A Manifesto for Economic Sense, and Why We Need One…

Why are policy makers so immune to doing the right thing when it comes to creating and following policy that will ease the current unnecessary crisis of unemployment and reign in the forces that have taken the world into the financial and economic crisis we still face? Here are two views offered to help understand the problem. First a look at what the problem really is and what policy makers can and should do immediately, and then a look at the hubris and criminality policy makers, particularly those on the right, refuse to acknowledge and address that is exacerbating the problem.

From www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org:

A Manifesto for Economic Sense

More than four years after the financial crisis began, the world’s major advanced economies remain deeply depressed, in a scene all too reminiscent of the 1930s. And the reason is simple: we are relying on the same ideas that governed policy in the 1930s. These ideas, long since disproved, involve profound errors both about the causes of the crisis, its nature, and the appropriate response.

These errors have taken deep root in public consciousness and provide the public support for the excessive austerity of current fiscal policies in many countries. So the time is ripe for a Manifesto in which mainstream economists offer the public a more evidence-based analysis of our problems.

  • The causes. Many policy makers insist that the crisis was caused by irresponsible public borrowing. With very few exceptions – other than Greece – this is false. Instead, the conditions for crisis were created by excessive private sector borrowing and lending, including by over-leveraged banks. The collapse of this bubble led to massive falls in output and thus in tax revenue. So the large government deficits we see today are a consequence of the crisis, not its cause.
  • The nature of the crisis. When real estate bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic burst, many parts of the private sector slashed spending in an attempt to pay down past debts. This was a rational response on the part of individuals, but – just like the similar response of debtors in the 1930s – it has proved collectively self-defeating, because one person’s spending is another person’s income. The result of the spending collapse has been an economic depression that has worsened the public debt.
  • The appropriate response. At a time when the private sector is engaged in a collective effort to spend less, public policy should act as a stabilizing force, attempting to sustain spending. At the very least we should not be making things worse by big cuts in government spending or big increases in tax rates on ordinary people. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many governments are now doing.
  • The big mistake. After responding well in the first, acute phase of the economic crisis, conventional policy wisdom took a wrong turn – focusing on government deficits, which are mainly the result of a crisis-induced plunge in revenue, and arguing that the public sector should attempt to reduce its debts in tandem with the private sector. As a result, instead of playing a stabilizing role, fiscal policy has ended up reinforcing the dampening effects of private-sector spending cuts.

In the face of a less severe shock, monetary policy could take up the slack. But with interest rates close to zero, monetary policy – while it should do all it can – cannot do the whole job. There must of course be a medium-term plan for reducing the government deficit. But if this is too front-loaded it can easily be self-defeating by aborting the recovery. A key priority now is to reduce unemployment, before it becomes endemic, making recovery and future deficit reduction even more difficult.

How do those who support present policies answer the argument we have just made? They use two quite different arguments in support of their case.

The confidence argument. Their first argument is that government deficits will raise interest rates and thus prevent recovery. By contrast, they argue, austerity will increase confidence and thus encourage recovery.

But there is no evidence at all in favour of this argument. First, despite exceptionally high deficits, interest rates today are unprecedentedly low in all major countries where there is a normally functioning central bank. This is true even in Japan where the government debt now exceeds 200% of annual GDP; and past downgrades by the rating agencies here have had no effect on Japanese interest rates. Interest rates are only high in some Euro countries, because the ECB is not allowed to act as lender of last resort to the government. Elsewhere the central bank can always, if needed, fund the deficit, leaving the bond market unaffected.

Moreover past experience includes no relevant case where budget cuts have actually generated increased economic activity. The IMF has studied 173 cases of budget cuts in individual countries and found that the consistent result is economic contraction. In the handful of cases in which fiscal consolidation was followed by growth, the main channels were a currency depreciation against a strong world market, not a current possibility. The lesson of the IMF’s study is clear – budget cuts retard recovery. And that is what is happening now – the countries with the biggest budget cuts have experienced the biggest falls in output.

For the truth is, as we can now see, that budget cuts do not inspire business confidence. Companies will only invest when they can foresee enough customers with enough income to spend. Austerity discourages investment.

