Thursday, December 8, 2016

Notes on a Changing General Equilibrium "Middle"

Did increasingly polarized income structures, in the guise of a "squeezed" middle class, strongly affect the election outcome? It's difficult to know for certain, and plenty of individuals with high incomes also supported Trump. Prior to these latest discussions concerning regional unemployment, the broad discussions regarding inequality mostly took place before Trump's internet dominance shifted the focus elsewhere.

However, a changing "middle" likely contributes to areas now lacking in economic complexity, which extend well beyond the rural areas now in the spotlight. Despite these structural shifts, Democrats apparently aren't inclined to change direction. But is the lackluster response really all that different, for Republicans? Even though Trump's personality means uncertainty, he'll still be staffing Washington with plenty of folk who have little reason to change their stripes, regardless of structural economic shifts.

Some of these shifts have actually been apparent for decades. As Tyler Cowen noted in "The Great Stagnation", wages for the American family have been stagnant since the seventies. Recently, I complained that Tyler had chosen a cultural/political response to a clearly economic problem involving rural economies. But while reviewing some of the material from a few years earlier, I remembered how discussions re a "declining middle class" had also taking place on similar terms. No wonder it was difficult then - and of course still is - to envision an organizational equilibrium response, to the reality of wages which have been stagnant for more than four decades! People have forgotten how to free a marketplace so as to move closer to wages, when it becomes difficult to move wages toward societal expectations.

Nevertheless, it is difficult for policy makers of any ideological persuasion to respond to this reality, in part due to the fact their representatives belong to the population segment whose income levels have gradually shifted upward. Hence it's easy for conversations which one hopes to find economically helpful, to devolve into discussions of identity and culture.

Meanwhile, the macroeconomic effects of an increasingly secondary market dominated economy, are continuing apace. In all of this, the non tradable sector organizational capacity which consists of knowledge properties and real estate holdings, is vastly different from the broader societal wealth which naturally accrues from tradable sector activity. The problem goes beyond the fact this form of non tradable wealth is proving difficult to disperse and/or replicate. Rather, the bigger problem is this present structure now limits the output capacity of general equilibrium, for all concerned.

The social effect of this phenomenon is a vast amount of people who can't expect to take part in or contribute to the present economy, on similar terms as before. Already, the agglomeration effects of a mature general equilibrium, result in time based services which are increasingly limited to prosperous areas. And life expectancies in the U.S. are beginning to falter, accordingly. As Aaron Carroll (The Upshot) noted:
What no one seems to be debating is that we have a shortage of services.
I've been shouting that very fact from the rooftops, for more than three years. Argh, has anyone noticed?

As someone with healthcare providers in their extended family, I can only surmise it must be threatening to openly discuss a (mostly hidden) lack of services capacity, given today's hierarchical forms of time based services. Six or seven years earlier, I attended a voluntary healthcare event which provided free dental care. It was astonishing to see the thousands of hopefuls in attendance, waiting for their chance to relieve conditions which in many instances were already impacting their daily lives. The fact that so many people would wait in long lines for dental care they could not otherwise receive, was unsettling enough. Further, many of these individuals were likely U.S. citizens. How much longer would they need to wait...might they still even receive voluntary care at all, should that already limited care need to be apportioned to "outsiders", first?

I'm not saying I'm anti-immigrant, for I don't have strong feelings in that regard. However, the last time I made a concerted effort to return to the workplace, I finally realized the extent to which my chances of employment were also diminished, because of a large pool of immigrants who lived close to that same area. One could say they were also "competing" for a number of service jobs I would gladly have taken, if offered. Finally, when I was not able to procure work, I ended up returning to my rural hometown (after a near 40 year hiatus), something previously difficult to imagine. Did immigrants limit my chances for economic access? I'd prefer to think not, but then we still approach the workplace as though it has to be a zero sum world.

Why not generate new economic environments for living and working, that are more conducive for all comers. Why not treat time and knowledge based services as free markets, just as we treat tradable sectors as free markets. Right now, it's not easy for people to discuss matters on these terms, but it's important to do so while there's still time. I hope that soon, it becomes easier for economists to discuss economic matters again, instead of retreating into political divisions on the "worthiness" or "non worthiness" of group or identity based culture.

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