The Worldly Philosopher

The New School's department of economics is a leader in alternatives to mainstream economics. The purpose of this student-authored blog is to extend the legacy of Robert Heilbroner, author of "The Worldly Philosophers" and make the department a mecca for economists who are engaged, critical intellectuals.

The Political Economy of Unemployment Insurance

Ismael CidThis week's Worldly Philosopher, Ismael Cid-Martinez, discusses the politics and economics of unemployment insurance.

The debate surrounding unemployment insurance (UI) returns to Capitol Hill. This is not entirely surprising. Amid the good news, today's report confirmed that a large shadow continues to loom over our labor market. Examining monthly changes in each category of unemployment by duration, we observe that long-term unemployment remains stubbornly high when compared to previous recoveries (see graph).

Read more: The Political Economy of Unemployment Insurance

Policy Debates In A Post-Piketty World

Raphaele ChappeThis week's Worldly Philosopher, Raphaele Chappe, writes on the policy implications of Thomas Piketty's analysis on inequality.

We are in a post-Piketty world. Since my last blog entry, Thomas Piketty has received nothing short of a rock star treatment upon his U.S. visit. What are the policy debates we face if Piketty is right?

As the ratio of capital to income (which Piketty terms "beta") increases, Piketty argues there is no natural mechanism that would lead r (the rate of return on capital) to adjust downwards so as to perfectly compensate the impact on the distribution, placing emphasis on policies that might reduce r.

Taxation is one way to reduce r and Piketty's proposal is a progressive world-wide tax on wealth although many agree that this may prove politically unfeasible, especially in the absence of international legal cooperation. Other tax possibilities for fighting inequality include increasing tax rates on capital gains and dividends (which have been getting favorable treatment in the tax code as compared with labor income1), or simply combating tax evasion for the wealthy (see The Price of Offshore Revisited).2 In my own research, I plan to run simulations to test the effectiveness of such tax proposals, and their impact on the wealth distribution.

We could also consider labor-focused policies designed to increase the share of national income going to labor, such as raising the minimum wage, or giving workers direct participation in management and profit through employee ownership or other means. (For the use of national income and product accounts (NIPA) as a framework for studying how inequality will be affected by fiscal and other initiatives such as raising the minimum wage, see SCEPA working paper 2013-1).

In order to advocate for the best policy solutions, we may wish to understand the drivers for high profit rates in recent decades.

Read more: Policy Debates In A Post-Piketty World

The Long-Run Consequences of Income Distribution

Rishabh KumarThis week's Worldly Philosopher, Rishabh Kumar, models the asymmetric distribution of income and examines its effect on the growth of the U.S. economy. 

In a previous post, I highlighted some demand side limitations stemming from the asymmetric distribution of income and consumption in the United States. This entry examines the effect of this asymmetry on the future of U.S. economic growth and the possibility of secular stagnation.

Read more: The Long-Run Consequences of Income Distribution

Must the Rich Grow Richer? Long-Term Trends in the Capital Share in Income

Gregor This week's Worldly Philosopher, Gregor Semieniuk, writes on the theoretical assumptions underlying Thomas Piketty's forecast of a growing share of income going to the rich.

The future share of total income that accrues as return on capital need not keep rising. The New School's Lance Taylor argues that the capital share trajectory rather depends on the assumptions in your model of growth and distribution. Taylor critiques Thomas Piketty who asserts in his celebrated book that the share of national income going to rich capital owners should rise in the 21st century, and may only be reduced by cataclysmic events such as wars or revolutions (Piketty 2014, p. 233). This post summarizes Taylor's argument.

Read more: Must the Rich Grow Richer? Long-Term Trends in the Capital Share in Income

A Debate on Mainstream Economics: A Gadget is a Dangerous Thing

Anthony Bonenby Worldly Philosopher Anthony Bonen

Recently, Paul Krugman (here, here and here) has taken a keen interest in a heterodox economist’s critique of mainstream economics (and not for the first time). In reponse, Tom Palley has issued solid rejoinders to Krugman and Simon Wren-Lewis. However, I fear the brilliant and (rightfully) esteemed Nobel laureate has missed the key point of heterodox’s frustration with marginal productivity theory. So, I follow his call to “continue to debate how we do economics.”

A key issue in distribution debates is the fair remuneration of capital and labor. Marginal productivity theory says, very basically, that the real wage and the (real) rate of profit are equal to the marginal increase in production added by the last unit of labor and capital, respectively.

