Nobel Prize winning economists continue to warn against “Destructive Austerity”. Here’s Paul Krugman on a Jared Bernstein post.
That is, we’re sacrificing the future as well as the present. Oh, and the cuts that aren’t falling on investment in physical capital are largely falling on human capital, that is, education.
It’s hard to overstate just how wrong all this is. We have a situation in which resources are sitting idle looking for uses — massive unemployment of workers, especially construction workers, capital so bereft of good investment opportunities that it’s available to the federal government at negative real interest rates. Never mind multipliers and all that (although they exist too); this is a time when government investment should be pushed very hard. Instead, it’s being slashed.
NOBEL PRIZE-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has described the continued payments by the Government to unsecured bondholders as “unconscionable”.
Ireland’s chances of cutting its way back to health were negligible he said, and its prospects were being compounded by German chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity rhetoric.
“Why should Irish taxpayers have to give up health and education to make good on a loan from a private bank when the previous government failed to do an adequate job of regulation?” asked Prof Stiglitz in an interview with The Irish Times .
There were cases where austerity programmes led to quick recovery, he said, but there were so few and in circumstances so different to Ireland’s that they weren’t applicable.
“The only instances in which they worked tended to be when there was a weak country with a strong trading partner and typically with a flexible exchange rate. You have a fixed exchange rate and a Europe in recession.”
In the complexity of the discussion over bondholders, Prof Stiglitz said simple facts were being overlooked: the unsecured bondholders were paid a normal interest rate for bearing a risk by investing in Irish banks, which was and is the nature of the market economy.
In addition the process of internal devaluation – a drop in salaries and other costs– would, he said, only fan the flames of recession.
“Your ability to make mortgage and other debt payments is diminished and you already have a problem in your real estate market,” he said. “In that sense the suffering, the bankruptcies and the foreclosures are going to only increase.”
This message of austerity is like the call of the ancient Sirens, whose music lured sailors to shipwreck.
We should take a lesson from Odysseus, who poured wax into the ears of his crew and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship to resist the Siren call.
Austerity supporters are selling the idea that governments, like families, must cut back when income shrinks. But economically, governments are not like families.
Firing teachers, cops and government clerks will, for sure, reduce public spending. But budgets, like the song of the Sirens, are only part of the story. Listen only to the alluring lyrics and, like the many voyagers before Odysseus, we will suffer disastrous consequences – in our case falling incomes and worsening economies.
The full economic story begins with this principle taught to every economics student: spending equals income and income equals spending. Cut spending and incomes must fall; cut incomes and spending must fall.
Those who disagree with this say that only private spending can create wealth and that government spending is inefficient. I think the first argument is wrong, but the second is often true, which is why citizens need to pay close attention to their government.
When private spending shrinks, then either government spending must grow to make up for it or the other side of the equation, income, must shrink.
If we increase spending today by borrowing, we create a claim on future income. Families with debt must divert part of their future income to interest and principal to service that debt or go bankrupt. Governments are different, provided they have monopoly control of their currency. By definition, no sovereign government can ever go broke in its own currency.
True, the federal government has avoided all-out austerity. But state and local governments, which must run more or less balanced budgets, have slashed spending and employment as federal aid runs out — and this has been a major drag on the overall economy. Without those spending cuts, we might already have been on the road to self-sustaining growth; as it is, recovery still hangs in the balance.
And we may get tipped in the wrong direction by Continental Europe, where austerity policies are having the same effect as in Britain, with many signs pointing to recession this year.
The infuriating thing about this tragedy is that it was completely unnecessary. Half a century ago, any economist — or for that matter any undergraduate who had read Paul Samuelson’s textbook “Economics” — could have told you that austerity in the face of depression was a very bad idea. But policy makers, pundits and, I’m sorry to say, many economists decided, largely for political reasons, to forget what they used to know. And millions of workers are paying the price for their willful amnesia.
Mitt Romney may be on his way to a decisive victory in the Florida GOP primary Tuesday, according to a new NBC/Marist poll.
Romney leads Newt Gingrich by 15 points, 42 percent to 27 percent in the crucial state. Rick Santorum is third with 16 percent, followed by Ron Paul with 11 percent. Just 4 percent said they were undecided.
“The bottom line in all this is Romney’s sitting in the driver’s seat going into Tuesday,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College, who conducted the poll.
If Romney pulls off a victory of that magnitude, he could be on a glide path to the nomination. But there are warning signs for the Republican Party that the primary has taken a toll on Romney and the rest of the GOP field. Each of the candidates struggles in a general-election matchup with President Barack Obama in this swing state, especially with independents.
The successful bank robber no longer covers his face and leaps over the counter with a sawn-off shotgun. He arrives in a chauffeur-driven car, glides into the lift then saunters into an office at the top of the building. No one stops him. No one, even when the scale of the heist is revealed, issues a warrant for his arrest. The modern robber obtains prior approval from the institution he is fleecing.
The income of corporate executives, which the business secretary Vince Cable has just failed to address(1), is a form of institutionalised theft, arranged by a kleptocratic class for the benefit of its members. The wealth which was once spread more evenly among the staff of a company, or distributed as lower prices or higher taxes, is now siphoned off by people who have neither earned nor generated it.
Over the past ten years, chief executives’ pay has risen nine times faster than that of the median earner(2). Some bosses (British Gas, Xstrata and Barclays for example) are now being paid over 1000 times the national median wage(3). The share of national income captured by the top 0.1% rose from 1.3% in 1979 to 6.5% by 2007(4).
These rewards bear no relationship to risk. The bosses of big companies, though they call themselves risk-takers, are 13 times less likely to be sacked than the lowest paid workers(5). Even if they lose their jobs and never work again, they will have invested so much and secured such generous pensions and severance packages that they’ll live in luxury for the rest of their lives(6). The risks are carried by other people.
The problem of executive pay is characterised by Cable and many others as a gap between reward and performance. But it runs deeper than that, for three reasons.
As the writer Dan Pink has shown, high pay actually reduces performance(7). Material rewards incentivise simple mechanistic jobs, such as working on an assembly line. But they lead to the poorer execution of tasks which require problem solving and cognitive skills. As studies for the US Federal Reserve and other such bolsheviks show(8), cash incentives narrow people’s focus and restrict the range of their thinking. By contrast, intrinsic motivators — such as a sense of autonomy, of enhancing your skills and pursuing a higher purpose — tend to improve performance.
Even the 0.1% concede that money is not what drives them. Bernie Ecclestone says “I doubt if any successful business person works for money … money is a by-product of success. It’s not the main aim.”(9) Jeroen van der Veer, formerly the chief executive of Shell, recalls, “if I had been paid 50 per cent more, I would not have done it better. If I had been paid 50 per cent less, then I would not have done it worse”(10). High pay is both counterproductive and unnecessary.
The second reason is that, as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, performance in the financial sector is random, and the belief of traders and fund managers that they are using skill to beat the market is a cognitive illusion(11). A link between pay and results is a reward for blind luck.
Most importantly, the wider consequences of grotesque inequality bear no relationship to entitlement. Obscene rewards for success are as socially corrosive as obscene rewards for failure. They reduce social mobility, enhance plutocratic power and allow the elite to inflict astonishing levels of damage on the environment(12). They create resentment and reduce the motivation of other workers, who see the greedy bosses as the personification of the company(13).
Interesting idea isn’t it? What’s on your reading and blogging list today?
You may remember back in January that I was not happy and very outspoken about the size of the Obama Stimulus plan. I was not impressed by the content or with the mix between tax cuts and direct government spending. You may recall that the Blue Dogs interminable resistance to do anything that might wake their sleeping Republican voters and the desire on the part of POTUS to appease the unappeasable remnants of the Republican party led to a very watered down plan. At the time, all that I could hope was that it might be enough to get the ball rolling. However, I felt that the historical multiplier –especially for taxes– was not going to kick in the way it had in the past.
The release of the miserable unemployment data yesterday (not all that unexpected as you’ll recall) as well as an estimate of our output gap now clearly squares with my earlier view as well as the earlier views of Brad deLong, Paul Krugman, Mark Thoma and Joseph Stiglitz among others. The stimulus was clearly not the blue pill the economy needed. (That last link is from me saying this same thing in July.)
The Washington Monthly says the decision to appease centrists and Republicans looks even worse in retrospect. Now, the media gets it. Color me completely unsurprised because I told you so back then that it wasn’t going to be enough. I even mentioned it recently when it appeared the stimulus plans of German, France, and Japan had already lifted those economies from the worst of it last spring. These countries emphasized direct government spending. We mostly shuffled a few funds as stop gaps and the created a bunch of tax cuts that no one really needs right now.
In February, when the debate over the economic stimulus package was at its height, a handful of “centrist” Senate Republicans said they’d block a vote on recovery efforts unless the majority agreed to slash over $100 billion from the bill.
The group, which didn’t have any specific policy goals in mind and simply liked the idea of a small bill, specifically targeted $40 billion in proposed aid to states. Helping rescue states, Sen. Collins & Co. said, does not stimulate the economy, and as such doesn’t belong in the legislation. Democratic leaders reluctantly went along — they weren’t given a choice since Republicans refused to give the bill an up-or-down vote — and the $40 billion in state aid was eliminated.
In the past, government hiring had managed to somewhat offset losses in the private sector, but government jobs declined by 53,000, with the biggest number of cuts on the local and state levels. Even the Postal Service, which is included in the public-sector job statistics, dropped 5,300 jobs.
“The major surprise came from the public sector, where every level of government cut back,” Naroff said. “The budget crises at the state and local levels have caused an awful lot of belt-tightening.”
The US economy is in a fragile state right now which begs the question: Why do our policy makers seem oblivious to lessons from the great meltdowns of the past? Adam Posner of the Daily Beast asks the question out right: Does Obama Have a Plan B? Posner asserts that the administration appears to be hellbent on recreating the Japanese Lost Decade. This is something that I’ve been harping on for months as has Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz–two big brained economists with Nobel prizes.
So it is with some irony if not humility that we should approach Treasury Secretary Geithner’s Public Private Investment Plan presented on March 23. A number of major American banks have lost huge amounts of money, and clearly have insufficient capital if they are not literally insolvent. Why else would they be pushing so hard to change the accounting rules to avoid showing what they really have on their books instead of raising private capital? Why else is the U.S. government taking so long to perform “stress tests” and trying to get expectations of overpayment for some of the bad assets on the banks’ books before the test results are out? In short, the U.S. government is looking to shovel capital into the banks without sufficient conditions, hiding rather than confronting the actual situation.
That is just like the Japanese government in their lost decade, or the U.S. officials during the 1980s before they really tackled the savings-and-loan crisis. In those cases, the delay simply made the problem worse over time and in the end the government had to put more money into the troubled banks directly, taking over or shutting down the weakest of them. Whatever the political culture, it would seem we have not learned from experience. Or perhaps we cannot act on our learning. The universal barrier would appear to be the political difficulty of recapitalizing banks. That seems obvious, but the constraint it puts on good policy is enormous.
That is why the Geithner plan is so complex and jury-rigged, to avoid the need for public requests for more money for banks. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to succeed absent additional public money and more-intrusive government action. The plan will buy some time and certainly some appreciation in bank share prices. Current shareholders will be getting a new lease on life with subsidies from taxpayers. For that reason alone, the plan certainly will cost the taxpayer more in the end than a more direct recapitalization with public control would have.
Nobel Prize winning economist (2001) Joseph E. Stiglitz
After finding out about it on MiradorWealth.com.au, I’m participating in an on line debate at Economist.com concerning regulating the financial system after this crisis. It is interesting to read the comments because they come from all over the world and they come from folks that participate one way or another in the financial markets. Right now 63% of the participants (led by American Economist Joseph Stiglitz) want more regulation of financial markets.
Here is his opening argument:
The current crisis is caused, in part, by inadequate regulation. Unless we have an adequate regulatory system—regulations and a regulatory structure that ensures their implementation—we are bound to have another crisis. This is not the first such crisis in the financial system that we have had in recent decades. Indeed, around the world, it is more unusual for a country not to have had a financial crisis than to have had one. They have occurred in societies with “good institutions”—like those in Scandinavia—and in societies without such institutions. They have occurred in developed and in developing countries. The only countries to have been spared so far are those with strong regulatory frameworks.
The side against regulation is taken up by Myron Scholes who is an equally impressive American Finance Professor. Here is his opening argument:
There is now a rising chorus among regulators, politicians, and academics claiming the freedom to innovate in the financial domain should be curtailed. This stemmed from the apparent recent failures in mortgage finance and credit default swaps and the apparent need for governments and central banks to “bail out” failing and failed financial institutions around the world directly through capital infusions and indirectly by providing a wide array of liquidity facilities and guarantees. They claim that freedom in global financial markets has proceeded at too rapid a pace without controls—in particular with an incentive system that rewards risk-taking at the expense of government entities—and as a result “throwing sand in the gears” of innovation will reduce “deadweight costs” and “moral hazard” issues.
Here are my thoughts.
Financial markets are not like other markets. To function properly, there needs to be transparency and trust. If transparency and trust are not there, they do not work, and if financial markets don’t work, nothing works in an economy.
Regulations should be put into place that increase transparency and increase trust. This does not mean they should be used to push social agendas like ‘affordable housing’. This means that rules of dealing in a market should be clearly established and a regulator should ensure they are followed. Rules concerning leverage, capitalization, prudent underwriting standards, and standardization of contracts all lead to transparency and trust. Countries with the standards attract capital and grow. Countries without do not attract capital and stall. Adequate regulation would have stopped this financial panic. We still have not unwound the rogue credit default swap market. We have yet to determine the full impact this will have on the current situation and it remains an unquantified risk hanging out there in the ethos like a cancer ready to spread. Unless we ensure these markets cannot be gamed, we will lurch from one financial panic to another.
As the financial crisis winds its way through history the discussion concerning the role of regulation, deregulation, and future policy will be an important one. I suggest you get involved with that discussion because it is just that, an important one.