Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Acemoglu and Robinson on Marx and Piketty

Acemoglu and Robinson, the authors of "Why Nations Fail" have written a critical review of the book by Thomas Piketty "Capital in the XXIst Century". They argue that what they call the "general law" of Piketty that the rate of return of capital (r)  is higher than the growth rate (g), and that this persisting difference will drive increasing inequalities is as misguided as the "general laws" of Karl Marx, such as the decreasing profit rate and the fall of capitalism. Acemoglu and Robinson claim that the common mistake of Piketty and Marx is that they neglect institutions and politics. This is surprising to me, unless one takes a very narrow view of institutions and politics. Piketty and Marx are both very "political" authors, and their theories can be interpreted as institutional theories of capitalism, in the sense that they analyse the basic structures of society. Marx predicted that the forces of production and the relations of production (the infrastructure) determined the superstructure (politics and culture, for example), but one can interpret many institutions (such as property rights) as infrastructure. Acemoglu and Robinson claim that political institutions are first (their "general law"?) and that they determine economic institutions and outcomes. This general law is subject to discussion to say the least, as illustrated in the work of Robert Allen, one of the economic historians mentioned by Acemoglu and Robinson. Of course time has proven many of the Marxian predictions wrong, and time may prove many or some of Piketty's predictions wrong. I interpret Piketty's work as basically reporting in a very detailed way that r has been higher than g in many countries in the recent decades, and that, unless we take some very serious political and institutional decisions, this will expand and persist and have a very damaging effect for democracy. Acemoglu and Robinson provide analytical narratives of Sweden and Southafrica, and some simple econometric work, to claim that politics and institutions are more important than r-g. I do not think that Piketty claims that r-g is the only thing that matters, and that is precisely why he says that strong redistributive policies are needed. Acemoglu and Robinson accept that huge inequalities can have a negative effect on democracy, but it seems that their proposal to correct for this is some vague intervention on the political channel, but not strong taxation intervention on inequalities per se. I sympathize with this comment by Milanovic on the review by Acemoglu and Robinson (AR). But I look forward to the response by Piketty himself, who was a bit dismissive of the work by Acemoglu and Robinson in his book, arguing that while AR refer to the institutions that facilitated the industrial revolution, he makes proposals about the institutions (progressive wealth taxation and federalism) that should rein increasing inequalities in the era of globalization today.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Externalities of a referendum

I fully agree with this piece by The Economist. It says that the outcome of the Scottish referendum will be the same no matter who wins, but that the negative effects on the stability of Europe and Brittain (and of Brittain in Europe) of a yes vote will be enormous. A secession referendum was irresponsible. Instead, a referendum on an agreed proposal for a shared institutional architecture would have avoided all these negative externalities. I would add that a yes victory will increase the appetite for similar referenda by national minorities but eliminate it for central governments: no one will be as reckless as Mr. Cameron. This is what The Economist says:
"The three main unionist parties—Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—have each published proposals for further devolution. The Tory report, published in June, was the most striking: a party that has long stood for political centralisation offered Edinburgh full control of income tax. And the nationalist government has alighted on similar ground from the opposite side. Last November it published a 670-page manifesto insisting that an independent Scotland could share the pound, stay in the EU and remain closely integrated with the rest of Britain. Over the next few weeks campaigners from both camps will assure voters that their particular brand of semi-detachedness holds the solution to their day-to-day gripes.
This is remarkable, and lamentable. A victory for the nationalists would send tremors far beyond Scotland. It would trigger calls for David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, to resign. It would change the arithmetic, and quite possibly the outcome, of next year’s general election. It would embolden separatists in Spain, Belgium and elsewhere. The difference between the campaigns’ pitches to voters may be relatively modest, but that between a “yes” and a “no” is vast."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An inconvenient truth for the Scottish secessionists

