8/6/18: Human Capital, Twin Secular Stagnations and Education Investments

I have written a lot about the twin secular stagnations hypothesis that I defined few years ago as a combination of two separate secular stagnation propositions. According to my running definition:

“The Twin Secular Stagnations Hypothesis combines two sources of the statistically significant reduction in the potential growth in the economy as:

  1. Supply-side Secular Stagnation: a proposition that future growth is likely to be slower amongst the advanced economies due to the decline in returns to innovation and lower growth rate in the labour force; and
  2. Demand-side Secular Stagnation: a proposition that future growth is being pushed down by the adverse demographics (ageing population) and the legacy of the Global Financial Crisis, the Great Recession and the Euro Area Sovereign Debt Crisis, which result in lower potential investment, slower growth in demand, and the rising cost of social services, pensions and healthcare provisions.”

An interesting piece of evidence, supporting the ‘productivity-labour force’ nexus of the Twin Secular Stagnations Hypothesis has been recently presented by Mary Daly, the executive vice president and Director of Research in the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (full article here: https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2018/april/raising-speed-limit-on-future-growth/).

First, on evidence of secular stagnation: "Average GDP growth over the 60 years preceding the Great Recession, was just under 3.5%. But if we look ahead, economists forecast numbers closer to 2%." In other words, we are looking at long term growth rate or potential growth rate that is almost 43 percent below the empirical rates of growth experienced over the last 60 years.

Next: the evidence of nexus. Per Daly, to "account for the dramatic change in prospects" for future growth in the U.S. "To explain that, we need to look at the fundamental drivers of economic growth: growth in productivity and the labor force."

Figure 1 shows the extent to which the labor force-productivity nexus drove growth over the last 7 decades, and is expected/forecast to do so in 2017-2025 period:

Daly notes that "productivity growth has varied over time, but since the 1980s has contributed on average about 1.5% to growth and is forecast to do the same going forward." This is, at best, incomplete. In reality, as the chart shows, productivity growth penciled in for 2017-2025 is slower than in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000-2007. In fact, labour productivity growth in 2017-2025 is forecast to run roughly at an average rate of the 1970s, 1980s and 2008-2016. This is set against the technological revolution we are allegedly experiencing which should, all thing equal, be driving up labour productivity growth in 2017-2025 over and above the 1980s-1990s period. But, in fact, labour productivity growth contribution to GDP growth has shrunk in 2000-2007, and then again in 2008-2016 (the Great Recovery) and now set to be below the 1990s over the period 2017-2025. So all is NOT well with productivity growth.

The second point, well-argued by Daly is that labour force contribution to GDP growth is shrinking and shrinking catastrophically. That is clear from the Figure above.

On the latter point, Daly shows that labour force participation rates (also a subject of frequent coverage on this blog), have fallen off the cliff in recent years: "We’ve also seen a drop in the level of labor force participation among workers in their prime employment years, a pattern that does look quite a bit different from other countries. Labor force participation in the United States for prime-age workers reached a peak in the late 1990s and then took a steep dive in the 2001 recession. In the 2007 recession, it took an even steeper tumble, reaching a low point in 2015... While we have seen improvements since, they have been modest. So today, the share of men and women in their prime working years who are employed or actively searching for a job is far lower than it was in the 1990s."

So, Daly asks a very important question: "Why aren’t American workers working?" And proceeds to give an interesting explanation: "research by a colleague from the San Francisco Fed and others suggests that some of the drop owes to wealthier families choosing to have only one person engaging in the paid labor market (Hall and Petrosky-Nadeau 2016)."

Why is it interesting? Because those who can afford single-earner households today are a vast minority. The original research from the Fed cited by Daly is here: https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2016/february/labor-force-participation-and-household-income/. And here is the chart that shows the key findings from the research:

 Note: Numbers to right of lines show percentage point changes to total and quartile contributions, 2004–13

Observe that the deepest reduction in labour force participation is for the 3rd quartile of income earners. How much do these families earn? "In 2013, households in the lowest 25% of the income distribution, or the first quartile, had an average monthly income of less than $1,770. The median total household monthly income was $3,430. At the top of the distribution, the lower bound for being in the highest 25% of households, or the fourth quartile, was a monthly income of $5,993." Now, can you imagine in these modern days a household earning less that $5,993 per month in pre-tax income being able to afford not to engage the second partner in work? Personally, I can't. Unless these households benefit from huge transfers via inheritance or within-family housing subsidies, etc. But... per same paper, "On average in 2013, the upper-level households derived about 96% of their monthly income from working. For households in the poorest quartile, earnings made up about 62% of monthly income, while another 23% came from unemployment compensation, social security, supplemental social security, and food stamps." Which means that these very same households that, apparently, voluntarily withdrawing labour force participation, are not gaining much from non-labour income transfers.

So, these volunatry exits from the labour force are, apparently, impacting households more dependent on labour income AND not the highest income quartile households. Something is fishy.

Second piece of evidence from the paper cited by Daly is age cohorts of 'leavers':

This too shows that something is fishy in the data. Households in 55+ age group are more likely to have higher incomes. They are increasing labour force participation despite the fact that it is harder for them to gain quality jobs due to age effects. Households in 25-54 age bracket are exiting the workforce, just at the time when their earnings from work should be rising and just in time when they need to service student loans, mortgages, schooling for kids, pensions etc.

Again, the evidence presented simply contradicts the arguments made: both age cohorts and income cohorts analysis does not appear to support the proposition that families are voluntarily exiting the labour force, reducing their labour income to single source provision.

