NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

I’ve had a few posts in the past few months (here and here) about the consequences of mechanization for the future of work. In short, what will we do when the robots take our jobs?

I wouldn’t call myself a techno-optimist. I don’t think the arrival of robots necessarily makes everything better. But I do not buy the strong techno-pessimism that comes up in many places. Richard Serlin has been a frequent commenter on this blog, and he generally has a gloomy take on where we are going to end up once the robots arrive. I’m not bringing up Richard to pick on him. He writes thoughtful comments on this subject (and lots of others), and it is those comments that pushed me to try and be more clear on why I’m “techno-neutral”.

The economy is more creative than we can imagine. The coming of robots to mechanize away our jobs is the latest in a long, long, long, history of technology replacing workers. And yet here we still are, working away. Timothy Taylor posted this great selection a few weeks ago. This is a quote from Time Magazine:

The rise in unemployment has raised some new alarms around an old scare word: automation. How much has the rapid spread of technological change contributed to the current high of 5,400,000 out of work? … While no one has yet sorted out the jobs lost because of the overall drop in business from those lost through automation and other technological changes, many a labor expert tends to put much of the blame on automation. … Dr. Russell Ackoff, a Case Institute expert on business problems, feels that automation is reaching into so many fields so fast that it has become “the nation’s second most important problem.” (First: peace.)
The number of jobs lost to more efficient machines is only part of the problem. What worries many job experts more is that automation may prevent the economy from creating enough new jobs. … Throughout industry, the trend has been to bigger production with a smaller work force. … Many of the losses in factory jobs have been countered by an increase in the service industries or in office jobs. But automation is beginning to move in and eliminate office jobs too. … In the past, new industries hired far more people than those they put out of business. But this is not true of many of today’s new industries. … Today’s new industries have comparatively few jobs for the unskilled or semiskilled, just the class of workers whose jobs are being eliminated by automation.

That quote is from 1961. This is almost word for word the argument you will get about robots and automation leading to mass unemployment in the future. 50 years ago we were just as worried about this kind of thing, and in those 50 years we do not have massive armies of unemployed workers wandering the streets. The employment/population ratio in 1961 was about 55%, and then it steadily rose until the late 90’s when it topped out at about 64%. Even after the Great Recession, the ratio is still 59% today, higher than it was in 1961.

This didn’t happen without disruption and dislocation. And the robots will cause similar dislocation and disruption. Luddites weren’t wrong about losing their jobs, they were just wrong about the economy losing jobs in aggregate. But I don’t see why next-generation robots are any different than industrial robots, mainframes, PC’s, tractors, mechanical looms, or any other of the ten million innovations made in history that replaced labor. We can handle this with some sympathy and try to smooth things out for those dislocated, or we can do what usually happens and let them hang out to dry. The robots aren’t the problem here, we are.

What exactly are those new jobs that will be created? If I knew, then I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, I’d be out starting a company. The fact that I cannot conceive of an innovation myself is not evidence that innovation has ceased. But I do believe in the law of large numbers, and somewhere among the 300-odd million Americans is someone who *is* thinking of a new kind of company with new kinds of jobs.

Robots change prices as well as wages. An argument for pessimism goes like this. People have subsistence requirements, meaning they have a wage floor below which they cannot survive. Robots will be able to replace humans in production and this will drive the wage below that subsistence requirement. Either no firm will hire workers at the subsistence wage or people who do work will not meet subsistence.

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the impact of robots on the price of that subsistence requirement. Subsistence requirements are in real terms (I need clothes and housing and food), not nominal terms (I need $2000 dollars). The “subsistence wage” is a a real wage, meaning it is the nominal wage divided by the price level of a subsistence basket of goods. Robots lowering marginal costs of production lowers the nominal human wage, but it also lowers the price of goods. It is not necessary or even obvious that real wages have to fall because of robots. History says that despite all of the labor-saving technological change that has gone on over the last few hundred years, real wages have risen as the lower costs outweigh the downward pressure on wages.

