Opinion

Edward Hadas

Who suffers in the U.S. economy?

Edward Hadas
Sep 26, 2012 14:31 UTC

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney put the economy at the top of their campaign agendas. They have both focused primarily on labour – the high rate of unemployment. The attention is deserved, but other parts of the economy should not be ignored. There is the worrying decay of the nation’s capital stock – the physical, social and financial infrastructure. There is also something wrong in the consumption side of the economy, but there is a heated debate on just what the problem is.

Many commentators believe that the middle class, which makes up the bulk of the population, has a big problem: a decline in living standards. After all, the Census Bureau reports that the $50,054 median household pre-tax income in 2011 was 9 percent below the all-time peak, adjusted for inflation, reached 12 years earlier. That decline in income is so large that it must have led to some erosion in the typical family’s consumption.

Even if purchasing power really had declined by a few percent, the slide was from such a high starting place that loud complaints about deteriorating lifestyles would be unseemly. In fact, though, the median income measure distorts consumption reality. It omits services received without cost, for example healthcare provided by the government and insurers. It excludes the effects of changing taxes and shrinking household sizes. It underestimates the value of technological improvements – think mobile phones and the internet – and of the vast expansion of new, now-cheaper housing during the bubble.

These adjustments are almost certainly large enough to offset the reported decline. So the middle class doesn’t need a lecture on the virtues of making do with less. The adjustments also explain the lack of massive political indignation, even if there is evidence of minor irritation, at declining incomes. The placidity is not a sign that the American middle class has found stoic fortitude in the face of adversity. Rather, it is a reasonable response to consumption which is not really falling.

On the left, the common view is that the rich, or more precisely the widening gap at the top of the income ladder, is the nation’s leading consumption problem. For the top 1 percent of earners, income – after taxes and government transfers and adjusted for inflation – has multiplied four-fold since 1980, while the median has not even doubled. The disparity might be reduced by statistical adjustments, but the trend is real. The rapid increases in pay for celebrities, top executives and financial professionals are typical.

Remembering the 1960s

Edward Hadas
Sep 19, 2012 14:28 UTC

Revolution was not on the agenda when the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church opened on Oct. 11, 1962, almost exactly 50 years ago. However, the gathering marked the start of a new era, not only for the world’s largest centrally-run religion. During the following years, the hope for a better, freer world led to everything from the sexual revolution to the Prague Spring, from African independence to the hippie culture of Woodstock. A half-century on, it seems a good time for an economist to take stock.

The economy was not the top concern of the ’60s would-be revolutionaries, but calls for a new society had two revolutionary economic implications.

First, like so many other parts of the established order, the economic “system” was to be overthrown. The target was clear enough in Eastern Europe – the Communist planned economy. Elsewhere, the economic villain was harder to pin down, although it was often assumed that “capitalism” was intrinsically evil – heartless corporations and excessive materialism in the West and post-colonial exploitation in the Third World. It was time for radical change; if not a return to some imagined pre-industrial communal paradise then at least a massive refusal to become cogs in the machine. It hardly seemed to matter then that dissidents in the East were longing for what protesters in the West were loathing.

Can communist China drop Marxism?

Edward Hadas
Sep 5, 2012 15:21 UTC

Speeches by Chinese Communist Party leaders are great opportunities to play “buzzword bingo”. Hu Jintao’s July 23 policy summary was replete with such phrases as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and “Scientific Outlook on Development”. But the sloganising is more than empty rhetoric. The speech, echoed elsewhere, shows the outgoing leader wants the CCP, and the country, to escape from might be called a Marxist trap.

The trap has three parts. The first is the core Marxist belief that economic considerations come first while culture and everything else lag far behind. These days, many non-Marxists also put the economy first, but Chinese leaders are especially loyal to the simple claim that GDP growth equates to progress. Hu’s focus on scientific development, for instance, is shorthand for putting higher production before all other goals. His other big buzzword – harmonious development – is not a tribute to the traditional Confucian notion of cosmic harmony, but a call not to let inharmonious social disorder slow material progress.

