The French Have It Better?

As I keep saying, facts matter. Facts matter more than ideological consistency if you want to know. That’s why I keep comparing us with the other society I know well, France. I am up-to-date on it, a task facilitated by the fact that I read a major French newspaper online every day, by the fact that I watch the French-language Francophone television chain, TV5, nearly every day, and by occasional recourse to my brother who lives in France. My brother is especially useful as a source because he is well-informed by French standards, articulate, and an unreconstructed left-of-center statist. I suspect he has never in his life heard a clear exposition of how markets are supposed to work. He is a typical Frenchman in that respect.

I almost forgot: I must admit that I watch a French soap opera five days a week at lunchtime. And finally, I spy on my twenty-something French nieces and nephews through Facebook. I never say anything to them so they have forgotten I am their so-called “friend.” I almost forgot again: Until recently, I went to France often. Every time I was there, I made it my duty to read local newspapers and newsweeklies and to listen to the radio and to watch the news on television. I said “duty” because it was not always fun.

So, those are my credentials. I hope you find them as impressive as I do.

And, incidentally, for those who know me personally, mostly around Santa Cruz, the rumor that I am a guy from New Jersey who fakes a French accent to make himself interesting to the ladies, that rumor has no foundation. In fact, the accent is real. French is my first language; the accent never went away and it’s getting worse as my hearing deteriorate. I like to write in part because I don’t have much of an accent in writing. Got it?

I found out recently that the French national debt to GDP ratio is about 85. That is, French citizens, as citizens, owe 85 cents for every dollar they earn in a year. The debt is a cumulative total, of course, And “national debt” refers to what’s owed by the national government of a country. The private debt of the citizens of the same country is an unrelated matter. Another way to say the same thing is that, should you reduce the national debt of your country down to zero, it wouldn’t help you directly with your personal credit card balance. (It might help you indirectly to some extent because you wouldn’t be in a position anymore to compete with the federal government for credit. This competition raises interest rates.)

The national debt also does not include the debts of states and local governments. In this country, the aggregate of these non-federal government debts is also high because of our decentralized structure. Let me say it another way: The national debt, associated entirely with the federal government, is a relatively small fraction of the total debt US citizens owe by virtue of the cost of their overall system of government. It’s relatively small as compared to the same quantity for France, for example. The French national debt includes most sub-debts that would be counted as state debt and local debt in this country. Accordingly, the French national debt is overestimated as compared to ours. If French accounting were like ours the French national debt would be considerably less than 85% of GDP.

Well, you ask: What’s ours, our national debt as a percentage of GDP? Fair enough:

It’s about 100% of GDP, 15 points higher than the French percentage. We are closer to Greece than France is in that respect.

This pisses me off to no end. The divergence between the directions taken by French society and American society occurred during my adulthood. I witnessed that divergence in concrete terms through my French relatives and directly, through my visits to France, and the occasional longish sojourn there, and so forth. So, let me summarize what I saw in France during the past thirty years.

The French eat better than Americans. They always did but their food could have become worse under “socialism.” Even the children who stay at school over lunch eat good meals for a nominal sum. School lunches in the average French town taste better than the fare of a better-than-average American restaurant, in my book.

The French have longer vacations than Americans. That’s all of them, all Americans, including civil servants and bricklayers’ union members. Five weeks is the norm in France. You read that right: 5!

In many French municipalities – I am tempted to say “most” but I have not done the research – children go skiing at public expense one week each year or more. There are also many subsidized “initiation to the sea” summer camps.

It’s also true that Americans have bigger houses and bigger cars than do French people. Personally (and I am a kind of small expert on the topic) I think French universities are not nearly as good as their American counterparts. I mean that the best French universities don’t come close to the best American universities and that the worst American universities maintain standards absent in the worst French universities. Elementary and secondary French schools seem to me to be about equivalent to American schools. They also turn out large numbers of functional illiterates. But, there is more.

