macroresilience

resilience, not stability

Innovation, Stagnation and Unemployment

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All economists assert that wants are unlimited. From this follows the view that technological unemployment is impossible in the long run. Yet there are a growing number of commentators (such as Brian Arthur) who insist that increased productivity from automation and improvements in artificial intelligence has a part to play in the current unemployment crisis. At the same time, a growing chorus laments the absence of innovation – Tyler Cowen’s thesis that the recent past has been a ‘Great Stagnation’ is compelling.

But don’t the two assertions contradict each other? Can we have an increase in technological unemployment as well as an innovation deficit? Is the concept of technological unemployment itself valid? Is there anything about the current phase of labour-displacing technological innovation that is different from the past 150 years? To answer these questions, we need a deeper understanding of the dynamics of innovation in a capitalist economy i.e. how exactly has innovation and productivity growth proceeded in a manner consistent with full employment in the past? In the process, I also hope to connect the long-run structural dynamic with the Minskyian business cycle dynamic. It is common to view the structural dynamic of technological change as a sort of ‘deus ex machine’ – if not independent, certainly as a phenomenon that is unconnected with the business cycle. I hope to convince some of you that our choices regarding business cycle stabilisation have a direct bearing on the structural dynamic of innovation. I have touched upon many of these topics in a scattered fashion in previous posts but this post is an attempt to present many of these thoughts in a coherent fashion with all my assumptions explicitly laid out in relation to established macroeconomic theory.

Micro-Foundations

Imperfectly competitive markets are the norm in most modern economies. In instances where economies of scale or network effects dominate, a market may even be oligopolistic or monopolistic (e.g. Google, Microsoft) This assumption is of course nothing new to conventional macroeconomic theory. Where my analysis differs is in viewing the imperfectly competitive process as one that is permanently in disequilibrium. Rents or “abnormal” profits are a persistent feature of the economy at the level of the firm and are not competed away even in the long run. The primary objective of incumbent rent-earners is to build a moat around their existing rents whereas the primary objective of competition from new entrants is not to drive rents down to zero, but to displace the incumbent rent-earner. It is not the absence of rents but the continuous threat to the survival of the incumbent rent-earner that defines a truly vibrant capitalist economy i.e. each niche must be continually contested by new entrants. This does not imply, even if the market for labour is perfectly competitive, that an abnormal share of GDP goes to “capital”. Most new entrants fail and suffer economic losses in their bid to capture economic rents and even a dominant incumbent may lose a significant proportion of past earned rents in futile attempts to defend its competitive position before its eventual demise.

This emphasis on disequilibrium points to the fact that the “optimum” state for a dynamically competitive capitalist economy is one of constant competitive discomfort and disorder. This perspective leads to a dramatically different policy emphasis from conventional theory which universally focuses on increasing positive incentives to economic players and relying on the invisible hand to guide the economy to a better equilibrium. Both Schumpeter and Marx understood the importance of this competitive discomfort for the constant innovative dynamism of a capitalist economy – my point is simply that a universal discomfort of capital is also important to maintain the distributive justice in a capitalist economy. in fact it is the only way to do so without sacrificing the innovative dynamism of the economy.

Competition in monopolistically competitive markets manifests itself through two distinct forms of innovation: exploitation and exploration. Exploitation usually takes the form of what James Utterback identified as process innovation with an emphasis on “real or potential cost reduction, improved product quality, and wider availability, and movement towards more highly integrated and continuous production processes.” As Utterback noted, such innovation is almost always driven by the incumbent firms. Exploitation is an act of optimisation under a known distribution i.e. it falls under the domain of homo economicus. In the language of fitness landscapes, exploitative process innovation is best viewed as competition around a local peak. On the other hand, exploratory product innovation (analogous to what Utterback identified as product innovation) occurs under conditions of significant irreducible uncertainty. Exploration is aimed at finding a significantly higher peak on the fitness landscape and as Utterback noted, is almost always driven by new entrants (For a more detailed explanation of incumbent preference for exploitation and organisational rigidity, see my earlier post).

An Investment Theory of the Business Cycle

Soon after publishing the ‘General Theory’, Keynes summarised his thesis as follows: “given the psychology of the public, the level of output and employment as a whole depends on the amount of investment. I put it in this way, not because this is the only factor on which aggregate output depends, but because it is usual in a complex system to regard as the causa causans that factor which is most prone to sudden and wide fluctuation.” In Keynes‘ view, the investment decision was undertaken in a condition of irreducible uncertainty, “influenced by our views of the future about which we know so little”. Just how critical the level of investment is in maintaining full employment is highlighted by GLS Shackle in his interpretation of Keynes’ theory: “In a money-using society which wishes to save some of the income it receives in payment for its productive efforts, it is not possible for the whole (daily or annual) product to be sold unless some of it is sold to investors and not to consumers. Investors are people who put their money on time-to-come. But they do not have to be investors. They can instead be liquidity-preferrers; they can sweep up their chips from the table and withdraw. If they do, they will give no employment to those who (in face of society’s propensity to save) can only be employed in making investment goods, things whose stream of usefulness will only come out over the years to come.”

