Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Unpuzzling the Politics of Growth and Redistribution: What hath growth wrought?

"If there is a future for cosmopolitanism in Europe, it needs a credible politics of growth and redistribution." -- Peter Dorman, "Europe, Where Two Rights Make a Wrong"
Sandwichman wonders how such a politics would differ from the "ostensible socialist" wing of the neoliberal coalition. First, it would help to have a credible definition of what it is that is supposed to be growing. "Growth" sounds good... as long as you don't have to pin it down. But what supposedly grows -- national income and product accounts -- is an incomplete, monetized aggregate of disparate things, some of which are double counted, and "more" of which could mean just about anything or nothing. 

It is wishful thinking to assume that more of "whatever" will inevitably be better than a well-specified less.

Barkley Rosser took Sandwichman to task for suggesting that the mix of empirical information, speculation and wishful thinking about the relationship between economic growth and income inequality has probably worsened since Simon Kuznets 1954 estimate of "5 per cent empirical information and 95 per cent speculation, some of it possibly tainted by wishful thinking":
But the hard fact is that there is lots more data out there on many aspects of economics, including the precise issues that Kuznets was studying when he made his complaint about "speculation."
Barkley is right about there being more data and empirical work out there, although it is unnerving that the example he cited as a sign of the empirical work -- Thomas Piketty's work -- doesn't support the complacent conventional wisdom regarding the unquestionable beneficence of economic growth. I would like to add another source that supports Barkley's claim about empirical work but contradicts the dominant complacency about growth: François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson's widely-cited "Inequality among World Citizens: 1820-1992":
To summarize, this analysis shows that world income inequality worsened dramatically over the past two centuries. ... Changes in inequality within countries were important in some periods, most notably the drop in inequality within European countries and their offshoots in America and in the Pacific during the first half of the 20th century. In the long run, however, the increase in inequality across countries was the leading factor in the evolution of the world distribution of income. ... World inequality seems to have fallen since 1950 as a result of the pronounced drop in international disparities in life expectancy. But now that disparities in life expectancy are back to the levels before the big divergence of the 19th century, this source of convergence has lost its influence.
Bourguignon and Morrisson's empirical analysis -- along with Piketty's -- controverts that initial, tentative summary of long-term trends that puzzled Simon Kuznets:
...a long-term constancy, let alone reduction, of inequality in the secular income structure is a puzzle. For there are at least two groups of forces in the long-term operation of developed countries that make for increasing inequality in the distribution of income before taxes and excluding contributions by governments. ... What is particularly important is that the inequality in distribution of savings is greater than that in the distribution of property incomes, and hence of assets. ... Other conditions being equal, the cumulative effect of such inequality in savings would be the concentration of an increasing proportion of income-yielding assets in the hands of the upper groups -- a basis for larger income shares of these groups and their descendants.
The puzzle is solved because there isn't "a long-term constancy, let alone reduction, of inequality in the secular income structure" after all. This is not to say that the relationship between economic growth and inequality is an uncomplicated one, wholly determined by the disproportion of savings between people in different income groups. But it does fundamentally undermine the conclusions of cross-country regressions, "on the basis of which," as Bourguignon put it, "it would be tempting to conclude that 'growth (of any nature) is good for the poor'."

But what about a politics of economic growth (of any nature?) and redistribution? It might work -- just as a politics of general copulation could reduce the birth rate if combined with effective measures of contraception. Long live the revolution, indeed!

On the other hand, why make redistribution conditional on achieving growth targets in the first place? In bargaining parlance, that is what's known as a fall-back position. You don't present your fall-back position in your opening proposal. That's called "giving away the farm."

A few days ago, Sandwichman promised to expound on why the perpetual fallacy mantra even matters. Here is why. Those FT monkeys (covered in banknotes) would simply prefer to rhetorically prohibit the only opening gambit that could force real concessions from the folks who have champagne and brandy on tap. That effective initial offer would be a demand that doesn't stupidly assume, but actively pursues a "fixed amount of work" with a more equitable distribution. The only "credible politics of growth and distribution" would put distribution first and leave it to the owners of a disproportionate share of income-yielding assets to offer a growth and redistribution compromise in their counter-proposal.

But, alas, those FT monkeys' strategy seems to be working. They think about nothing but screwing growing their income-yielding assets and we are the ones who get screwed yielded.


Artist Statement (from "The Interventions of Kathryn Walter" by Bill Jeffries, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 1990):
"The strategy behind 'Unlimited Growth...' is direct. It is directed at those who operate our free-market economy in their own interests, while excluding those interests that would be 'responsive to the needs of the community'. The subtext to 'Unlimited Growth...' relates to several aspects of public art including the need to address the use of site-specific work as a way of intervening in local issues, and in this instance, acting as a marker of resistance by the economically marginalized, as represented by a parallel gallery and a hotel providing affordable housing. Walter raises questions related to the systems underlying the transactions and power-plays that constitute normal business in the world of real estate development. In Walter's art the museum without walls is also a museum OF walls, walls new and old, as well as those walls that perpetuate economic class distinctions. Her text on the façade of the Del-Mar Hotel will stand as a witness to the various power-plays, including the threat to move B.C. Hydro's head office to the suburb of Burnaby, that led to the development surrounding 553-555 Hamilton Street."