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The Roaring 2020s: Further Reading

Summary:
Mike Konczal and I have a piece in the New York Times arguing that the next few years could see a historic boom for the US economy, if policy makers recognize that strong demand and rising wages are good things, and don’t get panicked into turning toward austerity.  Mike and I and our colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute are planning a series of papers on “planning for the boom” over the coming year. The first, asking how high employment could plausibly rise under conditions of sustained strong demand, will be coming out later this month. In the meantime, here are some things I’ve written over the past few years, making the case that there is much more space for demand-led growth in the US economy than conventional estimates suggest, and that the benefits from pursuing it are broader

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Mike Konczal and I have a piece in the New York Times arguing that the next few years could see a historic boom for the US economy, if policy makers recognize that strong demand and rising wages are good things, and don’t get panicked into turning toward austerity. 

Mike and I and our colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute are planning a series of papers on “planning for the boom” over the coming year. The first, asking how high employment could plausibly rise under conditions of sustained strong demand, will be coming out later this month. In the meantime, here are some things I’ve written over the past few years, making the case that there is much more space for demand-led growth in the US economy than conventional estimates suggest, and that the benefits from pursuing it are broader than just producing more stuff.

In my recent post on the economics of the Rescue Plan, I highlighted the way in which the expansive public spending of the Biden administration implicitly embraces a bigger role for aggregate demand in the longer term trajectory of the economy and not just in short-run fluctuations:

Overheating may have short-term costs in higher inflation, inflated asset prices and a redistribution of income toward relatively scarce factors (e.g. urban land), but it also is associated with a long-term increase in productive capacity — one that may eventually close the inflationary gap on its own. Shortfalls on the other hand lead to a reduction in potential output, and so may become self-perpetuating as potential GDP declines.

I’ve continued making this argument in an ongoing debate with the University of Chicago’s Harold Uhlig at this new site Pairagraph. I also discussed it with David Beckworth on his excellent macroeconomics podcast. 

In many ways, this story starts from debates in the mid 2010s about the need for continued stimulus, which got a big impetus from Bernie Sanders first campaign in 2016. I tried to pull together those arguments in my 2017 Roosevelt paper What Recovery? There, I argued that the failure of per-capita GDP to return to its previous trend after 2009 was a striking departure from previous recessions; that an aging population could not explain the fall in labor fore participation; that slower productivity growth could be explained at least in part by weak demand; and the the balance of macroeconomic risks favored stimulus rather than austerity.  

In a more recent post, I noted that the strong growth and low unemployment of the later part of the decade, while good news in themselves, implied an even bigger demand shortfall in the aftermath of the recession:

In 2014, the headline unemployment rate averaged 6.2 percent. At that time, the benchmark for full employment (technically, the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU) used by the federal government was 4.8 percent, suggesting a 1.4 point shortfall, equivalent to 2.2 million excess people out of work. But let’s suppose that today’s unemployment rate of 3.6 percent is sustainable—which it certainly seems to be, given that it is, in fact, being sustained. Then the unemployment rate in 2014 wasn’t 1.4 points too high but 2.6 points too high, nearly twice as big of a gap as policymakers thought at the time. 

I made a similar set of arguments for a more academic audience in a chapter for a book on economics in the wake of the global financial crisis,  Macroeconomic Lessons from the Past Decade”. There, I argue that

the effects of demand cannot be limited to “the short run”. The division between a long-run supply-side and a short-run demand-side, while it may be useful analytically, does not work as a description of real world developments. Both the size of the labor force and productivity growth are substantially endogenous to aggregate demand. 

This set of arguments is especially relevant in the context of climate change; if there is substantial slack in the economy, then public spending on decarbonization can raise current living standards even in the short run. Anders Fremstad, Mark Paul and I made this argument in a 2019 Roosevelt report, Decarbonizing the US Economy: Pathways toward a Green New Deal. I made the case much more briefly in a roundtable on decarbonization in The International Economy:

The response to climate change is often conceived as a form of austerity—how much consumption must we give up today to avoid the costs of an uninhabitable planet tomorrow? … The economics of climate change look quite different from a Keynesian perspective, in which demand constraints are pervasive and the fundamental economic problem is not scarcity but coordination. In this view, the real resources for decarbonization will not have to be withdrawn from other uses. They can come from an expansion of society’s productive capabilities, thanks to the demand created by clean-energy investment itself. 

If you like your economics in brief video form, I’ve made this same argument about aggregate demand and climate change for Now This.

The World War II experience, which Mike and I highlight in the Times piece, is discussed at length in a pair of papers that Andrew Bossie and I wrote for Roosevelt last year. (Most of what I know about the economics of the war mobilization is thanks to Andrew.) In the first paper, The Public Role in Economic Transformation: Lessons from World War II, we look at the specific ways in which the US built a war economy practically overnight; the key takeaway is that while private contractors generally handled production itself, most investment, and almost all the financing of investment, came from the public sector. The second paper, Public Spending as an Engine of Growth and Equality: Lessons from World War II, looks at the macroeconomic side of the war mobilization.

