Category Archives: Economic Crisis

The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy – Mervyn King.

If the economy had grown after the global financial crisis at the same rate as the number of books written about it, then we would have been back at full employment some while ago.

Modern economics has encouraged ways of thinking that make crises more probable. Economists have brought the problem upon themselves by pretending that they can forecast. No one can easily predict an unknowable future, and economists are no exception.

The fragility of our financial system stems directly from the fact that banks are the main source of money creation. Banks are man made institutions, important sources of innovation, prosperity and material progress, but also of greed, corruption and crises. For better or worse, they materially affect human welfare.

Unless we go back to the underlying causes we will never understand what happened and will be unable to prevent a repetition and help our economies truly recover.

The financial crisis of 2007-9 was merely the latest manifestation of our collective failure to manage the relationship between finance, the structure of money and banking, and a capitalist system.”

The former governor of the Bank of England on reforming global finance.

Mervyn King was governor of the Bank of England in 2003-13. In “The End of Alchemy” there is no gossip and few revelations. Instead Lord King uses his experience of the crisis as a platform from which to present economic ideas to non-specialists.

He does a good job of putting complex concepts into plain English. The discussion of the evolution of money, from Roman times to 19th-century America to today, is a useful introduction for those not quite sure what currency really is.

He explains why economies need central banks: at best, they are independent managers of the money supply and rein in the banking system. Central bankers like giving the impression that they have played such roles since time immemorial, but as Lord King points out the reality is otherwise. The Fed was created only in 1913; believe it or not, until 1994 it would not reveal to the public its interest rate decisions until weeks after the event. Even the Bank of England, founded in 1694, got the exclusive right to print banknotes, in England and Wales, only in 1844.

At times, Lord King can be refreshingly frank. He is no fan of austerity policies, saying that they have imposed “enormous costs on citizens throughout Europe”. He also reserves plenty of criticism for the economics profession. Since forecasting is so hit and miss, he thinks, the practice of giving prizes to the best forecasters “makes as much sense as it would to award the Fields Medal in mathematics to the winner of the National Lottery”.

The problem leading up to the global financial crisis, as Lord King sees it, is that commercial banks had little incentive to hold large quantities of safe, liquid assets. They knew that in a panic, the central bank would provide liquidity, no matter the quality of their balance sheets; in response they loaded up on risky investments.

The Economist

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity …’ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The End of Alchemy, Mervyn King

The past twenty years in the modern world were indeed the best of times and the worst of times. It was a tale of two epochs in the first growth and stability, followed in the second by the worst banking crisis the industrialised world has ever witnessed. Within the space of little more than a year, between August 2007 and October 2008, what had been viewed as the age of wisdom was now seen as the age of foolishness, and belief turned into incredulity. The largest banks in the biggest financial centres in the advanced world failed, triggering a worldwide collapse of confidence and bringing about the deepest recession since the 1930s.

How did this happen? Was it a failure of individuals, institutions or ideas? The events of 2007-8 have spawned an outpouring of articles and books, as well as plays and films, about the crisis. If the economy had grown after the crisis at the same rate as the number of books written about it, then we would have been back at full employment some while ago.

Most such accounts like the media coverage and the public debate at the time focus on the symptoms and not the underlying causes. After all, those events, vivid though they remain in the memories of both participants and spectators, comprised only the latest in a long series of financial crises since our present system of money and banking became the cornerstone of modern capitalism after the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. The growth of indebtedness, the failure of banks, the recession that followed, were all signs of much deeper problems in our financial and economic system.

Unless we go back to the underlying causes we will never understand what happened and will be unable to prevent a repetition and help our economies truly recover. This book looks at the big questions raised by the depressing regularity of crises in our system of money and banking. Why do they occur? Why are they so costly in terms of lost jobs and production? And what can we do to prevent them? It also examines new ideas that suggest answers.

In the spring of 2011, I was in Beijing to meet a senior Chinese central banker. Over dinner in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where we had earlier played tennis, we talked about the lessons from history for the challenges we faced, the most important of which was how to resuscitate the world economy after the collapse of the western banking system in 2008. Bearing in mind the apocryphal answer of Premier Chou Enlai to the question of what significance one should attach to the French Revolution (it was ‘too soon to tell’), I asked my Chinese colleague what importance he now attached to the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century.

He thought hard. Then he replied: ‘We in China have learned a great deal from the West about how competition and a market economy support industrialisation and create higher living standards. We want to emulate that.’ Then came the sting in the tail, as he continued: ‘But I don’t think you’ve quite got the hang of money and banking yet.’ His remark was the inspiration for this book.

Since the crisis, many have been tempted to play the game of deciding who was to blame for such a disastrous outcome. But blaming individuals is counterproductive, it leads you to think that if just a few, or indeed many, of those people were punished then we would never experience a crisis again. If only it were that simple. A generation of the brightest and best were lured into banking, and especially into trading, by the promise of immense financial rewards and by the intellectual challenge of the work that created such rich returns. They were badly misled. The crisis was a failure of a system, and the ideas that underpinned it, not of individual policy makers or bankers, incompetent and greedy though some of them undoubtedly were. There was a general misunderstanding of how the world economy worked. Given the size and political influence of the banking sector, is it too late to put the genie back in the bottle? No it is never too late to ask the right questions, and in this book I try to do so.

If we don’t blame the actors, then why not the playwright? Economists have been cast by many as the villain. An abstract and increasingly mathematical discipline, economics is seen as having failed to predict the crisis. This is rather like blaming science for the occasional occurrence of a natural disaster. Yet we would blame scientists if incorrect theories made disasters more likely or created a perception that they could never occur, and one of the arguments of this book is that economics has encouraged ways of thinking that made crises more probable. Economists have brought the problem upon themselves by pretending that they can forecast. No one can easily predict an unknowable future, and economists are no exception.

Despite the criticism, modern economics provides a distinctive and useful way of thinking about the world. But no subject can stand still, and economics must change, perhaps quite radically, as a result of the searing experience of the crisis. A theory adequate for today requires us to think for ourselves, standing on the shoulders of giants of the past, not kneeling in front of them.

Economies that are capable of sending men to the moon and producing goods and services of extraordinary complexity and innovation seem to struggle with the more mundane challenge of handling money and banking. The frequency, and certainly severity, of crises has, if anything, increased rather than decreased over time.

In the heat of the crisis in October 2008, nation states took over responsibility for all the obligations and debts of the global banking system. In terms of its balance sheet, the banking system had been virtually nationalised but without collective control over its operations. That government rescue cannot conveniently be forgotten. When push came to shove, the very sector that had espoused the merits of market discipline was allowed to carry on only by dint of taxpayer support. The creditworthiness of the state was put on the line, and in some cases, such as Iceland and Ireland, lost. God may have created the universe, but we mortals created paper money and risky banks. They are man made institutions, important sources of innovation, prosperity and material progress, but also of greed, corruption and crises. For better or worse, they materially affect human welfare.

For much of modern history, and for good reason, money and banking have been seen as the magical elements that liberated us from a stagnant feudal system and permitted the emergence of dynamic markets capable of making the long-term investments necessary to support a growing economy. The idea that paper money could replace intrinsically valuable gold and precious metals, and that banks could take secure short-term deposits and transform them into long-term risky investments, came into its own with the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. It was both revolutionary and immensely seductive. It was in fact financial alchemy, the creation of extraordinary financial powers that defy reality and common sense. Pursuit of this monetary elixir has brought a series of economic disasters from hyperinflations to banking collapses.

Why have money and banking, the alchemists of a market economy, turned into its Achilles heel?

The purpose of this book is to answer that question. It sets out to explain why the economic failures of a modern capitalist economy stem from our system of money and banking, the consequences for the economy as a whole, and how we can end the alchemy. Our ideas about money and banking are just as much a product of our age as the way we conduct our politics and imagine our past.

The twentieth century experience of depression, hyperinflation and war changed both the world and the way economists thought about it. Before the Great Depression of the early 1930s, central banks and governments saw their role as stabilising the financial system and balancing the budget. After the Great Depression, attention turned to policies aimed at maintaining full employment. But post-war confidence that Keynesian ideas, the use of public spending to expand total demand in the economy, would prevent us from repeating the errors of the past was to prove touchingly naive. The use of expansionary policies during the 1960s, exacerbated by the Vietnam War, led to the Great Inflation of the 1970s, accompanied by slow growth and rising unemployment, the combination known as ‘stagflation’.

The direct consequence was that central banks were reborn as independent institutions committed to price stability. So successful was this that in the 1990s not only did inflation fall to levels unseen for a generation, but central banks and their governors were hailed for inaugurating an era of economic growth with low inflation, the Great Stability or Great Moderation. Politicians worshipped at the altar of finance, bringing gifts in the form of lax regulation and receiving support, and sometimes campaign contributions, in return. Then came the fall: the initial signs that some banks were losing access to markets for short-term borrowing in 2007, the collapse of the industrialised world’s banking system in 2008, the Great Recession that followed, and increasingly desperate attempts by policy-makers to engineer a recovery. Today the world economy remains in a depressed state. Enthusiasm for policy stimulus is back in fashion, and the wheel has turned full circle.

The recession is hurting people who were not responsible for our present predicament, and they are, naturally, angry. There is a need to channel that anger into a careful analysis of what went wrong and a determination to put things right. The economy is behaving in ways that we did not expect, and new ideas will be needed if we are to prevent a repetition of the Great Recession and restore prosperity.

Many accounts and memoirs of the crisis have already been published. Their titles are numerous, but they share the same invisible subtitle: ‘how I saved the world’. So although in the interests of transparency I should make clear that I was an actor in the drama, Governor of the Bank of England for ten years between 2003 and 2013, during both the Great Stability, the banking crisis itself, the Great Recession that followed, and the start of the recovery, this is not a memoir of the crisis with revelations about private conversations and behind the scenes clashes. Of course, those happened as in any walk of life. But who said what to whom and when can safely, and properly, be left to dispassionate and disinterested historians who can sift and weigh the evidence available to them after sufficient time has elapsed and all the relevant official and unofficial papers have been made available.

Instant memoirs, whether of politicians or officials, are usually partial and self-serving. I see little purpose in trying to set the record straight when any account that I gave would naturally also seem self-serving. My own record of events and the accompanying Bank papers will be made available to historians when the twenty-year rule permits their release.

This book is about economic ideas. My time at the Bank of England showed that ideas, for good or ill, do influence governments and their policies. The adoption of inflation targeting in the early 1990s and the granting of independence to the Bank of England in 1997 are prime examples. Economists brought intellectual rigour to economic policy and especially to central banking. But my experience at the Bank also revealed the inadequacies of the ‘models’, whether verbal descriptions or mathematical equations, used by economists to explain swings in total spending and production. In particular, such models say nothing about the importance of money and banks and the panoply of financial markets that feature prominently in newspapers and on our television screens.

Is there a fundamental weakness in the intellectual economic framework underpinning contemporary thinking?

An exploration of some of these basic issues does not require a technical exposition, and I have stayed away from one. Of course, economists use mathematical and statistical methods to understand a complex world, they would be remiss if they did not. Economics is an intellectual discipline that requires propositions to be not merely plausible but subject to the rigour of a logical proof. And yet there is no mathematics in this book. It is written in (I hope) plain English and draws on examples from real life. Although I would like my fellow economists to read the book in the hope that they will take forward some of the ideas presented here, it is aimed at the reader with no formal training in economics but an interest in the issues.

In the course of this book, I will explain the fundamental causes of the crisis and how the world economy lost its balance; how money emerged in earlier societies and the role it plays today; why the fragility of our financial system stems directly from the fact that banks are the main source of money creation; why central banks need to change the way they respond to crises; why politics and money go hand in hand; why the world will probably face another crisis unless nations pursue different policies; and, most important of all, how we can end the alchemy of our present system of money and banking.

By alchemy I mean the belief that all paper money can be turned into an intrinsically valuable commodity, such as gold, on demand and that money kept in banks can be taken out whenever depositors ask for it. The truth is that money, in all forms, depends on trust in its issuer. Confidence in paper money rests on the ability and willingness of governments not to abuse their power to print money. Bank deposits are backed by long-term risky loans that cannot quickly be converted into money. For centuries, alchemy has been the basis of our system of money and banking. As this book shows, we can end the alchemy without losing the enormous benefits that money and banking contribute to a capitalist economy.

Four concepts are used extensively in the book: disequilibrium, radical uncertainty, the prisoner’s dilemma and trust. These concepts will be familiar to many, although the context in which I use them may not. Their significance will become clear as the argument unfolds, but a brief definition and explanation may be helpful at the outset.

Disequilibrium is the absence of a state of balance between the forces acting on a system. As applied to economics, disequilibrium is a position that is unsustainable, meaning that at some point a large change in the pattern of spending and production will take place as the economy moves to a new equilibrium. The word accurately describes the evolution of the world economy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I discuss in Chapter 1.

Radical uncertainty refers to uncertainty so profound that it is impossible to represent the future in terms of a knowable and exhaustive list of outcomes to which we can attach probabilities. Economists conventionally assume that ‘rational’ people can construct such probabilities. But when businesses invest, they are not rolling dice with known and finite outcomes on the faces; rather they face a future in which the possibilities are both limitless and impossible to imagine. Almost all the things that define modern life, and which we now take for granted, such as cars, aeroplanes, computers and antibiotics, were once unimaginable. The essential challenge facing everyone living in a capitalist economy is the inability to conceive of what the future may hold. The failure to incorporate radical uncertainty into economic theories was one of the factors responsible for the misjudgements that led to the crisis.

The prisoner’s dilemma may be defined as the difficulty of achieving the best outcome when there are obstacles to cooperation. Imagine two prisoners who have been arrested and kept apart from each other. Both are offered the same deal: if they agree to incriminate the other they will receive a light sentence, but if they refuse to do so they will receive a severe sentence if the other incriminates them. If neither incriminates the other, then both are acquitted. Clearly, the best outcome is for both to remain silent. But if they cannot cooperate the choice is more difficult. The only way to guarantee the avoidance of a severe sentence is to incriminate the other. And if both do so, the outcome is that both receive a light sentence. But this non-cooperative outcome is inferior to the cooperative outcome. The difficulty of cooperating with each other creates a prisoner’s dilemma. Such problems are central to understanding how the economy behaves as a whole (the field known as macroeconomics) and to thinking through both how we got into the crisis and how we can now move towards a sustainable recovery. Many examples will appear in the following pages. Finding a resolution to the prisoner’s dilemma problem in a capitalist economy is central to understanding and improving our fortunes.

Trust is the ingredient that makes a market economy work. How could we drive, eat, or even buy and sell, unless we trusted other people? Everyday life would be impossible without trust: we give our credit card details to strangers and eat in restaurants that we have never visited before. Of course, trust is supplemented with regulation, fraud is a crime and there are controls of the conditions in restaurant kitchens but an economy works more efficiently with trust than without. Trust is part of the answer to the prisoner’s dilemma. It is central to the role of money and banks, and to the institutions that manage our economy. Long ago, Confucius emphasised the crucial role of trust in the authorities: ‘Three things are necessary for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand.’

Those four ideas run through the book and help us to understand the origin of the alchemy of money and banking and how we can reduce or even eliminate that alchemy.

When I left the Bank of England in 2013, I decided to explore the flaws in both the theory and practice of money and banking, and how they relate to the economy as a whole. I was led deeper and deeper into basic questions about economics. I came to believe that fundamental changes are needed in the way we think about macroeconomics, as well as in the way central banks manage their economies.

A key role of a market economy is to link the present and the future, and to coordinate decisions about spending and production not only today but tomorrow and in the years thereafter. Families will save if the interest rate is high enough to overcome their natural impatience to spend today rather than tomorrow. Companies will invest in productive capital if the prospective rate of return exceeds the cost of attracting finance. And economic growth requires saving and investment to add to the stock of productive capital and so increase the potential output of the economy in the future. In a healthy growing economy all three rates, the interest rate on saving, the rate of return on investment, and the rate of growth are well above zero. Today, however, we are stuck with extraordinarily low interest rates, which discourage saving, the source of future demand and, if maintained indefinitely, will pull down rates of return on investment, diverting resources into unprofitable projects. Both effects will drag down future growth rates. We are already some way down that road. It seems that our market economy today is not providing an effective link between the present and the future.

I believe there are two reasons for this failure. First, there is an inherent problem in linking a known present with an unknowable future. Radical uncertainty presents a market economy with an impossible challenge how are we to create markets in goods and services that we cannot at present imagine? Money and banking are part of the response of a market economy to that challenge. Second, the conventional wisdom of economists about how governments and central banks should stabilise the economy gives insufficient weight to the importance of radical uncertainty in generating an occasional large disequilibrium. Crises do not come out of thin air but are the result of the unavoidable mistakes made by people struggling to cope with an unknowable future. Both issues have profound implications and will be explored at greater length in subsequent chapters.

Inevitably, my views reflect the two halves of my career. The first was as an academic, a student in Cambridge, England, and a Kennedy scholar at Harvard in the other Cambridge, followed by teaching positions on both sides of the Atlantic. I experienced at first hand the evolution of macroeconomics from literary exposition where propositions seemed plausible but never completely convincing, into a mathematical discipline where propositions were logically convincing but never completely plausible. Only during the crisis of 2007-9 did I look back and understand the nature of the tensions between the surviving disciples of John Maynard Keynes who taught me in the 1960s, primarily Richard Kahn and Joan Robinson, and the influx of mathematicians and scientists into the subject that fuelled the rapid expansion of university economics departments in the same period. The old school ‘Keynesians’ were mistaken in their view that all wisdom was to be found in the work of one great man, and as a result their influence waned. The new arrivals brought mathematical discipline to a subject that prided itself on its rigour. But the informal analysis of disequilibrium of economies, radical uncertainty, and trust as a solution to the prisoner’s dilemma was lost in the enthusiasm for the idea that rational individuals would lead the economy to an efficient equilibrium. It is time to take those concepts more seriously.

The second half of my career comprised twenty-two years at the Bank of England, the oldest continuously functioning central bank in the world, from 1991 to 2013, as Chief Economist, Deputy Governor and then Governor. That certainly gave me a chance to see how money could be managed. I learned, and argued publicly, that this is done best not by relying on gifted individuals to weave their magic, but by designing and building institutions that can be run by people who are merely professionally competent. Of course individuals matter and can make a difference, especially in a crisis. But the power of markets, the expression of hundreds of thousands of investors around the world is a match for any individual, central banker or politician, who fancies his ability to resist economic arithmetic. As one of President Clinton’s advisers remarked, ‘I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the Pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.’ Nothing has diminished the force of that remark since it was made over twenty years ago.

In 2012, I gave the first radio broadcast in peacetime by a Governor of the Bank of England since Montagu Norman delivered a talk on the BBC in March 1939, only months before the outbreak of the Second World War. As Norman left Broadcasting House, he was mobbed by British Social Credits Party demonstrators carrying flags and slogan-boards bearing the words: CONSCRIPT THE BANKERS FIRST! Feelings also ran high in 2012. The consequences of the events of 2007-9 are still unfolding, and anger about their effects on ordinary citizens is not diminishing. That disaster was a long time in the making, and will be just as long in the resolving.

But the cost of lost output and employment from our continuing failure to manage money and banking and prevent crises is too high for us to wait for another crisis to occur before we act to protect future generations.

Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities has not only a very famous opening sentence but an equally famous closing sentence. As Sydney Carton sacrifices himself to the guillotine in the place of another, he reflects: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done …’ If we can find a way to end the alchemy of the system of money and banking we have inherited then, at least in the sphere of economics, it will indeed be a far, far better thing than we have ever done.

One

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

‘I think that Capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight.’ John Maynard Keynes, The End of Laissez-faire (1926)

‘The experience of being disastrously wrong is salutary; no economist should be spared it, and few are.’ John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life in Our Times (1982)

History is what happened before you were born. That is why it is so hard to learn lessons from history: the mistakes were made by the previous generation. As a student in the 1960s, I knew why the 1930s were such a bad time. Outdated economic ideas guided the decisions of governments and central banks, while the key individuals were revealed in contemporary photographs as fuddy-duddies who wore whiskers and hats and were ignorant of modern economics. A younger generation, in academia and government, trained in modern economics, would ensure that the Great Depression of the 1930s would never be repeated.

In the 1960s, everything seemed possible. Old ideas and conventions were jettisoned, and a new world beckoned. In economics, an influx of mathematicians, engineers and physicists brought a new scientific approach to what the nineteenth-century philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle christened the ‘dismal science’. It promised not just a better understanding of our economy, but an improved economic performance.

The subsequent fifty years were a mixed experience. Over that period, national income in the advanced world more than doubled, and in the so-called developing world hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty. And yet runaway inflation in the 1970s was followed in 2007-9 by the biggest financial crisis the world has ever seen. How do we make sense of it all? Was the post-war period a success or a failure?

The origins of economic growth

The history of capitalism is one of growth and rising living standards interrupted by financial crises, most of which have emanated from our mismanagement of money and banking. My Chinese colleague spoke an important, indeed profound, truth.

The financial crisis of 2007-9 (hereafter ‘the crisis’) was not the fault of particular individuals or economic policies. Rather, it was merely the latest manifestation of our collective failure to manage the relationship between finance, the structure of money and banking, and a capitalist system.

Failure to appreciate this explains why most accounts of the crisis focus on the symptoms and not the underlying causes of what went wrong. The fact that we have not yet got the hang of it does not mean that a capitalist economy is doomed to instability and failure. It means that we need to think harder about how to make it work.

Over many years, a capitalist economy has proved the most successful route to escape poverty and achieve prosperity.

Capitalism, as I use the term here, is an economic system in which private owners of capital hire wage earners to work in their businesses and pay for investment by raising finance from banks and financial markets.

The West has built the institutions to support a capitalist system, the rule of law to enforce private contracts and protect property rights, intellectual freedom to innovate and publish new ideas, anti-trust regulation to promote competition and break up monopolies, and collectively financed services and networks, such as education, water, electricity and telecommunications, which provide the infrastructure to support a thriving market economy. Those institutions create a balance between freedom and restraint, and between unfettered competition and regulation. It is a subtle balance that has emerged and evolved over time. And it has transformed our standard of living. Growth at a rate of 2.5 per cent a year, close to the average experienced in North America and Europe since the Second World War, raises real total national income twelvefold over one century, a truly revolutionary outcome.

Over the past two centuries, we have come to take economic growth for granted. Writing in the middle of that extraordinary period of economic change in the mid-eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher and political economist, Adam Smith, identified the source of the breakout from relative economic stagnation, an era during which productivity (output per head) was broadly constant and any increase resulted from discoveries of new land or other natural resources, to a prolonged period of continuous growth of productivity: specialisation. It was possible for individuals to specialise in particular tasks, the division of labour, and by working with capital equipment to raise their productivity by many times the level achieved by a jack-of-all-trades. To illustrate his argument, Smith employed his now famous example of a pin factory:

A workman could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head The important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands.

The factory Smith was describing employed ten men and made over 48,000 pins in a day.

The application of technical knowhow to more and more tasks increased specialisation and raised productivity. Specialisation went hand in hand with an even greater need for both a means to exchange the fruits of one’s labour for an ever wider variety of goods produced by other specialists, money, and a way to finance the purchase of the capital equipment that made specialisation possible, banks.

As each person in the workforce became more specialised, more machinery and capital investment was required to support them, and the role of money and banks increased. After a millennium of roughly constant output per person, from the middle of the eighteenth century productivity started, slowly but surely, to rise. Capitalism was, quite literally, producing the goods. Historians will continue to debate why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain, population growth, plentiful supplies of coal and iron, supportive institutions, religious beliefs and other factors all feature in recent accounts.

But the evolution of money and banking was a necessary condition for the Revolution to take off.

Almost a century later, with the experience of industrialisation and a massive shift of labour from the land to urban factories, socialist writers saw things differently. For Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels the future was clear. Capitalism was a temporary staging post along the journey from feudalism to socialism. In their Communist Manifesto of 1848, they put forward their idea of ‘scientific socialism’ with its deterministic view that capitalism would ultimately collapse and be replaced by socialism or communism. Later, in the first volume of Das Kapital (1867), Marx elaborated (at great length) on this thesis and predicted that the owners of capital would become ever richer while excessive capital accumulation would lead to a falling rate of profit, reducing the incentive to invest and leaving the working class immersed in misery. The British industrial working class in the nineteenth century did indeed suffer miserable working conditions, as graphically described by Charles Dickens in his novels. But no sooner had the ink dried on Marx’s famous work than the British economy entered a long period of rising real wages (money wages adjusted for the cost of living). Even the two world wars and the intervening Great Depression in the 1930s could not halt rising productivity and real wages, and broadly stable rates of profit. Economic growth and improving living standards became the norm.

But if capitalism did not collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions, neither did it provide economic security. During the twentieth century, the extremes of hyperinflations and depressions eroded both living standards and the accumulated wealth of citizens in many capitalist economies, especially during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when mass unemployment sparked renewed interest in the possibilities of communism and central planning, especially in Europe. The British economist John Maynard Keynes promoted the idea that government intervention to bolster total spending in the economy could restore full employment, without the need to resort to fully fledged socialism.

After the Second World War, there was a widespread belief that government planning had won the war and could be the means to win the peace. In Britain, as late as 1964 the newly elected Labour government announced a ‘National Plan’. Inspired by a rather naive version of Keynesian ideas, it focused on policies to boost the demand for goods and services rather than the ability of the economy to produce them. As the former outstripped the latter, the result was inflation. On the other side of the Atlantic, the growing cost of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s also led to higher inflation.

Rising inflation put pressure on the internationally agreed framework within which countries had traded with each other since the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944, named after the conference held in the New Hampshire town in July of that year. Designed to allow a war-damaged Europe slowly to rebuild its economy and reintegrate into the world trading system, the agreement created an international monetary system under which countries set their own interest rates but fixed their exchange rates among themselves. For this to be possible, movements of capital between countries had to be severely restricted otherwise capital would move to where interest rates were highest, making it impossible to maintain either differences in those rates or fixed exchange rates. Exchange controls were ubiquitous, and countries imposed limits on investments in foreign currency. As a student, I remember that no British traveller in the 1960s could take abroad with them more than £50 a year to spend.

The new international institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, would use funds provided by its members to finance temporary shortages of foreign currency and the investment needed to replace the factories and infrastructure destroyed during the Second World War. Implicit in this framework was the belief that countries would have similar and low rates of inflation. Any loss of competitiveness in one country, as a result of higher inflation than in its trading partners, was assumed to be temporary and would be met by a deflationary policy to restore competitiveness while borrowing from the IMF to finance a short-term trade deficit. But in the late 1960s differences in inflation across countries, especially between the United States and Germany, appeared to be more than temporary, and led to the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in 1970-1. By the early 1970s, the major economies had moved to a system of ‘floating’ exchange rates, in which currency values are determined by private sector supply and demand in the markets for foreign exchange.

Inevitably, the early days of floating exchange rates reduced the discipline on countries to pursue low inflation. When the two oil shocks of the 1970s, in 1973, when an embargo by Arab countries led to a quadrupling of prices, and 1979, when prices doubled after disruption to supply following the Iranian Revolution hit the western world, the result was the Great Inflation, with annual inflation reaching 13 per cent in the United States and 27 per cent in the United Kingdom.

Economic experiments

From the late 1970s onwards, the western world then embarked on what we can now see were three bold experiments to manage money, exchange rates and the banking system better. The first was to give central banks much greater independence in order to bring down and stabilise inflation, subsequently enshrined in the policy of inflation targeting, the goal of national price stability. The second was to allow capital to move freely between countries and encourage a shift to fixed exchange rates both within Europe, culminating in the creation of a monetary union, and in a substantial proportion of the most rapidly growing part of the world economy, particularly China, which fixed its exchange rates against the US dollar, the goal of exchange rate stability. And the third experiment was to remove regulations limiting the activities of the banking and financial system to promote competition and allow banks both to diversify into new products and regions and to expand in size, with the aim of bringing stability to a banking system often threatened in the past by risks that were concentrated either geographically or by line of business, the goal of financial stability.

