An Institutional Analysis of the Crisis

As an institutional economist I focus my research on the role that institutions and policy structures play in our economy. It is a fascinating niche in economics, and when combined with macroeconomics it becomes one of the most powerful analytical tools out there. So far, over the past 2.5 years, everything I have predicted about the European crisis has turned out to be correct; my upcoming book Industrial Poverty makes ample use of institutional economics and macroeconomics to show why Europe’s crisis is far more than just a protracted recession.

In economics, the institutional methodology is often pinned against econometrics, the mainstream methodological favorite. I don’t see it that way – econometrics has its place in economics – but the mainstream of the academic side of economics has given econometrics a far bigger role than it can handle. This has led to over-confidence among econometricians which, in turn, has led to a downplay or, in many cases, complete disregard for the benefits that other methodologies bring. The worst consequence of this over-reliance on econometrics was the multiplier debacle at the IMF, with serious consequences for the Greek economy. (How many young Greeks are unemployed today because their government implemented austerity policies based on IMF miscalculations?) A wider, better understanding for economic institutions and their interaction with the macroeconomy could help mainstream economists a long way toward a deeper, more complete understanding of the economy and, ultimately, toward giving better policy advice.

As an example of how institutional analysis can inform more traditional analysis, consider this interesting article on the European crisis by Economics Nobel Laureate Michael Spence and David Brady, Deputy Director of the Hoover Institution:

Governments’ inability to act decisively to address their economies’ growth, employment, and distributional challenges has emerged as a major source of concern almost everywhere. In the United States, in particular, political polarization, congressional gridlock, and irresponsible grandstanding have garnered much attention, with many worried about the economic consequences. But, as a recent analysis has shown, there is little correlation between a country’s relative economic performance in several dimensions and how “functional” its government is. In fact, in the six years since the global financial crisis erupted, the US has outperformed advanced countries in terms of growth, unemployment, productivity, and unit labor costs, despite a record-high level of political polarization at the national level.

This is true, and as I demonstrate in Industrial Poverty, a major reason for this is that the American economy is not ensnared in a welfare state like the European. We still lack a couple of major institutional components that they have: general income security and a government-run, single-payer health care system. That said, the U.S. economy is not exactly performing outstandingly either:

LB 7 28 14 2

Yes, we are currently in better shape than Europe, but we are also doing worse than ourselves 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Let’s keep this in mind as we continue to listen to Spence and Brady – their discussion about political dysfunction is actually tied to the role of the welfare state in the economy:

[In] terms of overall relative economic performance, the US clearly is not paying a high price for political dysfunction. Without dismissing the potential value of more decisive policymaking, it seems clear that other factors must be at work. Examining them holds important lessons for a wide range of countries. Our premise is that the global integration and economic growth of a wide range of developing countries has triggered a multi-decade process of profound change. These countries’ presence in the tradable sector of the global economy is affecting relative prices of goods and factors of production, including both labor and capital.

And the government structures that aim to redistribute income and wealth within a country. High-tax economies lose out to low-tax economies. The Asian tigers have generally held tax advantages over their European competitors, but they have also held advantages on the other side of the welfare-state equation as well. By not putting in place indolence-inducing entitlement systems they have kept their work force more shaped toward high-productivity labor than is the case in the old, mature welfare states of Europe.

Why does the welfare state not change, then, in response to increased global competition? After all, Japan, China, South Korea and other Asian countries have been on the global market for decades. Enter the political dysfunction that Spence and Brady talk about. Unlike the United States, there is almost universal agreement among Europe’s legislators that the welfare state should be not only preserved but also vigorously defended in times of economic crisis. This has been the motive behind the European version of austerity, with the result that taxes have gone up, spending has gone down and the price of the welfare state for the private sector has increased, not been reduced as would be the logical response to increased global competition.

It is not entirely clear what kind of American political dysfunction Spence and Brady refer to, but if it has to do with fighting the deficit, they are absolutely on target.

In fact, probably without realizing it, Spence and Brady make an important observation about the long-term role of the welfare state:

Relatively myopic policy frameworks may have worked reasonably well in the early postwar period, when the US was dominant, and when a group of structurally similar advanced countries accounted for the vast majority of global output. But they cease working well when sustaining growth requires behavioral and structural adaptation to rapid changes in comparative advantage and the value of various types of human capital.

If understood as a general comment on the institutional structure of an economy, this argument makes a lot of sense. So long as the traditional industrialized world only had to compete with itself, it could expand its welfare states without paying a macroeconomic price for it. Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish economist and a main architect of the Scandinavian welfare-state model, confidently declared back in 1960 that the welfare state had no macroeconomic price tag attached to it. Back then, it was easy to let government sprawl in every direction imaginable without any losses in terms of growth, income and employment. That is no longer possible.

Spence and Brady then make this excellent observation of the American economy:

What, then, accounts for the US economy’s relatively good performance in the post-crisis period? The main factor is the American economy’s underlying structural flexibility. Deleveraging has occurred faster than in other countries and, more important, resources and output have quickly shifted to the tradable sector to fill the gap created by persistently weak domestic demand. This suggests that, whatever the merit of government action, what governments do not do is also important. Many countries have policies that protect sectors or jobs, thereby introducing structural rigidities. The cost of such policies rises with the need for structural change to sustain growth and employment (and to recover from unbalanced growth patterns and shocks).

The move of resources from the domestic to the foreign-trade sector is visible in national accounts data as a rise of gross exports as share of current-price GDP from 9.1 percent in 2003 to 13.5 percent in 2013. Furthermore, actual growth numbers for exports relative private consumption reinforce the point made by Spence and Brady: from 20087 to 2013 private consumption has increased by 15 percent in current prices, while gross exports have increased by more than 22 percent. For every new dollar Americans doled out on cars, food, haircuts and motel nights, foreign buyers added $1.50 to what they spend on our products.

However, let us once again remember that the adaptation of the American economy should be viewed against the backdrop of a smaller welfare state. As I have discussed on several occasions, European countries are also making big efforts at increasing exports. They are not as lucky in using foreign sales as a demand-pull mechanism for restarting their economies. One reason, again, is the rigor oeconomicus that the welfare state injects into the economy.

Spence and Brady also compare the United States to a number of other countries, noting that:

Removing structural rigidities is easier said than done. Some stem from social-protection mechanisms, focused on jobs and sectors rather than individuals and families. Others reflect policies that simply protect sectors from competition and generate rents and vested interests. In short, resistance to reform can be substantial precisely because the results have distributional effects. Such reform is not market fundamentalism. The goal is not to privatize everything or to uphold the mistaken belief that unregulated markets are self-regulating. On the contrary, government has a significant role in structural transitions. But it must also get out of the way.

In short – and my words, not theirs: reform away the welfare state. Its detrimental influence actually stretches deeper than perhaps Spence and Brady recognize: it does indeed protect large sectors from competition by simply monopolizing them. Health care is a good example, with a government monopoly spilling over on medical-technology products. Another good example is income security, where many European countries have de facto monopolized every aspect from parental-leave benefits to retirement security. Education is a third example, where the United States, despite its heavily socialized K-12 system has a very strong private sector for academic education. This sector is almost entirely absent in many European countries.

Again, it is good to see a different approach to economic analysis than the traditional one based on econometrics and often irresponsibly simplified quantitative analysis. In a situation like the European crisis, it is very important for economists and other social-science scholars (Brady is a political scientist) to broaden the analysis and focus on such variables that rarely change. Among those are economic institutions such as the welfare state, and the political and economic incentives at work in Europe to preserve it, even in the face of mounting global competition.