If we accept this thesis, then it is no surprise that the post–2008 recovery has been quite so anaemic. Investment spending has remained low throughout the developed world, nowhere more so than in the United Kingdom. What makes this low level of investment even more surprising is the strength of the rebound in corporate profits and balance sheets – corporate leverage in the United States is as low as it has been for two decades and the proportion of cash in total assets as high as it has been for almost half a century. Specifically, the United States has also experienced an unusual increase in labour productivity during the recession which has exacerbated the disconnect between the recovery in GDP and employment. Some of these unusual patterns have been with us for a much longer time than the 2008 financial crisis. For example, the disconnect between GDP and employment in the United States has been obvious since atleast 1990, and the 2003 recession too saw an unusual rise in labour productivity. The labour market has been slack for at least a decade. It is hard to differ from Paul Krugman’s intuition that the character of post–1980 business cycles has changed. Europe and Japan are not immune from these “structural” patterns either – the ‘corporate savings glut’ has been a problem in the United Kingdom since atleast 2002, and Post-Keynesian economists have been pointing out the relationship between ‘capital accumulation’ and unemployment for a while, even attributing the persistently high unemployment in Europe to a lack of investment. Japan’s condition for the last decade is better described as a ‘corporate savings trap’ rather than a ‘liquidity trap’. Even in Greece, that poster child for fiscal profligacy, the recession is accompanied by a collapse in private sector investment.

A Theory of Business Investment

Business investments can typically either operate upon the scale of operations (e.g. capacity,product mix) or they can change the fundamental character of operations (e.g. changes in process, product). The degree of irreducible uncertainty in capacity and product mix decisions has reduced dramatically in the last half-century. The ability of firms to react quickly and effectively to changes in market conditions has improved dramatically with improvements in production processes and information technology – Zara being a well-researched example. Investments that change the very nature of business operations are what we typically identify as innovations. However, not all innovation decisions are subject to irreducible uncertainty either. In a seminal article, James March distinguished between “the exploration of new possibilities and the exploitation of old certainties. Exploration includes things captured by terms such as search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery, innovation. Exploitation includes such things as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation, execution.” Exploratory innovation operates under conditions of irreducible uncertainty whereas exploitation is an act of optimisation under a known distribution.

Investments in scaling up operations are most easily influenced by monetary policy initiatives which reduce interest rates and raise asset prices or direct fiscal policy initiatives which operate via the multiplier effect. In recent times, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, the reduction in rates has also directly facilitated the levering up of the consumer balance sheet and a reduction in the interest servicing burden of past consumer debt taken on. The resulting boost to consumer spending and demand also stimulates businesses to invest in expanding capacity. Exploitative innovation requires the presence of price competition within the industry i.e. monopolies or oligopolies have little incentive to make their operations more efficient beyond the price point where demand for their product is essentially inelastic. This sounds like an exceptional case but is in fact very common in critical industries such as finance and healthcare. Exploratory innovation requires not only competition amongst incumbent firms but competition from a constant and robust stream of new entrants into the industry. I outlined the rationale for this in a previous post:

Let us assume a scenario where the entry of new firms has slowed to a trickle, the sector is dominated by a few dominant incumbents and the S-curve of growth is about to enter its maturity/decline phase. To trigger off a new S-curve of growth, the incumbents need to explore. However, almost by definition, the odds that any given act of exploration will be successful is small. Moreover, the positive payoff from any exploratory search almost certainly lies far in the future. For an improbable shot at moving from a position of comfort to one of dominance in the distant future, an incumbent firm needs to divert resources from optimising and efficiency-increasing initiatives that will deliver predictable profits in the near future. Of course if a significant proportion of its competitors adopt an exploratory strategy, even an incumbent firm will be forced to follow suit for fear of loss of market share. But this critical mass of exploratory incumbents never comes about. In essence, the state where almost all incumbents are content to focus their energies on exploitation is a Nash equilibrium.
On the other hand, the incentives of any new entrant are almost entirely skewed in favour of exploratory strategies. Even an improbable shot at glory is enough to outweigh the minor consequences of failure. It cannot be emphasised enough that this argument does not depend upon the irrationality of the entrant. The same incremental payoff that represents a minor improvement for the incumbent is a life-changing event for the entrepreneur. When there exists a critical mass of exploratory new entrants, the dominant incumbents are compelled to follow suit and the Nash equilibrium of the industry shifts towards the appropriate mix of exploitation and exploration.

A Theory of Employment

My fundamental assertion is that a constant and high level of uncertain, exploratory investment is required to maintain a sustainable and resilient state of full employment. And as I mentioned earlier, exploratory investment driven by product innovation requires a constant threat from new entrants.

