The Great Pacification

Since the end of the Second World War, the major powers of the world have lived in relative peace. While there have been wars and conflicts  — Vietnam, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (twice), the Congo, Rwanda, Israel and Palestine, the Iran-Iraq war, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Lebanese civil war — these have been localised and at a much smaller scale than the violence that ripped the world apart during the Second World War. The recent downward trend is clear: Many thinkers believe that this trend of pacification is unstoppable. Steven Pinker, for example, claims:

Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

While the relative decline of violence and the growth of global commerce is a cause for celebration, those who want to proclaim that the dawn of the 21st Century is the dawn of a new long-lasting era of global peace may be overly optimistic. It is possible that we are on the edge of a precipice and that this era of relative peace is merely a calm before a new global storm. Militarism and the military-industrial complex never really went away — the military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. Weapons contractors are still gorging on multi-trillion dollar military spending. Let’s consider another Great Moderation — the moderation of the financial system previous to the bursting of the bubble in 2008.

One of the most striking features of the economic landscape over the past twenty years or so has been a substantial decline in macroeconomic volatility. Ben Bernanke (2004)

Bernanke attributed this outgrowth of macroeconomic stability to policy — that through macroeconomic engineering, governments had created a new era of financial and economic stability. Of course, Bernanke was wrong — in fact those tools of macroeconomic stabilisation were at that very moment inflating housing and securitisation bubbles, which burst in 2008 ushering in a new 1930s-style depression. It is more than possible that we are in a similar peace bubble that might soon burst. Pinker highlights some possible underlying causes for this decline in violent conflict:

The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels. We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can’t call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice.

Really? The state is the pacifying force? This is an astonishing claim. Sixty years ago, states across the world mobilised to engage in mass-killing the like of which the world had never seen — industrial slaughter of astonishing efficiency. The concentration of power in the state has at times led to more violence, not less. World War 2 left sixty million dead. Communist nations slaughtered almost 100 million in the pursuit of communism. Statism has a bloody history, and the power of the state to wage total destruction has only increased in the intervening years. Pinker continues:

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism. For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money. A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Commerce has been an extremely effective incentive toward peace. But commerce may not be enough. Globalisation and mass commerce became a reality a century ago, just prior to the first global war. The world was linked together by new technologies that made it possible to ship products cheaply from one side of the globe to the other, to communicate virtually instantaneously over huge distances, and a new culture of cosmopolitanism. Yet the world still went to war.

It is complacent to assume that interdependency will necessitate peace. The relationship between China and the United States today is superficially similar to that between Great Britain and Germany in 1914. Germany and China — the rising industrial behemoths, fiercely nationalistic and determined to establish themselves and their currencies on the world stage. Great Britain and the United States  — the overstretched global superpowers intent on retaining their primacy and reserve currency status even in spite of huge and growing debt and military overstretch.

In fact, a high degree of interdependency can breed resentment and hatred. Interconnected liabilities between nations can lead to war, as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to renege on their debts. Chinese officials have claimed to have felt that the United States is forcing them to support American deficits by buying treasuries.

Who is to say that China might not view the prize of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as worthy of transforming their giant manufacturing base into a giant war machine and writing down their treasury bonds? Who is to say that the United States might not risk antagonising Russia and China and disrupting global trade by attacking Iran? There are plenty of other potential flash-points too — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Egypt, South Africa, Georgia, Syria and more. Commerce and cosmopolitanism may have provided incentives for peace, but the Great Pacification has been built upon a bedrock of nuclear warheads. Mutually assured destruction is by far the largest force that has kept the nuclear-armed nations at peace for the past sixty seven years.

Yet can it last? Would the United States really have launched a first-strike had the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe during the Cold War, for example? If so, the global economy and population would have been devastated. If not, mutually assured destruction would have lost credibility. Mutually assured destruction can only act as a check on expansionism if it is credible. So far, no nation has really tested this credibility. Nuclear-armed powers have already engaged in proxy wars, such as Vietnam. How far can the limits be pushed? Would the United States launch a first-strike on China if China were to invade and occupy Taiwan and Japan, for example? Would the United States try to launch a counter-invasion? Or would they back down? Similarly, would Russia and China launch a first-strike on the United States if the United States invades and occupies Iran?

