On Financial Repression and ♀ Labor Supply after 1945

I just came back from the Economic History Association meeting in San Jose. There are so many papers that are worth mentioning (and many have got my brains going, see notably the work of Nuno Palma on monetary neutrality after the “discovery” of the New World). However, the thing that really had me thinking was the panel on which one could find Barry Eichengreen and Carmen Reinhart (who was an early echo of the keynote speech by Michael Bordo).

Here’s why : Barry Eichengreen seemed uncomfortable with the current state of affairs regarding financial regulation and pointed out that the after-war period was marked by rapid growth and strong financial regulation. Then, Reinhart and Bordo emphasized the role of financial repression in depressing growth – notably in the period praised by Eichengreen. I have priors that make more favorable to the Reinhart-Bordo position, but I can’t really deny the point made by Eichengreen.

This had me thinking for some time during and after the talks. Both positions are hard to contest but they are mutually exclusive. True, it is possible that growth was strong in spite of financial repression, but some can argue that by creating some stability, regulations actually improved growth in a way that surpassed the negative effects caused by repression. But, could there be another explanation?

Elsewhere on this blog, I have pointed out that I am not convinced that the Thirty Glorious were that “Glorious”.  In line with my Unified Growth Theory inclinations (don’t put me in that camp, but don’t exclude me either I am still cautious on this), I believe that we need to account for demographic factors that foil long-term comparisons. For example, in a paper on Canadian economic growth, I pointed out that growth from 1870 to today is much more modest once we divide output by household-size population rather than overall population (see blog post here that highlights my paper). Later, I pointed out the ideas behind another paper (which I am still writing and for which I need more data, notably to replicate something like this paper) regarding the role of the unmeasured household economy. There, I argued that the shift of women from the household to the market over-measures the actual increase in output. After all, to arrive at the net value of increased labor force participation, one must deduce the value of foregone outputs in the household – something we know little about in spite of the work of people like Valerie Ramey.

Both these factors suggest the need for corrections based on demographic changes to better reflect actual living standards. These demographic changes were most pronounced in the 1945-1975 era – that of the era of rapid growth highlighted by Eichengreen and of financial repression highlighted by Reinhart and Bordo. If these changes were most momentous in that period, it is fair to say that the measurement errors they induce are also largest in that era.

So, simply put, could it be that these were not years of rapid growth but of modest growth that were overestimated?  If so, that would put the clash of ideas between Bordo-Reinhart and Eichengreen in a different light – albeit one more favorable to the former than the latter.

But heh, this is me speculating about where research could be oriented to guide some deeply relevant policy questions.

Piketty’s numbers on inequality don’t add up

The Financial Times, a center-Left British publication, has the story here.

Piketty, an economist at France’s most prestigious business school, recently wrote an almost 600-page treatise on the growth of economic inequality in the West. The book has earned him lots of fame and has been discussed ad nauseum for about a month now.

Here is what I have found most interesting up to this point on the debate about inequality: The factions and their strategies regarding data and how it is interpreted. I think Dr Delacroix’s approach to the way data is interpreted is best, namely that the study design itself should be analyzed first and foremost.

Regarding factions, remember when that graduate student from the heavily neo-Keynesian UMass-Amherst found discrepancies in the work of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart on austerity in the West? The Left attacked savagely. The Right came up with excuses that would have earned an ‘F’ on most undergraduate tests.

Now that the Left’s own preferred conclusions have been borne out by bad data, what do you think is going to happen? Who wants to bet that the roles of Left and Right will be reversed? When Rogoff’s and Reinhart’s mistakes went public, the graduate student was invited to speak on televised talk and radio shows around the world. His work was (justifiably) hailed in the national and international press, and also (much less justifiably) as an answer to the deplorable state of the discipline of economics. What do you think the odds will be that the researchers responsible for finding flaws in Piketty’s data will get the same reception?

My money is on the answer “not good.”

All of this discussion about austerity and inequality is great, of course. The fact that researchers are expanding their findings to include more than just the data within their own countries is perhaps the most satisfying development in regards to epistemological human progress. I will await further developments to lay down my own verdict on the matter of inequality in the West. With the mistake of Rogoff and Reinhart, I decided, after carefully reading the merits and weaknesses of both sides of the debate, that their mistake was small enough to overlook and that austerity generally leads to better economic outcomes in the near- and long-term and that public debt is a drag on economic growth.

Depending on how the Left responds to its critics, I will see if economic inequality is indeed growing in the West.