Many economists, Krugman points out, do not believe this to be a cardinal truth of capitalist economies. Rather, he says [my emphasis]: 

"there are plenty of economists who are willing to use marginal-product models (as gadgets, not as fundamental truth) who don’t at all accept the sanctity of the market distribution of income."

That word – gadget – really stunned me. It sounds benign, innocuous even. Yet marginal product models are no mere “gadget”. They are the entrée for modern macroeconomics.

Read more: A Debate on Mainstream Economics: A Gadget is a Dangerous Thing

The Digital Revolution's Energy Costs

Gregor SemieniukThis week's Worldly Philosopher, Gregor Semieniuk, writes on the trade-off between increased computing power and climate change.

Many commentators believe that exponential increases in computing power will lead to tremendous improvements in human welfare - at almost no cost per additional unit, or "marginal" cost.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee (BM hereafter) express this view in their new book, "The Second Machine Age," and give examples of new technologies that are only possible thanks to recent and ongoing advances in information technology: self-driving cars, real-time translation software, and smart robots that can be taught new movement routines by guiding their arms, rather than programming a new software.

While these innovations are truly breathtaking in their technological sophistication, the authors are wrong to assert that these products and services come at "almost zero marginal cost of reproduction" (BM p. 62). Information technology (IT) - and the "information economy" it fuels - is not energy-neutral. Rather, its energy needs are quite costly, coming from fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases and continue to supply 80% of the world's energy.

Technologies' use of energy is also costly in its contribution to climate change, which is now widely agreed to have adverse consequences for human welfare (IPCC 2014 and Tony Bonen's blog; Duncan Foley (2013) examines IT's growth trajectory from a classical political economy perspective). Economists and policy makers need to re-examine the claim that life-improving digital technologies are cost-free after their initial development costs.

Read more: The Digital Revolution's Energy Costs

The Social Cost of Carbon as a Lower Bound for Policy

This week's Worldly Philosopher, Anthony Bonen, writes on economists' contribution to efforts to mitigate against climate change.

tony bonen image 4On Sunday, the IPCC Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, released its latest report, and the news isn’t good. The report says (to no one’s surprise) that governments around the world have failed to act against climate change. The result has been rapid increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) atmospheric concentrations and rising temperatures around the world (see figure). The silver lining (silver sliver?) is that climate change mitigation is eminently affordable if – a big if – governments start to invest now.

It is time for economists to step up and help politicians take this supremely reasonable and moral action to invest. This can be done by improving economic models of climate change and, even more importantly, clearly communicating the limitations of our models.

The Financial Times reports that the costs of “an ambitious fight against climate change will reduce annualised economic growth by somewhere between 0.04 and 0.14 percentage points” versus a scenario of zero mitigation efforts. This compares to a welfare loss of between 0.2% and 2.0% of global GDP if average global temperatures rise by a further 2°C (IPCC, WGII SPM, p. 19). A finance degree is not necessary to decide between these two investment choices.

Yet, these two headline costs, -0.14% (maximum loss if mitigation) versus -0.2% (mininimum loss if no effort), are generated from extremely different data, which leaves the latter open to charges of, at best, uncertainty and, at worst, fantasy. The cost of investing in renewable energy, carbon capture and green transportation are based on real, observable markets and technologies. But the cost of unmitigated climate change? This comes from integrated assessment models’ estimates of the social cost of carbon (SCC).

The SCC metric is the net present value cost of an additional ton of CO2 emissions (tCO2). That is, how much welfare society stands to lose from a marginal increase in carbon emissions, translated into current U.S. dollars. Undoubtedly, there is an enormous degree of uncertainty regarding the nonlinear and variegated impacts of temperature increases on the environment, economy and society.

Although we don’t like to admit it, monetizing the cost of climate change involves a lot of guesswork. We already know that unabated climate change will bring devastating consequences for many peoples and communities around the world. So, are economists adding anything by putting a price tag on these impacts? Put another way: is it worthwhile for economists to compute the social cost of carbon?

Read more: The Social Cost of Carbon as a Lower Bound for Policy

Is the 'Better Off Budget' an End to Austerity as We Know It?

Katherine MoosThis week's Worldly Philosopher, Katherine Moos, writes on austerity and the social safety net.

In the wake of the financial crisis, we have witnessed a number of policy measures that have increased the financial fragility of workers by cutting benefits and social safety net programs. In the United States, there have been repeated calls to cut Social Security – by raising the retirement age or by adjusting benefits to the Chained CPI – legalese for cuts in entitlements that would have disastrous effects, especially for the poor.