Who is going to buy what the robots produce? Call this the “Henry Ford” argument. If you are going to invest in opening up a factory staffed entirely by robots, then who precisely is supposed to buy that output? Ford raised wages at his highly mechanized (for the time) plants so that he had a ready-made market for his cars. The Henry Fords of robot factories are going to need a market for the stuff they build. Rich people are great, but diminishing marginal utility sets in pretty quick. That means robot owners either need to lower prices or raise wages for the people they do hire in order to generate a big enough market. Depending on the fixed costs involved in getting these proverbial robot factories up and running, robot owners may be a strong force for keeping wages high in the economy, just like Henry Ford was back in the day.

The wealthy are wealthy because they own productive assets. A tiny fraction of the value of those assets is due to the utility to the owner of the widgets they kick out. The majority of the value of those assets is due to the fact that you can *sell* that output for money and use that money to buy other widgets. Rockefeller wasn’t wealthy because he had a lot of oil. He was wealthy because he could sell it to other people. No other people, no wealth. Just barrel after barrel of useless black gunk.

The same holds for robot owners. Those robots and robot factories have value because you can sell them or the goods they make in the wider economy. And that means continuing to exchange with the non-wealthy. You cannot be wealthy in a vacuum. Bill Gates on an island with robots and a stack of 16 billion dollar bills is Gilligan with a lot of kindling.

Wealthy robot owners will do what wealthy (fill in capital stock here) owners have done for eons. They’ll trade access to the capital, or the goods it produces, to the non-wealthy in exchange for services, effort, flattery, and new ideas on what to do with that wealth.

Wealth concentration would be a problem with or without robots. The worry here is that because the wealthy will be the only ones able to build the robots and robot factories, they will control completely the production of goods and the demand for labor. That’s not a problem that arises with robots, that is a problem that arises with, well, settled agriculture 10,000 years ago. Wealth concentration makes owners both monopolists (market power selling goods) and monopsonists (market power buying labor), which is a bad combination. It gives them the ability to drive (real) wages down to minimum subsistence levels. This is bad, absolutely. But this was bad when (fill in example of a landed elite) did it in (fill in historical era here). This is bad in “company towns”. This is bad now, today. So if you want to argue against wealth concentration and the pernicious influence it has on wages, get started. Don’t wait for the robots, they’ve got nothing to do with it.

Again, be clear that in arguing against techno-pessimism I am not arguing that robots will generate a techno-utopia with ponies and rainbows. I just do not buy the dystopian view that somehow it’s all going to come crashing down around our ears because of the very particular innovations coming in the near future.

The Skeptics Guide to Institutions – Part 4

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

The final installment of my series on the empirical institutions literature. Quick summary of the prior posts:

  1. Part 1: cross-country studies of institutions are inherently flawed by lack of identification and ordinal institutional indexes treated as cardinal
  2. Part 2: instrumental variable approaches – settler mortality included – are flawed due to bad data and questions and more identification problems.
  3. Part 3: historical studies show that there is path dependence or a poverty trap, but not that institutions themselves are central to underdevelopment

You have to be very careful with what you conclude from the institutions literature or from my three posts. We are dealing with empirics here, so we are not able to make any definitive statements. There is a null hypothesis, and we either reject or fail to reject that null.

So what is that null hypothesis? For the institutions theory, as with any theory, the correct null hypothesis is that it is wrong. Specifically, the null hypothesis is “institutions do not matter”. What does the empirical institutions literature tell me? I cannot reject that null. We do not have sufficient evidence to reject the idea that institutions do not matter.

But failure to reject the null is not the same as accepting the null. Having failed to reject the null, I cannot conclude that institutions do *not* matter. They may matter. All the other reading and thinking I’ve done on this subject suggests to me that they *do* matter. But the existing empirical evidence is not sufficient to strongly reject the null that they do *not*. As I said in the last post, there may be a working paper out there right now that offers a real definitive rejection of the null.

Given the empirical evidence, then, I’m uncomfortable making broad pronouncements that we have to get institutions “right” or “improve institutions” to generate economic development. We do not have evidence that this would work.