The second part of the Marxist trap is the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in government and its final authority over everything in society. That predominance has been taken for granted by virtually everyone in the top leadership since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, although the thinking comes less of Marx himself than his teacher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel believed that the state would and should eventually take over the roles traditionally played by the various organisations of civil society: family, church, guild, cultural and special interest groups. Lenin added the claim that the Communist Party is the vanguard of this all-encompassing state, so there is neither need nor space for other voices.

Tame the persistent elites

Edward Hadas
Aug 8, 2012 14:09 UTC

It is circa 1900. A young girl from a simple fishing village has been sold as a ’practice wife’ to the Bendoro, or local lord. When the Bendoro tires of her and expels her from his house, the girl retires from his presence the way peasants are supposed to: backwards, and on her knees.

The scene is from the novel “The Girl from the Coast”, and is based on the life of the grandmother of the Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The girl suffered because the absolute authority of a petty local ruler and the accompanying indignities were considered normal. And this in a land which, by the standards of the age, was relatively refined. The Bendoro’s rules did not hold in the Netherlands, which ruled the land, but many Europeans would have shared his belief that sharp social stratification was part of the natural order of things. The Victorian author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, the childrens-favourite hymn, expressed the same sentiment a few decades earlier: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.”

Times have changed. Pramoedya’s story comes from a vanished world, one in which the privileged elites were considered superior beings to the masses of ’ordinary people’. To the modern reader, the Javanese peasant bride’s humility looks demeaning and disgusting, not pre-ordained. The Bendoro’s worldview has been superseded by that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which takes it as self-evident that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. And the verse about “the rich man in his castle” is usually excluded from editions of modern hymnals.

The Big Smothering State

Edward Hadas
Aug 1, 2012 12:54 UTC

For more than three centuries, defenders of people’s freedom and dignity against the oppression of governments have frequently focused on economic depredations. In the 17th century, John Locke decried unjust limits on private property. In the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek attacked the state’s control of the means of production. The Austrian philosopher, who is a kind of patron saint for today’s crusaders against big government, was certain that men could not be free without free markets. He saw socialist economics behind all big governments, which he believed to be universally oppressive.

It is not only the enemies of powerful governments who have considered economic matters to be pre-eminent. The followers of Karl Marx disagreed totally with Hayek about government and freedom. They thought free markets led only to the oppression of the poor by the rich and that large states were needed to defend true freedom. However, like Hayek, they put the economy at the centre of the debate about the proper role of government. They merely reversed his primary prescription, with pure Marxists calling for total government control of the economy and revisionists calling for a strong state and a carefully limited private sector.

The revisionist Marxists are now known in Europe as Social Democrats and in the United States as Democrats (although few would admit this intellectual ancestry). They have had their way with the economy throughout the developed world – and the economies have basically flourished. Extensive, active and basically honest governments are good economic stewards. Big governments support and supervise the massive investment projects, complex technological standards and the astounding diversity of tasks required for industrial economies to thrive. Thorough tax systems restrain the rich while welfare benefits protect the poor.

Sloth and the Big Honest State

Edward Hadas
Jul 18, 2012 14:01 UTC

There is only one good, proven, way to organise a political economy in the modern world – and that’s via the Big Honest State. Right now, one key aspect of the BHS is under serious threat.

What is the BHS? As the name suggests, it is large. In quantity, the various organs of a BHS account for 30-60 percent of GDP. In quality, the state dominates education, health care, industrial policy and the financial system. The BHS is also trustworthy. Its official bureaucracies are expected to be, and mostly are, meritocratic and dedicated to the common good. A BHS, though, is far from the total government of fascists and communists. One of the defining facets of the BHS, indeed, is that it works alongside a vibrant non-state sector.

The basic BHS model has been adopted in all advanced economies and it is aspired to by most leaders in almost every developing country. Universal adoption is easy to explain: the BHS works well. It has delivered a reasonable mix of prosperity, protection and social support. It has proved remarkably sturdy. Since the Second World War, no BHS country has had collapsed into chaos, become impoverished or suffered fundamental social breakdown. The system is also popular with voters, even if many government-hating Americans hate to admit it.

