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June 4, 2014

Latest Posts from Economist's View

Latest Posts from Economist's View

'Basic Social Institutions and Democratic Equality'

Posted: 04 Jun 2014 12:39 AM PDT

Daniel Little:

Basic social institutions and democratic equality, Understanding Society: We would like to think that it is possible for a society to embody basic institutions that work to preserve and enhance the wellbeing of all members of society in a fair way. We want social institutions to be beneficent (producing good outcomes for everyone), and we want them to be fair (treating all individuals and groups with equal consideration; creating comparable opportunities for everyone).  There is a particularly fundamental component of liberal optimism that holds that the institutions of a market-based democracy accomplish both goals.  Economic liberals maintain that the economic institutions of the market create efficient allocations of resources across activities, permitting the highest level of average wellbeing. Free public education permits all persons to develop their talents. And the political institutions of electoral democracy permit all groups to express and defend their interests in the arena of government and law.

But social critics cast doubt on all parts of this story, based on the role played by social inequalities within both sets of institutions. The market embodies and reproduces a set of economic inequalities that result in grave inequalities of wellbeing for different groups. Economic and social inequalities influence the quality of education available to young people. And electoral democracy permits the grossly disproportionate influence of wealth holders relative to other groups in society.  So instead of reducing inequalities among citizens, these basic institutions seem to amplify them.

If we look at the fundamentals of social life in the United States we are forced to recognize a number of unpalatable realities: extensive and increasing inequalities of income, wealth, education, health, and quality of life; persistent racial inequalities; a growing indifference among the affluent and powerful to the poverty and deprivation of others; and a political system that is rapidly approaching the asymptote of oligarchy. It is difficult to be optimistic about our political future if we are particularly concerned about equality and opportunity for all; the politics of our time seem to be taking us further and further from these ideals.

So how should progressives think about a better future for our country and our world? What institutional arrangements might do a better job of ensuring greater economic justice and political legitimacy in the next fifty years in this country and other democracies of western Europe and North America?

Martin O'Neill and Thad Williamson's recent collection, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond contains an excellent range of reflections on this set of problems, centered around the idea of a property-owning democracy that is articulated within John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. A range of talented contributors provide essays on different aspects and implications of the theory of property-owning democracy. The contributions by O'Neill and Williamson are especially good, and the volume is a major contribution to political theory for the 21st century.

Here is one of Rawls's early statements of the idea of a property-owning democracy in A Theory of Justice:

In property-owning democracy, ... the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality. (140)

One thing that is striking about the discussions that recur throughout the essays in this volume is the important relationship they seem to have to Thomas Piketty's arguments about rising inequalities in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty presents rising inequality as almost unavoidable; whereas the advocates for a property-owning democracy offer a vision of the future in which inequalities of assets are narrowed. The dissonance disappears, however, when we consider the possibility that the institutional arrangements of POD are in fact a powerful antidote to the economic imperatives identified by Piketty. And in fact the editors anticipate this possibility in their paraphrase of Rawls's reasons for preferring POD over welfare state capitalism:

Because capital is concentrated in private hands under welfare state capitalism, it will be difficult if not impossible to provide to call "the fair value of the political liberties"; that is to say, capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties. Second, Rawls suggests at points that welfare state capitalism produces a politics that tends to undermine the possibility of tax transfers sufficiently large to correct for the inequalities generated by market processes.(3)

These comments suggest that Rawls had an astute understanding of the ways that wealth and power and influence are connected; so he believed that a more equal prior distribution of assets is crucial for a just society.

The primary aim of this public activity is not to maximize economic growth (or to maximize utility) but rather to ensure that capital is widely distributed and that no group is allowed to dominate economic life; but Rawls also assumes that the economy needs to be successful in terms of conventional measures (i.e., by providing full employment, and lifting the living standards of the least well off over time). (4)

The editors make a point that is very incisive with respect to rising economic inequalities.

The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interest taking control in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general. (6)

In other words, attention to the idea of a property-owning democracy is in fact a very substantive rebuttal to the processes identified in Piketty's analysis of the tendencies of capital in the modern economy. As the editors put the point, the idea of a property-owning democracy provides a rich basis for the political programs of progressive movements in contemporary politics (5).