The French have universal health care that is mostly free. It hurts me a lot to say this but I saw it at work several times, including under trying circumstances, and the French national health care system performed fine every time. (There is an essay on this topic on this blog, I think.) I know this is only anecdotal evidence but the raw numbers don’t contradict my impression. In point of fact, French males live two years longer than American men. I realize this superior longevity could be due to any number of factors (except genetic factors, both populations are very mixed). However, it is not compatible with a truly horrendous “socialized medicine” system. And, yes, I too would like to credit Frenchmen’s longevity to regular drinking of red wine but it’s not reasonable. If it were, a health cult of red wine would have been launched by the wine industry in this country a long time ago.

The French collectively spend about half as much as we do on health care.

I can hear my virginal libertarian friends howling: The French can afford all those tax-based luxuries because they are less likely than Americans to become involved in military ventures. (And I would add, they cut out earlier, as they are now doing in Afghanistan.) But the numbers have to jibe: In the past thirty years, the US never spent more than 5% of GDP on the military. In most years, it was under 4% . Both figures include incompressibles such as veterans’ benefits that aren’t really spent to wage war, now or in the future. Those costs, about ¼ of the military budget in the average year, would be more or less made up elsewhere if they did not exist. So, it seems to me that higher military budgets cannot begin to account for the fifteen percentage points the French have over us in their national debt relative to GDP.

I am a small government conservative who would call himself a libertarian if I did not see the word as associated with pacifism. Yet, I cannot look away from these simple facts. I wish I had an answer to the quandary they pose but I don’t. Any ideas?

Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!

Bryan Caplan is an optimist. He thinks that economists do many errors in estimating GDP (overall well-being). He is right in the sense that we are missing many dimensions of welfare improvements in the last half-century (see here, here and here). These errors in measurements lead us to hold incorrectly pessimistic views (such as those of Robert Gordon). However, Prof. Caplan seems to argue (I may be wrong) that all measurements problems and errors are greater than zero. In other words, they all cut in favor of omitting things. There are no reasons to believe this. Many measurement problems with GDP  data cut the other way – in favor of adding too much (so that the true figures are lower than the reported ones).

Here are two errors of importance (which are in no way exhaustive): household output and adjustments for household size.

Household Output

From the 1910s to the 1940s, married women began to enter moderately the workforce. This trickle became a deluge thereafter. National GDP statistics are really good at capturing the extra output they were hired to produce. However, national GDP statistics cannot net out the production that was foregone: household output.

A married woman in 1940 did produce something: child-rearing, house chores, cooking, allowing the husband to specialize in his work. That output had a value. Once offered the chance to work, married women thought the utility generated from producing “home outputs” was inferior to the utility generated from “market work”. However, the output that is measured is only related to market work. Women entered the labor force and everything they produced was considered a net addition to GDP. In reality, any economist worth his salt is aware that the true improvement in well-being is equal to the increased market output minus the forsaken house output. Thus, in a transition from a “male-labor force” to a “mixed labor force”, you are bound to overestimate output increases.

How big of an issue is this? Well, consider this paper from 1996 in Feminist Economics. In that paper, Barnet Wagman and Nancy Folbre calculate output in both the “household” and “market” sectors. They find that even very small changes in the relative size of these sectors alter growth rates by substantial margins. Another example, which I discussed in this blog post based on articles in the Review of Income and Wealth, is that when you make the adjustment over four decades of available Canadian data, you can find that one quarter of the increase in living standards is eliminated by the proper netting out of the value of non-market output. These are sizable measurement errors that cut in the opposite direction as the one hypothesized by prof. Caplan (and in favor of people like prof. Gordon).

Household Size

Changes in household sizes also create overestimation problems. Larger households have more economies of scale to exploit than smaller households so that an income of $10,000 per capita in a household of six members is superior in purchasing power than an income of $10,000 per capita in a single-person household. If, over time, you move from large households to small households, you will overestimate economic growth. In an article in the Scottish Journal of Political Economy, I showed that making adjustments for household sizes over time yields important changes in growth rates between 1890 and 2000. Notice, in the table below, that GDP per adult equivalent (i.e. GDP per capita adjusted for household size) is massively different than GDP per capita. Indeed, the adjusted growth rates are reduced by close to two-fifths of their original values over the 1945-2000 period and by a third over the 1890 to 2000 period. This is a massive overestimation of actual improvements in well-being.