These three simultaneous experiments might now be best described as having three consequences the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Good was a period between about 1990 and 2007 of unprecedented stability of both output and inflation the Great Stability. Monetary policy around the world changed radically. Inflation targeting and central bank independence spread to more than thirty countries. And there were significant changes in the dynamics of inflation, which on average became markedly lower, less variable and less persistent.

The Bad was the rise in debt levels. Eliminating exchange rate flexibility in Europe and the emerging markets led to growing trade surpluses and deficits. Some countries saved a great deal while others had to borrow to finance their external deficit. The willingness of the former to save outweighed the willingness of the latter to spend, and so long-term interest rates in the integrated world capital market began to fall. The price of an asset, whether a house, shares in a company or any other claim on the future, is the value today of future expected returns (rents, the value of housing services from living in your own home, or dividends). To calculate that price one must convert future into current values by discounting them at an interest rate. The immediate effect of a fall in interest rates is to raise the prices of assets across the board. So as long-term interest rates in the world fell, the value of assets especially of houses rose. And as the values of assets increased, so did the amounts that had to be borrowed to enable people to buy them. Between 1986 and 2006, household debt rose from just under 70 per cent of total household income to almost 120 per cent in the United States and from 90 per cent to around 140 per cent in the United Kingdom.

The Ugly was the development of an extremely fragile banking system. In the USA, Federal banking regulators’ increasingly lax interpretation of the provisions to separate commercial and investment banking introduced in the 1933 Banking Act (often known as Glass-Steagall, the senator and representative respectively who led the passage of the legislation) reached its inevitable conclusion with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which swept away any remaining restrictions on the activities of banks. In the UK, the so-called Big Bang of 1986, which started as a measure to introduce competition into the Stock Exchange, led to takeovers of small stockbroking firms and mergers between commercial banks and securities houses. Banks diversified and expanded rapidly after deregulation. In continental Europe so-called universal banks had long been the norm. The assets of large international banks doubled in the five years before 2008. Trading of new and highly complex financial products among banks meant that they became so closely interconnected that a problem in one would spread rapidly to others, magnifying rather than spreading risk.

Banks relied less and less on their own resources to finance lending and became more and more dependent on borrowing. The equity capital of banks, the funds provided by the shareholders of the bank accounted for a declining proportion of overall funding. Leverage, the ratio of total assets (or liabilities) to the equity capital of a bank, rose to extraordinary levels. On the eve of the crisis, the leverage ratio for many banks was 30 or more, and for some investment banks it was between 40 and 50. A few banks had ratios even higher than that. With a leverage ratio of even 25 it would take a fall of only 4 per cent in the average value of a bank’s assets to wipe out the whole of the shareholders’ equity and leave it unable to service its debts.

By 2008, the Ugly led the Bad to overwhelm the Good. The crisis, one might say catastrophe of the events that began to unfold under the gaze of a disbelieving world in 2007, was the failure of all three experiments. Greater stability of output and inflation, although desirable in itself, concealed the build-up of a major disequilibrium in the composition of spending. Some countries were saving too little and borrowing too much to be able to sustain their path of spending in the future, while others saved and lent so much that their consumption was pushed below a sustainable path. Total saving in the world was so high that interest rates, after allowing for inflation, fell to levels incompatible in the long run with a profitable growing market economy. Falling interest rates led to rising asset values and increases in the debt taken out against those more valuable assets. Fixed exchange rates exacerbated the burden of the debts, and in Europe the creation of monetary union in 1999 sapped the strength of many of its economies, as they became increasingly uncompetitive. Large, highly leveraged banks proved unstable and were vulnerable to even a modest loss of confidence, resulting in contagion to other banks and the collapse of the system in 2008.

At their outset the ill-fated nature of the three experiments was not yet visible. On the contrary, during the 1990s the elimination of high and variable inflation, which had undermined market economies in the 1970s, led to a welcome period of macroeconomic stability. The Great Stability, or the Great Moderation as it was dubbed in the United States, was seen, as in many ways it was, as a success for monetary policy. But it was unsustainable. Policy-makers were conscious of problems inherent in the first two experiments, but seemed powerless to do anything about them. At international gatherings, such as those of the IMF, policy-makers would wring their hands about the ‘global imbalances’ but no one country had any incentive to do anything about it. If a country had, on its own, tried to swim against the tide of falling interest rates, it would have experienced an economic slowdown and rising unemployment without any material impact on either the global economy or the banking system. Even then the prisoner’s dilemma was beginning to rear its ugly head.

Nor was it obvious how the unsustainable position of the world economy would come to an end. I remember attending a seminar of economists and policy-makers at the IMF as early as 2002 where the consensus was that there would eventually be a sharp fall in the value of the US dollar, which would produce a change in spending patterns. But long before that could happen, the third experiment ended with the banking crisis of September and October 2008. The shock that some of the biggest and most successful commercial banks in North America and Europe either failed, or were seriously crippled, led to a collapse of confidence which produced the largest fall in world trade since the 1930s. Something had gone seriously wrong.

Opinions differ as to the cause of the crisis. Some see it as a financial panic in which fundamentally sound financial institutions were left short of cash as confidence in the credit-worthiness of banks suddenly changed and professional investors stopped lending to them, a liquidity crisis. Others see it as the inevitable outcome of bad lending decisions by banks, a solvency crisis, in which the true value of banks’ assets had fallen by enough to wipe out most of their equity capital, meaning that they might be unable to repay their debts. But almost all accounts of the recent crisis are about the symptoms, the rise and fall of housing markets, the explosion of debt and the excesses of the banking system rather than the underlying causes of the events that overwhelmed the economies of the industrialised world in 2008. Some even imagine that the crisis was solely an affair of the US financial sector. But unless the events of 2008 are seen in their global economic context, it is hard to make sense of what happened and of the deeper malaise in the world economy.

The story of what happened can be explained in little more than a few pages, everything you need to know but were afraid to ask about the causes of the recent crisis. So here goes.

The story of the crisis

By the start of the twenty-first century it seemed that economic prosperity and democracy went hand in hand. Modern capitalism spawned growing prosperity based on growing trade, free markets and competition, and global banks. In 2008 the system collapsed. To understand why the crisis was so big, and came as such a surprise, we should start at the key turning point, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At the time it was thought to represent the end of communism, indeed the end of the appeal of socialism and central planning.

For some it was the end of history. For most, it represented a victory for free market economics. Contrary to the prediction of Marx, capitalism had displaced communism. Yet who would have believed that the fall of the Wall was not just the end of communism but the beginning of the biggest crisis in capitalism since the Great Depression?

What has happened over the past quarter of a century to bring about this remarkable change of fortune in the position of capitalist economies?

After the demise of the socialist model of a planned economy, China, countries of the former Soviet Union and India embraced the international trading system, adding millions of workers each year to the pool of labour around the world producing tradeable, especially manufactured, goods. In China alone, over 70 million manufacturing jobs were created during the twenty-first century, far exceeding the 42 million working in manufacturing in 2012 in the United States and Europe combined. The pool of labour supplying the world trading system more than trebled in size. Advanced economies benefited from an influx of cheap consumer goods at the expense of employment in the manufacturing sector.

The aim of the emerging economies was to follow Japan and Korea in pursuing an export-led growth strategy. To stimulate exports, their exchange rates were held down by fixing them at a low level against the US dollar. The strategy worked, especially in the case of China. Its share in world exports rose from 2 per cent to 12 per cent between 1990 and 2013. China and other Asian economies ran large trade surpluses. In other words, they were producing more than they were spending and saving more than they were investing at home. The desire to save was very strong. In the absence of a social safety net, households in China chose to save large proportions of their income to provide self-insurance in the event of unemployment or ill-health, and to finance retirement consumption. Such a high level of saving was exacerbated by the policy from 1980 of limiting most families to one child, making it difficult for parents to rely on their children to provide for them in retirement.

Asian economies in general also saved more in order to accumulate large holdings of dollars as insurance in case their banking system ran short of foreign currency, as happened to Korea and other countries in the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s.

*

from

The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy

by Mervyn King

get it at Amazon.com

Trump’s phony, blowhard trade war just got real, the Economic Consequences – Barry Eichengreen.

For those who observe that the economic and financial fallout from US President Donald Trump’s trade war has been surprisingly small, the best response is that a lagged effect is exactly what we should expect, just wait.

US President Donald Trump’s phony, blowhard trade war just got real.

The steel and aluminum tariffs that the Trump administration imposed at the beginning of June were important mainly for their symbolic value, not for their real economic impact. While the tariffs signified that the United States was no longer playing by the rules of the world trading system, they targeted just $45 billion of imports, less than 0.25% of GDP in an $18.5 trillion US economy.

On July 6, however, an additional 25% tariff on $34 billion of Chinese exports went into effect, and China retaliated against an equivalent volume of US exports. An angry Trump has ordered the US trade representative to draw up a list of additional Chinese goods, worth more than $400 billion, that could be taxed, and China again vowed to retaliate. Trump has also threatened to impose tariffs on $350 billion worth of imported motor vehicles and parts. If he does, the European Union and others could retaliate against an equal amount of US exports.

We are now talking about real money: nearly $1 trillion of US imports and an equivalent amount of US export sales and foreign investments.

The mystery is why the economic and financial fallout from this escalation has been so limited. The US economy is humming along. The Purchasing Managers’ Index was up again in June. Wall Street has wobbled, but there has been nothing resembling its sharp negative reaction to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. Emerging markets have suffered capital outflows and currency weakness, but this is more a consequence of Federal Reserve interest-rate hikes than of any announcements emanating from the White House.

There are three possible explanations. First, purchasing managers and stock market investors may be betting that sanity will yet prevail. They may be hoping that Trump’s threats are just bluster, or that the objections of the US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups will ultimately register.

But this ignores the fact that Trump’s tariff talk is wildly popular with his base. One recent poll found that 66% of Republican voters backed Trump’s threatened tariffs against China. Trump ran in 2016 on a protectionist vow that he would no longer allow other countries to “take advantage” of the US. His voters expect him to deliver on that promise, and he knows it.

Second, the markets may be betting that Trump is right when he says that trade wars are easy to win. Other countries that depend on exports to the US may conclude that it is in their interest to back down. In early July, the European Commission was reportedly contemplating a tariff-cutting deal to address Trump’s complaint that the EU taxes American cars at four times the rate the US taxes European sedans.

But China shows no willingness to buckle under US pressure. Canada, that politest of countries, is similarly unwilling to be bullied; it has retaliated with 25% tariffs on $12 billion of US goods. And the EU would contemplate concessions only if the US offers some in return such as eliminating its prohibitive tariffs on imported light pickup trucks and vans and only if other exporters like Japan and South Korea go along.

Third, it could be that the macroeconomic effects of even the full panoply of US tariffs, together with foreign retaliation, are relatively small. Leading models of the US economy, in particular, imply that a 10% increase in the cost of imported goods will lead to a one-time increase in inflation of at most 0.7%.

This is simply the law of iterated fractions at work. Imports are 15% of US GDP. Multiply 0.15 by 0.10 (the hypothesized tariff rate), and you get 1.5%. Allow for some substitution away from more expensive imported goods, and the number drops below 1%. And if growth slows because of the higher cost of imported intermediate inputs, the Fed can offset this by raising interest rates more slowly. Foreign central banks can do likewise.

Still, one worries, because the standard economic models are notoriously bad at capturing the macroeconomic effects of uncertainty, which trade wars create with a vengeance. Investment plans are made in advance, so it may take, say, a year for the impact of that uncertainty to materialize, as was the case in the United Kingdom following the 2016 Brexit referendum. Taxing intermediate inputs will hurt efficiency, while shifting resources away from dynamic high-tech sectors in favor of old-line manufacturing will depress productivity growth, with further negative implications for investment. And these are outcomes that the Fed cannot easily offset.

So, for those who observe that the economic and financial fallout from Trump’s trade war has been surprisingly small, the best response is: just wait.

*

Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is The Populist Temptation: Economic Grievance and Political Reaction in the Modern Era.

Why even supply-siders know Trickle Down is rubbish. Even if you build it, the poor can’t come – Mark R Reiff.

Supply creates its own demand?

Wrong!

When you build more stuff, it is not true that all the costs of production are introduced into the economy as new money. You have merely injected new money to the extent you have incurred additional marginal costs, labour and materials mostly. Most fixed costs don’t rise with the increased production.

And it is unlikely that a producer would take the risk of ramping up production in a troubled economic environment if all that could be recovered was the marginal costs.

And no reasonable business person thinks that enough new money can be introduced by increasing production alone. If they did, record amounts of cash wouldn’t be sitting in corporate bank accounts doing nothing.

Obviously, the people who control this cash don’t believe that supply creates its own demand. They think that increasing production without first seeing an increase in demand would be foolhardy.

‘If you build it, they will come.’

It’s a Latin saying, Si tu id aeficas, ei venient, but it’s probably more recognisable because it sounds like what that disembodied voice says to Kevin Costner in the film Field of Dreams (1989). And in the film, Costner does build it, a baseball field, and people do come. In either case, it’s a good way of summing up the case for supply-side economics.

But to understand that case, we need to break it down into its constituent elements. And the thinking behind it goes like this: if you want to stimulate the economy, then cut taxes on the rich, those who invest in and build things, and they will use this extra money to produce more stuff. Why? Because supply creates its own demand, so if they produce more they will sell more, and the economy will expand. An expanding economy, in turn, benefits everybody. There will be more jobs, wages will be higher, and government budget deficits will shrink.

This latter effect, of course, might seem counterintuitive. But the argument is that even though tax rates go down, the amount of economic activity these cuts unleash will grow everyone’s income to such an extent that the total tax collected by the government, even at these lower rates, will actually go up.

That’s what the supply-siders contend.

Given that the supply-side approach has been the policy of the Republican Party for decades, this argument has proved convincing to a lot of people. But let’s look at it a little more carefully.

The notion that supply creates its own demand is known as Say’s law, after the French economist Jean Baptiste Say (1767-1832) who is credited with its formulation. The thought is that when you produce more, you have to spend additional money to do so. This additional spending, in turn, provides people with extra income, and therefore the wherewithal to buy the additional goods you have created.

Of course, you cannot just build anything. To sell more of something, it has to be something that people actually want. Say himself acknowledged this. But let’s focus on the mechanics of how increasing production is supposed to give people the wherewithal to purchase more of what they do want. Unfortunately, the presumptions here just don’t make sense.

First, at most, building more goods simply introduces funds equivalent to their cost of production into the economy. But things don’t sell for their cost of production no one builds anything unless they think they can price it at a profit. And if you don’t think people will have enough new money to pay this price, why would you increase production?

Second, a lot of the costs of production are what economists call ‘fixed’ costs; that is, the cost of big things such as factories and office buildings and expensive machines and equipment, rather than the costs of the additional labour and supplies necessary to build one extra thing, which are called ‘marginal’ costs. The total cost of production combines fixed and marginal costs, and fixed costs usually represent the far greater share. This means that when you build more stuff, it is not true that all the costs of production are introduced into the economy as new money.

You have merely injected new money to the extent you have incurred additional marginal costs.

And it is unlikely that a producer would take the risk of ramping up production in a troubled economic environment if all that could be recovered was the marginal costs.

Third, producers receive many of the goods needed in the production of further goods from their suppliers on credit. Why presume that all the marginal costs of additional production have actually been paid at the time the goods hit the shelves? Or that the ultimate consumer is going to be willing to use credit to increase consumption in troubled times, even if those higher up the chain have used credit to increase production?

More concerning still, if consumers do use credit, unless we later provide them with more income, we will have simply set ourselves up for another financial collapse when the teaser rates on their loans time out and further payments become unaffordable, as happened in 2008.

None of these problems with supply-side thinking will come as a surprise to anyone who runs a business. They are happy to see their taxes cut, sure, but they are not going to use this extra money to increase production unless they think that their customers will have enough new money to buy these additional goods. And no reasonable business person thinks that enough new money can be introduced by increasing production alone. If they did, record amounts of cash wouldn’t be sitting in corporate bank accounts doing nothing, which is what has been happening for years now. Obviously, the people who control this cash don’t believe that supply creates its own demand. They think that increasing production without first seeing an increase in demand would be foolhardy.

History is also not on the supply-siders’ side. To see the failure of the supply-side approach at the national level, all we need do is look at the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts signed into law by the then president of the United States, George W Bush.

These tax cuts did not increase investment or production. Rather, the rich either hoarded this additional money or used it to bid up the price of existing assets, creating asset bubbles and exponentially increasingly economic inequality. And because economic activity did not increase enough to offset the loss of government revenue from reduced taxes, the deficit exploded. To see a similar result on the state level, in turn, we can look at the recent supply-side ‘Kansas experiment’. There, massive tax cuts on the rich and corporations almost bankrupted the state.

Remember also that in the 19th century, when Say devised his law, there was a huge amount of untapped demand for new goods; most costs were marginal costs; and most transactions were for cash, not credit. At that time, perhaps it seemed like supply did create its own demand. But not today.

Today, to stimulate the economy, we need to increase demand first. And the best way to do this is by putting more money in the hands of the people whom the economist John Maynard Keynes described in 1936 as having the highest ‘marginal propensity to consume’.

These are not the rich, but rather the poor and middle-class. For, as a group, these are the people who can be counted on to spend all their income whereas, as we have already seen, the rich are likely to keep a chunk of it in cash.

Once demand is increased among the poor and middle class, Keynes argued, production will rise to meet it.

In deciding whether to go with the supplyside or the Keynesian approach to stimulating the economy, there is one more consideration that is relevant.

Recent history has shown that we can’t be sure that economic expansion alone will solve our wider economic problems. Almost all of the benefits of economic growth during the past 30 years or so have accrued to the rich, and mostly to the super-rich. Real income for most people has been stagnant or even declined. The new jobs that have been created are mostly temporary, low-wage, nobenefit jobs. Permanent, good-wage jobs with benefits have continued to disappear.

Rather than giving money to the rich in these circumstances and hoping that it trickles down to the rest of us, as the supply-siders suggest, it would be better to give money to the poor and middle-class, as the Keynesians suggest. The Keynesian approach, after all, has worked many times in the past. Indeed, it’s how the West emerged from the Great Depression. But most importantly, if for some reason it doesn’t work, at least we will have made the right people better off.

Mark R Reiff has taught political, legal and moral philosophy at the University of Manchester, the University of Durham and the University of California, Davis, and he was a Faculty Fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Could New Zealand’s economy survive a China crisis? – Liam Dann.

“The scenarios chosen are almost certain not to accurately reflect any future shock or combination of shocks that occurs.”

In July 2018 China’s economy falters sending shockwaves through the global banking sector. Commodity prices plunge and the world faces its first global financial crisis since the meltdown of 2008.

What happens next is pretty ugly for most New Zealanders, job losses, soaring mortgage rates, falling house prices and a sharp recession.

As a forecast it would be unnecessarily gloomy, although not implausible.

But the grim situation painted by NZ Treasury is not meant to be a prediction it is a model designed to offer a stress test of our economy under extreme conditions.

A Chinese financial crisis is one of three ”large but plausible shocks” modelled by Treasury in its 2018 Investment Statement, along with a major Wellington earthquake and an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

So what happens next in the event of a Chinese economic meltdown?

The first thing that New Zealand would see is a dramatic fall in demand for our exports. The terms of trade drops 20 per cent. The value of the Kiwi dollar plunges 13 per cent.

For most New Zealanders that means the cost of imported goods, like iPhones, and overseas travel spikes.

But that’s not the really ugly bit.

Disruption to global debt markets would push local funding costs up by 3 per cent, Treasury says.

In other words interest rates would soar, bad news for homeowners who aren’t on fixed rates.

Treasury’s model sees this flowing through to sharp fails in property prices and on the sharemarket.

In fact they estimate the cost of the revaluation if assets and liabilities at $30 billion.

Nearly $20b of that would be due to a 40 per cent crash on the stock exchange both here and around the world, devastating news for KiwiSavers.

For homeowners the immediate price fall would be about 10 per cent, as we saw in the last GFC, survivable for most unless you are under pressure to sell.

But similar falls in commercial property and farm prices would put additional stress on the economy.

Meanwhile, the uncertain outlook would drive a decline in consumer and business confidence. Both retail spending and business investment would fall. Then firms would start cutting jobs.

Some 60,000 jobs would be lost in 2019, with unemployment spiking to 7.4 per cent the highest level since 1999. it is currently 4.4 percent.

The Reserve Bank (RBNZ) would attempt to ride to the rescue of course.

You could expect to see the RBNZ cut rates by half a per cent in its September review to 1.25 per cent, Treasury estimates.

The RBNZ would likely keep cutting over the next six months until the official cash rate was at, or near, zero.

From here the news gets a little better. And as we saw during the 2008 GFC the economy has the strength and flexibility to bounce back.

The rate cuts couldn’t prevent a recession in the March quarter of 2019.

But while demand for goods exports remains low, the depreciation in the dollar, means the annual value stays on target.

“Record low interest rates and an improvement in the economic outlook leads to a pickup in business confidence, driving a strong increase in business investment,” Treasury says.

Life would still be tough for workers.

“Employment growth and consumer spending remain soft throughout.”

In the final wash-up the financial downturn would cost the Crown $157b across five years.

Net debt would rise to 33 per cent of GDP after five years 15 per cent higher than 2017 forecasts.

But ultimately the economy would pass the test.

Treasury notes that these stress tests are designed to assess whether severe but plausible shocks could have impacts that are beyond the financial capacity to absorb, thus putting the provision of public services at risk.

“The scenarios chosen are almost certain not to accurately reflect any future shock or combination of shocks that occurs.”

NZ is balancing a mortgage debt time bomb. Will it blow? – Liam Dann.

We kid ourselves we’re wealthier because of capital gains on our homes but in reality our collective balance sheet is looking worse than ever.

Last week I wrote about the world’s total debt hitting a record $230 trillion.

That’s a big pile of money. The rate at which it has been growing worries the International Monetary Fund which tallied it up. The IMF fears it could be a trigger for the next financial crisis.

Most of last week’s column got side-tracked by government debt and the debate about whether ours can afford to borrow more. ANZ economists made a good case for doing that.

As expected finance minister Grant Robertson ruled it out last week, reiterating his preelection commitment to fiscal responsibility.

The Government’s target of net core crown debt (20 per cent ofGDP) makes us look very conservative, the US Government owes more than 80 per cent of the country’s GDP.

But, as numerous correspondents pointed out, it’s New Zealand’s private debt that is the real problem for this county.

We are up to our neck in it and that creates a serious risk particularly if interest rates rise rapidly as they did before the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008.

The Reserve Bank’s latest tally puts the total at $433.07 billion a whopping 160 per cent of GDP. That includes mortgages, credit cards, business borrowing and agricultural debt.

It will come as no surprise that our overcooked housing market is to blame for a big rise in mortgage debt over the past decade. That sits at $247.37b 91 per cent of GDP.

It has risen by 57 per cent in the past decade. As house prices have soared so has the amount Kiwis have to borrow to buy.

We kid ourselves we’re wealthier because of capital gains on our homes but in reality our collective balance sheet is looking worse than ever.

This is no revelation, of course. To be fair, it is the issue that probably tops the Reserve Bank’s long list of things to worry about. It is one of the reasons the Bank moved to introduce tough loan to value ratio (LVR) restrictions between 2013 and 2016 as annual growth in mortgage lending neared 10 percent (it peaked at 9.3 per cent in December 2016).

High private debt levels are one of the reasons the Government can’t afford to be reckless on the borrowing front.

New Zealand isn’t unique in this.

As the IMF pointed out, throughout the developed world we have seen debt mount rapidly in an environment of easy money and super low credit, essentially due to the radical policies put in place by central banks to avoid total meltdown in the GFC.

The next crunch will come when we find out how serviceable that debt mountain is, when interest rates rise to more normal levels.

That process is under way now and it worries many economists. They see this a time bomb. Some even predict another massive financial crisis coming our way.

I’m not going to argue this couldn’t happen. But I think it is important to keep the relative scale of the risk in perspective. Debt will almost certainly be at the centre of the next financial mess however it unfolds. But at a certain point that becomes about as meaningful as saying the next crisis will be caused by money.

Debt is effectively a form of currency that enables value transactions to take place in the future rather than just the present. Like money it works as long as there is confidence in the system that accounts for it and enforces payment.

So could the whole thing come tumbling down? Sure.

But let’s look at some reasons why it might not, at least anytime soon.

What’s happening with interest rates is not a shock for markets in fact it’s a slow, orderly process. New Zealand’s official cash rate is 1.75 per cent and it is not expected to go up for at least a year.

Mortgage rates could still rise because local banks need offshore funds to cover their lending costs.

But the proportion they need has fallen. Ten years ago when the GFC hit about 40 per cent of bank funding was sourced offshore. Now it’s less than 30 per cent.

We have learned and made some progress since the GFC.

There are plenty of headlines about US rates rising right now. Even then, the US Fed’s forecasts are for 2.9 per cent by the end of 2019 and 3.4 per cent by the end of 2020. That is hardly apocalyptic. In Europe they are still extremely low. Their forecasts suggest they’ll still be just 0.75 per cent by the end of 2020.

The other positive is that local house prices have flattened out without crashing. That has meant the annual rate of growth in the nation’s mortgage debt has stabilised at about 5.8 per cent.

If rates rise slowly and the growth in housing debt stays steady, if the Government pays down debt and if New Zealand keeps a top grade credit rating then we should be okay.

That is a lot of ”ifs”.

It is not a formula likely to reassure many of the gloomier economy watchers.

But it’s about as much optimism as I can muster on the issue. The risks are real and this country can’t afford to relax about its private debt levels.

How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System – Wolfgang Streeck.

Capitalism is subject to ‘a long-term structural weakness’, namely ‘the technological displacement of labor by machinery. Electronicization will do to the middle class what mechanization has done to the working class, and it will do it much faster.

Only one thing is certain: that capitalism will end, and much sooner than one may have thought.

CAPITALISM:

ITS DEATH AND AFTERLIFE

Capitalist society may be described in shorthand as a ‘progressive’ society in the sense of Adam Smith and the enlightenment, improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions, therefore permanently unstable and in flux, and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive as well as constraining events and institutions.

Capitalist society may be described in shorthand as a ‘progressive’ society in the sense of Adam Smith and the enlightenment, a society that has coupled its ‘progress’ to the continuous and unlimited production and accumulation of productive capital, effected through a conversion, by means of the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of the state, of the private vice of material greed into a public benefit.

Capitalism promises infinite growth of commodified material wealth in a finite world, by conjoining itself with modern science and technology, making capitalist society the first industrial society, and through unending expansion of free, in the sense of contestable, risky markets, on the coat-tails of a hegemonic carrier state and its market opening policies, both domestically and internationally.

As a version of industrial society, capitalist society is distinguished by the fact that its collective productive capital is accumulated in the hands of a minority of its members who enjoy the legal privilege, in the form of rights of private property, to dispose of such capital in any way they see fit, including letting it sit idle or transferring it abroad.

One implication of this is that the vast majority of the members of a capitalist society must work under the direction, however mediated, of the private owners of the tools they need to provide for themselves, and on terms set by those owners in line with their desire to maximize the rate of increase of their capital. Motivating non-owners to do so to work hard and diligently in the interest of the owners requires artful devices, sticks and carrots of the most diverse sorts, that are never certain to function that have to be continuously reinvented as capitalist progress continuously renders them obsolescent.

The tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political economic configuration make for an ever present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis. Economic and social stability under modern capitalism must be secured on a background of systemic restlessness, produced by competition and expansion, a difficult balancing act with a constantly uncertain outcome. Its success is contingent on, among other things, the timely appearance of a new technological paradigm or the development of social needs and values complementing changing requirements of continued economic growth.

For example, for the vast majority of its members, a capitalist society must manage to convert their everpresent fear of being cut out of the productive process, because of economic or technological restructuring, into acceptance of the highly unequal distribution of wealth and power generated by the capitalist economy and a belief in the legitimacy of capitalism as a social order. For this, highly complicated and inevitably fragile institutional and ideological provisions are necessary. The same holds true for the conversion of insecure workers kept insecure to make them obedient workers into confident consumers happily discharging their consumerist social obligations even in the face of the fundamental uncertainty of labour markets and employment?

In light of the inherent instability of modern societies founded upon and dynamically shaped by a capitalist economy, it is small wonder that theories of capitalism, from the time the concept was first used in the early 1800s in Germany and the mid-1800s in England, were always also theories of crisis. This holds not just for Marx and Engels but also for writers like Ricardo, Mill, Sombart, Keynes, Hilferding, Polanyi and Schumpeter, all of whom expected one way or other to see the end of capitalism during their lifetime? What kind of crisis was expected to finish capitalism off differed with time and authors’ theoretical priors; structuralist theories of death by overproduction or underconsumption, or by a tendency of the rate of profit to fall (Marx), coexisted with predictions of saturation of needs and markets (Keynes), of rising resistance to further commodification of life and society (Polanyi), of exhaustion of new land and new labour available for colonization in a literal as well as figurative sense (Luxemburg), of technological stagnation (Kondratieff), financial-political organization of monopolistic corporations suspending liberal markets (Hilferding), bureaucratic suppression of entrepreneurialism aided by a worldwide trahison des clercs (Weber, Schumpeter, Hayek) etc., etc.

While none of these theories came true as imagined, most of them were not entirely false either. In fact, the history of modern capitalism can be written as a succession of crises that capitalism survived only at the price of deep transformations of its economic and social institutions, saving it from bankruptcy in unforeseeable and often unintended ways. Seen this way, that the capitalist order still exists may well appear less impressive than that it existed so often on the brink of collapse and had continuously to change, frequently depending on contingent exogenous supports that it was unable to mobilize endogenously.

The fact that capitalism has, until now, managed to outlive all predictions of its impending death, need not mean that it will forever be able to do so; there is no inductive proof here, and we cannot rule out the possibility that, next time, whatever cavalry capitalism may require for its rescue may fail to show up.

A short recapitulation of the history of modern capitalism serves to illustrate this point. Liberal capitalism in the nineteenth century was confronted by a revolutionary labour movement that needed to be politically tamed by a complex combination of repression and cooptation, including democratic power sharing and social reform. In the early twentieth century, capitalism was commandeered to serve national interests in international wars, thereby converting it into a public utility under the planning regimes of a new war economy, as private property and the invisible hand of the market seemed insufficient for the provision of the collective capacities countries needed to prevail in international hostilities.

After the First World War, restoration of a liberal-capitalist economy failed to produce a viable social order and had to give way in large parts of the industrial world to either Communism or Fascism, while in the core countries of what was to become ‘the West’ liberal capitalism was gradually succeeded, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, by Keynesian, stateadministered capitalism. Out of this grew the democratic welfare-state capitalism of the three post-war decades, with hindsight the only period in which economic growth and social and political stability, achieved through democracy, coexisted under capitalism, at least in the OECD world where capitalism came to be awarded the epithet, ‘advanced’.

In the 1970s, however, what had with hindsight been called the ‘post-war settlement’ of social-democratic capitalism began to disintegrate, gradually and imperceptibly at first but increasingly punctuated by successive, ever more severe crises of both the capitalist economy and the social and political institutions embedding, that is, supporting as well as containing it. This was the period of both intensifying crisis and deep transformation when ‘late capitalism’, as impressively described by Werner Sombart in the 1920s, gave way to neoliberalism.

Crisis Theory Redux

Today, after the watershed of the financial crisis of 2008, critical and indeed crisis-theoretical reflection on the prospects of capitalism and its society is again en vogue. Does Capitalism Have a Future? is the title of a book published in 2013 by five outstanding social scientists: Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian and Craig Calhoun. Apart from the introduction and the conclusion, which are collectively authored, the contributors present their views in separate chapters, and this could not be otherwise since they differ widely. Still, all five share the conviction that, as they state in the introduction, ‘something big looms on the horizon: a structural crisis much bigger than the recent Great Recession, which might in retrospect seem only a prologue to a period of deeper troubles and transformations’. On what is causing this crisis, however, and how it will end, there is substantial disagreement which, with authors of this calibre, may be taken as a sign of the multiple uncertainties and possibilities inherent in the present condition of the capitalist political economy.

To give an impression of how leading theorists may differ when trying to imagine the future of capitalism today, I will at some length review the prospects and predictions put forward in the book.

A comparatively conventional crisis theory is probably the one offered by Wallerstein, who locates contemporary capitalism at the bottom of a Kondratieff cycle (Kondratieff B) with no prospect of a new (Kondratieff A) upturn. This is said to be due to a ‘structural crisis’ that began in the 1970s, as a result of which ‘capitalists may no longer find capitalism rewarding’.

Two broad causes are given, one a set of long-term trends ‘ending the endless accumulation of capital’, the other the demise, after the ‘world revolution of 1968’, of the ‘dominance of centrist liberals of the geoculture’. Structural trends include the exhaustion of virgin lands and the resulting necessity of environmental repair work, growing resource shortages, and the increasing need for public infrastructure. All of this costs money, and so does the pacification of a proliferating mass of discontented workers and the unemployed. Concerning global hegemony, Wallerstein points to what he considers the final decline of the U.S.-centred world order, in military and economic as well as ideological terms. Rising costs of doing business combine with global disorder to make restoration of a stable capitalist world system impossible.

Instead Wallerstein foresees ‘an ever-tighter gridlock of the system. Gridlock will in turn result in ever wilder fluctuations, and will consequently make short term predictions both economic and political ever more unreliable. And this in turn will aggravate popular fears and alienation. It is a negative cycle’. For the near future Wallerstein expects a global political confrontation between defenders and opponents of the capitalist order, in his suggestive terms: between the forces of Davos and of Porto Alegre.

Their final battle ‘about the successor system’ is currently fomenting. Its outcome, according to Wallerstein, is unpredictable, although ‘we can feel sure that one side or the other will win out in the coming decades, and a new reasonably stable worldsystem (or set of world-systems) will be established’.

Much less pessimistic, or less optimistic from the perspective of those who would like to see capitalism close down, is Craig Calhoun, who finds prospects of reform and renewal in what he, too, considers a deep and potentially final crisis. Calhoun assumes that there is still time for political intervention to save capitalism, as there was in the past, perhaps with the help of a ‘sufficiently enlightened faction of capitalists’. But he also believes ‘a centralized socialist economy’ to be possible, and even more so ‘Chinese-style state capitalism’: ‘Markets can exist in the future even while specifically capitalist modes of property and finance have declined’. Far more than Wallerstein, Calhoun is reluctant when it comes to prediction.

His chapter offers a list of internal contradictions and possible external disruptions threatening the stability of capitalism, and points out a wide range of alternative outcomes. Like Wallerstein, Calhoun attributes particular significance to the international system, where he anticipates the emergence of a plurality of more or less capitalist political-economic regimes, with the attendant problems and pitfalls of coordination and competition. While he does not rule out a ‘large-scale, more or less simultaneous collapse of capitalist markets not only bringing economic upheaval but also upending political and social institutions’, Calhoun believes in the possibility of states, corporations and social movements reestablishing effective governance for a transformative renewal of capitalism. To quote,

The capitalist order is a very large-scale, highly complex system. The events of the last forty years have deeply disrupted the institutions that kept capitalism relatively well organized through the postwar period. Efforts to repair or replace these will change the system, just as new technologies and new business and financial practices may. Even a successful renewal of capitalism will transform it. The question is whether change will be adequate to manage systemic risks and fend off external threats. And if not, will there be widespread devastation before a new order emerges?

Even more agnostic on the future of capitalism is Michael Mann (‘The End May Be Nigh, But for Whom?’). Mann begins by reminding his readers that in his ‘general model of human society’, he does ‘not conceive of societies as systems but as multiple, overlapping networks of interaction, of which four networks ideological, economic, military and political power relations are the most important. Geopolitical relations can be added to the four …’ Mann continues:

Each of these four or five sources of power may have an internal logic or tendency of development, so that it might be possible, for example, to identify tendencies toward equilibrium, cycles, or contradictions within capitalism, just as one might identify comparable tendencies within the other sources of social power.

Interactions between the networks, Mann points out, are frequent but not systematic, meaning that ‘once we admit the importance of such interactions we are into a more complex and uncertain world in which the development of capitalism, for example, is also influenced by ideologies, wars and states’. Mann adds to this the possibility of uneven development across geographical space and the likelihood of irrational behaviour interfering with rational calculations of interest, even of the interest in survival. To demonstrate the importance of contingent events and of cycles other than those envisaged in the Wallerstein Kondratieff model of history, Mann discusses the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008. He then proceeds to demonstrate how his approach speaks to the future, first of U.S. hegemony and second of ‘capitalist markets’.

As to the former, Mann offers the standard list of American weaknesses, both domestic and international, from economic decline to political anomy to an increasingly less effective military, weaknesses that ‘might bring America down’ although ‘we cannot know for sure’. Even if US. hegemony were to end, however, ‘this need not cause a systemic crisis of capitalism’. What may instead happen is a shift of economic power ‘from the old West to the successfully developing Rest of the world, including most of Asia’. This would result in a sharing of economic power between the United States, the European Union and (some of) the BRICS, as a consequence of which ‘the capitalism of the medium term is likely to be more statist’.

Concerning ‘capitalist markets’, Mann believes, pace Wallerstein, that there is still enough new land to conquer and enough demand to discover and invent, to allow for both extensive and intensive growth. Also, technological fixes may appear any time for all sorts of problems, and in any case it is the working class and revolutionary socialism, much more than capitalism, for which ‘the end is nigh’. In fact, if growth rates were to fall as predicted by some, the outcome might be a stable low-growth capitalism, with considerable ecological benefits. In this scenario, ‘the future of the left is likely to be at most reformist social democracy or liberalism. Employers and workers will continue to struggle over the mundane injustices of capitalist employment […] and their likely outcome will be compromise and reform …’

Still, Mann ends on a considerably less sanguine note, naming two big crises that he considers possible, and one of them probable, crises in which capitalism would go under, although they would not be crises of capitalism, or of capitalism alone, since capitalism would only perish as a result of the destruction of all human civilization. One such scenario would be nuclear war, started by collective human irrationality, the other an ecological catastrophe resulting from ‘escalating climate change’. In the latter case, capitalism figures together with the nation state and with ‘citizen rights’, defined as entitlements to unlimited consumption as one of three ‘triumphs of the modern period’ that happen to be ecologically unsustainable. ‘All three triumphs would have to be challenged for the sake of a rather abstract future, which is a very tall order, perhaps not achievable’. While related to capitalism, ecological disaster would spring from ‘a causal chain bigger than capitalism’. However, ‘policy decisions matter considerably’, and ‘humanity is in principle free to choose between better or worse future scenarios and so ultimately the future is unpredictable’.

The most straightforward theory of capitalist crisis in the book is offered by Randall Collins, a theory he correctly characterizes as a ‘stripped-down version of a fundamental insight that Marx and Engels had formulated already in the 1840s’. That insight, as adapted by Collins, is that capitalism is subject to ‘a long-term structural weakness’, namely ‘the technological displacement of labor by machinery’. Collins is entirely unapologetic for his strictly structuralist approach, even more structuralist than Wallerstein’s, as well as his mono-factorial technological determinism. In fact, he is convinced that ‘technological displacement of labor’ will have finished capitalism, with or without revolutionary violence, by the middle of this century earlier than it would be brought down by the, in principle, equally destructive and definitive ecological crisis, and more reliably than by comparatively difficult-to-predict financial bubbles.

‘Stripped-down’ Collins’s late Marxist structuralism is, among other things, because unlike Marx in his corresponding theorem of a secular decline of the rate of profit, Collins fails to hedge his prediction with a list of countervailing factors, as he believes capitalism to have run out of whatever saving graces may in the past have retarded its demise. Collins does allow for Mann’s and Calhoun’s non-Marxist, ‘Weberian’ influences on the course of history, but only as secondary forces modifying the way the fundamental structural trend that drives the history of capitalism from below will work itself out. Global unevenness of development, dimensions of conflict that are not capitalism-related, war and ecological pressures may or may not accelerate the crisis of the capitalist labour market and employment system; they cannot, however, suspend or avert it.

What exactly does this crisis consist of? While labour has gradually been replaced by technology for the past two hundred years, with the rise of information technology and, in the very near future, artificial intelligence, that process is currently reaching its apogee, in at least two respects: first, it has vastly accelerated, and second, having in the second half of the twentieth century destroyed the manual working class, it is now attacking and about to destroy the middle class as well in other words, the new petty bourgeoisie that is the very carrier of the neocapitalist and neoliberal lifestyle of ‘hard work and hard play’, of careerism-cum-consumerism, which, as will be discussed infra, may indeed be considered the indispensable cultural foundation of contemporary capitalism’s society.

What Collins sees coming is a rapid appropriation of programming, managerial, clerical, administrative, and educational work by machinery intelligent enough even to design and create new, more advanced machinery.

Electronicization will do to the middle class what mechanization has done to the working class, and it will do it much faster.

The result will be unemployment in the order of 50 to 70 per cent by the middle of the century, hitting those who had hoped, by way of expensive education and disciplined job performance (in return for stagnant or declining wages), to escape the threat of redundancy attendant on the working classes. The benefits, meanwhile, will go to ‘a tiny capitalist class of robot owners’ who will become immeasurably rich. The drawback for them is, however, that they will increasingly find that their product ‘cannot be sold because too few persons have enough income to buy it. Extrapolating this underlying tendency’, Collins writes, ‘Marx and Engels predicted the downfall of capitalism and its replacement with socialism’, and this is what Collins also predicts.

Collins’s theory is most original where he undertakes to explain why technological displacement is only now about to finish capitalism when it had not succeeded in doing so in the past. Following in Marx’s footsteps, he lists five ‘escapes’ that have hitherto saved capitalism from self-destruction, and then proceeds to show why they won’t save it any more.

They include the growth of new jobs and entire sectors compensating for employment losses caused by technological progress (employment in artificial intelligence will be miniscule, especially once robots begin to design and build other robots);

the expansion of markets (which this time will primarily be labour markets in middle-class occupations, globally unified by information technology, enabling global competition among educated job seekers);

the growth of finance, both as a source of income (‘speculation’) and as an industry (which cannot possibly balance the loss of employment caused by new technology, and of income caused by unemployment, also because computerization will make workers in large segments of the financial industry redundant);

government employment replacing employment in the private sector (improbable because of the fiscal crisis of the state, and in any case requiring ultimately ‘a revolutionary overturn of the property system’);

and the use of education as a buffer to keep labour out of employment, making it a form of ‘hidden Keynesianism’ while resulting in ‘credential inflation’ and ‘grade inflation’ (which for Collins is the path most probably taken, although ultimately it will prove equally futile as the others, as a result of demoralization within educational institutions and problems of financing, both public and private).

All five escapes closed, there is no way society can prevent capitalism from causing accelerated displacement of labour and the attendant stark economic and social inequalities.

Some sort of socialism, so Collins concludes, will finally have to take capitalism’s place. What precisely it will look like, and what will come after socialism or with it, Collins leaves open, and he is equally agnostic on the exact mode of the transition. Revolutionary the change will be, but whether it will be a violent social revolution that will end capitalism or a peaceful institutional revolution accomplished under political leadership cannot be known beforehand.

Heavy taxation of the super-rich for extended public employment or a guaranteed basic income for everyone, with equal distribution and strict rationing of very limited working hours by more or less dictatorial means a la Keynes, we are free to speculate on this as Collins’s ‘stripped-down down Marxism’ does not generate predictions as to what kind of society will emerge once capitalism will have run its course.

Only one thing is certain: that capitalism will end, and much sooner than one may have thought.

Something of an outlier in the book’s suite of chapters is the contribution by Georgi Derluguian, who gives a fascinating inside account of the decline and eventual demise of Communism, in particular Soviet Communism. The chapter is of interest because of its speculations on the differences from and the potential parallels with a potential end of capitalism.

As to the differences, Derluguian makes much of the fact that Soviet Communism was from early on embedded in the ‘hostile geopolitics’ of a ‘capitalist world-system’. This linked its fate inseparably to that of the Soviet Union as an economically and strategically overextended multinational state.

That state turned out to be unsustainable in the longer term, especially after the end of Stalinist despotism. By then the peculiar class structure of Soviet Communism gave rise to a domestic social compromise that, much unlike American capitalism, included political inertia and economic stagnation. The result was pervasive discontent on the part of a new generation of cultural, technocratic and scientific elites socialized in the revolutionary era of the late 1960s. Also, over-centralization made the state based political economy of Soviet Communism vulnerable to regional and ethnic separatism, while the global capitalism surrounding it provided resentful opponents as well as opportunistic apparatchiks with a template of a preferable order, one in which the latter could ultimately establish themselves as self-made capitalist oligarchs.

Contemporary capitalism, of course, is much less dependent on the geopolitical good fortunes of a single imperial state, although the role of the United States in this respect must not be underestimated. More importantly, capitalism is not exposed to pressure from an alternative political-economic model, assuming that Islamic economic doctrine will for a foreseeable future remain less than attractive even and precisely to Islamic elites (who are deeply integrated in the capitalist global economy).

Where the two systems may, however, come to resemble each other is in their internal political disorder engendered by institutional and economic decline. When the Soviet Union lost its ‘state integrity’, Derluguian writes, this ‘undermined all modern institutions and therefore disabled collective action at practically any level above family and crony networks. This condition became self-perpetuating’. One consequence was that the ruling bureaucracies reacted ‘with more panic than outright violence’ when confronted by ‘mass civic mobilizations like the 1968 Prague Spring and the Soviet perestroika at its height in 1989’, while at the same time ‘the insurgent movements failed to exploit the momentous disorganization in the ranks of dominant classes’.

For different reasons and under different circumstances, a similar weakness of collective agency, due to de-institutionalization and creating comparable uncertainty among both champions and challengers of the old order, might shape a future transition from capitalism to postcapitalism, pitting against each other fragmented social movements on the one hand and disoriented political-economic elites on the other.

My own view builds on all five contributors but differs from each of them. I take the diversity of theories on what all agree is a severe crisis of capitalism and capitalist society as an indication of contemporary capitalism having entered a period of deep indeterminacy, a period in which unexpected things can happen any time and knowledgeable observers can legitimately disagree on what will happen, due to long-valid causal relations having become historically obsolete. In other words, I interpret the coexistence of a shared sense of crisis with diverging concepts of the nature of that crisis as an indication that traditional economic and sociological theories have today lost much of their predictive power. As I will point out in more detail, below, I see this as a result, but also as a cause, of a destruction of collective agency in the course of capitalist development, equally affecting Wallerstein’s Davos and Porto Alegre people and resulting in a social context beset with unintended and unanticipated consequences of purposive, but in its effects increasingly unpredictable, social action.

Moreover, rather than picking one of the various scenarios of the crisis and privilege it over the others, I suggest that they all, or most of them, may be aggregated into a diagnosis of multi-morbidity in which different disorders coexist and, more often than not, reinforce each other. Capitalism, as pointed out at the beginning, was always a fragile and improbable order and for its survival depended on ongoing repair work. Today, however, too many frailties have become simultaneously acute while too many remedies have been exhausted or destroyed. The end of capitalism can then be imagined as a death from a thousand cuts, or from a multiplicity of infirmities each of which will be all the more untreatable as all will demand treatment at the same time.

As will become apparent, I do not believe that any of the potentially stabilizing forces mentioned by Mann and Calhoun, be it regime pluralism, regional diversity and uneven development, political reform, or independent crisis cycles, will be strong enough to neutralize the syndrome of accumulated weaknesses that characterize contemporary capitalism. No effective opposition being left, and no practicable successor model waiting in the wings of history, capitalism’s accumulation of defects, alongside its accumulation of capital, may be seen, with Collins, as an entirely endogenous dynamic of self-destruction, following an evolutionary logic moulded in its expression but not suspended by contingent and coincidental events, along a historical trajectory from early liberal via state administered to neoliberal capitalism, which culminated for the time being in the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.

For the decline of capitalism to continue, that is to say, no revolutionary alternative is required, and certainly no masterplan of a better society displacing capitalism. Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies who, as noted, have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form.

What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum, no new world system equilibrium a la Wallerstein, but a prolonged period of social entropy, or disorder (and precisely for this reason a period of uncertainty and indeterminacy).

It is an interesting problem for sociological theory whether and how a society can turn for a significant length of time into less than a society, a post-social society as it were, or a society life, until it may or may not recover and again become a society in the full meaning of the term. I suggest that one can attain a conceptual fix on this by drawing liberally on a famous article by David Lockwood” to distinguish between system integration and social integration, or integration at the macro and micro levels of society. An interregnum would then be defined as a breakdown of system integration at the macro level, depriving individuals at the micro level of institutional structuring and collective support, and shifting the burden of ordering social life, of providing it with a modicum of security and stability, to individuals themselves and such social arrangements as they can create on their own. A society in interregnum, in other words, would be a de-institutionalized or under-institutionalized society, one in which expectations can be stabilized only for a short time by local improvisation, and which for this very reason is essentially ungovernable.

Contemporary capitalism, then, would appear to be a society whose system integration is critically and irremediably weakened, so that the continuation of capital accumulation for an intermediate period of uncertain duration becomes solely dependent on the opportunism of collectively incapacitated individualized individuals, as they struggle to protect themselves from looming accidents and structural pressures on their social and economic status. Undergoverned and undermanaged, the social world of the postcapitalist interregnum, in the wake of neoliberal capitalism having cleared away states, governments, borders, trade unions and other moderating forces, can at any time be hit by disaster; for example, bubbles imploding or violence penetrating from a collapsing periphery into the centre.

With individuals deprived of collective defences and left to their own devices, what remains of a social order hinges on the motivation of individuals to cooperate with other individuals on an ad hoc basis, driven by fear and greed and by elementary interests in individual survival. Society having lost the ability to provide its members with effective protection and proven templates for social action and social existence, individuals have only themselves to rely on while social order depends on the weakest possible mode of social integration, Zweckrationalitat.

As pointed out in chapter 1 of this book, and partly elaborated in the rest of this introduction, I anchor this condition in a variety of interrelated developments, such as declining growth intensifying distributional conflict; the rising inequality that results from this; vanishing macroeconomic manageability, as manifested in, among other things, steadily growing indebtedness, a pumped-up money supply, and the ever-present possibility of another economic breakdown; the suspension of post-war capitalism’s engine of social progress, democracy, and the associated rise of oligarchic rule; the dwindling capacity of governments and the systemic inability of governance to limit the commodification of labour, nature and money; the omnipresence of corruption of all sorts, in response to intensified competition in winner take all markets with unlimited opportunities for self-enrichment; the erosion of public infrastructures and collective benefits in the course of commodification and privatization; the failure after 1989 of capitalism’s host nation, the United States, to build and maintain a stable global order; etc., etc.

These and other developments, I suggest, have resulted in widespread cynicism governing economic life, for a long time if not forever ruling out a recovery of normative legitimacy for capitalism as a just society offering equal opportunities for individual progress, a legitimacy that capitalism would need to draw on in critical moments and founding social integration on collective resignation as the last remaining pillar of the capitalist social order, or disorder.

Moving Disequilibrium

In my own recent work, much of it assembled in this volume, I have argued that OECD capitalism has been on a crisis trajectory since the 1970s, the historical turning point being when the postwar settlement was abandoned by capital in response to a global profit squeeze. To be precise, three crises followed one another: the global inflation of the 1970s, the explosion of public debt in the 1980s, and rapidly rising private indebtedness in the subsequent decade, resulting in the collapse of financial markets in 2008.

This sequence was by and large the same for all major capitalist countries, whose economies have never been in equilibrium since the end of post-war growth at the end of the 1960s. All three crises began and ended in the same way, following an identical political-economic logic: inflation, public debt and the deregulation of private debt started out as politically expedient solutions to distributional conflicts between capital and labour (and, in the 1970s, between the two and the producers of raw material, the cost of which had ceased to be negligible), until they became problems themselves: inflation begot unemployment as relative prices became distorted and owners of monetary assets abstained from investment; mounting public debt made creditors nervous and produced pressures for consolidation in the 1990s; and the pyramid of private debt that had filled the gaps in aggregate demand caused by public spending cuts imploded when the bubbles produced by easy money and excessive credit blew up.

Solutions turned into problems requiring new solutions which, however, after another decade or so, became problems themselves, calling for yet other solutions that soon turned out to be as short-lived and selfdefeating as their predecessors. Government policies vacillated between two equilibrium points, one political, the other economic, that had become impossible to attain simultaneously: by attending to the need for democratic political legitimacy and social peace, trying to live up to citizen expectations of steadily increasing economic prosperity and social stability, they found themselves at risk of damaging economic performance while efforts to restore economic equilibrium tended to trigger political dissatisfaction and undermine support for the government of the day and the capitalist market economy in general.

In fact, the situation was even more critical than that, although it was not perceived as such for a long time, since it unfolded only gradually, over roughly two political generations. Intertwined with the crisis sequence of the post 1970s was an evolving fiscal crisis of the democratic-capitalist state, again basically in all countries undergoing the secular transition from ‘late’ to neoliberal capitalism. While in the 1970s governments still had a choice, within limits, between inflation and public debt to bridge the gap between the combined distributional claims of capital and labour and what was available for distribution, after the end of inflation at the beginning of the 1980s the ‘tax state’ of modern capitalism began to change into a ‘debt state’. In this it was helped by the growth of a dynamic, increasingly global financial industry headquartered in the rapidly de-industrializing hegemonic country of global capitalism, the United States.

Concerned about the power of its new clients who were after all sovereign states to unilaterally cancel their debt, the rising financial sector soon began to seek reassurance from governments with respect to their economic and political ability to service and repay their loans. The result was another transformation of the democratic state, this time into a ‘consolidation state’, which began in the mid-1990s. To the extent that consolidation of public finances through spending cuts resulted in overall gaps in demand or in citizen discontent, the financial industry was happy to step in with loans to private households, provided credit markets were sufficiently deregulated. This began in the 1990s at the latest and ultimately caused the financial crisis of 2008.

Unfolding alongside the crisis sequence and the transformation of the tax state into a consolidation state were three long term trends, all starting more or less at the end of the postwar era and running in parallel, again, through the entire family of rich capitalist democracies: declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt public, private and overall. Over the years the three seem to have become mutually reinforcing: low growth contributes to inequality by intensifying distributional conflict; inequality dampens growth by restricting effective demand; high levels of existing debt clog credit markets and raise the prospect of financial crises; an overgrown financial sector both results from and adds to economic inequality etc., etc.

Already the last growth cycle before 2008 was more imagined than real, and post 2008 recovery remains anaemic at best, also because Keynesian stimulus, monetary or fiscal, fails to work in the face of unprecedented amounts of accumulated debt. Note that we are talking about long term trends, not just a momentary unfortunate coincidence, and indeed about global trends, affecting the capitalist system as a whole and as such. Nothing is in sight that seems only nearly powerful enough to break the three trends, deeply engrained and densely intertwined as they have become.

Phase IV

Since 2008, we have lived in a fourth stage of the post-1970s crisis sequence, and the by now familiar dialectic of problems treated with solutions that turn into problems themselves is again making itself felt. The three apocalyptic horsemen of contemporary capitalism, stagnation, debt, inequality are continuing to devastate the economic and political landscape. With ever lower growth, as recovery from the Great Recession is making little or no progress, deleveraging has been postponed ad calendas graecas and overall indebtedness is higher than ever. Within a total debt burden of unprecedented magnitude, public debt has climbed again, not only annihilating all gains made in the first phase of consolidation, but also effectively blocking any fiscal effort to restart growth.

Thus unemployment remains high throughout the OECD world, even in a country like Sweden where it has for some time now settled on a plateau of around 8 per cent.

Where employment has to some extent been restored it tends to be at lower pay and inferior conditions, due to technological change, to ‘reforms’ in social security systems lowering workers’ effective reservation wage, and to deunionization, with the attendant increase in the power of employers. Indeed, often enough, ‘recovery’ amounts to replacement of unemployment with underemployment.

Although interest rates are at a record low, investment and growth refuse to respond, giving rise to discussions among policymakers about lowering interest rates further, to below zero. While in the 1970s inflation was public enemy number one, now desperate efforts are being made throughout the OECD world to raise it to at least 2 per cent, hitherto without success. By comparison with the 1970s, when it was the coincidence of inflation and unemployment that left economists clueless, now it is very cheap money coexisting with deflationary pressures, raising the spectre of ‘debt deflation’ and of a collapse of a pyramid of accumulated debt by far exceeding in size that of 2008.

