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Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Drew Westen Nails It Again

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Dr. Drew Westen is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University.  After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard, Westen picked up a Master’s in Social and Political Thought from the University of Sussex in England.  He earned his PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan.

In 2007, Dr. Westen wrote a book entitled, The Political BrainHere’s how the book was described by the publisher, PublicAffairs:

The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works.  When political candidates assume voters dispassionately make decisions based on “the issues,” they lose.      .   .   .

In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.     .   .   .   The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order:  their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.

The people at Fox News have been operating from this premise for years.  On Fox, the news is presented from an emotional perspective (i.e.  fear and outrage about terrorism, indignation about government spending, patriotic devotion to whomever or whatever principle is singled out for such allegiance).  Opposition political candidates (Democrats) are usually portrayed as contemptible, flawed individuals.  As a result, Fox has enjoyed tremendous success at shaping public opinion and influencing the electorate.  Dr. Westen’s book appears likely to help one understand why.

The 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama presented a unique challenge to Fox News:  A Democrat finally had a campaign based on an emotional appeal, conveyed with the single word, “Hope”.  Despite the rational campaign strategy developed by Mark Penn for Hillary Clinton, (and continued by the McCain campaign) which posed the question:  “Who is Barack Obama?” – the voters followed their emotions and voted for “Hope”.

At this point in the Obama Presidency, people from across the political spectrum (especially the Left) are still pondering Mark Penn’s 2008 question:  “Who is Barack Obama?”  As I have frequently pointed out on this website, Obama has been repeatedly criticized (by his former supporters) as a cynical, narcissistic individual, who has carefully created a Rorschach-esqe public image, shaped by whatever characteristics the individual audience members would choose to project back onto their perception of the man himself.  Obama has been able to conceal his flexible, mercenary agenda behind the Rorschach screen and until recently, few have bothered to peek behind it.

David Sirota recently wrote an insightful essay about Obama which began with these words:

Barack Obama is a lot of things – eloquent, dissembling, conniving, intelligent and above all, calm.  But one thing he is not is weak.

I was particularly impressed by an essay about our President, written by the aforementioned Dr. Drew Westen, which appeared in The New York Times on August 6.  The article was entitled, “What Happened to Obama?” and it was absolutely magnificent.  Dr. Westen began by taking us back to January of 2009, when we were still in the depths of the financial crisis, shocked by the unemployment tsunami and looking to our new President for effective leadership through a gauntlet of bank bailout schemes and economic stimulus proposals.  Unfortunately, what America heard from Barack Obama during his Inaugural Address was a big nothing.  As Dr. Westen explained, the disappointment of Obama’s Inaugural Address was emblematic of the disappointment we experienced throughout the ensuing months:

The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics – in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time – he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

*   *   *

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend.

*   *   *

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it.  He never explained that decision to the public – a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it.  Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century.  He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work.  He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it.  But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

But why did Obama turn out to be such a disappointment?  Is he simply weak – or is Obama actually the inverse Franklin Delano Roosevelt described by David Sirota as “Bizarro FDR”?  From his unique perspective as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Westen is well-qualified to provide us with a valid opinion.  After first expressing the requisite ethical disclaimer (rarely heard from TV and radio “shrinks”) that he would “resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance”, Westen put on his “strategic consultant” hat to “venture some hypotheses”:

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb – that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians.  Unfortunately, reality is more complicated.  Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems.  A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography:  that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.

*   *   *

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars – in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars.

With the passing of time, the likelihood that Barack Obama will be a single-term President increases dramatically because Americans are now scrutinizing him from a more judicious perspective.  Who will become the Independent candidate to return that forgotten emotion of hope to the disillusioned electorate?


 

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