 Detroit was home to 1,849,568 people, hundreds of thousands of them working in the booming motor industry. In 1955 80% of the planet’s cars were made in America, 40% by Detroit-based General Motors alone. GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, was only a little smaller than the largest non-American car maker, Volkswagen. And Toyota only built 23,000 cars that year compared to GM’s 4 million. In the 1950s the Detroit area had the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership of any major American city.

But as they grew together, so they died together. Between 1955 and 2000 global car production increased by 273% but the US motor industry saw little of that action, increasing its output by just 39%. Even at home, despite a hastily erected wall of tariffs and quotas, US car companies lost market share; between 1970 and 2000 Japanese car companies’ share of sales in the US rose from less than 5% to 30%. In the same period the share of US car manufacturers fell from 86% to a little over 50%.

The reason was productivity. In 2005 the average Toyota worker produced 16% more cars than the average GM worker and a staggering 128% more than the average worker at Daimler/Chrysler. Toyota made a profit of $12.5 billion, GM a loss of $10.9 billion.

In part as a result of the demise of the motor industry, less than half of Detroit’s over 16s are now employed. And as the jobs disappeared so did the workforce. In 2010 the population was down to 713,777, a fall of 61% in 60 years.

But the city’s government was left with the spending commitments and liabilities it had incurred in the not-so-bad times. One half of Detroit’s $18 billion debt is made up of pension and healthcare spending commitments to city employees. The share of city revenues being spent on debt servicing, pensions, and retiree healthcare has risen from 30% in 2010 to 40% today. It is forecast to rise to 65% by 2017.

The city tried to fund these commitments with higher taxes. Detroit imposes a per capita tax burden on its residents 80% higher than neighbouring Dearborn even though its residents have a per capita income 33% lower. Detroit residents face the highest property tax rates of any similarly sized city in Michigan, but with 3 bed, all brick, colonial houses on the market for under $10,000 many don’t bother paying. Nearly a third of property tax owed in Detroit went uncollected in 2011.

So Detroit slashed spending, even on ‘core’ functions of government. 40% of streetlights don’t work and aren’t being repaired. Last winter just 10 to 14 of the city’s 36 ambulances were in service at any time, some with enough miles on the clock to have circled the planet 10 times. In February, Detroit fire fighters were told not to use hydraulic ladders unless there is an “immediate threat to life” because they hadn’t been inspected in years.

But even with this, spending commitments without the tax base necessary to fund them have caused Detroit to add $700 million to its debt in the last seven years and brought it to bankruptcy. This is a real American horror story.

Is the death of Detroit “just one of those things” as Paul Krugman wrote on Monday? Or are there lessons to be drawn for the rest of us?

The essential problem of Detroit, that for decades its leaders have been writing cheques their tax base can’t cash, is true now to varying degrees of all western governments facing ageing populations. As I wrote elsewhere late last year

America’s unfunded liabilities (including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security), rose by $11 trillion last year to $222 trillion. To put that in context, the entire US economy is just $15 trillion, of which $3 trillion a year is paid in tax. If you expropriated all the wealth of the richest 400 Americans…the $1.7 trillion you would get wouldn’t make a dent.

In Britain the Office of Budget Responsibility reported last week that with zero migration the costs of an ageing population would push government debt up to 174% of GDP by 2062. To hold it where it is Britain would need, the OBR estimates, immigration of 260,000 people a year.

Like the ruins described by Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land” the ruins of Detroit are a warning of hubris and complacency, of the belief that it’ll never happen to us. We should heed the warning.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

Gold vs Silver – The 1896 US Presidential election

A photographic negative of recent election results

To the south are the debtors. With their incomes slumping and debt burdens rising they demand that the monetary authorities act, wanting a little inflation to ease the load. To the north are the creditors. Anxious that the rising wages from their manufacturing output will buy tomorrow what it will buy today they, by contrast, demand monetary discipline.

This is an apt description of contemporary Europe. It is, in fact, a description of the United States in the late 19th century. For the PIIGS we have the indebted farmers of the south and Great Plains demanding the inflationary coinage of silver. For the Germans, protecting the principle of (relatively) sound money, we have the bankers and industrial workers of the north-eastern states urging sound money and adherence to the gold standard.