So there is massive evidence against the confidence argument; all the alleged evidence in favor of the doctrine has evaporated on closer examination.

The structural argument. A second argument against expanding demand is that output is in fact constrained on the supply side – by structural imbalances. If this theory were right, however, at least some parts of our economies ought to be at full stretch, and so should some occupations. But in most countries that is just not the case. Every major sector of our economies is struggling, and every occupation has higher unemployment than usual. So the problem must be a general lack of spending and demand.

In the 1930s the same structural argument was used against proactive spending policies in the U.S. But as spending rose between 1940 and 1942, output rose by 20%. So the problem in the 1930s, as now, was a shortage of demand not of supply.

As a result of their mistaken ideas, many Western policy-makers are inflicting massive suffering on their peoples. But the ideas they espouse about how to handle recessions were rejected by nearly all economists after the disasters of the 1930s, and for the following forty years or so the West enjoyed an unparalleled period of economic stability and low unemployment. It is tragic that in recent years the old ideas have again taken root. But we can no longer accept a situation where mistaken fears of higher interest rates weigh more highly with policy-makers than the horrors of mass unemployment.

Better policies will differ between countries and need detailed debate. But they must be based on a correct analysis of the problem. We therefore urge all economists and others who agree with the broad thrust of this Manifesto to register their agreement at http://www.manifestoforeconomicsense.org, and to publically argue the case for a sounder approach. The whole world suffers when men and women are silent about what they know is wrong.

And why we need economic common sense…

Matt Taibbi contributing editor of The Rolling Stone magazine, and Yves Smith, author of Econned, and creator of the blog http://www.nakedcapitalism.com, explain against the backdrop of JP Morgan’s recent loss on (now estimated at nearly $9 billion) of bets hedging the bank’s investment positions, how Wall Street with Mafia-like fixing of bids, continuing government largess in corporate welfare propping up operations, and expertise at gaming the system with depositor funds epitomizes the greed that has played it’s role in destroying municipal, state, and national budgets, causing so much suffering through the resulting austerity measures, bailouts for the wealthiest, reductions in safety net protections to the elderly, children, the disabled, and the poor. Republican senators fawned over JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon in hearings earlier in June, ignoring JP Morgan’s record of criminal abuse evident in the fines paid for illegally foreclosing mortgages of military service men and women serving overseas, or for bid-rigging for municipal bonds and CDO fraud for which they paid fines of $228mil and $153mil, respectively, last year. Being too big to fail (privatizing profits, while socializing the risks inherent in gaining those profits) is apparently the neo-liberal corporatocracy the current crop of “trickle-down” economic faith-healers believe is the “American way” to freedom and liberty…

How Much Inequality?

A brief essay by Daniel Little on the website UnderstandingSociety asks the following questions, examining the issues of inequality in income and opportunity from moral, social justice, social cohesiveness, and utilitarian perspectives, with links to additional writings on each view.

How much inequality is too much?  Answers range from Gracchus Babeuf (all inequalities are unjust) to Ayn Rand (there is no moral limit on the extent of inequalities a society can embody). Is there any reasoned basis for answering the question?  What kinds of criteria might we use to try to answer this kind of question?

Ayn Rand’s novels appear to have infected a large number of people with the notion that moral considerations of inequality in a society are inappropriate when compared to the rights and motivations of the individual, which argument is helping fuel the divisive gridlock on economic matters policy makers are facing in States and the Federal government. The author of a budget proposal lacking a moral compass, Paul Ryan, is awarded a “fiscal responsibility” award, while legislation to aid job creation and to continue benefits for millions of the long-term unemployed is routinely blocked, growing an underclass of otherwise productive workers unable to return to their former areas of expertise or income levels. The States under growing budget constraints choose to cut revenues, primarily for those at the top of the income scale, while they reduce spending, placing the burden of strangled government on the shoulders of the unemployed, the elderly, children, the sick, and the disabled. It is not hard to see the moral inequality of these actions, and as Joseph Stiglitz in his commentary and latest book, The Price of Inequality, How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, points out social cohesiveness is at risk as those in the vice of unequal policy and advantage in society reject and resist such policy. (More here.)

