This is an exciting time to be studying macroeconomics! The “Great Recession” still, after almost eight years, echoes in high unemployment in European countries, in lower earnings and wage rates in the United States, and is even more strongly imprinted in excessive debt, low employment, and outright despair in other countries like Greece and Spain. Interest rates have never been as low, indeed in some countries banks are charging negative interest rates … it costs money to save money! Inflation is low, unemployment is exceptionally high (particularly among young people), and exchange rates keep bouncing around.
What has caused this instability in the overall level of economic activity, in incomes, and in employment? And what role can, or for that matter should, public policy play in making things better? How can it play these roles?
Every responsible citizen should have an understanding of the basic principles of macroeconomics. Without it how can you possibly understand some of the critical debates in almost every recent election in the rich countries: is a balanced government budget a good thing or a bad? how can governments create more jobs? why are interest rates so low, and should inflation be a worry? How can you possibly understand why less rich economies sometimes hit a brick wall as prices increase without bound, as unemployment soars, and as investment capital leaves the country? It is not an exaggeration to suggest that poor macroeconomic management is sometimes the prequel to civil unrest.
This is the first class of a course that is designed to meet the needs of students in public policy who may have had only limited exposure to economics. But almost anyone can follow along. Upon completion of the course successful students will be familiar with the basic principles of macroeconomics, and be able to apply them critically to issues dealing with Canadian and international public policy.
Your next steps?
Download the course outline, and get the two required books. Then watch one prominent macro-economist—Joseph Stiglitz—explain his views of what caused the great recession and what government should do about it in this presentation given about one year after the Great Recession was unleashed in the autumn of 2008. Pay attention to the vocabulary he uses: list words that are not familiar to you, try to discern when he is speaking about “microeconomics” and when he is talking about “macroeconomics”, think about the logic he uses and what this says about the way economists think. Here is a list to help guide you.
Our studies start next week with a discussion of what we mean by “macroeconomics,” and how we measure the things central to gauging macroeconomic performance. To be prepared for our discussions read the readings listed in the course outline for September 15th.
Angus Deaton, the Princeton University economist, wrote in the opening paragraph of his acceptance speech for the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics that:
Measurement, even without understanding of mechanisms, can be of great importance in and of itself—policy change is frequently based on it—and is necessary if not sufficient for any reasoned assessment of policies, including the many that are advocated for the reduction of national or global poverty. We are wise to remember the importance of good data, and not to neglect the challenges that measurement continuously poses (Deaton 2016, page 1221).
This nicely sums up the tone of a previous post, that a conversation about Canadian public policy directed to poverty has not been well served by the confusing and conflicting information provided by official statistics.
Just how should we measure poverty in a way that is most helpful for public policy?
This is a particularly important issue given the mandate the Prime Minister has given his Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, directing him to “Lead the development of a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy that would set targets to reduce poverty and measure and publicly report on our progress.”
The two most commonly used poverty rates produced by Statistics Canada tell very different stories. The patterns are curious, and confusing. The two statistics—the poverty rate according to the Low Income Cut-off and that according to the Low Income Measure—track each other rather closely up to the early 1990s, then diverge quite markedly as the Low Income Cut-off falls steadily to an unprecedented low, while the Low Income Measure drifts upward. Which statistic should we believe?
The cyclical patterns also differ, with the Low Income Measure registering higher poverty during recessions only before the 1990s, and in a way that is more muted and lagging the movement in the Low Income Cut-off. It also signals a rise in poverty only well after the onset of the 1990/92 recession, and both measures show no upturn in poverty during the Great Recession, which began in 2008 and led to a significant fall in employment.
For something that is central to so many policy debates, the Canadian “poverty” rate is notoriously confusing, and it is easy to imagine that public policy may be misled. The first step in devising a poverty reduction strategy is understanding what these numbers mean, and whether they are useful. Is poverty at unprecedented lows, or has it been stuck at high levels for decades? Both views can’t be right, but they can both be wrong.
Social policy in Canada faces three challenges having to do with income inequality, income insecurity, and the imbalance between work and family life. My presentation at the Queen’s University conference, “Social Canada Revisited,” begins by outlining three facts that illustrate these challenges:
- The share of total market income going to bottom-income Canadians has fallen
- Workers with steady employment suffer significant and long-lasting income losses after a layoff
- Families have changed to help cushion and support middle incomes, but the family-work balance is titled
I suggest that there are precedents in the existing Employment Insurance program that can be enhanced and built upon to more fully offer Canadians the social insurance they need and want, and put forward three enhancements that will move social policy in this direction.
- Enhance Working While on Claim and integrate it seamlessly with the Working Income Tax Benefit to offer steady and increased income support to lower-income Canadians in a way that mimics some versions of a Basic Income
- Introduce wage insurance that would top up weekly earnings for workers with a steady employment history who have suffered a permanent layoff
- Expand so-called “Special Benefits” by creating individual accounts over which individuals have complete sovereignty
Download a copy of my presentation for the details.
We should care about inequality because it has the potential to shape opportunities for the next generation. My presentation at the European Investment Bank offers a framework for thinking about this relationship, and for understanding why the adult outcomes of children are more closely tied to their family background—with the poor raising the next generation of poor adults, and the rich more likely to see their children to be rich in adulthood—in countries with greater inequality.
Differences in families, labour markets, and public policy all play a role in understanding why the United States and the United Kingdom have relatively less social mobility than many other countries.
One of the responsibilities of being President of the Canadian Economics Association is organizing the conference program; but one of the honours is giving the “Presidential Address” to the entire assembly of the next year’s conference. This year’s address is by Charles Beach of Queen’s University who spoke on “Changing income inequality: A distributional paradigm for Canada.”
This is a particularly special meeting to give the Presidential Address, as it is the association’s 50th anniversary with a record attendance of over 1,200.
Beach’s objective is to pull together a whole host of facts, and offer a framing that can drive a consistent narrative, and in this way to understand underlying drivers of inequality in Canada and guidance for policy. Beach also points out that there are significant differences between Canada and the United States.
There has been a decline in the share of income going to families in the middle over the last 30 years, and there has been a corresponding increase in the share going to the top 10%. Interestingly the share going to the bottom 20% has not changed so much, a big difference from the United States. Median family incomes have also been slightly increasing in Canada, another big difference between these two countries. The other big cross-country difference is that while top 1% shares have gone up in both countries, the rise is bigger in the United States.
It is also true that the returns to education have risen in both countries, but again more so in the United States. Several things could be driving this: immigration policy in the US is more focused on low skilled workers than in Canada where the focus is somewhat more on high skill immigrants; Canada has experienced a boom in the resource and housing sectors that disproportionately employ lower skilled workers, and unionization rates are higher; there was also a big inflow of highly educated women entering in the labour force in both countries, but more so in Canada. All these factors have had the tendency to blunt earnings growth at the top in Canada, and support it somewhat at the bottom, but perhaps done the opposite in the United States.
Typical workers have been benefiting less from overall output gains, but again the patterns differ between the two countries. Labour income as a proportion of GDP has hovered between 50 and 55% in Canada since 1960, but in the United States drifted from about that in the 1960s to below 45% by 2010.