Further, I’m not sure that even if that mythical working paper did appear to solidly reject the null that the right advice would be to “improve institutions”. I say this because even the institutions literature tells you that it is impossible to make an exogenous change to institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson did not lay out a theory of what constitutes good institutions, they laid out a theory of why institutions are persistent. Their work shows that being stuck in the bad equilibrium is the result of a skewed distribution of economic power that grants some elite a skewed amount of political power. The elite can’t credibly commit to maintaining reforms, and the masses can’t credibly commit to preserving the elite’s position, so they can’t come to an agreement on creating better institutions (whatever those might be).

The implication of the institutions literature is that redistributing wealth towards the masses will lead to economic development (and vice versa, that redistributing it towards the elites will slow economic development). Only then will the elite and masses endogenously negotiate a better arrangement. You don’t even have to know precisely what “good institutions” means, as they will figure it out for themselves. The redistribution need not be explicit, but may arise through changes in technology, trade, or population.

Douglass North has the same underlying logic in his work. It was only with changes in the land/labor ratio favoring workers in Europe that old institutions disintegrated (serfdom) and new institutions arose (secure property rights).

A good example is South Korea. In 1950, Korea was one of the poorest places on earth, falling well below many African nations in terms of development. It had also been subject to colonization by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Korea had the same history of exploitive institutions as most African nations.

So why didn’t South Korea get stuck in the same trap of bad institutions and under-development as Africa? One answer is that is had a massive redistribution of wealth. In 1945, the richest 3 percent of rural households owned 2/3 of all land, and about 60 percent of rural households had no land. This should have led to bad institutions and persistent underdevelopment. (See Ban, Moon, and Perkins, 1980, if you can find a copy).

But starting in 1948 South Korea enacted wholesale land reform. By 1956, only 7 percent of farming households were tenants, and the rest owned their land. According to the FAO Agricultural Census of 1962, South Korea had *zero* farms larger than 5 hectares. Not a small number, not just a few, but *zero*. Agricultural land in South Korea, probably the primary source of wealth at that point, was distributed with incredible equity across households.

According to North or Acemoglu and Robinson, this redistribution changed the relative power of elites and masses. It would have allowed them to reach a deal on “good institutions”, or at least would have made the elite powerless to stop the masses from enacting reforms. South Korea got good institutions in part because it changed the distribution of wealth. [Good institutions for economic growth don’t appear to overlap with good institutions for personal freedom, though – South Korea was a dictatorship until 1988.]

The point is that even if we acknowledge that “institutions matter”, that does not imply that we can or should propose institutional reforms to generate economic development. It’s a mistake to think of ceteris paribus changes to institutions. They are not a thing that we can easily or independently alter. If they were, then they wouldn’t be *institutions* in the way that Douglass North uses the term.

If you want to generate economic development, the implication of the institutions literature is that you have to reform the underlying distribution of economic power first. Once you do that institutions will endogenously evolve towards the “good” equilibrium, whatever that may be.

[But the distribution of economic power *is* an institution, you might say. Okay, sure. Define institutions broadly enough and it will become trivially true that institutions matter. Defined broadly enough, institutions are the reason my Diet Coke spilled this morning, because gravity is an “institution governing the interaction of two masses in space”.]

Scale, Profits, and Inequality

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

After my post last week on inequality, I got a number of (surprisingly reasonable) responses. I pulled one line out of a recent comment, not to call out that particular commenter, but because it encapsulates an argument for *not* caring about inequality.

Gates and the Waltons really did probably add more value to humanity than the janitor at my school.

The general argument here is about incentives. Without the possibility of massive profits, people like Bill Gates or Sam Walton will not bother to innovate and create Microsoft and Walmart. So we should not raise taxes because those people deserve, in some sense, the fruits of their genius. More important, without them innovating, the economy wouldn’t grow.

But if we take seriously the incentives behind innovation, then it isn’t simply the genius of the individual that matters for growth. The scale of the economy is equally relevant. In any typical model of innovation and growth, the profits of a firm are going to be something like Profits = Q(Y)(P-MC), where (P-MC) is price minus marginal cost. Q(Y) is the quantity sold, and this depends on the aggregate size of the economy, Y.

