Mike Konczal

Roosevelt Institute Fellow

Recent Posts by Mike Konczal

  • New Score: Liberal Nihilism over Wages

    Mar 6, 2015Mike Konczal

    I have a new Score column up: Why Are Liberals Resigned to Low Wages? It deals with the three key political institutions that are responsible for wages remaining low, both over the past generation and in the Great Recession. It also tries to understand "liberal nihilism", or the weird glee that results when wages aren't seen as also having an institutional component to them, and thus are no longer a political challenge.

    I hope you check it out!

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    I have a new Score column up: Why Are Liberals Resigned to Low Wages? It deals with the three key political institutions that are responsible for wages remaining low, both over the past generation and in the Great Recession. It also tries to understand "liberal nihilism", or the weird glee that results when wages aren't seen as also having an institutional component to them, and thus are no longer a political challenge.

    I hope you check it out!

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  • What are the Robots Doing? Rebalancing our Inequality Intellectual Portfolio

    Mar 4, 2015Mike Konczal

    A blog post responding to a blog post responding to a blog post. Who says the blogosphere is dead?

    Recently I wrote about Larry Summers demolishing an argument about robots and our weak recovery on a panel. Jim Tankersley called up Summers to further discuss the topic, and put his interview online as a response meant to correct and expand on my post. But I don’t think we disagree here, and if anything Summers’ interview shows how much the consensus has changed.

    Before we continue, I should clarify what we are talking about. When people talk about “the robots,” they are really telling one of three stories:

    1. Technology has played an important role in the economic malaise of the past 35 years, broadly defined as a mix of stagnating median wages, increased inequality, and weakening labor-force participation.

    2. The Great Recession has led to such a weak and lackluster recovery in large part because of technology. In one version of this story, technology is simply taking all the jobs that would normally be found in a recovery. As the AP put it, “Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost... They're being obliterated by technology.” (President Obama himself often mentioned this story throughout the dark period when unemployment was much higher.)

    Another, more popular, version is that workers simply don’t have the skills required for a high-technology labor force. A representative quote from the Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in 2010: “the skills people have don't match the jobs available. Coming out of this recession there may be a more or less permanent change in the composition of jobs.”

    3. We are moving to a post-work economy, one where robots substitute for human labor in massive numbers and fundamentally change society. Here’s an example. We may or may not be seeing the first hints of such a change now, depending on the story.

    The story I said Summers (as well as David Autor) demolished is the second. There’s no evidence that we are having a technology renaissance right now, or that technology has contributed in a major way to the weak recovery, or that a skills gap or other educational factor is holding back employment, or that highly skilled workers are having a great time in the labor market. The arguments against this story from the original post are pretty damning, and Summers either reiterates them or doesn’t walk them back in the Washington Post column. (Let’s leave the third story to science fiction speculation for now, noting that the second story getting demolished means it isn't happening now, and that it's hard to imagine robot innovation when labor is so cheap and abundant.)

    However, Summers does argue for the first story as well, the one in which technology has played a role in the malaise of the past 30 years. As he tells the Post, “In the 1960s, about 1 in 20 men between the age of 25 and 54 was not working. Today, the number is more like 1 in 6 or 1 in 7. So we have seen some troubling long-term trends, and they appear to be continuing trends.” Summers also notes, “to say that technology is important is not to say that technology is the only important factor, or even that it is the dominant factor.” He mentioned this as the conference as well; Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum noted it in their posts.

    Intellectual Portfolio Rebalancing

    When we think of the economic malaise of the past 30 years, we should probably think of it as a combination of technology, globalization, sociology, and public policy. Tankersley wants to emphasize technology as a piece of this story, and I agree it should be there.

    But here’s what I find interesting. Whenever we have a portfolio of ideas, some ideas get more weight than others. And what strikes me about this conversation is how much technology and skills have been deemphasized relative to other stories since the Great Recession, especially those of public policy.

    This is a pretty quick and important change. Almost ten years ago, Greg Mankiw could write, "Policy choices [...] have not been the main causes of increasing inequality. At least that is the consensus, as I understand it, of the professional labor economists who study the issue.” Brad Delong also said in 2006 that he “can't see the mechanism by which changes in government policies bring about such huge swings in pre-tax income distribution.” Skill-biased technical change (SBTC) and technology were assumed to cover the entire inequality story.

    That consensus is weaker now than it was then. Certainly the argument for SBTC, while always shaky, has taken a hit. You can see it with Summers himself in the Washington Post, where he notes that “changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon.”

    Meanwhile, more and more inequality research is focused on institutional factors, ranging from marginal tax rates to the minimum wage to the inefficiency and growth of the financial sector to deunionization.  And as the Mankiw quote hints, 10 years ago you’d be less likely to hear, as Summers says at the Washington Post, that a “combination of softer labor markets and the growing importance of economic rents” are an essential part of inequality spoken with the same confidence as you see here. I read that as a major change of the consensus.

    This is a major rebalancing of our intellectual portfolio of inequality stories, a change that I think is opening up a much more rich and accurate description of what has happened. I hope the research and conversation continues this way.

    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
     
      

     

    A blog post responding to a blog post responding to a blog post. Who says the blogosphere is dead?