I am not buying this. The fact that the 3rd quartile of families are exiting the workforce is not a sign of preferences for leisure or household employment. It is, rather, a sign that the jobs market is no longer promising for the upper-middle classes, especially for the younger workers. It is a sign that families are increasingly reliant on familial transfers for housing and contingent workforce employment, both under-reported to the official stats gatherers.

Daly hints at this in her reference to the 'second factor' driving decline in labour force participation: the disappearance of the mid-level skills jobs, including the decline due to automation: "A growing body of research finds that these pressures on middle-skilled jobs leave a big swath of workers on the sidelines, wanting work but not having the skills to keep pace with the ever-changing economy". Now, that hits the target far better than the argument that people are just exiting workforce to have good times and home-school their kids.

And worse, Daly is also on the money when she points out that the U.S. system is woefully inadequate when it comes to provisions for investing in human capital: "Like in most advanced economies, job creation in the United States is being tilted toward jobs that require a college degree (OECD 2017). Even if high school-educated workers can find jobs today, their future job security is in jeopardy. Indeed by 2020, for the first time in our history, more jobs will require a bachelor’s degree than a high school diploma (Carnevale, Smith, and Strohl 2013)." Yet, "although the share of young people with four-year college degrees is rising, in 2016 only 37% of 25- to 29-year-olds had a college diploma (Snyder, de Brey, and Dillow 2018). This falls short of the progress in many of our international competitors (OECD 2018), but also means that many of our young people are underprepared for the jobs in our economy."

There are added dimensions / nuances to this. Some of the U.S. college education is of questionable quality, compared to more evenly-distributed quality of college education in Europe, Japan and Australia. Top Universities deliver top tier output. But for-profit colleges and some lower-end school deliver nothing worth talking about. A 4-year system of undergraduate education is effectively a correction on already poor quality high schools output, requiring the first year of college to be a remediation year to compensate for the lack of proper standards in secondary education. Two-year masters programs are, then, designed to take the first year to correct for the shortfalls in education quality in undergraduate levels. And so on. In effect, the U.S. higher education system is designed to inflict maximum financial damage (via costs and debt of year 1 education in undergraduate and post-graduate systems), while taking a cut of two years from the graduates careers. This is similar to what Italian system delivers, except in the case of Italians, it delivers also higher quality content in secondary and undergraduate education, taking longer time to learn more.

And so on. In simple terms, as Daly tacitly acknowledges, the U.S. economy is racing toward higher degree of automation and greater skills intensity, while running low on human capital investments. The solution to this historical problem has been to import younger, smarter foreigners via a range of schemes - from graduate schools admissions to H1Bs. But this solution is not sufficient to correct for the rate of acceleration in skills intensity. And it is not functioning in redressing training and skills gaps that already exist in the economy.

Daly notes that one important aspect of change must touch upon the need to "equalize educational attainment across students of different races and ethnicities." This, undoubtedly, is one key factor in attempting to address the human capital investment gaps. The problem, of course, is how does one achieve this? Historically, the U.S. States have gone about the problem by lowering standards and quality of secondary education curriculum for all students. They also increased quotas-based admissions for minorities. The former does nothing for actually stimulating investment in human capital. The latter creates a zero-sum game out of education system, unless new investments go into college education provision. Which is not happening, despite rampant price inflation in higher education.

Daly makes a strong case for more investment in college education. But she does not make the equally important case that such investment must start at pre-primary level and work through a combination of increased resources and higher standards across all grades and for all students. She correctly states that "In the parlance of economics, education is incentive compatible, good for everyone involved", when it comes to students, taxpayers and the economy.

But she does not recognise that better education is not incentive-compatible for one key set of participants in the market: teachers and schools administartors. In fact, in primary and secondary education systems, in the U.S., incentives for teachers are aligned toward delivering more standardised, less rigorous, less-transparent in quality, outcomes, such as rota learning and teaching-to-test. Daly says nothing as to how this problem can be addressed, despite the fact that all past reforms of the U.S. education system were led by teachers and their Unions, not by parents or other economic agents.

Finally, there is a problem of generational cohorts. Any investment in education system today will hold promise of altering the status quo of human capital investments for the cohorts of those under the age 30 (given the levels of debt accumulated by the recent graduates, probably for those under the age of 25). Which leaves the rest of the households - the vast majority of them, in fact - just where we have them today: under-skilled, facing the risk of their existent human capital depreciation to automation, etc. Formal education cannot address these problems systemically. Take an argument ad absurdum as an illustration. Suppose we invest enough funding into the current higher education system to provide 100% college graduation for those current under 25 years of age. Suppose we even fix the quality vs quantity problem in the U.S. education system. This will improve the productivity and jobs prospects for the very young. But it will make the older generations of workers (older = 25 years of and above) even less competitive, leading to further reductions in their incomes, career prospects and labor force participation rates.

Have we fixed anything when it comes to the Twin Secular Stagnations Hypothesis? Not really. Have we addressed the polarisation gap between life-cycle earnings of the lower earners and higher earners (the dropping-out of the U.S. middle class)? Not really. Have we done anything to alleviate political disillusionment amongst the U.S. voters with the economic system that reduces their social and economic mobility? Not really. So even in ad absurdum case of Daly-proposed solution success, we have fixed little if nothing at all. We, in fact, might have made the disease more deadly.

In sum, we do need more investment in education. But we also need smarter education systems reforms. And we need a parallel investment in increasing human capital investments for those already in the labour force, and those of older age cohorts who have been dropping out of it. We need a systemic approach to addressing skills depreciation arising from automaton. And we need a systemic approach to tackling economic value-added displacement away from labour, toward pure profits and technological capital. The longer we delay these major, pivotal reforms, the bigger the problem of the secular stagnation gets.