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Why Au-scare-ity Still Has Traction

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Many economists have been watching Britain’s experiment with austerity for quite a while.  Britain has been following a course of using cuts in government programs along with mass layoffs of public sector workers in attempt to stimulate economic growth.  Back in February, economist Dean Baker made this observation:

Three months ago, I noted that the United States might benefit from the pain being suffered by the citizens of the United Kingdom.  The reason was the new coalition government’s commitment to prosperity through austerity.  As predicted, this looks very much like a path to pain and stagnation, not healthy growth.

That’s bad news for the citizens of the United Kingdom.  They will be forced to suffer through years of unnecessarily high unemployment.  They will also have to endure cutbacks in support for important public services like healthcare and education.

But the pain for the people in England could provide a useful example for the United States.

*   *   *

Prior to this episode, there was already a solid economic case that large public deficits were necessary to support the economy in the period following the collapse of an asset bubble. The point is simply that the private sector is not prepared to make up the demand gap, at least in the short term.  Both short-term and long-term interest rates are pretty much as low as they can be.

*   *   *

From this side of the pond, though, the goal is simply to encourage people to pay attention.  The UK might be home to 60 million people, but from the standpoint of US economic policy, it is simply exhibit A:  it is the country that did what our deficit hawks want to do in the US.

The takeaway lesson should be “austerity does not work; don’t go there.”  Unfortunately, in the land of faith-based economics, evidence does not count for much.  The UK may pursue a disastrous austerity path and those of us in the United States may still have to follow the same road anyhow.

After discussing the above-quoted commentary by Dean Baker, economist Mark Thoma added this:

Yes — it’s not about evidence, it’s about finding an excuse to implement an ideology.  The recession got in the way of those efforts until the idea that austerity is stimulative came along. Thus, “austerity is stimulative” is being used very much like “tax cuts increase revenues.”  It’s a means of claiming that ideological goals are good for the economy so that supporters in Congress and elsewhere have a means of rationalizing the policies they want to put in place.  It’s the idea that matters, and contrary evidence is brushed aside.

There seems to be an effort in many quarters to deny that the financial crisis ever happened.  Although it will eventually become absolutely imperative to get deficits under control, most sober economists emphasize that attempting to do so before the economy begins to recover and before the unemployment crisis is even addressed – would destroy any chance of economic recovery.  Barack Obama’s opponents know that the easiest route toward subverting the success of his re-election campaign involves undermining any efforts toward improving the economy to any degree by November of 2012.  Beyond that, the fast-track implementation of a British-style austerity program could guarantee a double-dip recession, which could prove disastrous to Obama’s re-election hopes.  As a result, the pressure is on to initiate some significant austerity measures as quickly as possible.  The propaganda employed to expedite this effort involves scaring the sheeple into believing that the horrifying budget deficit is about to bite them in the ass right now.  There is a rapidly increasing drumbeat to crank-up the scare factor.

Of course, the existence of this situation is the result of Obama’s own blunder.  Although he did manage to defeat Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  In April of 2009, Obama chose to parrot the discredited “money multiplier” myth, fed to him by Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner, in order to justify continuous corporate welfare for the megabanks.  If Obama had followed the right course, by pushing a stronger, more infrastructure-based stimulus program through the Democrat-controlled Senate and House, we would be enjoying a more healthy economy right now.  A significant number of the nearly fifteen million people currently unemployed could have found jobs from which they would now be paying income taxes, which reduce the deficit.  But that didn’t happen.  President Obama has no one else to blame for that error.  His opponents are now attempting to “snowball” that mistake into a disaster that could make him a one-term President.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich saw this coming back in March:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

Professor Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently brought the focus of the current economic debate back to where it belongs:

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

*   *   *

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example in the context of when the government’s “debt ceiling” will be raised.  And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level – although this has grabbed the headlines, this is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay and on what basis in the form of transfers to relatively poor people – and how rising healthcare costs should affect those transfers.

As the Tea Partiers flock to movie theaters to watch Atlas Shrugged, perhaps it’s time for a porno send-up, based on a steamy encounter between Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko called, Greed Feels Good.


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Post-Free-Market Reality

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The problem became obvious at the onset of the financial crisis.  All of the huffing and puffing about our glorious Free Market system was a big lie.  Once the credit bubble had burst, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went into panic mode – his eyes bulging outward even more than normal.  During that fateful week of September 15 2008, Paulson had 24 telephone conversations with Lloyd Blankfein, his successor CEO at Goldman Sachs.  AIG had to get bailed out at taxpayer expense.  From across the pond, the reaction was immediate.  On September 18 2008, Philip Broughton wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled, “Free-market capitalism lies shredded … while America’s confidence is badly shaken”.  Near the outset of the piece, Broughton chronicled the ugly truth:

For years now, we have had to listen to bankers attacking Washington for imposing regulations that inhibit the free markets from making even more money.

And all the while, they took exorbitant salaries, justifying them on the grounds of their huge contribution to capitalism.

How bitterly ironic it is, then, to see these one-time freemarketeers becoming socialists overnight.

The schoolyard bullies of Wall Street have gone running to the state for help, pleading to be saved from destruction.

They deserve neither our sympathy nor the billions in taxpayer support they are now receiving.

That theme has been reverberating through commentaries ever since.

A year later, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch provided an overview of writings by Jack Bogle, Marc Faber and Thomas Moore to support his contention that “America’s Soul of Capitalism” has been lost:

You know something’s very wrong:  A year ago, too-greedy-to-fail banks were insolvent, in a near-death experience.  Now, magically, they’re back to business as usual, arrogant, pocketing outrageous bonuses while Main Street sacrifices, and unemployment and foreclosures continue rising as tight credit, inflation and skyrocketing federal debt are killing taxpayers.

Down in Australia, The Propitious Manager wrote an essay on April 4 2010, expressing his amazement that America was having so much trouble trying to stomach the idea of government-backed healthcare:

When you read President O’bama’s healthcare plan the most striking message is the failure of a free market to provide for the community. The healthcare market in the US, left unfettered to run free, just crashes into a heap of mismanagement, inefficiency and opportunism (hold on – isn’t this a familiar story).  I’ll leave you to read the script – but it isn’t a pretty picture.

*   *   *

What I like to call post free market economies, are about identifying the markets which are essential to maintaining thriving people and communities and develop the frameworks which optimize their performance.  Some require complete freedom while others require varying degrees of framework from elected governments.  Developing an increasingly sophisticated community and social framework is really the challenge of the century.  One where it doesn’t matter whether your a rubbish collector or a billionaire – if you get sick, someone will care for you and if you invest your money it will be there when you wake up in the morning.

The idea that we are now living in a post-free-market economy presents itself in a recent commentary by Veronique de Rugy for Bloomberg News, entitled “Why Businesses Can’t Stand Free Markets”.  Ms. De Rugy discussed how businesses exploit regulatory capture and use lobbyists to obtain favorable laws and regulations in order to stifle competition at the expense of consumers.  She concluded with this thought:

Let’s hope that any court ruling deals a blow to the practice of entrenched businesses using government to impose higher costs on consumers while also thwarting upstart entrepreneurs.  No one said loving free markets was easy.

On the other hand, there are many “upstart entrepreneurs” seeking government assistance to circumvent obstacles existing in the free-market system.  This has become especially apparent in the burgeoning solar power industry, where American upstarts are attempting to compete with entities which obtain government financing – not only in China but in the eurozone as well.  Martin LaMonica recently discussed this problem in an article for CNET:

Before the financial crisis, solar challengers were able to build manufacturing facilities using private money–venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds.  These sources still exist, but private investors are being pickier about how they place their bets, said Ted Sullivan, solar analyst at Lux Research.

Raising money on the public markets with an initial public offering was possible a few years ago, too, but is very difficult now, said Ethan Zindler, head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  Banks, meanwhile, are unlikely to finance the first factory for a solar company if the technology is relatively new and untested.

That leaves government programs, such as low-cost loans, and state incentives for economic development to help fill the financing gap in many cases.

*   *   *

In an effort to stimulate exports, the China Development Bank has made $40 billion in credit available to six solar companies in the past six months, said Zindler from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  The U.S. stimulus program made billions of dollars available to stimulate clean-energy technologies, but the U.S. can’t match the amount of money China has made available through these low-cost loans, he said.

“Chinese solar companies are grinding down the cost by building plants the size the world has never seen before and deploying unbelievable amounts of capital to do it,” Zindler said.

In the U.S., the solar industry scored a victory with the passage of the tax bill last week because it included a one-year extension to a grant that replaces a tax credit subsidy.  But it’s unclear what the long-term direction on renewable energy policy is in the U.S., which creates questions over how strong demand will be for solar, Zindler said.

In our post-free-market milieu, there are many exceptions to the general rule that government assistance to business is a bad thing.  Now that people are finally facing up to the reality that many companies (some of which are Cayman Islands-based corporations) have been receiving U.S. government subsidies (of some sort) for decades, difficult decisions must be made to determine when this is appropriate and when it’s not.  American voters need to face up to the fact that many of those poseurs claiming to be champions of “American free enterprise” are nothing more than hypocritical tools for whoever is lining their pockets.  “American free enterprise” died at Maiden Lane.  Deal with it.



The Pushback From Europe

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March 16, 2009

There was plenty of action and plenty of inaction in Europe last week, toward addressing the world financial crisis.  Our new Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, has been in Horsham, (West Sussex County) U.K., chatting it up with G-20 finance ministers in a run-up meeting to the big London Summit on April 2.  (Meanwhile . . . Who was conducting the “stress tests” on the nineteen “stressed” banks while Turbo Tim was across the pond, eating the awful, British food?  Worse yet:  Treasury still has a few positions to fill.)

We got a taste of the European response to the financial crisis during Sunday’s broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press.  Near the end of the program, David Gregory asked the BBC’s Katty Kay about the “back story” to the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in England:

MR. GREGORY:  You’re just back from Europe, Katty, and one of the big debates this week with the administration and Europe is that Europe does not want to do larger stimulus.  And we know that some of the problems in Europe and around the globe with this recession are quite acute.

MS. KAY:  You know, it’s really interesting traveling through Europe this week, and two things really struck me.  One is that there is less public concern about the nature of this crisis, and part of that is that Europeans have a broader social safety net.  I was speaking to a journalist in Sweden who said to me, “You know, if I lose my job, I lose some of my income.  But I still have very good health care and my children have very good state education.”  So people aren’t as panicked by this recession as they are here.  That means that there is less political pressure on European leaders to spend their way out of this and to act some kind of stimulus package, a global stimulus package, what the administration’s been calling for.  There is also a feeling in Europe that they don’t want to have to submit to an American made solution to what is seen by many, by many Europeans as an American made problem.  There is a real resistance here …

Europe’s portrayal of the world financial crisis as “an American problem” became painfully apparent during the recent G-20 finance ministers’ meeting.  As Damien Paletta and Stephen Fidler reported for The Wall Street Journal, the G-20 members exploited the opportunity to pressure Secretary Geithner on solving the problems in America’s banking sector before asking the G-20 to make any efforts toward increased economic stimulus spending.  The G-20 members are well-aware of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to place insolvent banks under government receivership, particularly since this is widely perceived in the United States as being too “un-American”, or worse yet  —  European.  As The Wall Street Journal article pointed out:

The turnaround suggests the limits of U.S. power in the world emerging out of the rubble of the financial crisis.  Many countries, including U.S. allies, are increasingly putting pressure on America to clean up a mess they believe it created.

Mr. Geithner’s actions during the next two weeks will be scrutinized by both Wall Street and world financial markets, which have remained unconvinced that the Obama administration can pull the world out of the downturn.

*    *    *

Participants said they were pleasantly surprised by the meeting’s unity of purpose, given comments beforehand from the Germans and the French rebuffing U.S. calls to make further commitments to fiscal expansion.  But it was also clear U.S. officials had a long way to go before they could satisfy concerns about the banking sector, which emerged as a surprising point of contention during the negotiations.

“I and some others were expecting much quicker movement on the part of the administration” related to the treatment of banks, said one central banker.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, there can only be one culprit responsible for this attitude about our government’s failure to address the unresolved problem of “troubled assets” (i.e. mortgage-backed securities and the multitude of  ill-begotten “derivatives”) responsible for the questionable health of so many American banks.  This culprit is Nobel Prize-winning Economist, Paul Krugman.  Professor Krugman has written again and again about the urgent need for the Obama administration to face the ugly reality that the “zombie banks” must be placed under government receivership (which is not really “nationalization”).

Fortunately, Professor Krugman stepped up and pointed out (in The New York Times) that if the EU really believes that it doesn’t have any skin in this game, it is in for an unpleasant surprise:

The clear and present danger to Europe right now comes from a different direction — the continent’s failure to respond effectively to the financial crisis.

Europe has fallen short in terms of both fiscal and monetary policy: it’s facing at least as severe a slump as the United States, yet it’s doing far less to combat the downturn.

*    *    *

Why is Europe falling short? Poor leadership is part of the story.  European banking officials, who completely missed the depth of the crisis, still seem weirdly complacent.

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You might expect monetary policy to be more forceful. After all, while there isn’t a European government, there is a European Central Bank.  But the E.C.B. isn’t like the Fed, which can afford to be adventurous because it’s backed by a unitary national government — a government that has already moved to share the risks of the Fed’s boldness, and will surely cover the Fed’s losses if its efforts to unfreeze financial markets go bad.  The E.C.B., which must answer to 16 often-quarreling governments, can’t count on the same level of support.

Europe, in other words, is turning out to be structurally weak in a time of crisis.

What transpired in this trans-continental dialogue was a lot like a volleyball game between politicians and commentators from the European Union against politicians and commentators from the United States.  After the EU team “spiked” the ball over the net —  it hit Tim Geithner on the head.  The ball then bounced away.  Just as the ball passed above Paul Krugman  —  “Boom Goes the Dynamite!”  Nice play, Paul!