On Twitter, folks have been supporting and piling on to a guy whose bottom line was that we are able to afford much less now than we could in 1990 (I won’t link to it because he’s not a public figure). The piling on has been by economist-like people and the support has been from… others?
Regardless, the claim can be analyzed in a variety of ways. I’m more intimate with the macro statistics, so here’s one of many valid stabs at addressing the claim. I’ll be using aggregates and averages from the BEA consumer spending accounts.
I have previously wrote about living standards in Ireland, and how GDP per capita overstates typical incomes because of a lot of foreign investment.
This is not to say that foreign investment is bad — to the contrary! But standard income statistics, such as GDP, aren’t particularly useful for a country like Ireland.
Norway has a similar challenge with national income statistics, but a different reason: Oil. Norway has a very large supply of oil revenues relative to the size of the rest of its economy, and oil revenues are counted in GDP. But those oil revenues don’t necessarily translate into higher household income or consumption.
Using World Bank data, Norway appears to be very rich: GDP per capita in nominal terms was about $90,000 in 2021. Compare that with $70,000 in the US, which is a very rich country itself. Sounds extremely wealthy!
Of course, by that same statistic, average income in Ireland is $100,000. But after making all the proper adjustments, as we saw in my prior post, Ireland is right around the EU average in terms of what individuals and households actually consume.
People have expectations about the world. When those expectations are violated, they usually change their behavior in order to account for the new information (on the margin at least). Does unexpected inflation affect people’s behavior? Of course. William Phillips thought so (the famous version of the Phillips Curve assumes constant inflation expectations).
Macroeconomists often separate the world into reals and nominals. Sometimes we produce more and other times we produce less. Those are the reals. The prices that we pay and the money that we spend are the nominals. There is what’s sometimes called a ‘loose joint’ between reals and nominals. That is, they do not move in tandem, nor are they entirely independent. If the Fed suddenly slows the growth of the money supply, then economic activity growth might also slow – but not by the same amount. In the long run, reals and nominals are largely independent. Whether we have 2% vs 3% annual inflation over the course of some decade is probably not important for our real output at the end of that decade.
It Takes Two to Tango.
It is often said that the Fed can achieve any amount of total spending in the economy that it prefers. It can achieve any NGDP. But, the Fed doesn’t control NGDP as a matter of fiat. The Fed changes interest rates and the money supply in order to change the total spending in our economy. Importantly, the effect of Fed policy changes is contingent on how the public reacts. After all, the Fed can increase the money supply. But it is us who decides how much to spend.
I argued in my previous post that the Covid-19 pandemic was primarily a demand shock insofar as consumption was concerned, though potential output for services may have fallen somewhat. When something is 67.5% of the economy, ‘somewhat’ can be a big deal. So, below I breakdown services into its components to identify which experienced supply or demand shocks. Macroeconomists often get accused of over-reliance on aggregates and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I succumb to the trope (I might, in fact be a monkey’s uncle).
Before I start again with the graphs, what should we expect? Let’s consider that the recession was a pandemic recession. We should expect that services which could be provided remotely to experience an initial negative demand shock and to have recovered quickly. We should expect close-proximity services to experience a negative demand and supply shock due to the symmetrical risk of contagion. Finally, we should expect that services with elastic demand to experience the largest demand shocks (If you want additional details for what the above service categories describe, then you can find out more here, pg. 18).
By the time most students exit undergrad, they get acquainted with the Aggregate Supply – Aggregate Demand model. I think that this model is so important that my Principles of Macro class spends twice the amount of time on it as on any other topic. The model is nice because it uses the familiar tools of Supply & Demand and throws a macro twist on them. Below is a graph of the short-run AS-AD model.
Quick primer: The AD curve increases to the right and decreases to the left. The Federal Reserve and Federal government can both affect AD by increasing or decreasing total spending in the economy. Economists differ on the circumstances in which one authority is more relevant than another.
The AS curve reflects inflation expectations, short-run productivity (intercept), and nominal rigidity (slope). If inflation expectations rise, then the AS curve shifts up vertically. If there is transitory decline in productivity, then it shifts up vertically and left horizontally.
Nominal rigidity refers to the total spending elasticity of the quantity produced. In laymen’s terms, nominal rigidity describes how production changes when there is a short-run increase in total spending. The figure above displays 3 possible SR-AS’s. AS0 reflects that firms will simply produce more when there is greater spending and they will not raise their prices. AS2 reflects that producers mostly raise prices and increase output only somewhat. AS1 is an intermediate case. One of the things that determines nominal rigidity is how accurate the inflation expectations are. The more accurate the inflation expectations, the more vertical the SR-AS curve appears.*
The AS-AD model has many of the typical S&D features. The initial equilibrium is the intersection between the original AS and AD curves. There is a price and quantity implication when one of the curves move. An increase in AD results in some combination of higher prices and greater output – depending on nominal rigidities. An increase in the SR-AS curve results in some combination of lower prices and higher output – depending on the slope of aggregate demand.
Of course, the real world is complicated – sometimes multiple shocks occur and multiple curves move simultaneously. If that is the case, then we can simply say which curve ‘moved more’. We should also expect that the long-run productive capacity of the economy increased over the past two years, say due to technological improvements, such that the new equilibrium output is several percentage points to the right. We can’t observe the AD and AS curves directly, but we can observe their results.
The big questions are:
What happened during and after the 2020 recession?