How much of a mystery the present phase of the long crisis of contemporary capitalism presents to its would-be management is nowhere more visible than in the practice of ‘quantitative easing’, adopted, under different names, by the leading central banks of the capitalist world. Since 2008, central banks have been buying up financial assets of diverse kinds, handing out new cash, produced out of thin air, to private financial firms. In return they receive titles to future income streams from debtors of all sorts, turning private debt into public assets, or better: into assets of public institutions with the privilege unilaterally to determine an economy’s money supply. Right now, the balance sheets of the largest central banks have increased in the past seven years from around eight to more than twenty trillion dollars, not yet counting the gigantic asset buying programme started by the European Central Bank in 2014.

In the process, central banks, in their dual roles as public authorities and guardians of the health of private financial firms, have become the most important, and indeed effectively the only, players in economic policy, with governments under strict austerity orders and excluded from monetary policymaking. Although quantitative easing has completely failed to counter the deflationary pressures in an economy like Japan where it has been relied upon for a decade or more on a huge scale it is steadfastly pursued for lack of alternatives, and nobody knows what would happen if cash-production by debt-purchasing was ended.

Meanwhile in Europe, banks sell their no-longer-secure securities, including government papers, to the European Central Bank, either letting the cash they get in return sit with it on deposit, even if they have to pay negative interest on it, or they lend it to cash strapped governments in countries where central banks are not allowed to finance governments directly, collecting interest from them at a rate above what they could earn in the private credit market. To this extent, quantitative easing at least serves to rescue, if nothing else, the financial sector.

Decoupling Democracy

As the crisis sequence took its course, the postwar shotgun marriage between capitalism and democracy came to an end. Again this was a slow, gradual development. There was no putsch: elections continue to take place, opposition leaders are not sent to prison, and opinions can still by and large be freely expressed in the media, both old and new. But as one crisis followed the next, and the fiscal crisis of the state unfolded alongside them, the arena of distributional conflict shifted, moving upwards and away from the world of collective action of citizens towards ever more remote decision sites where interests appear as ‘problems’ in the abstract jargon of technocratic specialists. In the age of inflation in the 19703, labour relations were the main conflict arena, and strikes were frequent throughout the OECD world, offering ordinary people an opportunity to engage with others in direct action against a visible adversary. In this way, they could experience conflict and solidarity directly and personally, with often life-changing consequences. When inflation ended in the early 19803, strikes came to an end as well, and the defence of redistributive interests against the logic of capitalist markets shifted to the electoral arena where the issue of contestation was the social welfare state and its future role and size. Then, when fiscal consolidation got under way, income gains began to depend on access to credit, as determined by increasingly loose legal regulations of financial markets and by the profit interests of the financial industry. This left little if any space for collective action, also because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. Today, in Phase IV, with monetary expansion and fiscal austerity coinciding, the prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organizations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space remote from everyday experience and entirely impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they are to do and are in fact doing.

The upward shift of conflict arenas during the decades of neoliberal progress was accompanied by a gradual erosion of the postwar standard model of democracy, pushed fonNard by, as well as allowing for, the gradual emergence of a new, ‘Hayekian’ growth model for OECD capitalism. By the standard model of democracy, I mean the peculiar combination, as had come to be considered normal in OECD capitalism after 1945, of reasonably free elections, government by established mass parties, ideally one of the Right and one of the Left, and strong trade unions and employer associations under a firmly institutionalized collective bargaining regime, with legal rights to strike and, sometimes, lock-out. This model reached its peak in the 19703, after which it began to disintegrate23. The advance of neoliberalism coincided with steadily declining electoral turnout in all countries, rare and short|ived exceptions notwithstanding. The shrinking of the electorate was, moreover, highly asymmetrical: those that dropped out of electoral politics came overwhelmingly from the lower end of the income scale ironically where the need for egalitarian democracy is greatest. Party membership declined as well, in some countries dramatically; party systems fragmented; and voting became volatile and often erratic. In a rising number of countries, the gaps in the electorate have begun to be filled in part by so-called ‘populist’ parties, mostly of the Right but lately also from the Left, who mobilize marginalized groups for protest against ‘the system’ and its ‘elites’. Also declining is tradeunion membership a trend reflected in an almost complete disappearance of strikes, which like elections have long served as a recognized channel of democratic participation.

The demise of standard post-war democracy was and is of the highest significance. Coupled to state-managed capitalism, democracy functioned as an engine of economic and social progress. By redistributing parts of the proceeds of the capitalist market economy downward, through both industrial relations and social policy, democracy provided for rising standards of living among ordinary people and thereby procured legitimacy for a capitalist market economy; at the same time it stimulated economic growth by securing a sufficient level of aggregate demand. This twofold role was essential for Keynesian politics-cum-policies, which turned the political and economic power of organized labour into a productive force and assigned democracy a positive economic function. The problem was that the viability of that model was contingent on labour mobilizing a sufficient amount of political and economic power, which it could do in the more or less closed national economies of the post-war era. Inside these, capital had to content itself with low profits and confinement in a strictly delimited economic sphere, a condition it accepted in exchange for economic stability and social peace as long as it saw no way out of the national containers within which its hunting licence had been conditionally renewed after 1945. With the end of post-war growth, however, as distributional margins shrunk, the profitdependent classes began to look for an alternative to serving as an infrastructure of social democracy, and found it in denationalization, also known as ‘globalization’. As capital and capitalist markets began to outgrow national borders, with the help of international trade agreements and assisted by new transportation and communication technologies, the power of labour, inevitably locally based, weakened, and capital was able to press for a shift to a new growth model, one that works by redistributing from the bottom to the top. This was when the march into neoliberalism began, as a rebellion of capital against Keynesianism, with the aim of enthroning the Hayekian model in its place;9 Thus the threat of unemployment returned, together with its reality, gradually replacing political legitimacy with economic discipline. Lower growth rates were acceptable for the new powers as long as they were compensated by higher profit rates and an increasingly inegalitarian distribution.341 Democracy ceased to be functional for economic growth and in fact became a threat to the performance of the new growth model; it therefore had to be decoupled from the political economy. This was when ‘post-democracy’ was born.

*


from

How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System

by Wolfgang Streeck

get it at Amazon.com

GUNS & BOMBS. Donald Trump’s hair-raising level of debt could bring us all crashing down – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.

If there is such a thing as a capital crime in economics, it is Donald Trump’s exorbitant fiscal stimulus at the top of the cycle.

The effects are entirely pernicious. Such deficit spending at this juncture can only provoke a ferocious monetary response, threatening to bring the global expansion to a shuddering and climactic end sooner rather than later, and with particular violence.

Twin reports by the International Monetary Fund sketch a chain reaction of dangerous consequences for world finance.

The policy if, you can call it that, puts the US on an untenable debt trajectory. It smacks of Latin American caudillo populism, a Peronist contagion that threatens to destroy the moral foundations of the Great Republic.

The IMF’s Fiscal Monitor estimates that the US budget deficit will spike to 5.3 per cent of GDP this year and 5.9 per cent in 2019. This is happening at a stage of the economic cycle when swelling tax revenues should be reducing net borrowing to zero.

The deficit will still be 5 per cent in 2023. By then the ratio of public debt will have ballooned to 117 per cent (it was 61 per cent in 2007). Franklin Roosevelt defeated fascism with a total war economy at lower ratios.

The IMF does not take into account the near certainty of a global downturn at some point over the next five years. A deep recession would push the deficit into double digits, and send the debt ratio spiralling towards 140 per cent in short order.

There is no justification for Trump’s stimulus. The output gap has already closed. The fiscal “multiplier” is less than one. The US unemployment rate is approaching a 48-year low. The New York Fed’s “underlying inflation gauge” surged to 3.14 per cent in March, the highest since 2005.

As an aside, the IMF’s Fiscal Monitor noted that the lion’s share of Trump’s tax cuts go to the rich. The poorest two quintiles enjoy crumbs at first, but are ultimately left worse off.

He has betrayed the very descamisados who elected him. It is worth thumbing through the IMF’s Global Financial Stability Report for a glimpse of the gothic horror story that lies ahead of us.

”Term premiums could suddenly decompress, risk premiums could rise, and global financial conditions could tighten sharply. Although no major disruptions were reported during the episode of volatility in early February, market participants should not take too much comfort,” it said.

The report is a forensic study of hair-raising excess. The US stock market has broken with historic valuations and risen to 155 per cent of GDP, up from 95 per cent even in 2011. Margin debt on Wall Street the bellwether of speculation has rocketed to US$550 billion.

The Fund warned of “late-stage credit cycle dynamics” all too like 2007, and behaviour “reminiscent of past episodes of investor excesses? Leveraged loans in the US have doubled to USSl trillion since the pre-Lehman peak. There is a risk that defaults could spin out of control, leading to a complete “shutdown of the market”, with grave economic implications.

The shadiest “Cov-lite” loans made up 75 per cent of new loan issuance last year, with a deteriorating quality of covenant protection. This is a sure sign that debt markets are throwing caution to the wind. ”Embedded leverage” through derivatives has become endemic. US and European bond funds have raised their derivative leverage ratio from 215 per cent to 268 per cent of assets since 2014, with gross exposure reaching ”worrisome” levels. And so it goes on.

There are two elephants in the room. One is well-understood: the world is leveraged to the hilt.

“The combination of excessive public and private debt levels can be dangerous in the event of a downturn because it would prolong the ensuing recession,” said the Fund. It calculates that the global debt ratio has risen by 12 per cent of GDP since the last peak. The Bank for International Settlements thinks it is at least 40 per cent of GDP higher.

The point remains the same. Every region of the global economy has been drawn into the morass by the leakage effects of zero rates and quantitative easing, compounded by unrestricted capital flows.

The world is therefore ever more sensitive to rising borrowing costs. It lacks the fiscal buffers to cope with a shock. Countries may be forced into contractionary “pro-cyclical” policies, the fate of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy in the EMU austerity tragedy. It may soon happen on a global scale.

The IMF says the interest rate burden as a share of tax revenues has doubled over the last 10 years for poorer countries, leaving them acutely vulnerable to “rollover” risks if liquidity dries up.

Private debt ratios in emerging markets have jumped from 60 per cent to 120 per cent in a decade.

The second elephant is global dollar debt. This is less understood. Offshore dollar debt has risen fourfold to US$16t since the early 2000s, or USS30t when equivalent derivatives are included. “The international dollar banking system faces a structural liquidity mismatch,” said the Fund.

The world has a vast “short position” on the dollar. This is harmless in good times but prone to a sudden margin call akin to late 2008 as the Fed raises rates and drains dollar liquidity.

Much of this lending is carried out by European and Japanese banks using short term instruments such as commercial paper and interbank deposits, leaving them “structurally vulnerable to liquidity risks”. French banks have shockingly low dollar liquidity ratios.

The IMF says markets should not be beguiled by the current calm in the currency swap markets, used to hedge this edifice of dollar lending. The so-called “cross-currency basis” can move suddenly. “Swap markets may not be a reliable backstop in periods of stress,” it said.

The Fund warned that banks may find that they cannot roll over short term dollarfunding currently taken for granted. “Banks could then act as an amplifier of market strains. Funding pressure could induce banks to shrink dollar lending to non-US borrowers. Ultimately, there is a risk that banks could default on their dollar obligations,” it said.

So there you have it. While the IMF is coy, the awful truth is that the world is just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2007. The scale is now larger. The authorities have fewer safety buffers, and far less ammunition to fight a depression.

This time China cannot come to the rescue. It is itself the epicentre of risk.

The detonator for the denouement is selfevidently Fed tightening and should it ever happen a surging dollar.

Trump may have thought he was being clever in thinking that fiscal prime pumping this year and next would greatly help his re-election chances.

He may instead have brought forward global forces that he does not begin to understand, and guaranteed a frightening crisis under his own watch.

How Economics Survived the Economic Crisis – Robert Skidelsky * Good enough for government work? Macroeconomics since the crisis – Paul Krugman.

Unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, which produced Keynesian economics, and the stagflation of the 1970s, which gave rise to Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the Great Recession has elicited no such response from the economics profession. Why?

The tenth anniversary of the start of the Great Recession was the occasion for an elegant essay by the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, who noted how little the debate about the causes and consequences of the crisis have changed over the last decade. Whereas the Great Depression of the 1930s produced Keynesian economics, and the stagilation of the 1970s produced Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the Great Recession has produced no similar intellectual shift.

This is deeply depressing to young students of economics, who hoped for a suitably challenging response from the profession.

Why has there been none?

Krugman’s answer is typically ingenious: the old macroeconomics was, as the saying goes, “good enough for government work.” It prevented another Great Depression. So students should lock up their dreams and learn their lessons.

A decade ago, two schools of macroeconomists contended for primacy: the New Classical or the “freshwater” School, descended from Milton Friedman and Robert Lucas and headquartered at the University of Chicago, and the New Keynesian, or “saltwater,” School, descended from John Maynard Keynes, and based at MIT and Harvard.

Freshwater-types believed that budgets deficits were always bad, whereas the saltwater camp believed that deficits were beneficial in a slump. Krugman is a New Keynesian, and his essay was intended to show that the Great Recession vindicated standard New Keynesian models.

But there are serious problems with Krugman’s narrative. For starters, there is his answer to Queen Elizabeth II’s nowfamous question: “Why did no one see it coming?” Krugman’s cheerful response is that the New Keynesians were looking the other way. Theirs was a failure not of theory, but of “data collection.” They had “overlooked” crucial institutional changes in the financial system. While this was regrettable, it raised no “deep conceptual issue” that is, it didn’t demand that they reconsider their theory.

Faced with the crisis itself, the New Keynesians had risen to the challenge. They dusted off their old sticky-price models from the 1950s and 1960s, which told them three things. First, very large budget deficits would not drive up near zero interest rates. Second, even large increases in the monetary base would not lead to high inflation, or even to corresponding increases in broader monetary aggregates. And, third, there would be a positive national income multiplier, almost surely greater than one, from changes in government spending and taxation.

These propositions made the case for budget deficits in the aftermath of the collapse of 2008. Policies based on them were implemented and worked “remarkably well.” The success of New Keynesian policy had the ironic effect of allowing “the more inflexible members of our profession [the New Classicals from Chicago] to ignore events in a way they couldn’t in past episodes.” So neither school, sect might be the better word, was challenged to re-think first principles.

This clever history of pre- and post-crash economics leaves key questions unanswered.

First, if New Keynesian economics was “good enough,” why didn’t New Keynesian economists urge precautions against the collapse of 2007-2008? After all, they did not rule out the possibility of such a collapse a priori.

Krugman admits to a gap in “evidence collection.” But the choice of evidence is theory-driven. In my view, New Keynesian economists turned a blind eye to instabilities building up in the banking system, because their models told them that financial institutions could accurately price risk. So there was a “deep conceptual issue” involved in New Keynesian analysis: its failure to explain how banks might come to “underprice risk worldwide,” as Alan Greenspan put it.

Second, Krugman fails to explain why the Keynesian policies vindicated in 2008-2009 were so rapidly reversed and replaced by fiscal austerity. Why didn’t policymakers stick to their stodgy fixed-price models until they had done their work? Why abandon them in 2009, when Western economies were still 4-5% below their precrash levels?

The answer I would give is that when Keynes was briefly exhumed for six months in 2008-2009, it was for political, not intellectual, reasons. Because the New Keynesian models did not offer a sufficient basis for maintaining Keynesian policies once the economic emergency had been overcome, they were quickly abandoned.

Krugman comes close to acknowledging this: New Keynesians, he writes, “start with rational behavior and market equilibrium as a baseline, and try to get economic dysfunction by tweaking that baseline at the edges.” Such tweaks enable New Keynesian models to generate temporary real effects from nominal shocks, and thus justify quite radical intervention in times of emergency. But no tweaks can create a strong enough case to justify sustained interventionist policy.

The problem for New Keynesian macroeconomists is that they fail to acknowledge radical uncertainty in their models, leaving them without any theory of what to do in good times in order to avoid the bad times. Their focus on nominal wage and price rigidities implies that if these factors were absent, equilibrium would readily be achieved. They regard the financial sector as neutral, not as fundamental (capitalism’s “ephor,” as Joseph Schumpeter put it).

Without acknowledgement of uncertainty, saltwater economics is bound to collapse into its freshwater counterpart. New Keynesian “tweaking” will create limited political space for intervention, but not nearly enough to do a proper job. So Krugman’s argument, while provocative, is certainly not conclusive. Macroeconomics still needs to come up with a big new idea.

*

Robert Skidelsky, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is a member of the British House of Lords. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes.

Project Syndicate

Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 2018

Good enough for government work? Macroeconomics since the crisis

Paul Krugman

Abstract:

This paper argues that when the financial crisis came policy-makers relied on some version of the Hicksian sticky-price IS-LM as their default model; these models were ”good enough for government work’.

While there have been many incremental changes suggested to the DSGE model. there has been no single ‘big new idea” because the even simpler lS-LM type models were what worked well. In particular, the policy responses based on lS-LM were appropriate.

Specifically, these models generated the insights that large budget deficits would not drive up interest rates and, while the economy remained at the zero lower bound, that very large increases in monetary base wouldn’t be inflationary, and that the multiplier on government spending was greater than 1.

The one big exception to this satisfactory understanding was in price behaviour. A large output gap was expected to lead to a large fall in inflation, but did not. If new research is necessary. it is on pricing behaviour. While there was a failure to forecast the crisis, it did not come down to a lack of understanding of possible mechanisms, or of a lack of data, but rather through a lack of attention to the right data.

I. Introduction

It’s somewhat startling, at least for those of us who bloviate about economics for a living, to realize just how much time has passed since the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, the crisis and aftermath are starting to take on the status of an iconic historical episode, like the stagflation of the 1970s or the Great Depression itself, rather than that of freshly remembered experience. Younger colleagues sometimes ask me what it was like during the golden age of economics blogging, mainly concerned with macroeconomic debates, which they think of as an era that ended years ago.

Yet there is an odd, interesting difference, both among economists and with a wider audience, between the intellectual legacies of those previous episodes and what seems to be the state of macroeconomics now.

Each of those previous episodes of crisis was followed both by a major rethinking of macroeconomics and, eventually, by a clear victor in some of the fundamental debates. Thus, the Great Depression brought on Keynesian economies, which became the subject of fierce dispute, and everyone knew how those disputes turned out: Keynes, or Keynes as interpreted by and filtered through Hicks and Samuelson, won the argument.

In somewhat the same way, stagflation brought on the Friedman Phelps natural rate hypothesis, yes, both men wrote their seminal papers before the 1970s, but the bad news brought their work to the top of the agenda. And everyone knew, up to a point anyway, how the debate over that hypothesis ended up: basically everyone accepted the natural rate idea, abandoning the notion of a long-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. True, the profession then split into freshwater and saltwater camps over the effectiveness or lack thereof of short-run stabilization policies, a development that I think presaged some of what has happened since 2008. But I’ll get back to that.

For now, let me instead just focus on how different the economics profession response to the post-2008 crisis has been from the responses to depression and stagflation. For this time there hasn’t been a big new idea, let alone one that has taken the profession by storm. Yes, there are lots of proclamations about things researchers should or must do differently, many of them represented in this issue of the Oxford Review. We need to put finance into the heart of the models! We need to incorporate heterogeneous agents! We need to incorporate more behavioural economics! And so on.

But while many of these ideas are very interesting, none of them seems to have emerged as the idea we need to grapple with. The intellectual impact of the crisis just seems far more muted than the scale of crisis might have led one to expect. Why?

Well, I’m going to offer what I suspect will be a controversial answer: namely, macroeconomics hasn’t changed that much because it was. in two senses, what my father’s generation used to call ‘good enough for government work”. On one side, the basic models used by macroeconomists who either practise or comment frequently on policy have actually worked quite well, indeed remarkably well. On the other, the policy response to the crisis, while severely lacking in many ways, was sufficient to avert utter disaster, which in turn allowed the more inflexible members of our profession to ignore events in a way they couldn‘t in past episodes.

In what follows I start with the lessons of the financial crisis and Great Recession, which economists obviously failed to predict. I then move on to the aftermath, the era of fiscal austerity and unorthodox monetary policy, in which I’ll argue that basic macroeconomics, at least in one version, performed extremely well. I follow up with some puzzles that remain. Finally, I turn to the policy response and its implications for the economics profession.

II. The Queen’s question

When all hell broke loose in financial markets, Queen Elizabeth II famously asked why nobody saw it coming. This was a good question but maybe not as devastating as many still seem to think.

Obviously, very few economists predicted the crisis of 2008-9; those who did, with few exceptions I can think of, also predicted multiple other crises that didn’t happen. And this failure to see what was coming can’t be brushed aside as inconsequential.

There are, however, two different ways a forecasting failure of this magnitude can happen, which have very different intellectual implications. Consider an example from a different field, meteorology. In 1987 the Met Office dismissed warnings that a severe hurricane might strike Britain; shortly afterwards, the Great Storm of 1987 arrived, wreaking widespread destruction. Meteorologists could have drawn the lesson that their fundamental understanding of weather was fatally flawed which they would presumably have done if their models had insisted that no such storm was even possible. Instead, they concluded that while the models needed refinement, the problem mainly involved data collection that the network of weather stations, buoys, etc. had been inadequate, leaving them unaware of just how bad things were looking.

How does the global financial crisis compare in this respect? To be fair, the DSGE models that occupied a lot of shelf space in journals really had no room for anything like this crisis. But macroeconomists focused on international experience, one of the hats I personally wear, were very aware that crises triggered by loss of financial confidence do happen, and can be very severe. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-9, in particular, inspired not just a realization that severe l930s-type downturns remain possible in the modern world, but a substantial amount of modelling of how such things can happen.

So the coming of the crisis didn’t reveal a fundamental conceptual gap. Did it reveal serious gaps in data collection? My answer would be, sort of, in the following sense: crucial data weren’t so much lacking as overlooked.

This was most obvious on the financial side. The panic and disruption of financial markets that began in 2007 and peaked after the fall of Lehman came as a huge surprise, but one can hardly accuse economists of having been unaware of the possibility of bank runs. lf most of us considered such runs unlikely or impossible in modern advanced economies, the problem was not conceptual but empirical: failure to take on board the extent to which institutional changes had made conventional monetary data inadequate.

This is clearly true for the United States, where data on shadow banking on the repo market, asset-backed commercial paper, etc. were available but mostly ignored. In a less obvious way, European economists failed to pay sufficient intention to the growth of interbank lending as a source of finance. In both cases the institutional changes undermined the existing financial safety net, especially deposit insurance. But this wasn’t a deep conceptual issue: when the crisis struck, I’m sure I wasn’t the only economist whose reaction was not ‘How can this be happening?” but rather to yell at oneself, ‘Diamond Dybvig, you idiot!’

(The Diamond-Dybvig model is an influential model of bank runs and related financial crises. The model shows how banks’ mix of illiquid assets (such as business or mortgage loans) and liquid liabilities (deposits which may be withdrawn at any time) may give rise to selffulfilling panics among depositors.)

In a more subtle way, economists were also under-informed about the surge in housing prices that we now know represented a huge bubble, whose bursting was at the heart of the Great Recession. In this case, rising home prices were an unmistakable story. But most economists who looked at these prices focused on broad aggregates say, national average home prices in the United States. And these aggregates, while up substantially, were still in a range that could seemingly be rationalized by appealing to factors like low interest rates. The trouble, it turned out, was that these aggregates masked the reality, because they averaged home prices in locations with elastic housing supply (say, Houston or Atlanta) with those in which supply was inelastic (Florida or Spain); looking at the latter clearly showed increases that could not be easily rationalized.

Let me add a third form of data that were available but largely ignored: it’s fairly remarkable that more wasn’t made of the sharp rise in household debt, which should have suggested something unsustainable about the growth of the 2001-7 era. And in the aftermath of the crisis macroeconomists, myself included (Eggertsson and Krugman, 2012) began taking private-sector leverage seriously in a way they should arguably have been doing before.

So did economists ignore warning signs they should have heeded? Yes. One way to summarize their (our) failure is that they ignored evidence that the private sector was engaged in financial overreach on multiple fronts, with financial institutions too vulnerable, housing prices in a bubble, and household debt unsustainable. But did this failure of observation indicate the need for a fundamental revision of how we do macroeconomics? That’s much less clear.

First, was the failure of prediction a consequence of failures in the economic framework that can be fixed by adopting a radically different framework? It’s true that a significant wing of both macroeconomists and financial economists were in the thrall of the efficient markets hypothesis, believing that financial overreach simply cannot happen or at any rate that it can only be discovered after the fact, because markets know what they are doing better than any observer. But many macroeconomists, especially in policy institutions, knew better than to trust markets to always get it right especially those who had studied or been involved with the Asian crisis of the 1990s. Yet they (we) also missed some or all of the signs of overreach. Why?

My answer may seem unsatisfying, but I believe it to be true: for the most part what happened was a demonstration of the old line that predictions are hard, especially about the future. It’s a complicated world out there, and one’s ability to track potential threats is limited. Almost nobody saw the Asian crisis coming, either. For that matter, how many people worried about political disruption of oil supplies before 1973? And so on. At any given time there tends to be a set of conventional indicators everyone looks at, determined less by fundamental theory than by recent events, and big, surprise crises almost by definition happen due to factors not on that list. If you like, it’s as if meteorologists with limited resources concentrated those resources in places that had helped track previous storms, leading to the occasional surprise when a storm comes from an unusual direction.

A different question is whether, now that we know whence the 2008 crisis came, it points to a need for deep changes in macroeconomic thinking. As I’ve already noted, bank runs have been fairly well understood for a long time; we just failed to note the changing definition of banks. The bursting of the housing bubble, with its effects on residential investment and wealth, was conceptually just a negative shock to aggregate demand.

The role of household leverage and forced deleveraging is a bigger break from conventional macroeconomics, even as done by saltwater economists who never bought into efficient markets and were aware of the risk of financial crises. That said, despite the impressive empirical work of Mian and Sufi (2011) and my own intellectual investment in the subject, I don’t think we can consider incorporating debt and leverage a fundamental new idea, as opposed to a refinement at the margin.

It’s true that introducing a role for household debt in spending behaviour makes the short-run equilibrium of the economy dependent on a stock variable, the level of debt. But this implicit role of stock variables in short-run outcomes isn‘t new: after all, nobody has ever questioned the notion that investment flows depend in part on the existing capital stock, and I’m not aware that many macroeconomists consider this a difficult conceptual issue.

And I’m not even fully convinced that household debt played that large a role in the crisis. Did household spending fall that much more than one would have expected from the simple wealth effects of the housing bust?

My bottom line is that the failure of nearly all macroeconomists, even of the saltwater camp, to predict the 2008 crisis was similar in type to the Met Office failure in 1987, a failure of observation rather than a fundamental failure of concept. Neither the financial crisis nor the Great Recession that followed required a rethinking of basic ideas.

III. Not believing in (confidence) fairies

Once the Great Recession had happened, the advanced world found itself in a situation not seen since the 1930s, except in Japan, with policy interest rates close to zero everywhere. This raised the practical question of how governments and central banks should and would respond, of which more later.

For economists, it raised the question of what to expect as a result of those policy responses. And the predictions they made were, in a sense, out-of-sample tests of their theoretical framework: economists weren’t trying to reproduce the historical time-series behaviour of aggregates given historical policy regimes, they were trying to predict the effects of policies that hadn’t been applied in modern times in a situation that hadn’t occurred in modern times.

In making these predictions, the deep divide in macroeconomics came into play, making a mockery of those who imagined that time had narrowed the gap between saltwater and freshwater schools. But let me put the freshwater school on one side, again pending later discussion, and talk about the performance of the macroeconomists, many of them trained at MIT or Harvard in the 1970s, who had never abandoned their belief that activist policy can be effective in dealing with short-run fluctuations. I would include in this group Ben Bernanke, Olivier Blanchard, Christina Romer, Mario Draghi, and Larry Summers, among those close to actual policy, and a variety of academics and commentators, such as Simon Wren-Lewis, Martin Wolf, and, of course, yours truly, in supporting roles.

