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.

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Iran’s Imminent Nuclear Weapon

Here’s some context behind the claims that Iran will imminently possess a nuclear weapon.

It started a long time ago (but not, unfortunately, in a galaxy far, far away):

1984: Soon after West German engineers visit the unfinished Bushehr nuclear reactor, Jane’s Defence Weekly quotes West German intelligence sources saying that Iran’s production of a bomb “is entering its final stages.”US Senator Alan Cranston claims Iran is seven years away from making a weapon.

Seven years away? And did they have a bomb in 1991?

1992: Israeli parliamentarian Binyamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the US.”

1992: Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tells French TV that Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999. “Iran is the greatest threat and greatest problem in the Middle East,” Peres warned, “because it seeks the nuclear option while holding a highly dangerous stance of extreme religious militancy.”

1992: Joseph Alpher, a former official of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, says “Iran has to be identified as Enemy No. 1.” Iran’s nascent nuclear program, he told The New York Times, “really gives Israel the jitters.”

So was there a bomb by the late 1990s?

1995: The New York Times conveys the fears of senior US and Israeli officials that “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought” – about five years away – and that Iran’s nuclear bomb is “at the top of the list” of dangers in the coming decade. The report speaks of an “acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program,” claims that Iran “began an intensive campaign to develop and acquire nuclear weapons” in 1987, and says Iran was “believed” to have recruited scientists from the former Soviet Union and Pakistan to advise them.

1997: The Christian Science Monitor reports that US pressure on Iran’s nuclear suppliers had “forced Iran to adjust its suspected timetable for a bomb. Experts now say Iran is unlikely to acquire nuclear weapons for eight or 10 years.

So now we’re looking at a nuclear-armed Iran by 2007. Scary stuff, right?

2007: President Bush warns that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to “World War III.” Vice President Dick Cheney had previously warned of “serious consequences” if Iran did not give up its nuclear program.

2007: A month later, an unclassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran is released, which controversially judges with “high confidence” that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons effort in fall 2003.

June 2008: Then-US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton predicts that Israel will attack Iran before January 2009, taking advantage of a window before the next US president came to office.

May 2009: US Senate Foreign Relations Committee reports states: “There is no sign that Iran’s leaders have ordered up a bomb.”

And Iran still doesn’t have a bomb today — all of those reports, all of that scaremongering and warmongering was wrong. Both the CIA and Mossad agree that there is no specific evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons today. And many experts believe that even if Iran were working on a bomb it could take up to ten to fifteen years.

Yet, it seems that nothing except a war will satisfy Binyamin Netanyahu, who felt the same way about Iraq:

There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is working towards nuclear weapons.

And how did that work out? A hugely expensive war and occupation, American imperial overstretch, thousands of dead soldiers, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and no weapons of mass destruction. We should judge people on their predictive record.

On one level, I understand Netanyahu’s paranoia especially in the context of the 20th Century and the holocaust. Iranian Generals have talked about annihilating Israel.

In August 2012, Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, who heads Iran’s Passive Defence Organisation, said “No other way exists apart from resolve and strength to completely eliminate the aggressive nature and to destroy Israel.”  And just six days ago in September 2012 Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh threatened to attack Israel and trigger World War III, saying that “it is possible that we will make a pre-emptive attack” which would “turn into World War III.” In the same statement, Hajizadeh threatened to attack American bases in the Middle East as well. Hajizadeh said that as a result of this attack, Israel would “sustain heavy damage and that will be a prelude to its obliteration.”

All disturbing rhetoric, yet almost certainly baseless threats given the context of Iran’s technological and military disadvantage. Iranian missiles fired at Israel would likely be shot down long before they reached Israeli airspace by Israel’s advanced missile defence systems that can intercept even short-range fire from Gaza and Lebanon. And Israel’s nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf would almost certainly retaliate in kind. As Shimon Peres noted in 2006: “The President of Iran should remember that Iran can also be wiped off the map.” Most importantly, if Iran attacked Israel, it seems far less likely that other powers would come to Iran’s aid.