    Recently I wrote about Larry Summers demolishing an argument about robots and our weak recovery on a panel. Jim Tankersley called up Summers to further discuss the topic, and put his interview online as a response meant to correct and expand on my post. But I don’t think we disagree here, and if anything Summers’ interview shows how much the consensus has changed.

    Before we continue, I should clarify what we are talking about. When people talk about “the robots,” they are really telling one of three stories:

    1. Technology has played an important role in the economic malaise of the past 35 years, broadly defined as a mix of stagnating median wages, increased inequality, and weakening labor-force participation.

    2. The Great Recession has led to such a weak and lackluster recovery in large part because of technology. In one version of this story, technology is simply taking all the jobs that would normally be found in a recovery. As the AP put it, “Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost... They're being obliterated by technology.” (President Obama himself often mentioned this story throughout the dark period when unemployment was much higher.)

    Another, more popular, version is that workers simply don’t have the skills required for a high-technology labor force. A representative quote from the Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in 2010: “the skills people have don't match the jobs available. Coming out of this recession there may be a more or less permanent change in the composition of jobs.”

    3. We are moving to a post-work economy, one where robots substitute for human labor in massive numbers and fundamentally change society. Here’s an example. We may or may not be seeing the first hints of such a change now, depending on the story.

    The story I said Summers (as well as David Autor) demolished is the second. There’s no evidence that we are having a technology renaissance right now, or that technology has contributed in a major way to the weak recovery, or that a skills gap or other educational factor is holding back employment, or that highly skilled workers are having a great time in the labor market. The arguments against this story from the original post are pretty damning, and Summers either reiterates them or doesn’t walk them back in the Washington Post column. (Let’s leave the third story to science fiction speculation for now, noting that the second story getting demolished means it isn't happening now, and that it's hard to imagine robot innovation when labor is so cheap and abundant.)

    However, Summers does argue for the first story as well, the one in which technology has played a role in the malaise of the past 30 years. As he tells the Post, “In the 1960s, about 1 in 20 men between the age of 25 and 54 was not working. Today, the number is more like 1 in 6 or 1 in 7. So we have seen some troubling long-term trends, and they appear to be continuing trends.” Summers also notes, “to say that technology is important is not to say that technology is the only important factor, or even that it is the dominant factor.” He mentioned this as the conference as well; Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum noted it in their posts.

    Intellectual Portfolio Rebalancing

    When we think of the economic malaise of the past 30 years, we should probably think of it as a combination of technology, globalization, sociology, and public policy. Tankersley wants to emphasize technology as a piece of this story, and I agree it should be there.

    But here’s what I find interesting. Whenever we have a portfolio of ideas, some ideas get more weight than others. And what strikes me about this conversation is how much technology and skills have been deemphasized relative to other stories since the Great Recession, especially those of public policy.

    This is a pretty quick and important change. Almost ten years ago, Greg Mankiw could write, "Policy choices [...] have not been the main causes of increasing inequality. At least that is the consensus, as I understand it, of the professional labor economists who study the issue.” Brad Delong also said in 2006 that he “can't see the mechanism by which changes in government policies bring about such huge swings in pre-tax income distribution.” Skill-biased technical change (SBTC) and technology were assumed to cover the entire inequality story.

    That consensus is weaker now than it was then. Certainly the argument for SBTC, while always shaky, has taken a hit. You can see it with Summers himself in the Washington Post, where he notes that “changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon.”

    Meanwhile, more and more inequality research is focused on institutional factors, ranging from marginal tax rates to the minimum wage to the inefficiency and growth of the financial sector to deunionization.  And as the Mankiw quote hints, 10 years ago you’d be less likely to hear, as Summers says at the Washington Post, that a “combination of softer labor markets and the growing importance of economic rents” are an essential part of inequality spoken with the same confidence as you see here. I read that as a major change of the consensus.

    This is a major rebalancing of our intellectual portfolio of inequality stories, a change that I think is opening up a much more rich and accurate description of what has happened. I hope the research and conversation continues this way.

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  • Launching Our Financialization Project with "Disgorge the Cash"

    Feb 25, 2015Mike Konczal

    So excited to be launching our new Financialization Project. Check out the website here. Part of the goal of the project is to define financialization, and we've focused on the changes to savings, power, wealth, and society that have occured over the past 35 years. We'll have more there soon, but for now check out the general idea here.

    We're also releasing our first paper, "Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment," by Roosevelt fellow J.W. Mason. There's a great writeup of the paper by Lydia DePillis – "Why companies are rewarding shareholders instead of investing in the real economy" – at the Washington Post.

    There's a ton in there, from the key intellectual, ideological, legal, and institutional changes that brought about the shareholder revolution, to reasons to doubt a credit crunch has played any kind of role in the Great Recession. But the core of it is told in these two graphs, dug out from detailed Compustat data:

    The first figure shows that a firm borrowing $1 would correlate with an additional 40 cents of investment before the 1980s. Since the 1980s that has collapsed. Today, there is a strong correlation between shareholder payouts and borrowing that did not exist before the mid-1980s. Since the 1980s, shareholder payouts have nearly doubled; in the second half of 2007, aggregate payouts actually exceeded aggregate investment.