The United States Constitution gave Congress the power “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin” and a Coinage Act was passed in 1792. This provided for the free coinage of silver and gold, a bimetallic system, with silver being coined at the rate of $1 for 371.25 grains of pure silver and gold at 24.75 grains of pure gold, a ratio of 15:1. This held while this mint ratio matched the market price ratio. But when, as was likely, they diverged then the metal undervalued at the mint flooded out and the other became the de facto monometallic money. After 1792 gold was undervalued and a de facto silver standard came about; after an alteration of the mint ratio in 1834 silver was undervalued and a de facto gold standard came about.

Messy and protracted attempts to restore convertibility after the Civil War inflation culminated in the fateful Coinage Act of 1873. Considering the controversy it would subsequently generate this Act passed rather unremarked but it was a clear break in American monetary affairs. While it allowed for free coinage of gold to resume in 1879 it said nothing about silver. This de jure demonetising of silver was little noticed as it had been de facto demonetised since 1834.

Two things returned the monetary question to prominence. One was a rise in the gold/silver ratio from around 16:1 in the early 1870s to 30:1 by 1896 owing to an increased international demand for gold and supply of silver. Another was agricultural hardship. Between 1872 and 1895 on a US Farm Average wheat prices fell by 59%. The price of cotton fell by 55.5% between 1881 and 1890. This crippled heavily indebted farmers in the south and Midwest.

There were two explanations for this. One credited dramatic agricultural productivity increases which saw cotton production increase by 111% and wheat production by 446% between 1859 and 1919. The activist Edward Atkinson wrote “[T]here is not a single commodity which has been subject to a considerable fall in price since 1873 or 1865, of which that change or decline in price cannot be traced to specific applications of science or invention…either to the production or distribution of that specific article without any reference whatever to the change in the ratio of gold to silver”

The other, favoured in agricultural areas, blamed a deflationary shrinkage in the money supply following the 1873 demonetisation of silver, which ‘Silverites’ called ‘The crime of 1873’. Figures emerged showing that money per capita in circulation had fallen from a peak of $31.18 in 1865 to $20.00 between 1875 and 1896. “Money in the business world and blood in the body perform the same functions and seem to be governed by similar laws” commented Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, “When the quantity of either is reduced the patient becomes weak and what blood or money is left rushes to the heart, or center, while the extremities grow cold”

A succession of organisations arose seeking the remonetisation of silver at 16:1, a de facto silver standard. The most successful was the Populist Party under whose pressure the Democrats adopted a free silver policy in 1896. Both parties nominated Nebraska’s William Jennings Bryan for president that year. Bryan, gifted orator to his supporters, demagogue to his opponents, thundered famously at the Democratic convention in Chicago “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”. To Bryan his opponents were “creditors; they hold our bonds, and our mortgages, and as the dollars increase in purchasing power, our debts increase and the holders of our bonds and mortgages gather in an unearned increment”.

The Republicans raised the gold standard with little enthusiasm, their traditional economic panacea was protectionism. Their nominee, Ohio’s William McKinley, had made his reputation on the tariff issue. Unlike Bryan, he won the nomination thanks to diligent preparation. While Bryan stumped 18,000 miles round the country McKinley, reasoning “I might just as well put up a trapeze on my front lawn and compete with some professional athlete as go out speaking against Bryan”, stayed in Canton, Ohio. There he pushed the themes of the protectionism and sound money; “We know what partial free trade has done for the labor of the United States. It has diminished its employment and earnings. We do not propose now to inaugurate a currency system that will cheat labor in its pay”.

McKinley won. Just as silver had a popular constituency so did gold. It was found among industrial workers, many of them German immigrants, who saw their real wages increase by 18% between 1879 and 1889. When, in previously Democrat and heavily German Milwaukee, the Democratic candidate said that “gold, silver, copper, paper, sauerkraut or sausages” could serve as money Milwaukee went Republican.

And almost as soon as the election was over prices began to rise as new gold discoveries increased the money supply. Whether this was due to luck or equilibrating tendencies in the gold standard is still disputed.  And here, if not before, the historical analogy breaks down. There is no such light at the end of the Euro-tunnel.