Yet an attack on Iran by Israel could well trigger a larger conflict, sucking in Iran’s trade partners who do not want to see the flow of oil and resources out of Iran disrupted. Just this week China announced new contracts to provide super-tankers to deliver oil from Iran to China. Would Russia and China sit idly by and see their Iranian investments liquidated while America and Israel invade Iran and destroy its infrastructure? Would they sit idly by and see their ally deposed? China and Pakistan have both hinted that they could defend Iran if Iran were attacked. An attack on or invasion of Iran is an incredibly risky adventure — and in my view the real danger to Israel. And for what? To discover that like Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad is not working on a nuclear weapon, and all the hot air about weapons of mass destruction is once again just bullshit?

Netanyahu’s Red Line

Netanyahu wants a red line on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East:

Where exactly should we draw it?

As Justin Raimondo notes:

Here is a nation which refuses to even admit it acquired nukes long ago, and which disdains the Nonproliferation Treaty, making the case for war against a neighbor that has indeed signed the NPT and is abiding by its requirements.

That treaty gives Tehran the right to develop nuclear power. Furthermore, there is zero evidence Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program: our own intelligence community tells us they gave that up in 2003 and show no signs of resuming it. Their own religious and political leaders have denounced the possession of nuclear weapons as sinful: the Israelis, on the other hand, haven’t bothered reassuring us they would never use the nuke they won’t admit they have.

In a rational world, Israel would be in the dock, answering for its unwillingness to come out of the nuclear closet and admit what the whole world knows by now.

The West has sent out a message that the only way for unpopular regimes to avoid invasion is to obtain nuclear weapons. North Korea sought and obtained nuclear weapons and their vicious and economically-failed regime has stayed in power. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions, and was soon deposed by British, French and American airpower. If Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon — and the CIA and Mossad, as well as the IAEA agree they that they are not currently doing so — perhaps the fact that nuclear-armed Israel and the nuclear-armed United States keep threatening non-nuclear Iran with attack has something to do with it?

And even assuming that they are going for a nuclear weapon, how close is Iran to a nuclear weapon? According to former IAEA consultant Clinton Bastin, possibly as much as ten to fifteen years away:

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

Iran may be in your red zone, but can not score.

Sure, Iran could divert a few tons of 3.5% or a ton of 20% enriched uranium hexaflouride gas for enrichment to 90+%. But what then?

No one has ever made a nuclear weapon from gas. It must be converted to metal and fabricated into components which are then assembled with high explosives.

Iran lacks experience with and facilities for these processes which are very dangerous because of potential for a criticality accident or nuclear explosion. Iran would not jeopardize its important, fully safeguarded nuclear programs by an attempt to have a deliverable, one kiloton yield nuclear weapon ten to fifteen years later.

IMPORTANT NOTE: North Korea was able to make and test a nuclear explosive soon after withdrawing from safeguards because plutonium for reactor recycle was in a form usable for a weapon.

So let’s be clear about who is threatening who:

How would Americans feel if Iran had stationed troops and aircraft on the Mexican and Canadian borders and conducted military excursions into American territory, including funding and training armed dissidents to overthrow the American government (as happened to Iran in 1953 when America overthrew a democratically-elected Iranian government and imposed a dictatorship there)? How would Americans feel if Iran, Russia and China were blowing up American scientists and using computer viruses to attack American infrastructure? How would Americans feel if Iran, Russia and China imposed sanctions on America that led to hyperinflation of the dollar?  Under those circumstances, would America not seek the means to defend itself?

Iran is not blameless, and continues to provoke Israel through its support for Hamas and Hezbollah and through eliminationist rhetoric. But given the level of provocation from the Israeli and American side, it is astonishing that Iran remains free of nuclear weapons. Yet it is a fact that Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons, and it remains a fact that Iran has not attacked nor occupied any foreign lands since World War 2. Iran is not an expansionistic country.

As neocon provocateur Patrick Clawson essentially admitted in advocating for a false flag attack to get America to war, Iran is not likely to attack either the United States or Israel. So when it comes to drawing red lines, we in the West would do well to draw a red line around our behaviour — because right now, we in the West are the ones who are stirring up trouble by threatening to strike first.

