“The rich world is enjoying an unprecedented jobs boom”, proffered a recent headline in The Economist. Unemployment rates in the US, UK, Germany and Japan are plumbing depths unseen in decades. Robust job growth in the early months of 2019 sent the Irish unemployment rate below 5% for the first time since 2007, leading some economists to suggest we are nearing ‘full employment’.
David G. Blanchflower’s new tome, Not Working, may then appear to cut against the grain of the data. On the contrary, record low unemployment rates are the jumping off point for this encyclopedic survey of what ails our labour markets. His central argument is that the unemployment rate is no longer the best indicator of how much slack there is in an economy because it ignores the extent to which people have given up the job search altogether (labour force participation) and part-timers want more hours (underemployment). This, he argues, is why wages are not growing as fast as would have been the case when unemployment rates were last so low.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 29 June 2019 ***
You can’t eat Gross Domestic Product (GDP), yet it is the indicator that economists pay closest attention to.
GDP gained currency during WWII as a way of keeping track of war production, and has since remained the dominant measure of economic output. More than that, it has become a byword for living standards.
Looking across countries, economic output per person, or per capita, adjusted for price differences is still a reasonable proxy for average material living standards. At least up to a point. It is not necessarily a good indicator of individual happiness, or of societal wellbeing, however.
The main problem isn’t with measuring GDP per se, but that maximizing it has become the over-riding target for economic policymakers. They have lost sight of the fact that increasing economic output should be a means to an end, not an end in itself. The over-riding priority should be to maximize the welfare and happiness of the greatest number or people while ensuring everyone has a basic, decent standard of living. Unfortunately, there is no consensus around how these should be measured.
How you see Ireland’s economic prospects may depend on whether your glass is half full or half empty in the post-Paddy’s day haze. There’s plenty to be bullish about, but warning signs have begun to flash in recent months as we brace for Brexit and a global slowdown.
First, the good news:
In many ways, the Irish economy looks to be in ‘goldilocks’ territory: not too cold, but still not too hot. Moreover, the number of people outside the labour force that could look for work again in the right conditions is still over 100,000, suggesting it still has room to run if factors beyond our control don’t get in the way.
*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 24 March 2019 *** Continue reading
Writing this time last year, I expected our economic fortunes to get better before they got worse. I saw clouds gathering on the distant horizon, but no major storms forecast for 2018.
*** This article was first published on thejournal.ie on 28 December 2018 ***
Ireland isn’t quite partying like it’s 2006, but the stats don’t lie – 2018 has been a bumper year by most measures.
The economy generated nearly 1,300 extra jobs per week in the 12 monthsto end-September, up from less than 950 per week the previous year. Even if the pace of job growth slowed after the middle of 2018, this is still impressive progress by any measure, and enough to see the unemployment rate fall to 5.3% in November, down from 6.4% the previous year.
Although this is close to what economists call ‘full employment’, it should be remembered that the share of the working age population making themselves available for work is still (62.6%) significantly lower than its 2007 peak (67.4%). This flatters the unemployment rate and suggests there are still some 300,000 people that could be enticed back to the workforce.
Growth in average hourly earningshas picked up, from 2.1% a year ago to 3.2% now, more than double the growth rate from two years ago. The minimum wage will increase by 2.6% from New Year’s Day, from €9.55 an hour to €9.80.
Only part of the increase in people’s pay packets is being eaten up by higher prices. Consumer prices are basically flat, edging up only slightly from 0.5% in November 2017, to 0.6% in the same month this year. This average hides important differences: the cost of housing, water, gas and electricity increased more than 5% on the year while the price of furniture and household equipment fell by more than -4%.
This means real hourly wages are increasing in every sector with the exception of public administration, which clocked up only a 0.8% gain in the year to end-September.
With more people at work earning higher wages, it is hardly surprising that we are spending more. Ireland’s GDP figures are heavily distorted by multinational activity, but the most unpolluted – and least volatile – component is private consumption which grew by 2.9% in the third quarter of the year compared to a year earlier.
Regarded as prescient in heralding the collapse of communism in 1989 as the ‘end of history’, Francis Fukuyama has since become something of an intellectual piñata.
His thesis then was that the triumph of liberal democracy, buttressed by a market economy, represented the ‘end of history’ in the Hegelian sense that other modes of organizing society had been tried, and failed, leaving the strongest standing. Eventually, he expected that it would become ubiquitous. The European Union was hailed as an aspirational model, having put an end to the continent’s centuries of internecine conflict.
