Michael Kinsley’s argument for immediate austerity is about “paying for our past sins”:
Krugman also is on to something when he talks about paying a price for past sins. I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners. That’s too easy. Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians. In other words, they are you and me. If you make less than $250,000 a year, Obama has assured us, you are officially entitled to feel put-upon and resentful. And to be immune from further imposition.
Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert.
To Kinsley, austerity is the necessary spinach. I don’t really understand this. In the United States a crisis in shadow finance spread into the banking industry leading to a default cascade throughout the financial system, which resulted in a wider crisis throughout the economy, and ever since 2008 even after the banking sector was propped-up, unemployment throughout the wider economy has been rife, economic output has fallen far below its long-term trend line, and bank deposits are soaring as the weak economy has damaged confidence and convinced possessors of money to save and not spend or invest.
So many activities in the boom — from home speculation, to NINJA loans, to subprime securitisation, and ultimately the 40-year cycle of total credit growth that led to the Minsky Moment in 2008 — proved unsustainable. But a huge cost has already been paid for those unsustainable activities in the form of the initial crash, and depressed growth, and unemployment, etc. The structure of production has been irrevocably changed by the bust. But are the people suffering the unemployment, the depressed real wage growth, etc, the people who created the total debt growth? No, of course not. Any connection is arbitrary — the people creating the credit default swaps and structured securitised products (ABS, MBS, etc) and NINJA loans that triggered the banking crises in many cases have kept their jobs and been promoted. Certainly, some bankers like Dick Fuld who were involved in creating the crisis lost their jobs, but while people who had nothing whatever to do with the banking crisis have lost their jobs or worse have never even got a job.
So who does Kinsley want to consume the spinach? The people who take the hit to their purchasing power in an austerity program aren’t the ones who caused the financial crisis. Perhaps financial regulators and central bankers were to some degree responsible, but the overwhelming majority of people dependent on government income had nothing whatever to do with financial regulation. Though certainly one side-effect of the crisis has been falling tax revenues, which has meant bigger deficits. But structural deficits are actually relatively low, and nominal deficits are rapidly falling. And the actual interest rate cost of servicing the deficits are at record lows and with current soaring savings levels, unlikely to start rising anytime soon. So any appearance of a deficit problem is a side-effect of a depressed economy. Ultimately, austerity will reduce the government’s use of resources — capital, and labour. And what is the problem with the economy at the moment? Slack resources in capital and labour to such an extent that interest rates are at record lows and unemployment is very high. Kinsley’s “spinach” has nothing whatever to do with the problem. In the long run, once the economy is at full-employment and businesses are booming, and interest rates have risen some austerity will be helpful, not least to take the edge off the boom. But why now? Immediate austerity is iatrogenic medicine — misidentifying the problem, and prescribing a cure that harms the patient.
In my view a bust after an economic boom may be to some degree be unavoidable as an artefact of human psychology. Ultimately, we should remember that a credit-driven boom isn’t a sign of overproduction of goods and services, or a society living beyond its means. After all, the demand for goods and services really existed, and the capacity for the production and use of goods and services really existed. Humans are excitable animals, prone to strange twinges of spirit both in mania and depression. The business cycle delivers the dessert and the spinach in recurrent cycles. Actions have consequences, and the actions leading into the slump have had huge consequences. But what about our present sins? Having the government force more spinach onto a society already suffering from massive unemployment of people, resources and capital is a strange and cruel prescription. We have already had our spinach in the crash of 2008 and the following slump. Huge numbers of people are unemployed, or have dropped out of the labour force, or have not had the chance to enter the labour force. That is the spinach. If the economy was a man, spinach would be coming out of his ears. Michael Kinsley and his intellectual cousins want to offset spinach with more spinach. Yet the economy has much the same or higher pre-slump capacity for ice cream, and pizza and milkshakes and marshmallows. In the long run, society will rediscover its taste for economic growth, for income growth, and all the slack resources will be used up to produce things that people actually want and need. Yet that does not help the unemployed who have eaten plateful after plateful of spinach as a consequence of actions for which they were mostly not responsible. What could help the unemployed? Job creation and putting slack resources to use.
