Monday, March 20, 2017

Is the cycle of political complacency beginning to turn in the United States?

The villain in Tyler Cowen’s latest book, The Complacent Class: The self-defeating quest for the American Dream, is “us”. Tyler is writing about America, but much of what he has written is relevant to other high-income countries. The problem, as Tyler sees it, “is that peace and high incomes tend to drain the restlessness out of people”. Many people have become complacent – “satisfied with the status quo”. Most people don’t like change much and “they now have the resources and the technology to manage their lives on this basis more and more, to the country’s long run collective detriment”.

Tyler has not persuaded me that complacency is a problem of itself. It would be nice to be able to feel more complacent. (According to Tyler’s questionnaire - international version here - I am a striver: “You embrace newness, but you need to strive harder to break the mold”.) As I see it, complacency only becomes a problem when people are complacent about things that they have good reason to be alarmed about.

Tyler provides a fair amount of evidence that Americans have become more complacent. For example:
  • ·         People now switch jobs less frequently.
  • ·         Geographical mobility has declined.
  • ·         There has been a decline in start-ups relative to total business activity.
  • ·         There are fewer unicorns (miracle growth firms).
  • ·         Market concentration has risen.
  • ·         There is more pairing of like with like e.g. people are choosing marriage partners with similar education levels, and housing is more segregated by income and race.
  • ·         Upward mobility in income and education has stopped rising.
  • ·         People are now more inclined to stay at home and use delivery services.

That is all very interesting. It changes my perceptions about America. I have to get used to the idea that Americans are no longer as mobile and innovative as they were a couple of decades ago. But that does not necessarily mean that complacency is a problem. If peace and high incomes have made Americans more complacent, isn’t that a good thing? There is not much point in striving for more of anything once you are satisfied with what you have already. How is complacency leading to bad outcomes?

When Tyler looks in detail at some of these changing characteristics, he points to the failure of political decision-making to cope with interest groups seeking to protect themselves from change. How does complacency come into that? The NIMBY advocates who are using their political muscle to protect their interests against higher density building can hardly be described as complacent. The people at Donald Trump’s rallies who are supporting his policies to protect jobs - by reducing immigration and constraining import competition - do not seem complacent. The complacency must lie with the general public, who are not yet sufficiently outraged by the stasists to cast their votes for candidates who will constrain their political influence.

Tyler’s discussion of declining geographical mobility provides a good example of political market failure. He points to research showing potential for a substantial increase in GDP if more people were to move from low-productivity cities to high-productivity cities. Regulatory constraints prevent this from happening:
“Residents in Manhattan, San Francisco, and many other high-productivity locales just don’t want all of those new people moving in, and so they have passed overly strict building and land use regulations or in some cases they have limited infrastructure so that adding more residents just isn’t practical. Without good bus or subway connections, for instance, a lot of neighbourhoods just don’t work for people with jobs downtown”.

Tyler uses the terms ‘stasis’ and ‘dynamism’ quite frequently in this book, but I couldn’t find any reference to Virginia Postrel’s pathbreaking book on this topic, The Future and Its Enemies, published 18 years ago (my discussion here). I would have been satisfied with a footnote to explain how Tyler’s views build on, or differ from Virginia’s views. Similarly, it would have been nice to see a footnote discussing the affinity between Tyler’s views and Mancur Olson’s argument that stable societies tend to accumulate distributional coalitions that slow down their capacity to adopt new technologies and reallocate resources. See: The Rise and Decline of Nations.

Early in the book Tyler suggests that “the growing success of the forces for stasis” are linked to complacency. That argument has most force it the final chapters of the book where he discusses politics.

Tyler makes the point that much of the U.S. federal government budget is locked in to spending programs that are politically untouchable. Political change occurs at the margin and is the result of complex battles among interest groups, political manoeuvring and use of public relations campaigns. The Trump administration is unlikely to change this situation much. The pre-allocation of tax revenues will ultimately become unsustainable:
“At some point this country will face an immediate crisis, and there won’t quite be the resources, or more fundamentally the flexibility to handle it”.

Tyler presents a view about the tendency of governments to take on more responsibilities than they can cope with effectively that is similar to the view I expressed in Chapter 8 of Free to Flourish. I argued that there is a growing gap between the expectations that many people have of what democratic governments can deliver and what they are capable of delivering.

However, Tyler seems to present a more optimistic view of the ability of western democracies to reform themselves rather than to collapse and to be replaced by authoritarian regimes. That is just my impression. I find it hard to point to particular passages that support that view. The scenario that Tyler presents of a possible future that would be more dynamic does not feature less dysfunctional government, although smaller government may be implied.


Although I'm not sure why, after reading the book I was left feeling hopeful that the cycle of political complacency has reached its peak and that, over the next few years, American politics might become less shrill and more focused on problem solving. Perhaps the actions of the Trump administration will further erode political complacency in ways that will lead to a public reaction favouring a more constrained role for government. So, democracy will probably survive in the U.S. I’m also reasonably confident that a fiscal crisis in Australia will eventually result in rule changes needed to make democracy sustainable in this country. I’m less complacent about the future of democracy in some of the countries of southern Europe. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Should trade policy be about "the art of the deal" or about facilitating economic growth?

