Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stiglitz on the Lesser Depression

Here are some key bits of an article by Joseph Stiglitz in Project Syndicate:
As the economic slump that began in 2007 persists, the question on everyone’s minds is obvious: Why? Unless we have a better understanding of the causes of the crisis, we can’t implement an effective recovery strategy. And, so far, we have neither.


The banks claim that lending remains constrained by a shortage of creditworthy borrowers, owing to the sick economy. And key data indicate that they are at least partly right. After all, large enterprises are sitting on a few trillion dollars in cash, so money is not what is holding them back from investing and hiring. Some, perhaps many, small businesses are, however, in a very different position; strapped for funds, they can’t grow, and many are being forced to contract.

Still, overall, business investment – excluding construction – has returned to 10% of GDP (from 10.6% before the crisis). With so much excess capacity in real estate, confidence will not recover to its pre-crisis level anytime soon, regardless of what is done to the banking sector.

The financial sector’s inexcusable recklessness, given free rein by mindless deregulation, was the obvious precipitating factor of the crisis. The legacy of excess real-estate capacity and over-leveraged households makes recovery all the more difficult.

But the economy was very sick before the crisis; the housing bubble merely papered over its weaknesses. Without bubble-supported consumption, there would have been a massive shortfall in aggregate demand. Instead, the personal saving rate plunged to 1%, and the bottom 80% of Americans were spending, every year, roughly 110% of their income. Even if the financial sector were fully repaired, and even if these profligate Americans hadn’t learned a lesson about the importance of saving, their consumption would be limited to 100% of their income. So anyone who talks about the consumer “coming back” – even after deleveraging – is living in a fantasy world.

Fixing the financial sector was necessary for economic recovery, but far from sufficient. To understand what needs to be done, we have to understand the economy’s problems before the crisis hit.

First, America and the world were victims of their own success. Rapid productivity increases in manufacturing had outpaced growth in demand, which meant that manufacturing employment decreased. Labor had to shift to services.

The problem is analogous to that which arose at the beginning of the twentieth century, when rapid productivity growth in agriculture forced labor to move from rural areas to urban manufacturing centers. With a decline in farm income in excess of 50% from 1929 to 1932, one might have anticipated massive migration. But workers were “trapped” in the rural sector: they didn’t have the resources to move, and their declining incomes so weakened aggregate demand that urban/manufacturing unemployment soared.

For America and Europe, the need for labor to move out of manufacturing is compounded by shifting comparative advantage: not only is the total number of manufacturing jobs limited globally, but a smaller share of those jobs will be local.

Globalization has been one, but only one, of the factors contributing to the second key problem – growing inequality. Shifting income from those who would spend it to those who won’t lowers aggregate demand. By the same token, soaring energy prices shifted purchasing power from the United States and Europe to oil exporters, who, recognizing the volatility of energy prices, rightly saved much of this income.

The final problem contributing to weakness in global aggregate demand was emerging markets’ massive buildup of foreign-exchange reserves – partly motivated by the mismanagement of the 1997-98 East Asia crisis by the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury. Countries recognized that without reserves, they risked losing their economic sovereignty. Many said, “Never again.” But, while the buildup of reserves – currently around $7.6 trillion in emerging and developing economies – protected them, money going into reserves was money not spent.

Where are we today in addressing these underlying problems? ...


Government plays a central role in financing the services that people want, like education and health care. And government-financed education and training, in particular, will be critical in restoring competitiveness in Europe and the US. But both have chosen fiscal austerity, all but ensuring that their economies’ transitions will be slow.

The prescription for what ails the global economy follows directly from the diagnosis: strong government expenditures, aimed at facilitating restructuring, promoting energy conservation, and reducing inequality, and a reform of the global financial system that creates an alternative to the buildup of reserves.

Eventually, the world’s leaders – and the voters who elect them – will come to recognize this. As growth prospects continue to weaken, they will have no choice. But how much pain will we have to bear in the meantime?
So... Stiglitz thinks that the incompetent political leadership and the intransigence of the rich and powerful means that the world will yet again have to undergo a decade long (or more!) depression to accommodate the economic adjustments required by the latest developments in technology and productivity.

What really drives me insane is that unlike 1929 when the right wing politician Hoover was just starting his term and caused the Great Depression to drag out and worsen, in 2008 America had just elected a Democrat who pretended to be a progressive with a slogan of "hope" and "change we can believe in" but ended up being a Mini-Me Hoover worried about deficits and balancing the budget and not about 25 million unemployed and 4.8 million home foreclosures (to July 2011) and the millions of young and old who are being shut out of meaningful work and losing their anchor to any role in society. These are lives destroyed. Obama goes through the motions, but his leadership has been disastrous (OK, far better than any right wing Republicans, but far, far short of what an activist Democratic president should have achieved).

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