Saturday, November 8, 2014

Remedies Are Made of This... (cornmeal and potatoes edition)

"Mayor Wood of New York in 1857 suggested employing on public works everybody who would work, payment to be made one-quarter in cash and the balance in cornmeal and potatoes." -- Otto T. Mallery, "The Long Range Planning of Public Works," chapter XIV of Business Cycles and Unemployment, President's Conference on Unemployment, 1923.
Chapter XIX of John Maurice Clark's Studies in the Economics of Overhead Costs contains a section on "Remedies for the Business Cycle," in which Clark anticipated his later, much more extensive discussion in Planning for Public Works:
"For filling up the hollows [of the business cycle], the most positive and definite prescription is that government should plan an elastic schedule for public works of a postponable sort, and should save certain works to be prosecuted only in time of depression and unemployment, or prosecute the entire program more actively at such times."
Two years before Clark's book on overhead costs was published, President Warren G. Harding's Conference on Unemployment convened to consider how to relieve unemployment resulting from the 1921 depression. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover chaired the conference. Philadelphia playground pioneer Otto T. Mallery wrote the chapter on public works for the National Bureau of Economic Research's report to the conference.

After citing the opinion of the Minority Report of the 1909 Royal Commission on Poor Laws and Relief of Distress that "it is now administratively possible, if it is sincerely wished to do so, to remedy most of the evils of unemployment..." Mallery concluded his chapter with the observation that "flexible distribution of public works merits careful consideration as a factor in limiting the swing of the industrial pendulum and in lessening the shocks of unemployment." Thus was optimism kindled for combatting what John R Commons reckoned to be "the greatest defect of our capitalistic system, its inability to furnish security of the job."

Ninety-some odd years later and how are those "remedies for the business cycle" working out? This is not to suggest that the various remedies proposed in 1923 by the President's Conference -- unemployment insurance, counter-cyclical spending on public works, improved economic statistics, responsive monetary policy -- were inappropriate or ill-conceived. The conference report may even be viewed  as somewhat of a blueprint for the New Deal.

As time went by "various kinds of remedies" were replaced by aggregate demand management which was superseded by "real business cycle" focus on the supply side. Jean-Baptiste Say was rehabilitated. "If labour markets were allowed to function freely," the supply-side ideology claimed, "protracted unemployment would be cured automatically." In other words, the cure for unemployment is... unemployment.

Ninety-one years ago, Commons summed up the then prevailing interpretations of unemployment:
The older economists held that the elasticity of modern business was provided for in the rise and fall of prices through the law of supply and demand. But they assumed that everybody was employed all the time and that all commodities were on the markets and were being bought and sold all the time. If commodities in some directions were abundant then their prices would fall, which meant that the prices of other commodities would rise Then the disparity would equalize itself by capital and labor shifting from the low-priced and over-supplied industries to the high-priced and undersupplied industries. The rise and fall of prices through oscillations of demand and supply made the system elastic and harmonious. 
Seventy years ago Karl Marx came upon the scene with exactly the opposite interpretation. He rejected the law of demand and supply, with its oscillation of prices, and held that the elasticity of modem capitalism is found in the reserve army of the unemployed: Just as modern business must have a reserve fund in the banks and a reserve stock of goods on the shelves and in the warehouses, in order to provide for elasticity, so it must have a reserve army of that other commodity, labor, which it can draw upon in periods of prosperity and then throw upon its own resources in periods of adversity. 
It was seventy years ago, also, that modem trade-unionism started in England and America. It started on the same hypothesis of unemployment, but it retained the economist's doctrine of demand and supply. There is not enough work to go around [!], because the wage fund is limited, and therefore the workman must string out his job; must go slow; must restrict output; must limit apprenticeship, must shorten the hours, in order to take up the slack of the unemployed. 
This theory is not peculiar to labor unions. It is the common conviction of all wage-earners, burned into them by experience. Willing, ready and able to work, needing the work for themselves and families, there is no demand for their work. Trade unionists differ from unorganized labor in that they have power to put into effect what the others would do if they could. 
And who shall say that they are not right? Two years ago business men, newspapers, intellectuals, were calling upon the laborers to work harder; their efficiency had fallen off a third or a half; they were stringing out the jobs. Then suddenly several millions of them were laid off by the employers. They had produced too much. The employers now began to restrict output. Where labor restricted output in 1919 and 1920 in order to raise wages and prolong jobs, employers restrict output in 1921 in order to keep up prices and keep down wages.
The Marxian and trade-unionist critiques and prescriptions have been vanquished. Keynesian advocates of aggregate demand management are reduced to kibitzing from the sidelines. The "older economists" are back in the saddle. Everything old is new again. 

Or is it?
There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
All you need is growth
All you need is growth
All you need is growth, growth
Growth is all you need
Is growth "all you need"? One hundred and five years ago, a Royal Commission minority surmised, "it is now administratively possible, if it is sincerely wished to do so, to remedy most of the evils of unemployment,.."

If it is sincerely wished to do so.

Those who insist there are no "limits to growth" seem to forget that the evils of unemployment have not been remedied -- even though it was believed by some, over a century ago, that it was administratively possible to do so. If, in more than one hundred years, unemployment could neither be remedied administratively nor "decoupled" from economic growth, what foundation does one have for faith that economic growth can be "decoupled" from carbon dioxide emissions or other natural resources and ecological impacts?

Or was that transition too sudden? What I am saying -- and have been saying all along -- is that there are not one but two couplings implicated in the environment/economy nexus. To say that GDP growth can be decoupled from natural resource consumption is to speculate about only one of those couplings. We have no data from the future that can confirm or deny such speculation.

We do, however, have data on the persistence of business cycle fluctuations that result in unemployment. Remedies for climate change face precisely the same political and ideological barriers as do remedies for the business cycle. There is no reason on earth that one would be given a free pass while the other is held hostage to rapacity.

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