Long-run increases in aggregate demand require product innovation. As Rick Szostak notes:

While in the short run government spending and investment have a role to play, in the long run it is per capita consumption that must rise in order for increases in per capita output to be sustained…..the reason that we consume many times more than our great-grandparents is not to be found for the most part in our consumption of greater quantities of the same items which they purchased…The bulk of the increase in consumption expenditures, however, has gone towards goods and services those not-too-distant forebears had never heard of, or could not dream of affording….Would we as a society of consumers/workers have striven as hard to achieve our present incomes if our consumption bundle had only deepened rather than widened? Hardly. It should be clear to all that the tremendous increase in per capita consumption in the past century would not have been possible if not for the introduction of a wide range of different products. Consumers do not consume a composite good X. Rather, they consume a variety of goods, and at some point run into a steeply declining marginal utility from each. As writers as diverse as Galbraith and Marshall have noted, if declining marginal utility exists with respect to each good it holds over the whole basket of goods as well…..The simple fact is that, in the absence of the creation of new goods, aggregate demand can be highly inelastic, and thus falling prices will have little effect on output.

Therefore, when cost-cutting and process optimisation in an industry enables a product to be sold at a lower cost, the economy may not be able to reorganise back to full employment with simply an increased demand for that particular product. In the early stages of a product when demand is sufficiently elastic, process innovation can increase employment. But as the product ages, process improvements have a steadily negative effect on employment.

Eventually, a successful reorganisation back to full employment entails creating demand for new products. If such new products were simply an addition to the set of products that we consumed, disruption would be minimal. But almost any significant new product that arises from exploratory investment also destroys an old product. The tablet cannibalises the netbook, the smartphone cannibalises the camera etc. This of course is the destruction in Schumpeter’s creative destruction. It is precisely because of this cannibalistic nature of exploratory innovation that established incumbents rarely engage in it, unless compelled to do so by the force of new entrants. Burton Klein put it well: “ firms involved in such competition must compare two risks: the risk of being unsuccessful when promoting a discovery or bringing about an innovation versus the risk of having a market stolen away by a competitor: the greater the risk that a firm’s rivals take, the greater must be the risks to which must subject itself for its own survival.” Even when new firms enter a market at a healthy pace, it is rare that incumbent firms are successful at bringing about disruptive exploratory changes. When the pace of dynamic competition is slow, incumbents can choose to simply maintain slack and wait for any promising new technology to emerge which it can buy up rather than risking investment in some uncertain new technology.

We need exploratory investment because this expansion of the economy into its ‘adjacent possible’ does not derive its thrust from the consumer but from the entrepreneur. In other words, new wants are not demanded by the consumers but are instead created by entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs. In the absence of dynamic competition from new entrants, wants remain limited.

In essence, this framework incorporates technological innovation into a distinctly “Chapter 12” Keynesian view of the business cycle. Although my views are far removed from macroeconomic orthodoxy, they are not quite so radical that they have no precedents whatsoever. My views can be seen as a simple extension of Burton Klein’s seminal work outlined in his books ‘Dynamic Economics’ and ‘Prices, wages, and business cycles: a dynamic theory’. But the closest parallels to this explanation can be found in Rick Szostak’s book ‘Technological innovation and the Great Depression’. Szostak uses an almost identical rationale to explain unemployment during the Great Depression, “how an abundance of labor-saving production technology coupled with a virtual absence of new product innovation could affect consumption, investment and the functioning of the labor market in such a way that a large and sustained contraction in employment would result.”

As I have hinted at in a previous post, this is not a conventional “structural” explanation of unemployment. Szostak explains the difference: “An alternative technological argument would be that the skills required of the workforce changed more rapidly in the interwar period than did the skills possessed by the workforce. Thus, there were enough jobs to go around; workers simply were not suited to them, and a painful decade of adjustment was required…I argue that in fact there simply were not enough jobs of any kind available.” In other words, this is a partly technological explanation for the shortfall in aggregate demand.

The Invisible Foot and New Firm Entry

The concept of the “Invisible Foot” was introduced by Joseph Berliner as a counterpoint to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” to explain why innovation was so hard in the centrally planned Soviet economy:

Adam Smith taught us to think of competition as an “invisible hand” that guides production into the socially desirable channels….But if Adam Smith had taken as his point of departure not the coordinating mechanism but the innovation mechanism of capitalism, he may well have designated competition not as an invisible hand but as an invisible foot. For the effect of competition is not only to motivate profit-seeking entrepreneurs to seek yet more profit but to jolt conservative enterprises into the adoption of new technology and the search for improved processes and products. From the point of view of the static efficiency of resource allocation, the evil of monopoly is that it prevents resources from flowing into those lines of production in which their social value would be greatest. But from the point of view of innovation, the evil of monopoly is that it enables producers to enjoy high rates of profit without having to undertake the exacting and risky activities associated with technological change. A world of monopolies, socialist or capitalist, would be a world with very little technological change.” 