OK, Mr. Salmond won the second debate (not the first), but this fragment of an editorial by The Guardian demolishes the arguments of his last attempt to change the forecasts:
"Mr Salmond’s tactic in recent days has been to present Scottish independence as the bulwark against attempts to privatise the NHS. Logically the argument is a nonsense, given that the only person who could privatise the NHS in Scotland is Mr Salmond himself. Nevertheless his attempt to wrap himself in the NHS flag is not, from an emotional point of view, a stupid move for a politician who needs every vote he can get. It embodies an argument at the core of the centre-left case for independence – that the English-dominated UK is bound upon a wheel of deregulatory fire at the behest of global corporate power. Against this Anglo-juggernaut, many yes voters believe, Scots have only one option – an independence that would enable them to protect, in one part of these islands, what remains of the postwar Labour settlement.
If Mr Salmond can persuade enough voters that institutions and principles like those of the NHS are at risk from the union – and would be protected under independence – he may yet manage to ride a wave to victory next month. Even now, with all the polls still pointing to a no vote, and while acknowledging that public opinion tends to swing towards the status quo in the final weeks of most referendum campaigns, this cannot be ruled out. The welfarist desire to protect the people’s social gains, incarnated above all in the NHS, is rightly emotive. But social gains are also issues of material self-interest for millions of people. Such issues rightly matter to the voters, as the general election of 2015 is certain to show.
Yet the inconvenient truth for the pro-independence Scottish centre-left is this is as true south of the border as north of it. There is a myth in the yes campaign which casts the Scots as unusually social democratic, fair and inclusive in ways that the English and Welsh are not, in a Britain that has otherwise bent the knee to corporate interests. The trouble with this is that it is not true. On issues such as the NHS, there is little significant difference between Scottish opinion and English or Welsh. Even more significantly, an independent Scotland would have to face the problem of protecting the NHS and other social gains in conditions very similar to those that confront the UK.
The reality for modern nation states is that they all face a global economic order in which corporate power is in the ascendant, threatening the livelihoods of the poor and averagely well-off with no respect for borders, and against which most elected politicians can only deploy limited authority. This is what modern politics is fundamentally about. The NHS is caught in the crosshairs of that conflict, needing ever larger amounts of taxpayers’ money at a time when demands for public austerity remain strong. That would be as true in an independent Scotland as it is in the UK.
And not just in the UK. Today in France, President Hollande attempted to relaunch his presidency with a new government from which the Socialist party’s anti-austerity left would be excluded. It is a reminder that a similarly tough battle between politicians and corporate power is being fought out even in France, with its traditionally strong central state. There may be other arguments for Scottish independence, but the illusion that an independent Scotland could somehow escape these unavoidable contemporary policy dilemmas should not be one of them."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The last books of the summer

Four books are competing for my attention in these last days of the summer break, and illustrate my always dispersed interests:
-“House of Debt,” by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, which I bought through Amazon following the recommendation by Nacho González. The book argues that the global economic and financial crisis has been caused by excess debt, and that this dangerously reduces consumption and aggregate demand. The solution is a financial system that is less dependent on debt and more on equity-like instruments that share risk, along the lines of the recommendations of Robert Shiller.
-“Funding the Nation,” by Irish historian Michael Keyes, which I bought in Dublin last week. This is a book about how successful political movements, such as Irish nationalism in the XIX and XX centuries, need financial resources, and how these, in the case of Ireland, were found in Catholic parishes and among Irish-American exiles. It is the story of how financing was key, and how funds were obtained and sometimes misappropriated.
And two books that I bought yesterday in the book-shop of Barcelona’s science museum (“Cosmocaixa”), and that are representative of new frontiers of research –I will probably treat my students experimentally with them this year:
-“Networks. A Very Short Introduction,” by Guido Caldarelli and Michele Catanzaro. This belongs to the “very short introduction” collection, which has short guides on pretty much everything by prestigious scientists and experts, with good bibliographies and references. The analysis of social dynamics in networks has important applications in economics, finance and politics.
-“Neuro. The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind,” by Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached. They survey the burgeoning research on neuro-sciences, critically discuss their social implications, and present their applications in social and other sciences.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Institutions and sovereignty

