From my perspective, the technocratic economists by 1829 had figured out why these semi-periodic grand mal seizures happened. In 1829 Jean-Baptiste Say published his Course Complet d'Economie Politique... in which he implicitly admitted that Thomas Robert Malthus had been at least partly right in his assertions that an economy could suffer from at least a temporary and disequliibrium "general glut" of commodities. In 1829 John Stuart Mill wrote that one of what was to appear as his Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy in which he put his finger on the mechanism of depression.The great tragedy is that Obama has joined this chorus of ignorance that proudly has unlearned the lessons of 200 years. It seems Obama is determined to re-create the FDR fiasco of creating the 1937 Recession in the midst of the Great Depression.
Semi-periodically in market economies, wealth holders collectively come to the conclusion that their holdings of some kind or kinds of financial assets are too low. These financial assets can be cash money as a means of liquidity, or savings vehicles to carry purchasing power into the future (of which bonds and cash money are important components), or safe assets (of which, again, cash money and bonds of credit-worthy governments are key components)--whatever. Wealth holders collectively come to the conclusion that their holdings of some category of financial assets are too small. They thus cut back on their spending on currently-produced goods and services in an attempt to build up their asset holdings. This cutback creates deficient demand not just for one or a few categories of currently-produced goods and services but for pretty much all of them. Businesses seeing slack demand fire workers. And depression results.
What was not settled back in 1829 was what to do about this. Over the years since, mainstream technocratic economists have arrived at three sets of solutions:
There are a great many subtleties in how a government should attempt to do (1), (2), and (3). There is much to be said about when each is appropriate. There is a lot we need to learn about how attempts to carry out one of the three may interfere with or make impossible attempts to carry out the other branches of policy. But those are not our topics today.
- Don't go there in the first place. Avoid whatever it is--whether an external drain under the gold standard or a collapse of long-term wealth as in the end of the dot-com bubble or a panicked flight to safety as in 2007-2008--that creates the shortage of and excess demand for financial assets.
- If you fail to avoid the problem, then have the government step in and spend on currently-produced goods and servicesin order to keep employment at its normal levels whenever the private sector cuts back on its spending.
- If you fail to avoid the problem, then have the government create and provide the financial assets that the private sector wants to hold in order to get the private sector to resume its spending on currently-produced goods and services.
Our topic today is that, somehow, all three are now off the table. There is right now in the North Atlantic no likelihood of reforms of Wall Street and Canary Wharf to accomplish (1) and diminish the likelihood and severity of a financial panic. There is right now in the North Atlantic no likelihood at all of (2): no political pressure to expand or even extend the anemic government-spending stimulus measures that have ben undertaken. And there is right now in the North Atlantic little likelihood of (3): the European Central Bank is actively looking for ways to shrink the supply of the financial assets it provides to the private sector, and the Federal Reserve is under pressure to do the same--both because of a claimed fear that further expansionary asset provision policies run the risk of igniting unwarranted inflation.
Here is how DeLong will finish his talk:
And here we reach the limits of my mental horizons as a neoliberal, as a technocrat, as a mainstream neoclassical economist. Right now the global market economy is suffering a grand mal seizure of high unemployment and slack demand. We know the cures--fiscal stimulus via more government spending, monetary stimulus via provision by central banks of the financial assets the private sector wants to hold, institutional reform to try once gain to curb the bankers' tendency to indulge in speculative excess under control. Yet we are not doing any of them. Instead, we are calling for "austerity."I never thought I would live to see such a widespread outbreak of mass ignorance. The above is in the "science" of economics. I also see it among fundamentalist Christians who revel in their ignorance and belief it is a badge of honour. I swear the world is happily marching off to a new Dark Ages with its glorification of ignorance and stupidity. There needs to be respect for learning and expertise. There needs to be a burst of civilization like the founding of universities in the Medieval era along with the signs of civilization such as the great cathedral building of that era. There needs to be a blossoming of a new Renaissance, a new Age of Enlightenment.
John Maynard Keynes put it better than I can in talking about a similar current of thought back in the 1930s:It seems an extraordinary imbecility that this wonderful outburst of productive energy [over 1924-1929] should be the prelude to impoverishment and depression. Some austere and puritanical souls regard it both as an inevitable and a desirable nemesis on so much overexpansion, as they call it; a nemesis on man's speculative spirit. It would, they feel, be a victory for the Mammon of Unrighteousness if so much prosperity was not subsequently balanced by universal bankruptcy.I do not understand it either. But many people do. And I do not understand why such people think as they do.
We need, they say, what they politely call a 'prolonged liquidation' to put us right. The liquidation, they tell us, is not yet complete. But in time it will be. And when sufficient time has elapsed for the completion of the liquidation, all will be well with us again.
I do not take this view. I find the explanation of the current business losses, of the reduction in output, and of the unemployment which necessarily ensues on this not in the high level of investment which was proceeding up to the spring of 1929, but in the subsequent cessation of this investment. I see no hope of a recovery except in a revival of the high level of investment. And I do not understand how universal bankruptcy can do any good or bring us nearer to prosperity...