Deindustrialisation & Male Jobs

A whole lot of pundits are spending column inches trying to explain the cruel reality of the last forty years — stagnant wages for full-time male workers, and falling wages for men as a whole:

And there has been a huge outgrowth of men who aren’t in the labour force. In 1954, 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today, that number is down to 80 percent. That’s a humungous decrease.

The question is why.

Mainstream media pundits are suggesting that men are unsuited to the present economic landscape. The suggestion is that men have been bad at adapting to change, and that women have been good at adapting to change:

In The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Hanna Rosin argues that changes in the world economy have dramatically shifted gender roles. Women have adapted more skillfully to the new socioeconomic landscape by doggedly pursuing self-improvement opportunities, rebranding as the economy requires it, and above all possessing the kind of 21st century work attributes — such as strong communication skills, collaborative leadership and flexibility — that are nudging out the brawny, stuck-in-amber guys. Rock steadiness, long a cherished masculine trait, turns out to be about as useful in our fleet-footed economy as a flint arrowhead. Life favors the adapters, and it turns out they’re more likely to be women.

Now two things have very clearly changed for women — access to birth control, and the end of the traditional social compact where women did housework, and men did wage work. In regard to the vast majority of expanding occupations today — teaching, medical services, bureaucracy — women no longer are at a material disadvantage due to their (on average) smaller size and lesser strength.

Overall, this has meant proportionally less jobs for men, and proportionally more for women.

But it’s not just that women have been advantaged. Men have been deeply disadvantaged. In sectors that due to physical characteristics men have traditionally been dominant in — manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, mining and heavy industry — there has been a vast decline in output-as-a-percentage-of-GDP, whereas in services — a sector in which men have not traditionally dominated — there has been a vast increase.

Yet it is not the case that there are less manufacturing jobs globally. As we mostly already know, this is a case of manufacturing and industry being exported overseas, most obviously to China. China manufactures, and America consumes. This is America’s trade balance with China:

This is reflected in China’s sectoral employment balance compared to Western nations, and the world at large:

So it’s not at all the case that the United States is cutting back on industrial jobs because industry is less in demand. The United States still has plenty of demand for industry. America has cut back on industrial jobs because it has the ability to run huge trade deficits, through the dollar’s role as global reserve currency, and shipped its manufacturing industry abroad. Other countries have required dollars for trade purposes, so have been more than happy to sell to the United States, making dollars and debt the United States’ greatest exports.

Yet the present paradigm has severely damaged the prospects of young men, for whom a generation ago jobs in industry and manufacturing were once plentiful. Quantitative easing led to a jobs boom — in China, for Chinese industrial workers. That doesn’t help the growing chunk of the male population in the United States who have been shut out of the job market by the rise of America’s Chinese addiction.

And it seems unlikely that the industrial jobs are coming back any time soon. Although there are reasons why America may soon import less from China — rising energy and transport costs, rising Asian wage costs, and questions of the dollar’s sole reserve currency status — there are plenty of places in Latin America with cheap and plentiful labour for America’s corporate elite to set up factories. Even the manufacturing jobs that remain in America will be under threat from increased automation and robotics.

This implies that barring a miracle, joblessness and stagnant or falling real wages will continue to be a significant and worsening challenge for young Americans, and particularly men, in the coming years.

The Contrarian Indicator of the Decade?

Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria. The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell.

Sir John Templeton

Buy the fear, sell the greed. Since bottoming-out in 2009 markets have seen an uptrend in equity prices:

Now it seems like the euphoria is setting in. And in perfectly, deliciously ironic time, as shares of AIG — the behemoth at the heart of the 2008 crash — are returning to the market. Because reintroducing bailed-out companies to the market worked well last time didn’t it?

Joe Weisenthal:

Markets are down a hair today, but the theme of the morning is clear: Uber-bullishness. Everywhere.

This is the most unanimously bullish moment we can recall since the crisis began.

Note that this comes as US indices are all within a hair of multi-year highs, and the NASDAQ returns to levels not seen since late 2000.

Big macro hedge funds, who have been famously flat-footed this year, are now positioned for a continued rally.

Bank of America’s Mary Ann Bartels:

Macros bought the NASDAQ 100 to a net long for the first time since June, continued to buy the S&P 500 and commodities, increased EM & EAFE exposures, sold USD and 10-year Treasuries. In addition, macros reduced large cap preference.