    This next figure, a little harder to follow, uses flow-of-funds data to make the same point more dramatically.

    These graphs plot corporate investment and shareholder payouts against cash flow from operations and net borrowing, respectively. Here the series are broken into three periods: 1952–1984; 1985 to the business-cycle trough in 2001; and 2002–2013. As the paper notes, the upper two panels show a strong relationship between corporate sources of funds and investment in the 1950s through the early 1980s: the points of the scatterplots fall clearly along an upward-sloping diagonal, indicating that periods of high corporate earnings and high corporate borrowing were consistently also periods of high corporate investment. The relationship between investment and the two sources of funds is still present, though weaker, in the 1985–2001 period.
     
    But in the most recent business cycle and recovery, the correlations appear to have vanished entirely. The rise, fall, and recovery of corporate cash flow over the past dozen years is not associated with any similar shifts in corporate investment, which seems stuck at a low level of 1–2 percent of total assets. Similarly, the very large swings in credit flows to the corporate sector do not correspond to any similar shifts in aggregate investment. Turning to the lower two panels of Figure 6, which show shareholder payouts, we see at most a weak relationship with the two sources of funds in the earlier period. In the earlier period, it is payments to shareholders that are stable at 1–2 percent of corporate assets. In the most recent period, by contrast, payouts to shareholders vary much more, and appear more strongly associated with variation in cash flow and borrowing. The transitional period of 1985–2001 is intermediate between the two.
     
    I hope you check out the full paper. Here's the executive summary:
     
    This paper provides evidence that the strong empirical relationship of corporate cash flow and borrowing to productive corporate investment has disappeared in the last 30 years and has been replaced with corporate funds and shareholder payouts. Whereas firms once borrowed to invest and improve their long-term performance, they now borrow to enrich their investors in the short-run. This is the result of legal, managerial, and structural changes that resulted from the shareholder revolution of the 1980s. Under the older, managerial, model, more money coming into a firm – from sales or from borrowing – typically meant more money spent on fixed investment. In the new rentier-dominated model, more money coming in means more money flowing out to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.
     
    These results have important implications for macroeconomic policy. The shareholder revolution – and its implications for corporate financing decisions – may help explain why higher corporate profits in recent business cycles have generally failed to lead to high levels of investment. And under this new system, cheaper money from lower interest rates will fail to stimulate investment, growth, and wages because, as we show here, additional funds are funneled to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
     
    Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
     
      

     

    So excited to be launching our new Financialization Project. Check out the website here. Part of the goal of the project is to define financialization, and we've focused on the changes to savings, power, wealth, and society that have occured over the past 35 years. We'll have more there soon, but for now check out the general idea here.

    We're also releasing our first paper, "Disgorge the Cash: The Disconnect Between Corporate Borrowing and Investment," by Roosevelt fellow J.W. Mason. There's a great writeup of the paper by Lydia DePillis – "Why companies are rewarding shareholders instead of investing in the real economy" – at the Washington Post.

    There's a ton in there, from the key intellectual, ideological, legal, and institutional changes that brought about the shareholder revolution, to reasons to doubt a credit crunch has played any kind of role in the Great Recession. But the core of it is told in these two graphs, dug out from detailed Compustat data:

    The first figure shows that a firm borrowing $1 would correlate with an additional 40 cents of investment before the 1980s. Since the 1980s that has collapsed. Today, there is a strong correlation between shareholder payouts and borrowing that did not exist before the mid-1980s. Since the 1980s, shareholder payouts have nearly doubled; in the second half of 2007, aggregate payouts actually exceeded aggregate investment.

    This next figure, a little harder to follow, uses flow-of-funds data to make the same point more dramatically.

    These graphs plot corporate investment and shareholder payouts against cash flow from operations and net borrowing, respectively. Here the series are broken into three periods: 1952–1984; 1985 to the business-cycle trough in 2001; and 2002–2013. As the paper notes, the upper two panels show a strong relationship between corporate sources of funds and investment in the 1950s through the early 1980s: the points of the scatterplots fall clearly along an upward-sloping diagonal, indicating that periods of high corporate earnings and high corporate borrowing were consistently also periods of high corporate investment. The relationship between investment and the two sources of funds is still present, though weaker, in the 1985–2001 period.
     
    But in the most recent business cycle and recovery, the correlations appear to have vanished entirely. The rise, fall, and recovery of corporate cash flow over the past dozen years is not associated with any similar shifts in corporate investment, which seems stuck at a low level of 1–2 percent of total assets. Similarly, the very large swings in credit flows to the corporate sector do not correspond to any similar shifts in aggregate investment. Turning to the lower two panels of Figure 6, which show shareholder payouts, we see at most a weak relationship with the two sources of funds in the earlier period. In the earlier period, it is payments to shareholders that are stable at 1–2 percent of corporate assets. In the most recent period, by contrast, payouts to shareholders vary much more, and appear more strongly associated with variation in cash flow and borrowing. The transitional period of 1985–2001 is intermediate between the two.
     
