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…

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.

An Unnecessary Evil

When members of the 99%, Doug Bowen and Kathy Chaiklin, were granted an audience with Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins earlier this year, the pair sat with Senator Collins to discuss campaign financing and the donations she has received from wealthy out-of-state interests. The following exchange was recalled from memory after the meeting:

Doug – Senator [Margaret Chase] Smith stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy when he nearly paralyzed government by accusing officials of being communists. At a great risk to her career she exposed him as a liar, when other members of congress were afraid to. Now, we believe the greatest threat to democracy is unlimited special interest money from corporations and lobbyists and unions that members of Congress rely on to win elections, they are influenced by it. You know that 1% of Americans contribute 99% of all the money members raise to win elections.

Senator – I don’t believe Congress is influenced by campaign contributions. I don’t think large contributions are a problem. Now, the Super PAC money might be a problem, its so huge, the ten million the Adelsons gave to Gingrich’s campaign…..though I don’t think that would influence Newt… Casinos?

Doug – Americans were very concerned about the influence of big money on Congress long before Citizens United. Americans have given Congress like 10% approval ratings for years, 80% think “government is controlled by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” These are polls. What people actually think about Congress is what’s really important, we can’t trust it. What’s a regular person supposed to think when he sees a corporation give huge amounts of money to a Senator, how can he believe there isn’t going to be something in return, I don’t mean passing cash, but like favors returned over time –

Senator – No its not like that. I am not influenced. At all. Most in Congress are not. (vigorous shaking of head).

I’ve often wondered how a person in Senator Collins position could make this type of statement, a statement so clearly out of sync with prevailing public sentiments, and still feel as if the statement was an honest one. What rationalization would have to take place to allow the Senator a clear conscience with regard to the funds ALL Congresspeople must collect in our present broken and unfair campaign finance system to compete in elections? The following episode from a recent This American Life broadcast might supply an answer.

The episode is called Take the Money and Run for Office. In it both senators and congress members describe the process they must use to collect needed campaign donations to stay competitive. The twist, though, for those that have in mind narrow-interest corporate lobbyists dangling campaign funds in front of hapless or easily influenced Congress members is in the fact that Congress members and their campaign staff are often the ones soliciting campaign funds, and an audience with a Senator or Congress person is more easily attained when the lubricant of campaign donations is present or at least promised. (Money is certainly not the only avenue to catch the ear of a senator or congress member, but it certainly helps.) A lobbyist’s office hasn’t returned funding raising phone calls from a Senator’s or Congress member’s office? Why should that senator or member make time in their busy schedules to hear what that particular lobbying firm has to say?

If Senator Collins’ office initiates the fund raising call, and couples face-time with her to the success or failure of her outreach efforts does her influence over those she seeks funds from preclude or overshadow their influence over her decisions? Is this the rationalization that threads a twisted path through the thicket of influence buying and influence peddling that to the public seems obvious, pernicious, very suspect?

Bundlers for candidates are given more easy access to successful candidates because through their fund raising efforts they become players, often seeking appointments to the many political appointment positions that successful candidates make upon winning office. You pay to play, or you watch from the sidelines. For the vast majority of people watching from the sidelines it is difficult to tell who is trying to buy influence and who is peddling influence. Take the Money and Run for Office captures some of how this system works and why it needs to be changed.


Economic Inequality and Political Representation (pdf), Larry M. Bartels, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, August 2005.

(MP3 audio file of Take the Money and Run for Office will be available after 7pm, April 1, 2012.)

Occupy = Zapatistas

“The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy.” Mexico, Political Update, Chase Manhattan Bank.

