Tag Archives: economic growth

A Doughnut For The Economy?

What makes an economy successful?

Americans are just beginning to realize that widespread inequalities dampen and retard economic vitality, but the more foundational–and to me, at least, more interesting–question is: what does a “successful” economy look like? In the United States, a great proportion of our economic life revolves around “stuff”–the production and consumption of consumer goods. There’s nothing wrong with producing items that people want to buy, but a model that requires constantly increasing consumption has obvious drawbacks, especially when large numbers of workers lack disposable income.

As readers of this blog are aware, one of my sons lives in Amsterdam. He has made me aware of that city’s experiment with a different economic approach. In April of last year–even while the pandemic was raging–Amsterdam became the first city in the world to formally implement what is called “doughnut economics.” Brussels then followed, as did
the Canadian city of Nanaimo.

Scholars advocating for a new approach argue that the current economic system sacrifices both people and environments at a time when everything from shifting weather patterns to rising sea levels is global in scope and unprecedented in nature.

The premise requires us to re-envision what really constitutes economic health–to define it as a system that ensures that “nobody falls short of life’s essentials, from food and water to social equity and political voice, while ensuring humanity does not break down Earth’s life support systems, such as a stable climate and fertile soils.”

The doughnut’s social goals are based upon the Sustainable Development Goals promulgated by the United Nations. These are food security, health, education, income and work (not limited to paid employment), peace and justice, political voice, social equity, gender equality, housing, networks, energy and water.

The nine ecological boundaries are drawn from proposals developed by a group of Earth-system scientists. These are climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading (inefficient or excessive use of fertiliser), freshwater withdrawals, land conversion (removal of habitat), biodiversity loss, air pollution, and ozone layer depletion.

Kate Raworth’s 2017 book “Doughnut Economics” explains the doughnut economy as one based on the premise that “Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.”

Raworth recognizes that “significant GDP growth is very much needed” for low- and middle-income countries to be able to meet the social goals for their citizens.

Using a simple diagram of a doughnut, Raworth suggests that the outer ring represents Earth’s environmental ceiling — a place where the collective use of resources has an adverse impact on the planet. The inner ring represents a series of internationally agreed minimum social standards. The space in between, described as “humanity’s sweet spot,” is the doughnut.

Amsterdam formally adopted the model on April 8, 2020.

The city of Amsterdam has always been a pioneering city. It loves to be a pioneer which is a brilliant attribute because there are many cities that will not lead. They will only follow when they see someone else go,” Raworth said.

“It is not going to work to have three, four, five separate strategies all trying to connect. When they encountered the concept of the doughnut, I know that they said: ‘Aha, this is a concept that sits above and embraces everything that it is that we want to do.’”

Van Doorninck, who’s responsible for spatial development and sustainability in the Dutch capital, said the city’s circular strategy was focused on areas where local government “can really make a difference.”

These areas include food and organic waste streams, consumer goods and the built environment. As a result, the city has targeted a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030, implemented measures to make it easier for residents to consume less (by establishing easily accessible and well-functioning second-hand shops and repair services over the next three years) and pushed for construction companies to build with sustainable materials.

According to the article, a number of cities around the globe are watching, and considering whether to follow suit. It’s a very encouraging effort to marry economic growth with social equity and environmental responsibility.

Fingers crossed…..

 

 

Repeating My Mantra…

People who have read this blog for any length of time are familiar with some of my preoccupations–civic literacy and civics education, climate change, competent governance, and job creation. (Admittedly, I have a lot of “hot buttons”…)

I have been fairly consistent in my approach to most of these issues over the years, but I’ve changed my tune when it comes to growing the economy and creating jobs. I used to be persuaded by the argument that significant raises in the minimum wage would lead to job losses–it seemed logical that forcing a business to pay more to worker A would leave that business with fewer dollars with which to hire worker B. What I didn’t understand was the unspoken caveat: all things being equal. In the real world, it turns out that all things aren’t equal.

What the real world evidence shows is that paying workers a living wage–and thus providing them with a modicum of disposable income–is what creates jobs. As I now understand, demand is what creates jobs, not the beneficence of the factory owner. The guy who owns the widget factory isn’t going to hire more workers to make widgets if no one has the money to buy them.

A recent article in The Week emphasized the point

For many years, rich oligarchs have posed as the engines of the economy — the entrepreneurs whose beneficence and wise decisions create economic prosperity. In a 2019 article for Fox News, Sally Pipes, president of the right-wing Pacific Research Institute, called for Americans to “celebrate America’s job creators” during Labor Day. “Let’s honor the people responsible for that grandeur — namely, the profit-seeking entrepreneurs and business people who make our economy hum,” she wrote.