So convinced was Fukuyama of the superiority of liberal democracy that, though a Democrat, he aligned himself with the neoconservative movement that provided the intellectual underpinning for George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
*** A version of this book review was first published in The Irish Times on 24 October 2018 ***
His two most recent books, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, were an attempt to clarify and rebut criticism of his ‘end of history’ thesis. Most notably, he dropped the pretense of the finality and inevitability, if not the desirability, of universal liberal democracy. He adapted his thesis to fit the facts on the ground.
Identity, his latest offering, was written for the age of Trump. Addressing the zeitgeist at both ends of the political spectrum for ‘identity politics’, particularly in the U.S. but also across Europe, he does a deep dive into what he sees as one possible mortal threat to liberal democratic institutions – ‘political decay’.
Late last year, I wrote in these pages about technology as a double-edged sword for social progress. Yes, advances in technology continue to underpin sustained improvements in living standards. But, I also highlighted several downsides detrimental to the wellbeing of certain cohorts of the population. One question I posed was whether we need to use anti-trust competition regulation to break up the tech behemoths that have come to dominate the digital economy.
Some tech firms, like Amazon and Uber, have found a new way of doing business that undercuts traditional providers. Others, like Apple, have carved out a dominant market position through in-house product innovation and cultivating brand loyalty. Yet others, like Google and Facebook, operate in markets – internet search engines and social networks – that barely existed two decades ago.
But Big Tech increasingly faces the public wrath, and risks a regulatory backlash. By re-locating their intellectual property, they manage to pay minimal taxes. By putting bookshops and taxi drivers out of business, livelihoods are undermined. By harvesting their users’ data, and then selling it or using it to target online advertisements, they put peoples’ privacy at risk. Recent revelations that the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users was compromised shows the risks people have been taking without even realizing it.
The question then is what, if anything, should be done about it. Continue reading
First, they came for the factory workers, but I did not speak out –
Because I was not a factory worker.
Later, they came for the bank tellers, but I did not speak out –
Because I was not a bank teller.
Soon, they’ll come for the taxi drivers, but I do not speak out –
Because I am not a taxi driver.
Are they coming for me?
This adaption of Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the Nazis’ creeping reign of terror is supposed to illustrate the ambivalence of ordinary people to technological change.
We like the fact that TVs, computers, mobile phones and domestic appliances are better and cheaper than in the past. Progressive automation in manufacturing has been a key driver of the productivity gains that allowed this happen.
The IMF recently published its updated outlook for the global economy. The good news is that recovery from the crisis seems to be finally picking up some momentum after a decade of sub-par growth. The bad news, as they see it, is that this momentum could be stopped in its tracks if the sword of Damocles that is the threat of protectionism – whether emanating from Trump’s White House, May’s Westminister or elsewhere – falls. This could throw the process of globalisation into reverse, they worry, and slow growth in the size of the economic pie.
Alongside their biannual economic forecasts, the IMF also publishes its latest thinking on various themes. In light of increased focus on the issue of inequality since the global financial crisis, to which the recent rise in political populism has been attributed, the IMF provides a timely chapter on “Understanding the downward trend in labour income shares”. It explores the reasons why the share of wages in GDP has declined markedly – in advanced, emerging and developing economies alike – in recent decades. Between the mid-1970s and its 2006 low, the labour share has declined from around 55% of GDP to around 50% in advanced economies, before recovering only slightly since the financial crisis, while income inequality has increased significantly over the same period.
Economists are fixated with what they can easily measure, but sometimes this means they can’t see the wood from the trees and focus on what is really important.
There are very good reasons why Gross Domestic Product, the sum of all goods and services produced for sale in an economy in a given time period, is the most widely watched economic indicator across the world. With adjustments for changes in prices over time and across countries, it is relatively easily comparable. When measured on a per capita basis, it is a useful – if far from perfect – proxy for the standard of living.
However, the intense focus on GDP numbers can distort public debate and political incentives as hitting growth targets becomes a holy grail. All growth is treated equally, no matter how broadly shared its benefits or how environmentally sustainable. People-centered priorities like jobs and incomes become secondary. Continue reading
Here is a post on the World Bank’s ‘The Trade Post’ blog written by Gonzalo Varela, Sjamsu Rahardja and myself on our recent working paper.