HouseholdAdjust

A large overestimation

If you assemble these two factors together, I hazard a guess that growth rates would be roughly halved (there is some overlap between the two so that we cannot simply sum them up as errors to correct for – hence my “guess”). This is not negligible. True, there are things that we are not counting as Prof. Caplan notes. We ought to find a way to account for them. However, if they simply wash out the overestimation, the sum of errors may equal zero. If so, those who are pessimistic about the future (and recent past) of economic growth have a pretty sound case. Thus, I find myself unable to share Prof. Caplan’s optimism.

Women and secular stagnation

As an economic historian, I’ve always had a hard time with the idea of secular stagnation. After all, one decade of slow growth is merely a blip on the twelve millenniums of economic history (I am not that interested with the pre-Neolithic history, but there is some great work to be found in archaeology journals). Hence, Robert Gordon’s arguments fall short on me.

That was until I was sparked to react to a comment by Emily Skarbek at Econlib. Overall, she is skeptical of Gordon’s claims of secular stagnation. But not for the same reasons. She claims that there are many improvements in welfare that we are not capturing through national income accounts. This is basically the same point as the one made by the great Joel Mokyr (the gold standard of economic historians).

It is true that national accounts have some large conceptual problems regarding measuring output when there are massive technological changes. Yet, all these problems don’t go in the same direction. More precisely, they don’t all lead to underestimation of growth.

My favorite example of one that leads us to overestimate growth is the one I keep giving my macroeconomics students at HEC Montreal. Assume an economy with a labor-force participation rate of 50%. Basically, only males work. All women stay at home for household chores and childcare. In that case, all measured output is male-produced output. Since national accounts don’t consider household production, all the output of women in the households of this scenario is non-existent.

Now assume a technological change causing a shift of 10% of women to the workforce at the same wage rate as men. That boosts labor participation rate to 55% and output by 5%. However, that would largely overestimate growth caused by this shift. After all, when my grandmothers were raising my parents, they were producing something. It was not worthless output. Obviously, if my grandmothers went to work, there was some net added value, but not as much as 5%. However, according to national account, the net increase in GDP is … 5%.

Obviously wrong right? Now, think of the economic history of the last 100 years. Progressively, female labor-force participation increased as marriages were delayed and family sizes were reduced. Unmarried women stayed on the market longer. Then, the introduction of new household technologies allowed some married women to join the labor force more actively. Progressively, women accumulated more human capital and became more active in the labor force. So much that in many western countries, both genders have equal labor-force participation rates.

As they shifted from household production to market production, we considered that everything they did was a net added value. We never subtracted the value of what was produced before. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that women work instead of toiling inside a household to handwash dirty clothes. Yet, it would be both statistically incorrect and morally insulting to say that what women did in the household had no value whatsoever. 

The role of household production in reducing the quality of growth estimates goes back to the 1870s! A 1996 article in Feminist Economics (which I use a lot in my own national account sections of macroeconomics classes) shows the following changes in growth rates when we account for the value of household production. Instead of increasing to 1910 and then falling to 1930, growth in the United States falls to 1930. While the growth rates remain appreciable, they nonetheless indicate a massively different interpretation of American economic history.

SecularStagnation

 

Sadly, I do not possess a continuation of such estimates to later points in time for the United States. I know there is an article by the brilliant Valerie Ramey in the Journal of Economic History, but I am not sure how to compute this to reflect changes in overall output. I intend to try to find them for a short piece I want to submit later in 2016. Yet, I do have estimates for my home country of Canada. Combining a 1979 paper in the Review of Income and Wealth with a working paper from Statistics Canada, it seems that the value of household production falls from 45% of GNP in 1961 to 33% in 1998. When we adjust GDP per capita to consider the changes in household work in Canada, the growth path remains positive, but it is less impressive.

SEcularStagnation2

I am not saying that Gordon is right to say that growth is over. I am saying that the accounting problems don’t all go in the direction of invalidating him. In fact, if my point is correct, proper corrections would reduce growth rates dramatically for the period of 1945 to 1975 and less so for the period that followed. This may indicate that “slow growth” was with us for most of the post-war era. That’s why I reacted to the blog post of Skarbek.

It also allows me to say the thing that is the best buzz-kill for economics students: national accounting matters!