I think it’s fair to say that everyone in this group came into the crisis with some version of Hicksian sticky-price IS-LM as their default, back-of-the-envelope macroeconomic model. Many were at least somewhat willing to work with DSGE models, maybe even considering such models superior for many purposes. But when faced with what amounted to a regime change from normal conditions to an economy where policy interest rates couldn’t fall, they took as their starting point what the Hicksian approach predicted about policy in a liquidity trap. That is, they did not rush to develop new theories, they pretty much stuck with their existing models.

These existing models made at least three strong predictions that were very much at odds with what many inhuential figures in the political and business worlds (backed by a few economists) were saying.

First. Hicksian macroeconomics said that very large budget deficits, which one might normally have expected to drive interest rates sharply higher, would not have that effect near the zero lower bound.

Second, the same approach predicted that even very large increases in the monetary base would not lead to high inflation, or even to corresponding increases in broader monetary aggregates.

Third, this approach predicted a positive multiplier, almost surely greater than 1, on changes in government spending and taxation.

These were not common-sense propositions. Non-economists were quite sure that the huge budget deficits the US ran in 2009-10 would bring on an attack by the ‘bond vigilantes’. Many financial commentators and political figures warned that the Fed’s expansion of its balance sheet would ‘debase the dollar’ and cause high inflation. And many political and policy figures rejected the Keynesian proposition that spending more would expand the economy, spending less lead to contraction.

In fact, if you‘re looking for a post-2008 equivalent to the kinds of debate that raged in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, a conflict between old ideas based on pre-crisis thinking, and new ideas inspired by the crisis, your best candidate would be fiscal policy. The old guard clung to the traditional Keynesian notion of a government spending multiplier somewhat limited by automatic stabilizers, but still greater than 1. The new economic thinking that achieved actual real-world influence during the crisis and aftermath-as opposed, let’s be honest, to the kind of thinking found in this issue mostly involved rejecting the Keynesian multiplier in favour of the doctrine of expansionary austerity, the argument that cutting public spending would crowd in large amounts of private spending by increasing confidence (Alesina and Ardagna, 2010). (The claim that bad things happen when public debt crosses a critical threshold also played an important real-world role, but was less a doctrine than a claimed empirical observation.)

So here, at least, there was something like a classic crisis-inspired confrontation between tired old ideas and a radical new doctrine. Sad to say, however, as an empirical matter the old ideas were proved right, at least insofar as anything in economics can be settled by experience, while the new ideas crashed and burned. Interest rates stayed low despite huge deficits. Massive expansion in the monetary base did not lead to infiation. And the experience of austerity in the euro area, coupled with the natural experiments created by some of the interregional aspects of the Obama stimulus, ended up strongly supporting a conventional, Keynesian view of fiscal policy, Even the magnitude of the multiplier now looks to be around 1.5, which was the number conventional wisdom suggested in advance of the crisis.

So the crisis and aftermath did indeed produce a confrontation between innovative new ideas and traditional views largely rooted in the 1930s. But the movie failed to follow the Hollywood script: the stodgy old ideas led to broadly accurate predictions, were indeed validated to a remarkable degree, while the new ideas proved embarrassingly wrong. Macroeconomics didn’t change radically in response to crisis because old-fashioned models, confronted with a new situation, did just fine.

IV. The case of the missing deflation

I’ve just argued that the lack of a major rethinking of macroeconomics in the aftermath of crisis was reasonable, given that conventional, off-the-shelf macroeconomics performed very well. But this optimistic assessment needs to be qualified in one important respect: while the demand side of economy did just about what economists trained at MIT in the 1970s thought it would, the supply side didn’t.

As I said, the experience of stagflation effectively convinced the whole profession of the validity of the natural-rate hypothesis. Almost everyone agreed that there was no long-run inflation unemployment trade-off. The great saltwater freshwater divide was, instead, about whether there were usable short-run trade-offs.

But if the natural-rate hypothesis was correct, sustained high unemployment should have led not just to low inflation but to continually declining inflation, and eventually deflation. You can see a bit of this in some of the most severely depressed economies, notably Greece. But deflation fears generally failed to materialize.

Put slightly differently, even saltwater, activist-minded macroeconomists came into the crisis as ‘accelerationists’: they expected to see a downward-sloping relationship between unemployment and the rate of change of inflation. What we’ve seen instead is, at best, something like the 1960s version of the Phillips curve, a downward-sloping relationship between unemployment and the level of inflation and even that relationship appears weak.

Obviously this empirical failure has not gone unnoticed. Broadly, those attempting to explain price behaviour since 2008 have gone in two directions. One side, e.g. Blanchard (2016), invokes ‘anchored’ inflation expectations: the claim that after a long period of low, stable inflation, price-setters throughout the economy became insensitive to recent inflation history, and continued to build 2 per cent or so inflation into their decisions even after a number of years of falling below that target. The other side. e.g. Daly and Hobijn (2014), harking back to Tobin (1972) and Akerlof er a1. (1996), invokes downward nominal wage rigidity to argue that the natural rate hypothesis loses validity at low inflation rates.

In a deep sense, I’d argue that these two explanations have more in common than they may seem to at first sight. The anchored-expectations story may preserve the outward form of an accelerationist Phillips curve, but it assumes that the process of expectations formation changes, for reasons not fully explained, at low inflation rates. The nominal rigidity story assumes that there is a form of money illusion. opposition to outright nominal wage cuts, that is also not fully explained but becomes significant at low overall inflation rates.

Both stories also seem to suggest the need for aggressive expansionary policy when inflation is below target: otherwise there’s the risk that expectations may become unanchored on the downward side, or simply that the economy will suffer persistent, unnecessary slack because the downward rigidity of wages is binding for too many workers.

Finally. I would argue that it is important to admit that both stories are ex post explanations of macroeconomic behaviour that was not widely predicted in advance of the post-2008 era. Pre-2008, the general view even on the saltwater side was that stable inflation was a sufficient indicator of an economy operating at potential output, that any persistent negative output gap would lead to steadily declining inflation and eventually outright deflation. This view was, in fact, a key part of the intellectual case for inflation targeting as the basis of monetary policy. If inflation will remain stable at, say, 1 per cent even in a persistently depressed economy. it’s all too easy to see how policymakers might give themselves high marks even while in reality failing at their job.

But while this is a subjective impression, I haven’t done a statistical analysis of recent literature, it does seem that surprisingly few calls for a major reconstruction of macroeconomics focus on the area in which old-fashioned macroeconomics did, in fact, perform badly post-crisis.

There have, for example, been many calls for making the financial sector and financial frictions much more integral to our models than they are, which is a reasonable thing to argue. But their absence from DSGE models wasn’t the source of any major predictive failures. Has there been any comparable chorus of demands that we rethink the inflation process, and reconsider the natural rate hypothesis? Of course there have been some papers along those lines, but none that have really resonated with the profession.

Why not? As someone who came of academic age just as the saltwater freshwater divide was opening up, I think I can offer a still-relevant insight: understanding wage and price-setting is hard, basically just not amenable to the tools we as economists have in our kit. We start with rational behaviour and market equilibrium as a baseline, and try to get economic dysfunction by tweaking that baseline at the edges; this approach has generated big insights in many areas, but wages and prices isn’t one of them.

Consider the paths followed by the two schools of macroeconomics.

Freshwater theory began with the assumption that wage and price-setters were rational maximizers, but with imperfect information, and that this lack of information explained the apparent real effects of nominal shocks. But this approach became obviously untenable by the early 1980s, when inflation declined only gradually despite mass unemployment. Now what?

One possible route would have been to drop the assumption of fully rational behaviour, which was basically the New Keynesian response. For the most part, however, those who had bought into Lucas-type models chose to cling to the maximizing model, which was economics as they knew how to do it, despite attempts by the data to tell them it was wrong. Let me be blunt: real business cycle theory was always a faintly (or more than faintly) absurd enterprise, a desperate attempt to protect intellectual capital in the teeth of reality.

But the New Keynesian alternative, while far better, wasn’t especially satisfactory either. Clever modellers pointed out that in the face of imperfect competition the aggregate costs of departures from perfectly rational price-setting could be much larger than the individual costs. As a result, small menu costs or a bit of bounded rationality could be consistent with widespread price and wage stickiness.

To be blunt again. however, in practice this insight served as an excuse rather than a basis for deep understanding. Sticky prices could be made respectable just allowing modellers to assume something like one-period-ahead price-setting, in turn letting models that were otherwise grounded in rationality and equilibrium produce something not too inconsistent with real-world observation. New Keynesian modelling thus acted as a kind of escape clause rather than a foundational building block.

But is that escape clause good enough to explain the failure of deflation to emerge despite multiple years of very high unemployment? Probably not. And yet we still lack a compelling alternative explanation, indeed any kind of big idea. At some level, wage and price behaviour in a depressed economy seems to be a subject for which our intellectual tools are badly fitted.

The good news is that if one simply assumed that prices and wages are sticky, appealing to the experience of the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s (which never experienced a true deflationary spiral), one did reasonably well on other fronts.

So my claim that basic macroeconomics worked very well after the crisis needs to be qualified by what looks like a big failure in our understanding of price dynamics but this failure didn’t do too much damage in giving rise to bad advice, and hasn’t led to big new ideas because nobody seems to have good ideas to offer.

V. The system sort of worked

In 2009 Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke made a splash with a data comparison between the global slump to date and the early stages of the Great Depression; they showed that at the time of writing the world economy was in fact tracking quite close to the implosion that motivated Keynes’s famous essay ‘The Great Slump of 1930’ (Eichengreen and O’Rourke, 2009)

Subsequent updates, however, told a different story. Instead of continuing to plunge as it did in 1930, by the summer of 2009 the world economy first stabilized, then began to recover. Meanwhile, financial markets also began to normalize; by late 2009 many measures of financial stress were more or less back to pre-crisis levels.

So the world financial system and the world economy failed to implode. Why?

We shouldn’t give policy-makers all of the credit here. Much of what went right, or at least failed to go wrong, refiected institutional changes since the 1930s. Shadow banking and wholesale funding markets were deeply stressed, but deposit insurance still protected at good part of the banking system from runs. There never was much discretionary fiscal stimulus, but the automatic stabilizers associated with large welfare states kicked in, well, automatically: spending was sustained by government transfers, while disposable income was buffered by falling tax receipts.

That said, policy responses were clearly much better than they were in the 1930s. Central bankers and fiscal authorities officials rushed to shore up the financial system through a combination of emergency lending and outright bailouts; international cooperation assured that there were no sudden failures brought on by shortages of key currencies. As a result, disruption of credit markets was limited in both scope and duration. Measures of financial stress were back to pre-Lehman levels by June 2009.

Meanwhile, although fiscal stimulus was modest, peaking at about 2 per cent of GDP in the United States, during 2008-9 governments at least refrained from drastic tightening of fiscal policy, allowing automatic stabilizers, which, as I said, were far stronger than they had been in the 1930s to work.

Overall, then, policy did a relatively adequate job of containing the crisis during its most acute phase. As Daniel Drezner argues (2012), ‘the system worked’-well enough, anyway, to avert collapse.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, once the risk of catastrophic collapse was averted, the story of policy becomes much less happy. After practising more or less Keynesian policies in the acute phase of the crisis, governments reverted to type: in much of the advanced world, fiscal policy became Hellenized, that is, every nation was warned that it could become Greece any day now unless it turned to fiscal austerity. Given the validation of Keynesian multiplier analysis, we can confidently assert that this turn to austerity contributed to the sluggishness of the recovery in the United States and the even more disappointing, stuttering pace of recovery in Europe.

Figure 1 sums up the story by comparing real GDP per capita during two episodes: Western Europe after 1929 and the EU as a whole since 2007. In the modern episode, Europe avoided the catastrophic declines of the early 1930s, but its recovery has been so slow and uneven that at this point it is tracking below its performance in the Great Depression.

Now, even as major economies turned to fiscal austerity, they turned to unconventional monetary expansion. How much did this help? The literature is confusing enough to let one believe pretty much whatever one wants to. Clearly Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes’ intervention (Draghi, 2012) had a dramatic effect on markets, heading off what might have been another acute crisis, but we never did get a clear test of how well outright monetary transactions would have worked in practice, and the evidence on the effectiveness of Fed policies is even less clear.

The purpose of this paper is not, however, to evaluate the decisions of policy-makers, but rather to ask what lessons macroeconomists should and did take from events. And the main lesson from 2010 onwards was that policy-makers don’t listen to us very much, except at moments of extreme stress.

This is clearest in the case of the turn to austerity, which was not at all grounded in conventional macroeconomic models. True, policy-makers were able to find some economists telling them what they wanted to hear, but the basic Hicksian approach that did pretty well over the whole period clearly said that depressed economies near the zero lower bound should not be engaging in fiscal contraction. Never mind, they did it anyway.

Even on monetary policy, where economists ended up running central banks to a degree I believe was unprecedented, the influence of macroeconomic models was limited at best. A basic Hicksian approach suggests that monetary policy is more or less irrelevant in a liquidity trap. Refinements (Krugman, 1998; Eggertsson and Woodford, 2003) suggested that central banks might be able to gain traction by raising their inflation targets, but that never happened.

The point, then, is that policy failures after 2010 tell us relatively little about the state of macroeconomics or the ways it needs to change, other than that it would be nice if people with actual power paid more attention. Macroeconomists aren’t, however, the only researchers with that problem; ask climate scientists how it’s going in their world.

Meanwhile, however, what happened in 2008-9, or more precisely, what didn’t happen, namely utter disaster, did have an important impact on macroeconomics. For by taking enough good advice from economists to avoid catastrophe, policy-makers in turn took off what might have been severe pressure on economists to change their own views.

VI. That 80s show

Why hasn’t macroeconomics been transformed by (relatively) recent events in the way it was by events in the 1930s or the 1970s? Maybe the key point to remember is that such transformations are rare in economics, or indeed in any field. ‘Science advances one funeral at a time,’ quipped Max Planck: researchers rarely change their views much in the light of experience or evidence. The 1930s and the 1970s, in which senior economists changed their minds, eg. Lionel Robbins converting to Keynesianism, were therefore exceptional.

What made them exceptional? Each case was marked by developments that were both clearly inconsistent with widely held views and sustained enough that they couldn’t be written off as aberrations. Lionel Robbins published The Great Depression, a very classical/Austrian interpretation that prescribed a return to the gold standard, in 1934. Would he have become a Keynesian if the Depression had ended by the mid-1930s? The widespread acceptance of the natural-rate hypothesis came more easily, because it played into the neoclassical mindset, but still might not have happened as thoroughly if stagflation had been restricted to a few years in the early 1970s.

From an intellectual point of view, I’d argue, the Great Recession and aftermath bear much more resemblance to the 1979-82 Volcker double-dip recession and subsequent recovery in the United States than to either the 1930s or the 1970s. And here I can speak in part from personal recollection.

By the late 1970s the great division of macroeconomics into rival saltwater and freshwater schools had already happened, so the impact of the Volcker recession depended on which school you belonged to. But in both cases it changed remarkably few minds.

For saltwater macroeconomists, the recession and recovery came mainly as validation of their pre-existing beliefs. They believed that monetary policy has real effects, even if announced and anticipated; sure enough, monetary contraction was followed by a large real downturn. They believed that prices are sticky and inflation has a great deal of inertia, so that monetary tightening would produce a ‘clockwise spiral’ in unemployment and inflation: unemployment would eventually return to the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) at a lower rate of inflation, but only after a transition period of high unemployment. And that’s exactly what we saw.

Freshwater economists had a harder time: Lucas-type models said that monetary contraction could cause a recession only if unanticipated, and as long as economic agents couldn’t distinguish between individual shocks and an aggregate fall in demand. None of this was a tenable description of 1979-82. But recovery came soon enough and fast enough that their worldview could, in effect, ride out the storm. (I was at one conference where a freshwater economist, questioned about current events, snapped ‘I’m not interested in the latest residual.’)

What I see in the response to 2008 and after is much the same dynamic. Half the macroeconomics profession feels mainly validated by events-correctly, I’d say, although as part of that faction I would say that, wouldn’t I? The other half should be reconsidering its views but they should have done that 30 years ago, and this crisis, like that one, was sufficiently well-handled by policy-makers that there was no irresistible pressure for change. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that it was well-handled in an objective sense: in my view we suffered huge, unnecessary losses of output and employment because of the premature turn to austerity. But the world avoided descending into a full 1930s-style depression, which in effect left doctrinaire economists free to continue believing what they wanted to believe.)

If all this sounds highly cynical, well, I guess it is. There’s a lot of very good research being done in macroeconomics now, much of it taking advantage of the wealth of new data provided by bad events. Our understanding of both fiscal policy and price dynamics are, I believe, greatly improved. And funerals will continue to feed intellectual progress: younger macroeconomists seem to me to be much more flexible and willing to listen to the data than their counterparts were, say, 20 years ago.

But the quick transformation of macroeconomics many hoped for almost surely isn’t about to happen, because events haven’t forced that kind of transformation. Many economists myself included are actually feeling pretty good about our basic understanding of macro. Many others, absent real-world catastrophe, feel free to take the blue pill and keep believing what they want to believe.

What happened when the US last introduced tariffs? – Dominic Rushe.

Anyone?

Willis Hawley and Reed Smoot were reviled for a bill blamed for triggering the Great Depression. Will Trump follow their lead?

America inches towards a potential trade war over steel prices, can Donald Trump hear whispering voices?

Alone in the Oval Office in the wee dark hours, illuminated by the glow of his Twitter app, does he feel the sudden chill flowing from those freshly hung gold drapes? It is the shades of Smoot and Hawley.

Willis Hawley and Reed Smoot have haunted Congress since the 1930s when they were the architects of the Smoot Hawley tariff bill, among the most decried pieces of legislation in US history and a bill blamed by some for not only for triggering the Great Depression but also contributing to the start of the second world war.

Pilloried even in their own time, their bloodied names have been brought out like Jacob Marley’s ghost every time America has taken a protectionist turn on trade policy. And America has certainly taken a protectionist turn.

Successful presidents including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have campaigned on the perils of free trade only to drop the rhetoric once installed in the White House. Trump called Mexicans “rapists” on the campaign trail. And China? “There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy. But that’s exactly what they are,” Trump said.

As commander in chief he has shown no signs of softening and this week took major action announcing steel imports would face a 25% tariff and aluminium 10%.

Canada and the EU said they would bring forward their own countermeasures. Mexico, China and Brazil have also said they are considering retaliatory steps.

Trump doesn’t seem worried. “Trade wars are good,” he tweeted even as the usually friendly Wall Street Journal thundered that “Trump’s tariff folly ”is the “biggest policy blunder of his Presidency”.

It is not his first protectionist move. In his first days in office the president has vetoed the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the biggest trade deal in a generation, said he will review the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), a deal he has called “the worst in history”, and had his visit with Mexico’s president cancelled over his plans to make them pay for a border wall.

Free traders may have become complacent after hearing tough talk on trade from so many presidential candidates on the campaign trail only to watch them furiously back pedal when they get into ofhce, said Dartmouth professor and trade expert Douglas Irwin. “Unfortunately that pattern may have been broken,” he says. “It looks like we have to take Trump literally and seriously about his threats on trade.”

Not since Herbert Hoover has a US president been so down on free trade. And Hoover was the man who signed off on Smoot and Hawley’s bill.

Hawley, an Oregon congressman and a professor a history and economics, became a stock figure in the textbooks of his successors thanks to his partnership with the lean, patrician figure of Senator Reed Smoot, a Mormon apostle known as the “sugar senator” for his protectionist stance towards Utah’s sugar beet industry.

Before he was shackled to Hawley for eternity Smoot was more famous for his Mormonism and his abhorrence of bawdy books, a disgust that inspired the immortal headline “Smoot Smites Smut” after he attacked the importation of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, Robert Burns’ more risque poems and similar texts as “worse than opium I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books.”

But it was imports of another kind that secured Smoot and Hawley’s place in infamy.

The US economy was doing well in the 1920s as the consumer society was being born to the sound of jazz. The Tariff Act began life largely as a politically motivated response to appease the agricultural lobby that had fallen behind as American workers, and money, consolidated in the cities.

Foreign demand for US produce had soared during the first world war, and farm prices doubled between 1915 and 1918. A wave of land speculation followed and farmers took on debt as they looked to expand production. By the early 1920s farmers had found themselves heavily in debt and squeezed by tightening monetary policy and an unexpected collapse in commodity prices.

Nearly a quarter of the American labor force was then employed on the land, and Congress could not ignore heartland America. Cheap foreign imports and their toll on the domestic market became a hot issue in the 1928 election. Even bananas weren’t safe. Irwin quotes one critic in his book Peddling Protectionism: Smoot Hawley and the Great Depression: “The enormous imports of cheap bananas into the United States tend to curtail the domestic consumption of fresh fruits produced in the United States.”

Hoover won in a landslide against Albert E Smith, an out of touch New Yorker who didn’t appeal to middle America, and soon after promised to pass “limited” tariff reforms.

Hawley started the bill but with Smoot behind him it metastasized as lobby groups shoehorned their products into the bill, eventually proposing higher tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods.

Siren voices warned of dire consequences. Henry Ford reportedly told Hoover the bill was “an economic stupidity”.

Critics of the tariffs were being aided and abetted by “internationalists” willing to “betray American interests”, said Smoot. Reports claiming the bill would harm the US economy were decried as fake news. Republican Frank Crowther, dismissed press criticism as “demagoguery and untruth, scandalous untruth”.

In October 1929 as the Senate debated the tariff bill the stock market crashed. When the bill finally made it to Hoover’s desk in June 1930 it had morphed from his original “limited” plan to the “highest rates ever known”, according to a New York Times editorial.

The extent to which Smoot and Hawley were to blame for the coming Great Depression is still a matter of debate. “Ask a thousand economists and you will get a thousand and five answers,” said Charles Geisst, professor of economics at Manhattan College and author of Wall Street: A History.

What is apparent is that the bill sparked international outrage and a backlash. Canada and Europe reacted with a wave of protectionist tariffs that deepened a global depression that presaged the rise of Hitler and the second world war. A myriad other factors contributed to the Depression, and to the second world war, but inarguably one consequence of Smoot Hawley in the US was that never again would a sitting US president be so avowedly anti trade. Until today.

Franklin D Roosevelt swept into power in 1933 and for the first time the president was granted the authority to undertake trade negotiations to reduce foreign barriers on US exports in exchange for lower US tariffs.

The backlash against Smoot and Hawley continued to the present day. The average tariff on dutiable imports was 45% in 1930; by 2010 it was 5%.

The lessons of Smoot Hawley used to be taught in high schools. Presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan have enlisted the unhappy duo when facing off with free trade critics. “I have been around long enough to remember that when we did that once before in this century, something called Smoot Hawley, we lived through a nightmare,” Reagan, who came of age during the Great Depression, said in 1984.

They even got a mention in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when actor Ben Stein’s teacher bores his class with it. “I don’t think the current generation are taught it. It’s in the past and we are more interested in the future.”

But that might be about to change. “The main lesson is that you have to worry about what other countries do. Countries will retaliate,” said Irwin. “When Congress was considering Smoot Hawley in the 1930s they didn’t consider what other countries might do in reaction. They thought other countries would remain passive. But other countries don’t remain passive.”

The consequences of a trade war today are far worse than in the 1930s. Exports of goods and services account for about 13% of US gross domestic product (GDP) the broadest measure of an economy. It was roughly 5% back in 1920.

“The US is much more engaged in trade, it’s much more a part of the fabric of the country, than it was in the 1920s and 1930s. That means the ripple effects are widespread. Many more industries will be hit by it and the scope for foreign retaliation, which in the case of Smoot Hawley was quite limited, is going to be much more widespread if a trade war was to start.”

“When you start talking about withdrawing from trade agreements or imposing tariffs of 35%, if you are doing that as a protectionist measure, that would be blowing up the system.”

That the promise of “blowing up the system” got Trump elected may be why the ghosts of Smoot and Hawley are once again walking the halls of Congress.

The Guardian

A Superpower Trade War Looms – Liam Dann. 

“If America, China relations become very difficult, our position becomes tougher because then we will be coerced to choose.”

It’s a nightmare scenario for a small trading nation with historic cultural and political links to the US, but an increasing economic reliance on China. A full blown trade war between China and the US could have devastating political consequences for us all.

In this case, it’s not New Zealand’s Prime Minister doing the worrying, it’s Singaporean leader Lee Hsien Loong.

His simple, blunt assessment of the risk posed by Donald Trump’s anti-China trade rhetoric caused a minor uproar in the diplomatically cautious Asian nation.

Here in New Zealand, where we face the same risks, we’re yet to officially confront the issue. And as issues go, it’s a big one: in the year to June 2016, New Zealand’s total trade (imports and exports) with China was $22.86 billion, compared to $16.25b with the US.

Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler has spoken most openly about his fears for the economic risk to New Zealand if the Trump Administration does some of the things it has threatened to do.

In a speech last month, Wheeler suggested that Trump’s Administration represents the greatest source of uncertainty for our economy – both in terms of his impact on the domestic economy and his potential to increase global trade protectionism. “Rationally speaking, there shouldn’t be a reason we should go into a trade war. But we have to be prepared,” says Auckland University Business School trade economist Dr Asha Sandra. China and the US are like Siamese twins, she says. In other words, their economies are now so intertwined that doing damage to one must hurt the other.

“I think they both know that if they start this, they will both go down. So I don’t think it should be a big risk. But the thing with Donald Trump, is you just don’t know. He has been running the most incoherent Administration we have seen,” Sandaram says. “What he says today is not correlated with what he says tomorrow … and what he’ll actually do. So we have to consider the possibility of an escalating trade war.”

For anyone who relies on global trade, Trump has said some frightening things. On the campaign trail, he talked about hitting Chinese imports with 45 per cent tariffs and accused China of currency manipulation. Since becoming President, he has pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. In a leaked recording, he has talked about imposing 10 per cent tariffs on all imports and is said to be considering border taxes.

His key trade adviser has been China hawk Peter Navarro, author of Death by China: Confronting the Dragon. And he has nominated Robert Lighthizer – who has accused China of unfair trade practices – as his US Trade Representative. Bloomberg has surfaced an article Lighthizer wrote in 2011 praising Ronald Reagan’s aggressive trade stance when Japan’s economic rise threatened the US.

There are concerns that Trump may look to follow those Reagan-era tactics, invoking section 301 of the US Trade Act, which allows a President to bestow “unfavourable trading status” on certain nations. It’s a measure the US hasn’t used since it adopted World Trade Organisation rules in 1995. And, as the many critics have warned, the world has changed. China is not like Japan, politically and militarily dependent on the US.

Last month, Wheeler told the Herald that his trade concerns deepened after visiting Washington DC at the start of the year. “I was in Washington recently talking to a number of senior people – very well connected to the Trump Administration. They were saying that the concerns around China are deeply felt. In other words, the Trump Administration has very strong views about currency manipulation and trade practices out of China. I found that deeply worrying.” Wheeler warns that the Trump risk comes on top of a protectionist trend which is already dampening global trade and threatening growth.

Long-time New Zealand trade advocate Stephen Jacobi agrees. “Undoubtedly it is a concern,” he says of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric. “It was already a concern. Protection was already on the rise and we had seen a slowing in trade growth as well.” The advent of the Trump Administration has thrown the spotlight on this he says. Jacobi, who was head of the NZ US Council as executive director from 2005 to 2014, is now executive director of the NZ China Council, so has a good perspective on New Zealand’s relationship with both economies.

“It is early days for the [Trump] Administration,” he says. “In fact the Administration isn’t even in place yet. We just have to withhold our judgment for a bit, however much it might pain us to do so, to see what actually happens.” From discussions he has had in Wellington, Jacobi believes New Zealand officials are very much taking that wait and see approach. That said, the Government has been working on a new trade policy strategy and is expected to release it this month. It will have to acknowledge the growing risks and look at alternatives to the TPP, Jacobi says. “But I doubt whether they will have given up on the US just yet. “So concern, yes. Panic no,”

Professor Natasha Hamilton-Hart, with the Department of Management and International Business at Auckland University, says one of the direct risks to New Zealand is the prospect that Trump scores an own goal with his economic policies. “I know the markets seem to be pricing in good times on the horizon but I’m pretty sceptical that that is going to last. She doesn’t see a sustainable growth trajectory coming out of either the tax or infrastructure programme.

