Thursday, 19 July 2018

Stagnation?

I've been reading Linda Yueh's The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today.  It's a clever way of teaching the history of economic thought by imagining how the big names would have dealt with current issues. We get, for example, Ricardo looking at Trump's trade wars, and Keynes looking at post-GFC 'austerity'.

In the chapter on Schumpeter ("What would Joseph Schumpeter think about how contemporary companies and countries should innovate?"), I came across a remarkable quotation which bears on another of today's supposed problems, 'secular stagnation'.

This is popularly taken to mean, as its Wikipedia entry says, ""a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy". Lawrence Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary, who is often credited with giving the idea its modern boost, says the Wikipedia version is "fatalistic" and not what he meant. He says he meant a more Keynesian notion: "the idea of secular stagnation is that the private economy — unless stimulated by extraordinary public actions especially monetary and fiscal policies and, or, unsustainable private sector borrowing — will be prone to sluggish growth caused by insufficient demand". But the downbeat version has taken root.

The idea in its fatalistic format, that we are moving into an extended period of slower growth or no growth, has always seemed to me to be completely off the wall. I don't believe that we are in some kind of diminishing-return world where the payoff from the next innovation is generally less than the payoff from the previous one. I don't believe that the latest rounds of invention - such the internet and the digital revolution more generally - are in any way less momentous than their industrial and chemical and electrical predecessors. And I strongly suspect that GDP as currently measured, despite statisticians' best efforts to capture changes in its quality, is hugely underestimated. We're producing far more, properly accounted for, than the doomsayers think.

I think it's far more likely that we in the earliest stages of a huge transformation of modern economies and societies where we are only beginning to see the impact of new innovations, let alone the further payoffs that will come from the interplay and recombination of our new technologies. "Ideas having sex", as Matt Ridley put it in his excellent book, The Rational Optimist.

The stagnation believers are, in my view, akin to someone thinking that the factory system had done its dash by 1800, or that modern business methods had peaked with Ford in the 1920s. In the middle of one of the most vibrantly inventive periods of all time, we are supposed to believe that growth is running into the sands?

It's extremely implausible. It's also at odds with some of the other doomsdays the pessimists worry about. You can't believe that the robots are going to take all our jobs and think that technological change has stopped having a big impact. And It's also an enormously bad guide to policy, if it takes you down the road of thinking that the big issue is fighting over a fixed pie, rather than growing the pie.

In any event, the quotation in The Great Economists that caught my eye was this. Schumpeter felt that the Classical economists - Smith, Ricardo, Mill - had missed what was going on round them. In his History of Economic Analysis he said:
Those writers lived at the threshold of the most spectacular economic developments ever witnessed. Vast possibilities matured into realities under their very eyes. Nevertheless, they saw nothing but cramped economies, struggling with ever-decreasing success for their daily bread.
The Classical economists were wrong then. The latest crop of stagnationists are wrong now.

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