The markup of price over marginal cost (P-MC), is going to depend on how much market power you have, and on the nature of demand for your product. This markup depends on your individual genius, in the sense that it depends on how indispensable people find your product. Apple is probably the better example here. They sell iPhones for way over marginal cost because they’ve convinced everyone through marketing and design that substitutes for iPhones are inferior.

The scale term, Q(Y) does not depend on genius. It depends on the size of the market you have to sell to. If we stuck Steve Jobs, Jon Ive, and some engineers on a remote island, they wouldn’t earn any profits no matter how many i-Devices they invented, because there would be no one to sell them to.

People like Gates and the Waltons earn profits on the scale effect of the U.S. economy, which they did not invent, innovate on, or produce. So the “rest of us”, like the janitor mentioned above, have some legitimate reason to ask whether those profits are best used in remunerating Bill Gates and the Walton family, or could be put to better use.

There isn’t necessarily any kind of efficiency loss from raising taxes on Gates, Walton, and others with large incomes. They may, on the margin, be slightly less willing to innovate. But if the taxes are put to use expanding the scale of the U.S. economy, then we might easily increase innovation by through the scale effect on profits. Investing in health, education, and infrastructure all will raise the aggregate size of the U.S. economy, and make innovation more lucrative. Even straight income transfers can raise the effective scale of the U.S. economy be transferring purchasing power to people who will spend it.

Can we argue about exactly how much of the profits are due to “genius” (the markup) and how much to scale? Sure, there is no precise answer here. But you cannot dismiss the idea of taxing high-income “makers” because their income represents the fruits of their individual genius. It doesn’t. Their incomes derive from a combination of ability and scale. And scale doesn’t belong to individuals.

The value-added of “the Waltons” is particularly relevant here. Sam Walton innovated, but the profits of Walmart are almost entirely derived from the scale of the U.S. (and world) economy. It’s the presence of thousands and thousands of those janitors in the U.S. that generates a huge portion of Walmart’s profits, not the Walton family’s unique genius.

Alice Walton is worth around $33 billion. She never worked for Walmart. She is a billionaire many times over because her dad was smart enough to take advantage of the massive scale of the U.S. economy. I’m not willing to concede that Alice has added more value to humanity than anyone in particular. So, yes, I’ll argue that Alice should pay a lot more in taxes than she does today. And no, I’m not afraid that this will prevent innovation in the future, because those taxes will help expand the scale of the economy and incent a new generation of innovators to get to work.

Why I Care about Inequality

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

“Inequality” is a term that has been tossed about quite a bit. The Occupy movement, to Piketty’s book, to debates over the minimum wage, to Greg Mankiw‘s defense of the 1%. Just today Mark Thoma published an op-ed on inequality. A few days ago John Cochrane had a post about why we care about inequality.

One of Cochrane’s main points is that the term “inequality” has been used in so many contexts, and to refer to so many different things, that it is ceasing to lose meaning. I’ll agree with him on this completely. If you want to talk about “inequality”, you have to be very clear about what precisely you mean.

There are three things that people generally mean by “inequality”:

  1. The 1% versus the 99%. That is, the difference in average annual income of the top 1% of all households versus the average annual income of the bottom 99%.
  2. The stagnation of median real wages and those below the median.
  3. The college premium, or the gap in earnings between those who finished college and those who did not (or did not attend).

When I say I care about inequality, I mean mainly the second – the stagnation of median wages – but this is going to take me into territory covered by the first – the growth in top 1% income. There are things to say about the college premium, but I’m not going to say them here.

Why do I care about the stagnation of median wages?

  • Because I’m going to be better off if everyone shares in prosperity. I want services like education, health care, and home repairs to be readily available and cheap. The way to achieve that is to invest in developing a large pool of skilled workers – teachers, nurses, electricians, carpenters. Those at the bottom of the distribution don’t have sufficient income to make those investments privately, so that requires public provision of those investments (i.e. schools) or transfers to support private investments. You want to have an argument about whether public provision or transfers are more efficient? Okay. But the fact that there is an argument on implementation doesn’t change the fact that stagnant wages are a barrier to these investments right now.
  • Because people at the bottom of the income distribution aren’t going to disappear. We can invest in these people, or we can blow our money trying to shield ourselves from them with prisons, police officers, and just enough income support to keep them from literally starving. I vote for investment.

