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My Two Cents on the “Yellow Vests” Movement

December 12, 2018 1 comment

In a widely commented televised address President Macron  has made a last-minute attempt to stop the “yellow vests” wave, that is investing France and his presidency. After a dramatic (a bit too much to seem sincere, if you ask me) mea culpa on past arrogance, and a promise to “listen to the suffering of the people”, Macron announced a few changes to the French budget law, to sustain the purchasing power of the lower part of the income distribution. The most important and immediate changes are: an increase of minimum wage (more precisely of the “employment subsidy” that is given to most people working at or around minimum wage): the exemption from taxes and social contribution of extra hours (a very popular measure that had been introduced by Nicolas Sarkozy and later abolished by François Hollande); and last but not least, the repeal of the increase of social contributions for retirees, and the confirmation of the freezing (for at least the year 2019) of the “ecological tax” on fuel. Macron also signaled the intention to backtrack on his vertical leadership style (the président jupitérien); he pleaded for renewed role for intermediate bodies (most notably the mayors and local politicians) in putting in place a concerted effort (a “social compact”) to boost growth and social cohesion.

Will Macron’s announcement appease the uprising that inflames France? Most probably not, because they suffer from an original sin, a contradiction that the President is unwilling (or incapable) of seeing. The yellow vest protest originates from the gas price increase, that affected rural households and farmers in particular? But the malaise has much deeper roots, that are widespread. The French economy feels, after ten years, the full weight of a crisis that has hit very hard the middle and lower classes: Unemployment that fell too slowly  (costing re-election to François Hollande ; austerity that, although less marked than in the peripheral eurozone countries, has reduced the perimeter and coverage of public services and of the welfare system, while increasing the tax burden; and, finally, the reduction of family allocations and welfare in general, which particularly affected the most disadvantaged categories. All of this led to what Julia Cagé, on French daily Le Monde, called “the purchasing power crisis”, that simmered for a long time, before exploding in the past weeks.

Emmanuel Macron has an enormous responsibility for the bursting of the crisis. True, the increase in the tax burden for the middle class is mainly due to François Hollande (under the impulse of an ambitious undersecretary, and then minister of the economy, named … Emmanuel Macron). One might even argue that the budget law for 2019 reverses the trend as that the reduction of some taxes (in particular the elimination of the housing tax for the majority of households, and the flat tax on capital income) has more than offset the reduction in social benefits.

What explains then the fact that the discontent emerges, so violently, just now? The explanation is simple: it is to be found in the approach that the French President pursued since he beginning of his mandate. Like Donald Trump, with whom he disagrees on almost everything, Emmanuel Macron believes in the so-called “trickle down” theory: shifting the tax burden away from the rich is the best strategy to revive growth, because these people are more productive than the average, and invest the extra income in innovative activities. The fruits of higher growth would then percolate to everyone, even those who were initially penalized by the tax reform. From the beginning of his mandate, Macron’s choice to give France a pro-business image was clear, leading to a drastic reduction of taxes on the richest, and making the taxation, for the upper part of the distribution, fundamentally regressive.

The last budget law represents the clearest proof of this approach. The “Institute for Public Policies” has shown (see the figure, taken from a Le Monde article appeared last October) that while the overall disposable income slightly increases, the bottom 20% and the upper-middle class see a substantial worsening of their situation, while the very rich (the top 1%) see their purchasing power increase of 6%.

2018_12_12_Macron

The problem is, as an increasing body of evidence shows, that trickle down does not work. Favoring the richest does not increase productive investment (it rather tends to boost non-produced asset prices and unproductive consumption), and the impact on growth is both negligible and not shared; these days’ demonstrations stand to prove it. History cannot be rewritten, but the attempt to twist the tax system in favor of the ecological transition would probably have been met with much more enthusiasm, in a country like France where environmental awareness is high, where it not accompanied by the sentiment of increasing social injustice that Macron’s economic policies have deepened.

It is interesting to notice, in this regard, that traditional media have given a somewhat distorted image of the protest movement (which is very hard to clearly decrypt). A group of researchers from Toulouse University uses lexicographic analysis to show that the narrative of traditional media was centered on revolt against taxes (ras-le-bol fiscal), and therefore in contradiction with the request of better public services;  this does not correspond to the message coming from social networks that organized “from the bottom” the movement, in which instead the predominant mood was revolt against social injustice and against the elites that grow richer and richer, while leaving the check for the others to pay. To sum up, a plea for a more equal and cohesive society.

