Are demographics going to save the US economy?

Sometimes the simplest things can have wide-ranging effects.

Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal touched upon a very interesting aspect of contemporary economics in a recent interview with Bill McBride, the economics blogger who, at his site Calculated Risk gained fame for his remarkable prescience about the global financial crisis, particularly the US housing bubble.

McBride hasn't stayed with the "doom and gloom" message, though, and has been arguing that there will be a hefty rebound in US GDP for since shortly after the economy bottomed out in 2009. His reasons for thinking that way are an interesting mixture of anecdote – normally verboten for serious economic analysts – carefully chosen statistics, and a few broader macroeconomic indicators.

For example, he argued in January 2009 that the car market (sales were plummeting at the time, and a large part of the collapse in employment and GDP) was bottoming out, and would shortly start to grow again:

So I wrote this article that says look, auto sales are near the bottom – we were at a 9 million annual rate then – I said there’s just no way – we have to be selling 12, 13, 14 million, because people need new cars every 5-7,8 years.

Similarly, the housing market couldn't stay as weak as it had been for very long, because:

After a while, there’s all this excess supply that was built, then people pulled back and lived with their parents – but people don’t want to live with their parents very long. That supply gets absorbed. When I go out into The Inland Empire I can tell you… If it’s not mostly growing, it’s getting there. Where I live, as soon as foreclosures come on the market there’s people lined up.

In other words, houses and (in most of the US) cars are necessities of life. Demand for them can fall, as people put off purchases or attempt to economise on what they do buy, but eventually, those purchases will be made. A car only lasts so long, and a growing population can only shack up in spare bedrooms for a short while.

Obviously, there is still a fair amount of analysis to perform. McBride's call on the auto industry was on the money, not just because he realised it couldn't fall forever, but also because he checked the statistics for average length of car ownership, and pre-crisis sales, and realised that the vehicle lifespan was being pushed to historically long durations.

But the methodology is reminiscent of the (apocryphal) story that some foresight of the 1929 Wall Street Crash was provided by the realisation that the bubble of the "roaring twenties" was driven by the growing adoption of a number of consumer technologies which were nearing saturation point. If economic growth over the last decade has occurred because car ownership rose from 10 to 90 per cent, it is clear that economic growth over the next decade cannot come from the same source.

The problem with these arguments is that there are a lot of specific indicators to choose from, and only some of them will have macroeconomic consequences. McBride was correct about the auto industry, but that doesn't mean that the method will work every time.

Weisenthal, following the interview, tried his hand at a similar form of analysis: proving the US naysayers wrong by looking at the nation's demographics. He writes:

When you've collapsed SO much, then really simple observations like that are germane because the demographic lift on its own to counteract the hard cyclical downturn.

And that's where the Americans should be thankful: Because there is in fact a demographic lift.

Japan is probably the economy whose struggles most resemble ours, and that force is much weaker there.

Here's a comparison of year-over-year population growth rates for Japan and the US going back to 1960. Growth in Japan (red line) has been much slower for decades.

…Japan's demographic tail wind has been non existent.

With some knowledge about demographics and the need to replace cars, you could look at a chart like this one (which divides motor vehicle sales by population) and ascertain that the lows seen in 2008/2009 were WAY out of whack with anything vaguely historical.

…The overall point is simple: A demographic lift combined with the same innovation and investment that's gone on for a long time is why the dreams of the doomsayers, who were riding so high just a few years ago, haven't come to pass.

Japan's demographic squeeze has been predicted and feared for a long time, but Weisenthal goes further by pinning a lot of hopes on America's demographic health. Is he right? Time will tell, but one thing which is worth noting is that this demographic lift isn't something which comes out of nowhere. In fact, it is something which, with the popular consensus around the need to limit immigration, is being actively fought by most US policymakers. We've written here about the unintended consequences of that limitation, but hopefully pushing the idea that demographic lift is the nation's biggest economic hope might do a little to build the coalition on the other side.

A worker builds a car in Michigan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.