Friday, March 9, 2012

Chapter and Verse

From the Appendices of Steve Keen's 2011-04-11, This Time Had Better Be Different: House Prices and the Banks Part 2 --


Between 1954 and 1974, unemployment averaged 1.9 percent, and it only once exceeded 3 percent (in 1961, when a government-initiated credit squeeze caused a recession that almost resulted in the defeat of Australia’s then Liberal government, which ruled from 1949 till 1972). Inflation from 1954 till 1973 averaged 3 percent, and then rose dramatically between 1973 and 1974 as unemployment fell.

This fitted the belief of conventional “Keynesian” economists of the time that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment: one cost of a lower unemployment rate, they argued, was a higher rate of inflation.

But then the so-called “stagflationary” breakdown occurred: unemployment and inflation both rose in 1974. Neoclassical economists blamed this on “Keynesian” economic policy, which they argued caused people’s expectations of inflation to rise—thus resulting in demands for higher wages—and OPEC’s oil price hike.

The latter argument is easily refuted by checking the data: inflation took off well before OPEC’s price hike.

The former has some credence as an explanation for the take-off in the inflation rate—workers were factoring in both the bargaining power of low unemployment and a lagged response to rising inflation into their wage demands.

The Neoclassical explanation for why this rise in inflation also coincided with rising unemployment was “Keynesian” policy had kept unemployment below its “Natural” rate, and it was merely returning to this level. This was plausible enough to swing the policy pendulum towards Neoclassical thinking back then, but it looks a lot less plausible with the benefit of hindsight.

Though inflation fell fairly rapidly, and unemployment ultimately fell after several cycles of rising unemployment, over the entire “Neoclassical” period both inflation and unemployment were higher than they were under the “Keynesian” period. So rather than inflation going down and unemployment going up, as neoclassical economists expected, both rose—with unemployment rising substantially. On empirical grounds alone, the neoclassical period was a failure, even before the GFC hit.

There was a far better explanation of the 1970s experience lurking in data ignored by neoclassical economics: the level and rate of growth of private debt. As you can see from Figure 32, private debt, which had been constant (relative to GDP) since the end of WWII, began to take off in 1964, and went through a rapid acceleration from 1972 till 1974, before falling rapidly.

The debt-financed demand for construction during that bubble added to the already tight labor market, and helped drive wages higher in both a classic wage-price spiral and a historic increase in labor’s share of national income—which has been unwound forever since.

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