Things like border taxes and tariffs would be distortionary and depress consumer spending, she says. “We will see an increase in military spending and with the tax cut will start to see an increase in the deficit, which is going to have implications for US interest rates. “There are potentially quite contractionary processes in the medium term. They just don’t seem to have a coherent, workable plan.”

Then there are the diplomatic risks around a President who tweets his midnight thoughts to the world.. Trump’s impact on Asia-Pacific trading relationships is a serious concern. “This might be overly optimistic,” Hamilton-Hart says. “I’m doubtful that it will come to a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese exports because that would be so disrupting and damaging to US firms and US consumers. It’s going to double the price of everything in Walmart.”

“What I think is more likely is that we will see a stronger line of creeping protectionism … so cancelling the TPP, looking at alternatives to dispute settlements outside the WTO, that kind of thing. I imagine we’ll see a lot more of that. And I imagine that is what China is gearing up for. So yeah, a less rule based trading system.”

The irony of Trump’s trade deficit obsession is that running big deficits is what actually gives you power on the global economic stage, Hamilton-Hart says. In other words, a big net importer is the customer and the customer is always right. “So if you stop running those trade deficits, then you no longer have the ability to throw your weight around. If Donald Trump were to significantly withdraw the US from world trade by putting up barriers and shrinking the US economy … that can only go with a reduction in US influence.”

China, for its part, doesn’t appear keen on a trade war and isn’t rushing to fill the trade leadership void left by the US . For example, it appears to be carefully maintaining the strength of the Renminbi to avoid inflaming US currency hawks. “They certainly do not want a trade war,” Jacobi says. “They’ve got enormous economic interests with the United States. And I think you can rely on the Chinese to manage all of that in a very sensible way.”

What worries Jacobi more is the risk of America over-playing its hand on security and sovereignty issues – like Taiwan. “That’s much more worrying because you can’t always guarantee how a nationalistic China might react,” he says. “When you touch on issues of national sovereignty with the Chinese, you don’t get the same sort of reaction that you do on other things.”

Jacobi does have faith that the US system, with its constitutional checks and balances on executive power, will work – in time. “But he [Trump] has a lot of power to do things in the short term. While congress catches up.” Likewise, there will be powerful lobbying forces in the US business community who will push back at things he might want to do. “But they also take time,” Jacobi says. “I’m confident that over time the right decisions should be made. But what damage will be done in the meantime is a bit of an unknown. And the world has lost a whole lot of leadership around open markets and free trade.”

So where does that leave the New Zealand and its Asia-Pacific trading partners?

The remaining TPP signatories head to Chile later this month to discuss what, if anything, is salvageable without America. The Americans have said they will send a representative to that meeting, although it’s not clear who that will be or what level of interest they will take, say Jacobi. “And China will also be around. Because there is a Pacific Alliance meeting [a Latin American trading bloc] and the Chinese have been invited to that.”

There is a need for quiet diplomacy behind the scenes and New Zealand could play a key role in that, says Jacobi. But we need to be careful not to upset the other members of the TPP. Particularly the Japanese who, says Jacobi, “are in a very invidious position”. “They had this ballistic missile sent from North Korea the other day. They have got real security concerns, for which they have to rely on the US. They are not going to be drawn to take issue with the United States unnecessarily.”

China is already a member of an alternative multilateral trade group – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which also includes New Zealand. If completed, that free trade agreement (FTA) would include the 10 member states of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the six states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand).

There have been suggestions that China may look to push this deal as a TPP alternative. But China hasn’t yet shown any signs of taking the lead, says Jacobi. On the one hand, we’ve heard rhetoric from Chinese President Xi Jinping about China’s global leadership, but the reality is that they haven’t taken a major role in multilateral negotiations yet, Jacobi says. “Maybe it’s time. They do have an enormous ability now to fill a vacuum.”

It is a different game now, says Hamilton-Hart, who believes the TPP is effectively dead. “So do we make a much better effort to get on board with RCEP?” she says. “Or are we going to hang in there and hope that we could do a bilateral with the US … which I think would be a bad thing to do as we’d be massively disadvantaged in the negotiations.” 

Jacobi agrees that the bilateral path is problematic. “We can’t afford not to push on any open door,” he says. “But the reality is that is bloody hard going. Look at the experience we had with Korea, very complicated.”

Trump has said he’ll do bilateral deals with TPP partners. But we would want dairy concessions and the US would want a lot of movement on medicines, says Jacobi. And neither would play well politically for either nation. “We’ve got to talk, but will we be high up on the list? And will it be better than TPP? Most unlikely”

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic,” says Auckland University’s Sandaram. “There may be some opportunities as a small country where you could fly under the radar. It’s harder for a big country to be non-aligned.” This could be a unique opportunity, she says. “We could try and stay neutral and expand into both markets.” Sandaram, who has been based in New Zealand for only a year, feels New Zealand is sometimes overly cautious about Chinese sensitivities. “It’s not a traditional link like the UK or Australia, so maybe it is because it is new that we are so cautious.”

Jacobi believes the Chinese have a good understanding of our deep political and economic ties with the Western nations, and particularly the US. “In fact, one of the positive aspects they see in our relationship is that we are an interesting interlocutor because of our attachment to the West,” he says. “But they also know our trade and economic ties are towards China. So whether that will amount to cutting slack … I’m not sure.”

Both Sandaram and Jacobi believe we have more options than we did a generation ago. “We need to diversify,” says Sandaram. “China is decelerating. But we have Asian powers that are fast growing economies. India, Malaysia, Indonesia – with the emerging middle class there is going to be demand for goods that New Zealand exports. “That’s a great opportunity I think we’re uniquely placed.”

New Zealand, both at a government and a business level, has to be proactive about trade, now more so than ever, says Jacobi. “This is not something that New Zealand can just sit back and observe. We don’t have that luxury. This is about our economic livelihood and we have to have a say in it.”

NZ Herald 

What Mainstream Economists Get Wrong About Secular Stagnation – Servaas Storm. 

Forget the myth of a savings glut causing near-zero interest rates. We have a shortage of aggregate demand, and only public spending and raising wages will change that.

Introduction

Nine years after the Great Financial Crisis, U.S. output growth has not returned to its pre-recession trend, even after interest rates hit the ‘zero lower bound’ (ZLB) and the unconventional monetary policy arsenal of the Federal Reserve has been all but exhausted. It is widely feared that this insipid recovery reflects a ‘new normal’, characterized by “secular stagnation” which set in already well before the global banking crisis of 2008 (Summers 2013, 2015).

This ‘new normal’ is characterized not just by this slowdown of aggregate economic growth, but also by greater income and wealth inequalities and a growing polarization of employment and earnings into high-skill, high-wage and low-skill, low-wage jobs—at the expense of middle-class jobs (Temin 2017; Storm 2017). The slow recovery, heightened job insecurity and economic anxiety have fueled a groundswell of popular discontent with the political establishment and made voters captive to Donald Trump’s siren song promising jobs and growth (Ferguson and Page 2017).

What are the causes of secular stagnation? What are the solutions to revive growth and get the U.S. economy out of the doldrums?

If we go by four of the papers commissioned by the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at its recent symposium to explore these questions, one headline conclusion stands out: the secular stagnation is caused by a heavy overdose of savings (relative to investment), which is caused by higher retirement savings due to declining population growth and an ageing labour force (Eggertson, Mehotra & Robbins 2017; Lu & Teulings 2017; Eggertson, Lancastre and Summers 2017), higher income inequality (Rachel & Smith 2017), and an inflow of precautionary Asian savings (Rachel & Smith 2017). All these savings end up as deposits, or ‘loanable funds’ (LF), in commercial banks. In earlier times, so the argument goes, banks would successfully channel these ‘loanable funds’ into productive firm investment — by lowering the nominal interest rate and thus inducing additional demand for investment loans.

But this time is different: the glut in savings supply is so large that banks cannot get rid of all the loanable funds even when they offer firms free loans—that is, even after they reduce the interest rate to zero, firms are not willing to borrow more in order to invest. The result is inadequate investment and a shortage of aggregate demand in the short run, which lead to long-term stagnation as long as the savings-investment imbalance persists. Summers (2015) regards a “chronic excess of saving over investment” as “the essence of secular stagnation”. Monetary policymakers at the Federal Reserve are in a fix, because they cannot lower the interest rate further as it is stuck at the ZLB. Hence, forces of demography and ageing, higher inequality and thrifty Chinese savers are putting the U.S. economy on a slow-moving turtle — and not much can be done, it seems, to halt the resulting secular stagnation.

This is clearly a depressing conclusion, but it is also wrong.

To see this, we have to understand why there is a misplaced focus on the market for loanable funds that ignores the role of fiscal policy that is plainly in front of us. In other words, we need to step back from the trees of dated models and see the whole forest of our economy.

The Market for Loanable Funds

In the papers mentioned, commercial banks must first mobilise savings in order to have the loanable funds (LF) to originate new (investment) loans or credit. Banks are therefore intermediaries between “savers” (those who provide the LF-supply) and “investors” (firms which demand the LF). Banks, in this narrative, do not create money themselves and hence cannot pre-finance investment by new money. They only move it between savers and investors.

We apparently live in a non-monetary (corn) economy—one that just exchanges a real good that everybody uses, like corn. Savings (or LF-supply) are assumed to rise when the interest rate R goes up, whereas investment (or LF-demand) must decline when R increases. This is the stuff of textbooks, as is illustrated by Greg Mankiw’s (1997, p. 63) explanation:

“In fact, saving and investment can be interpreted in terms of supply an demand. In this case, the ‘good’ is loanable funds, and its ‘price’ is the interest rate. Saving is the supply of loans—individuals lend their savings to investors, or they deposit their saving in a bank that makes the loan for them. Investment is the demand for loanable funds—investors borrow from the public directly by selling bonds or indirectly by borrowing from banks. [….] At the equilibrium interest rate, saving equals investment and the supply of loans equals the demand.”

But the loanable funds market also forms the heart of complicated dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE) models, beloved by ‘freshwater’ and ‘saltwater’ economists alike (Woodford 2010), as should be clear from the commissioned INET papers as well. Figure 1 illustrates the loanable funds market in this scheme. The upward-sloping curve tells us that savings (or LF-supply) goes up as the interest rate R increases. The downward-sloping curve shows us that investment (or LF-demand) declines if the cost of capital (R) goes up. In the initial situation, the LF-market clears at a positive interest rate R0 > 0. Savings equal investment, which implies that LF-supply matches LF-demand, and in this—happy—equilibrium outcome, the economy can grow along some steady-state path.

To see how we can get secular stagnation in such a loanable-funds world, we introduce a shock, say, an ageing population (a demographic imbalance), a rise in (extreme) inequality, or an Asian savings glut, due to which the savings schedule shifts down. Equilibrium in the new situation should occur at R1 which is negative. But this can’t happen because of the ZLB: the nominal interest cannot decline below zero. Hence R is stuck at the ZLB and savings exceed investment, or LF-supply > LF-demand. This is a disequilibrium outcome which involves an over-supply of savings (relative to investment), in turn leading to depressed growth.

Ever since Knut Wicksell’s (1898) restatement of the doctrine, the loanable funds approach has exerted a surprisingly strong influence upon some of the best minds in the profession. Its appeal lies in the fact that it can be presented in digestible form in a simple diagram (as Figure 1), while its micro-economic logic matches the neoclassical belief in the ‘virtue of thrift’ and Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, which emphasize austerity, savings (before spending!) and delayed gratification as the path to bliss.

The problem with this model is that it is wrong (see Lindner 2015; Taylor 2016). Wrong in its conceptualisation of banks (which are not just intermediaries pushing around existing money, but which can create new money ex nihilo), wrong in thinking that savings or LF-supply have anything to do with “loans” or “credit,” wrong because the empirical evidence in support of a “chronic excess of savings over investment” is weak or lacking, wrong in its utter neglect of finance, financialization and financial markets, wrong in its assumption that the interest rate is some “market-clearing” price (the interest rate, as all central bankers will acknowledge, is the principal instrument of monetary policy), and wrong in the assumption that the two schedules—the LF-supply curve and the LF-demand curve—are independent of one another (they are not, as Keynes already pointed out).

I wish to briefly elaborate these six points. I understand that each of these criticisms is known and I entertain little hope that that any of this will make people reconsider their approach, analysis, diagnosis and conclusions. Nevertheless, it is important that these criticisms are raised and not shoveled under the carpet. The problem of secular stagnation is simply too important to be left mis-diagnosed.

First Problem: Loanable Funds Supply and Demand Are Not Independent Functions

Let me start with the point that the LF-supply and LF-demand curve are not two independent schedules. Figure 1 presents savings and investment as functions of only the interest rate R, while keeping all other variables unchanged. The problem is that the ceteris paribus assumption does not hold in this case. The reason is that savings and investment are both affected by, and at the same time determined by, changes in income and (changes in) income distribution. To see how this works, let us assume that the average propensity to save rises in response to the demographic imbalance and ageing. As a result, consumption and aggregate demand go down. Rational firms, expecting future income to decline, will postpone or cancel planned investment projects and investment declines (due to the negative income effect and for a given interest rate R0). This means that LF-demand curve in Figure 1 must shift downward in response to the increased savings. The exact point was made by Keynes (1936, p. 179):

“The classical theory of the rate of interest [the loanable funds theory] seems to suppose that, if the demand curve for capital shifts or if the curve relating the rate of interest to the amounts saved out of a given income shifts or if both these curves shift, the new rate of interest will be given by the point of intersection of the new positions of the two curves. But this is a nonsense theory. For the assumption that income is constant is inconsistent with the assumption that these two curves can shift independently of one another. If either of them shift, then, in general, income will change; with the result that the whole schematism based on the assumption of a given income breaks down … In truth, the classical theory has not been alive to the relevance of changes in the level of income or to the possibility of the level of income being actually a function of the rate of the investment.”

Let me try to illustrate this using Figure 2. Suppose there is an exogenous (unexplained) rise in the average propensity to save. In reponse, the LF-supply curve shifts down, but because (expected) income declines, the LF-demand schedule shifts downward as well. The outcome could well be that there is no change in equilibrium savings and equilibrium investment. The only change is that the ‘natural’ interest is now R1 and equal to the ZLB. Figure 2 is, in fact, consistent with the empirical analysis (and their Figure of global savings and investment) of Rachel & Smith. Let me be clear: Figure 2 is not intended to suggest that the loanable funds market is useful and theoretically correct. The point I am trying to make is that income changes and autonomous demand changes are much bigger drivers of both investment and saving decisions than the interest rate. Market clearing happens here—as Keynes was arguing—because the level of economic activity and income adjust, not because of interest-rate adjustment

Second Problem: Savings Do Not Fund Investment, Credit Does…

The loanable funds doctrine wrongly assumes that commercial bank lending is constrained by the prior availability of loanable funds or savings.  The simple point in response is that, in real life, modern banks are not just intermediaries between ‘savers’ and ‘investors’, pushing around already-existing money, but are money creating institutions. Banks create new money ex nihilo, i.e. without prior mobilisation of savings. This is illustrated by Werner’s (2014) case study of the money creation process by one individual commercial bank. What this means is that banks do pre-finance investment, as was noted by Schumpeter early on and later by Keynes (1939), Kaldor (1989), Kalecki, and numerous other economists.  It is for this reason that Joseph Schumpeter (1934, p. 74) called the money-creating banker ‘the ephor of the exchange economy’—someone who by creating credit (ex nihilo) is pre-financing new investments and innovation and enables “the carrying out of new combinations, authorizes people, in the name of society as it were, to form them.” Nicholas Kaldor (1989, p. 179) hit the nail on its head when he wrote that “[C]redit money has no ‘supply function’ in the production sense (since its costs of production are insignificant if not actually zero); it comes into existence as a result of bank lending and is extinguished through the repayment of bank loans. At any one time the volume of bank lending or its rate of expansion is limited only by the availability of credit-worthy borrowers.” Kaldor had earlier expressed his views on the endogeneity of money in his evidence to the Radcliffe Committee on the Workings of the Monetary System, whose report (1959) was strongly influenced by Kaldor’s argumentation. Or take Lord Adair Turner (2016, pp. 57) to whom the loanable-funds approach is 98% fictional, as he writes:

“Read an undergraduate textbook of economics, or advanced academic papers on financial intermediation, and if they describe banks at all, it is usually as follows: “banks take deposits from households and lend money to businesses, allocating capital between alternative capital investment possibilities.” But as a description of what modern banks do, this account is largely fictional, and it fails to capture their essential role and implications. […] Banks create credit, money, and thus purchasing power. […]  The vast majority of what we count as “money’ in modern economies is created in this fashion: in the United Kingdom 98% of money takes this form ….”

We therefore don’t need savings to make possible investment—or, in contrast to the Protestant Ethic, banks allow us to have ‘gratification’ even if we have not been ‘thrifty’ and austere, as long as there are slack resources in the economy.

It is by no means a secret that commercial banks create new money. As the Bank of England (2007) writes, “When bank make loans they create additional deposits for those that have borrowed” (Berry et al. 2007, p. 377).  Or consider the following statement from the Deutsche Bundesbank (2009): “The commercial banks can create money themselves ….”  Across the board, central bank economists, including economists working at the Bank for International Settlements (Borio and Disyatat 2011), have rejected the loanable funds model as a wrong description of how the financial system actually works (see McLeay et al. 2014a, 2014b; Jakab and Kumhof 2015). And the Deutsche Bundesbank (2017) leaves no doubt as to how the banking system works and money is created in actually-existing capitalism, stating that the ability of banks to originate loans does not depend on the prior availability of saving deposits. Bank of England economists Zoltan Jakab and Michael Kumhoff (2015) reject the loanable-funds approach in favour of a model with money-creating banks. In their model (as in reality), banks pre-finance investment; investment creates incomes; people save out of their incomes; and at the end of the day, ex-post savings equal investment. This is what Jakab and Kumhoff (2015) conclude:

“…. if the loan is for physical investment purposes, this new lending and money is what triggers investment and therefore, by the national accounts identity of saving and investment (for closed economies), saving. Saving is therefore a consequence, not a cause, of such lending. Saving does not finance investment, financing does. To argue otherwise confuses the respective macroeconomic roles of resources (saving) and debt-based money (financing).”

Savings are a consequence of credit-financed investment (rather than a prior condition) — and we cannot draw a savings-investment cross as in Figure 1, as if the two curves are independent. They are not. There exists therefore no ‘loanable funds market’ in which scarce savings constrain (through interest rate adjustments) the demand for investment loans. Highlighting the loanable funds fallacy, Keynes wrote in “The Process of Capital Formation” (1939):

“Increased investment will always be accompanied by increased saving, but it can never be preceded by it. Dishoarding and credit expansion provides not an alternative to increased saving, but a necessary preparation for it. It is the parent, not the twin, of increased saving.”

This makes it all the more remarkable that some of the authors of the commissioned conference papers continue to frame their analysis in terms of the discredited loanable funds market which wrongly assumes that savings have an existence of their own—separate from investment, the level of economic activity and the distribution of incomes.

Third Problem: The Interest Rate Is a Monetary Policy Instrument, Not a Market-Clearing Price

In loanable funds theory, the interest rate is a market price, determined by LF-supply and LF-demand (as in Figure 1). In reality, central bankers use the interest rate as their principal policy instrument (Storm and Naastepad 2012). It takes effort and a considerable amount of sophistry to match the loanable funds theory and the usage of the interest rate as a policy instrument. However, once one acknowledges the empirical fact that commercial banks create money ex nihilo, which means money supply is endogenous, the model of an interest-rate clearing loanable funds market becomes untenable.  Or as Bank of England economists Jakab and Kumhof (2015) argue:

“modern central banks target interest rates, and are committed to supplying as many reserves (and cash) as banks demand at that rate, in order to safeguard financial stability. The quantity of reserves is therefore a consequence, not a cause, of lending and money creation. This view concerning central bank reserves […] has been repeatedly described in publications of the world’s leading central banks.”

What this means is that the interest rate may well be at the ZLB, but this is not caused by a savings glut in the loanable funds market, but the result of a deliberate policy decision by the Federal Reserve—in an attempt to revive sluggish demand in a context of stagnation, subdued wage growth, weak or no inflation, substantial hidden un- and underemployment, and actual recorded unemployment being (much) higher than the NAIRU (see Storm and Naastepad 2012). Seen this way, the savings glut is the symptom (or consequence) of an aggregate demand shortage which has its roots in the permanent suppression of wage growth (relative to labour productivity growth), the falling share of wages in income, the rising inequalities of income and wealth (Taylor 2017) as well as the financialization of corporations (Lazonick 2017) and the economy as a whole (Storm 2018). It is not the cause of the secular stagnation—unlike in the loanable funds models.

Fourth Problem: The Manifest Absence of Finance and Financial Markets

What the various commissioned conference papers do not acknowledge is that the increase in savings (mostly due to heightened inequality and financialization) is not channeled into higher real-economy investment, but is actually channeled into more lucrative financial (derivative) markets. Big corporations like Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft are holding enormous amounts of liquidity and IMF economists have documented the growth of global institutional cash pools, now worth $5 to 6 trillion and managed by asset or money managers in the shadow banking system (Pozsar 2011; Pozsar and Singh 2011; Pozsar 2015). Today’s global economy is suffering from an unprecedented “liquidity preference”—with the cash safely “parked” in short-term (over-collateralized lending deals in the repo-market. The liquidity is used to earn a quick buck in all kinds of OTC derivatives trading, including forex swaps, options and interest rate swaps. The global savings glut is the same thing as the global overabundance of liquidity (partying around in financial markets) and also the same thing as the global demand shortage—that is: the lack of investment in real economic activity, R&D and innovation.

The low interest rate is important in this context, because it has dramatically lowered the opportunity cost of holding cash—thus encouraging (financial) firms, the rentiers and the super-rich to hold on to their liquidity and make (quick and relatively safe and high) returns in financial markets and exotic financial instruments. Added to this, we have to acknowledge the fact that highly-leveraged firms are paying out most of their profits to shareholders as dividends or using it to buy back shares (Lazonick 2017). This has turned out to be damaging to real investment and innovation, and it has added further fuel to financialization (Epstein 2018; Storm 2018). If anything, firms have stopped using their savings (or retained profits) to finance their investments which are now financed by bank loans and higher leverage. If we acknowledge these roles of finance and financial markets, then we can begin to understand why investment is depressed and why there is an aggregate demand shortage. More than two decades of financial deregulation have created a rentiers’ delight, a capitalism without ‘compulsions’ on financial investors, banks, and the property-owning class which in practice has led to ‘capitalism for the 99%’ and ‘socialism for the 1%’ (Palma 2009; Epstein 2018) For authentic Keynesians, this financialized system is the exact opposite of Keynes’ advice to go for the euthanasia of the rentiers (i.e.design policies to reduce the excess liquidity).

Fifth Problem: Confusing Savings with “Loans,” or Stocks with Flows

“I have found out what economics is,’ Michał Kalecki once told Joan Robinson, “it is the science of confusing stocks with flows.” If anything, Kalecki’s comment applies to the loanable funds model. In the loanable fund universe, as Mankiw writes and as most commissioned conference papers argue, saving equals investment and the supply of loans equals the demand at some equilibrium interest rate. But savings and investment are flow variables, whereas the supply of loans and the demand for loans are stock variables. Simply equating these flows to the corresponding stocks is not considered good practice in stock-flow-consistent macro-economic modelling. It is incongruous, because even if we assume that the interest rate does clear “the stock of loan supply” and “the stock of loan demand”, there is no reason why the same interest rate would simultaneouslybalance savings (i.e. the increase in loan supply) and investment (i.e. the increase in loan demand). So what is the theoretical rationale of assuming that some interest rate is clearing the loanable funds market (which is defined in terms of flows)?

To illustrate the difference between stocks and flows: the stock of U.S. loans equals around 350% of U.S. GDP (if one includes debts of financial firms), while gross savings amount to 17% of U.S. GDP. Lance Taylor (2016) presents the basic macroeconomic flows and stocks for the U.S. economy to show how and why loanable funds macro models do not fit the data—by a big margin. No interest rate adjustment mechanism is strong enough to bring about this (ex-post) balance in terms of flows, because the interest rate determination is overwhelmed by changes in loan supply and demand stocks. What is more, and as stated before, we don’t actually use ‘savings’ to fund ‘investment’. Firms do not use retained profits (or corporate savings) to finance their investment, but in actual fact disgorge the cash to shareholders (Lazonick 2017). They finance their investment by bank loans (which is newly minted money).  Households use their (accumulated) savings to buy bonds in the secondary market or any other existing asset. In that case, the savings do not go to funding new investment — but are merely used to re-arrange the composition of the financial portfolio of the savers.

Final Problem: The Evidence of a Chronic Excess of Savings Over Investment is Missing

If Summers claims that there is a “chronic excess of savings over investment,” what he means is that ex-ante savings are larger than ex-ante investment. This is a difficult proposition to empirically falsify, because we only have ex-post (national accounting) data on savings and investment which presume the two variables are equal. However, what we can do is consider data on (global) gross and net savings rates (as a proportion of GDP) to see if the propensity to save has increased. This is what Bofinger and Ries (2017) did and they find that global saving rates of private households have declined dramatically since the 1980s. This means, they write, that one can rule out ‘excess savings’ due to demographic factors (as per Eggertson, Mehotra & Robbins 2017; Eggertsson, Lancastre & Summers 2017; Rachel & Smith 2017; and Lu & Teulings 2017). While the average saving propensity of household has declined, the aggregate propensity to save has basically stayed the same during the period 1985-2014. This is shown in Figure 3 (reproduced from Bofinger and Reis 2017) which plots the ratio of global gross savings (or global gross investment) to GDP against the world real interest rate during 1985-2014. A similar figure can be found in the paper by Rachel and Smith (2017). What can be seen is that while there has been no secular rise in the average global propensity to save, there has been a secular decline in interest rates. This drop in interest rates to the ZLB is not caused by a savings glut, nor by a financing glut, but is the outcome of the deliberate decisions of central banks to lower the policy rate in the face of stagnating economies, put on a ‘slow-moving turtle’ by a structural lack of aggregate demand which—as argued by Storm and Naastepad (2012) and Storm (2017)—is largely due to misconceived macro and labour-market policies centered on suppressing wage growth, fiscal austerity, and labour market deregulation

To understand the mechanisms underlying Figure 3, let us consider Figure 4 which plots investment demand as a negative function of the interest rate. In the ‘old situation’, investment demand is high at a (relatively) high rate of interest (R0); this corresponds to the data points for the period 1985-1995 in Figure 3. But then misconceived macro and labour-market policies centered on suppressing wage growth, fiscal austerity, and labour market deregulation began to depress aggregate demand and investment—and as a result, the investment demand schedule starts to shift down and to become more steeply downward-sloping at the same time. In response to the growth slowdown (and weakening inflationary pressure), central banks reduce R—but without any success in raising the gross investment rate. This process continues until the interest rate hits the ZLB while investment has become practically interest-rate insensitive, as investment is now overwhelmingly determined by pessimistic profit expectations; this is indicated by the new investment schedule (in red). That the economy is now stuck at the ZLB is not caused by a “chronic excess of savings” but rather by a chronic shortage of aggregate demand—a shortage created by decades of wage growth moderation, labour market flexibilization, and heightened job insecurity as well as the financialization of corporations and the economy at large (Storm 2018).

Conclusions

The consensus in the literature and in the commissioned conference papers that the global decline in real interest rates is caused by a higher propensity to save, above all due to demographic reasons, is wrong in terms of underlying theory and evidence base.  The decline in interest rates is the monetary policy response to stalling investment and growth, both caused by a shortage of global demand. However, the low interest rates are unable to revive growth and halt the secular stagnation, because there is little reason for firms to expand productive capacity in the face of the persistent aggregate demand shortage. Unless we revive demand, for example through debt-financed fiscal stimulus or a drastic and permanent progressive redistribution of income and wealth in favour of lower-income groups (Taylor 2017), there is no escape from secular stagnation. The narrow focus on the ZLB and powerless monetary policy within the framing of a loanable-funds financial system blocks out serious macroeconomic policy debate on how to revive aggregate demand in a sustainable manner. It will keep the U.S. economy on the slow-moving turtle — not because policymakers cannot do anything about it, but we choose to do so. The economic, social and political damage, fully self-inflicted, is going to be of historic proportions.