    I hope you check out the full paper. Here's the executive summary:
     
    This paper provides evidence that the strong empirical relationship of corporate cash flow and borrowing to productive corporate investment has disappeared in the last 30 years and has been replaced with corporate funds and shareholder payouts. Whereas firms once borrowed to invest and improve their long-term performance, they now borrow to enrich their investors in the short-run. This is the result of legal, managerial, and structural changes that resulted from the shareholder revolution of the 1980s. Under the older, managerial, model, more money coming into a firm – from sales or from borrowing – typically meant more money spent on fixed investment. In the new rentier-dominated model, more money coming in means more money flowing out to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.
     
    These results have important implications for macroeconomic policy. The shareholder revolution – and its implications for corporate financing decisions – may help explain why higher corporate profits in recent business cycles have generally failed to lead to high levels of investment. And under this new system, cheaper money from lower interest rates will fail to stimulate investment, growth, and wages because, as we show here, additional funds are funneled to shareholders through buybacks and dividends.
     
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  • The One Where Larry Summers Demolished the Robots and Skills Arguments

    Feb 20, 2015Mike Konczal
    Everyone should take it easy on the robot stuff for a while.
     
    There's been a small, but influential, hysteria surrounding the idea is that a huge wave of automation, technology and skills have lead to a massive structural change in the economy since 2010. The implicit argument here is that robots and machines have both made traditional demand-side policies irrelevant or naïve, and been a major driver of wage stagnation and inequality. Though not the most pernicious story that gained prominence as the recovery remained sluggish in 2010 to 2011, it gained an important foothold among elite discussion.
     
    That is over. They say Washington DC has had a huge crime decline, but I just saw one of the most vicious muggings I’m likely to see, one where David Autor and Larry Summers just tore this idea that a Machine Age is responsible for our economic plight apart on a panel yesterday at the Hamilton Project for the launch of a new Machine Age report. Summers, in particular, took an aggressive tone that is likely to be where liberal and Democratic Party mainstream economic thinking is in advance of 2016. It is a very, very good place.
     
    As Larry Mishel noted in an American Prospect piece on the eve of the event, the robots and skills story has many problems. But I was genuinely surprised at how poorly those pushing the argument - Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of the influential The Second Machine Age, were there - could address the pretty obvious counterarguments that were brought up. You can see the event at CSPAN here. This piece will mostly be blockquotes, because the quotes are too good to try and summarize. (Any transcribing errors are my own.)
     
    First up, economist David Autor of MIT demolished the core claims in about a minute of speaking. For those with ears to hear it, this is him also moderating and walking back portions of his “job polarization” arguments from 2010. Autor:

    I think there's reason for some skepticism about how fast things are actually moving. There’s a lot of aggregate data that don't support the idea the labor market is changing or the economy is changing as rapidly as this very dramatic story. The premium to higher education has plateaued over the last 10 years. We see evidence highly skilled workers have less rapid career trajectories and are moving into less skill occupation if anything. Productivity is not growing very rapidly, and a lot of the employment growth we’ve seen in the past 15 years has been in relatively low education, in-person service occupations.

    The second point I want to make, when we think about how technology interacts with labor market we think of substitution of labor with machinery. [...] What is neglected is that it complements us as well. Many activities require a mixture of things. it requires a mixture of information process and creativity, motor power and dexterity. if those things need to be done together if you make one cheaper and more productive, you increase the value of the other.

    It got worse for the robots. Here's Larry Summers:
    On the one hand we have enormous anecdotal evidence and visual evidence that points to technology having huge and pervasive effects. Whether it is complementing workers and making them much more productive in a happy way, or whether it is substituting for them and leaving them unemployed can be debated. In either of those scenarios you would expect it to be producing a renaissance of higher productivity.
     
    So, on the one hand are convinced of the far greater pervasiveness of technology in the last few years, and, on the other hand, the productivity statistics on the last dozen years are dismal. Any fully satisfactory view has to reconcile those two observations and I have not heard it satisfactorily reconciled.
    Summers also pointed out something that's fairly obvious once you think about it: if this robot argument is true, doesn't it mean a short-term job boom? (JW Mason once pointed out this is how Schumpeter thought of these types of “recalculation” business cycles.) Summers:
    If you believe technology happens with a big lag and it's only going to happen in the future, that's fine. But then you can't believe it's already caused a large amount of inequality and disruption of employment today. [...] Let's take retailing. You can imagine you can have all kinds of spiffy technology so you no longer have to have people behind cash registers. The problem is you wouldn't expect the people behind the cash registers would get fired before the people working the systems got the new systems working. […] I understand why it might take years for it all to have an effect. What I have a harder time understanding is how there can be substantial disemployment ahead of the effect of the productivity.
     
    That is, if you thought that it just was impossible to put in these systems and so forth, then you might think that in the short run it would be a big employment boom. You have to keep your old legacy system going and you have to have a million guys running around figuring out how to put the new computer system in. 
    The panel goes into a thing about how education will save us. Moar education! This is where Summers went harder than I had expected:
    I think the [education] policies that Aneesh is talking about are largely whistling past the graveyard. The core problem is that there aren't enough jobs. If you help some people, you could help them get the jobs, but then someone else won't get the jobs. Unless you're doing things that have things that are effecting the demand for jobs, you're helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs. […]
     
    Folks, wage inflation in the united states is 2%. It has not gone up in five years. There are not 3% of the economy where there's any evidence of hyper wage inflation of a kind that would go with worker shortages. The idea that you can just have better training and then there are all these jobs, all these places where there are shortages and we just need the train people is fundamentally an evasion. [...]
     
