All entries for Wednesday 30 November 2011

November 30, 2011

The Return of DIY Economics

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Some years ago, David Henderson coined the phrase"do it yourself economics." DIY economics, he argued, was made up of the practical models of causation that ordinary people use to understand the economic world around them. In the world of DIY economics, he noted, public spending and exports are good because they create jobs;industry is more deserving of support than services; cheap goods made by foreigners are a curse, not a blessing; and whatever the problem is, the government ought to do something.

DIY economics is clearly expressed in responses to yesterday's autumn statement by the Chancellor. I'm going to comment on just one aspect: the length of causal chains. In the world of DIY economics there is never more than one step from cause to effect. I will give two examples, one concerning the burden of taxes and another concerning the housing market.

First, who bears the burden of taxes? In the world of DIY economics, if you tax the rich and give a benefit to the poor, the rich become poorer and the poor become richer. Full stop. In other words, the burden of taxes is borne by those that write the cheques. The converse must also be the case, as Polly Toynbee argues in this morning's The Guardian:

George Osborne's autumn statement blatantly declares itself for the few against the many ... What was missing from his list? Not one penny more was taken from the top 10% of earners. Every hit fell upon those with less not more. Fat plums ripe for the plucking stayed on the tree as the poorest bore 16% of the brunt of new cuts and the richest only 3%.

The chain of causation suggested by modern economics is somewhat longer, yet each step is still simple and transparent. The burden of taxes is spread beyond those that write the cheques to the government. Ultimately, who pays for a tax on profits? A tax on profits increases the cost of capital to firms, so that less capital is employed and every worker is less productive. The result is lower wages (as well as lower profits). A tax on labour increases the cost of labour to firms, so that fewer workers are employed. The result is fewer jobs (as well as lower wages and profits).

In short, who writes the cheque is a poor guide to whether a particular tax will help the poor. Whether taxes are levied on capital or labour, the workers bear much of the cost, which is likely to exceed the revenue raised.

Second, who should we blame for the mess that George Osborne is trying to tackle? In the world of DIY economics, there is only one step from cause to effect. So, if you see the effect, you only have to go one step back to find the cause. The recession began with a credit crunch, so the suppliers of credit, the bankers, are to blame for everything. Most certainly, we are not to blame. This morning, as public sector workers strike to protect their pensions, my facebook page is full of comments that replicate the following confident assertion:

Remember when Teachers, Policemen, Police staff,Ambulance staff, Nurses, Midwives, Doctors and Fireman crashed the stock market, wiped out Banks, took billions in bonuses and paid no tax? No, me neither. Please copy and paste to status for 24 hours to show your support against the government's latest attack on pensions and public sector workers.

Behind this, however, lies a longer chain of causation that implicates us all. Where did the credit crunch come from?* The sub-prime housing market. Mortgage lenders in western economies had overextended credit to households that had no hope of repaying from their incomes. What provided the impetus to excess housing credit? Well meaning government policies that had responded to rising inequality by promoting and subsidizing "affordable" housing (actually the opposite). Bankers and mortgage lenders colluded actively with this, of course. So I'm not particularly delighted that part of the British government's strategy for economic revival is new help for homebuyers. Haven't we been here before?

Then, why did the housing crash ripple so devastatingly through the economy? Because the same governments had already given up their room for fiscal manoeuvre by bloating their public sector wage bills and unfunded pension promises. (Promises to whom? Oh! Teachers, policemen, ambulance staff, nurses, midwives, doctors and firemen.)

So, Mr or Mrs Public Sector Worker: No, I don't let you off the hook. In fact, no one should feel free of responsibility. I might blame the last Labour government, but somebody must have voted them in. (It might have been me.)

Not everyone will agree with this diagnosis. In the real world, causal chains are long and complex. For the same reason, they are also generally uncertain. That is enough reason for disagreement, before we get around to ignorance, bias, and vested interests! The one claim I make confidently, however, is that one-step causation is rarely enough.

* To anyone who wants to read more, I recommend any of the following. There's an American tilt in my list; I don't think our own investigators have done a good job yet (but more recommendations are welcome).

  • Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon (Time Books, 2011).
  • Raghuram Rajan, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2010)
  • John B. Taylor, Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged and Worsened the Financial Crisis (Hoover Press, 2009).

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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