Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The New Right's Drive to Starve Us All to Death... for our Benefit

The crazy right has this moralistic vision of economics. They feel that the "free market" is the hand of God and God's divine judgement. They feel that money is filthy lucre and that debts are evil. They want a new Puritanism.

Here is a bit from an interview with Paul Allen McCulley, a former managing director at PIMCO. He coined the terms Minsky moment and Shadow banking system which became famous during the Financial crisis of 2007-2009:

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Of course, the proponents of austerity are worried that this country’s debt load is already too much for future generations to handle.

“We have to go on a diet for our long-term well-being. The only question is how severe of a diet?” — That is the question being asked. As opposed to what we should be discussing, which is, “Gosh, we’re talking about someone who is underweight here! Why do we need to be on a diet? Maybe we should have more food!” Incredibly, to suggest such a thing is to be considered a heretic these days. Paul actually gets more wound up about it than I do. I enjoy reading him now with the luxury of doing it whenever I get around to it during the day. I just smile. Though on any given day, I have to admit to a bit of envy, from the standpoint of thinking Paul’s piece was really good, but that if I were still in the arena, I could have upped his ante. But his is a really good ante, in just calling out the silliness. That’s what worries me the most about the domestic economic scene — and the global economic scene, too — this presumption that seems to be in currency that government is the problem. Therefore, if we can simply reduce the government, the problem will go away. That is not the case at all, when the problem is actually the combination of a liquidity trap and the paradox of thrift. If you take the government out of the picture, you exacerbate the pre-existing conditions. Yet that seems to be where the body politic conceptually has gone.

Are you implying that the Tea Party has been sold a bill of goods?

Yes, they have. I mean, the historical parallel that a lot of us point to would be 1931, when Andrew Mellon said, essentially, liquidate, liquidate, liquidate and assets will be transferred to moral hands, and we’ll live a more moral life.

Until we starve to death.

Right — but we will live a moral life.

Mellon was quite the Austrian—

Absolutely, that was in 1931. Then in 1937, when it looked like the economy might have been having “a decent” economic recovery, we decided to slap it in the face with monetary and fiscal policy tightening.

And it only took World War II to lift us out of that extension of the Depression.

Yes. What I mean is that the war in effect forced the application of the government’s balance sheet to a deficiency of aggregate demand — and it worked. Some might call that Keynesianism, and I would. But you could describe it more simply by saying that the government’s balance sheet — including the central bank’s balance sheet (because the Fed was subordinate to the fiscal authority during WWII) — was used to stimulate aggregate demand. And it absolutely worked, although I don’t think anyone would applaud going to war to accomplish that. However, it is interesting that after World War II the biggest concern in economic policy circles was that we would fall back into a depression because we were taking away all of the government demand, for the war machine. But what we found out was that this didn’t necessarily have to be the case. Partly, the postwar recovery came about because of the infrastructure and the technologies, etc., that had been developed during the war. But another important ingredient after the war was the GI Bill.

The GI Bill and the Marshall Plan basically saved the West.

And they both used the government’s balance sheet, I’ll point out. My dad went to college on the GI Bill. He was one of the youngest WWII veterans — he’s 85 now but he went into the service in ’44.

Same as mine.

So he went to college on the GI Bill, bought his first house on the GI Bill — and he didn’t consider either one of those to be welfare.

No doubt, he thought he earned it.

Yes, and the payoff to society of the Marshall Plan and the GI Bill were absolutely monstrous. The private sector simply can’t internalize the rate of return on that sort of thing. So this presumption that somehow government investment is bad and private sector investment is good—

Hold on, you’re using the term “investment” and that’s not politically correct. You’re supposed to call it, “spending, waste and fraud.”

Okay, so my dad’s education and the house that I grew up in were, what were those words? “Waste and fraud”?

Yes, according to the conservative meme, it was “wanton government spending” allowing your family to live above your means. The argument that a family has to live within a budget and therefore so does the government, is so specious—

Absolutely. The irony of all this is that I now hear my dad ranting and raving about “big government” at 85 years old— and it was big government that paid for his education and put him into his first home. The real notion that people have is that government is bad — unless it’s helping me!

That’s clearly endemic and epidemic. My dad did the same, until he passed away.

There obviously are a lot of inconsistencies that we have to deal with in a democratic society. But what really puzzles me is how the concept of public investment is being perceived as an oxymoron. That’s just wrong. The notion that if we just would quit subsidizing idleness, that the unemployed would go to work, is another thing that is just ludicrous. I don’t know a lot of people who want to be subsidized in idleness. Nor do I know a lot of who want to subsidize it. But there are just no jobs out there. There aren’t jobs because we had a bubble in housing. We went from 2 million housing starts to half a million housing starts. The notion that you could monetize equity in your home with a second mortgage is an oxymoron. Nonetheless, we had a housing sector bubble and everything that goes with it. Actually, if housing starts were our only problem, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But the house became the magic genie that made up for the fact that we’ve had stagnant real wages in our country for a long time — and then the genie died.

The housing ATM is definitely busted!

It ain’t there anymore. And now, if you happen to have a factory job making boat trailers, you’ve got a problem. Because the guy who had been buying a boat trailer was able to buy it — and the boat that went on it — only because he took a second on his “appreciating” home. He could have never afforded a boat otherwise. Now most likely the guy at the trailer factory has lost his job because people can’t buy boats in that fashion. That’s reality. And we’re not going to restimulate the housing market so that people can take out seconds to buy boats.

Not when the problem is too much debt.

That’s true. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense. We need to deleverage the private sector and we can do that without a depression if we are not afraid of levering the government sector. And from my perspective, there’s no reason to be afraid because we have a huge output gap and the risk that public investment will overheat our economy is a risk that I’m more than happy to underwrite. Overheating of our economy and too few workers for available jobs would be very high-quality problems. So I’m not worried about overheating from an inflation perspective at all.

What? Despite all the money that’s been created? All the debt we’re piling on future generations?

Monetary claptrap! Money is as money does, as the famous economist Forrest Gump once sort of said. And it ain’t doing nothing. So I don’t worry about inflation and I don’t worry about interest rates. In fact, the lower the interest rates go, the more I worry — because the easiest way to have super-low interest rates is to have a depression. Interest rates are low, but they’re low in many respects for unhealthy reasons. There’s absolutely no private-sector demand for credit and so there is no crowding out. I mean, that’s the old textbook notion —you aren’t supposed to want to add government debt because that supposedly would crowd private sector investment out of the market. But, excuse me, exactly what are we crowding out right now? Where is the evidence that the marketplace for credit is tight and that government borrowing is displacing private sector borrowing? There’s zero evidence for it. Yet this “crowding out” dogma keeps being invoked when people claim that we can’t have government deficits because they’re going to crowd out private sector investment. God, I wish it were so, because that would mean that private sector investment was doing fine, just fine. And that we were going to overheat the labor market. As I said, that would be a very high-quality problem.

What about the argument that our foreign creditors are going to stop lending to us?

That’s the notion that if we run deficits, the rest of the world will refuse to fund us. But we have a shortage of global aggregate demand and nobody wants their currency to go up. Therefore, the idea that we are going to suffer a buyer’s strike for dollar-dominated debt is preposterous.


So tell me, is there a way to address the housing problem within this liquidity trap?

I think there is. It’s been pretty clear cut for a long time that we need to reset the mortgages that are massively under water. This is sometimes known as “principal forgiveness” and the words are usually uttered with a pejorative lisp.

But wouldn’t that be terribly unfair to everyone who has faithfully made their mortgage payments?

Yes, exactly. I can’t argue with the proposition that it would be unfair. But the only way that I can respond is that life is not necessarily always fair.

Indeed, sometimes foolishness is rewarded.

It is — and as long as we hold to the existing pretense that a large chunk of our housing stock is worth the debt on it, we’re going to be stuck in this liquidity trap. So the reason we’re going to be stuck here is this issue of moral hazard. There’s a reluctance to do anything because, you know, restriking mortgage terms would be letting people off the hook. There’s a moral overtone that we can’t deal with, so therefore we will just live with it. Actually, in that camp, you also have those who are genuine liquidationists. But society is not going to stand for the wholesale liquidation of 25 million families in America, so they’re not going to follow the Mellon prescription. In other words, if you’re not going to recast the mortgages to get rid of the negative equity, and you’re not going to force people out of their homes and liquidate them, then the market gets stuck in suspended animation. And that’s where we are.
Go read the whole interview. Instead of getting your "economics" from the Tea Party fanatics or billionaire ideologues (the Koch brothers). It is worthwhile to listen to a guy who actually worked in the industry and knows where the bodies are buried.

I'm currently reading Ron Suskind's Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. It is pathetic how timid and incompetent Obama has been in dealing with the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. He had a chance to be a great leader but has shown himself to be a clever fool, a guy who spends more time debating himself and analyzing the angles than actually confronting real problems and leading a desperate people to a better tomorrow. I highly recommend the book to anybody who wants to understand the mess we are in. The complaints about the "accuracy" of the book are overblown. The book is sound. It gets the outline of the story right and most of the details. He miffs a bit here or there but that's to be expected when you are trying to follow such a complex tale in real time.

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