24 August 2014

The Poor Will Always Be Us

The environs of Washington, DC are widely excoriated by The Right as being the bastion of Liberal Evil. Not least, the disparity of median income there being higher than most, if not all depending on the year measured, of the rest of the country. Having lived there for the better part of a decade, I can say with certainty that income level was and is driven by the private sector consultants and such, not the bureaucrats who have difficulty keeping up. Bureaucrats aren't living in the big houses in McLean. The academic scene is largely liberal, with the notable exception of George Mason University, in Virginia. That state is really two, with Northern Virginia (actually spelled as such) turning a once deep red state a pleasing shade of lavender. It ain't blue yet, however.

GMU provides the NYT with one of its token right wingnuts, in the person of Tyler Cowen, who regularly displays a breathtaking degree of cognitive dissonance. That the Times would continue to print his stuff is puzzling. I can only guess that the Editors are allowing the loonies to shoot themselves in the foot on full view. I mention this mostly because his essay today exceeds his usual level of incompetence and villainy.

Let's wield the sharp cutlery, shall we?
For all the talk of the Great Depression, we might look at a different exemplar for modern times, 18th- and 19th-century economic history India. That country's economic retrogression during that era may help us understand the quandary that some parts of the world face today.

The overarching theme of the piece is that 18th and 19th century India is prescriptive for today's US and Western economies generally. Baloney. The 18th and 19th century global economy was dominated by mercantilism, with India and the New World colonies being principle examples of those on the losing end of the bargain. This period was marked, more than any other way, by the discovery and pillaging of natural resources in this New World, mostly by European overseers. The second most important point was the development of science and engineering from primitive to near completion (save for Einstein and Bohr and the final entries in the periodic table). Most of the widgets that you use and prize today were invented by The Great Depression, they're just smaller and faster now. In other words: the scope of new knowledge and new resources from 1800 to 1900 overwhelms what can be expected from 2000 forward. The simple fact is, we know just about all there is to know about the physical world and where the useful parts reside. And there is no New World to pillage. (For those talking about mining other planets and such: not with chemical rockets, boyo.) And we're nearing, if not met, the carrying capacity of these, now firmly limited, resources. Wealthy Chinese are scuttling away from their air and water as fast as possible. The notion that there's some magical, as yet undiscovered, venue of employment to support a vast new middle class is a pipe dream (and that phrase refers to the Chinese opium pipe, just so you know). The journey goes from farm to factory to cubicle. Full stop. We've found the whole pie, now we need to carve it up in such a way that civilization survives.
In 1750, India accounted for one-quarter of the world's manufacturing output, but by 1900 that was down to 2 percent.
India just didn't do enough to move toward production on a larger scale or with better machines.

Well, let's consider this period. Slave based production of cotton and textiles by the US South dominated the period. Why ship cotton half way around the world, when your slaves can grow it here? Of course, not. Virginia (tobacco) and the Carolinas (rice and cotton) are much closer to London than anywhere in India, after all. At the time of the American Revolution, slavery production was the major source of hard currency, not manufacturing. India didn't stand a chance. Moreover, industrializing agriculture yields more poor people when there aren't alternatives. Take the modern example: robotics replacing hands in the manufacture of autos. You know the rest. The notion that India somehow missed its opportunity to be Europe's supplier of industrial output in 1850, or thereabouts, if only India had spent more on machines is asinine. The reason that Apple, and the rest, can exploit China is the 747 freighter. That aircraft didn't exist in 1850. Nor did the container ship.

Here's where the cognitive dissonance really kicks in:
International trade grew rapidly after World War II, but at least in the early postwar years most of that trade was among countries with roughly comparable technologies and real wages. And that trade spurred growth rather than damaging laggard economies.

In the last 20 years, the economic surge of Asia, especially China, has brought a large trade readjustment to the world, one with few parallels with the possible exception of the rise of the Western economies several centuries ago.