J.P. Morgan’s Jan Loeys:

We think the positive environment for risk assets can and will last over the next 3-6 months. And this is not because of a strong economy, as we foresee below potential global growth over the next year and are below consensus expectations. Overall, we continue to see data that signal that world growth is in a bottoming process.

SocGen’s Sebastian Galy:

The market decided rose tinted glasses were not enough, put on its dark shades and hit the nightlife.

And the uber-bullishness is based on what? Hopium. Hope that the Fed will unleash QE3, or nominal GDP level targeting and buy, buy, buy — because what the market really needs right now is more bond flippers, right? Hope that Europeans have finally gotten their act together in respect to buying up periphery debt to create a ceiling on borrowing costs. Hope that this time is different in China, and that throwing a huge splash of stimulus cash at infrastructure will soften the landing.

But in the midst of all that hopium, let’s consider at least that quantitative easing hasn’t really reduced unemployment — and that Japan is still mired in a liquidity trap even after twenty years of printing. Let’s not forget that there is still a huge crushing weight of old debt weighing down on the world. Let’s not forget that the prospect of war in the middle east still hangs over the world (and oil). Let’s not forget that the iron ore bubble is bursting. Let’s not forget that a severe drought (as well as stupid ethanol subsidies) have raised food prices, and that food price spikes often produce downturns. Let’s not forget the increasing tension in the pacific between the United States and China (because the last time the world was in a global depression, it ended in a global conflict).

It would be unwise for me to predict an imminent severe downturn — after all markets are irrational and can stay irrational far longer than people can often stay solvent. But this could very well be the final blow-out top before the hopium wears off, and reality kicks in. Buying the fear and selling the greed usually works.

Is Apple Really Worth More than the Sum of Microsoft, Dell, Google, Facebook and HP?

Because that’s what the market cap suggests:

But not the book value:

Nor revenue:

And nor earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation:

The data suggests that relative to other tech companies AAPL is significantly overvalued. And going forward there is no guarantee that AAPL can justify today’s value by keeping up its dominance of the sector. Tech is an extremely fickle and fast-changing sector where one year’s turkey can be next year’s prize pig. And AAPL’s product lineup is still dominated by products developed under the charge of Steve Jobs — it will take a while longer to fully assess whether or not AAPL can succeed at the same magnitude over the entire product cycle from conception to sales without his leadership.

But I doubt that anything like a sober look at the data will stop the Apple bulls. Because this time is different, right?

 

Why is the Fed Not Printing Like Crazy?

I try to read all sides of the economics blogosphere, and try and grasp the ideas of even those who I would seem to radically disagree with.

One thing that the anti-Fed side of the economics blogosphere seems to not fully appreciate is the depth of disappointment with Ben Bernanke from the pro-Fed side. For every anti-Fed post bemoaning Bernanke’s money printing, there is a pro-Fed post bemoaning Bernanke for not printing enough. Bernanke, it seems, is tied to everybody’s whipping post.

And in fairness to the pro-Fed side, the data shows that the Fed is not printing anywhere near as much as its own self-imposed interpretation of its mandate demands. (Of course, I fundamentally disagree that price stability should be interpreted as consistent inflation, but that is an argument for another day).

Scott Sumner notes:

Recall that the Fed tries to keep inflation close to 2.0% and unemployment close to about 5.6% (the Fed’s current estimate of the natural rate.)  One implication of the dual mandate is that they should try to generate above 2% inflation during periods of high unemployment, and below 2% during periods of low unemployment.

In July 2008 unemployment rose above 5.6%, and it’s averaged nearly 9% over the past 46 months.  So the Fed’s mandate calls for slightly higher than 2% inflation during this 46 month slump.  Last month I reported that the headline CPI had risen 4.6% in the 45 months since July 2008.  Now we have the May data, and the headline CPI has gone up 4.3% in the 46 months since July 2008.  So the annual inflation rate over that nearly 4 year period has fallen from a bit over 1.2%, to 1.1%.

Raw data:

Note that downward slope in inflation into 2012?