For disruptive innovation to persist, the invisible foot needs to be “applied vigorously to the backsides of enterprises that would otherwise have been quite content to go on producing the same products in the same ways, and at a reasonable profit, if they could only be protected from the intrusion of competition”Burton Klein’s great contribution along with Gunnar Eliasson was to highlight the critical importance of entry of new firms in maintaining the efficacy of the invisible foot. Klein believed that

the degree of risk taking is determined by the robustness of dynamic competition, which mainly depends on the rate of entry of new firms. If entry into an industry is fairly steady, the game is likely to have the flavour of a highly competitive sport. When some firms in an industry concentrate on making significant advances that will bear fruit within several years, others must be concerned with making their long-run profits as large as possible, if they hope to survive. But after entry has been closed for a number of years, a tightly organised oligopoly will probably emerge in which firms will endeavour to make their environments highly predictable in order to make their environments highly predictable in order to make their short-run profits as large as possible….Because of new entries, a relatively concentrated industry can remain highly dynamic. But, when entry is absent for some years, and expectations are premised on the future absence of entry, a relatively concentrated industry is likely to evolve into a tight oligopoly. In particular, when entry is long absent, managers are likely to be more and more narrowly selected; and they will probably engage in such parallel behaviour with respect to products and prices that it might seem that the entire industry is commanded by a single general!

This argument does not depend on incumbent firms leaving money on the table – on the contrary, they may redouble their attempts at cost reduction via process innovation in times of deficient demand. Rick Szostak documents how “despite the availability of a massive amount of inexpensive labour, process innovation would continue in the 1930s. Output per man-hour in manufacturing rose by 25% in the 1930s…..national output was higher in 1939 than in 1929, while employment was over two million less.”

Macroeconomic Policy and Exploratory Product Innovation

Monetary policy has been the preferred cure for insufficient aggregate demand throughout and since the Great Moderation. The argument goes that lower real rates, inflation and higher asset prices will increase investment via Tobin’s Q and increase consumption via the wealth effect and reduction in rewards to savings, all bound together in the virtuous cycle of the multiplier. If monetary policy is insufficient, fiscal policy may be deployed with a focus on either directly increasing aggregate demand or providing businesses with supply-side incentives such as tax cuts.

There is a common underlying theme to all of the above policy options – they focus on the question “how do we make businesses want to invest?” i.e. on positively incentivising incumbent business and startups and trusting that the invisible hand will do the rest. In the context of exploratory investments, the appropriate question is instead “how do we make businesses have to invest?” i.e. on compelling incumbent firms to invest in speculative projects in order to defend their rents or lose out to new entrants if they fail to do so. But the problem isn’t just that these policies are ineffectual. Many of the policies that focus on positive incentives weaken the competitive discomfort from the invisible foot by helping to entrench the competitive position of incumbent corporates and reducing their incentive to engage in exploratory investment. It is in this context that interventions such as central bank purchase of assets and fiscal stimulus measures that dole out contracts to the favoured do permanent harm to the economy.

The division that matters from the perspective of maintaining the appropriate level of exploratory investment and product innovation is not monetary vs fiscal but the division between existing assets and economic interests and new firms/entrepreneurs. Almost all monetary policy initiatives focus on purchasing existing assets from incumbent firms or reducing real rates for incumbent banks and their clients. A significant proportion of fiscal policy does the same. The implicit assumption is, as Nick Rowe notes, that there is “high substitutability between old and new investment projects, so the previous owners of the old investment projects will go looking for new ones with their new cash”. This assumption does not hold in the case of exploratory investments – asset-holders will likely chase after a replacement asset but this asset will likely be an existing investment project, not a new one. The result of the intervention will be an increase in prices of such assets but it will not feed into any “real” new investment activity. In other words, the Tobin’s q effect is negligible for exploratory investments in the short run and in fact negative in the long run as the accumulated effect of rents derived from monetary and fiscal intervention reduces the need for incumbent firms to engage in such speculative investment.

A Brief History of the Post-WW2 United States Macroeconomy

In this section, I’m going to use the above framework to make sense of the evolution of the macroeconomy in the United States after WW2. The framework is relevant for post–70s Europe and Japan as well which is why the ‘investment deficit problem’ afflicts almost the entire developed world today. But the details differ quite significantly especially with regards to the distributional choices made in different countries.