This is an early draft of an article which appeared in The Salisbury Review

Bubble. Burst. Liquidity. Repeat

Increasing both

In March 2000 the dot com bubble burst. From a peak of 5,048.62 on March 10th, 24 percent up on late 1999, the NASDAQ Composite index had fallen to half that by late 2000. GDP growth slumped and unemployment steadily climbed from under 4 percent in late 2000 to a peak of 6.25 percent in mid-2003.

On January 3rd, 2001, Alan Greenspan acted and cut the Fed funds rate to 6 percent. By June 2003 it was down to 1 percent where it stayed until June 2004. The effects are well known. This wave of liquidity was directed by government action like the Community Reinvestment Act, government bodies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a minefield of moral hazard in a financial sector which knew it would be bailed out of any trouble, into a housing bubble.

That bubble burst too. With inflation on its way up from 2 percent in mid-2003 to 4.7 percent in October 2005, Greenspan gradually raised the Fed funds rate, reaching 5.25 percent in June 2006. But this crippled many people who had borrowed at lower rates to buy property. The number of new foreclosure starts in the US increased by more than 50 percent to 1.1 million between 2006 and 2007.

Assets backed with these non-performing loans crashed in value. Banks holding them saw their balance sheets ravaged. Seeing counterparty risk everywhere, banks stopped lending to each other and the LIBOR, usually about 0.15 percent above where the market thinks the bank rate will be in three months’ time, shot up to over 6.5 percent in August 2007. The credit crunch had arrived.

And Greenspan, his academic successor Ben Bernanke, and central bankers around the world reacted as they had to the bursting of the dot com bubble. The Fed funds rate went back down from 5.25 percent in September 2007 to 0.25 percent in December 2008. Likewise, between July 2007 and March 2009 the Bank of England slashed its Base Rate from 5.75 percent to 0.5 percent. Even the supposedly cautious European Central Bank reduced its key rate from 4.25 percent in summer 2008 to 1 percent by the spring of 2009.

When this failed to have the desired stimulative effect central bankers began trying to pull down the long end of the yield curve. Under Quantitative Easing the Bank of England spent £375 billion of newly printed money on British government debt. The Federal Reserve is spending $85 billion dollars a month on bonds.

There is a pattern here. A bubble in assets (dot com stocks) bursts and central banks react by hosing liquidity into the system. But this liquidity inflates another bubble (property) and when that bursts central banks react by hosing liquidity into the system…

In the high Keynesian noon of the post-war period it was widely thought that monetary policy was ineffective for macroeconomic management (it is debatable how much this is actually owed to Keynes). All that could be hoped for from monetary authorities was support for the fiscal policies which really had the clout to equilibrate the economy.

But this Keynesian paradigm fell apart with the stagflation of the 1970s. Money mattered was the lesson and it became the primary tool of macroeconomic management, replacing fiscal action, at least until the ‘Return of the Master’ following the credit crunch.

But what has this meant in practice? As interest rates are lowered in response to an adverse shock investment, calculations change, especially when, like Alan Greenspan, those behind the policy publicly promise its continuance. To the extent that this fosters a wealth effect, consumption, as well as investment, may be stimulated. And this, in fact, is exactly the way the policy is supposed to work.

But the rates cannot stay that low indefinitely, nor, despite the jawboning by monetary policymakers, are they intended to. At some point they will rise. Again, this actually is the way the policy is supposed to work.

And when those rates do rise what happens to those marginal investors who made their decision when rates were at their lowest? What happened to the NINJAs who bought condos in Michigan when interest rates were 1 percent when the rates went up in 2006? They were scuppered. And what will happen to all the enterprises which are currently dependent on interest rates remaining at their historic lows when those rates start to rise? It is because more people are now asking that question that markets have turned skittish recently, since Ben Bernanke even began to discuss a possible future ‘tapering’ of Quantitative Easing.

Those rates will have to rise at some point. But, when they do, whichever bubble we have now will burst. Our monetary authorities have printed themselves into a corner.

This is what passes for macroeconomic management. As one of the high priests of this bubble-onomics, Paul Krugman, advised in 2002 in the wake of the dot com bust “To fight this recession the Fed needs…soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment…Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble”. And no, that’s not taken out of context.