That’s the Fed not doing QE3 when everyone (especially gold prices) expected them to, and when their own self-imposed interpretation of their mandate calls for them to inflate more. And nobody can say that the Fed is out of bullets; central banks are never out of bullets — there was a time when a central bank was limited to the number of zeroes it could fit on a banknote, but in the era of digital currency, even that limit has been removed.

Here’s the younger Bernanke’s views on the subject:

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932 with the mandate to get the country out of the Depression. In the end, the most effective actions he took were the same that Japan needs to take — namely, rehabilitation of the banking system and devaluation of the currency to promote monetary easing. But Roosevelt’s specific policy actions were, I think, less important than his willingness to be aggressive and to experiment— in short, to do whatever was necessary to get the country moving again. Many of his policies did not work as intended, but in the end FDR deserves great credit for having the courage to abandon failed paradigms and to do what needed to be done. Japan is not in a Great Depression by any means, but its economy has operated below potential for nearly a decade. Nor is it by any means clear that recovery is imminent. Policy options exist that could greatly reduce these losses. Why isn’t more happening?

To this outsider, at least, Japanese monetary policy seems paralyzed, with a paralysis that is largely self-induced. Most striking is the apparent unwillingness of the monetary authorities to experiment, to try anything that isn’t absolutely guaranteed to work. Perhaps it’s time for some Rooseveltian resolve in Japan.

And here’s Paul Krugman pulling a Bernanke on Bernanke:

Bernanke was and is a fine economist. More than that, before joining the Fed, he wrote extensively, in academic studies of both the Great Depression and modern Japan, about the exact problems he would confront at the end of 2008. He argued forcefully for an aggressive response, castigating the Bank of Japan, the Fed’s counterpart, for its passivity. Presumably, the Fed under his leadership would be different.

Instead, while the Fed went to great lengths to rescue the financial system, it has done far less to rescue workers. The U.S. economy remains deeply depressed, with long-term unemployment in particular still disastrously high, a point Bernanke himself has recently emphasized. Yet the Fed isn’t taking strong action to rectify the situation.

It really makes no sense — except in terms of politics. I really believe that we have reached a point where the Fed is afraid to do its job, for fear of being accused of helping Obama.

I am fairly certain the answer to why Bernanke isn’t increasing inflation when his former self and former colleagues say he should be is actually nothing to do with domestic politics, and everything to do with international politics.

Most of the pro-Fed blogosphere seems to live in denial of the fact that America is massively in debt to external creditors — all of whom are frustrated at getting near-zero yields (they can’t just flip bonds to the Fed balance sheet like the hedge funds) — and their views matter, very simply because the reality of China and other creditors ceasing to buy debt would be untenable.

Why else would the Treasury have thrown a carrot by upgrading the Chinese government to primary dealer status (the first such deal in history), cutting Wall Street’s bond flippers out of the deal?

As John Huntsman (in his days as ambassador to China) reported in a cable back to Washington, China is keen to stop buying low-yield treasuries and start buying other assets, but the US is desperately pushing China back toward treasuries:

The Shanghai-based Shanghai Media Group (SMG) publication, China Business News:

“The United States provoked a trade war again by imposing high anti-dumping duties on Chinese-made gift boxes and packaging ribbon. China has become the biggest victim of the U.S.’s abusive implementation of trade remedy measures.

The United States no longer sits still; it frequently uses evil tricks to force China to buy U.S. bonds.

A crucial move for the U.S. is to shift its crisis to other countries – by coercing China to buy U.S. treasury bonds with foreign exchange reserves and doing everything possible to prevent China’s foreign reserve from buying gold.

Today when the United States is determined to beggar thy neighbor, shifting its crisis to China, the Chinese must be very clear what the key to victory is.  It is by no means to use new foreign exchange reserves to buy U.S. Treasury bonds.  The issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, trade and so on are all false tricks, while forcing China to buy U.S. bonds is the U.S.’s real intention.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Bernanke is not printing nearly as much as Krugman wishes. In my view only a brutal 2008-style collapse can bring on the kind of printing — QE3, NGDP targeting and beyond — that the pro-Fed blogosphere wishes to see, because it is only under those circumstances that China and other creditors will happily support it.

To a heavily-indebted nation, creditors have big leverage on monetary policy.