The post WWII economic surge was built on the afterglow of socialism, but not by that name, of course. The war effort was a case of "all for one, and one for all". The notion of shared responsibility, rather than Randian greed (she didn't start in earnest until the 1950s), was the order of the day. Corporations paid real taxes, unions bargained widely, and Bretton Woods made the US buck supreme. Cowen, either because he's too stupid or vile, elides the simple fact: American corporations now exploit totalitarian labor for the benefit of the few. It was brought to you by Richard Nixon in 1972.

But this is all good for China, right?
China's per capita income, less than $300 in 1984, is now in the range of $10,000.

Well, Cowen, being an econ professor, knows that even in the best of economies mean/average/per capita income overstates reality. I can't find a median income measure for China, but that's not too surprising:
Results of a wide-ranging survey of Chinese family wealth and living habits released this week by Peking University show a wide gap in income between the nation's top earners and those at the bottom, and a vast difference between earners in top-tier coastal cities and those in interior provinces.
In March 2012, Bo Xilai, a top party official who was trying to create a populist image for himself and was later purged, said at a news conference that the Gini coefficient had reached an alarming 0.46. His willingness to announce the number came as a surprise to many observers.

(The US gini, 2011, was .477. That's worse than China, just to be clear how the number works.)

China's .1% are doing just fine, thanks. The rest, not so much.
Average annual income for a family in 2012 was 13,000 renminbi, or about $2,100.

I wonder, how did per capita income quintuple in a year? It didn't of course. Cowen just made it up. Or the ghost of Ayn whispered it in his ear while he nodded off during a lecture at AEI.

Back to Cowen:
French citizens expect a great deal from their government, and strikes are a common response to reduced wages or benefits.
Chinese export growth and wage competition may have been a kind of final straw that made old ways unsustainable.

So, it would appear, Cowen's remedy is for Western labor to accept Eastern poverty as the new normal? How, exactly, is that progress or a solution?

Reading history, and data, makes the story quite clear. Economies which (ahem!) enforce equity, such as the Scandinavians, thrive overall, while those which embrace Rand fall into revolt. Cowen bemoans the prospect of stagnant/falling median income in the USofA, but at no point offers a remedy other than benign acceptance; it's God's will. He has to know that while median income has gotten poorer, the 1% have gotten richer. And he has to know that these effects derive in concert, not by coincidence. And he has to know that slack demand is the result. And that slack demand leads to lowering median income. Rinse. Repeat.

When the dominance of a service economy was being first recognized, in the 1970s, the notion was that such a move was at least as beneficial, overall, as the migration from farm to factory pre-WWII. Instead of factory workers, we'd all be office think workers, earning much more than our beaten down factory fathers. Hasn't worked out that way. We, still, mostly buy real widgets. You can't eat software.

We can't all be London Whales, crashing our small corner of the economy. And if we were, the whole economy crashes. Wait, didn't we do that?

So, you can be poor because totalitarian regimes elsewhere keep wages at bare subsistence and your job goes there or... you can be poor here as corporations implement wage arbitrage down to bare subsistence with the outsourcing as threat. Of course, in due course, there'll be no one in the USofA, or anywhere else, who can buy the all the widgets being made. What a country!! The United States of Mississippi. But, of course, you can't sell much in Mississippi; they're all really, really poor.

The fundamental problem is that wage or tax or foo arbitrage by corporations ultimately fails for structural reasons. As your Good Mother told you, "what would the world be like, if everybody behaved like you?" The second and third worlds, largely autocratic governments, provide cheap hands in order to earn hard currency (which they, mostly, keep for themselves, of course). Today, that's the US buck. The same thing goes on here, the red states ban unions and drive down wages, so corporations move to such states. The problem, of course, is that both kinds of arbitrage depend, absolutely, on a high wage population (those God hating blue staters, of course) to suck up output. What happens when there's no longer a pool of high wage earners to export to? The issue grows more dire as automation becomes both more widespread and expensive. You do remember the story about ditching 300mm wafer production for 450mm?? Hasn't happened. Likely, never will; insufficient demand for so many more chips to pay for the machinery. In due course, and since the world is non-linear (according to Dr. McElhone), demand utterly collapses when least expected.

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