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July 23, 2015

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Posted: 23 Jul 2015 12:06 AM PDT

Historical Heights and Past Living Standards

Posted: 22 Jul 2015 12:16 PM PDT

New research on living standards during the Industrial Revolution is described at Vox EU:

Biased samples yield biased results: What historical heights can teach us about past living standards, by Howard Bodenhorn, Timothy W. Guinnane, and Thomas Mroz: Were living standards during early industrialization as terrible as we imagine? Robert Fogel, the Nobel prize-winning economic historian, taught us a great deal about studying long-term living standards through looking into people's height. This column argues that one of Fogel's early claims turns out to have, at best, a weak foundation. ...

And the conclusion:

So what do we know about living standards during early industrialization? ... The measured decline of mean height during industrialization reflects in large part the nature of the data sources, not necessarily changes in the heights of the underlying populations.
As economies grew, tight labor markets discouraged military enlistments by the most productive workers, with those enlisting (and being measured) increasingly over-representing the less advantaged members of society. The Industrial Revolution posed challenges for those facing the transformations it wrought, but it did not make people shorter.

'You Can’t Reform Your Way to Rapid Growth'

Posted: 22 Jul 2015 09:39 AM PDT

Dietz Vollrath:

You Can't Reform Your Way to Rapid Growth: ...in response to the small back-and-forth that Noah Smith (also here) and John Cochrane had regarding Jeb! Bush's suggestion/idea/hope to push the growth of GDP up to 4% per year. Cochrane asked "why not?", and offered several proposals for structural reforms (e.g. reforming occupational licensing) that could contribute to growth. Smith was skeptical...
Oddly enough, the discussion of Jeb!'s 4% target is also a good entry point to talking about Greece, and the possibility that the various structural reforms insisted on by the Germans will manage to materially change their situation. But we'll get to that.
First, what are the possibilities of generating 4% GDP growth in the U.S.? I'm presuming that we're talking about whether we can boost per capita growth up to 4% per year for some relatively short time frame, because history suggests that sustained 4% growth in GDP is incredibly unlikely. From Jeb!'s perspective, I'm guessing either 4 or 8 years is the right window to look at, but let's say we're trying to achieve this for just 5 years. ...[discusses and illustrates the conclusions of a standard growth model]...
You can just scrape 4% growth if you continue to assume that structural reforms to the U.S. economy can add $3 trillion to potential GDP and that the convergence parameter is ... more than twice as big as any reliable empirical estimate. Or you could ... assume that structural reforms were capable of pushing potential GDP to $26 trillion, a 53% increase over potential GDP today. Both are huge stretches, and almost certainly wrong.
It is this same logic that is at play in Greece, by the way. ...
Massive structural reforms are not capable of generating immediate short-run jumps in growth rates in the U.S., Greece, or any other relatively developed economy. They play out over long periods of time, and the empirics we have suggest that by long periods we mean decades and decades of slightly above average growth. ...
Structural reforms don't generate massive short-term changes in growth rates because they are fiddling with marginal decisions, making people marginally more likely to invest, or change jobs, or get an education, or start a company. By permanently changing those marginal decisions, structural reforms act like glaciers, slowly carving the economy into a new shape over long periods of time. ...
If you want to radically boost GDP growth now, then someone has to spend money now. Take infrastructure spending..., the beauty of infrastructure spending is that is doesn't just push us closer to potential, it almost certainly raises potential GDP as well, and keeps the growth rate above average for longer. ...
The difference with infrastructure spending is that it does not nibble around the edges or play with marginal decisions. It dumps a bunch of new spending into the economy. And that is the only way to juice the growth rate appreciably in the short run. Structural reforms will raise GDP, and in the long run may raise GDP by far more than immediate infrastructure spending. But that increase in GDP will take decades, and the change in growth will be barely noticeable. You want demonstrably faster growth right now? Then be prepared to spend lots of money right now.
In the Greek situation, the implication is that without some kind of boost to spending now, they are unlikely to ever grow fast enough to ever get out of this hole they are in. ...

'Annoying Euro Apologetics'

Posted: 22 Jul 2015 09:14 AM PDT

My response to this argument that economists don't get the politics of the euro was simply "I think we get the underlying political motivations. But whether the euro was politically motivated for the most part, or not, economics matters for the sustainability of a political union." Paul Krugman has more to say:

Annoying Euro Apologetics, by Paul Krugman: Are there good arguments against the proposition that the creation of the euro was an epic mistake? Maybe. But the arguments I've been hearing lately are really bad. And they're also deeply annoying.
One argument I keep seeing is that economist critics like myself don't understand that the euro was a political and strategic project, not merely a matter of economic costs and benefits. Yes, I'm a dumb uncouth economist, completely unaware of the role of politics and international strategy in policy decisions, who never heard of the European project and its origins in the effort to put Europe's legacy of war behind it, not to mention strengthen democracy in the Cold War.
Well, actually I do know all about that. The point, however, is that while the European project has at every stage combined economic objectives with broader political goals – it's about peace and democracy through integration and prosperity – the project can't be expected to work unless the economic measures are a good idea in and of themselves, or at least a non-catastrophic idea. What happened in the march to the euro was that European elites, in love with the symbolism of a single currency, closed their minds to warnings that currency union – unlike the removal of trade barriers – was at best ambiguous in its economic logic, and arguably, even ex ante, a very bad idea indeed.
An alternative argument, which we're hearing from depressed European economies like Finland, is that the short-term costs of inflexibility are outweighed by the supposedly huge gains from greater integration. But where's the evidence for these huge gains? ...
As I said, maybe there are good arguments against the proposition that the euro was a mistake. But pointing out that politics matters, and economies grow, doesn't cut it; these aren't the factoids you're looking for.

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