Do economists ever get it right?

There is one example when they did . . .

According to popular belief, economists rarely manage to predict correctly the consequences of important policy actions. Nevertheless, the case of the European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is one of those instances which economists did get it right.

Indeed, as far back as 1977, the MacDougall Report to the European Commission concluded that because the European Economic Community budget was very small, “… in present circumstances monetary union is impracticable.” Moreover, many economists on both sides of the Atlantic were cautioning against the planned single currency in the absence of a significant fiscal redistribution facility and/or the ability to run countercyclical fiscal policy.

Nevertheless, the political bandwagon prevailed, and the Delors Report threw caution to the wind and assumed that EMU could proceed without significant increases in the size of the EU budget, which was hovering around 1% of GDP (the 1977 Report was deeming it as necessary that the federal budget be as large as 10% of GDP). The only “concession” to economists’ concerns was the Maastricht Treaty rules imposing limits on government debts and deficits — as encapsulated in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP).

However, the precedence given to moral-hazard considerations (and the defective way they were applied) over countercyclical fiscal policy — due to the fear that profligate governments would be too keen to run large budget deficits in recessions but very reluctant to run offsetting budget surpluses in booms — proved detrimental. Since the main focus of the SGP was on deficit limits, the resulting reduction (due to the euro) in real interest rates and concomitant boom experienced by some of the ‘periphery’ countries of the Eurozone made it very easy for governments to run (or to claim that they do) budget deficits below the 3% (of GDP) limit. Yet, this semblance of fiscal prudence — when in fact governments should be running budget surpluses — undermined their ability to conduct appropriately expansionary fiscal policy, when the boom ended, without running excessively large budget deficits.

To a large extent the semblance of fiscal prudence was aided by the very large current account deficits which some of the periphery countries were allowed to run during the Euro’s first decade. Although this appears to run counter to the well-known “twin deficits hypothesis” (i.e. that a larger budget deficit leads to a larger current account deficit), the experience of the periphery countries suggests that it is possible the direction of causality to be from a larger current account deficit to a smaller budget deficit.

For the periphery countries, EMU participation facilitated international borrowing at lower interest rates, allowing for a huge deterioration in the current account while the budget deficit improved. The reason is that imports, which become possible through international borrowing, need not fully displace spending on domestically produced goods (they may even increase it!). Moreover, they can create a revenue boon for the government. For example, car imports generate immediate tax revenue (VAT, registration taxes, etc.). They also allow for increases in domestic value added (e.g. services related to sales, advertising, and repairs of automobiles), thus allowing for second-round increases in income tax revenue. In the same vein, foreign loans (intermediated through the domestic banking sector) allowed for housing booms and created unsustainable increases in tax revenue.

The upshot of the above is that cynical governments may “achieve” a seemingly strict adherence to the SGP limits on budget deficits (they may even run budget surpluses as Spain and Ireland did), for some years, by running current account deficits; however, once foreign capital dries out the lack of fiscal space for countercyclical fiscal policy becomes evident. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the SGP provided the wrong signals about the exercise of countercyclical fiscal policy. It also failed to provide a replacement for the lack of market discipline. The moral is that the warnings of economists about the ability of the SGP to provide a framework for “monetary and fiscal stability” should have been heeded.

George Economides and Thomas Moutos, Guest Editors of the CESifo Economic Studies Special Issue on ‘EMU: The Way Forward’, are Professors of Economics in the Department of International and European Economic Studies, Athens University of Economics and Business, and CESifo Research Fellows.

CESifo Economic Studies publishes provocative, high-quality papers in economics, with a particular focus on policy issues. Papers by leading academics are written for a wide and global audience, including those in government, business, and academia. The journal combines theory and empirical research in a style accessible to economists across all specialisations.

This article first appeared on blog.oup.com, and is republished here with permission

A statue outside the European Commission. Photo: Getty
George Economides and Thomas Moutos, Guest Editors of the CESifo Economic Studies Special Issue on ‘EMU: The Way Forward’, are Professors of Economics in the Department of International and European Economic Studies, Athens University of Economics and Business, and CESifo Research Fellows.
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.