Launching a first-strike is highly unlikely in all cases — mutually assured destruction will remain an effective deterrent to nuclear war. But perhaps not to conventional war and territorial expansionism. With the world mired in the greatest economic depression since the 1930s, it becomes increasingly likely that states — especially those with high unemployment, weak growth, incompetent leadership and angry, disaffected youth —  will (just as they did during the last global depression in the 1930s) turn to expansionism, nationalism, trade war and even physical war. Already, the brittle peace between China and Japan is rupturing, and the old war rhetoric is back. These are the kinds of demonstrations that the Communist Party are now sanctioning:

And already, America and Israel are moving to attack Iran, even in spite of warnings by Chinese and Pakistani officials that this could risk global disruption. Hopefully, the threat of mutually assured destruction and the promise of commerce will continue to be an effective deterrent, and prevent any kind of global war from breaking out. Hopefully, states can work out their differences peacefully. Hopefully nations can keep war profiteers and those who advocate crisis initiation in check. Nothing would be more wonderful than the continuing spread of peace. Yet we must be guarded against complacency. Sixty years of relative peace is not the end of history.

About these ads

The Diminishing Chances of an Israeli Strike

From Haaretz:

At 8:58 P.M. on Tuesday, Israel’s 2012 war against Iran came to a quiet end. The capricious plans for a huge aerial attack were returned to the deep recesses of safes and hearts. The war may not have been canceled but it has certainly been postponed. For a while, at least, we can sound the all clear: It won’t happen this year. Until further notice, Israel Air Force Flight 007 will not be taking off.

According to a war simulation conducted by the U.S. Central Command, the Iranians could kill 200 Americans with a single missile response to an Israeli attack. An investigative committee would not spare any admiral or general, minister or president. The meaning of this U.S. scenario is that the blood of these 200 would be on Israel’s head.

Yeah. But I don’t really think that there was any real chance of a strike, even before that, and I haven’t for a long time.

As I wrote in January:

The real threat to Israel and America is not inaction on Iran, but excessive force. Iran poses little threat, but military intervention to effect regime change in Tehran runs the risk of huge and widespread blowback throughout the Muslim world: terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and deeper intergovernmental hostility, a breakdown of regional trade, and even a wider land war involving Eurasian nations who wish to protect Iran, including China and Russia.

The curious thing is that if the critical wargame was one involving a retaliatory Iranian missile strike, perhaps the people at the Pentagon would be wiser to allocate their not inconsiderable resources to a closure of the Strait of Hormuz, instead? After all, the economic damage of destabilising global trade seems a much greater danger to global, American and Israeli security than an Iranian retaliation.

From the Huffington Post:

Blocking the Strait of Hormuz would create an international and economic calamity of unprecedented severity. Here are the crude realities. America uses approximately 19 to 20 million barrels of oil per day, almost half of which is imported. If we lose just 1 million barrels per day, or suffer the type of damage sustained from Hurricane Katrina, our government will open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), which offers a mere six- to eight-week supply of unrefined crude oil. If we lose 1.5 million barrels per day, or approximately 7.5 percent, we will ask our allies in the 28-member International Energy Agency to open their SPRs and otherwise assist. If we lose 2 million barrels per day, or 10 percent, for a protracted period, government crisis monitors say the chaos will be so catastrophic, they cannot even model it. One government oil crisis source recently told me: “We cannot put a price tag on it. If it happens, just cash in your 401(k).”

Of course, there are plenty of examples of nations enacting policies that end up damaging their own interests, not least America’s costly, destructive and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. But given the deep and serious opposition that Netanyahu faces from within the Israeli establishment (e.g. Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief), it seems unlikely that they will at any point engage in such a strike. The rhetoric appears to be mostly designed stir up resistance to the Iranian regime (although frankly this appears to have had the opposite effect — galvanising the Iranian people to rally around a relatively unpopular regime).

Stiglitz vs Krugman

A very interesting front is opening up regarding the current state of America.

Some economists believe that the main problem in America is a lack of demand, defined as the desire to buy, the willingness to buy, and the ability to pay for it

From Paul Krugman:

There is nothing — nothing — in what we see suggesting that this current depression is more than a problem of inadequate demand. This could be turned around in months with the right policies. Our problem isn’t, ultimately, economic; it’s political, brought on by an elite that would rather cling to its prejudices than turn the nation around.

The implication here is that people just don’t have the money in their pockets to spend at the levels they were five years ago, and the solution is (through whatever means) giving them that money.

As well as the obvious (and accurate) Austrian retort that demand in 2006 was being pushed skyward as part of a ridiculous and entirely artificial debt-financed bubble, other economists believe that a lack of demand is just a symptom of other underlying symptoms. I myself believe that the three main problems are a lack of confidence stemming from high systemic residual debt, deindustrialisation in the name of globalisation (& its corollary, financialisation and that sprawling web of debt and counter-party risk), and fragility and side-effects (e.g. lost internal productivity due to role as world policeman) coming from America’s petroleum addiction.

Now Joe Stiglitz has weighed in in a lengthy and essential Vanity Fair piece:

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Many have argued that the Depression was caused primarily by excessive tightening of the money supply on the part of the Federal Reserve Board. Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Depression, has stated publicly that this was the lesson he took away, and the reason he opened the monetary spigots. He opened them very wide. Beginning in 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed doubled and then rose to three times its earlier level. Today it is $2.8 trillion. While the Fed, by doing this, may have succeeded in saving the banks, it didn’t succeed in saving the economy.

Reality has not only discredited the Fed but also raised questions about one of the conventional interpretations of the origins of the Depression. The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supply—in other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s. The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.

The cities weren’t spared—far from it. As rural incomes fell, farmers had less and less money to buy goods produced in factories. Manufacturers had to lay off workers, which further diminished demand for agricultural produce, driving down prices even more. Before long, this vicious circle affected the entire national economy.

The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity — the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

The consequences for consumer spending, and for the fundamental health of the economy — not to mention the appalling human cost—are obvious, though we were able to ignore them for a while. For a time, the bubbles in the housing and lending markets concealed the problem by creating artificial demand, which in turn created jobs in the financial sector and in construction and elsewhere. The bubble even made workers forget that their incomes were declining. They savored the possibility of wealth beyond their dreams, as the value of their houses soared and the value of their pensions, invested in the stock market, seemed to be doing likewise. But the jobs were temporary, fueled on vapor.

So far, so excellent. Stiglitz first shovels shit over the view of Fisherian debt-deflation as the main cause of the slump in demand — debt-deflation is a symptom, and a very nasty one, but not really a cause. Second, Stiglitz also correctly notes that today’s ailments are the result of social, infrastructural and productive upheaval in the real economy. He correctly identifies the leading trend here — manufacturing (and, it should be added, primary industry) has been ripped out of America by the forces of globalisation, and the powerful pull of cheaper wages. This is a strong explanation of why Krugman’s view — that the only thing missing is demand, and that government can fix that in an instant — is nonsense.

As I wrote earlier this month:

The point here is that economic health — and real industrial output, measured in joules, or in “needs met” — and money circulation are in reality almost totally decoupled. Getting out of a depression requires debt erasure, and new organic activity, and there is absolutely no guarantee that monetary easing will do the trick on either count. Most often, depressions and liquidity traps are a reflection of underlying structural and sociological problems, and broken economic and trade systems. Easing kicks the can down the road a little, and gives some time and breathing room for those problems to be fixed, but very often that just doesn’t happen. Ultimately, societies only take the steps necessary (e.g. a debt jubilee) when their very existence seems threatened.

Stiglitz continues:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that government can do some good. If people in a democracy choose to solve problems via public spending, well, that’s part of the bargain in a democratic state. Even Adam Smith noted that government should fund “certain great institutions” beyond the reach of private enterprise.

But here we reach the great problem with Stiglitz’s view:

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want — into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

The United States spent the last decade (arguably longer) and trillions of dollars embroiled in wars aimed at keeping oil cheap, and maintaining the flow of global goods precisely because America is dependent upon those things. America does not play global policeman out of nicety or vanity — she does it out of economic necessity. That is precisely because America let globalisation take away all of her industry, making her dependent not only on the continued value of her paper dollar, but on the flow of global trade in energy and goods.

Investing more money in services will leave America dependent on these contingencies. And dependency is fragility — and the more fragile America becomes, the more aggressive she becomes in maintaining and controlling the flow of global goods.

Any stimulus package ought to instead be focussed on making America energy independent, and encouraging innovative new forms of manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printing) that can undercut Chinese labour.

So while Stiglitz must be commended for seeing through the haze, it is rather puzzling that his alternative is services, rather than self-sufficiency.

While America is dependent on foreign goods and energy, she is prone to not only waste huge amounts of productive capital on war and weapons, but she also risks serious economic damage from events such as oil shocks, geopolitical shocks, regional wars, and — well — anything that might slow down or endanger global trade. Her need to police the world makes her even hungrier for oil, which means she spends more money on the world, which makes her hungrier for oil.