    I am concerned that if we allow the idea to take hold, that all we need to do is there are all these jobs with skills and if we can just train people a bit, then they'll be able to get into them and the whole problem will go away. I think that is fundamentally an evasion of a profound social challenge.
    But, but, but, if we don’t just educate people more, what can we even do? Summers:
    What we need is more demand and that goes to short run cyclical policy, more generally to how we operate macroeconomic policy, and the enormous importance of having tighter labor markets, so that firms have an incentive to reach for worker, rather than workers having to reach for firms. [...]
     
    I think that the broad empowerment of labor in a world where an increasing part of the economy is generating income that has a kind of rent aspect to it, the question of who's going to share in it becomes very large. One of the puzzles of our economy today is that on the one hand, we have record low real interest rates, that are expected to be record low for 30 years if you look at the index bond market. And on the other hand, we have record high profits. And you tend to think record high profits would mean record high returns to capital, would also mean really high interest rates. And what we actually have is really low real interest rates. The way to think about that is there's a lot of rents in what we're calling profits that don't really represent a return to investment, but represent a rent.
     
    The question then is who's going to get those rents? Which goes to the minimum wage, goes to the power of union, goes through the presence of profit sharing, goes to the length of patents and a variety of other government policies that confer rents and then when those are received, goes to the question of how progressive the tax and transfer system is. That has got to be a very, very large part of the picture.
    Two bonus quotes. First, someone immediately followed up that instead of the minimum wage, why don’t we just expand the earned income tax credit? Summers:
    If we had the income distribution in the United States that we did in 1979, the top 1% would have $1 trillion less today, and the bottom 80% would have $1 trillion more. That works out to about $700,000 a family for the top 1%, and about $11,000 a year for a family in the bottom 80%.
     
    That's a trillion dollars. I don't know what the number is, but my guess is that the total cost of the Earned Income Tax Credit is $50 billion. Nobody's got on the policy agenda doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. The big, aggressive agendas are probably to increase it by a third or a half. So, I'm all for it, but we are talking about 2.5% of the redistribution that has taken place. So, you have to be looking for things and there's no one thing that is going to do it. My reading of the evidence, it's a fairly general evidence, is that while there may be some elasticity, the elasticity around the current level of the minimum wage is very low.
    Nice. And from his introductory remarks, Robert Rubin casually mentions collective bargaining might be a solution to inequality, but also probably redistribution and a cultural and policy shift towards more free time and more leisure. Ya know, no biggie. Rubin:
    We may need an increase in the income tax credit, not only for those who receive it at the present time but perhaps much further up the income scale. Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth [...] If we have ever rapid technological development and it is labor displacing, at some point in the future -- as I say, that may be some distant point in the future -- should that lead to some basic change in our lifestyles with less work, more lecture and a richer, more robust use of that leisure? [...] In addition to everything that needs to be done to enhance growth, tighten labor markets and to improve the position of middle and lower income workers, should there be increased redistribution to accomplish the broad objectives of our society?
    (I looked at the left-liberals I knew active in policy circles in the 1990s who were in the room, wondering how they kept their heads from exploding at that moment.)
     
    Perhaps this turn is just reflecting this very specific historical moment, and it could change again just as quickly. But the problems are real, and terrifying stories about robots taking all the jobs can no longer have the double function as a form of relief that we have no responsibility to try and address these problems. And it's great to see prominent liberal economists doing that, especially in advance of the 2016 election.
     
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    Everyone should take it easy on the robot stuff for a while.
     
    There's been a small, but influential, hysteria surrounding the idea is that a huge wave of automation, technology and skills have lead to a massive structural change in the economy since 2010. The implicit argument here is that robots and machines have both made traditional demand-side policies irrelevant or naïve, and been a major driver of wage stagnation and inequality. Though not the most pernicious story that gained prominence as the recovery remained sluggish in 2010 to 2011, it gained an important foothold among elite discussion.
     
    That is over. They say Washington DC has had a huge crime decline, but I just saw one of the most vicious muggings I’m likely to see, one where David Autor and Larry Summers just tore this idea that a Machine Age is responsible for our economic plight apart on a panel yesterday at the Hamilton Project for the launch of a new Machine Age report. Summers, in particular, took an aggressive tone that is likely to be where liberal and Democratic Party mainstream economic thinking is in advance of 2016. It is a very, very good place.
     
    As Larry Mishel noted in an American Prospect piece on the eve of the event, the robots and skills story has many problems. But I was genuinely surprised at how poorly those pushing the argument - Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of the influential The Second Machine Age, were there - could address the pretty obvious counterarguments that were brought up. You can see the event at CSPAN here. This piece will mostly be blockquotes, because the quotes are too good to try and summarize. (Any transcribing errors are my own.)
     
    First up, economist David Autor of MIT demolished the core claims in about a minute of speaking. For those with ears to hear it, this is him also moderating and walking back portions of his “job polarization” arguments from 2010. Autor:

    I think there's reason for some skepticism about how fast things are actually moving. There’s a lot of aggregate data that don't support the idea the labor market is changing or the economy is changing as rapidly as this very dramatic story. The premium to higher education has plateaued over the last 10 years. We see evidence highly skilled workers have less rapid career trajectories and are moving into less skill occupation if anything. Productivity is not growing very rapidly, and a lot of the employment growth we’ve seen in the past 15 years has been in relatively low education, in-person service occupations.

    The second point I want to make, when we think about how technology interacts with labor market we think of substitution of labor with machinery. [...] What is neglected is that it complements us as well. Many activities require a mixture of things. it requires a mixture of information process and creativity, motor power and dexterity. if those things need to be done together if you make one cheaper and more productive, you increase the value of the other.

    It got worse for the robots. Here's Larry Summers:
    On the one hand we have enormous anecdotal evidence and visual evidence that points to technology having huge and pervasive effects. Whether it is complementing workers and making them much more productive in a happy way, or whether it is substituting for them and leaving them unemployed can be debated. In either of those scenarios you would expect it to be producing a renaissance of higher productivity.
     
    So, on the one hand are convinced of the far greater pervasiveness of technology in the last few years, and, on the other hand, the productivity statistics on the last dozen years are dismal. Any fully satisfactory view has to reconcile those two observations and I have not heard it satisfactorily reconciled.
    Summers also pointed out something that's fairly obvious once you think about it: if this robot argument is true, doesn't it mean a short-term job boom? (JW Mason once pointed out this is how Schumpeter thought of these types of “recalculation” business cycles.) Summers:
    If you believe technology happens with a big lag and it's only going to happen in the future, that's fine. But then you can't believe it's already caused a large amount of inequality and disruption of employment today. [...] Let's take retailing. You can imagine you can have all kinds of spiffy technology so you no longer have to have people behind cash registers. The problem is you wouldn't expect the people behind the cash registers would get fired before the people working the systems got the new systems working. […] I understand why it might take years for it all to have an effect. What I have a harder time understanding is how there can be substantial disemployment ahead of the effect of the productivity.
     
    That is, if you thought that it just was impossible to put in these systems and so forth, then you might think that in the short run it would be a big employment boom. You have to keep your old legacy system going and you have to have a million guys running around figuring out how to put the new computer system in. 
    The panel goes into a thing about how education will save us. Moar education! This is where Summers went harder than I had expected:
    I think the [education] policies that Aneesh is talking about are largely whistling past the graveyard. The core problem is that there aren't enough jobs. If you help some people, you could help them get the jobs, but then someone else won't get the jobs. Unless you're doing things that have things that are effecting the demand for jobs, you're helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs. […]
     
    Folks, wage inflation in the united states is 2%. It has not gone up in five years. There are not 3% of the economy where there's any evidence of hyper wage inflation of a kind that would go with worker shortages. The idea that you can just have better training and then there are all these jobs, all these places where there are shortages and we just need the train people is fundamentally an evasion. [...]
     
    I am concerned that if we allow the idea to take hold, that all we need to do is there are all these jobs with skills and if we can just train people a bit, then they'll be able to get into them and the whole problem will go away. I think that is fundamentally an evasion of a profound social challenge.
    But, but, but, if we don’t just educate people more, what can we even do? Summers:
    What we need is more demand and that goes to short run cyclical policy, more generally to how we operate macroeconomic policy, and the enormous importance of having tighter labor markets, so that firms have an incentive to reach for worker, rather than workers having to reach for firms. [...]
     
    I think that the broad empowerment of labor in a world where an increasing part of the economy is generating income that has a kind of rent aspect to it, the question of who's going to share in it becomes very large. One of the puzzles of our economy today is that on the one hand, we have record low real interest rates, that are expected to be record low for 30 years if you look at the index bond market. And on the other hand, we have record high profits. And you tend to think record high profits would mean record high returns to capital, would also mean really high interest rates. And what we actually have is really low real interest rates. The way to think about that is there's a lot of rents in what we're calling profits that don't really represent a return to investment, but represent a rent.
     
    The question then is who's going to get those rents? Which goes to the minimum wage, goes to the power of union, goes through the presence of profit sharing, goes to the length of patents and a variety of other government policies that confer rents and then when those are received, goes to the question of how progressive the tax and transfer system is. That has got to be a very, very large part of the picture.
    Two bonus quotes. First, someone immediately followed up that instead of the minimum wage, why don’t we just expand the earned income tax credit? Summers:
    If we had the income distribution in the United States that we did in 1979, the top 1% would have $1 trillion less today, and the bottom 80% would have $1 trillion more. That works out to about $700,000 a family for the top 1%, and about $11,000 a year for a family in the bottom 80%.
     
    That's a trillion dollars. I don't know what the number is, but my guess is that the total cost of the Earned Income Tax Credit is $50 billion. Nobody's got on the policy agenda doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. The big, aggressive agendas are probably to increase it by a third or a half. So, I'm all for it, but we are talking about 2.5% of the redistribution that has taken place. So, you have to be looking for things and there's no one thing that is going to do it. My reading of the evidence, it's a fairly general evidence, is that while there may be some elasticity, the elasticity around the current level of the minimum wage is very low.
    Nice. And from his introductory remarks, Robert Rubin casually mentions collective bargaining might be a solution to inequality, but also probably redistribution and a cultural and policy shift towards more free time and more leisure. Ya know, no biggie. Rubin:
    We may need an increase in the income tax credit, not only for those who receive it at the present time but perhaps much further up the income scale. Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth [...] If we have ever rapid technological development and it is labor displacing, at some point in the future -- as I say, that may be some distant point in the future -- should that lead to some basic change in our lifestyles with less work, more lecture and a richer, more robust use of that leisure? [...] In addition to everything that needs to be done to enhance growth, tighten labor markets and to improve the position of middle and lower income workers, should there be increased redistribution to accomplish the broad objectives of our society?
    (I looked at the left-liberals I knew active in policy circles in the 1990s who were in the room, wondering how they kept their heads from exploding at that moment.)
     
    Perhaps this turn is just reflecting this very specific historical moment, and it could change again just as quickly. But the problems are real, and terrifying stories about robots taking all the jobs can no longer have the double function as a form of relief that we have no responsibility to try and address these problems. And it's great to see prominent liberal economists doing that, especially in advance of the 2016 election.
     
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  • Did Ending Unemployment Insurance Extensions Really Create 1.8 Million Jobs?

    Jan 27, 2015Mike Konczal

    According to a new study by Marcus Hagedorn, Iourii Manovskii and Kurt Mitman (HMM), Congress failing to reauthorized the extension of unemployment insurance (UI) resulted in 1.8 million additional people getting jobs. But wait, how does that happen when only 1.3 million people had their benefits expire?

    The answer is by going off the normal path of these arguments in models, techniques and data. The paper has a nice write-up by Patrick Brennan here, but it’s one that doesn’t convey how different this paper is compared to the vast majority of the research. The authors made a well-criticized splash in 2013 by arguing that most of the rise in unemployment in the Great Recession was UI-driven; this new paper is a continuation of that approach.

    Gold Standard Model. Before we go further, let’s understand what the general standard in UI research looks like. The model here is that UI makes it easier for workers to pass up job offers. As a result they’ll take a longer time to find a job, which creates a larger pool of unemployed people, raising unemployment. In order to test this, researchers use longitudinal data for individuals to compare the length of job searches for individuals who receive UI with those who do not.

    This is the standard in the two biggest UI studies from the Great Recession. Both essentially use individuals not receiving UI as a control group to see what getting UI does for people’s job searches over time. Jesse Rothstein (2011) found that UI raised unemployment “by only about 0.1 to 0.5 percentage point.” Using a similar approach, Farber and Valletta (2013) later found “UI increased the overall unemployment rate by only about 0.4 percentage points.” These are generally accepted estimated.

    And though small, they are real numbers. The question then becomes an analysis of the trade-offs between this higher unemployment and the positive effects of unemployment insurance, including income support, increased aggregate demand and the increased efficiency of people taking enough time to get the best job for them.

    This is not what HMM do in their research. Either in terms of their data, which doesn’t look at any individuals, or their model, which tells a much different story than what we traditionally understand, or their techniques, which add additional problems. Let’s start with the model.

    Model Problems. The results HMM get are radically higher than these other studies. They argue that this is because they look at the “macro” effects of unemployment insurance. Instead of just people searching for a job, they argue that labor-search models show that employers must boost the wages of workers and create fewer job openings as a result of unemployment insurance tightening the labor market.

    But in their study HMM only look at aggregate employment. If these labor search dynamics were the mechanism, there should be something in the paper about actual wage data or job openings moving in response to this change. There is not. Indeed, their argument hinges entirely on the idea that the labor market was too tight, with workers having too much bargaining power, in 2010-2013. The end of UI finally relaxed this. If that’s the case, then where are the wage declines and corporate profit gains in 2014?

    This isn’t an esoteric discussion. They are, in effect, taking a residual and calling it the “macro” effect of UI. But we shouldn’t take it for granted that search models can confirm these predictions without a lot of different types of evidence; as Marshall Steinbaum wrote in his appreciation of these models, when it comes to business cycles and wages predictions they are “an empirical disaster.”

    Technique Problems. The model’s vagueness is amplified by the control issue. One of the nice things about the standard model is that people without UI make a nice control group for contrast. Here, HMM simply compare high-UI and low-UI duration states and then counties, without looking at individuals. They argue that since the expiration was done by Congress, it is essentially a random change.

    But a quick glance shows their high benefits states group had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent in 2012, while their low benefits states had an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. Not random. As the economy recovers, we’d naturally expect to see the states with a higher initial unemployment rate recover faster. But that would just be “recovery”, not an argument about UI, much less workers' bargaining power.

    Data Problems. Their county-by-county analysis is meant to cover for this, but this data is problematic here. As Dean Baker notes in an excellent post, the local area data they use is noisy, confusing based on whether the state is where one works versus lives, and is largely model driven. The fact that much of it is model-driven is problematic for their cross-state county comparisons.

    Baker replaces their employment data with the more reliable CES employment data (the headline job creation number you hear every month) and finds the opposite headline result:

    It's not encouraging that you can get the opposite result by changing from one data source to another. Baker isn’t the first to question the robustness of these results to even minor changes in the data. The Cleveland Fed, on an earlier version of their argument, found their results collapsed with a longer timeframe and excluding outliers. The fact that the paper doesn’t have robustness tests to a variety of data sources and measures also isn’t encouraging.

    So data problems, control problems, and the vague sense that this is just them finding a residual and attribute all of it to their “macro” element without enough supporting evidence. Rather than turning over the vast research already done, I think it’s best to conclude as Robert Hall of Stanford and the Hoover Institute did for their earlier paper with a similar argument: “This paper has attracted a huge amount of attention, much of it skeptical. I think it is an imaginative and potentially important contribution, but needs a lot of work to convince a fair-minded skeptic (like me).” This newest version is no different.

     
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    According to a new study by Marcus Hagedorn, Iourii Manovskii and Kurt Mitman (HMM), Congress failing to reauthorized the extension of unemployment insurance (UI) resulted in 1.8 million additional people getting jobs. But wait, how does that happen when only 1.3 million people had their benefits expire?

    The answer is by going off the normal path of these arguments in models, techniques and data. The paper has a nice write-up by Patrick Brennan here, but it’s one that doesn’t convey how different this paper is compared to the vast majority of the research. The authors made a well-criticized splash in 2013 by arguing that most of the rise in unemployment in the Great Recession was UI-driven; this new paper is a continuation of that approach.

    Gold Standard Model. Before we go further, let’s understand what the general standard in UI research looks like. The model here is that UI makes it easier for workers to pass up job offers. As a result they’ll take a longer time to find a job, which creates a larger pool of unemployed people, raising unemployment. In order to test this, researchers use longitudinal data for individuals to compare the length of job searches for individuals who receive UI with those who do not.

    This is the standard in the two biggest UI studies from the Great Recession. Both essentially use individuals not receiving UI as a control group to see what getting UI does for people’s job searches over time. Jesse Rothstein (2011) found that UI raised unemployment “by only about 0.1 to 0.5 percentage point.” Using a similar approach, Farber and Valletta (2013) later found “UI increased the overall unemployment rate by only about 0.4 percentage points.” These are generally accepted estimated.

    And though small, they are real numbers. The question then becomes an analysis of the trade-offs between this higher unemployment and the positive effects of unemployment insurance, including income support, increased aggregate demand and the increased efficiency of people taking enough time to get the best job for them.

    This is not what HMM do in their research. Either in terms of their data, which doesn’t look at any individuals, or their model, which tells a much different story than what we traditionally understand, or their techniques, which add additional problems. Let’s start with the model.

    Model Problems. The results HMM get are radically higher than these other studies. They argue that this is because they look at the “macro” effects of unemployment insurance. Instead of just people searching for a job, they argue that labor-search models show that employers must boost the wages of workers and create fewer job openings as a result of unemployment insurance tightening the labor market.

    But in their study HMM only look at aggregate employment. If these labor search dynamics were the mechanism, there should be something in the paper about actual wage data or job openings moving in response to this change. There is not. Indeed, their argument hinges entirely on the idea that the labor market was too tight, with workers having too much bargaining power, in 2010-2013. The end of UI finally relaxed this. If that’s the case, then where are the wage declines and corporate profit gains in 2014?

    This isn’t an esoteric discussion. They are, in effect, taking a residual and calling it the “macro” effect of UI. But we shouldn’t take it for granted that search models can confirm these predictions without a lot of different types of evidence; as Marshall Steinbaum wrote in his appreciation of these models, when it comes to business cycles and wages predictions they are “an empirical disaster.”

    Technique Problems. The model’s vagueness is amplified by the control issue. One of the nice things about the standard model is that people without UI make a nice control group for contrast. Here, HMM simply compare high-UI and low-UI duration states and then counties, without looking at individuals. They argue that since the expiration was done by Congress, it is essentially a random change.

    But a quick glance shows their high benefits states group had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent in 2012, while their low benefits states had an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. Not random. As the economy recovers, we’d naturally expect to see the states with a higher initial unemployment rate recover faster. But that would just be “recovery”, not an argument about UI, much less workers' bargaining power.

    Data Problems. Their county-by-county analysis is meant to cover for this, but this data is problematic here. As Dean Baker notes in an excellent post, the local area data they use is noisy, confusing based on whether the state is where one works versus lives, and is largely model driven. The fact that much of it is model-driven is problematic for their cross-state county comparisons.

    Baker replaces their employment data with the more reliable CES employment data (the headline job creation number you hear every month) and finds the opposite headline result:

    It's not encouraging that you can get the opposite result by changing from one data source to another. Baker isn’t the first to question the robustness of these results to even minor changes in the data. The Cleveland Fed, on an earlier version of their argument, found their results collapsed with a longer timeframe and excluding outliers. The fact that the paper doesn’t have robustness tests to a variety of data sources and measures also isn’t encouraging.

    So data problems, control problems, and the vague sense that this is just them finding a residual and attribute all of it to their “macro” element without enough supporting evidence. Rather than turning over the vast research already done, I think it’s best to conclude as Robert Hall of Stanford and the Hoover Institute did for their earlier paper with a similar argument: “This paper has attracted a huge amount of attention, much of it skeptical. I think it is an imaginative and potentially important contribution, but needs a lot of work to convince a fair-minded skeptic (like me).” This newest version is no different.

     
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