It is not a secret that the loanable funds approach is fallacious (Lindner 2015; Taylor 2016; Jakab and Kumhof 2015). While academic economists continue to refine their Ptolemaic model of a loanable-funds market, central bank economists have moved on—and are now exploring the scope of and limitations to monetary policymaking in a monetary economy. Keynes famously wrote that “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”  In 2017, things seem to happen the other way around: academic economists who believe themselves to be free thinkers are caught in the stale theorizing of a century past. The puzzle is, as Lance Taylor (2016, p. 15) concludes “why [New Keynesian economists] revert to Wicksell on loanable funds and the natural rate while ignoring Keynes’s innovations. Maybe, as [Keynes] said in the preface to the General Theory, “‘The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones …..’ (p. viii)”

Due to our inability to free ourselves from the discredited loanable funds doctrine, we have lost the forest for the trees. We cannot see that the solution to the real problem underlying secular stagnation (a structural shortage of aggregate demand) is by no means difficult: use fiscal policy—a package of spending on infrastructure, green energy systems, public transportation and public services, and progressive income taxation—and raise (median) wages. The stagnation will soon be over, relegating all the scholastic talk about the ZLB to the dustbin of a Christmas past. 

Institute For New Economic Thinking 

*

Servaas Storm

Servaas Storm is a Dutch economist and author who works on macroeconomics, technological progress, income distribution & economic growth, finance, development and structural change, and climate change.

Reclaiming the State. A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World –  William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi. 

Introduction: 

Make the Left Great Again 

The West is currently in the midst of an anti-establishment revolt of historic proportions. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the rejection of Matteo Renzi’s neoliberal constitutional reform in Italy, the EU’s unprecedented crisis of legitimation: although these interrelated phenomena differ in ideology and goals, they are all rejections of the (neo) liberal order that has dominated the world –and in particular the West –for the past 30 years. 

Even though the system has thus far proven capable (for the most part) of absorbing and neutralising these electoral uprisings, there is no indication that this anti-establishment revolt is going to abate any time soon. Support for anti-establishment parties in the developed world is at the highest level since the 1930s –and growing. At the same time, support for mainstream parties –including traditional social-democratic parties –has collapsed. 

The reasons for this backlash are rather obvious. The financial crisis of 2007–9 laid bare the scorched earth left behind by neoliberalism, which the elites had gone to great lengths to conceal, in both material (financialisation) and ideological (‘the end of history’) terms. 

As credit dried up, it became apparent that for years the economy had continued to grow primarily because banks were distributing the purchasing power –through debt –that businesses were not providing in salaries. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, the receding tide of the debt-fuelled boom revealed that most people were, in fact, swimming naked

The situation was (is) further exacerbated by the post-crisis policies of fiscal austerity and wage deflation pursued by a number of Western governments, particularly in Europe, which saw the financial crisis as an opportunity to impose an even more radical neoliberal regime and to push through policies designed to suit the financial sector and the wealthy, at the expense of everyone else. 

Thus, the unfinished agenda of privatisation, deregulation and welfare state retrenchment –temporarily interrupted by the financial crisis –was reinstated with even greater vigour. Amid growing popular dissatisfaction, social unrest and mass unemployment (in a number of European countries), political elites on both sides of the Atlantic responded with business-as-usual policies and discourses. 

As a result, the social contract binding citizens to traditional ruling parties is more strained today than at any other time since World War II –and in some countries has arguably already been broken. 

Of course, even if we limit the scope of our analysis to the post-war period, anti-systemic movements and parties are not new in the West. Up until the 1980s, anti-capitalism remained a major force to be reckoned with. The novelty is that today –unlike 20, 30 or 40 years ago –it is movements and parties of the right and extreme right (along with new parties of the neoliberal ‘extreme centre’, such as the new French president Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche!) that are leading the revolt, far outweighing the movements and parties of the left in terms of voting strength and opinion-shaping. 

With few exceptions, left parties –that is, parties to the left of traditional social-democratic parties –are relegated to the margins of the political spectrum in most countries. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, traditional social-democratic parties are being ‘pasokified’–that is, reduced to parliamentary insignificance, like many of their centre-right counterparts, due to their embrace of neoliberalism and failure to offer a meaningful alternative to the status quo –in one country after another. 

The term refers to the Greek social-democratic party PASOK, which was virtually wiped out of existence in 2014, due to its inane handling of the Greek debt crisis, after dominating the Greek political scene for more than three decades. A similar fate has befallen other former behemoths of the social-democratic establishment, such as the French Socialist Party and the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). Support for social-democratic parties is today at the lowest level in 70 years –and falling. 

How should we explain the decline of the left –not just the electoral decline of those parties that are commonly associated with the left side of the political spectrum, regardless of their effective political orientation, but also the decline of core left values within those parties and within society in general? 

Why has the anti-establishment left proven unable to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the establishment left? More broadly, how did the left come to count so little in global politics? Can the left, both culturally and politically, become a major force in our societies again? And if so, how? 

These are some of the questions that we attempt to answer in this book. Though the left has been making inroads in some countries in recent years –notable examples include Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Podemos in Spain and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France –and has even succeeded in taking power in Greece (though the SYRIZA government was rapidly brought to heel by the European establishment), there is no denying that, for the most part, movements and parties of the extreme right have been more effective than left-wing or progressive forces at tapping into the legitimate grievances of the masses –disenfranchised, marginalised, impoverished and dispossessed by the 40-year-long neoliberal class war waged from above. 

In particular, they are the only forces that have been able to provide a (more or less) coherent response to the widespread –and growing –yearning for greater territorial or national sovereignty, increasingly seen as the only way, in the absence of effective supranational mechanisms of representation, to regain some degree of collective control over politics and society, and in particular over the flows of capital, trade and people that constitute the essence of neoliberal globalisation. Given neoliberalism’s war against sovereignty, it should come as no surprise that ‘sovereignty has become the master-frame of contemporary politics’, as Paolo Gerbaudo notes. 

After all, as we argue in Chapter 5, the hollowing out of national sovereignty and curtailment of popular-democratic mechanisms –what has been termed depoliticisation –has been an essential element of the neoliberal project, aimed at insulating macroeconomic policies from popular contestation and removing any obstacles put in the way of economic exchanges and financial flows. 

Given the nefarious effects of depoliticisation, it is only natural that the revolt against neoliberalism should first and foremost take the form of demands for a repoliticisation of national decision-making processes. 

The fact that the vision of national sovereignty that was at the centre of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and that currently dominates the public discourse, is a reactionary, quasi-fascist one –mostly defined along ethnic, exclusivist and authoritarian lines –should not be seen as an indictment of national sovereignty as such. History attests to the fact that national sovereignty and national self-determination are not intrinsically reactionary or jingoistic concepts –in fact, they were the rallying cries of countless nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialist and left-wing liberation movements.

Even if we limit our analysis to core capitalist countries, it is patently obvious that virtually all the major social, economic and political advancements of the past centuries were achieved through the institutions of the democratic nation state, not through international, multilateral or supranational institutions, which in a number of ways have, in fact, been used to roll back those very achievements, as we have seen in the context of the euro crisis, where supranational (and largely unaccountable) institutions such as the European Commission, Eurogroup and European Central Bank (ECB) used their power and authority to impose crippling austerity on struggling countries. 

The problem, in short, is not national sovereignty as such, but the fact that the concept in recent years has been largely monopolised by the right and extreme right, which understandably sees it as a way to push through its xenophobic and identitarian agenda. It would therefore be a grave mistake to explain away the seduction of the ‘Trumpenproletariat’ by the far right as a case of false consciousness, as Marc Saxer notes; the working classes are simply turning to the only movements and parties that (so far) promise them some protection from the brutal currents of neoliberal globalisation (whether they can or truly intend to deliver on that promise is a different matter). 

However, this simply raises an even bigger question: why has the left not been able to offer the working classes and increasingly proletarianised middle classes a credible alternative to neoliberalism and to neoliberal globalisation? More to the point, why has it not been able to develop a progressive view of national sovereignty? 

As we argue in this book, the reasons are numerous and overlapping. For starters, it is important to understand that the current existential crisis of the left has very deep historical roots, reaching as far back as the 1960s. If we want to comprehend how the left has gone astray, that is where we have to begin our analysis. 

Today the post-war ‘Keynesian’ era is eulogised by many on the left as a golden age in which organised labour and enlightened thinkers and policymakers (such as Keynes himself) were able to impose a ‘class compromise’ on reluctant capitalists that delivered unprecedented levels of social progress, which were subsequently rolled back following the so-called neoliberal counter-revolution. 

It is thus argued that, in order to overcome neoliberalism, all it takes is for enough members of the establishment to be swayed by an alternative set of ideas. However, as we note in Chapter 2, the rise and fall of Keynesianism cannot simply be explained in terms of working-class strength or the victory of one ideology over another, but should instead be viewed as the outcome of the fortuitous confluence, in the aftermath of World War II, of a number of social, ideological, political, economic, technical and institutional conditions. 

To fail to do so is to commit the same mistake that many leftists committed in the early post-war years. By failing to appreciate the extent to which the class compromise at the base of the Fordist-Keynesian system was, in fact, a crucial component of that history-specific regime of accumulation –actively supported by the capitalist class insofar as it was conducive to profit-making, and bound to be jettisoned once it ceased to be so –many socialists of the time convinced themselves ‘that they had done much more than they actually had to shift the balance of class power, and the relationship between states and markets’. 

Some even argued that the developed world had already entered a post-capitalist phase, in which all the characteristic features of capitalism had been permanently eliminated, thanks to a fundamental shift of power in favour of labour vis-à-vis capital, and of the state vis-à-vis the market. Needless to say, that was not the case. 

Furthermore, as we show in Chapter 3, monetarism –the ideological precursor to neoliberalism –had already started to percolate into left-wing policymaking circles as early as the late 1960s. Thus, as argued in Chapters 2 and 3, many on the left found themselves lacking the necessary theoretical tools to understand –and correctly respond to –the capitalist crisis that engulfed the Keynesian model in the 1970s, convincing themselves that the distributional struggle that arose at the time could be resolved within the narrow limits of the social-democratic framework. 

The truth of the matter was that the labour–capital conflict that re-emerged in the 1970s could only have been resolved one way or another: on capital’s terms, through a reduction of labour’s bargaining power, or on labour’s terms, through an extension of the state’s control over investment and production. As we show in Chapters 3 and 4, with regard to the experience of the social-democratic governments of Britain and France in the 1970s and 1980s, the left proved unwilling to go this way. This left it (no pun intended) with no other choice but to ‘manage the capitalist crisis on behalf of capital’, as Stuart Hall wrote, by ideologically and politically legitimising neoliberalism as the only solution to the survival of capitalism. 

In this regard, as we show in Chapter 3, the Labour government of James Callaghan (1974–9) bears a very heavy responsibility. In an (in) famous speech in 1976, Callaghan justified the government’s programme of spending cuts and wage restraint by declaring Keynesianism dead, indirectly legitimising the emerging monetarist (neoliberal) dogma and effectively setting up the conditions for Labour’s ‘austerity lite’ to be refined into an all-out attack on the working class by Margaret Thatcher. 

Even worse, perhaps, Callaghan popularised the notion that austerity was the only solution to the economic crisis of the 1970s, anticipating Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’(TINA) mantra, even though there were radical alternatives available at the time, such as those put forward by Tony Benn and others. These, however, were ‘no longer perceived to exist’. 

In this sense, the dismantling of the post-war Keynesian framework cannot simply be explained as the victory of one ideology (‘neoliberalism’) over another (‘Keynesianism’), but should rather be understood as the result of a number of overlapping ideological, economic and political factors: the capitalists’response to the profit squeeze and to the political implications of full employment policies; the structural flaws of ‘actually existing Keynesianism’; and, importantly, the left’s inability to offer a coherent response to the crisis of the Keynesian framework, let alone a radical alternative. 

These are all analysed in-depth in the first chapters of the book. Furthermore, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a new (fallacious) left consensus started to set in: that economic and financial internationalisation –what today we call ‘globalisation’–had rendered the state increasingly powerless vis-à-vis ‘the forces of the market’, and that therefore countries had little choice but to abandon national economic strategies and all the traditional instruments of intervention in the economy (such as tariffs and other trade barriers, capital controls, currency and exchange rate manipulation, and fiscal and central bank policies), and hope, at best, for transnational or supranational forms of economic governance. 

In other words, government intervention in the economy came to be seen not only as ineffective but, increasingly, as outright impossible. This process –which was generally (and erroneously, as we shall see) framed as a shift from the state to the market –was accompanied by a ferocious attack on the very idea of national sovereignty, increasingly vilified as a relic of the past. As we show, the left –in particular the European left –played a crucial role in this regard as well, by cementing this ideological shift towards a post-national and post-sovereign view of the world, often anticipating the right on these issues. 

One of the most consequential turning points in this respect, which is analysed in Chapter 4, was Mitterrand’s 1983 turn to austerity –the so-called tournant de la rigueur –just two years after the French Socialists’ historic victory in 1981. Mitterrand’s election had inspired the widespread belief that a radical break with capitalism –at least with the extreme form of capitalism that had recently taken hold in the Anglo-Saxon world –was still possible. By 1983, however, the French Socialists had succeeded in ‘proving’ the exact opposite: that neoliberal globalisation was an inescapable and inevitable reality. As Mitterrand stated at the time: ‘National sovereignty no longer means very much, or has much scope in the modern world economy. …A high degree of supra-nationality is essential.’ 

The repercussions of Mitterrand’s about-turn are still being felt today. It is often brandished by left-wing and progressive intellectuals as proof of the fact that globalisation and the internationalisation of finance has ended the era of nation states and their capacity to pursue policies that are not in accord with the diktats of global capital. The claim is that if a government tries autonomously to pursue full employment and a progressive/redistributive agenda, it will inevitably be punished by the amorphous forces of global capital. 

This narrative claims that Mitterrand had no option but to abandon his agenda of radical reform. To most modern-day leftists, Mitterrand thus represents a pragmatist who was cognisant of the international capitalist forces he was up against and responsible enough to do what was best for France. In fact, as we argue in the second part of the book, sovereign, currency-issuing states –such as France in the 1980s –far from being helpless against the power of global capital, still have the capacity to deliver full employment and social justice to their citizens. 

So how did the idea of the ‘death of the state’come to be so ingrained in our collective consciousness? 

As we explain in Chapter 5, underlying this post-national view of the world was (is) a failure to understand –and in some cases an explicit attempt to conceal –on behalf of left-wing intellectuals and policymakers that ‘globalisation’ was (is) not the result of inexorable economic and technological changes but was (is) largely the product of state-driven processes. All the elements that we associate with neoliberal globalisation –delocalisation, deindustrialisation, the free movement of goods and capital, etc. –were (are), in most cases, the result of choices made by governments. 

More generally, states continue to play a crucial role in promoting, enforcing and sustaining a (neo) liberal international framework –though that would appear to be changing, as we discuss in Chapter 6 –as well as establishing the domestic conditions for allowing global accumulation to flourish. The same can be said of neoliberalism tout court. 

There is a widespread belief –particularly among the left –that neoliberalism has involved (and involves) a ‘retreat’, ‘hollowing out’ or ‘withering away’ of the state, which in turn has fuelled the notion that today the state has been ‘overpowered’ by the market. However, as we argue in Chapter 5, neoliberalism has not entailed a retreat of the state but rather a reconfiguration of the state, aimed at placing the commanding heights of economic policy ‘in the hands of capital, and primarily financial interests’. 

It is self-evident, after all, that the process of neoliberalisation would not have been possible if governments –and in particular social-democratic governments –had not resorted to a wide array of tools to promote it: the liberalisation of goods and capital markets; the privatisation of resources and social services; the deregulation of business, and financial markets in particular; the reduction of workers’ rights (first and foremost, the right to collective bargaining) and more generally the repression of labour activism; the lowering of taxes on wealth and capital, at the expense of the middle and working classes; the slashing of social programmes; and so on. 

These policies were systemically pursued throughout the West (and imposed on developing countries) with unprecedented determination, and with the support of all the major international institutions and political parties. 

As noted in Chapter 5, even the loss of national sovereignty –which has been invoked in the past, and continues to be invoked today, to justify neoliberal policies –is largely the result of a willing and conscious limitation of state sovereign rights by national elites. 

The reason why governments chose willingly to ‘tie their hands’ is all too clear: as the European case epitomises, the creation of self-imposed ‘external constraints’ allowed national politicians to reduce the politics costs of the neoliberal transition –which clearly involved unpopular policies –by ‘scapegoating’ institutionalised rules and ‘independent’ or international institutions, which in turn were presented as an inevitable outcome of the new, harsh realities of globalisation. 

Moreover, neoliberalism has been (and is) associated with various forms of authoritarian statism –that is, the opposite of the minimal state advocated by neoliberals –as states have bolstered their security and policing arms as part of a generalised militarisation of civil protest. In other words, not only does neoliberal economic policy require the presence of a strong state, but it requires the presence of an authoritarian state (particularly where extreme forms of neoliberalism are concerned, such as the ones experimented with in periphery countries), at both the domestic and international level (see Chapter 5). 

In this sense, neoliberal ideology, at least in its official anti-state guise, should be considered little more than a convenient alibi for what has been and is essentially a political and state-driven project. Capital remains as dependent on the state today as it was under ‘Keynesianism’–to police the working classes, bail out large firms that would otherwise go bankrupt, open up markets abroad (including through military intervention), etc. 

The ultimate irony, or indecency, is that traditional left establishment parties have become standard-bearers for neoliberalism themselves, both while in elected office and in opposition. 

In the months and years that followed the financial crash of 2007–9, capital’s –and capitalism’s –continued dependency on the state in the age of neoliberalism became glaringly obvious, as the governments of the US, Europe and elsewhere bailed out their respective financial institutions to the tune of trillions of euros/dollars. 

In Europe, following the outbreak of the so-called ‘euro crisis’ in 2010, this was accompanied by a multi-level assault on the post-war European social and economic model aimed at restructuring and re-engineering European societies and economies along lines more favourable to capital. This radical reconfiguration of European societies –which, again, has seen social-democratic governments at the forefront –is not based on a retreat of the state in favour of the market, but rather on a reintensification of state intervention on the side of capital. 

Nonetheless, the erroneous idea of the waning nation state has become an entrenched fixture of the left. As we argue throughout the book, we consider this to be central in understanding the decline of the traditional political left and its acquiescence to neoliberalism. 

In view of the above, it is hardly surprising that the mainstream left is, today, utterly incapable of offering a positive vision of national sovereignty in response to neoliberal globalisation. To make matters worse, most leftists have bought into the macroeconomic myths that the establishment uses to discourage any alternative use of state fiscal capacities. 

For example, they have accepted without question the so-called household budget analogy, which suggests that currency-issuing governments, like households, are financially constrained, and that fiscal deficits impose crippling debt burdens on future generations –a notion that we thoroughly debunk in Chapter 8. 

This has gone hand in hand with another, equally tragic, development. As discussed in Chapter 5, following its historical defeat, the left’s traditional anti-capitalist focus on class slowly gave way to a liberal-individualist understanding of emancipation. Waylaid by post-modernist and post-structuralist theories, left intellectuals slowly abandoned Marxian class categories to focus, instead, on elements of political power and the use of language and narratives as a way of establishing meaning. This also defined new arenas of political struggle that were diametrically opposed to those defined by Marx. 

Over the past three decades, the left focus on ‘capitalism’ has given way to a focus on issues such as racism, gender, homophobia, multiculturalism, etc. Marginality is no longer described in terms of class but rather in terms of identity. The struggle against the illegitimate hegemony of the capitalist class has given way to the struggles of a variety of (more or less) oppressed and marginalised groups: women, ethnic and racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, etc. As a result, class struggle has ceased to be seen as the path to liberation. 

In this new post-modernist world, only categories that transcend Marxian class boundaries are considered meaningful. Moreover, the institutions that evolved to defend workers against capital –such as trade unions and social-democratic political parties –have become subjugated to these non-class struggle foci. What has emerged in practically all Western countries as a result, as Nancy Fraser notes, is a perverse political alignment between ‘mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other’. 

The result is a progressive neoliberalism ‘that mix[es] together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization’, with the former unwittingly lending their charisma to the latter. 

As societies have become increasingly divided between well-educated, highly mobile, highly skilled, socially progressive cosmopolitan urbanites, and lower-skilled and less educated peripherals who rarely work abroad and face competition from immigrants, the mainstream left has tended to consistently side with the former. Indeed, the split between the working classes and the intellectual-cultural left can be considered one of the main reasons behind the right-wing revolt currently engulfing the West. 

As argued by Jonathan Haidt, the way the globalist urban elites talk and act unwittingly activates authoritarian tendencies in a subset of nationalists. In a vicious feedback loop, however, the more the working classes turn to right-wing populism and nationalism, the more the intellectual-cultural left doubles down on its liberal-cosmopolitan fantasies, further radicalising the ethno-nationalism of the proletariat. 

As Wolfgang Streeck writes: Protests against material and moral degradation are suspected of being essentially fascist, especially now that the former advocates of the plebeian classes have switched to the globalization party, so that if their former clients wish to complain about the pressures of capitalist modernization, the only language at their disposal is the pre-political, untreated linguistic raw material of everyday experiences of deprivation, economic or cultural. This results in constant breaches of the rules of civilized public speech, which in turn can trigger indignation at the top and mobilization at the bottom. 

This is particularly evident in the European debate, where, despite the disastrous effects of the EU and monetary union, the mainstream left –often appealing to exactly the same arguments used by Callaghan and Mitterrand 30–40 years ago –continues to cling on to these institutions and to the belief that they can be reformed in a progressive direction, despite all evidence to the contrary, and to dismiss any talk of restoring a progressive agenda on the foundation of retrieved national sovereignty as a ‘retreat into nationalist positions’, inevitably bound to plunge the continent into 1930s-style fascism. 

This position, as irrational as it may be, is not surprising, considering that European Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) is, after all, a brainchild of the European left (see Chapter 5). However, such a position presents numerous problems, which are ultimately rooted in a failure to understand the true nature of the EU and monetary union. 

First of all, it ignores the fact that the EU’s economic and political constitution is structured to produce the results that we are seeing –the erosion of popular sovereignty, the massive transfer of wealth from the middle and lower classes to the upper classes, the weakening of labour and more generally the rollback of the democratic and social/economic gains that had previously been achieved by subordinate classes –and is designed precisely to impede the kind of radical reforms to which progressive integrationists or federalists aspire to. 

More importantly, however, it effectively reduces the left to the role of defender of the status quo, thus allowing the political right to hegemonise the legitimate anti-systemic –and specifically anti-EU –grievances of citizens. This is tantamount to relinquishing the discursive and political battleground for a post-neoliberal hegemony –which is inextricably linked to the question of national sovereignty –to the right and extreme right. It is not hard to see that if progressive change can only be implemented at the global or even European level –in other words, if the alternative to the status quo offered to electorates is one between reactionary nationalism and progressive globalism –then the left has already lost the battle. 

It needn’t be this way, however. As we argue in the second part of the book, a progressive, emancipatory vision of national sovereignty that offers a radical alternative to both the right and the neoliberals –one based on popular sovereignty, democratic control over the economy, full employment, social justice, redistribution from the rich to the poor, inclusivity and the socio-ecological transformation of production and society –is possible. Indeed, it is necessary. 

As J. W. Mason writes: Whatever [supranational] arrangements we can imagine in principle, the systems of social security, labor regulation, environmental protection, and redistribution of income and wealth that in fact exist are national in scope and are operated by national governments. By definition, any struggle to preserve social democracy as it exists today is a struggle to defend national institutions.  

As we contend in this book, the struggle to defend the democratic sovereign from the onslaught of neoliberal globalisation is the only basis on which the left can be refounded (and the nationalist right challenged). However, this is not enough. 

The left also needs to abandon its obsession with identity politics and retrieve the ‘more expansive, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian, class-sensitive, anti-capitalist understandings of emancipation’ that used to be its trademark (which, of course, is not in contradiction with the struggle against racism, patriarchy, xenophobia and other forms of oppression and discrimination). 

Fully embracing a progressive vision of sovereignty also means abandoning the many false macroeconomic myths that plague left-wing and progressive thinkers. One of the most pervasive and persistent myths is the assumption that governments are revenue-constrained, that is, that they need to ‘fund’ their expenses through taxes or debt. This leads to the corollary that governments have to ‘live within their means’, since ongoing deficits will inevitably result in an ‘excessive’ accumulation of debt, which in turn is assumed to be ‘unsustainable’ in the long run. 

In reality, as we show in Chapter 8, monetarily sovereign (or currency-issuing) governments –which nowadays include most governments –are never revenue-constrained because they issue their own currency by legislative fiat and always have the means to achieve and sustain full employment and social justice. 

In this sense, a progressive vision of national sovereignty should aim to reconstruct and redefine the national state as a place where citizens can seek refuge ‘in democratic protection, popular rule, local autonomy, collective goods and egalitarian traditions’, as Streeck argues, rather than a culturally and ethnically homogenised society. 

This is also the necessary prerequisite for the construction of a new international( ist) world order, based on interdependent but independent sovereign states. It is such a vision that we present in this book. 

*

PART I 

The Great Transformation Redux: From Keynesianism to Neoliberalism –and Beyond 

1 Broken Paradise: A Critical Assessment of the Keynesian ‘Full Employment’ Era 

THE IDEALIST VIEW: KEYNESIANISM AS THE VICTORY OF ONE IDEOLOGY OVER ANOTHER 

Looking back on the 30-year-long economic expansion that followed World War II, Adam Przeworski and Michael Wallerstein concluded that ‘by most criteria of economic progress the Keynesian era was a success’. 

It is hard to disagree: throughout the West, from the mid-1940s until the early 1970s, countries enjoyed lower levels of unemployment, greater economic stability and higher levels of economic growth than ever before. That stability, particularly in the US, also rested on a strong financial regulatory framework: on the widespread provision of deposit insurance to stop bank runs; strict regulation of the financial system, including the separation of commercial banking from investment banking; and extensive capital controls to reduce currency volatility. 

These domestic and international restrictions ‘kept financial excesses and bubbles under control for over a quarter of a century’. 

Wages and living standards rose, and –especially in Europe –a variety of policies and institutions for welfare and social protection (also known as the ‘welfare state’) were created, including sustained investment in universally available social services such as education and health. Few people would deny that this was, indeed, a ‘golden age’ for capitalism. 

However, when it comes to explaining what made this exceptional period possible and why it came to an end, theories abound. Most contemporary Keynesians subscribe to a quasi-idealist view of history –that is, one that stresses the central role of ideas and ideals in human history. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Keynes himself famously noted: ‘Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.’ 

According to this view, the social and economic achievements of the post-war period are largely attributable to the revolution in economic thinking spearheaded by the British economist John Maynard Keynes. 

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Keynes overturned the old classical (neoclassical) paradigm, rooted in the doctrine of laissez-faire (‘let it be’) free-market capitalism, which held that markets are fundamentally self-regulating. The understanding was that the economy, if left to its own devices –that is, with the government intervening as little as possible –would automatically generate stability and full employment, as long as workers were flexible in their wage demands. 

The Great Depression of the 1930s that followed the stock market crash of 1929 –where minimal financial regulation, little-understood financial products and overindebted households and banks all conspired to create a huge speculative bubble which, when it burst, brought the US financial system crashing down, and with it the entire global economy –clearly challenged traditional laissez-faire economic theories. 

This bolstered Keynes’ argument –spelled out at length in his masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936 –that aggregate spending determined the overall level of economic activity, and that inadequate aggregate spending could lead to prolonged periods of high unemployment (what he called ‘underemployment equilibrium’). Thus, he advocated the use of debt-based expansionary fiscal and monetary measures and a strict regulatory framework to counter capitalism’s tendency towards financial crises and disequilibrium, and to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions and depressions, first and foremost by creating jobs that the private sector was unable or unwilling to provide. 

The bottom line of Keynes’ argument was that the government always has the ability to determine the overall level of spending and employment in the economy. In other words, full employment was a realistic goal that could be pursued at all times. 