Your analysis and conclusion are both correct, in my view. Two important things not raised regarding events in the US are President Obama’s refusal to support opportunities in the traditional energy sector which would provide employment and the Administration’s moving large numbers of Americans off the unemployment rolls and placing them on various Federal entitlement programs thus giving a false impression that our unemployment rate is decreasing as a result of almost negligible economic growth. The energy sector is primed to increase production and employment and export of liquified natural gas would improve our trade balance. Opening the energy sector production would also advance our nation further toward energy independence. Such stimulative measures and resulting economic improvements are not supported by the President and his administration.
Bob Thompson is absolutely correct. But he has hardly begun to list all the causes of the destructive effects described by John Aziz.
John, credit is simply a method to bring future consumption and forward, and must always have its day of reckoning. Why do you feel that credit is OK when for thousands of years it has been known that credit is one of the true evils of social man?
Credit is like saying to your significant other, “Let’s make love six hundred times in the next week.” Although [if this was possible] I am sure you and your mate would be blissed-out beyond comprehension, what would be the cost of doing this?
All things have a cost, and this is why all things must strive towards balance. Credit creates tremendous IMBALANCES. This is why it ALWAYS ends badly. People have known this FOREVER!!
The plague eating at the marrow of the global economy is TOO MUCH debt. Even a “reasonable” amount of debt creates an vortex that begins to suck productive capital into the great unknown.
The solution this all the economic ills we face is a MASSIVE reduction of debt. If you really want an economy that thrives, get rid of all the parasites in banks and all other financial services, and allow the productive power of humanity to find its own way in a world free of the monsters that insist that they must steal from everybody else.
Freedom is the ability to ply one trade free of interference from governments, corporations, oligopolies, cartels, and all the others hideous constructs that humans form in order to gain their coveted, “something for nothing,” Holy Grail.
Personally I am not really a fan of credit, at least in its current state. I don’t use it often, and I never take out more credit than I have cash on hand, let alone more than total assets.
For society, I think it’s impossible to ban credit. If it was banned in the open, it’d be done in the back streets totally unregulated and unavailable to legal settlement and judicial oversight.
Fundamentally, I don’t think that credit is a symptom of society living beyond its means. If people actually want the stuff they’re buying, and producers have the resources to produce it and are making a profit, then it’s a matter of people not having enough money to pay for it without having to go to a predatory lender to create the money and give it to them at an interest rate. We live in a rich and productive enough world to not have to do that. The thing that changes in the slump is sentiment — people become uber-fearful and become economically inactive. So you get slack resources, massive unemployment. If the things that had been purchased had been purchased with something other than credit, there would have been no problem! So maybe excessive reliance on credit is a symptom of there being too little money in the system to satisfy society’s needs and wants? Maybe the central bank should cut out the predatory lenders and their high interest rates on money creation and use Federal lines of credit to satisfy demand for money? Or maybe they should go the whole way and issue debt free money like Kennedy wanted to!
“Fundamentally, I don’t think that credit is a symptom of society living beyond its means.”
John, as the historical Buddha taught 2500 years ago, desires are limitless. I would tend to agree with his assessment.
Let’s say you decided to construct a children’s candy/toy franchise and it was the ultimate fantasy come true for nearly every child. They simply couldn’t get enough of it.
Not only that, but you were allowed to build one of these superstores next to every school throughout the world. And, furthermore, you set up a financial services company called, The Candy and Toy Bank of the World, whereby you would give credit to these children so they could go and buy whatever their hearts desires, the bill to be paid with their future labor [as an adult].
This is essentially how the corporate world works and what they have done.
John, living beyond your means is one of the basic lessons that used to be taught to EVERYBODY. It is as basic as, The Golden Rule.
It has been known for literally thousands of years that credit [usury] as as evil as it gets. Look at the havoc it has wreaked upon the planet in the short time you have been aware.
I agree with a great deal of what you write [and, btw, your writing is flowing quite nicely], but when it comes to credit, I believe you have been bitten by the ‘something for nothing’ bug that has burrowed itself deep down into the core of human consciousness, a parasite that may to generations to extricate from its still welcoming host.
If the firm that produces the goods accepts the money, and the person who uses the credit to make the purchase genuinely wants the goods or services purchased, then nobody in that equation is living beyond their means.
The problem is the derivation of the credit money as credit, and the usurious interest rate repayment. The people who are possibly “living beyond their means” are the ones manufacturing credit out of thin air and expecting a positive rate of return on that money! If the money was debt free, nobody would be living beyond their means. The only difference would be that the bankers would not earn interest on money they manufactured out of thin air at no expense to them!
John, I don’t believe you understand what the term, “living beyond ones means,” alludes to [in its traditional context].
Credit aside, people [in the olden days :] were taught that you have certain financial responsibilities, and if you own up to them, then you might have a reasonably good chance at a prosperous life [whatever that means].
What this meant is that you budget whatever money you had, i.e., x % went to cover living expenses, y % to retirement, z % to a college fund for your kids, etc. It is not a matter of having the cash [or access to credit] and wanting to buy something.
Now, it bad enough that people have become so incredibly irresponsible [not saving, not putting money aside for their responsibilities], but over and above this abrogation, they have gone into debt to fund this irresponsibility, all with the vociferous encouragement of the corporate/government coalition that has made it easy as pie to destroy your financial life.
As the old English saying goes, “Earn 20 pounds and spend 19, a happy man you can be, earn 19 and spend 20 and misery comes pounding at your door” [paraphrased :].
While credit allows people (debtors) to spend above their incomes, it also allows people (creditors) to earn an interest rate on their savings. There is a massive demand for savings in today’s society, as I covered last month with my figures on total savings deposits. People want a rate of interest. They will not get a rate of interest if savings are not put to use as loans. Matching creditors to debtors (intermediation) is just getting two groups of people what they want.
Personally, I do not wish to live in excess of my income (I am a relatively frugal person) but lots of people want to, and lots of other people are happy to give them the means to do so at interest. Banning usury in the past (like banning alcohol) just drove it underground. People love interest, and they love debt. That arrangement gives both parties what they want, at least in the short term.
“Personally, I do not wish to live in excess of my income (I am a relatively frugal person) but lots of people want to, and lots of other people are happy to give them the means to do so at interest.”
John, just because people wish to act like children doesn’t mean that you should encourage this. We live in a society of adult children, people consumed with having all kinds of fun, regardless of the future ramifications.
John, do you like what you see as the outcome of such behavior?
Economics is all about humans getting what they want. In this case, debtors get an advance on purchasing power, and creditors get interest.
Human society today is more advanced and richer and more fun-filled than at any point in human history. I don’t think that’s a problem, overall. As a society and as individuals we have the resources for that. I’d certainly rather live today than 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, etc.
If you could hypothetically abolish debt then you’d also abolish any incentive (interest rates) for people to save rather than spend immediately. In such a world, people would have to pay to keep a bank account! So not only would you abolish credit-fuelled fun (and much more importantly the establishment of useful, profitable businesses via credit), but you’d also abolish the interest fuelled lifestyles of seniors!
John, you have brought up several VERY interesting topics.
“Economics is all about humans getting what they want.”
Economics is not about people getting what they “want” [necessarily], but instead, what they “need.” The wants should come after the needs have been met. This relationship has been turned on its head as people believe they can have what they want, anytime they want it, just like children believe this to be the case.
“I’d certainly rather live today than 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, etc.”
How about living a hundred years from now? Why even live now? This is what technology and progress has done to many, given them the belief that what we have today is not good enough, that satisfaction in life comes from without, that it will always be better, tomorrow, next year, ten years from now,… .
John, if you only believe one thing I write, believe me when I tell you that things can never be any better than they are right this moment! It is simply a matter of understand your relationship with time and the fundamental nature of contentment.
“If you could hypothetically abolish debt then you’d also abolish any incentive (interest rates) for people to save rather than spend immediately.”
The idea behind savings is not to gain interest [this only happens in a world where the currency is inflated; as you must recall that in a sound money environment, deflation (increasing productivity shared by all through an increasing value of the currency) is the natural order of things], but instead, savings is the PRIMARY mechanism to building ones wealth.
Building ones own wealth [as opposed to using anothers] is the foundation for all things good [financially] to follow in an individuals life.
“So not only would you abolish credit-fueled fun (and much more importantly the establishment of useful, profitable businesses via credit), but you’d also abolish the interest fueled lifestyles of seniors!”
If savings were sound [no inflation], then you would not need interest. Do the squirrels save their nuts in winter with the expectation of receiving interest on their gatherings?
Interest is the ultimate something for nothing ploy. Selling your future labor is little different than any other form of slavery that have plagued our species forever.
Needs are wants. People are motivated to act because they want to satisfy their bodily needs, among other wants. Economics is the study of human wants, and needs are a subcategory of wants.
I can’t predict the future, but my guess is that in general, living in the future will probably be better than living in the present.
How can you guarantee the future purchasing power of any currency? When only gold and silver were money, there was still inflation from mining and gold discoveries, among many things. If there is no nominal return on savings, and there is price inflation due to new gold discoveries (or even more worryingly, due to cheaper ways of manufacturing gold, e.g. particle accelerators) then savers are thrown under the bus as their purchasing power falls. Interest rates are the cost of using someone else’s money because they desire a nominal rate of return on their wealth. Humans have practiced usury from the dawn of time whether in the black market, or legally.
Bitcoin is an interesting experiment in “sound” money which cannot just be discovered like gold, but I cannot see Bitcoin or other such systems evolving into anything other than complementary currencies.
Interest rates are not a something for nothing ploy. They are insurance that the debtor pays against the possibility that they will default on a loan. In order to put saved (inactive) capital to use, insurance against default has proven desirable
I think impermanence is right. Wants and needs should not be confused. There are so called primary needs ( food, shelter, need for affection, group membership etc) that are inherent to all humans. The other needs, that are more or less optional, could be assimilated to the needs, but sometimes function as substitutes to primary needs (for example, the desire for power as a result of the lack of affection).
John, I admire the fact that you are trying to see the good that this system can provide, but what most people see as “good,” e.g.,, increasing the rate of technological advancement [thereby pandering to people’s never ending desire to embrace “the new,” “the stimulating,” “the (fill in the blank)”], is a scam whereby people sell their very futures for a mini-buzz, designed to be as unsatisfying as it is short-term.
We live in a time where nearly everything social is incredibly out of balance. Therefore, you might want to step back for a moment and examine what they are doing and WHY they are doing it [both on the producing and consuming sides].
If you have a monetary system where debt IS money, then what good can possibly come out of this? What is for sale [in the West] is debt; buy enough debt and we’ll throw in a car, or a house, or a [whatever]. Debt is the problem.
Debt is ALWAYS the problem.
I’m not even trying to see “good” in the present system.
I am trying to understand why, evolutionarily speaking, we have the current system we do. If it is really so bad, why hasn’t it collapsed or been overthrown? We’ve been off a pure gold standard for 100 years, and off any kind of gold standard for 40 years.
Clearly, people want nominal rates of return on savings and access to credit. I’ve written a lot in the past how excessive systemic/interconnective debt loads can cause and to some degree have caused systemic problems. But clearly, there are enough pluses for people to keep doing it in spite of the dangers and problems.
“I am trying to understand why, evolutionarily speaking, we have the current system we do. If it is really so bad, why hasn’t it collapsed or been overthrown? We’ve been off a pure gold standard for 100 years, and off any kind of gold standard for 40 years.”
Well, John, when you figure it out, let the rest of the world know. 🙂
It’s not a matter of it being good or bad, it is what it is. The key is to see it as it actually is and [re-] act accordingly.
Every system, from the simplest to the most complex is collapsing. It is the nature of all things to be born and to pass away.
As far as the gold standard is concerned, it is people’s confidence in the system that matters the most. How can organized religion work when nobody can prove/disprove God’s existence?
How can people listen to politicians lie to them over and over and over and still support the political system?
Why human beings do what they do [and for that matter, why anything happens] is due to the infinite number of events preceding, something the human mind is simply incapable of understanding.
Fortunately, there is another way, but people are unwilling to go there as viewing Reality explodes the individual’s notion of self, something few are willing to accept.
Switching to debt free money does not stop borrowing and lending, as pointed out by Positive Money, one of the main advocates of debt free money in the UK.
No it doesn’t stop borrowing and lending, but it removes a big chunk of spread, potentially making debts a lot more sustainable.
Borrowing and lending are PERFECTLY LEGITIMATE activities. E.g. if I have a brilliant idea for a start up enterprise which needs £1m to get going, where do I get the money other than by borrowing it? I might find a business angel to take a share in the business, but if I don’t, then borrowing is the only option.
Or take another example, if one person has cash to spare, and another wants to buy a more expensive house then can afford out of capital, what’s wrong with the former lending money to the latter, especially if the latter has a well paid and secure job?
RM, the problem is that it leads to massive social breakdown each and every time you go through one these credit cycles. People deriving an income by doing ZERO work is not such a good strategy for the rest.
No matter the form financialization assumes, is destructive in every way, shape, and form. It creates a predator class willing to do any- and every- thing in order to put their capital “to work.”
How many times must humanity go through this house of horrors to understand that usury is [perhaps] the shortest road to Hell on Earth.
John, your analysis has correctly outlined certain aspects of the present crisis. But there is also another side of the problem. I believe that the causes of the crisis lie also within the very nature of globalization. Of course, the shadow finance created by notorious 1% has its role, but also the 99% has cheerfully paved its road to hell. Now, I don’t like the phrases as “paying for our past sins”, there is too much of Sunday sermons moralizing in it. However, if you accept to join the party by squandering your money on useful and less useful trinkets Made in China that “Wall Mart” offers to you, if you jump on the opportunity that your favorite Nike sneakers cost 50 $ instead of 150 ( neglecting that the price is low because labor costs in Bangladesh are 5-10$/day), then your nemesis will be the outsourcing, job loss and youth unemployment. And permanent crisis, because nobody can convince me that one nation’s economy can prosper based only on service sector , know-how inventories and creative finance.
Globalism is like instead baring the burden of having your gorgeous sixteen year old daughter date the captain of the high school football team, she, instead, decides to hang with all of the college footballs stars in your area.
Globalism is stealing on a massive scale, nothing more. Although this is certainly a problem, it is not the etiology of our economic woes, which is all the other stuff, in particular banking and its funny money, governments and their support of oligarchy, cartels, and, at the heart of it, man’s never ending desire to get something for nothing.
You’ve been a very very bad little boy, now go sit on the Austerity time out chair and think about what you’ve done!
Before you go to the timeout chair, write this one hundred times on the blackboard: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
impermanence has done a good job of translating this (Shakespeare’s) warning for individuals to society.
But I join you, John, in approving SECURED loans with rigidly ENFORCED collection/default contracts. And, “this above all”: governments must stop lending & forgiving — and giving away, “selling” for bribes, etc. — your money or mine!
I found a 10K credit card very useful in my youth. I enjoyed my holiday in the USA, and paid the interest off with my labour value. Instead of cigarettes and alcohol, I paid Mastercard for the privilege to enjoy a trip, I have never had the time or circumstance to perform since.
Impermanence is right, borrowing brings consumption forward, but as youth is valuable, there are some things that must be enjoyed in the now.
As a Rabbinical book taught me, the interest is the charge one must pay for denying another of their capital. Usury laws do not consider these insights.
Providing a mechanism to bring consumption forward is like giving drugs to everybody so they can bring all their happiness forward. How does that work out?
One must live within their means to live a balanced life. Living in balance is the great lesson Nature teaches us. Living within your means is consuming in balance. No more can you consume 3000 calories/day [if you only burn 2000 calories/day] can you consume more than you earn without pathological consequences.
This is the wisdom passed down through 400 generations of human beings experimenting with different ways of approaching life.
Only if you used a good food analogy, this would have sounded better. Michael Phelps consumes well over 5000 calories a day and burns way less than what he eats. There is some waste involved in eating and burning calories that is unaccounted for.
He is neither massively plump for the amount of food he eats, nor is he diabetic.
I don’t see how your statement regarding Michael Phelps’ intake and burning of calories can possibly be correct. Could you give some details on how he does this.
There’s another article about self-flagellating, spinach eating Austrians (in response to Kinsley) here:
I’d like to be careful not to equate spinach-eating with Austrianism.
To me, Austrianism (which I casually define as subjective theory of value, non-instrumentalism, prices as resource allocation signalling) makes no specific claims about self-flagellation or spinach. Unfortunately, a broad majority of Austrians do subscribe to the self-flagellating (although some — like me! — don’t). But a whole lot of non-Austrians also subscribe to the spinach too. So being an Austrian is neither necessary nor sufficient for having a self-flagellation fetish.
Curious that great many of those “Austrians” have never been in Austria nor spoken to a real Österreicher
Austrianism in this case refers to the economic school founded by Carl Menger, not the country, just as Keynesianism refers to the economic school founded by John Maynard Keynes.
It’s an unfortunate name, I agree.
If I could parse some of the language here, I would like to interject and just say that I think in the infinite wants model, it is clear that there is a certain level of credit that is not sustainable. Of course if everyone could have a ferrari or McMansion, we would love to have one, but that is the desire and want of practically everyone (of course there are the Buffetts and Sam Waltons who drive a standard car and live modestly).
I think allowing the ill-advised prodigal son to go on a spending spree with pappa’s credit card or an inheritance is obviously not sustainable as in the case of the prodigal son he was dearly sorry for asking for his inheritance money early and spending it all on a splurge.
The prodigal son returns home and years later, in worse health, completely broke, and emotionally depressed and disconnected from reality.
My musing is that there is a certain type of credit demand that is prudent and even sustainable but then there is the kind that is created through the wants of a prodigal son “type” that is completely misguided, unsustainable, and endangering others financial stability (as the son needs to be taken care of again).
The sustainable credit demand is that of someone with a secure job that is using it for legitimate purposes. IE not taking out a 2nd home mortgage and going to Dover Downs and spending it all on slots or trying his odds at roulette. This sort of credit demand is destructive and although there is a want for the individual to take out a loan or line of credit and spend it on casinos, it is not only doltish but reckless and unsustainable for his current job and family.
But you object and say that the zero-sum game he had just played in the casino goes to the top and bottom line and helps to pay for salaries of the employees and to their earnings. However, it is just that merely. A transfer of wealth and a zero-sum game effect whereby, the individual takes out a 2nd mortgage or loan and spends it on illegitimate “wants” endangering his security, stability, and future earnings potential as the high debt consequence increases his burden to himself and society.
Credit is ALWAYS a bad idea, no matter how responsible one is. When you can secure an income based upon loaning capital @interest, you have opened up a portal to Hell itself.
People need to create their own wealth by CREATING THEIR OWN WEALTH, not stealing it from everybody else!!
It’s like living in the past where a great majority of the people had little problem with slavery [except if it affected their immediate family]. After all, its just the way it is, so penned the foundering fathers of, The United States of America, who signed off on the notion that all men were created equal [more of less], in between lashes of the men and women who created their profits.
People need to get beyond the idea that taking a percentage of another’s labor-value earned is anything but slavery of a different stripe.
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