"We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.  Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength" - Donald Trump, Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 2017 

How should the Australian government respond to the potential for the crazy trade policies of President Trump to take the world into a new era of trade protectionism? Since Trump’s inauguration the depth of his commitment to trade protectionism has become clearer. In my view we should be prepared for the unravelling of much of the international trade liberalisation encouraged by the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th Century.

If the Australian government continues with the current directions of international trade policy – viewing trade policy from an economic diplomacy perspective – there is a real risk that it will take ill-considered retaliatory action to foreign protectionism. Politicians who put their faith in trade diplomacy – the art of the export deal – think that they are pursuing the national interest when they make access to the Australian market contingent upon foreigners allowing our exporters to gain access to their markets. In terms of that mindset, if foreigners restrict access to their markets, it would appear logical for us to retaliate.

By contrast, political leaders who view trade policy as part of economic growth policy are more likely to keep in mind that the substantial trade liberalisation effort that Australia has made over the last 40 years has occurred unilaterally, rather than as part of any international deal. A growth policy perspective recognises the contribution that unilateral trade liberalisation has made to our prosperity.

The substantial trade liberalisation efforts made in Australia since the beginning of The Tariff Review, established in 1971, have all occurred for domestic reasons. Except for the 25 percent tariff cut of 1973, which was motivated primarily by macro-economic objectives, all of the reductions in industry assistance have occurred primarily to promote the micro-economic reform objective of providing incentives for greater productivity throughout the economy. That applies to reductions in non-tariff barriers, including reform of agricultural marketing arrangements, as well as reductions in reductions in tariff barriers.

As with other microeconomic reform policies, trade liberalisation efforts in Australia have not been pursued with equal enthusiasm by all governments. However, a sustained push toward trade liberalisation was initiated by Bob Hawke (then prime minister) and Paul Keating (treasurer) in May 1988 as part of a major package of microeconomic reform measures. In delivering the statement, Keating commented:
The way forward for Australia is not to be closeted and sheltered, but to be open and dynamic, trading aggressively in the world. Only this kind of economy can provide the employment and rising living standards that Australians aspire to”.

In the light of the toxic political environment currently prevailing in Canberra it is worth remembering that those reforms were facilitated by support from the Liberal–National Party Opposition.

The trade liberalisation that was being undertaken in pursuit of microeconomic objectives was subsequently ­offered, and accepted, in Uruguay negotiations as our market-opening contribution to global trade reform. As the Tasman Transparency Group has noted, this approach enabled us to secure all the gains available from trade negotiations — the major gains in efficiency from reducing the barriers protecting our less competitive industries, as well as those available from access to external markets. That exercise should have provided the model for all subsequent international trade negotiations.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for further gains from the pursuit of microeconomic reforms has been missed in subsequent trade negotiations. Australia’s agenda in recent negotiations establishing a range of preferential trading agreements (PTAs) was simply a market access wish list. Following the conclusion of PTAs, governments have measured their success solely on the basis of whether the outcomes improved access to external markets.

The academic research that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now sponsoring on “the effectiveness of economic diplomacy in contributing to Australia’s exports and inflow of foreign investment” does not seem to be directed at answering a comprehensible, policy-relevant question. Research being undertaken by the Productivity Commission on implications for Australia’s trade policy of possible international shifts towards a more protectionist stance seems more likely to provide a basis for sensible policy development.

Previous research on the consequences of PTAs suggests that there are no grounds for complacency that the economic benefits even exceed costs. For example, using an analytical framework developed by the Productivity Commission to assess our much-heralded trade agreement with the United States, Australian National University economist Shiro Armstrong found that the agreement was responsible for reducing — or ­diverting — $53.1 billion of trade with the rest of the world. He has suggested that “the data shows that … Australia and the United States … are worse off than they would have been without the agreement”. 

Recent Australian governments have at times acknowledged that trade policy should be part of a wider productivity promoting agenda. Nevertheless, the government seems to have been at a loss to know how to counter the argument that Australian governments should be seeking to provide a level playing field for domestic industries vis a vis subsidized foreign competitors. This argument has figured prominently in lobbying in some quarters for further government assistance by way of anti-dumping action and government procurement preferences. The government has been slow to point out that if we are to use a playing field analogy – and our interest is in promoting the wellbeing of Australians rather than conducting trade wars – the relevant basis for comparison is the relative assistance levels of different Australian industries. As a rule, if industries need assistance to compete internationally, they can’t be making efficient use of resources. 

If the Australian government is serious about its commitment to lift national productivity it should place trade policy in the Treasury department – the department with central responsibility for facilitating economic growth. This would add some much-needed economic discipline to the conduct of trade policy as we face a more difficult world trading environment. The last thing we need in this environment is a bureaucratic structure for trade policy that is biased toward mindless deal-making and retaliation