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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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.