The Golden Age

The 50s and the 60s are best characterised as a period of “order for all” characterised by as Bill Lazonick put it, “oligopolistic competition, career employment with one company, and regulated financial markets”. The ‘Golden Age’ delivered prosperity for a few reasons:

  • As Minsky noted, the financial sector had only just begun the process of adapting to and circumventing regulations designed to constrain and control it. As a result, the Fed had as much control over credit creation and bank policies as it would ever have.
  • The pace of both product and process innovation had slowed down significantly in the real economy, especially in manufacturing. Much of the productivity growth came from product innovations that had already been made prior to WW2. As Alexander Field explains (on the slowdown in manufacturing TFP): “Through marketing and planned obsolescence, the disruptive force of technological change – what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction – had largely been domesticated, at least for a time. Whereas large corporations had funded research leading to a large number of important innovations during the 1930s, many critics now argued that these behemoths had become obstacles to transformative innovation, too concerned about the prospect of devaluing rent-yielding income streams from existing technologies. Disruptions to the rank order of the largest U.S. industrial corporations during this quarter century were remarkably few. And the overall rate of TFP growth within manufacturing fell by more than a percentage point compared with the 1930s and more than 3.5 percentage points compared with the 1920s.”
  • Apart from the fact that the economy had to catch up to earlier product innovation, the dominant position of the US in the global economy post WW2 limited the impact from foreign competition.

It was this peculiar confluence of factors that enabled a system of “order and stability for all” without triggering a complete collapse in productivity or financial instability – a system where both labour and capital were equally strong and protected and shared in the rents available to all.

Stagflation

The 70s are best described as the time when this ordered, stabilised system could not be sustained any longer.

  • By the late 60s, the financial sector had adapted to the regulatory environment. Innovations such as Fed Funds market and the Eurodollar market gradually came into being such that by the late 60s, credit creation and bank lending were increasingly difficult for the Fed to control. Reserves were no longer a binding constraint on bank operations.
  • The absence of real competition either on the basis of price or from new entrants meant that both process and product innovation were low just like during the Golden Age but the difference was that there were no more low-hanging fruit to pick from past product innovations. Therefore, a secular slowdown in productivity took hold.
  • The rest of world had caught up and foreign competition began to intensify.

As Burton Klein noted, “competition provides a deterrent to wage and price increases because firms that allow wages to increase more rapidly than productivity face penalties in the form of reduced profits and reduced employment”. In the absence of adequate competition, demand is inelastic and there is little pressure to reduce costs. As the level of price/cost competition reduces, more and more unemployment is required to keep inflation under control. Even worse, as Klein noted, it only takes the absence of competition in a few key sectors for the disease to afflict the entire economy. Controlling overall inflation in the macroeconomy when a few key sectors are sheltered from competitive discomfort requires monetary action that will extract a disproportionate amount of pain from the remainder of the economy. Stagflation is the inevitable consequence in a stabilised economy suffering from progressive competitive sclerosis.

The “Solution”

By the late 70s, the pressures and conflicts of the system of “order for all” meant that change was inevitable. The result was what is commonly known as the neoliberal revolution. There are many different interpretations of this transition. To right-wing commentators, neoliberalism signified a much-needed transition towards a free-market economy. Most left-wing commentators lament the resultant supremacy of capital over labour and rising inequality. For some, the neoliberal era started with Paul Volcker having the courage to inflict the required pain to break the back of inflationary forces and continued with central banks learning the lessons of the past which gave us the Great Moderation.

All these explanations are relevant but in my opinion, they are simply a subset of a larger and simpler explanation. The prior economic regime was a system where both the invisible hand and the invisible foot were shackled – firms were protected but their profit motive was also shackled by the protection provided to labour. The neoliberal transition unshackled the invisible hand (the carrot of the profit motive) without ensuring that all key sectors of the economy were equally subject to the invisible foot (the stick of failure and losses and new firm entry). Instead of tackling the root problem of progressive competitive and democratic sclerosis and cronyism, the neoliberal era provided a stop-gap solution. “Order for all” became “order for the classes and disorder for the masses”. As many commentators have noted, the reality of neoliberalism is not consistent with the theory of classical liberalism. Minsky captured the hypocrisy well: “Conservatives call for the freeing of markets even as their corporate clients lobby for legislation that would institutionalize and legitimize their market power; businessmen and bankers recoil in horror at the prospect of easing entry into their various domains even as technological changes and institutional evolution make the traditional demarcations of types of business obsolete. In truth, corporate America pays lip service to free enterprise and extols the tenets of Adam Smith, while striving to sustain and legitimize the very thing that Smith abhorred – state-mandated market power.”

The critical component of this doctrine is the emphasis on macroeconomic and financial sector stabilisation implemented primarily through monetary policy focused on the banking and asset price channels of policy transmission:
Any significant fall in asset prices (especially equity prices) has been met with a strong stimulus from the Fed i.e. the ‘Greenspan Put’. In his plea for increased quantitative easing via purchase of agency MBS, Joe Gagnon captured the logic of this policy: ““This avalanche of money would surely push up stock prices, push down bond yields, support real estate prices, and push up the value of foreign currencies. All of these financial developments would stimulate US economic activity.” In other words, prop up asset prices and the real economy will mend itself.
Similarly, Fed and Treasury policy has ensured that none of the large banks can fail. In particular, bank creditors have been shielded from any losses. The argument is that allowing banks to fail will cripple the flow of credit to the real economy and result in a deflationary collapse that cannot be offset by conventional monetary policy alone. This is the logic for why banks were allowed access to a panoply of Federal Reserve liquidity facilities at the height of the crisis. In other words, prop up the banks and the real economy will mend itself.