The touchstones of Yap

Edward Hadas
Jul 11, 2012 15:17 UTC

Why has the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 been so slow? To answer that question, it helps to reflect on two items in the newly opened Citi Money Gallery at London’s British Museum. The first is a photograph of a two-tonne carved stone which once served as money on the Pacific island of Yap. The second is the exhibit of counterfeit notes and coins.

Yap’s use of big rocks as currency poses some obvious problems, but the carved stones, known as rai or fei, did not actually pass from owner to owner. Possession was merely noted down by inscriptions. The economist Milton Friedman wrote an elegant paper about the Yap arrangement in 1991, explaining that the system worked because of the Yap residents’ “unquestioned belief” in it.

Friedman realised that modern monetary systems are also faith-based. The faith used to reside in the value of gold and silver, whether minted in coins or held in central bank vaults and represented by paper. Now people are asked to believe in the value of a currency which is almost entirely intangible and which can be created and destroyed by the fiat of central banks.

Market tantrums should be tamed

Edward Hadas
Jul 4, 2012 14:10 UTC

The headline could have come from a hundred places any time in the last hundred years. “Market has gone wild”, it read. The accompanying news report explains that the price of a crucial financial asset is in “free fall”. Traders and businessmen are calling on the government to step in.

The asset in question could be peripheral euro zone government debt today, global equity markets in early 2009. The wild market could have been soaring rather than falling: the stocks of 1929 and 1999, the house prices in Florida or London in the 2000s, or the supposedly safe government bonds today.

The actual headline comes from a Hong Kong newspaper in 1983, when investors in the then British colony began to fear the worst from a Chinese takeover. The UK’s Minister of State told the locals to “have confidence in yourselves”, but, as today’s Spanish and Italian politicians can ruefully confirm, such rhetoric is not enough to stop an investor stampede. A few weeks later, the Hong Kong authorities did indeed take the matter out of traders’ hands – they fixed the exchange rate between Hong Kong and U.S. dollars.

Both sides losing austerity fight

Edward Hadas
Jun 27, 2012 12:01 UTC

In one corner of the intellectual boxing ring is Stimulo. His fighting words: more economic stimulus. History and theory, he declaims, teach that governments should run much larger fiscal deficits in a downturn. In the other corner is the Cutback Kid, who delivers the opposite message: more austerity. He asserts that history and theory teach that governments should reduce their deficits. The two contestants for the Economic Policy Prize are in the midst of a long fight. Amazingly, they are both losing.

Stimulo has the open-hearted enthusiasm often associated with residents of the United States, for three decades known as the land of big fiscal deficits and small worries. His favourite example is the 1930s Great Depression, which only government spending could end. Now, almost four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, GDP growth remains slow and the unemployment rate high. The government deficit, he says, should be increased by as much as necessary to push the economy out of its current stagnation.

The Cutback Kid has a more restrained charm, the sort sometimes associated with suave European intellectuals. He praises the virtue of balanced government budgets: sound finances keep inflation far away, support the value of the currency and promote a strong economy by not stealing savings from the private sector, the source of durable growth. After four years of extraordinarily high government deficits, he says, it’s time to cut back.

The euro crisis as family drama

Edward Hadas
Jun 13, 2012 15:09 UTC

Sometimes big news stories seem unbearably dull. The euro crisis is often presented as an apparently endless stream of technical titbits that only a financial geek could love: alchemical recapitalisations of possibly insolvent banks, and the subtle differences between the European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism. But the mind-numbing details hide an exciting drama about the dysfunctional European family of nations.

Think of Greece as the wayward uncle who never seems to settle down and who keeps asking for a little money to tide him over. Spain is a younger sibling, finally interested in school but still reluctant to admit that she needs to change her ways. Italy is a voluble middle child, talented but with a taste for mischief. Germany is the slightly priggish older brother, who has trouble sympathising with his relatives’ weaknesses – although he usually relents in the end.

As in some tribes, the European family has appointed various councils of elders to guide group decisions. For the most part, the central authorities have worked well, but they have to be careful not to anger big brother Germany. Then there is the European Central Bank. When it was set up, most family members thought it would be just another elder-group, but the monetary authority is increasingly behaving like a sort of powerful Godfather to the whole clan.

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