One response to this is that I don’t care about inequality per se, I care about certain structural issues in labor markets, education, and law enforcement. So why don’t we address those fundamental structural issues, rather than waving our hands around about inequality, which is meaningless? Because these strutural issues are a problem of under-investment. The current allocation of income/wealth across the population is not organically producing enough of this investment, so that allocation is a problem. In short, if you care about these structural issues, you cannot escape talking about the distribution of income/wealth. In particular, you have to talk about another kind of inequality, the 1%/99% kind.

Let me be very clear about this too, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to be clever and hide something. I would take some of the income and/or wealth from people with lots of it, and then (a) give some of that to currently poor people so they can afford to make private investments and (b) use the rest to invest in public good provision like education, infrastructure, and health care.

Would I use a pitchfork and torches to do this? No. Would I institute “confiscatory taxation” on rich people? No, that’s a meaningless term that Cochrane and others use to suggest that somehow rich people are going to be persecuted for being rich. I am talking about raising marginal income tax rates and estate tax rates back to the archaic levels seen in the 1990s.

Why do I not feel bad about taxing rich people further?

  • Because rich people spend their money on useless stuff. Not far from where I live, there is a new house going up. It will be over 10,000 square feet when it is complete. 2,500 of those square feet will be a closet that has two separate floors, one for regular clothes and one for formal wear. If that is what you are spending your money on, then yes, I believe raising your taxes to fund education, infrastructure, and health spending is a net gain for society.

    Don’t poor people spend money on stupid stuff? Of course they do. Isn’t the government an inefficient provider of some of these goods, like education? Maybe. But even if both those things are true, public investment and/or transfers to poor people will result in some net investment that I’m not currently getting from the mega-closet family. I’m happy to talk about alternative institutional settings that would ensure a greater proportion of the funds get spent on actual investments.

  • Because I’m not afraid that some embattled, industrious core of “makers” will decide to “go Galt” and drop out of society, leaving the rest of us poor schleps to fend for ourselves. Oh, however will we figure out how to feed ourselves without hedge fund managers around to guide us?

    This is actually a potential feature of higher marginal tax rates, by the way, not a bug. You’re telling me that a top tax rate at 45% will convince a number of wealthy self-righteous blowhards (*cough* Tom Perkins *cough*) to flee the country? Great. Tell me where they live, I’ll help them pack. And even if these self-proclaimed “makers” do stop working, the economy is going to be just fine. How do I know? Imagine that the entire top 1% of the earnings distribution left the country, took all of their money with them, and isolated themselves on some Pacific island. Who’s going to starve first, them or the remaining 300-odd million of us left here? The income and wealth of the top 1% have value only because there is an economy of another 300-odd million people out there willing to provide services and make goods in exchange for some of that income and wealth.

So, yes, I care about 1%/99% inequality itself, because I cannot count on the 1% to privately make good investment decisions regarding the human capital of the bottom 99%. And the lack of investment in the human capital of the bottom part of the income distribution is a colossal waste of resources.

Wealth and Capital are Different Things

NOTE: The Growth Economics Blog has moved sites. Click here to find this post at the new site.

Piketty’s book is like a giant attention-sucking vortex. I can’t seem to escape it. This time I’m thinking about the criticism of Piketty’s analysis that has to do with rates of return on capital. Piketty says that if {r > g}, where {r} is the return to capital, and {g} is the growth rate of aggregate GDP, then wealth will become more and more concentrated.

Critiques of Piketty have questioned the assumptions underlying this conclusion. The most recent one I’ve seen is in Larry Summers’ review piece. Let’s let him sum up the issues:

This rather fatalistic and certainly dismal view of capitalism can be challenged on two levels. It presumes, first, that the return to capital diminishes slowly, if at all, as wealth is accumulated and, second, that the returns to wealth are all reinvested. Whatever may have been the case historically, neither of these premises is likely correct as a guide to thinking about the American economy today.

With respect to the first assumption regarding the rate of return, here is what Summers says:

Economists universally believe in the law of diminishing returns. As capital accumulates, the incremental return on an additional unit of capital declines.