One of the great myths in economics is that of some sort of stable equilibrium. It is apparent that active monetary policy is little better at producing that than fiscal policy proved. Instead the economy is characterised by crises of increasing frequency and amplitude and the only solutions policymakers appear to have to deal with them will buy ever shorter-lived respite at the cost of increasing both the frequency and amplitude of crises.

We are in an equilibrium of sorts, but it is an equilibrium of crises.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Living in the Age of Keynes

The path to prosperity

In 1935 John Maynard Keynes wrote to his friend George Bernard Shaw: “I believe myself to be writing a book on economic theory which will largely revolutionize, not I suppose at once but in the course of the next ten years – the way the world thinks about economic problems.”

That book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published the following year, would go on to fully realise Keynes’s expectations. After World War Two, following Keynes’s analysis, policy makers and economists around the world used fiscal and monetary tools to pursue the goal of ‘full employment’. Keynes gave his name to both the economics and the age itself.

It is conventionally said that this Keynesian Age was brought to an end by the Stagflation of the 1970s. To the extent that responsibility for ‘economic management’ was simply transferred from politicians with primarily fiscal tools to central bankers with monetary tools this can be argued. But there is another sense in which we never left the Age of Keynes.

The first substantive chapter of The General Theory is chapter two, ‘The Postulates of the Classical Economics’. Here Keynes ridicules a set of beliefs which he ascribes to an ill-defined group of ‘Classical economists’. For these Classicals income was either spent on consumption or saved. These savings, as capital, were invested with the two quantities, savings and investment, being equilibrated by the interest rate. As Keynes’s Classical mentor Alfred Marshall put it:

“[I]t is a familiar economic axiom that a man purchases labour and commodities with that portion of his income which he saves just as much as he does with that he is said to spend. He is said to spend when he seeks to obtain present enjoyment from the services and commodities which he purchases. He is said to save when he causes the labour and the commodities which he purchases to be devoted to the production of wealth from which he expects to derive the means of enjoyment in the future.”

Keynes, by contrast, saw no such essential unity between savings and investment. In The General Theory he wrote that the “decisions which determine Saving and Investment respectively are taken by two different sets of people influenced by different sets of motives, each not paying very much attention to the other”.

It was possible, Keynes argued, that investors driven by mercurial “animal spirits” could become so pessimistic that the Marginal Efficiency of Capital (the expected return on their investment) could plunge below the interest rate (the cost of funding that investment) so that no investment would take place. The Marginal Efficiency of Capital could, indeed, sink so low that nominal interest rates couldn’t offset it, giving rise to the ‘liquidity trap’ and monetary impotence. Marshall’s link would be broken and aggregate demand would fall.

For Keynes, the way to guarantee the continued investment which not only guaranteed aggregate demand in the present but also increased prosperity in the future, was for the government to underwrite the profitability of investment by acting as spender of last resort, via fiscal stimulus, to prop up the Marginal Efficiency of Capital.

This was the polar opposite of the Classical view. Whereas Keynes believed that spending made you rich enough to save, the Classicals believed that saving made you rich enough to spend. Though Keynes would have agreed with the father of the Classicals, Adam Smith, that “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”, they took totally different routes to get there.

This stems from a striking difference in attitudes to saving. Adam Smith, anticipating Marshall, wrote, “What is annually saved is as regularly consumed as what is annually spent, and nearly in the same time too; but it is consumed by a different set of people…by labourers, manufacturers, and artificers”. Keynes, by contrast, said that “whenever you save five shillings, you put a man out of work for a day”.

Is it Smith or Keynes’s attitude towards consumption and saving which animates western policymakers today? Since 2008 we are supposed to have seen ‘The Return of the Master’. In truth he never went away. We’ve been living in the Age of Keynes for decades.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

John Maynard Keynes, in the long run

John Maynard Keynes, 1883 – 1946

“In the long run we are all dead”. So said John Maynard Keynes, born 120 years ago on Wednesday, in one of the most misquoted phrases in economics.

It comes from Keynes’s Tract on Monetary Reform, from 1923, in a discussion about the economic long and short run. If a factory closes you can say that in the long run its workers will find jobs somewhere else but in the short run there may be considerable unemployment and it was this that Keynes was concerned to tackle. Thus, the full quote is: “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.”