As pointed out by Thomas Piketty in "Capital in the XXI Century", the most important debate we face today is how we adapt to global challenges such as inequality, financial instability, excess of debt or climate change. Of course there are local issues to be addressed, but it is probably too late to try to reduce the size of the problems. In this context, it does not make much sense to try to find one single exclusive sovereign area or one "demos" (Spain, Catalonia, the UK, Scotland), but to acknowledge two important facts:
-Most of us are governed by several levels of administration: local, regional, national, European, global. No referendum is going to change this or make us suddenly "free."
-Most of us have several identities, and if one believes he or she has only one identity, chances are that he or she shares the house, the street or the city with people that have other identities. There are no territories in Europe with one single "us."
Sovereingties are overlapping and shared.
This is the reality of Europe in the XXI Century and our democracy should adapt to it, not try to create another reality.
The nation-state in Europe in the XXI century is obsolete, as brilliantly pointed out by Joschka Fischer in a recent article (did the Scottish Green read it?). Identities are social issues, and those that naively wave them should be aware of the unintended consequences: the path to hell is paved with good intentions.
In Catalonia, if a referendum with a yes victory for independence was followed by a negotiation, the outcome in the euro zone would be the same as the outcome of a referendum, much less divisive, that rubber stamped an ex ante broad agreement. If we consider the possibility of unilaterally exiting the euro zone, that is uncertainty and probably financial ruin of the greatest scale.
As argued earlier here, the possibility that a tight majority in a relatively rich region may alter the remaining borders of a euro zone country is the ultimate commitment problem. In our institutional architecture, we need innovation, flexibility, FOCJs (functional, overlapping and competing jurisdictions), and be aware that with globalization, states and markets should fit as much as possible in size and fluidity.
A referendum to endorse a broad agreement among a large majority of citizens that share common values is a better way to democratically decide things than a secession referendum. This would be as consistent as the proposed consultation in Catalonia with the existing broad support for some kind of decision or consultation, and it would fit much better with the current Spanish and European legal framework. It would be a way to decide on institutional architecture that fits with the reality of bodies that are for good reasons evolving towards federalism (Spain and Europe).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The book by Calomiris and Haber, "Fragile by Design"

This is an excellent book by two decent conservative economists. Decent because they make explicit their absolute support for democracy, although they distinguish between liberal democracy and populist democracy. And decent because as opposed to other right-wing economists, they do not have any problem in qualifying governments such as Pinochet's in Chile as a "brutal dictatorship" (and not only a military government). They combine economic theory, history and political science to give a political economy account of the evolution of banking systems and financial regulation in several countries. Unfortunately, none of their examples include continental Europe. They explain the political nature of the web of contracts that make banking possible. Depositors must trust bankers, and bankers must trust debtors, and the relationships among all of them are possible because there is some government that enforces property rights and the rule of law. They explain very well the trade-off between deposit insurance and competitive incentives. The idea of unregulated laissez-faire banking is non-sense. Besides, states need banks to finance their increasing needs when the democratic franchise expands, and because they need to maintain expensive armies. States need banks and banks need states. It is impossible to understand the evolution of banking without understanding the political underlying forces behind banking structures. In some countries, history has been such that the political equilibrium has been a banking industry too much inclined towards risk, such as the United States, whereas in other countries history has been such as to make possible stable banking, such as it happened in Canada. The authors rightly argue that what matters is this basic structure, and that individual regulators or regulatory agencies are just responsive to these underlying forces, and therefore we should not have too much faith in these regulatory solutions. Calomiris and Haber emphasize the relationship between increasing risk taking by politicized financial institutions and redistributive pressures. If the latter are not addressed through the appropriate instruments of transparent tax and transfers, distortions such as reckless risk taking may have very costly consequences in the long run. They spend considerable space explaining this argument, but they seem to be left without arguments on the relationship between the Thatcher revolution in the UK, which they very much admire, and the financial crisis there, about which they merely spend a couple of pages. Perhaps the question marks they leave open will be answered by my next reading, the book by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi, "House of Debt."

Monday, August 11, 2014

In Dublin

I have been in Dublin for the last few days, on holidays. People drive on the left, buy in Tesco supermarkets, speak English, have Boots pharmacies, two level buses... I mean, perhaps they had good reasons to completely secede from the Unted Kingdom in 1922 (although they had to fight a civil war about that because the moderate nationalists were not in favour of full independence), but today the Irish society looks the closest thing that one can imagine to a British society, at least in the capital Dublin. After independence, it took decades for them to prosper, and no doubt after joining the EU they experienced rapid growth, which stopped, as in the UK, with the global financial crisis of 2008. Of course, there was a big difference between the UK and Ireland back in 1922 and possibly today: Ireland is a Catholic country. As an independent state, it took decades for them to separate church from state, as in the UK they still have some lingering remnant of unnecessary Protestant influence (the Queen is the head of the Anglican church). But if that is the big difference, that one country is Catholic and the other is Protestant, to an atheist like me, this does not seem to be a big difference either. In the part of Ireland that did not secede, these two branches of the Chirstian religion have been fighting and killing each other in the streets until recently. Was all this necessary? Given all the good that membership in the EU has done to both countries, it seems to me that this is the way ahead: increased cooperation in a unified Europe. Actually, it was close cooperation and a European and global perspective what brought the best that both countries have achieved in their history: peace in Norhern Ireland in the late 1990s. But it is still a fragile peace, non the least because of the remaining influence of radical nationalists (not only Irish Catholics, but also radical Unionists).