“It is time for us to see this in a larger context. Decisions are made in place like Geneva that impact on the poorest of the poor in Mexico. They decide that the conditionality of a loan to Mexico is going to include the export of meat from Mexico, that means that the land that the Mexicans have used to grow corn is now used to grow cattle. And that cattle is sold to make fast food in the United States. That’s a decision not made by the Mexicans, it’s made by a world trade organization. Who is the enforcer of this? Well of course, the US military becomes the enforcer of a non-democratic, even anti-democratic, corporate effort to control the world economy.” Blasé Bonpane, Director, Office of the Americas.

“We are in this era of a global economy. We are in this era where corporations want to be able to go anywhere in the world, pay as little as they can pay, exploit workers as much as they can exploit them, then move on to the next place. It is very, very convenient to have this big body of dispensable workers right across the border. So I think Mexico is a goldmine for US corporations, and they’re still in the process of figuring out how to tap that goldmine. And the things like the uprising in Chiapas become a real inconvenience for them. “   Medea Benjamin, Co-director, Global Exchange.

“The day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) comes into effect, several thousand soldiers take over half the state of Chiapas, declaring a war against the global corporate power they say rules Mexico. They call themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Zapatista shows this uprising, the story of a peasant rebellion, armed and up against the first world military. It is the story of a movement that transformed Mexican and international political culture forever …”  thoughtmaybe.com

Watch the nearly one hour video here.

Growth, Inequality, Policy, and Power: Connecting the Dots

Another new Teach-In addition comes by way of a slideshow presentation given by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities during a talk in the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Lecture series at the University of Maryland in March 2012. This is an easy to follow discussion of the causes of our present inequality and how the prevalent economic policy agenda is exacerbating inequality, a growth in poverty as opposed to fair economic growth, and a rise in children living in poverty.

The Story of Citizens United v. FEC

The latest addition to the Teach-In Page is the excellent resource found on The Story of Stuff website telling the story of the Citizen’s United v FEC decision, the abysmal decision reached about two years ago by the activist Roberts Supreme Court, the most activist Supreme Court in decades. Joining the movement to overturn this disasterous decision begins with understanding what the problem is. Efforts to pass local and state resolutions, and Constitutional amendments to win back control of our government are under way. This primer gives a great description of the problem all of the efforts being taken are meant to address.

Government Capture is the American Condition

American corporations today are like the great European monarchies of yore: They have the power to control the rules under which they function and to direct the allocation of public resources. This is not a prediction of what’s to come; this is a simple statement of the present state of affairs. Corporations have effectively captured the United States: its judiciary, its political system, and its national wealth, without assuming any of the responsibilities of dominion. Evidence of government capture is everywhere.
Six Symptoms of Government Capture:
  1. The “smoking gun” is CEO pay.
  2. Retirement risk has been transferred to employees.
  3. Corporate money now controls every stage of politics — legislative, executive, and ultimately judicial.
  4. Government Capture has been further implemented through the extensive lobbying power of corporations.
  5. The most powerful CEOs are above the reach of the law and beyond its effective enforcement.
  6. Government capture has been perpetuated through the removal of property “off shore,” where it is neither regulated nor taxed.
Government cannot and will not hold corporations to account. That much is now obvious.  Indeed, the dawning realization of this truth is what has informed the Occupy movement, but only the owners of corporations can create the accountability that will ultimately unwind the knot of government capture.
Continue reading here.

Another View on the Politics Prolonging the Lesser Depression

This VOXEU article discusses the politics that arise in the aftermath of financial crises on a broader scale, not just our current one.

Political environments appear systematically different in the aftermath of a financial crisis relative to before the crisis. This column argues that the ensuing gridlock and the delay in potentially beneficial policy reforms should come as no surprise.

Financial crises of all colours (banking, currency, inflation, or debt crises) leave deep marks on an economy. Deep economic contractions, both in output and employment, are systematic in the interim and in the aftermath of financial crises, as thoroughly documented in research by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009) and Reinhart and Reinhart (2010).

Sustained waves of volatility, often resulting in secondary crises (e.g. debt crises following banking crashes), are almost the norm in the post-crisis period (Reinhart and Rogoff 2011).