Indeed, Keynes thought much about the long run. One of his most celebrated pieces of writing was an essay titled The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) and he was one of the architects of the post-World War II Bretton Woods monetary system.

But this isn’t to say that Keynes had any coherent idea about the long run. He didn’t. In The Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren he observed that, since the Industrial Revolution, “the average standard of life in Europe and the United States has been raised, I think, about fourfold” and predicted that “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is today”. In large part he attributed this, correctly, to “the accumulation of capital which began in the sixteenth century”.

But this capital accumulation was simply assumed by Keynes, not analysed. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) he speculates on the future possibility of “a society which finds itself so well equipped with capital that its marginal efficiency is zero and would be negative with any additional investment”, blithely asserting that it would be “comparatively easy to make capital-goods so abundant that the marginal efficiency of capital is zero”. The Solow growth model theorists are derided for their characterisation of technological change appearing exogenously as “manna from heaven” but that is exactly how Keynes conceptualised the accumulation of capital and capital goods.

In fact financial capital is that part of income not spent on current consumption; saving, in other words. Capital goods have to be produced and maintained. If they had no value, as Keynes posits in his Utopia, they would not be produced. Include the cost of maintaining them and they would be even less likely to be produced.

This lack of understanding of the process of capital accumulation, which he himself put front and centre of his theory of increasing wealth, was a constant in Keynes’s writings. In The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) Keynes wrote that, during the 19th century, which he later characterised as an “epoch of enormous economic progress”,

“There grew round the non-consumption of the cake all those instincts of puritanism which in other ages has withdrawn itself from the world and has neglected the arts of production as well as those of enjoyment. And so the cake increased; but to what end was not clearly contemplated. Individuals would be exhorted not so much to abstain as to defer, and to cultivate the pleasures of security and anticipation. Saving was for old age or for your children; but this was only in theory,—the virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.”

This is drivel. The cake was consumed, not least by Keynes himself who wrote of the pre-1914 era that “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he may see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep”. And while Keynes was a-bed, per capita consumption of milk, meat, butter, sugar, and tea all rose between 1860 and 1913. The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who had flocked to Milton’s “dark, satanic mills” in the early days of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to consume such soon-to-be-household names as Oxo, Lipton, Rowntree, and Pears.

The end, even if Keynes couldn’t see it, was to extend to the inhabitant of Stepney the opportunities enjoyed by the inhabitant of Bloomsbury. This was made possible, as Keynes recognised, by “the accumulation of capital” which came, as Keynes failed to recognise, from saving. Keynes, aping his friend Lytton Strachey, derided the Victorians for not consuming the cake in its entirety but they understood better than Keynes that it was out of those leftovers, those savings, that they would bake a bigger cake tomorrow.

Keynes was concerned about the long run but he had no conception of how we would get there. He simply extrapolated past trends into the future without stopping to consider what factors were at work behind those trends. To paraphrase, economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if they simply tell us the ocean will be flat tomorrow without checking the forecasts.

By consuming the whole cake today without regard to the provision of tomorrow’s dinner, in Keynes’s long run we’d all be hungry.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Deficit and debt: Does anyone know the difference?

“OK, so there’s the water in the tub…”

In a recent conversation, a Labour Party member told me that the coalition was “borrowing more than we did in power”. I pointed out that this was wrong, that the deficit, what we are “borrowing”, is, in fact, down by a third under this government. He replied: “The deficit may be but the current government is still borrowing more money than the last government.”

You could write this off as simply the pig-headed economic illiteracy of a paid-up member of the party that helped us into the current mess. After all, Ed Balls, Labour’s man on the economy, can stand up in front of Parliament and say “The national deficit is not rising…er…is rising, not falling” (he was right the first time). But then you hear Nick Clegg say that the coalition is working to “wipe the slate clean for our children and our grandchildren”. Even David Cameron himself announced that “We’re paying down Britain’s debts”.

You begin to wonder if anyone knows what they are talking about. I’ve addressed the issue of what exactly is happening to the British government’s finances before but it seems it needs repeating.

We have two concepts here: a stock and a flow. Think of it like a bathtub. The stock is the water in the bathtub, the flow is the water either flowing in or out of the tub through the taps or plughole.

In this analogy the debt is the stock, the water in the tub; the deficit is the flow, the water pouring in from the tap (if our government was running a budget surplus water would be flowing out through the plughole but we’re some way off worrying about that). In other words, the deficit (flow) is the amount by which the debt (stock) is increasing.

Thus, it is possible to have a situation like we have now where the debt is increasing while the deficit is decreasing (imagine yourself turning off the tap and seeing the flow of water dwindle – water is still flowing into the tub). Borrowing is down, what has been borrowed is up.

In the final year of the last Labour government Alistair Darling borrowed £156 billion. In 2012 George Osborne borrowed £99 billion. The deficit had fallen but while ever there is any deficit at all debt will be rising. Another way of putting it is to say that in his last year Darling increased the debt by £156 billion and last year Osborne increased it by £99 billion.

This is why you can have a chart like this…

showing falling deficits coexisting with a chart like this…

showing rising debt.

This might all sound a rather long-winded way of stating the obvious but a ComRes poll late last year found that 49 percent of people wrongly think “The Coalition Government is planning to REDUCE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015”. The correct answer, that “The Coalition Government is planning to INCREASE the national debt by around £600 billion between 2010 and the end of this Parliament in 2015”, was given by just 6 percent.

The British government’s out of control spending is the central issue in British politics today yet there is mass ignorance as to what is really going on with it. In large part this can be attributed to the misleading statements pumped out by the sloppy Cameron and Clegg and the dishonest Balls.

What actually is happening to the British government’s finances under Cameron and Clegg is that the debt is growing and will continue to grow but the pace at which it grows, the deficit, is declining. This is simple stuff even if our politicians struggle with it.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

First principles on wealth and economic growth

Shanghai – Before and after

In all human history there have been just four ways of securing the goods, services, or the wealth to purchase them, required to maintain life or a desired standard of living.

First, we can receive them freely from others as gifts or charity. Second, we can take them from others as theft or tax. Third, we can borrow them from others with the promise of repayment in the future. And fourth, we can receive them freely in exchange for a good and service we provide in return.

It is clear that the first and second methods depend entirely on someone else producing the good or service in the first place. You cannot be gifted or steal what doesn’t exist. These methods are purely redistributive and add nothing to the available stock of goods and services, the increase of which is the essence of economic growth and increasing wealth.

Method three, borrowing, is fine as long as it is used for investment to increase the stock of goods and services out of which it will be repaid. The fourth method, free production and exchange, is best of all. People secure the goods and services needed or desired by exchanging those they produce for those produced by others. People’s desire to consume more induces them to produce more. The stock of goods and services available, society’s wealth, increases.

All societies engage in a mixture of these methods, different sections of those societies relying on different methods at different times. But it is clear that societies which rely to a greater extent on the first and second method are, at best, shuffling round a stagnant stock of goods; not creating wealth but merely redistributing it.

Societies using more of the third method could be acting wisely if they are borrowing to invest, but if they are just borrowing to fund current consumption then they will be paying this back out of the same (or smaller) stock in the future. Societies more reliant on the fourth method will be increasing their wealth unambiguously.

So we can say that if the aim of society is to increase wealth it ought to be utilising lots of the fourth method, the third method only to fund investment, and the first second method as little as possible.

This throws stark light on the shift in relative wealth going on in the world today. Wealth is increasing in Asia in part because relatively large proportions of their populations are producing things people want to buy. And, in part, the wealth of the western economies is stagnating or declining because, relatively, we have a greater share of our populations receiving the goods and services they need and desire (or the wealth to purchase them) as transfers from others. We see ever more borrowing to finance current spending and ever more redistribution of wealth at the expense of its creation.

If a country has a great many goods and services available it is wealthy. If individuals are able to command a great deal of goods and services they are wealthy. The nature of increased wealth is an increased number of goods and services. The more people we have producing them and increasing this number, as in Asia, the wealthier we will be.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Britain’s productivity paradox

In 2012 the British economy created 580,000 new jobs yet output stagnated; more work produced the same amount of stuff. Indeed, British workers were producing 2.6 percent per hour less in Q3 2012 than in Q1 2008. Labour productivity is now 12.8 percent below its pre-recession trend.