This is bunk. The real engine of the economy is the dollars in the pocket of the humble average citizen.

The article goes further, however. Most economists now recognize that putting additional money in the hands of workers stimulates demand, but they tend to think of that demand in the context of a fixed economic capacity–as a mechanism for getting to full employment in existing factories and other enterprises.

In reality, as Skanda Amarnath and Alex Williams argue at Employ America, spending also affects overall capacity. A factory, for instance, is not some immortal thing — at a minimum, it must be continually maintained because of entropy and ordinary wear and tear on equipment. To remain competitive, it must be regularly upgraded with the latest production technologies. But businesses will logically invest in new capacity only if they see a market for the goods and services that capacity would produce. This is especially true with respect to high-tech manufacturing investment, which is very complex and expensive — taking over half a decade to pay off.

Amarnath and Williams argue that slack demand afflicted America’s economy well before the 2008 recession, and that it is only surging again now because of the huge boom in sales of computer products–a boom generated by two things; the pandemic surge in working from home, and government transfers to individuals, also due to the pandemic.

All of the available evidence confirms that giving poorer people more money generates economic growth. When you give rich people more money–through Republican policies like deregulation, union busting and especially the numerous, generous tax cuts so dear to GOP hearts–they disproportionately save it, rather than spending it and boosting the economy.

As the article says, cash in the pockets of the working poor isn’t just good in in a humanitarian sense (giving people money they need to live.) It’s good because spending those dollars is what will keep businesses humming, investment high, and the economy healthy.

 

Those State “Laboratories”

Ah, federalism.

Life in the 21st Century challenges our federalist system in a number of ways; it gets more and more difficult to decide–at least at the margins–what sorts of rules should be applied to the country as a whole, and what left to the individual states.

However those issues get resolved, however, our federalist system pretty much guarantees that state governments will continue to be the “laboratories of democracy” celebrated by Justice Brandeis, who coined the phrase in the case of New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann.  Brandeis explained that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

Most recently, state governments have been “laboratories” for the GOP’s belief that low taxes are all that is needed to stimulate economic growth.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently noted,

Until recently, Kansas offered the clearest cautionary tale about deep tax cuts. The state’s then-governor, Sam Brownback, promised that the tax cuts he signed in 2012 and 2013 would lead to an economic boom. They didn’t, and Kansas instead had to cut popular programs like education.

Now Kansas seems to have a rival for the title of the state that’s caused the most self-inflicted damage through tax cuts: Louisiana.

Those who follow economic news have been aware of the painful results of the  Kansas experiment for some time. Evidently, however, the news of its dire results and the subsequent, ignominious retreat by the Kansas legislature failed to reach Louisiana–and that state’s legislators appear unable to deal with the reality of their own failed experiment.

“No two ways about it: Louisiana is a failed state,” Robert Mann, a Louisiana State University professor and New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, wrote recently.

A special session of the State Legislature, called specifically to deal with a budget crisis caused by a lack of tax revenue, failed to do so, and legislators adjourned on Monday. No one is sure what will happen next. If legislators can’t agree on tax increases, cuts to education and medical care will likely follow.

Leonhardt places the blame for this state of affairs on Bobby Jindal, who came to the Governor’s office having drunk deeply of his party’s ideological Kool-Aid:

Louisiana’s former governor, Bobby Jindal, deserves much of the blame. A Republican wunderkind when elected at age 36 in 2008, he cut income taxes and roughly doubled the size of corporate tax breaks. By the end of his two terms, businesses were able to use those breaks to avoid paying about 80 percent of the taxes they would have owed under the official corporate rate.

At first, Jindal spun a tale about how the tax cuts would lead to an economic boom — but they didn’t, just as they didn’t in Kansas. Instead, Louisiana’s state revenue plunged. The tax cuts helped the rich become richer and left the state’s middle class and poor residents with struggling schools, hospitals and other services.

Unfortunately, these “laboratories” aren’t working the way Justice Brandeis envisioned, because Republican representatives elected by the rest of the country refuse to learn from their failures. Ideology has once again trumped evidence– the tax bill passed by Congress and signed by Trump is patterned after those in Kansas and Louisiana.

The rich will get richer, and the poor and middle-class will pay the price. And those who refused to learn from the experiences of our “laboratories of democracy” will profess astonishment.

The Three “I”s

Let’s deconstruct the issue of economic growth.

If there is one thing all politicians support, at every level of government, it is growing the economy. Unfortunately, few of those political figures recognize the economic effects of their other policy preoccupations. Here in Indiana, that disconnect was on vivid display during then-Governor Mike Pence’s effort to privilege religious discrimination against LGBTQ citizens; it was equally obvious in North Carolina in the wake of the so-called “bathroom bill.”

It’s somewhat less obvious–but no less consequential–in Trump’s efforts to slash the budget and to drastically reduce immigration. A recent report from the Brookings Institution considered what it would take to achieve 3% growth in GDP, if that level of expansion is even possible: “There are three I’s that can do this: immigration, infrastructure, and investment.”

Infrastructure is the most obvious: not only does America desperately need to improve our deteriorating roads and bridges, not only do we need massive improvements to rail and public transportation, but cities and states across the country need the jobs a comprehensive infrastructure program would generate. As the Brookings Report notes,

Infrastructure jobs are disproportionately middle-class (defined as wages between the 25% and 75% percentiles, so this is the real middle-class and not the upper-middle class; there is no Dream Hoarding going on here).

Investment is harder to discuss, because far too many lawmakers fail to distinguish between investment and  routine expense. Conceptually, however, most of us understand that we must invest in order to grow–it’s the difference between payments on your home mortgage and the amount you spent at that fancy restaurant. Trump’s budget may not reflect that understanding, but many lawmakers do recognize the difference. Unfortunately, many self-identified “fiscal hawks” do not.

We need to increase our nation’s investment in research, development, and people. The federal government’s investment as a share of total research and development has fallen to multi-generational lows. Increasing the federal government’s investment will not bust the budget. Currently, the federal government’s entire investment in R&D (as measured by the OECD) is equal to only about one-tenth of our nation’s defense budget. Investments like these have proven track records of increasing economic growth.

When it comes to the importance of immigration to economic growth, however, American xenophobia is far more influential than economic reality.

Comprehensive immigration reform, such as the bipartisan legislation which passed the Senate in 2013 (Schumer-Rubio), would increase our nation’s work force, bring economic activity out of the shadows and into the mainstream, increase our nation’s economic and physical security, and boost our GDP. One estimate sees an increase in $1.5 trillion in GDP cumulatively over the next decade, as compared to the status quo. That same study contrasts with the deportation-only policy that appears to be favored by some in the Trump Administration, which would reduce economic output by over $2 trillion.  Even scholars from the CATO Institute argue that immigration reform could be used to boost GDP, with an earlier estimate of an increase of over 1.25% of GDP.

As another Brookings report notes,

President Trump claims that legal immigration levels should be cut in half and that greater priority should be placed on those with high skills. Both of these claims fly in the face of census statistics that show that current immigration levels are increasingly vital to the growth of much of America, and that recent arrivals are more highly skilled than ever before. Current immigration is especially important for areas that are losing domestic migrants to other parts of the country including nearly half of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Well, that’s what happens when you elect a man who has no idea how the economy works, and for whom facts are meaningless…

 

 

Inequality and Economic Growth

The growth of income inequality, and the disturbing erosion of the middle class have been  well documented.

Aside from the human consequences of that inequality, there are economic ramifications. Theoretically, some measure of income inequality provides those who have less with an incentive to work harder–in economist-speak, an incentive for increased economic output. However, a 2014 OECD report found that economic inequality and economic growth were inversely related.  Countries with falling rates of inequality grew more strongly than those with rising rates.

When you think about it, this makes sense. In economies like ours, we rely upon consumer demand to fuel economic growth. Moderate levels of inequality don’t matter, so long as there is a sufficient middle-class with sufficient disposable income to grease the wheel. So long as those with less still have “enough”–defined as income available after life’s necessities have been covered–and so long as they continue to purchase goods and services with that income, the economy can be expected to grow.

When the distribution curb is “bimodal,” with lots of people barely eking out a living and a few others sitting on piles of money, the picture changes. The poor have little or no disposable income with which to purchase goods and services, and the rich can meet their needs and desires without depleting a significant portion of their assets. In any event, there aren’t enough of the rich to drive economic growth, even if they spent lavishly.

When people don’t buy, manufacturers don’t make. When manufacturers don’t make, they don’t hire workers (or keep the ones they have). Retailers close or downsize. Eventually, the assets held by the 1% lose their value.

A rising tide may lift all boats, but the tide won’t rise without water.

We really are all in this together.