What exactly occurs in the aftermath of financial crises that makes recovering from such shocks so hard? This column argues that the answer may lie mostly with the politics, not the economics.

I might disagree with the authors that the Occupy movement is primarily a “leftist” movement, but the overwhelming weight of this analysis that the politics of the extremes are at play here is difficult to dismiss. With the dominant culture favoring the corporatist alignments of corporation, wealth, and the elite political class the extreme politics prolonging the current Lesser Depression, as Paul Krugman describes our present economic status, can be best described as that which favors inequality at the expense of the vast majority of the public in the world’s nations today. Austerity in Europe is pushing the EU into a recession, and while the Federal government in the US has largely avoided the drastic austerity crippling Britain, Spain, Ireland, Portugal,  and Greece states and local municipalities in the US are being forced into austere budget cuts that defy logic, are counter-productive to growth, largely rooted in extreme political economics espoused by both parties that for the past 40 years has helped create the difficulties and inequality we are now experiencing.

 

What We Have Become…

                                                               Pavel Constantin, Cagle Cartoons, Romania

 

What does it say about democracy in the US when this cartoon coming out of a former communist country in Eastern Europe so clearly describes our corporatist state where an elite political class enjoys the benefits of police state protections against the people? Stay in line, and nobody will get hurt…

Paul Krugman’s Playboy Interview

Paul Krugman speaks with Playboy about the financial crisis and why the ongoing slow recovery is unnecessary, the result of politics, not economics. Read the entire article, but here are a few of the “money” quotes:

PLAYBOY: Some of [the] debate is irrelevant to the average person. All they know is they don’t have a job or they don’t have a job that pays enough.

KRUGMAN: The point is there’s a tremendous amount of suffering. A lot of America is much worse off than it was four years ago. I think the main reason you should be angry about it is that it’s gratuitous. This doesn’t have to be happening. We actually have the tools to make most of this go away. If we could throw aside the political prejudices and bad ideas that are crippling us, in 18 months we could be back to something that feels like a much better economy.

On the utility of union organizing:

PLAYBOY: Is it accurate to simplify our modern economy as a choice between working for a high-wage General Motors model versus the low-wage Walmart strategy?

KRUGMAN: I think the choice we made, really without understanding that we were making the choice, was to make Walmart jobs low paying. They didn’t have to be. In a different legal environment, a megacorporation with more than a million employees might well have been a company with a union that resulted in decent wages. We think of Walmart jobs as being low wage with 50 percent turnover every year because that’s the way we’ve allowed it to develop. But it didn’t have to be that way. If the rise of big-box stores had not taken place under the Reaganite rules of the game, with employers free to do whatever they wanted to block union organizing, we might have had a different result. Part of the hysterical opposition to the auto-industry bailout was the notion that we were bailing out well-paid workers with union jobs.

On the policy failures that have prolonged unemployment at demoralizing low levels that hurt the country, its labor force, based on backward political thinking:

PLAYBOY: So people in America today are suffering when they don’t have to be because of policy makers who won’t do the right thing?

KRUGMAN: That’s right. I’ve gotten some grief for my remark that if it were announced that we faced a threat from space aliens and needed to build up to defend ourselves, we’d have full employment in a year and a half. But that’s true. Why couldn’t we do that to repair our sewer systems and put an extra tunnel under the Hudson instead of to fight imaginary space aliens? Everybody in the world except us is doing a lot of investment in infrastructure and education. This is the country of the Erie Canal and the Interstate Highway System. The Erie Canal was a huge public infrastructure project financed with no private or public-private partnership. Can you imagine doing that in 21st century America? We really have slid backward for the past 200 years from the kinds of things we used to understand needed to be done now and then. And all of that because we are shackled to the wrong ideas.

(The interview that appears in the link above in a recent edition of Playboy, so if a little suggestive skin is offensive to you, reader beware.)

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