This phenomenon, of increasing inputs producing an unchanged or decreasing amount of output, which has been christened Britain’s ‘productivity puzzle’, is one of the most perplexing in current economic debate. Indeed, even Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently declared himself stumped.  

It’s an important debate both politically and economically. Politically, because Labour can point to grim GDP figures and claim the coalition is failing while the coalition can point to impressive job growth and claim they are succeeding. Economically, because increasing productivity, producing as much with less or more with as much, is the root of increasing wealth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently offered three explanations for this decline in labour productivity. First, the fall in real wages thanks to inflation has seen firms retain and/or take on more labour. Second, business investment remains 16 percent below the pre-crash peak giving workers fewer tools to work with. Third, record low interest rates and forbearance on the part of banks is propping up inefficient enterprises.

There is a grain of truth in all these explanations but we might be missing the wood for the trees. Perhaps the actual explanation for the productivity puzzle is both simpler and more profound. Labour productivity is determined by two things: the skill of labour, and the quantity and quality of the capital at the disposal of that labour. On both fronts Britain has done pretty poorly.

Britain’s labour force is losing its qualitative advantage over others, notably in East Asia, thanks to a hideously dysfunctional state education system. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment which compares students across countries, in 2000 Britain ranked 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science. By 2008 it had slumped to 17th in reading, 24th in maths, and 14th in science. Any measures which can improve this dismal performance could be expected to improve British labour productivity in the longer term.

It is a similar story regarding the capital available to its workers. In 2001 it was estimated that a British worker had 25 percent less capital to work with than an American worker, 40 percent less than a French worker, and 60 percent less than a German worker. Why is capital so vital and how might we get more of it?

There are two types of goods: capital goods and consumption goods. Consumption goods are those that immediately meet our needs, what Carl Menger called “goods of first order”. Capital goods, what Menger called “goods of higher order”, are those which meet our needs indirectly. Bread is a consumption good, the flour and the milling stone (among others) are capital goods.

If our need is to eat we can satisfy it immediately via the labour intensive method of picking apples from trees or berries from bushes. Obviously this source of food would sustain very many less people on much more monotonous diets than we have today. We are able to eat more and better because we have capital which enables us not only to produce and consume more but also to produce and consume things we couldn’t have before with purely labour intensive methods.

Thus, to borrow Murray Rothbard’s example, Robinson Crusoe could pick 20 berries per hour from a bush by hand but could shake 50 berries out in an hour with a stick. Alternatively Crusoe could make the milling stone, grind the flour, and undertake the other capital production needed to make a loaf of bread. He could enjoy something he couldn’t enjoy in any quantity at all previously.

But making the stick or the milling stone will take time, time we cannot spend either picking berries or relaxing. We must forgo an act of consumption, either of berries or of leisure. We must save, in other words. This is the essential truth of capital accumulation; it comes from saving.

So does maintenance of the capital stock. To borrow from Rothbard again, a truck with a working life of fifteen years which makes 3,000 trips can be said to be using up 1/3,000 of itself each time it participates in the transformation of bread from ‘higher order’ wholesale to ‘first order’ sandwich. If saving is not undertaken to allow for the replacement of the truck at the end of the fifteen years this production process will cease. The capital, the truck, will have been consumed in every loaf it carried on those 3,000 journeys.

This is why countries that grow rich are those that save; they accumulate the capital per worker which enables them to produce ever greater amounts. In the late 18th century British textile workers earned six times what Indian textile workers earned because they had the capital goods to make them six times more productive. This is why we see saving nations in the Far East becoming wealthier as we wonder how our current standard of living will be maintained.

Britain, meanwhile, has some of the lowest savings rates even in the generally savings-averse developed world. We are seemingly attached to the Keynesian idea that consumption, rather than something we do when we are rich, is something we do to become rich. We have a government which can hand out leaflets on budget day telling savers they are on their side while turning a blind eye to quantitative easing and 0.5 percent base rates.

The result is that by deskilling and capital consumption we have become a lower productivity, lower wage economy. There is only a puzzle because we are reluctant to face this grim truth. Greece was recently reclassified as an emerging market. Might Britain be on its way to joining her?    

This article originally appeared at The Commentator