Greg Mankiw Wakes Up: Demography Does Matter

I recently berated Greg Mankiw (and the top ten world economists he pretends top cite) for the folly of suggesting that fertility rates don’t matter to economists. Well today Mankiw seems to be having (an implicit) rethink. Dependency ratios, it seems, do matter.

Now since dependency ratios are really a function of three factors – fertility, life expectancy and net migration – it is hard to deny the obvious: that fertility is important.

Mankiw also cites approvingly the opinion of US economist Jeremy Siegel to the effect that the “way to finance the baby boomers’ retirement is persistent capital inflows and trade deficits with developing countries”. Now Siegel doesn’t quite have this right here. The way to finance a high old-age dependency ratio, is through a high level of saving, and running persistent capital *outflows* and trade *surpluses*. This, of course, is precisely what Germany and Japan are now doing, (and also, incidentally, steering the currency down to reduce deflationary pressure, which is again what has been happening in Japan) and this is one of the reasons I give so much importance to this phenomenon. It is also one of the reasons why I discount the likelihood of domestic-demand-driven growth in these countries.

So all I can say is, well, well, well, welcome onboard Greg. As is well known both time consistency and cognitive dissonance are phenomena which constitute important problems for economic theory, but normally not in the sense that we can see them at work here.

A topic whose time has finally come? We will see. To quote the evolutionary biologist Linda Partridge (in another context) “there is much to do”. Would that economists were as aware of this as theoretical biologists seem to be.

Update: the problem is more perplexing than I initially imagined, since I now discover that on July 20th Greg approvingly cites a paper by Nir Jaimovich and Henry Siu. The title of the paper is The Young, the Old, and the Restless: Demographics and Business Cycle Volatility , and the extract he cites is this one:

changes in the age composition of the labor force account for a significant fraction of the variation in business cycle volatility observed in the US and other G7 economies“.

Greg says that this was the most intriguing hypothesis he had heard all day (he was at the NBER Summer Institute), which is fair enough, and I don’t expect him to agree with the hypothesis simply because he finds it intriguing, but I *am* stumped to understand how he can then go on on August 26 to describe the idea that low fertility posed a serious economic problem as one of the most wrong headed ideas he had heard recently, since, obviously, it is fertility levels which in part determine age structures which in part influence volatility in business cycles (according to the intriguing hypothesis). So come on Greg, which is it, wrong-headed or intriguing?

Seriously though, my point here is not to have a go at Greg Mankiw (although I have rather done that haven’t I?). My point is to draw attention to all the confusion which is knocking about on this topic. Material not unrelated to all of this is to be found in a recent article in the FT by John Kay. Kay asks hijmself why it is that Eureka moments seldom happen to economists. Basically he suggests that the reason is down to the difference between the natural and the social sciences. I don’t buy that, and I think that we social scientists sell ourselves too cheap if we succumb to it. But by the by Kay touches on another point, and it is one which brings us back to the struggle Greg Mankiw is having with the recalcitrant phenomena, since:

“It will rarely, if ever, be the case in economics that an old account of the world will be shown to be simply wrong, like the medieval account of planetary motion, or the phlogiston theory of heat.”

Well sorry John, but we have just found one that is: the neo classical account of steady state growth, there is no real factual basis for this theory, and theoretically it isn’t hard to see that it must be flawed, if, that is, the ‘intriguing hypothesis’ which Greg was scratching his head about is a valid one, and thus, since age structures constantly change, so must rates of economic growth. In which case both steady state growth and convergence theory go quietly west, off into the sunset. The intriguing question is then of course what exactly it is which modulates the changes in age structure. This is, of course, just the kind of problem that Archimedes was toiling away with in the relatively unturbulent waters of his bathtub. Aha, now I know why it is economists seldom have Eureka moments: they all take showers.

Now just let me step outside a moment, what is going on out there, is that the sun going round the earth, or could it just be that somehow or another the earth – unbeknownst to me – is actually turning round the sun.

A Face That Launched A Thousand Ships

An unlikely Helen, Spain’s deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, that’s for sure. Yet outside a few thousand years difference in timing the two seem to have been cut out for one and the same the same historical role: urging the boats to go back. Indeed the only thing which really separates them might be the magnitude of the problem to hand, since Coalición Canaria president Paulino Rivero suggested this weekend that what might be involved were not a mere 1,000 ships, but anything between 10,000 and 15,000 currently being built along the Mauritanian and Senegalese coastlines.