Among the key points we make here are that potential output is much more elastic in response to demand than we usually assume; that both the labor force and productivity respond strongly to the level of spending; that the inflation associated with rapid growth often is a sign of temporary shortfalls or bottlenecks, which can be addressed in better ways than simply reducing aggregate spending; and that strong demand is a powerful force for equalizing the distribution of income. The lessons for the present are clear:

The wartime experience suggests that the chronic weak demand the US has suffered from for at least the past decade is even more costly than we had realized. Not only does inadequate spending lead to slower growth, it leads to lower wage gains particularly for those at the bottom and reinforces hierarchies of race and sex. Conversely, a massive public investment program in decarbonization or public health would not only directly address those crises, but could also be an important step toward reversing the concentration of income and wealth that is one of the great failures of economic policymaking over the past generation. 

I also discuss the war experience in this earlier Dissent review of Mark Wilson’s book Destructive Creation, and in a talk I delivered at the University of Massachusetts in early 2020.

Alternative approaches to inflation control isn’t something I’ve written a lot about —  until recently, the question hasn’t seemed very urgent. But Mike, me and our Roosevelt colleague Lauren Melodia did write a blog post last month about why it’s a mistake to worry about somewhat higher inflation numbers this year. One aspect of this is the “base effect” which is artificially increasing measured inflation, but it’s also important to stress that genuinely higher inflation is both a predictable result of a rapid recovery from the pandemic and not necessarily a bad thing. 

A few years ago, Mike and I wrote a paper arguing for a broader toolkit at the Fed. Our focus at the time was on finding more ways to boost demand. But many of the arguments also apply to a situation — which we are definitely not in today, but may be at some point — where you’d want to rein demand in. Whichever way the Fed is pushing, it would be better to have more than one tool to push with. 

Another important background debate for the Times piece is the idea of secular stagnation, which enjoyed a brief vogue in the mid 2010s. Unfortunately, the most visible proponent of this idea was Larry Summers, who … well, let’s not get into that here. But despite its dubious provenance, there’s a lot to be said for the idea that recent decades have seen a persistent tendency for total spending to fall short of the economy’s productive potential. In this (somewhat wonkish) blog post, I discussed this idea in terms of Roy Harrod’s model of economic growth, and suggested a number of factors that might be at work:

for secular, long-term trends tending to raise desired saving relative to desired investment we have: (1) the progressive satiation of consumption demand; (2) slowing population growth; (3) increasing monopoly power; and (4) the end of the industrialization process. Factors that might either raise or lower desired savings relative to investment are: (5) changes in the profit share; (6) changes in the fraction of profits retained in the business sector; (7) changes in the distribution of income; (8) changes in net exports; (9) changes in government deficits; and (10) changes in the physical longevity of capital goods. Finally, there are factors that will tend to raise desired investment relative to desired saving. The include: (11) consumption as status competition (this may offset or even reverse the effect of greater inequality on consumption); (12) social protections (public pensions, etc.) that reduce the need for precautionary and lifecycle saving; (13) easier access to credit, for consumption and/or investment; and (14) major technological changes that render existing capital goods obsolete, increasing the effective depreciation rate. These final four factors will offset any tendency toward secular stagnation.

Hysteresis — the effect of demand conditions on potential output — and secular stagnation are two important considerations that suggest that big boost in spending, as we are looking at now, could permanently raise the economy’s growth path. A third, less discussed consideration is that demand itself may be persistent. I discuss that possibility in a recent blog post.  

An important aspect of an economic boom which we unfortunately could not fit into the op-ed is the way that faster growth and moderately higher inflation reduce the burden of debt for both the private and public sector. Historically, growth rates, inflation and interest rates have had a bigger effect on the household debt ratio than household borrowing has. This is a major focus of my scholarly work — see here and here. The same thing goes for public debt, as I’ve discussed in a blog post here. The degree to which both the past year’s stimulus and a possible future boom has/will strengthen balance sheets across the economy is seriously underappreciated, in my view.

The question of public debt has moved away from center stage recently. Criticism of public spending lately seems more focused on inflation and supposed ”labor supply constraints.” But if the anti-boom contingent shifts back toward scare stories about public debt, I’ve got pre-rebuttals written here and here.

For the broader economic perspective I’m coming from, I haven’t done a better job laying it out than this interview with the Current Affairs podcast. The ostensible topic is Modern Monetary Theory, but it’s really a general conversation about how we should think about the economy. You could also look at the teaching materials on this website. On the more concrete debates about economic potential and the limits to public spending, Arjun Jayadev and I have written a couple of stock-taking pieces: Strange Defeat: How Austerity Economics Lost All the Intellectual Battles and Still Won the War, and more recently The Crash of Austerity Economics.

Finally, I want to highlight something I wrote about a year ago: The Coronavirus Recession Is Just Beginning. There, I argued that the exceptional reduction in activity due to the pandemic would probably be followed by a conventional recession. You will note that this is more or less the opposite of the argument in the Times piece. That’s because my post least year was wrong! But I don’t think it was unreasonable to make that prediction at the time. What I didn’t take into account, what almost no one took into account, was the extraordinary scale of the stimulus over the past year. Well ok! Now, let’s build on that.

About JW Mason
JW Mason
Assistant professor of economics at John Jay College - CUNY, and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. RT = Read This

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