Krugman's uncanny accuracy shows why more eyes should be on Japan

Abenomics is more that just a Japanese story.

Noah Smith has a post up examining Paul Krugman's remarkable record of accurate economic predictions. Ask "KrugTron the Invincible", as Smith dubs him, and he will point to his use of Keynesian economics for simple rule-of-thumb guesstimates, which then get cleaned up with his understanding of the problems of a liquidity trap. But Smith wonders if there's a more specific reason for Krugman's hit-rate:

Like Voltron before him, he's borrowing heavily from Japan.

See, I myself am fairly agnostic about Keynesian ideas. But I've expected nothing but low growth, low interest rates, and low inflation since 2008 (though I haven't been as confident about these things as Krugman, and am thus not in his class as a super-robot). I expected these things because of one simple proposition: We are like Japan.

Since its land bubble popped in 1990, Japan has had low inflation and low interest rates and low growth, even as government debt mounted and quantitative easing was tried. Paul Krugman was there. He watched Japan carefully, and he often states that it deeply affected his thinking. In fact, it might not be an exaggeration to say that watching Japan made Krugman the Keynesian he is today.

The comparison is, at the moment, more relevant to the US than the UK. Our problems are pretty clear: we slashed investment coming out of a recession, which put the brakes on recovery. Now that we're (slowly) putting our foot back on the accelerator, we can expect a return to growth – at least until deficit reduction becomes a priority again. Insofar as we have any macroeconomic phenomena confounding economists, it's positive news: our unemployment rate is significantly lower than it should be, given our anaemic recovery. That's been pegged on underemployment, productivity declines, and the government fiddling the figures, but it doesn't call for a wholesale reworking of economic theory.

The Japanese experience, however, does. Its "lost decade" – now well on the way to being twenty years long – has stubbornly resisted everything thrown at it so far. The pessimistic view is that it's just what happens when demographics turn sour: with an ageing society and migration too low to counteract it, the economy is retooling to serve the needs of retirees, for whom long-term growth isn't a priority.

But Abenomics, the name for the broad package of unconventional policy measures brought in by the government of Shinzo Abe, offers a ray of hope. And if any of those tools, which range from monetized nationalisation of industrial stock to explicitly targeting the stock market to performing one of the largest rounds of qualitative easing ever, work, then there's a meaningful plan of action for not just Japan, but the US as well.

If they don't, then hopefully it won't take America the same twenty years it's taken Japan to realise that business as usual just won't cut it.

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.

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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.