Yet politicians were slow to catch on. When the speculative bubbles in both Europe and the United States burst in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929, various countries (to varying degrees, and more or less willingly) turned to austerity as a perceived ‘cure’ for the excesses of the previous decade. 

In the United States, president Herbert Hoover, a year after the crash, declared that ‘economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncements’ and that ‘economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body –the producers and consumers themselves’. 

At first Hoover and his officials downplayed the stock market crash, claiming that the economic slump would be only temporary. When the situation did not improve, Hoover advocated a strict laissez-faire policy, dictating that the federal government should not interfere with the economy but rather let the economy right itself. He counselled that ‘every individual should sustain faith and courage’ and ‘each should maintain self-reliance’. 

Even though Hoover supported a doubling of government expenditure on public works projects, he also firmly believed in the need for a balanced budget. As Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm observe, Hoover ‘wanted to reconcile contradictory aims: to cultivate self-reliance, to provide government help in a time of crisis, and to maintain fiscal discipline. This was impossible.’ In fact, it is widely agreed that Hoover’s inaction was responsible for the worsening of the Great Depression. 

If the United States’ reaction under Hoover can be described as ‘too little, too late’, Europe’s reaction in the late 1920s and early 1930s actively contributed to the downward spiral of the Great Depression, setting the stage for World War II. 

Austerity was the dominant response of European governments during the early years of the Great Depression. The political consequences are well known. Anti-systemic parties gained strength all across the continent, most notably in Germany. While 24 European regimes had been democratic in 1920, the number was down to eleven in 1939. 

Various historians and economists see the rise of Hitler as a direct consequence of the austerity policies indirectly imposed on Germany by its creditors following the economic crash of the late 1920s. Ewald Nowotny, the current head of Austria’s national bank, stated that it was precisely ‘the single-minded concentration on austerity policy’ in the 1930s that ‘led to mass unemployment, a breakdown of democratic systems and, at the end, to the catastrophe of Nazism’. 

Historian Steven Bryan agrees: ‘During the 1920s and 1930s it was precisely the refusal to acknowledge the social and political consequences of austerity that helped bring about not only the depression, but also the authoritarian governments of the 1930s.

*

from

Reclaiming the State. A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World

by

William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi.

get it at Amazon.com

Superpower trade war Looms. How it will affect New Zealand – Liam Dann.

“If America, China relations become very difficult, our position becomes tougher because then we will be coerced to choose.”

It’s a nightmare scenario for a small trading nation with historic cultural and political links to the US, but an increasing economic reliance on China.

A full blown trade war between China and the US could have devastating political consequences for us all.

In this case, it’s not New Zealand’s Prime Minister doing the worrying, it’s Singaporean leader Lee Hsien Loong.

His simple, blunt assessment of the risk posed by Donald Trump’s anti-China trade rhetoric caused a minor uproar in the diplomatically cautious Asian nation.

Here in New Zealand, where we face the same risks, we’re yet to officially confront the issue. And as issues go, it’s a big one: in the year to June 2016, New Zealand’s total trade (imports and exports) with China was $22.86 billion, compared to $16.25b with the US.

Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler has spoken most openly about his fears for the economic risk to New Zealand if the Trump Administration does some of the things it has threatened to do.

In a speech last month, Wheeler suggested that Trump’s Administration represents the greatest source of uncertainty for our economy – both in terms of his impact on the domestic economy and his potential to increase global trade protectionism.

“Rationally speaking, there shouldn’t be a reason we should go into a trade war. But we have to be prepared,” says Auckland University Business School trade economist Dr Asha Sandaram.

China and the US are like Siamese twins, she says. In other words, their economies are now so intertwined that doing damage to one must hurt the other.

“I think they both know that if they start this, they will both go down. So I don’t think it should be a big risk. But the thing with Donald Trump, is you just don’t know. He has been running the most incoherent Administration we have seen,” Sandaram says.

“What he says today is not correlated with what he says tomorrow … and what he’ll actually do. So we have to consider the possibility of an escalating trade war.”

For anyone who relies on global trade, Trump has said some frightening things.

On the campaign trail, he talked about hitting Chinese imports with 45 per cent tariffs and accused China of currency manipulation.

Since becoming President, he has pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

In a leaked recording, he has talked about imposing 10 per cent tariffs on all imports and is said to be considering border taxes.

His key trade adviser has been China hawk Peter Navarro, author of Death by China: Confronting the Dragon.

And he has nominated Robert Lighthizer – who has accused China of unfair trade practices – as his US Trade Representative.

Bloomberg has surfaced an article Lighthizer wrote in 2011 praising Ronald Reagan’s aggressive trade stance when Japan’s economic rise threatened the US.

There are concerns that Trump may look to follow those Reagan-era tactics, invoking section 301 of the US Trade Act, which allows a President to bestow “unfavourable trading status” on certain nations.

It’s a measure the US hasn’t used since it adopted World Trade Organisation rules in 1995.

And, as the many critics have warned, the world has changed. China is not like Japan, politically and militarily dependent on the US.

Last month, Wheeler told the Herald that his trade concerns deepened after visiting Washington DC at the start of the year.

“I was in Washington recently talking to a number of senior people – very well connected to the Trump Administration. They were saying that the concerns around China are deeply felt. In other words, the Trump Administration has very strong views about currency manipulation and trade practices out of China. I found that deeply worrying.”

Wheeler warns that the Trump risk comes on top of a protectionist trend which is already dampening global trade and threatening growth.

Long-time New Zealand trade advocate Stephen Jacobi agrees.

“Undoubtedly it is a concern,” he says of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric. “It was already a concern. Protection was already on the rise and we had seen a slowing in trade growth as well.”

The advent of the Trump Administration has thrown the spotlight on this he says.

Jacobi, who was head of the NZ US Council as executive director from 2005 to 2014, is now executive director of the NZ China Council, so has a good perspective on New Zealand’s relationship with both economies.

“It is early days for the [Trump] Administration,” he says. “In fact the Administration isn’t even in place yet. We just have to withhold our judgment for a bit, however much it might pain us to do so, to see what actually happens.”

From discussions he has had in Wellington, Jacobi believes New Zealand officials are very much taking that wait and see approach.

That said, the Government has been working on a new trade policy strategy and is expected to release it this month.

It will have to acknowledge the growing risks and look at alternatives to the TPP, Jacobi says.

“But I doubt whether they will have given up on the US just yet.

“So concern, yes. Panic no,” he says.

Professor Natasha Hamilton-Hart, with the Department of Management and International Business at Auckland University, says one of the direct risks to New Zealand is the prospect that Trump scores an own goal with his economic policies.

“I know the markets seem to be pricing in good times on the horizon but I’m pretty sceptical that that is going to last.

She doesn’t see a sustainable growth trajectory coming out of either the tax or infrastructure programme.

Things like border taxes and tariffs would be distortionary and depress consumer spending, she says.

“We will see an increase in military spending and with the tax cut will start to see an increase in the deficit, which is going to have implications for US interest rates.

“There are potentially quite contractionary processes in the medium term. They just don’t seem to have a coherent, workable plan.”

Then there are the diplomatic risks around a President who tweets his midnight thoughts to the world.

Trump’s impact on Asia-Pacific trading relationships is a serious concern.

“This might be overly optimistic,” Hamilton-Hart says. “I’m doubtful that it will come to a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese exports because that would be so disrupting and damaging to US firms and US consumers. It’s going to double the price of everything in Walmart.”

“What I think is more likely is that we will see a stronger line of creeping protectionism … so cancelling the TPP, looking at alternatives to dispute settlements outside the WTO, that kind of thing.

“I imagine we’ll see a lot more of that. And I imagine that is what China is gearing up for. So yeah, a less rule based trading system.”

The irony of Trump’s trade deficit obsession is that running big deficits is what actually gives you power on the global economic stage, Hamilton-Hart says.

In other words, a big net importer is the customer and the customer is always right.

“So if you stop running those trade deficits, then you no longer have the ability to throw your weight around. If Donald Trump were to significantly withdraw the US from world trade by putting up barriers and shrinking the US economy … that can only go with a reduction in US influence.”

China, for its part, doesn’t appear keen on a trade war and isn’t rushing to fill the trade leadership void left by the US .

For example, it appears to be carefully maintaining the strength of the Renminbi to avoid inflaming US currency hawks.

“They certainly do not want a trade war,” Jacobi says. “They’ve got enormous economic interests with the United States. And I think you can rely on the Chinese to manage all of that in a very sensible way.”

What worries Jacobi more is the risk of America over-playing its hand on security and sovereignty issues – like Taiwan.

“That’s much more worrying because you can’t always guarantee how a nationalistic China might react,” he says. “When you touch on issues of national sovereignty with the Chinese, you don’t get the same sort of reaction that you do on other things.”

Jacobi does have faith that the US system, with its constitutional checks and balances on executive power, will work – in time.

“But he [Trump] has a lot of power to do things in the short term. While congress catches up.”

Likewise, there will be powerful lobbying forces in the US business community who will push back at things he might want to do.

“But they also take time,” Jacobi says.

“I’m confident that over time the right decisions should be made. But what damage will be done in the meantime is a bit of an unknown.

“And the world has lost a whole lot of leadership around open markets and free trade.”

So where does that leave the New Zealand and its Asia-Pacific trading partners?

The remaining TPP signatories head to Chile later this month to discuss what, if anything, is salvageable without America.

The Americans have said they will send a representative to that meeting, although it’s not clear who that will be or what level of interest they will take, say Jacobi.

“And China will also be around. Because there is a Pacific Alliance meeting [a Latin American trading bloc] and the Chinese have been invited to that.”

There is a need for quiet diplomacy behind the scenes and New Zealand could play a key role in that, says Jacobi.

But we need to be careful not to upset the other members of the TPP.

Particularly the Japanese who, says Jacobi,  “are in a very invidious position”.

“They had this ballistic missile sent from North Korea the other day. They have got real security concerns, for which they have to rely on the US. They are not going to be drawn to take issue with the United States unnecessarily.”

China is already a member of an alternative multilateral trade group – the  Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which also includes New Zealand.

If completed, that free trade agreement (FTA) would include the 10 member states of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the six states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand).

There have been suggestions that China may look to push this deal as a TPP alternative.

But China hasn’t yet shown any signs of taking the lead, says Jacobi.

On the one hand, we’ve heard rhetoric from Chinese President Xi Jinping about China’s global leadership, but the reality is that they haven’t taken a major role in multilateral negotiations yet, Jacobi says.

“Maybe it’s time. They do have an enormous ability now to fill a vacuum.”

It is a different game now, says Hamilton-Hart, who believes the TPP is effectively dead.

“So do we make a much better effort to get on board with RCEP?”  she says. “Or are we going to hang in there and hope that we could do a bilateral with the US … which I think would be a bad thing to do as we’d be massively disadvantaged in the negotiations.”

Jacobi agrees that the bilateral path is problematic.

“We can’t afford not to push on any open door,” he says. “But the reality is that is bloody hard going. Look at the experience we had with Korea, very complicated.”

Trump has said he’ll do bilateral deals with TPP partners. But we would want dairy concessions and the US would want a lot of movement on medicines, says Jacobi.

And neither would play well politically for either nation.

“We’ve got to talk, but will we be high up on the list? And will it be better than TPP? Most unlikely”

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic,” says Auckland University’s Sandaram. “There may be some opportunities as a small country where you could fly under the radar. It’s harder for a big country to be non-aligned.”

This could be a unique opportunity, she says. “We could try and stay neutral and expand into both markets.”

Sandaram, who has been based in New Zealand for only a year, feels New Zealand is sometimes overly cautious about Chinese sensitivities.

“It’s not a traditional link like the UK or Australia, so maybe it is because it is new that we are so cautious.”

Jacobi believes the Chinese have a good understanding of our deep political and economic ties with the Western nations, and particularly the US.

“In fact, one of the positive aspects they see in our relationship is that we are an interesting interlocutor because of our attachment to the West,” he says. “But they also know our trade and economic ties are towards China. So whether that will amount to cutting slack … I’m not sure.”

Both Sandaram and Jacobi believe we have more options than we did a generation ago.

“We need to diversify,” says Sandaram. “China is decelerating. But we have Asian powers that are fast growing economies. India, Malaysia, Indonesia – with the emerging middle class there is going to be demand for goods that New Zealand exports.

“That’s a great opportunity I think we’re uniquely placed.”

New Zealand, both at a government and a business level, has to be proactive about trade, now more so than ever, says Jacobi.

“This is not something that New Zealand can just sit back and observe. We don’t have that luxury. This is about our economic livelihood and we have to have a say in it.”

NZ Herald

How economic boom times in the West came to an end – Marc Levinson. 

Unprecedented growth marked the era from 1948 to 1973. Economists might study it forever, but it can never be repeated. Why? 

The second half of the 20th century divides neatly in two. The divide did not come with the rise of Ronald Reagan or the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is not discernible in a particular event, but rather in a shift in the world economy, and the change continues to shape politics and society in much of the world today.

The shift came at the end of 1973. The quarter-century before then, starting around 1948, saw the most remarkable period of economic growth in human history. In the Golden Age between the end of the Second World War and 1973, people in what was then known as the ‘industrialised world’ – Western Europe, North America, and Japan – saw their living standards improve year after year. They looked forward to even greater prosperity for their children. Culturally, the first half of the Golden Age was a time of conformity, dominated by hard work to recover from the disaster of the war. The second half of the age was culturally very different, marked by protest and artistic and political experimentation. Behind that fermentation lay the confidence of people raised in a white-hot economy: if their adventures turned out badly, they knew, they could still find a job.

The year 1973 changed everything. High unemployment and a deep recession made experimentation and protest much riskier, effectively putting an end to much of it. A far more conservative age came with the economic changes, shaped by fears of failing and concerns that one’s children might have it worse, not better. Across the industrialised world, politics moved to the Right – a turn that did not avert wage stagnation, the loss of social benefits such as employer-sponsored pensions and health insurance, and the secure, stable employment that had proved instrumental to the rise of a new middle class and which workers had come to take for granted. At the time, an oil crisis took the blame for what seemed to be a sharp but temporary downturn. Only gradually did it become clear that the underlying cause was not costly oil but rather lagging productivity growth – a problem that would defeat a wide variety of government policies put forth to correct it.

The great boom began in the aftermath of the Second World War. The peace treaties of 1945 did not bring prosperity; on the contrary, the post-war world was an economic basket case. Tens of millions of people had been killed, and in some countries a large proportion of productive capacity had been laid to waste. Across Europe and Asia, tens of millions of refugees wandered the roads. Many countries lacked the foreign currency to import food and fuel to keep people alive, much less to buy equipment and raw material for reconstruction. Railroads barely ran; farm tractors stood still for want of fuel.

Everywhere, producing enough coal to provide heat through the winter was a challenge. As shoppers mobbed stores seeking basic foodstuffs, much less luxuries such as coffee and cotton underwear, prices soared. Inflation set off waves of strikes in the United States and Canada as workers demanded higher pay to keep up with rising prices. The world’s economic outlook seemed dim. It did not look like the beginning of a golden age.

As late as 1948, incomes per person in much of Europe and Asia were lower than they had been 10 or even 20 years earlier. But 1948 brought a change for the better. In January, the US military government in Japan announced it would seek to rebuild the economy rather than exacting reparations from a country on the verge of starvation. In April, the US Congress approved the economic aid programme that would be known as the Marshall Plan, providing Western Europe with desperately needed dollars to import machinery, transport equipment, fertiliser and food. In June, the three occupying powers – France, the United Kingdom and the US – rolled out the deutsche mark, a new currency for the western zones of Germany. A new central bank committed to keeping inflation low and the exchange rate steady would oversee the deutsche mark.

Postwar chaos gave way to stability, and the war-torn economies began to grow. In many countries, they grew so fast for so long that people began to speak of the ‘economic miracle’ (West Germany), the ‘era of high economic growth’ (Japan) and the 30 glorious years (France). In the English-speaking world, this extraordinary period became known as the Golden Age.

What was it that made the Golden Age exceptional? Part of the answer is that economies were making up for lost time: after years of depression and wartime austerity, enormous needs for housing, consumer goods, equipment for farms, factories, railroads and electric generating plants stood ready to drive growth. But much more lay behind the Golden Age of economic growth than pent-up demand. Two factors deserve special attention.

First, the expanding welfare state. The Second World War shook up the social structures in all the wealthy countries, fundamentally altering domestic politics, in particular exerting an equalising force. As societies embarked on reconstruction, no one could deny that citizens who had been asked to sacrifice in war were entitled to share in the benefits of peace. In many cases, labour unions became the representatives of working people’s claims to peacetime dividends. Indeed, union membership reached historic highs, and union leaders sat alongside business and government leaders to hammer out social policy. Between 1944 and 1947, one country after another created old-age pension schemes, national health insurance, family allowances, unemployment insurance and more social benefits. These programmes gave average families a sense of security they had never known. Children from poor families could visit the doctor without great expense. The loss of a job or the death of a wage-earner no longer meant destitution.

Second, in addition to the growing welfare state, strong productivity growth contributed to rising living standards. Rising productivity – increasing the efficiency with which an economy uses labour, capital and other resources – is the main force that makes an economy grow. Because new technologies and better ways of doing business take time to filter through the economy, productivity improvements are usually slow. But in the postwar years, productivity grew very quickly. A unique combination of circumstances propelled it. In just a few years, millions of people moved from low-productivity farm work – more than 3 million mules still plowed furrows on US farms in 1945 – to construction and factory jobs that used the latest machinery.

In 1940, the average working-age adult in western Europe had less than five years of formal education. As governments invested heavily in high schools and universities after the war, they produced a more educated and literate workforce with the skills to produce far more wealth. Advances in national infrastructure gave direct boosts to national productivity. High-speed motorways enabled truck drivers to carry bigger loads over longer distances at higher speeds, greatly expanding markets for farms and factories. Six rounds of trade negotiations between 1947 and 1967, ultimately involving nearly 50 countries that signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), brought a massive increase in cross-border trade, forcing manufacturers to modernise or give up. Firms moved to take advantage of technological innovations to operate more productively, such as jet aircraft and numerically controlled machinery.

Between 1951 and 1973, propelled by strong productivity gains, the world economy grew at an annual rate of nearly 5 per cent. The impact on living standards was dramatic. Jobs were just for the asking; in 1966, West Germany’s unemployment rate touched an unprecedented 0.5 per cent. Electricity, indoor plumbing and television sets became common. Stoves burning coal or peat were replaced by central heating systems. Homes grew larger, and tens of millions of families acquired refrigerators and automobiles. The higher living standards did much more than simply bring new material goods. Retirement by 65, or even earlier, became the norm. Life expectancy jumped. Importantly, in Western Europe, North America and Japan, people across society shared in those gains. Prosperity was not limited to the urban elite. Most people began to live better, and they knew it. In the span of a quarter-century, living standards doubled and then, in many countries, doubled again.

The good times rolled on so long that people took them for granted. Between 1948 and 1973, Australia, Japan, Sweden and Italy had not a single year of recession. West Germany and Canada did almost as well. Governments and the economists who advised them happily claimed the credit. Careful economic management, they said, had put an end to cyclical ups and downs. Governments possessed more information about citizens and business than ever before, and computers could crunch the data to help policymakers determine the best course of action. In a lecture at Harvard University in 1966, Walter Heller, formerly chief economic adviser to presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, trumpeted the success of what he called the ‘new economics’. ‘Conceptual advances and quantitative research in economics,’ he declared, ‘are replacing emotion with reason.’

Wages and investment were private decisions, but Schiller hoped government guidelines would contribute to ‘collective rationality’

The most influential proponent of such ideas was Karl Schiller, who became economy minister of West Germany, Europe’s largest economy, in 1966. A former professor at the University of Hamburg, where his students included the future West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Schiller was a centrist Social Democrat. He stood apart from those on the Left who favoured state ownership of industry, but also from extreme free-market conservatives. His advice called for ‘a synthesis of planning and competition’. Schiller defined his philosophy thus: ‘As much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary.’

Most fundamentally, Schiller believed that government should commit itself to maintaining high employment, steady growth and stable prices. And it should do this all while keeping its international account in balance, within the framework of a free-market economy. These four commitments made the corners of what he called the ‘magic square’. In December 1966, when Schiller became economy minister in a new coalition government, the magic square became official policy. Following Schiller’s version of Keynesian economics, his ministry’s experts advised federal and state governments how to adjust their budgets to achieve ‘equilibrium of the entire economy’. The ministry’s advice was based on an elaborate planning exercise that churned out five-year projections. In the spring of 1967, the finance ministry was told to adjust taxes and spending plans to increase business investment while slowing the growth of consumer spending. These moves, Schiller’s economic models promised, would bring economic growth averaging 4 per cent through 1971, along with 0.8 per cent unemployment, 1 per cent annual inflation and a 1 per cent current account surplus.

But in an economy that was overwhelmingly privately run, government alone could not reach perfection. Four or five times a year, Schiller summoned corporate executives, union presidents and the heads of business organisations to a conference room in the ministry. There he described the economic outlook and announced how much wages and investment could rise without compromising his national economic targets. Of course, he would add, wages and investment were private decisions, but he hoped that the government’s guidelines would contribute to ‘collective rationality’. Such careful stage management cemented Schiller’s fame. In 1969, for the first time, the Social Democrats outpolled every other party. The election that year became known as the ‘Schiller election’.

Schiller insisted that his policies had brought West Germany to ‘a sunny plateau of prosperity’ where inflation and unemployment were permanently vanquished. Year after year, however, the economy failed to perform as he instructed. In July 1972, when Schiller was denied control over the exchange rate, he stormed out of the cabinet and left elected office forever.

Schiller left with the West German economy roaring. Within 18 months, his claim that the government could ensure stable prices, robust growth and jobs for all blew up.

The headline event of 1973 was the oil crisis. On 6 October, Egyptian and Syrian armies attacked Israeli positions, starting the conflict that became known as the Yom Kippur War. By agreeing to slash production and raise the price of oil, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and other Middle Eastern oil exporters quickly backed the two Arab countries. Shipments to countries that supported Israel, including the US and the Netherlands, were cut off altogether.

Oil-importing countries responded in dramatic fashion. Western European countries lowered speed limits and rationed diesel supplies. From Italy to Norway, driving was banned on four consecutive Sundays in order to save fuel. The Japanese government shut down factories and told citizens to turn out the pilot lights on their water heaters. US truck drivers blocked highways to protest high fuel prices, and motorists queued for hours to top off their gasoline tanks. In a televised address, the US President Richard Nixon warned Americans: ‘We are heading toward the most acute shortages of energy since the Second World War.’

Faced with higher petroleum prices, economic growth in 1974 collapsed. Around the world, inflation soared. When oil prices receded, the world economy failed to bounce back. Double-digit inflation dramatically undermined workers’ wage gains. From 1973 to 1979, average income per worker grew only half as fast as it had before 1973. Help-wanted signs vanished as unemployment rose. The economic experts, only recently so confident that their rational mathematical analysis had brought permanent prosperity, were flummoxed. Stable economic growth had given way to violent gyrations.

The underlying problem, it turned out, was not expensive petroleum but slow productivity growth. Through the 1960s and early ’70s, across the wealthy world, productivity had risen a strong 5 per cent a year. After 1973, the trend shifted clearly downward. Through the rest of the 20th century, productivity growth in the wealthy economies averaged less than 2 per cent a year. Diminished productivity growth translated directly into sluggish economic growth. The days when people could feel their living standards rising from one year to the next were over. As the good times failed to return, voters turned their fury on political leaders. In fact, there was little any Western politician could do to put their economies back on their previous tracks.

To give a short-term boost to an underperforming economy, central banks and governments have a variety of tools they can use. They can lower interest rates to make it cheaper to buy a car or build a factory. They can lower taxes to give consumers more money to spend. They can increase government spending to pump more cash into the economy. They can change regulations to make it easier for banks to lend money. But when it comes to an economy’s long-term growth potential, productivity is vital. It matters more than anything else – and productivity growth after the early 1970s was simply slower than before.

Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error

The reasons behind slowed productivity growth had nothing to do with any government’s economic policy. The historic move of rural peoples to the cities, around the world, could not be repeated. Once masses of peasant farmers and sharecroppers had shifted into more productive work in the cities, it was done. The great flow of previously unemployed women into the labour force was over. In the 1960s, building thousands of miles of superhighways brought massive economic benefits. But once those roads were open to traffic, adding lanes or exit ramps was far less consequential. In rich countries, literacy had risen to almost universal levels. After that historic jump, the effects of additional small increases in average education were comparatively slight. If higher productivity growth were to be regained, it would have to come from developing technological innovations and new approaches to business, and putting them to use in ways that allowed the business sector to operate more effectively.

When it comes to influencing innovation, governments have power. Grants for scientific research and education, and policies that make it easy for new firms to grow, can speed the development of new ideas. But what matters for productivity is not the number of innovations, but the rate at which innovations affect the economy – something almost totally beyond the ability of governments to control. Turning innovative ideas into economically valuable products and services can involve years of trial and error. Many of the basic technologies behind mobile telephones were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but mobile phones came into widespread use only in the 1990s. Often, a new technology is phased in only over time as old buildings and equipment are phased out. Moreover, for reasons no one fully understands, productivity growth and innovation seem to move in long cycles. In the US, for example, between the 1920s and 1973, innovation brought strong productivity growth. Between 1973 and 1995, it brought much less. The years between 1995 and 2003 saw high productivity gains, and then again considerably less thereafter.

When the surge in productivity following the Second World War tailed off, people around the globe felt the pain. At the time, it appeared that a few countries – France and Italy for a few years in the late 1970s, Japan in the second half of the ’80s – had discovered formulas allowing them to defy the downward global productivity trend. But their economies revived only briefly before productivity growth waned. Jobs soon became scarce again, and improvements in living standards came more slowly. The poor productivity growth of the late 1990s was not due to taxes, regulations or other government policies in any particular country, but to global trends. No country escaped them.

Unlike the innovations of the 1950s and ’60s, which were welcomed widely, those of the late 20th century had costly side effects. While information technology, communications and freight transportation became cheaper and more reliable, giant industrial complexes became dinosaurs as work could be distributed widely to take advantage of labour supplies, transportation facilities or government subsidies. Workers whose jobs were relocated found that their years of experience and training were of little value in other industries, and communities that lost major employers fell into decay. Meanwhile, the welfare state on which they had come to rely began to deteriorate, its financial underpinnings stressed due to the slow growth of tax revenue in economies that were no longer buoyant. The widespread sharing in the mid-century boom was not repeated in the productivity gains at the end of the century, which accumulated at the top of the income scale.

For much of the world, the Golden Age brought extraordinary prosperity. But it also brought unrealistic expectations about what governments can do to assure full employment, steady economic growth and rising living standards. These expectations still shape political life today. Between 1979 and 1982, citizens in one country after another threw out the leaders who stood for the welfare state and voted in a wave of more Right-wing politicians – Margaret Thatcher, Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Yasuhiro Nakasone and many others – who promised to tame big government and let market forces, lower tax rates and deregulation bring the good times back. Today, nearly 40 years on, voters are again turning to the Right, hoping that populist leaders will know how to make slow-growing economies great again.

More than a generation ago, the free-market policies of Thatcher and Reagan proved no more successful at improving productivity and raising economic growth than the policies they supplanted. There is no reason to think that the populists of our day will do much better. The Golden Age was wonderful while it lasted, but it cannot be repeated. If there were a surefire method for coaxing extraordinary performance from mature economies, it likely would have been discovered a long time ago.

Aeon

NZ Inflation now at dangerously low level. 

The deflation risk will weigh heavily on the Reserve Bank, which is required to target an inflation band of between 1 and 3 per cent, which it has been outside for two years.

The idea that falling prices are a bad thing for an economy can seem counter-intuitive. But the problem as economists see it – and as witnessed in Japan over the past 20 years – is that when people expect inflation to be consistently low or deflation takes hold this can create a recessionary spiral. Expectation things will become cheaper suppresses consumer spending and business investment. The two feed off each other as lower consumption forces businesses to contract and focus on costs. That can start to cost jobs.

A cheaper TV or overseas holiday doesn’t look so good if you’ve been laid off. NZ Herald