In this increasingly financialised economy, “the increased market-sensitivity combined with the macro-stabilisation commitment encourages low-risk process innovation and discourages uncertain and exploratory product innovation.” This tilt towards exploitation/cost-reduction without exploration kept inflation in check but it also implied a prolonged period of sub-par wage growth and a constant inability to maintain full employment unless the consumer or the government levered up. For the neo-liberal revolution to sustain a ‘corporate welfare state’ in a democratic system, the absence of wage growth necessitated an increase in household leverage for consumption growth to be maintained. The monetary policy doctrine of the Great Moderation exacerbated the problem of competitive sclerosis and the investment deficit but it also provided the palliative medicine that postponed the day of reckoning. The unshackling of the financial sector was a necessary condition for this cure to work its way through the economy for as long as it did.

It is this focus on the carrot of higher profits that also triggered the widespread adoption of high-powered incentives such as stock options and bonuses to align manager and stockholder incentives. When the risk of being displaced by innovative new entrants is low, high-powered managerial incentives help to tilt the focus of the firm towards a focus on process innovation and cost reduction, optimisation of leverage etc. From the stockholders and the managers’ perspective, the focus on short-term profits is a feature, not a bug.

The Dénouement

So long as unemployment and consumption could be propped up by increasing leverage from the consumer and/or the state, the long-run shortage in exploratory product innovation and the stagnation in wages could be swept under the rug and economic growth could be maintained. But there is every sign that the household sector has reached a state of peak debt and the financial system has reached its point of peak elasticity. The policy that worked so well during the Great Moderation is now simply focused on preventing the collapse of the cronyist and financialised economy. The system has become so fragile that Minsky’s vision is more correct than ever – an economy at full employment will yo-yo uncontrollably between a state of debt-deflation and high,variable inflation. Instead the goal of full employment seems to have been abandoned in order to postpone the inevitable collapse. This only substitutes an economic fragility with a deeper social fragility.

The aim of full employment is made even harder with the acceleration of process innovation due to advances in artificial intelligence and computerisation. Process innovation gives us technological unemployment while at the same time the absence of exploratory product innovation leaves us stuck in the Great Stagnation.

 

The solution preferred by the left is to somehow recreate the golden age of the 50s and the 60s i.e. order for all. Apart from the impossibility of retrieving the docile financial system of that age (which Minsky understood), the solution of micro-stability for all is an environment of permanent innovative stagnation. The Schumpeterian solution is to transform the system into one of disorder for all, masses and classes alike. Micro-fragility is the key to macro-resilience but this fragility must be felt by all economic agents, labour and capital alike. In order to end the stagnation and achieve sustainable full employment, we need to allow incumbent banks and financialised corporations to collapse and dismantle the barriers to entry of new firms that pervade the economy (e.g. occupational licensing, the patent system). But this does not imply that the macroeconomy should suffer from a deflationary contraction. Deflation can be prevented in a simple and effective manner with a system of direct transfers to individuals as Steve Waldman has outlined. This solution reverses the flow of rents that have exacerbated inequality over the past few decades, as well as tackling the cronyism and demosclerosis that is crippling innovation and preventing full employment.

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Written by Ashwin Parameswaran

November 2nd, 2011 at 7:29 pm

18 Responses to 'Innovation, Stagnation and Unemployment'

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  1. I don’t buy the bit about stagflation – I think you are curve fitting to a narrative here.

    As I showed here, the driver of credit growth and inflation is the dependency ratio in the population.

    http://liminalhack.wordpress.com/?attachment_id=1092

    The 70s happened to be a secular low in the dependency ratio and it was an unusually large one, thanks to the baby boom.

    All of what you are talking about I think, is subordinate to more fundamental demographic trends. In economic terms the demographic transition is the biggest threat to the capitalist system even bigger than cronyism and macro-stabilisation.

    Any general theory of technology, employment and the economy needs to have explanatory power vis a vis the demographic transition otherwise it becomes just another narrative.

    scepticus

    3 Nov 11 at 2:32 pm

  2. scepticus – Thanks for the comment. The analysis of the 70s is pretty much completely taken from Burton Klein’s books ‘Dynamic Economics’ and ‘Prices, Wages and Business Cycles’. I thought about expanding on it but decided that the post was already too long.

    I think my basic points of reduced catch-up productivity gains, an unshackled financial sector (i.e. the economy was essentially a credit economy by then which it was not in the 50s and 60s), and increased competitive sclerosis are sufficient to move the Phillips curve well towards a higher level of inflation and unemployment.

    Obviously this is all just a narrative but then is so every other parsimonious explanation. My aim was just to stick to the few assumptions and fashion a techno-Minskyian explanation.