Joking aside this post is about tragedy, a human tragedy. According to the NGOs who are involved some 3,000 people have already died in attempting to make the hazardous crossing, a crossing which was actually completed over this weekend by a record 1,200 people in 36 hours.

As well as tragedy the post is also about folly, the folly of those economists who think low fertility isn’t an important economic issue. This opinion was recently expressed by respected US economist Greg Mankiw, (on his blog) who described the very idea that it might be as ‘wrong headed’ and, to boot, suggested that a poll of the world’s top ten economists would draw a blank on names who thought that low fertility was among Europe’s major economic problems. I am sure Mankiw is right about the poll, and this is why I use the expression ‘folly’. So what do I mean?
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A pro-dismal bias in economics?

In a comment to his earlier assessment of the OECD’s new economic outlook, Jasper is raising an interesting, almost philosophical question that I think is worth a discussion in its own right. He claims that -

Economists should study the economy so they can finetune it to suit the needs of the people living inside this economy. They seem to be studying the economy so they can promote policies that finetune the people to suit the needs of the economy.

I would argue that Jasper’s statement correctly captures the sentiment, but not the rationalised opinion, among a growing part of the European population. The disconnect is palpable. So the question seems to be whether our governing institutions (and those trying to capture the essence of reality for them) are not able to accurately understand the people’s true preferences, whether our institutions do not allow an accurate externalisation thereof, or whether this is not simply a matter of lack of understanding.
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Is The ECB Measured-Pace Cycle Over?

Well, not unexpectedly, the ECB decided to leave its main refinancing rate unchanged at 2.25% yesterday. Rather more surprisingly (for some at least) the German Federal Statistical agency reported that German economic growth ground to a halt at the end of 2005.

According to the Financial Times:

Johann Hahlen, president of the federal statistics office, said that growth last year had been based largely on exports, with domestic demand remaining weak. “Broad and self-supporting growth is still not being observed”.

Again according to the FT, Herr Hahlen’s comments “surprised economists, who had expected growth to continue and have become increasingly upbeat about the outlook in 2006″. I’m surpised the FT can be so blazé in saying ‘economists’: they certainly didn’t surprise me. I think it was reasonably clear that this was coming. If I am surprised by anything it is that it has come so quickly.

So where do we go from here? Well Jean-Claude Trichet, the ECB president, has been trotting out the party line to the effect “we have to be vigilant as regards inflation”, but with inflation now falling back (in December the harmonised rate slipped back a fraction to 2.2% from the 2.3% in the year to November) and with virtually no ‘second round oil rise’ effects in evidence this argument is going to sound increasingly hollow. Couple this with the ongoing ‘low- growth’ environment in the Eurozone (we’re still awaiting the sort of news from Italy which will again I imagine surprise ‘economists’) and you can see that there will be few reasons to justify any serious interest rate rises. At the limit we may just see one more quarter point rise squeezed-in before year’s end. Aside from that the ECB tightening cycle is, as I suggest, just about done.

Since it has recently become fashionableto try to predict the future, below the fold are my 2006 forecasts.
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The Price of Obesity

Economist for Dean Lerxst gets hold of something really interesting in a post yesterday ( which Calpundit also picks up on). He draws our attention to the fact that some US economists have recently been arguing that there has been a significant rise in individuals claiming disability benefits and this has taken a large number of workers out of the labor force, thus – at a stroke – reducing the “official unemployment rate”. The research by Mark Duggan and David Autor is discussed in a NYT op ed by University of Chicago Professor Austan Goolsbee.

Lerxst also highlights the significant role obesity may play in this. He cites an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal describing a new study by RAND Health economists showing that obesity may actually be the “primary” explanation for the rise in the disability rolls. According to Dana P. Goldman, director of health economics at Rand and the principal investigator on the study cited in the WSJ there is “evidence to support (the idea) that obesity may be a primary reason.”
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Fiscal Tickery

Thanks David for the link. I haven’t commented on this because like Dutch finance minister Zalm (who I imagine working away weblogging into the early hours under a dim light provided only by his mobile phone) I am tired. I can’t help feeling that everything that needs to be said has already been said, and many times over. Now all we can reasonably do is wait and see the consequences.
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