However, at the most unlikely time, there have also been calls to expand Social Security benefits. Last year, Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced legislation that would link benefits to the consumer price index for elderly consumers, CPI-E, that factors in additional costs faced by retirees such as higher healthcare expenses. The bill garnered the support of Senators Brown (D-OH), Begich (D-AK), Schaltz (D-HI), and Warren (D-MA). Congress Member Sanchez introduced the House version of the bill in September, which has since obtained 55 co-sponsors. While neither version has moved in Congress, this legislation seems to have emboldened other members to push for progressive reforms.

More recently, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) introduced its "Better Off Budget" for fiscal year 2015. It includes a number of fiscal policy measures that signal support for expanding Social Security. CPC Co-Chairs, Representatives Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), issued a statement that the Better of Budget "reverses the damage [that the] austerity agenda has inflicted on hard-working families." The budget would create 8.8 million jobs, repeal the sequestration cuts, change the tax code to create tax relief for low and middle-income working families, and expand retirement and health benefits. The budget is also estimated to reduce the federal deficit by more than $4 trillion in 10 years.

Read more: Is the 'Better Off Budget' an End to Austerity as We Know It?

Income Inequality and Demand Side Limitations: The American Case

Rishabh KumarThis week's Worldly Philosopher, Rishabh Kumar, writes on the wealth inequality debate.

The wealth inequality debate has taken center stage since the publication of Tom Piketty's new book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century." Piketty drives home the point that wealth owners are better off than income earners because the rate of return on capital is higher than the return on income. Since wealth holders increase as we move up the class distribution, this implies an increasing income gap between the poorest and richest households.

In recent (and upcoming) research, my co-authors and I are examining the income distribution for the United States between 1986-2009. Using data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), we observe the gap between the super rich (the top 1 perce) and the bottom groups is indeed increasing (Figure 1: Shares of Different Household Groups in Total Household Income. Source: Upcoming in Taylor, Rezai, Kumar and Barbosa, 2014). But unlike Piketty, we did not count capital gains, and we discovered that the super rich are also increasing their share of income. Therefore, the rapidly increasing inequality that favors a few does not solely depend on capital and wealth, as Piketty's analysis implies.

Table 1Thus, even without wealth gains, the top 1 percent was able to increase its share of "non-wealth" income (the black line in Figure 1) from just under 9 percent in 1986 to around 18 percent by 2009. This happened while the income shares of the other groups remained relatively stagnant, if not decreasing. Piketty ascribes inequality to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Our findings complement the story – the richest class in the United States has also benefited from higher (real) labor compensation and transfers (interest, dividends etc). In a broad sense, the total growth in income in the United States over the last two decades is heavily skewed in favor of the super rich.

Read more: Income Inequality and Demand Side Limitations: The American Case

The Cost of Climate Change - More Than Disasters

This week's Worldly Philosopher, Anthony Bonen, writes on the economic and social costs of unmitgated climate change.

A heated debate was sparked last week after Robert Pielke, Jr. wrote an article for Nate Silver's arguing that the rising costs of natural disasters are driven not by climate change, but by the world's increasing wealth. Pielke's spurious assertions have already been picked apart by ThinkProgress and Salon. But what strikes me is the bizarre narrowness of his argument.

For example, in a misleading statement on the IPCC's recent findings Pielke says: "There have been more heat waves and intense precipitation, but these phenomena are not significant drivers of disaster costs." Well sure, heat waves and intense precipitation are only minor aspects of disaster costs. But the economic costs of unmitigated climate change are far more wide-ranging than disasters alone.

In a recently released SCEPA report, my co-authors and I examine how the three integrated assessment models (IAMs) used by the US government translate climatic change into economic impacts. The report focuses on the formal mechanisms by which the DICE, FUND and PAGE models convert temperature increases, sea level rises and more intense storms into a dollar figure. These mechanisms are known as damage functions.

Although the IAMs use very different damage functions, they all base the impact of climate change costs on comparative scenarios. This only makes sense. The cost of climate change is not just the destruction of structures and objects; it comes from lower food production, worse health outcomes, higher indoor cooling costs and lost land to higher sea levels. While big storms and earthquakes capture the media's attention, incremental changes will have by far the greatest cumulative impact on our wellbeing.

Even among economists the consensus is that these costs will be profound. In fact, our report and an earlier article by our colleagues show these leading economic models, if anything, greatly underestimate the costs of climate change.

So don't be bamboozled by pseudo-climate skeptics like Pielke. Economists and climate scientists don't just add up the value of capital lost in storms like insurance agents. We are looking ahead and mapping out alternative options we, as a society, can take. That is how one assesses economic costs.