    I don’t deny that the dependency ratio had a part to play – do you have the topic written up somewhere? especially regarding the stagflation? Did the increased inflow of women into the workforce not somewhat mitigate the problem?

    Ashwin

    3 Nov 11 at 3:17 pm

  3. Ashwin, what I have is here:

    http://liminalhack.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/china-stagflation-and-population/#more-1093

    Harry Dent (yes, I know) has written a lot on this subject.

    You’ll be able to see in my data that the dependency ratio-credit growth link applied not only to the 1970s but to contemporary china also. There was also a western local minima in dependency ratio in 2003.

    I don’t disagree with your perspective here, all I’m saying is that it is a piece (albeit an important one) of the jigsaw. But we can’t explain the 70s mainly in terms of the thesis outlined here I think.

    scepticus

    3 Nov 11 at 3:40 pm

  4. Got it – nice post. I think both perspectives are quite complementary. And what’s happening in China is quite similar to the transition in the West i.e. the central bank has pretty much lost control of the money supply, shadow banking system has emerged etc.

    The problem with a partly cronyist economy is that if the CB wants to control inflation, it needs to inflict disproportionate pain on the non-cronyist sectors. China probably has it even worse given that interest rate increases increase consumption (as Michael Pettis has shown).

    My perspective is also influenced by the Indian experience – India had a perpetual problem of unemployment thanks to its cronyist industrial system. The state would try and fix this by running fiscal deficits, hiring people directly etc which would cause inflation etc etc.

    Ashwin

    3 Nov 11 at 4:30 pm

  5. Can’t disagree about india, they are a case study in cronyism. That said I do like the Indians and really enjoyed visiting there.

    Is it true to say that any economy no matter how organised is likely to have an unemployment issue if they have a very steep population pyramid (e.g. a wide base of young workers and a small base of older capital holders).

    It seems to me that whether the capital of the elders is ill-gotten or fairly obtained, this kind of population structure would always result in high levels of unemployment when combined with any kind of monetary system that can passively (e.g. metallic money) or actively (CB inflation targeting) restrain money growth?

    scepticus

    3 Nov 11 at 4:37 pm

  6. Mancur Olson’s thesis, which I agree with, is that once the quantum of rents have achieved a sufficient scale and stability then “distributional coalitions have the incentive and..the power to prevent changes that would deprive them of their enlarged share of the social output”. In other words, stability itself becomes the primary objective of these capital-holders. Hence the need for maximum churn and disorder amongst rent-earners.

    Of course the young unemployed could just revolt! Occasional chaos can also do the job in the long run but I’d rather we could avoid that route.

    Ashwin

    3 Nov 11 at 5:21 pm

  7. Well, stability is presumably the over-riding concern of any civilization which wishes to perpetuate itself. That can manifest itself as price stability or the stability of some other mechanism that confers rent-stability, like religion or feudal relationships.

    If a system of socially accepted rents is not the bone-structure of a civilization, then what is?

    scepticus

    4 Nov 11 at 6:37 pm

  8. As always an interesting essay. I’m not entirely happy with the “exploratory investment” metaphor, but I think your overall framework of ideas has merit. I’d like to offer some thoughts about economic rents, process innovation, increasing returns and the long-cycle, which might prove stimulating.

    My “microfoundation” is markets and hierarchies. What you are calling process investment is the long, dynamic, out-of-equilibrium pursuit of increasing returns and technical economies of control, through sunk-cost investments in dedicated capital, carried out by bureaucracies.

    You can correct me — not my area of expertise, but my understanding is that Solow-type growth models generally attribute around a quarter of economic growth to capital accumulation, and the rest to improvements in technical efficiency. While markets, presumably, achieve allocative efficiency, via price discovery and all that, hierarchies, with their control systems, rules, etc. achieve the technical efficiencies associated with investment in process improvements. Roughly half the American labor force is employed in bureaucracies composed of more than 100 employees.

    Here’s a key fact about hierarchies in the economy: their basic incentive structure requires economic rents. The basic employment contract to do control work in a bureaucracy is to be paid an above-market wage (i.e. an economic rent), contingent on not getting fired for insubordination. It’s not a piece-work contract contingent on output, or a fee for services rendered. It’s follow direction and/or control the process, or be fired. And, that only works, if the firm pays an above-market wage, or the rate of unemployment is high with long expected search.

    Here’s another thing: economic rents, and the market power they imply, help to ensure that the sunk cost investments in process improvement can be financed. Firms with a privileged position can obtain investment cash from cashflow, and their privileged position is what enables them obtain a return from what, as a sunk-cost investment, would otherwise be vulnerable to expropriation in market-bargaining by competitors, suppliers and customers.

    I’m not minimizing your point about incumbent oligopolists needing goads from potential entrants to stay on the dynamic improvement path. But, I think what you are calling “exploratory” investments, I would denote, in terms of diverse, persistent oppositional control and power.