The financial crisis recession that started in late 2007 was very different from the 2020 pandemic recession. Even now, 15 years later, we don’t all agree on the causes of the 2007 recession. Maybe it was due to the housing crisis, maybe due to the policy of allowing NGDP to fall, or maybe due to financial contagion. I watched Vernon Smith give a lecture in 2012 in which he explained that it was a housing crisis. Scott Sumner believes that a housing sectoral decline would have occurred, and that the economy-wide deep recession and subsequent slow recovery was caused by poor monetary policy.
Everyone agrees, however, that the 2007 recession was fundamentally different from the 2020 recession. The latter, many believe, reflected a supply shock or a technology shock. Performing social activities, including work, in close proximity to others became much less safe. As a result, we traded off productivity for safety.
The policy responses to each of the two were also different. In 2020, monetary policy was far more targeted in its interventions and the fiscal stimulus was much bigger. I’ll save the policy response differences for another post. In this post, I want to display a few graphs that broadly reflect the speed and magnitude of the recoveries. Because the recessions had different causes, I use broad measures that are applicable to both.
In grad school, I learned about the overlapping-generations model. The idea is that we simplify people down to the fundamental parts of their life-cycle. Each person lives for 2 periods. In the first period, they can produce only. In the second period, they can consume only. A popular conclusion of the model pertains to old-age benefit programs such as Social Security.
The first beneficiaries receive a gift that is free to them, then each subsequent generation accepts the debt, pays it off, and then passes on new debt to the proceeding generation. In this manner, the program benefit of the current generation is limited by the income of the following generation. Therefore, every single generation can consume as if they lived a generation later – and a generation richer – in time. That’s exciting.
But this model is not unique to governments. With a little bit of finance, we can model every person as their own self-encapsulated overlapping-generations model – with two similarly exciting conclusions. Let’s consider a person who has monthly consumption expenditures of $1k per month and let’s assume a discount rate of half a percent per month.
Life is pretty good for this person. They earn income each month and they spend $1k of it during the same period. Now let’s give the person a credit card. It doesn’t matter what the interest rate is – they’re going to pay it off each subsequent month. Now let’s see what’s possible.
What’s going on here? The difference in the consumption pattern is that the first month with a credit card can enjoy twice the consumption. How’s that? $1k of that January consumption is just the typical monthly spending. The other $1k is running up a month’s worth of spending on the credit card. So long one pays-off the card in the following month, there are no interest charges. But wait – if one pays-off the credit card in February, then how does one consume in February? By borrowing from March’s income, of course! And so the pattern repeats ad-infinitum. With a credit card one can borrow against next month’s spending. You too can borrow from your future self. And your future self won’t mind because they’ll do the same thing.
Conclusion #1: Having a credit card entitles you to one free month of double consumption.
The above example includes identical income over time. But, what if your income grows? Let’s assume that your income and commensurate consumption grow at a rate of one quarter percent per month. Our consumption without a credit card is tabulated below.
Obviously, having income and consumption that grow is more enjoyable than ones that are constant each period. Now let’s observe below what happens when we again introduce a credit card that one pays-off each month.
What’s going on here? Just as happened previously with a credit card, one can enjoy an extra boost to consumption in the first period. But what does growing income do for us besides greater complication? Just as previously, one can pay their debt each period and consume by borrowing against the next month’s income. But with growing income, having a credit card means that one can enjoy the next month’s level of consumption today. That is, next month’s higher consumption is shifted sooner in time by one month. Notice that, with growing income, consumption for July without a credit card ($1,018) is the same as the consumption in June with a credit card. Even without the first-month-gift, credit cards increase the present value of one’s consumption by making next month’s greater income available today – and the same is true for every single month.
Conclusion #2: Having a credit card today entitles you to next month’s greater income.
How big a deal is this? Obviously, it will differ with the discount rate and the rate of income growth. Using the numbers above, having a credit card permits one to consume with a present value that is 10.5% higher. Let that sink in. People who have access to credit consume as if they are 10.5% percent richer. Access to credit can make the difference between a pleasant Christmas, having quality internet, paying for car repairs, and so on. Being poorer is one thing. Being poorer and lacking access to credit is like taking an instant haircut to one’s quality of life. On the flip side, people can be made better-off without additional improvements to their productivity. Increasing access to credit may be a less costly improvement to the value lifetime consumption than many of the other less politically feasible improvements to labor productivity.
Recently, I’ve been buying a lot more non-durable goods when they are on sale. Whereas previously I might have purchased the normal amount plus one or two units, now I’m buying like 3x or 4x the normal amount.
What initially led me here was the nagging thought that a 50%-off sale is a superb investment – especially if I was going to purchase a bunch eventually anyway. I like to think that I’m relatively dispassionate about investing and finances. But I realized that I wasn’t thinking that way about my groceries. The implication is that I’ve been living sub-optimally. And I can’t have that!
If someone told me that I could pay 50% more on my mortgage this month and get a full credit on my mortgage payment next month, then I would jump at the opportunity. That would be a 100% monthly return. Why not with groceries? Obviously, some groceries go bad. Produce will wilt, dairy will spoil, and the fridge space is limited. But what about non-perishables? This includes pantry items, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc.
Typically, there are two challenges for investing in inventory: 1) Will the discount now be adequate to compensate for the opportunity cost of resources over time? 2) Is there are opportunity cost to the storage space?
For the moment, I will ignore challenge 2). On the relevant margins, my shelf will be full or empty. I’ve got excess capacity in my house that I can’t easily adjust it nor lend out. That leaves challenge 1) only.