But Summers has fallen into what I think is a really common trap for economists. He presumes that his second statement (“As capital accumulates, the incremental return on an additional unit of capital declines”) contradicts Piketty’s assumption (“that the return to capital diminishes slowly, if at all, as wealth is accumulated”). These two statements are not mutually exlusive.

The issue is that Summers is confounding wealth and capital. This is not helped by Piketty, who uses “capital” in his title and in the book the way that normal people use it, as a synonym for “wealth”. But from the perspective of an economist, these two concepts are not the same thing. The capital that Summers refers to in his critique (often denoted {K}) is a subset of the measure of national wealth ({W}, as I’ll call it) that Piketty documents.

Without going too deep into this, Piketty’s measure of wealth consists of three parts: real estate, corporate capital, and financial assets. Only real estate and corporate capital are what economist have in mind when they say capital ({K}). Wealth, however, consists of all three parts, so that Piketty’s wealth is {W = K + F}, where {F} is the value of financial assets. Asserting that the return to capital falls as the capital stock increases – as Summers does – does not imply that the return to wealth falls as the stock of wealth increases. Even if we assume that financial markets work so efficiently that the return to capital and the return to financial assets are identical, this does not mean that the return to wealth necessarily falls as wealth accumulates.

To see this, consider a really slimmed down version of the “bubble asset” model from Blanchard and Fischer (1989, p. 228). We have that the return on capital is {r = f'(K)}, where {f'(K)} is the marginal product of capital. The {f'(K)} is the derivative of the production function, and represents the marginal increase in output we’d get from adding one more unit of capital. Under our typical assumptions about diminishing returns, as {K} goes up {r} goes down. This is what Summers is using as his critique.

An efficient financial market would ensure that financial assets (F) would also have a return of {r}. If they did not, then people would buy/sell financial assets until the return was equal. (Yes, I’m ignoring risk entirely, but that doesn’t change the main point here). So the return on all wealth is equal to {r}, and note that this is pinned down by the value of {K} alone.

Now, we have assumed that {r} falls as {K} increases. Does this imply that {r} falls as wealth ({W}) increases? No. The relationship between {r} and {W} depends entirely on the composition of the change in {W}. If {W} rises because {K} rises (say {F} stays constant), then the rate of return on wealth falls because the marginal product of capital has declined. This is what Summers and others have in mind.

However, it’s perfectly plausible that {W} rises even though {K} falls, because the value of financial assets ({F}) are increasing even more quickly. In this case, the marginal product of capital has increased, and the rate of return on wealth has increased. In this case, the rate of return rises with wealth.

Is it reasonable for an economy to experience falling capital but a rising value of financial assets? Sure. The point of Blanchard and Fisher’s model of bubbles is that even though all individuals are acting rationally at all times, the economy can take off onto a weird path where the stock of capital ({K}) gets run down while the value of financial assets ({F}) rises. Eventually this is unsustainable, as we’d run out of capital, but there is no reason that a situation like this cannot persist for a while.

Will the return to wealth necessarily rise as wealth accumulates? No. There are other equally reasonable paths that the economy could take where wealth accumulation is driven mainly by capital accumulation and the rate of return falls as wealth accumulates, consistent with the Summers critique. The point I want to make is that there is no particular reason to believe in a fixed relationship between wealth and the return on capital. They can move completely independently of each other.

So Piketty can easily be right that we are currently in a world where both the wealth/income ratio is increasing and the rate of return on wealth is rising (or remaining roughly constant), and that this could persist for some indefinite period. On the other hand, it was not inevitable that this was going to happen, and it could just as easily end tomorrow as in 100 years.

I think the story that is milling around beneath the surface of Piketty’s book is that recent wealth accumulation has been primarily of financial assets, not capital. Hence the return has stayed high and the concentration of wealth has continued. If the returns on that wealth are continually reinvested in financial assets as opposed to capital, then Piketty’s death spiral of wealth concentration would likely be the outcome. To avoid that death spiral, you’d want to get the returns on wealth reinvested into real capital so that the return on capital (and hence wealth) gets pushed down.