America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

And the driver of this alienation…? The “anything goes” philosophy from the right that has promoted security force violence against students and demonstrators protesting the effects of inequality, too big to fail industries that privatize their profits while socializing the risks they take to realize their profits, and unresponsive government unwilling and unable to represent the vast majority of people in their societies. Can we do better? Let us hope so…

The Great Recession

At the end of April PBS’s investigative unit Frontline began showing the first of their four part series,  Money, Power and Wall St. Each one hour segment  is worth paying close attention to. I developed a greater appreciation for how collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s) and credit default swaps (CDS’s) are created, traded, and how the market for these derivatives — private, proprietary, opaque — contributed to (if not created) the financial crisis and continues to create enormous risk today. Several of the economists and public officials that I have looked to to gain understanding of the crisis, and have found to be progressively minded and extremely knowledgeable, Robert Reich, Joseph Stieglitz, Paul Krugman, Jared Bernstein, are featured along with a number of other smart, informed, highly credible players in the drama that unfolded. The role of Occupy Wall Street is featured prominently is this discussion, especially in the last hour with interviews of the Occupiers, former Wall St. traders, involved with Occupy the SEC and whose workgroup is offering public comment on the rule-making process surrounding the Frank-Dodd legislation.

The Derivative Markets

The phenomenal profit to be made from securitizing mortgages for a growing derivatives market drove both unscrupulous and unwitting lenders to write mortgages as fast as they could that many borrowers simply couldn’t afford, or similarly didn’t understand as to the terms to which they were agreeing. Predatory lending and aggressive markets in derivatives largely fueled a worldwide housing bubble, which when bursting caught up millions of people stuck with out-sized mortgages worth more than the homes they had financed. This derivatives market is to this day a largely unregulated shadow banking industry, which in 2010 held assets of $13 trillion, $3 trillion more than the regulated, public, commercial banking system held in loans.

This shadow banking system trades derivatives in private, proprietary transactions and counter bets which wiped out unsuspecting investors not only in mortgage markets, but created turmoil for cities in the US and Europe, and for nations such as Greece, Ireland, Spain. A complicated deriviatives deal in Italy by Bear Stearns left the city of Casino in debt to the financiers at Bear. Goldman Sachs profited by the hundreds of millions from derivative deals with Greece, helping propel Greece into the civil turmoil discussed below in the posting Dignity. The bank runs that ensued in the turmoil of late 2008 and 2009 depleted some of the largest Wall St. banks of their already thin, over-leveraged capital reserves, freezing credit, and very nearly initiating a second Great Depression. Nearly $8 Trillion in emergency loans by the Federal Reserve to banks around the globe prevented a much more serious crisis from enveloping the world economy.

An Occupier

Additional at length interviews by some of the contributors are also worth taking in. Cathy O’Neil wanted to be a mathematician since she was in her early teens. Her academic path lead her from UC Berkeley to Harvard to MIT and post-grad training. After joining a hedge fund company and coming to see the basic immorality of the prevailing attitude on Wall St. she left her firm to take up risk analysis. As a former “quant,” an analyst who understood the statistical models used to gauge trends traders reacted to Ms. O’Neil brought to the alternative banking working group of OWS her expertise with risk management and how the system can and does get gamed. She has been working with the sub-group Occupy the SEC to submit public comment on the Volker Rule which is meant to regulate the extent to which commercial and investment banking in a single firm might overlap. A step in the right direction to the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall-like protections, which provided a clear separation of commercial and investment banking, the Volker Rule as part of the Frank-Dodd Financial Reform Act may help Frank-Dodd be an effective piece of reform legislation. If watered down too much, by banking lobbyists and the loopholes they argue for, the legislation will be weak and unable to reign in the predatory nature of Wall St. investment banking.

 

Another additional at length interview worth your attention is by Phil Angelides, head of the Financial Inquiry Commission that investigated the crisis and who has advocated deep reform measures to address the ongoing threat, as serious a threat as before the crisis that in his words “hasn’t ended.”

Some may view this series as “too establishment,” as too much an endorsement of a system thoroughly broken… I view this as a good starting place to begin to understand the history, knowing no historical depiction is ever 100% correct. I encourage folks to have a look and take from this what they will.

%d bloggers like this: