Blog Archives

Keynesian Solutions; After Total Failure; Try, Try Again

“Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.” – John Maynard KeynesThe Economic Consequences of the Peace

image

Written by: Jim Quinn

While Barack Obama vacations on Martha’s Vineyard this week he’ll be thinking about his grand vision to save America – again. There is one thing you can say about Obama – he’s predictable. He promises to unveil his “new” plan for America in early September. The White House said Obama will give a speech after the September 5 Labor Day holiday to outline measures to boost hiring and find budget savings that surpass the $1.5 trillion goal of a new congressional deficit-cutting committee. It is heartening to see that Barack has turned into a cost cutter extraordinaire. He should be an inspiration to the Tea Party, except for one little problem. The plan he unveils in a few weeks will increase spending now and fret about spending cuts at some future unspecified date.

I can reveal his plan today because the White House has already leaked the major aspects of his plan. He will call for an extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut of 2% for all working Americans. This was supposed to give a dramatic boost to GDP in 2011. Maybe it will work next time. He will demand that extended unemployment benefits be renewed. Somehow providing 99 weeks of unemployment benefits is supposed to create jobs. It’s done wonders thus far. He will propose some semblance of an infrastructure bank or tax cuts to spur infrastructure spending. It will include a proposal for training and education to help unemployed people switch careers. He will attempt to steal the thunder from the SUPER COMMITTEE of 12 by coming up with $2 trillion of budget savings by insisting the Lear jet flying rich fork over an extra $500 billion.

You may have noticed that followers of Keynesian dogma like Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, Brad Delong, Richard Koo, John Galbraith, every Democrat in Congress, and every liberal pundit and columnist have been shrieking about the Tea Party terrorists and their ghastly budget cuts that are destroying our economy. They contend the stock market is tanking and the economy is heading into recession due to the brutal austerity measures being imposed by the extremists in the Republican Party. There is just one small issue with their argument. It is completely false. It is a bold faced lie. This is 2011. The economy has been in freefall since January 1. No spending cuts have occurred. Nada!!! As the CBO chart below reveals, the horrendous slashing of government will amount to $21 billion in 2012 and $42 billion in 2013. Of course, those aren’t even cuts in spending. They are reductions in the projected increases in spending. Politicians must be very secure in the knowledge that Americans are completely ignorant when it comes to anything other than the details of Kim Kardashian’s wedding and who Snooki is banging on Jersey Shore.

I’d like to remind the Harvard educated Keynesian economists that Federal government spending is currently chiming in at $3.8 trillion per year. Federal spending was $2.7 trillion in 2007 and $3.0 trillion in 2008. Keynesians believe government spending fills the gap when private companies are contracting. Obama has taken Keynesianism to a new level. Federal spending will total $10.8 trillion in Obama’s 1st three years, versus $8.4 trillion in the previous three years. Even a Harvard economist can figure out this is a 29% increase in Federal spending. What has it accomplished? We are back in recession, unemployment is rising, forty six million Americans are on food stamps, food and energy prices are soaring, and the middle class is being annihilated. The standard Keynesian response is we would have lost 3 million more jobs, we were saved from a 2nd Great Depression and the stimulus was too little. It would have worked if it had just been twice as large.

The 2nd Great Depression was not avoided, it was delayed. Our two decade long delusional credit boom could have been voluntarily abandoned in 2008. The banks at fault could have been liquidated in an orderly bankruptcy with stockholders and bondholders accepting the consequences of their foolishness. Unemployment would have soared to 12%, GDP would have collapsed, and the stock market would have fallen to 5,000. The bad debt would have been flushed from the system. Instead our Wall Street beholden leaders chose to save their banker friends, cover-up the bad debt, shift private debt to taxpayer debt, print trillions of new dollars in an effort to inflate away the debt, and implemented every wacky Keynesian stimulus idea Larry Summers could dream up.  These strokes of genius have failed miserably. Bernanke, Paulson, Geithner and Obama have set in motion a series of events that will ultimately lead to a catastrophic currency collapse. We have entered the 2nd phase of the Greater Depression and there are no monetary or fiscal bullets left in the gun. Further expansion of debt will lead to a hyperinflationary collapse as the remaining confidence in the U.S. dollar is exhausted. We are one failed Treasury auction away from a currency crisis.

John Maynard Keynes argued the solution to the Great Depression was to stimulate the economy through some combination of two approaches: a reduction in interest rates and government investment in infrastructure. Investment by government injects income, which results in more spending in the general economy, which in turn stimulates more production and investment involving still more income and spending and so forth. The initial stimulation starts a cascade of events, whose total increase in economic activity is a multiple of the original investment.

It sounds so good in theory, but it didn’t work in the Depression and it hasn’t worked today. It is a doctrine taught in every business school in America with no actual results to support it. Who needs facts and actual results when a good story believed and perpetuated by non-thinking pundits will do? Every Keynesian play in the playbook has been used since 2008. The American people were told by Obama and his Keynesian trained advisors that if we implemented his $862 billion shovel ready stimulus package, unemployment would peak at 7.9% and would decline to 6.5% by today. The cascade of recovery was going to be jump started by a stimulus package that equaled 27% of the previous year’s entire spending. Obama’s complete package was implemented. The outcome was an eye opener. If you show a Keynesian this chart, their response would be: “Imagine how bad it would have been if we didn’t spend the $862 billion.”

John Maynard Obama got everything he asked for in January 2009. He had both houses in Congress and did not need to consult Republicans to pass his Keynesian $862 billion porkulus bill. It seems that $252 billion, or 29% of the package was nothing more than transfer payments. Of course, according to Keynesians, the $252 billion should have had a multiplier effect when it was handed out. I think they were right. Obama was able to multiply the number of people on food stamps in January 2009 from 32 million to the current tally of 45.8 million. The monthly food stamp transfer payment has gone from $3.6 billion to $6.1 billion. Keynesians should be thrilled by this success story.

[Review & Outlook]

Obama’s Keynesian dream bill included:

  • $1 billion for Amtrak, the federal railroad that hasn’t turned a profit in 40 years.
  • $2 billion for child-care subsidies.
  • $50 million for that great engine of job creation, the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • $400 million for global-warming research.
  • $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects.
  • $650 million on top of the billions already doled out to pay for digital TV conversion coupons.
  • $8 billion for renewable energy funding.
  • $6 billion for mass transit that had a low or negative return on investment.
  • $600 million more for the federal government to buy new cars. Uncle Sam already spends $3 billion a year on its fleet of 600,000 vehicles.
  • Congress earmarked $7 billion for modernizing federal buildings and facilities.
  • The Smithsonian received $150 million.
  • The Department of Education got $66 billion, more than the entire Education Department spent a just 10 years ago. $6 billion of this subsidized university building projects.

Obama declared in December 2008 there were shovel ready projects across the land that would create immediate jobs. Too bad he didn’t tell the American public only $30 billion of the $862 billion mountain of pork was earmarked for highways and bridges. Obama declared his stimulus would create 3.5 million jobs, later changed to “create or save”. There were 144 million Americans employed in January 2009. Today, there are 139 million Americans employed. Obama gives the term “success story” a new meaning. The Keynesians had their chance and now they want a do-over. Sorry, that isn’t how it works in the real world. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, “We won the election. We wrote the bill.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

As we know, that was only the beginning of our Keynesian debt nightmare. Let’s do some critical thinking and assess the results of Obama’s other Keynesian solutions:

  • The Homebuyer Tax Credit cost taxpayers $27 billion or $43,000 per additional house sold. The Keynesians handed 3.9 million people $7,000 to do something they were going to do anyway. They lured first time home buyers into the market. Since the credit expired, median home prices have fallen $15,000 and continue to fall. This wonderful government program has created more underwater homeowners and did nothing to stabilize the housing market or home prices.
  • Cash for Clunkers cost taxpayers $3 billion. An incremental 125,000 cars were sold at a cost of $24,000 per car. This Keynesian dream program lured more people into debt and warped the used car market by destroying used cars and driving up prices for poor people who couldn’t afford a new car. There were no carryover benefits except for government controlled union car makers.
  • Obama’s HAMP program allocated $11 billion to supposedly allow 4 million homeowners to modify their mortgages, reduce their monthly mortgage payments and avoid foreclosure. HAMP has proven a colossal failure that has done more to harm than help debt-laden homeowners. It has achieved slightly more than 500,000 permanent modifications, 40% of which the Treasury expects to default. Far more borrowers have dropped out of the program than successfully achieved permanent loan modification. These borrowers, along with those who later default, will often be left with larger outstanding debt, worse credit scores, and less home equity.
  • Obama even handed $30 billion to the largest homebuilder corporations in the country, run by billionaires like Bob Toll, by allowing them to carry back their losses and wipe out tax liabilities in prior years. This did wonders for the housing market. It did stimulate bonus payments for the CEOs of these companies.
  • Billions of tax revenue was lost by handing out $1,500 tax credits for people to buy new windows, doors, and appliances they were going to buy anyway. We are still waiting for that multiplier effect.

The usual suspects are now declaring that we can’t make the same mistakes FDR made in 1937 resulting in a dramatic downturn in 1938. As usual, the Keynesian storyline about the Great Depression is false.

Depression Keynesian Fallacy

One thing to remember is that while the depression that started in 1929 may have come to a bottom in 1933, it took a long time to recover. There was a cyclical recovery in 1937, and why was that? Roosevelt had the good luck to have been elected dead flat at the bottom. So it wasn’t his policies that cured the last depression, it was luck and good timing, combined with the fact that they were creating a lot of money after Roosevelt took the dollar off the gold standard. That resulted in a false recovery, from 1933 to 1937, and it went downhill again. – Doug Casey

Keynes′ theory suggested that active government policy could be effective in managing the economy. Rather than seeing unbalanced government budgets as wrong, Keynes advocated what has been called countercyclical fiscal policies, that is, policies that acted against the tide of the business cycle: deficit spending when a nation’s economy suffers from recession or when recovery is long-delayed and unemployment is persistently high—and the suppression of inflation in boom times by either increasing taxes or cutting back on government outlays. He argued that governments should solve problems in the short run rather than waiting for market forces to do it in the long run. Keynes had too much faith in the wisdom of politicians and Federal Reserve bankers. They mastered the art of deficit spending, but fell a little short on paying off the debts during boom times. About $14.6 trillion short so far.

The Great Depression had the same origins as our current Greater Depression. The three Republican administrations of the 1920s practiced laissez-faire economics, starting by cutting top tax rates from 77% to 25% by 1925. Non-intervention into business and banking became government policy. These policies led to overconfidence on the part of investors and a classic credit-induced speculative boom. Gambling in the markets by the wealthy increased. While the haves got richer, millions of have-nots lived below the household poverty line of $2,000 per year. The rip roaring party came to an abrupt end in October 1929, with the Great Stock Market Crash.

Between 1929 and 1932, the market fell 89% from its high. The Keynesian storyline is that Herbert Hoover’s administration did nothing to try and revive the economy. It took Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal Keynesian policies to save the country. It’s a nice story, but entirely phony. Between 1929 and 1933 the Hoover administration increased real per-capita federal expenditures by 88%, not exactly the austerity measures described in fantasy stories concocted by the mainstream media.

Bureau of Economic Analysis National Income and Product Accounts Table

Table 1.1.6A. Real Gross Domestic Product, Chained (1937) Dollars [Billions of chained (1937) dollars]

Chart 

The Great Depression officially lasted from 1929 until 1940. What is not well known is that real GDP was at the same level in 1936 as it had been in 1929. In no small part because real GDP soared by 37% between 1933 and 1936. The unemployment rate in 1929 was 5%. In 1936, even after real GDP had recovered to pre-depression levels, the unemployment rate was still 15%. It spiked back to 18% in 1938 and stayed above 15% until World War II. Tellingly, in 1936, private domestic investment was 21% below the level of 1929.

By contrast, government expenditures surged by 46% between 1929 and 1936. With the government creating new agencies and employing people in make-work projects, private industry was crowded out. The extensive governmental economic planning and intervention that began during the Hoover administration swelled drastically under Roosevelt. The bolstering of wage rates and prices, expansion of credit, propping up of weak firms, and increased government spending on public works prolonged the Great Depression.

The facts powerfully contradict the notion endorsed by Krugman and other Keynesian devotees that the supposed 1937-38 Depression within the Great Depression was caused by Roosevelt slashing spending. In fact, real GDP only dropped by 3.5% in 1938 and rebounded by 8.1% in 1939. What actually collapsed in 1938 was private investment, which fell 34%. By contrast, government spending declined by only 4.5% in 1938, proving that Roosevelt did not drastically cut spending. To the extent that he eased up on the accelerator, it was by cutting back on useless jobs programs like those provided by the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration. Austerity did not derail the recovery.

The reason private investment collapsed in 1938 was Roosevelt’s anti-business crusade. He denounced big business as the cause of the Depression. In March 1938, FDR appointed Yale University law professor Thurman Arnold to head the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Arnold soon hired some 300 lawyers to file antitrust lawsuits against businesses. Arnold launched cases against entire industries, with lawsuits against the milk, oil, tobacco, shoe machinery, tires, fertilizer, railroad, pharmaceuticals, school supplies, billboards, fire insurance, liquor, typewriter, and movie industries.

Paul Krugman’s recent veiled yearning for a war or staged crisis to revive the economy through spending to fight the war is another Keynesian fallacy perpetuated by the mainstream media. These mindless non-critical thinking talking heads actually believe World War II ended the Great Depression. Doug Casey obliterates their fantasy:

“People say that World War II cured the Depression, but in fact, it made it worse. As bad as things were in the ‘30s, they were worse during the war in the ‘40s. You couldn’t get shoes. You couldn’t get gasoline. You couldn’t get tires. You couldn’t get just about anything that was being used for the war. The war prolonged and deepened the Depression. The thing that ended the Depression was not the war but the fact that since people could not consume, they were forced to save. That delayed consumption resulted in a huge amount of savings, and that’s what caused the recovery in the late 1940s.

The fact that the entire world was left in smoldering ruins after World War II, except for the United States, may have contributed slightly to our recovery from the Great Depression.

According to Murray Rothbard, in his book America’s Great Depression, the artificial meddling in the economy was a disaster prior to the Great Depression, and government efforts to prop up the economy after the crash of 1929 only made things far worse. Government intrusion delayed the market’s correction and made the road to complete recovery more difficult. Today’s myopic politicians, captured monetary authorities and Harvard trained Keynesian economists have learned the wrong lessons from the Great Depression. The upshot will be a second Greater Depression and further impoverishment of the dwindling middle class. The implications of more wasteful government stimulus programs, more quantitative easing and more debt are: further debasement of the currency and ultimately a hyperinflationary collapse. The great economist John Maynard Keynes understood currency debasement:

“There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

How to Cut Spending While Actually Increasing Spending

“Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers,’ who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.” – John Maynard Keynes – The Economic Consequences of the Peace

Obama’s plan to revive America will be announced with great fanfare in two weeks. We know for sure he will propose these two brilliant ideas:

  • Extending unemployment compensation again at a total 2012 cost of $65 billion. Because we know that paying people to not work creates millions of jobs. The multiplier effect is off the charts. Why work when you can watch The View and chow down on cheese doodles purchased with your SNAP card for 99 weeks?
  • Extending the payroll tax cut at a total 2012 cost of $100 billion. This was supposed to give a dramatic boost to the economy in FY11. Have you noticed any boost? A Keynesian will argue, “Imagine if we hadn’t done it.” A critical thinker might ask: Is it prudent to increase the unfunded Social Security liability by another $100 billion and hand the bill to future unborn generations, so we can buy a new IPod 2 today?

It is a certainty that Obama will announce an infrastructure bank or some variation to spur investment in our national infrastructure that is crumbling by the day. Top Keynesian, and architect of the Obama stimulus plan, Larry Summers has been blathering about this for months. Even though the first stimulus plan was sold as an infrastructure plan, they mean it this time. As usual, the storyline is false. You can’t drive anywhere in this country and not be inconvenienced by road widening, bridge building, and repaving projects. The Keynesians act like infrastructure projects are highly unusual and need new Federal dollars to jump start the engine. The fact is that every Federal, State and municipal government has a capital fund that is budgeted every year. Most of the projects have multiple year lead times. They require planning and coordination. The reason we have 160,000 structurally deficient or obsolete bridges and thousands of miles of crumbling underground pipes is because politicians decided to spend their budgets on something more useful like train museums, murals, turtle crossings, and studies on the mating habits of ferrets.

The country has lost approximately seven million jobs since 2007. Five million of the jobs were lost in sales industries and manufacturing industries. There are 139 million jobs in America today and only seven million, or 5% of all jobs, in the construction industry. How do Keynesians expect to revive the job market with an infrastructure bank that will benefit, at most, 5% of the U.S. workforce? Let me guess. They will propose billions of new spending on education so they can retrain sales clerks from Wal-Mart into architects for designing 160,000 new bridges.

Barack Obama will stand in front of the American people and lie. He is a born again cost cutter, who will propose new spending. As anyone with a calculator can figure out, the two guaranteed proposals from his upcoming speech will increase spending by $165 million in 2012. If you go back to the handy dandy chart from the CBO showing the “horrific spending cuts” from the recent debt ceiling deal you will see  these “cuts” total $122 billion between 2012 and 2014. Barack will wipe out all of the supposed savings through mid 2015 with his new Keynesian plan. But don’t worry. His plan will have huge spending cuts in 2017 after his hoped for 2nd term is finished. Keynesians always promise to cut spending once their current emergency ends.

The Keynesians had their chance. They controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress. A Keynesian runs the Federal Reserve. They implemented everything they proposed. The $862 billion porkulus program, the $700 billion TARP program, home buyer tax credits, energy efficiency credits, loan modification programs, zero interest rates, QE1 and QE2. They increased social welfare transfers for Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans by $600 billion since 2007, a 35% increase in four years. No one has foiled their plans. The Tea Party didn’t really exist until 2010. They didn’t lose the House until November 2010. They cannot blame the Tea Party extremists, but they do.

The Keynesians have successfully increased Federal spending by $1.1 trillion, or 41% since 2007, and are running deficits exceeding 10% of GDP, but they call the Tea Party extremists. Domestic investment is still 9% below 2008 levels as the Federal government has crowded out the small businesses that create the jobs in this country. And now the Keynesians declare we need more stimulus, more programs, more debt, more quantitative easing and lower interest rates. It just wasn’t enough the first time. You have to give the Keynesians credit. Despite the utter absolute failure of every scheme they have implemented, they will worship their models and theories until they successfully collapse our economic system. Then they’ll blame the Tea Party terrorists who foiled their plans.

None of the Keynesian solutions worked during this crisis, just as they didn’t work during the Great Depression. The solution was simple, yet painful. The banking system needed to be saved, not the banks. The bad debt needed to be purged from the system. Wall Street criminals needed to be prosecuted. Bondholders and stockholders needed bear the losses from their foolish investments. Saving and investment in the country needed to be encouraged, while borrowing and consuming needed to be discouraged. Our leaders have failed to lead. The American people have failed to accept the consequences of their actions. And now we are going to pay a heavy price as Ludwig von Mises predicted:

“There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit (debt) expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit (debt) expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”

Original Article

Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy

image

By George Friedman

Classical political economists like Adam Smith or David Ricardo never used the term “economy” by itself. They always used the term “political economy.” For classical economists, it was impossible to understand politics without economics or economics without politics. The two fields are certainly different but they are also intimately linked. The use of the term “economy” by itself did not begin until the late 19th century. Smith understood that while an efficient market would emerge from individual choices, those choices were framed by the political system in which they were made, just as the political system was shaped by economic realities. For classical economists, the political and economic systems were intertwined, each dependent on the other for its existence.

The current economic crisis is best understood as a crisis of political economy. Moreover, it has to be understood as a global crisis enveloping the United States, Europe and China that has different details but one overriding theme: the relationship between the political order and economic life. On a global scale, or at least for most of the world’s major economies, there is a crisis of political economy. Let’s consider how it evolved.

Origin of the Crisis

As we all know, the origin of the current financial crisis was the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States. To be more precise, it originated in a financial system generating paper assets whose value depended on the price of housing. It assumed that the price of homes would always rise and, at the very least, if the price fluctuated the value of the paper could still be determined. Neither proved to be true. The price of housing declined and, worse, the value of the paper assets became indeterminate. This placed the entire American financial system in a state of gridlock and the crisis spilled over into Europe, where many financial institutions had purchased the paper as well.

From the standpoint of economics, this was essentially a financial crisis: who made or lost money and how much. From the standpoint of political economy it raised a different question: the legitimacy of the financial elite. Think of a national system as a series of subsystems — political, economic, military and so on. Then think of the economic system as being divisible into subsystems — various corporate verticals with their own elites, with one of the verticals being the financial system. Obviously, this oversimplifies the situation, but I’m doing that to make a point. One of the systems, the financial system, failed, and this failure was due to decisions made by the financial elite. This created a massive political problem centered not so much on confidence in any particular financial instrument but on the competence and honesty of the financial elite itself. A sense emerged that the financial elite was either stupid or dishonest or both. The idea was that the financial elite had violated all principles of fiduciary, social and moral responsibility in seeking its own personal gain at the expense of society as a whole.

Fair or not, this perception created a massive political crisis. This was the true systemic crisis, compared to which the crisis of the financial institutions was trivial. The question was whether the political system was capable not merely of fixing the crisis but also of holding the perpetrators responsible. Alternatively, if the financial crisis did not involve criminality, how could the political system not have created laws to render such actions criminal? Was the political elite in collusion with the financial elite?

There was a crisis of confidence in the financial system and a crisis of confidence in the political system. The U.S. government’s actions in September 2008 were designed first to deal with the failures of the financial system. Many expected this would be followed by dealing with the failures of the financial elite, but this is perceived not to have happened. Indeed, the perception is that having spent large sums of money to stabilize the financial system, the political elite allowed the financial elite to manage the system to its benefit.

This generated the second crisis — the crisis of the political elite. The Tea Party movement emerged in part as critics of the political elite, focusing on the measures taken to stabilize the system and arguing that it had created a new financial crisis, this time in excessive sovereign debt. The Tea Party’s perception was extreme, but the idea was that the political elite had solved the financial problem both by generating massive debt and by accumulating excessive state power. Its argument was that the political elite used the financial crisis to dramatically increase the power of the state (health care reform was the poster child for this) while mismanaging the financial system through excessive sovereign debt.

The Crisis in Europe

The sovereign debt question also created both a financial crisis and then a political crisis in Europe. While the American financial crisis certainly affected Europe, the European political crisis was deepened by the resulting recession. There had long been a minority in Europe who felt that the European Union had been constructed either to support the financial elite at the expense of the broader population or to strengthen Northern Europe, particularly France and Germany, at the expense of the periphery — or both. What had been a minority view was strengthened by the recession.

The European crisis paralleled the American crisis in that financial institutions were bailed out. But the deeper crisis was that Europe did not act as a single unit to deal with all European banks but instead worked on a national basis, with each nation focused on its own banks and the European Central Bank seeming to favor Northern Europe in general and Germany in particular. This became the theme particularly when the recession generated disproportionate crises in peripheral countries like Greece.

There are two narratives to the story. One is the German version, which has become the common explanation. It holds that Greece wound up in a sovereign debt crisis because of the irresponsibility of the Greek government in maintaining social welfare programs in excess of what it could fund, and now the Greeks were expecting others, particularly the Germans, to bail them out.

The Greek narrative, which is less noted, was that the Germans rigged the European Union in their favor. Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter, after China and the United States (and closing rapidly on the No. 2 spot). By forming a free trade zone, the Germans created captive markets for their goods. During the prosperity of the first 20 years or so, this was hidden beneath general growth. But once a crisis hit, the inability of Greece to devalue its money — which, as the euro, was controlled by the European Central Bank — and the ability of Germany to continue exporting without any ability of Greece to control those exports exacerbated Greece’s recession, leading to a sovereign debt crisis. Moreover, the regulations generated by Brussels so enhanced the German position that Greece was helpless.

Which narrative is true is not the point. The point is that Europe is facing two political crises generated by economics. One crisis is similar to the American one, which is the belief that Europe’s political elite protected the financial elite. The other is a distinctly European one, a regional crisis in which parts of Europe have come to distrust each other rather vocally. This could become an existential crisis for the European Union.

The Crisis in China

The American and European crises struck hard at China, which, as the world’s largest export economy, is a hostage to external demand, particularly from the United States and Europe. When the United States and Europe went into recession, the Chinese government faced an unemployment crisis. If factories closed, workers would be unemployed, and unemployment in China could lead to massive social instability. The Chinese government had two responses. The first was to keep factories going by encouraging price reductions to the point where profit margins on exports evaporated. The second was to provide unprecedented amounts of credit to enterprises facing default on debts in order to keep them in business.

The strategy worked, of course, but only at the cost of substantial inflation. This led to a second crisis, where workers faced the contraction of already small incomes. The response was to increase incomes, which in turn increased the cost of goods exported once again, making China’s wage rates less competitive, for example, than Mexico’s.

China had previously encouraged entrepreneurs. This was easy when Europe and the United States were booming. Now, the rational move by entrepreneurs was to go offshore or lay off workers, or both. The Chinese government couldn’t afford this, so it began to intrude more and more into the economy. The political elite sought to stabilize the situation — and their own positions — by increasing controls on the financial and other corporate elites.

In different ways, that is what happened in all three places — the United States, Europe and China — at least as first steps. In the United States, the first impulse was to regulate the financial sector, stimulate the economy and increase control over sectors of the economy. In Europe, where there were already substantial controls over the economy, the political elite started to parse how those controls would work and who would benefit more. In China, where the political elite always retained implicit power over the economy, that power was increased. In all three cases, the first impulse was to use political controls.

In all three, this generated resistance. In the United States, the Tea Party was simply the most active and effective manifestation of that resistance. It went beyond them. In Europe, the resistance came from anti-Europeanists (and anti-immigration forces that blamed the European Union’s open border policies for uncontrolled immigration). It also came from political elites of countries like Ireland who were confronting the political elites of other countries. In China, the resistance has come from those being hurt by inflation, both consumers and business interests whose exports are less competitive and profitable.

Not every significant economy is caught in this crisis. Russia went through this crisis years ago and had already tilted toward the political elite’s control over the economy. Brazil and India have not experienced the extremes of China, but then they haven’t had the extreme growth rates of China. But when the United States, Europe and China go into a crisis of this sort, it can reasonably be said that the center of gravity of the world’s economy and most of its military power is in crisis. It is not a trivial moment.

Crisis does not mean collapse. The United States has substantial political legitimacy to draw on. Europe has less but its constituent nations are strong. China’s Communist Party is a formidable entity but it is no longer dealing with a financial crisis. It is dealing with a political crisis over the manner in which the political elite has managed the financial crisis. It is this political crisis that is most dangerous, because as the political elite weakens it loses the ability to manage and control other elites.

It is vital to understand that this is not an ideological challenge. Left-wingers opposing globalization and right-wingers opposing immigration are engaged in the same process — challenging the legitimacy of the elites. Nor is it simply a class issue. The challenge emanates from many areas. The challengers are not yet the majority, but they are not so far away from it as to be discounted. The real problem is that, while the challenge to the elites goes on, the profound differences in the challengers make an alternative political elite difficult to imagine.

The Crisis of Legitimacy

This, then, is the third crisis that can emerge: that the elites become delegitimized and all that there is to replace them is a deeply divided and hostile force, united in hostility to the elites but without any coherent ideology of its own. In the United States this would lead to paralysis. In Europe it would lead to a devolution to the nation-state. In China it would lead to regional fragmentation and conflict.

These are all extreme outcomes and there are many arrestors. But we cannot understand what is going on without understanding two things. The first is that the political economic crisis, if not global, is at least widespread, and uprisings elsewhere have their own roots but are linked in some ways to this crisis. The second is that the crisis is an economic problem that has triggered a political problem, which in turn is making the economic problem worse.

The followers of Adam Smith may believe in an autonomous economic sphere disengaged from politics, but Adam Smith was far more subtle. That’s why he called his greatest book the Wealth of Nations. It was about wealth, but it was also about nations. It was a work of political economy that teaches us a great deal about the moment we are in.

Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”

Source

%d bloggers like this: