More Evidence That Austerity During Depressions Works

Sorry, no. I am being sarcastic.

From Bloomberg:

The U.K. economy shrank in the first quarter as construction output slumped, pushing Britain into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s and raising pressure on officials to salvage the recovery.

Gross domestic product contracted 0.2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011, when it shrank 0.3 percent, the Office for National Statistics said today in London.

Last month I described Britain’s problems: GDP levels have never recovered to pre-crisis levels, the unemployment rate continues to climb from post-crisis levels, government debt level continue to climb, inflation levels are elevated, and all of these metrics are somehow worse than the situation in America. 

And now Britain is back in recession.

The bottom line here is that trying to conduct an austerity program during the depths of a recession is dangerous. Less government spending and higher taxation translates into falling incomes for many, which often translates into falling tax revenues (as is the case here), which means that “deficit reduction” just produces larger deficits. Greece is the extreme example.

Nations in the Eurozone that have seen the most growth have conducted the least austerity:

So what would a successful conservative economic program look like today?

Well, until the nation is out of the slump and consistently growing, it should begin and end with slashing regulation and barriers to entry so that more unemployed people can become self-employed. It could include some form of program to encourage taxpayer-funded banks to lend to people who want to start businesses, for the same reason.

While not throwing around stimulus slush money (for that tends to end up in the pockets of well-connected corporations) it would maintain spending levels, and look to redirect some spending toward more productive endeavours for instance giving small businesses tax breaks for every job they create, or every factory they open.

The welfare cuts must wait until there is a strong and self-sustaining recovery, for when the economy is creating lots of jobs, for when there is a demand for labour. Slashing welfare when there are no jobs to go to is totally self-defeating.

The deficit reduction must wait until tax revenues are consistently rising due to a strong and self-sustaining recovery.

It frightens me that conservative voices have gotten this so hideously wrong. We had a decade of fiscally reckless government, where governments, consumers and businesses totally forgot the imperative to save in the fat times to spend in the lean, and joined the leverage mania and the derivatives casino. That was dangerous and foolish. And now policymakers have chosen to focus on deficits at precisely the wrong time. It is absolutely the worst of both worlds.

Economics for the Muppet Generation

Mark McHugh of Across the Street provides a succinct summation of the problem America faces:

McHugh continues:

  • From 1947 to 1974 US income per capita grew more than National debt per capita 25 times.
  • In the last 30 years, National debt per capita has grown more than income per capita 24 times.
  • The last time income per capita grew more than national debt per capita was 2001.
  • Ben Bernanke arrived at the Federal Reserve in 2002.

So simple, even a muppet can understand what the problem is, right?

Not exactly. We know what the problem is: national incomes aren’t rising, even while we get deeper and deeper into hock trying to maintain our standard of living. We know that this pattern is totally unsustainable; unless incomes rise, that debt will become increasingly impossible to service. What is less clear is the cause of this stagnation.

So what changed between 1990 and 2005 that led the nation debt per capita to so quickly overtake national incomes per capita?

While I am mindful that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, that data fits pretty beautifully. The explanation for this trend would be that as America has become more and more consumptive, and less and less productive that more and more capital went offshore to pay for consumption, and thus less and less contributed to the national income, even as Bernanke ponied up trillions in new reserves, and even as the shadow banking system created trillions in pseudo-money.

So where’s America’s money?


So is this a criticism of free trade? Should America have been more protectionist of her industries and her domestic manufacturing? Not necessarily; what the Washingtonian elites refer to as “free trade” is heavily subsidised. The status quo that Washington has made seems to heavily favour China and disfavour America. Imports from China are subsidised by American military largesse; every dollar America pushes into its military-industrial complex pushes shipping costs like insurance a little lower. So while labour costs in the Orient are naturally cheaper (due to population density, and development level), that doesn’t necessarily mean that Chinese goods are naturally cheaper in the American market. Under a genuinely free system — where America was not subsidising shipping costs — would made-in-America be more competitive compared to Chinese goods? Would China have built up a less  mountainous supply of American cash? I think so.

Angela Merkel Still Doesn’t Understand Capitalism

Last December
I took the time to explain capitalism for Angela Merkel:

Capitalism means both successes and failures. It is a fundamentally experimental system, with a continuous feedback mechanism — the market, and ultimately profit and loss. Ideas that work are rewarded with financial success, and ideas that don’t are punished with failure. With capitalism, systems, ideas and firms that fail to produce what the market wants fail. They go bankrupt. Their assets, and their debt is liquidated.

When that mechanism is suspended by a government or central bank that thinks it knows best — and that a system that is too interconnected to fail is worth saving at any cost — the result is almost always stagnation. This is for a number of reasons — most obviously that bailouts sustain crippling debt levels, and are paid for through contractionary austerity. But it is larger than just that.

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

These bailouts and interventions have tried to turn nature on its head — bailed out bankers and institutions have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure.

Obviously she did not read my advice.

Reuters reports:

Angela Merkel is not happy that financial markets have not made any contribution to resolving the financial crisis.

Right; financial markets need to contribute to resolving the financial crisis?

What financial markets? The markets have just become another manipulated manifestation of central planning. The more dollars, euros and yen that central banks pump into markets the less traders will be trading fundamentals  — i.e. basing their trading on the inherent value of securities, and allowing the needs and wants of society to determine economic output — and the more they will be trading the prospects for more central bank and government intervention, more QE, more hopium.

Central planning always and inevitably has unsolicited side-effects (in this case, that markets would be corrupted and junkiefied), and usually side-effects which are not necessarily visible or detectable to the person doing the planning no matter how sophisticated their pseudo-scientific simulations appear to be. Central planners are always making decisions with incomplete information, and the missing information very often has a large and appreciable effect on outcomes. In a small and decentralised system, this is not a problem; decision-makers can usually locally adjust their behaviour to a new trajectory as they get new information. But for central planners, operating from the centre of a system, policy is always centralised and generalised, slow to adapt to local information, slow to adjust to local trends and patterns, broad and sweeping rather than subtle and local.

Very simply: the only way that financial markets could ever have solved the financial crisis is if government had left them alone enough for them to adapt to the new post-bubble reality. At the very most, this meant providing a safety net for the poor and the jobless while the market worked out its problems. Instead, our leaders chose to preserve and thus crystallise possibly the most-deranged and malinvestment-fuelled bubble economy in human history, full of greedy and parasitic companies of no real value to society, and which in a market economy would have gone bust long ago.

And now central planners (and Nixon was right — they’re all central planners now) want to whine about the markets not doing what they desire?

The great delusion of Western governments in this era has been that everything appears to them to be a problem for them to fix. If they identify a problem, they will find a way (usually with our tax money) to address it. They almost never realise or even consider that sometimes the problems that they identify are best addressed by being left alone (with at most the provision of a safety net for the poor and vulnerable). If you’re holding a hammer, every problem will look like a nail. And government keeps bashing society with the hammer of centralisation and central control. And society is not a nail.

Lao Tzu understood this in stating:

The wisest course is to keep the government simple and inactive, for then the world stabilises itself.

The Disaster of Youth Unemployment

This is a demographic disaster.

From the Guardian:

Unemployment among Europe‘s young people has soared by 50% since the financial crisis of 2008. It is rising faster than overall jobless rates, and almost half of young people in work across the EU do not have permanent jobs, according to the European commission.

There are 5.5 million 15- to 24-year-olds without a job in the EU, a rate of 22.4%, up from 15% in early 2008. But the overall figures mask huge national and regional disparities. While half of young people in Spain and Greece are out of work, in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands it is only one in 10. In a further six EU countries, youth unemployment is around 30%. Of those in work, 44% are on temporary contracts.

The same phenomenon exists in the United States:

And why is this such a staggering  problem?

Firstly, the psychological impact: a whole lot of young people have never become integrated with the workforce. Many will become angry and disillusioned, and more likely to riot and rob than they are to seek productive employment. There is a significant amount of evidence for this:

Thornberry and Christensen (1984) find evidence that a cycle develops whereby involvement in crime reduces subsequent employment prospects which then raises the likelihood of participating in crime. Fougere (2006) find that increases in youth unemployment causes increases in burglaries, thefts and drug offences. Hansen and Machin (2002) find a statistically significant negative relationship between the number of offences reported by the police over a two year period for property and vehicle crime and the proportion of workers paid beneath the minimum before its introduction. Hence, there are more crime reductions in areas that initially, had more low-wage workers. Carmichael and Ward (2001) found in Great Britain that youth unemployment and adult unemployment are both significantly and positively related to burglary, theft, fraud and forgery and total crime rates.

Additionally unemployment is correlated with higher rates of suicide and mental illnesses like depression. And of course, the longer the unemployment, the rustier workers become, and the more skills they lose. Frighteningly, the numbers of long-term unemployed are rising:

Second, the economic impact: people sitting at home doing nothing don’t contribute productivity to society. In a society faced with falling or stagnant productivity, that is frustrating; there are lots of people sitting there who could be contributing to a real organic recovery, but they are not, because nobody is hiring, and (perhaps more importantly) barriers to entry and the welfare trap are crowding out the young, and preventing the unemployed from becoming self-employed. It also means higher welfare costs:

That leads to higher deficits, and greater government debt.

So it is not just a demographic disaster; it is also a fiscal one.

American Infrastructure Is Being Built By The Chinese

Just how dependent is America on Chinese labour, manufacturing and supply chains? Decide for yourself.

From Addicting Info:

San Francisco is getting a new bridge connecting to Oakland. But it’s not being built by American workers. It’s being built in China and shipped back to America for assembly. But that’s not the only infrastructure project being built by the Chinese, and it’s not just being built in China. It turns out, the state-owned Chinese contractors are being hired out to build American infrastructure right here in the United States.

According to Engineering News Record, five of the world’s top 10 contractors, in terms of revenue, are now Chinese. One of them, China State Construction Engineering Group, has overtaken established American giants like Bechtel.

The Chinese contractor has already built seven schools in the US, apartment blocks in Washington DC and New York and is in the middle of building a 4,000-room casino in Atlantic City. In New York, it has won contracts to renovate the subway system, build a new metro platform near Yankee stadium, and refurbish the Alexander Hamilton Bridge over the Harlem river.

But why are we hiring contractors from China to build American infrastructure, when we have a perfectly good workforce here in the states? The answer is profit, and it’s the reason why Republican politicians and many corporations do not support infrastructure projects that would put millions of Americans to work. Because the Chinese contracting firms are government owned, they are able to bid for contracts at very low prices. In other words, the labor is cheap. American companies don’t want to hire Americans to do the work when they can call up Communist China to come do the work instead.

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