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The easiest way to return to the Golden Age

By News Express on 18/09/2017

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The easiest way to return to the Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy. During the post-war Golden Age, from 1950 to 1973, US median real wages more than doubled. Today, they are lower than they were when Jimmy Carter was president. If you want an explanation why Americans are pessimistic about their future, that is as good a reason as any. A recent article examined the various causes of the slide in labour’s share of national income, and finds most explanations wanting. With a blind spot common among economists, he didn’t even investigate the most obvious: politics.

From the end of World War II, productivity rose steadily. Until the 1972 recession, wages went up alongside it. Both dipped, both recovered and then, right around the time Ronald Reagan became president, productivity continued its upward trajectory, but wages stopped following. If wages had continued to track productivity increases, the average American would earn twice as much as he does today, and America would undoubtedly be a calmer and happier nation.

Collectively, Americans are richer than they were 40 years ago; as they should be, given the incredible advances in technology since then. But, today, the benefits of productivity increases no longer go to workers, but rather to owners of stocks, bonds, and real estate. Wages don’t go up, but assets’ prices do. Rising productivity, that is to say the ability to make more goods and services with fewer inputs of labour and capital, should make all more prosperous. That it hasn’t could only be a distributional issue.

The timing suggests Ronald Reagan had something to do with stagnating wages. That makes sense. Reagan cut taxes on the rich, deregulated the economy, eviscerated the labour unions, and created the neoliberal order that still rules today. Perhaps, an even more significant change is the tiny, technical and tedious shift from fiscal to monetary policy.

Government has two ways of affecting the economy: monetary and fiscal policy. The first involves the setting of interest rates, the other government tax and spending policy. Both fiscal and monetary policies work by putting money in people’s pockets so they will spend and thereby stimulate the economy. But, fiscal focuses on workers while monetary mostly benefits the already rich. Since Ronald Reagan, even under Democratic presidents, monetary has been the policy of choice. No wonder wages stopped going up, but real estate, stock and bond prices have gone through the roof. During the Golden Age, benefits of technological progress were shared through wages’ gains. Since Reagan, they have been allocated through asset price inflation.

Fiscal policy, by increasing government spending, creates jobs and so raises wages, even in the private sector. Monetary policy works mostly through the wealth effect. Lower interest rates almost automatically raise the value of stocks, bonds, and other real assets. Fiscal policy makes workers richer; monetary policy makes rich people richer. This, I suspect, explains better than anything else why monetary policy, even at its extreme, remains more respectable than even conventional monetary policy.

During the Golden Age, fiscal was king. Wages rose steadily and most Americans were richer than their parents. Recessions were short and shallow. Economic policy makers’ primary task was insuring full unemployment. Anytime unemployment rose over a certain level, a government spending boost or tax cut would get the economy going again. And since firms were confident, the government would never allow a steep downturn, they were ready and willing to invest in new technologies, and increased productive capacity. The economy grew faster (and more equitably) than it ever has before or since.

During the 1960s, Keynesian economists thought they could “fine tune” the economy, using Philips’ Curve trade-offs between inflation and unemployment. Stagflation in the 1970s shattered that optimism. Inflation went up, but so did unemployment. New Classical economists decided in the long run, Keynesian stimulus couldn’t increase GDP, it could only accelerate inflation. Keynesianism stopped being cool. People would “snicker” whenever Keynesian concepts were mentioned.

In policy circles, Keynesians were replaced by monetarists, acolytes of Milton. “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” Friedman. Volcker in America and Thatcher in Britain decided the only way to stomp out inflationary expectations was to cut the money supply. This, despite their best efforts, they were unable to do. Controlling the money supply proved almost impossible, but monetarism gave Volcker and Thatcher the cover to manufacture the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

By raising interest rates until the economy screamed, Volcker and Thatcher crushed investment and allowed unemployment to rise to levels unthinkable just a few years before. Businessmen, union leaders, and politicians pleaded for a rate cut, but the central bankers were implacable. Ending inflationary expectations was worth the cost, they insisted. Volcker and Thatcher succeeded in crushing inflation, not by cutting the money supply, but rather with an old-fashioned Phillips’ curve trade-off. Workers who fear for their jobs don’t ask of cost of living increases. Inflation was history.

The Federal Funds Rate hit 20 per cent in 1980. Now even after a few hikes, it is barely over 1 per cent. The story of the past 30 years is of the most stimulative monetary policy in history. Anytime the economy stumbled, interest rate cuts were the automatic response. Other than military Keynesianism and tax cuts, fiscal policy was relegated to the ash heap of history. Reagan, of course, combined tax cuts with increased military spending. But traditional peacetime infrastructure stimulus was tainted by the 1970s stagflation and, for policy-makers, remained beyond the pale.

Fiscal stimulus came back, momentarily, at the peak of the financial crisis. China’s investment binge combined with President Barack Obama’s stimulus package probably stopped the Great Recession from being as catastrophic as the Great Depression. But by 2010, fiscal stimulus was replaced by its opposite, austerity. According to elementary macroeconomics, when the private sector is cutting back its spending - as it was still doing in the wake of the financial crisis -  government should increase its spending, to take up the slack. But Obama in America, Cameron in Britain and Merkel in the EU insisted that government cut spending, even as the private sector continued to retrench.

It is rather shocking - for anyone who has taken Econ 101 - that in 2010, when the global economy had barely recovered from the worst recession since the Great Depression, politicians and pundits were calling for lower deficits, higher taxes and less government spending, even as monetary policy was maxed out. Rates were already close to zero, so central banks had no more room to cut.

So, instead of going to the tool-box and taking out their tried and tested fiscal kit - which would have created jobs and had the added benefit of improving infrastructure – policy-makers instead, invented Quantitative Easing, which in essence is monetary policy on steroids. Central banks promised to buy bonds from the private sector, increasing their price, thereby shoveling money towards bond owners. The idea was that by buying safe assets, they would push the private sector to buy riskier assets and increasing bank reserves, they would have stimulated lending. But the consequence of all the Quantitative Easings is that all of the benefits of growth since the financial crisis have gone to the top 5 per cent, and most of that to the topmost 0.1 per cent.

A feature or a bug?

 The men who rule the planet are happy that most of us think economics is boring; that we would much rather read about R Kelly’s sexual predilections than about the difference between fiscal and monetary policy, but were we to remember that spending money on infrastructure or health-care or education would create jobs, raise wages, and create demand, which the economy craves, we would have a much more equitable world.

One cogent objection to stimulative fiscal policy is that it has the potential to be inflationary. Indeed, the fundamental goal of macro-economic policy is to match the economy’s demand to its ability to supply. If fiscal policy gets out of hand (as arguably it did in the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson tried to fund both his Great Society and the Vietnam war without raising taxes), demand could outstrip supply, creating inflation. But should that happen, we have the monetary tools to cure any inflationary pressure. Rates today are still barely above zero. Should inflation threaten, central banks can raise interest rates and nip it in the bud.

Fiscal and monetary policies: both have a place in policy-makers’ toolkits. Perhaps, the ideal combination would be to use fiscal to stimulate the economy and monetary to cool it down. Both Brexit and Donald Trump should have told elites that unless they share the benefits of growth, a populist onslaught could threaten all the prosperity. The easiest way to return to the Golden Age tranquility and equality is to empower fiscal policy to invest in the future, and create jobs today.

Contact me for business advisory services and training – send me a message via WhatsApp or SMS.

•Lawrence Nwaodu is a small business expert and enterprise consultant, trained in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with an MBA in Entrepreneurship from The Management School, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, and MSc in Finance and Financial Management Services from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University Netherlands. Mr. Nwaodu is the Lead Consultant at IDEAS Exchange Consulting, Lagos. He can be reached via nwaodu.lawrence@hotmail.co.uk (07066375847).

Source News Express

Posted 18/09/2017 7:25:31 PM

 

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