How will this end? It is hard to say. The yellow vests have obtained a partial win, with the freezing of the gas increase, and with the measures announced by Macron on Monday. But it is unlikely that we will see a substantive change of economic policy, precisely because of the President’s views outlined above. He rushed to rule out any reinstatement of the wealth tax, because “in the past unemployment increased even when the wealth tax existed” (a rather unconvincing argument, to say the truth).

If higher incomes are not called to contribute to the effort (towards ecological transition, but more generally towards the financing of the French social model), even the measures just announced will have a very limited impact. The State will somehow have to take back with one hand (for example by reducing public services, that benefit lower income most, or increasing other taxes) what it just handed out with the other hand. The demand for social justice that confusedly emerges from the yellow vests movement will once more go unanswered, leaving untouched the tension that is ripping the French (and not just the French) society.

To meet these needs, a new political proposal would have to put the complex theme of the redistribution of resources in a globalized world at the center of its project. It would be necessary to rediscover the “Regulatory State” which, in the golden years of social democracy (and of the social right), guaranteed social and macroeconomic stability, and thus laid the foundations for investment, innovation, and growth. That role is more difficult to define in a globalized world in which individual States have limited room for maneuver, and in which therefore international cooperation, however difficult, is now the only way forward. But this challenge can not be avoided if we do not want movements such as those of yellow vests to fall prey to nativist autocratic populism.

 

(This is the translation of a piece I published in Italian on the Luiss Open website)

Trump and Reagan

January 28, 2017 1 comment

A couple of days ago I had an interesting debate hosted by France 24, on Trumponomics. Interesting because there was an overall agreement between me and Dan Mitchell from Cato Institute, even if from totally opposite points of view, on the fact that Trumponomics does not exist. The Donald is pushing forward a number of inconsistent measures, whose final effect is impossible to forecast (except that it is a safe bet to say that it will not end well).

Mitchell argued of course that the only good policies imply the downsizing of the government. As one can easily imagine I would tend to disagree. And over and over again, during the 40 or so minutes of discussion, came back the reference to the golden era of Ronald Reagan. Trump needs to cut taxes, as Reagan did, and downsize government, as Reagan did. And growth and unemployment will return, as under Reagan

When I said that the problem of the US was not the lack of jobs per se, but rather the increasingly unequal distribution of income, that started precisely under Reagan, Mitchell replied that this was false (I officially spread fake truths!), claiming that median income under Reagan increased. Well, think again. An old post by Paul Krugman had already dispelled the mith, and I had written on it myself. I copy the figure from that post (updated) here:

2017_01_trump_and_reagan_1

 

So, while it is true that median income increased under Reagan-Bush (Mitchell is formally right), it is hard to define it an era or decreasing inequality I My conclusion back then was that growth does not lift all boats, and trickle-down economics does not exist. And Reagan did not do that well in terms of growth either. And did I mention twin deficits?

Just a final remark. The downsizing of government under Reagan is also a myth (which is rather good news, by the way): Look at OECD data:2017_01_trump_and_reagan

 

I rest my case. People at Cato should pick their role models more carefully.

 

 

The Blanchard Touch

April 15, 2015 10 comments

Yesterday I commented on the intriguing box in which the IMF staff challenges one of the tenets of the Washington consensus, the link between labour market reform and economic performance.
But the IMF is not new to these reassessments. In fact over the past three years research coming from the fund has increasingly challenged the orthodoxy that still shapes European policy making:

  1. First, there was the widely discussed mea culpa in the October 2012 World Economic Outlook, when the IMF staff basically disavowed their own previous estimates of the size of multipliers, and in doing so they certified that austerity could not, and would not work (of course this led EU leaders to immediately rush to do more of the same).
  2. Then, the Fund tackled the issue of income inequality, and broke another taboo, i.e. the dichotomy  between  fairness and efficiency. Turns out that unequal societies tend to perform less well, and IMF staff research reached the same conclusion. And once the gates opened, it did not stop. The paper by Berg and Ostry was widely read. Then we had Ball et al on the distributional effects of fiscal consolidation (surprise, it increases inequality). Another paper investigated the channels for this link, highlighting how consolidation leads to increased inequality mostly via unemployment. And just last week I assisted to a presentation by IMF economists showing how austerity and inequality are positively related with political instability.
  3. On labour markets, before yesterday’s box 3.5, the Fund had disseminated research linking increased inequality with the decline in unionization.
  4. Then, of course, the “public Investment is a free lunch” chapter three of the World Economic Outlook, in the fall 2014.
  5. In between, they demolished another building block of the Washington Consensus: free capital movements may sometimes be destabilizing…

These results are not surprising per se. All of these issues are highly controversial, so it is obvious that research does not find unequivocal support for a particular view. All the more so if that view, like the Washington Consensus, is pretty much an ideological construction. Yet, the fact that research coming from the center of the empire acknowledges that the world is complex, and interactions among agents goes well beyond the working of efficient markets, is in my opinion quite something.

What does this mass (yes, now it can be called a mass) of work tells us? Three things, I would say. First, fiscal policy is back. it really is. The Washington Consensus does not exist anymore, at least in Washington. Be it because the multipliers are large, or because it has an impact on income distribution (and on economic efficiency); or again because public investment boosts growth, fiscal policy has a role to play both in dampening business cycle fluctuations and in facilitating stable and balanced long term growth. The fact that a large institution like the IMF has lent its support to this revival of consideration for fiscal policy, makes me hope that discussions about macroeconomic policy will be less ideological, even once the crisis will have passed.

The second thing I learn is that the IMF research department proves to be populated of true researchers, who continuously challenge and test their own views, and are not afraid of u-turns if their own research dictates them. I am sure it has always been the case. What is different from the past is that now they have a chief economist who seems more interested in understanding where the world goes than in preaching a doctrine.

The third remark is more problematic. If I write a paper saying that austerity will not be costly because multipliers are 0.5, and 2 years later retract my previous statement and argue that austerity is in fact self defeating, the impact on the world is zero. If the IMF does the same, during the two years huge suffering will be needlessly inflicted to masses of people. This poses a problem, as research by definition may be falsified. In the past an institution like the IMF would never have admitted a mistake. And we certainly do not want to go back there. Today they do admit the mistakes, but the suffering remains. The only way out to this problem is that the “new” IMF should learn to be cautious in its policy prescriptions, and always remember that any policy recommendation is bound to be sooner or later proven inappropriate by new data and research. We don’t live in a black and white world. Adopting a more prudent stance in dictating policies  would be wise (in Brussels as well, it goes without saying). And of course, the disconnect between the army and the general is also a problem.

Marginal Productivity? Think Again

May 13, 2014 3 comments

I am writing  a paper on inequality and the crisis,  for which I used Piketty and Saez ‘s World Top Income Database to try to understand whether the distributional effect changed over time. Unfortunately their data cover 2012 only for a handful of countries, among which are the United States; waiting for new data here is the evolution of income percentiles, including capital gains, from 2007 to 2009 (yellow bars), and from 2009 to 2012 (red bars):

US_Top_Incomes

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 mainly hit asset prices, thus having a major impact on the richest layers of the income distribution. In fact, the top 0.1% to 0.01% (a handful of people) lost more than 40% of their income in real terms, while average income of the bottom 90% dropped of around 10%. This was short-lasted, nevertheless, as the prolonged recession, and the jobless recovery that followed, quickly restored, and further deepened the distance between the rich on one side and the middle and lower classes on the other.  Since 2009 average income of the bottom 95% stagnated (for the bottom 90% it kept decreasing). Nothing really new, here. The iAGS 2014 report, to which I (marginally) contributed, reaches similar conclusions. But I thought it would be interesting to share it.

And while we are at it, here are the ratios of average income of those at the very top, with respect to income of the bottom 90% (from the same dataset):

US_Top_Incomes_Ratios

The top 0.1%-0.01%, the same handful of people as before, has an average income that is 120 times the average income of the bottom 90%. This is also barely breaking news…

Now, as we all know, the traditional view on income distribution states that  factors of production are paid according to their contribution to the production process (their “marginal productivity”). Within this traditional view, the recent steep increase of inequality would be explained by skill-biased technical progress and increased competition in the globalized labor market: the entrance in the global labor market of low-skilled workers from emerging and developing economies lowered the average marginal productivity of labor, thus reducing its share of national income. Increasing inequality would then be an ineluctable process that policy is not supposed to address, if not at the price of reduced efficiency and growth. Is this a caricature? Not so much. in his recent Project Syndicate comment on Piketty, Kenneth Rogoff proposes once again the old tradeoff between inequality and growth that the crisis seemed to have buried once and for all (just look at the widely cited IMF discussion paper  by Ostry et al). The traditional view is alive and kicking, and those who oppose it are dangerous liberal extremists! After all, Rogoff tells us, the tide raises all boats…

The bottom line is that if a top executive makes on average 120 times the wage of his or her employee, well, this means that he or she is 120 times more productive. Rent seeking and political capture play no role in explaining the difference in pay. Circulez, il n’y a rien à voir…

Nothing new under the sky, I guess. But it is important, from time to time, to send out reminders.

Overheat to Raise Potential Growth?

March 19, 2014 4 comments

Update, March 20th: Speaking of ideological biases concerning inflation, Paul Krugman nails it, as usual.

On today’s Financial Times, Phillip Hildebrand gives yet another proof of unwarranted inflation terror. His argument is not new: In spite of the consensus on a weak recovery, the US economy may be close to its potential , so that further monetary stimulus would eventually be inflationary.

He then deflects (?) the objection that decreasing unemployment reflects decreasing labour force participation rather than new employment, by suggesting that it is hard to know how many of the 13 millions jobs missing are structural, i.e.not linked to the crisis. I think it is worth quoting him, because otherwise it would be hard to believe:

However, an increasingly vocal group of observers, including within the Fed, posits that more of the fall in the participation rate appears to have been structural than cyclical, and it was even predictable – the result of factors such as an ageing workforce and the effect of technology on jobs.

(the emphasis is mine). Now look at this figure, quickly produced from FRED data: Read more

Reduce Inequality to Fight Secular Stagnation

December 22, 2013 10 comments

Larry Summers’ IMF speech on secular stagnation partially shifted the attention from the crisis to the long run challenges facing advanced economies. I like to think of Summers’ point of as a conjectures that “in the long run we are all Keynesians”, as we face a permanent shortage of demand that may lead to a new normal made of hard choices between an unstable, debt-driven growth, and a quasi-depressed economy. A number of factors, from aging and demographics to slowing technical progress, may support the conjecture that globally we may be facing permanently higher levels of savings and lower levels of investment, leading to negative natural rates of interest. Surprisingly, another factor that had a major impact in the long-run compression of aggregate demand has been so far neglected: the steep and widespread increase of inequality. Reversing the trend towards increasing inequality would then become a crucial element in trying to escape secular stagnation.
Read More

Supporting Aggregate Demand in Fiscally Constrained Economies

June 5, 2013 6 comments

In the past weeks I have argued at length that  the eurozone is in recession because of a strong contraction of aggregate demand; and that in spite of this fact the overall fiscal stance is restrictive.

I also argued that in the current situation the best that can be hoped for peripheral countries is a more gradual consolidation (ideally a neutral stance, but this is too much to ask). I do believe that a fiscal expansion, even in the periphery, would be sustainable and growth-enhancing. But at this stage this is just daydreaming. It won’t happen.

The fiscal stance of the eurozone will not become expansionary (as is sorely needed), if the core (and in particular Germany) does not implement robustly expansionary fiscal policies.

If their fiscal space is limited or non-existent, what can peripheral countries do, besides waiting for an improbable fiscal stimulus in Germany? A lot, actually. If public demand cannot be significantly increased (and will actually be further compressed, albeit at a slower pace), it is all the more important that the governments of Italy, Greece, Spain and so on, find ways to restart private demand.

There is a lot of discussion about structural reforms. They are not the answer. First, because they have an impact mostly on supply (and the problem, let me repeat it, is demand); second, because their benefits, if any, won’t materialize before a few years. And there is no time. The cumulate effect of five years of crisis is now threatening social cohesion in most peripheral countries.

A more straightforward policy, that could be implemented in the next few months with immediate effects, is a strong redistribution of the tax burden towards higher incomes. The increasing inequality of income of the past three decades is in my opinion one of the deep causes of the crisis;  inequality has further increased since 2008. The squeeze of revenues for low incomes, coming from the combination of high unemployment and fiscal adjustment, is depressing both the capacity to spend and the morale of households. Increased inequality contributed to global imbalances in the past, and  is recessionary in the current crisis.

In September, when the season of budget laws begins, governments in the periphery should propose to their parliaments revenue-neutral tax adjustments, lowering taxes on low income households and increasing them on the rich and very rich. This would be fair, and more importantly, effective to boost morale and consumption. I am talking about a substantial shift of the burden, large enough for its macroeconomic impact to be significant. This is all the more necessary if standard Keynesian deficit spending can not be implemented.