Saturday, 5 May 2012

Innovation Is Vital For Growth, Not Just Cost-Cutting

There's a lot of concern about how to grow the UK economy. Some have pointed to banks and the public sector as 'the enemies of growth' because they are 'extractive', rather than inclusive 'facilitators'. Government spending is too high, as are taxes, and there's a concern that national public sector pay awards have 'crowded-out' private employers. Banks are not lending. 

But there's much more to this, of course. 

Clearly even the generous private credit available during the noughties merely went on houses and consumer spending, rather than building sustainable and globally competitive businesses, especially in the regions. As Steve Randy Waldman of Interfluidity recently explained in the context of southern Europe's troubles, it's the poor allocation of capital, not lack of finance or high labour costs, that causes "an incapacity to produce tradable goods and services in sufficient quantity." Governments aren't alone in their ability to waste money and other resources.

How do these things fit together?

Experience shows that countries whose governments try to spend more than 30 - 35% of their overall output (GDP) gradually produce less and less. That's because governments impose taxes to pay for spending (and borrowing), and tax is a 'deadweight cost' or economic inefficiency. As output declines, the government receives less and less tax so ultimately must spend less on public services. Those services then start to break down. Eventually, everyone speaks Greek. UK government spending is about 50% of GDP. Yet tax receipts have averaged around 38 per cent of GDP over the last twenty years and have never exceeded 40%. The UK government can a funding gap (deficit) of up to 2.5% of GDP before it becomes a 'structural deficit' - an albatross around the country's neck that takes a special effort to remove - George Osborne's current challenge. By contrast, the Australian and Swiss governments spend around 35% of GDP (source: OECD, IEA, p. 47).

On a regional basis, the UK picture gets worse. Public spending in London and the South East has remained under 40% of regional GDP. But public spending equates to 45% of regional production in the East, and a whacking 70% of what the North East produces. Public spending in England is cruising at 50% of national output, while in Scotland it's at 60% and in Wales and Northern Ireland the good citizens are dragging around a millstone of government expenditure equal to 80% of their GDP  (source: HM Treasury, hat tip IEA, p. 57).

So, if you live somewhere outside London and the South East your community has a choice. Either you ask the government to start spending a hell of a lot less on you. Or you make sure the region produces enough so that government spending only represents about one third of your output. Pick neither and you'll αρχίσουν να μιλούν ελληνικά.

It's possible that high public sector pay rates make both of these tasks harder - it means the government is spending more (on its staff), and it's more expensive for businesses to hire the staff they need, so they charge higher prices and their products are are less competitive.  Public sector pay is mainly agreed centrally, in national pay awards. Those who work in more expensive places than the average, like London, get paid a bit more. But employees who work in places where it's cheaper to live than average don't get paid less. So their communities will find it harder to keep government spending in the right proportion to what their community produces.

But this does not necessarily mean labour costs are the main reason for some regions being more competitive than others. Steve Randy Waldman, of Interfluidity, argues that competitiveness is about capital much more than labour:
"... to the degree that unit labor cost statistics capture what they claim to capture ... European workers, North and South, have come to earn roughly equal pay for equal product. Southern European workers do earn less overall, simply because they produce fewer or lower-value goods and services than their Northern neighbors. [But] unit labor costs are not the problem at all: it is the scale of aggregate output. And what determines the scale of aggregate output? Is it the laziness of workers? No, of course not. We all know that when residents of poor countries emigrate to rich ones, the same weak bodies and flawed characters that produce very little at home suddenly explode into economic vigor. The difference is “capital depth”, broadly construed to include all the physical equipment, business organization, public infrastructure, and governance that collude to enable two small hands and a broken mind to accomplish outsize things. Workers’ pay level is not the problem in Southern Europe [or, say, UK regions]. It is deficiencies in the arrangement of capital, again broadly construed, that have left Greece and Spain unable to produce value in sufficient quantity to compete with their neighbors."
 As a result, Steve suggests: 
1. "If Southern Europe lacks competitiveness, the part of the cost structure that needs to be reformed has to do with rents paid to capital rather than the sticky wages of workers; and

2. "The European periphery was rendered uncompetitive by toxic patterns of capital allocation." For this he cites Arnold Kling's recent paper for the Adam Smith Institute, which concluded:
"...economic progress involves creating new patterns of [sustainable] specialization and trade [PSST]. When new opportunities suddenly emerge, there can be periods in which high productivity growth in industries with relatively inelastic demand creates a surplus of workers. It takes time for entrepreneurs to discover new ways to exploit specialization and comparative advantage, and it takes time for the labour force to adapt to new skill requirements. These real adjustments are needed in order to restore full employment."
In short, the UK and each of its regions needs to foster self-employment and entrepreneurship, by creating an environment in which it's easy to start and grow new businesses. Removing the difference between public and private sector pay may help incentivise public sector workers to move to the private sector - as could laying off more public sector workers. The necessity to find new work may be the mother of invention, after all. But that doesn't remove the ultimate need to focus on fostering the process of creating new businesses for those workers to join.

Image from NE Generation.


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