    A source of economic rents is a base from which hierarchies of control can be built and increasing returns exploited. The pathological threat is that instead of a diversity of approaches and strategies, a homogenization sets in, establishing a conservative monolith.

    I think the neo-liberal program of de-regulation in finance, for example, by eliminating a variety of regulations, which allocated small sources of rents to a diversity of actors, with a diversity of business models and ownership structures, set off the growth of universal bank monoliths and related pathological network relationships. Without a source of economic rents, it wasn’t possible for many actors to fulfill their control functions properly or to resist strategic entanglement in dynamically de-stablizing schemes. Restrictions on paying deposit interest, which protected the S&Ls, which had a mutual ownership structure; restrictions on interstate banking, which allowed many regional and local banks to persist, independently. Glass-Steagall, which served to separate insurance companies and investment banks from commercial banks, with many insurance companies organized on a mutual basis and many investment banks organized as partnerships. When there were a diversity of types of financial institutions, politicians, as a class, could remain strategically independent, by playing one off against the other. Private regulators were also in a better position to maintain their rents and the integrity associated with those rents — I’m thinking of ratings agencies, real-estate appraisers, title insurance, financial auditors, etc.

    It is not enough to think in terms of competitive markets achieving allocative efficiency in terms of price; you have to think in institutional terms, of hierarchies achieving and maintaining control with integrity. For the latter, you need at least small but reliable sources of economic rent associated with “doing the job right”.

    It is a question of a practically workable “second-best”: economic rents spread around to enable a persistent, and oppositional, diversity of investment.

    Bruce Wilder

    5 Nov 11 at 11:36 pm

  9. I think the key mistake of the Reagan era was to lower marginal tax rates. As long as economic rents of successful, profitable corporations were subject to high rates of corporate income tax and their executives were frustrated by high rates of marginal income tax, there existed a governor on the impulse of the system toward untethered exercise of managerial authority.

    Corporate America, largely born in the 1890s was rapidly passing post-WWII from the hands of capitalists into the hands of professional managers, at the top. Left to their own devices, professional managers, without a real ownership stake, do not have enough to lose, and what is essentially political and administrative power is their stock-in-trade. As a class, with the intensified incentives of lowered marginal tax rates, they set out to eliminate or capture rents for themselves, by strategically undermining oppositional institutions.

    Minsky’s expected era of Ponzi Finance manifested as a generalized erosion of standards and integrity in corporate behavior.

    Bruce Wilder

    5 Nov 11 at 11:46 pm

  10. Nice commentary both Ashkin and Scepticus. The problem is demographics and the general dimensions of the model. The current framework established in 1913 is that of a pyramid instead of a box. I wish I had the link handy but if you observe the global interconnectedness of the financial system using topography and physics
    you see mankind operating in-between the 4th and 5th dimension.

    However, we’re still using a 6 x 6 x 6 pyramid. Remember the Pharoah? A pryamid model will always result in one individual owning the majority of assets and becoming ‘King’. The United States began with four branches of government. Think geometry here. It was a 4 x 4 x 4 x 4 box.

    Speaking of the Indians, they know all about the paradigms and how the tools created reflect our literal evolution.

    The solution as this pyramid fails is a new system that runs between a 4d-5d. You would have five branches of government. Banking would be fifth and utilitarian. And AI would be used to adjust dynamically for demographic imbalance. Equal or disequalibrium would have 4/5 code enforcement of its own design and leave 20% variable for randomness so the system can learn and output analysis to the operators.

    I am netting out on the plan. Email me if you would like to chat some more gentlemen at jrines@ragingdebate.com

    Raging Debate

    6 Nov 11 at 4:51 am

  11. scepticus – I haven’t written much about it but you’re absolutely right. There are deeper underpinnings to the desire for stability and order. But this is also the reason why fundamental change often only comes about via systemic collapse.

    Ashwin

    7 Nov 11 at 12:58 am

  12. Bruce – Thanks for the comment. Rather than exploratory innovation, it may be easier to think of it as investment in product innovation i.e. new things rather than cheaper ways to make old things.

    I agree with most of your comment – rents are a persistent and necessary part of the economic system. My only point is that too much of the system has transformed in a manner that the rents are too stable and have been secure for too long.

    As you correctly point out, the default mode of organisation in any economy at the firm-level is bureaucratic and not market-based. It is largely because of this that creative destruction needs to be a persistent threat.

    Having said that, I think the sunk-costs required for process innovation in many industries has gone down dramatically in recent times. I think this also exacerbates the anaemic nature of the investment rebound during this recovery.

    Constant entry of new firms, even if they mostly fail, provides the minimum level of diversity that keeps the otherwise homogeneous structure from falling apart.

    Ashwin

    7 Nov 11 at 2:48 am

  13. jrines – I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from.

    Ashwin

    7 Nov 11 at 2:52 am

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