Two questions arise with respect to any political philosophy: is the end-state that it describes a genuinely desirable outcome; and is there a feasible path by which we can get from here to there? One might argue that POD is an appealing end-state; and yet it is an outcome that is virtually impossible to achieve within modern political and economic institutions. (Here is an earlier discussion of this idea; link.) These contributors give at least a moderate level of reason to believe that a progressive foundation for democratic action is available that may provide an effective counterweight to the conservative rhetoric that has dominated the scene for decades.

'How Discouraged Are the Marginally Attached?'

Posted: 04 Jun 2014 12:33 AM PDT

David Altig:

How Discouraged Are the Marginally Attached?: Of the many statistical barometers of the U.S. economy that we monitor here at the Atlanta Fed, there are few that we await more eagerly than the monthly report on employment conditions. The May 2014 edition arrives this week and, like many others, we will be more interested in the underlying details than in the headline job growth or unemployment numbers.
One of those underlying details—the state of the pool of "discouraged" workers (or, maybe more precisely, potential workers)—garnered special attention lately in the wake of the relatively dramatic decline in the ranks of the official labor force, a decline depicted in the April employment survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That attention included some notable commentary from Federal Reserve officials.
Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley, for example, recently suggested that a sizeable part of the decline in labor force participation since 2007 can be tied to discouraged workers exiting the workforce. This suggestion follows related comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in her press conference following the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee:
So I have talked in the past about indicators I like to watch or I think that are relevant in assessing the labor market. In addition to the standard unemployment rate, I certainly look at broader measures of unemployment… Of course, I watch discouraged and marginally attached workers… it may be that as the economy begins to strengthen, we could see labor force participation flatten out for a time as discouraged workers start moving back into the labor market. And so that's something I'm watching closely.
What may not be fully appreciated by those not steeped in the details of the employment statistics is that discouraged workers are actually a subset of "marginally attached" workers. Among the marginally attached—individuals who have actively sought employment within the most recent 12-month period but not during the most recent month—are indeed those who report that they are out of the labor force because they are discouraged. But the marginally attached also include those who have not recently sought work because of family responsibilities, school attendance, poor health, or other reasons.
In fact, most of the marginally attached are not classified (via self-reporting) as discouraged (see the chart):


At the St. Louis Fed, B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao recently published a report containing some detailed analysis of discouraged workers and their relationship to the labor force and the unemployment rate. As Ravikumar and Shao note,
Since discouraged workers are not actively searching for a job, they are considered nonparticipants in the labor market—that is, they are neither counted as unemployed nor included in the labor force.
More importantly, the authors point out that they tend to reenter the labor force at relatively high rates:
Since December 2007, on average, roughly 40 percent of discouraged workers reenter the labor force every month.
Therefore, it seems appropriate to count some fraction of the jobless population designated as discouraged (and out of the labor force) as among the officially unemployed.
We believe this logic should be extended to the entire group of marginally attached. As we've pointed out in the past, the marginally attached group as a whole also has a roughly 40 percent transition rate into the labor force. Even though more of the marginally attached are discouraged today than before the recession, the changing distribution has not affected the overall transition rate of the marginally attached into the labor force.
In fact, in terms of the propensity to flow into employment or officially measured unemployment, there is little to distinguish the discouraged from those who are marginally attached but who have other reasons for not recently seeking a job (see the chart):


What we take from these data is that, as a first pass, when we are talking about discouraged workers' attachment to the labor market, we are talking more generally about the marginally attached. And vice versa. Any differences in the demographic characteristics between discouraged and nondiscouraged marginally attached workers do not seem to materially affect their relative labor market attachment and ability to find work.
Sometimes labels matter. But in the case of discouraged marginally attached workers versus the nondiscouraged marginally attached workers—not so much.

Links for 6-04-14

Posted: 04 Jun 2014 12:06 AM PDT

Data Problems in Economics

Posted: 03 Jun 2014 06:23 AM PDT

New column:

Why Economists Can't Always Trust Data, by Mark Thoma, The Fiscal Times: To make progress in economics, it is essential that theoretical models be subjected to empirical tests that determine how well they can explain actual data. The tests that are used must be able to draw a sharp distinction between competing theoretical models, and one of the most important factors is the quality of the data used in the tests. Unfortunately, the quality of the data that economists employ is less than ideal, and this gets in the way of the ability of economists to improve the models they use. There are several reasons for the poor quality of economic data...

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