Whitewashing the Economic Establishment

Brad DeLong makes an odd claim:

So the big lesson is simple: trust those who work in the tradition of Walter Bagehot, Hyman Minsky, and Charles Kindleberger. That means trusting economists like Paul Krugman, Paul Romer, Gary Gorton, Carmen Reinhart, Ken Rogoff, Raghuram Rajan, Larry Summers, Barry Eichengreen, Olivier Blanchard, and their peers. Just as they got the recent past right, so they are the ones most likely to get the distribution of possible futures right.

Larry Summers? If we’re going to base our economic policy on trusting in Larry Summers, should we not reappoint Greenspan as Fed Chairman? Or — better yet — appoint Charles Ponzi as head of the SEC? Or a fox to guard the henhouse? Or a tax cheat as Treasury Secretary? Or a war criminal as a peace ambassador? (Yes — reality is more surreal than anything I could imagine).

The bigger point though, as Steve Keen and Randall Wray have alluded to, is that DeLong’s list is the left-wing of the neoclassical school of economics — all the same people who (to a greater or lesser extent) believed that we were in a Great Moderation, and that thanks to the wonders of modernity we had escaped the old world of depressions and mass unemployment. People to whom this depression — judging by their pre-2008 output — was something of a surprise.

Now the left-wing neoclassicists may have done less badly than the right-wing neoclassicists Fama, Cochrane and Greenspan, but that’s not saying much. Steve Keen pointed out:

People like Wynne Godley, Ann Pettifors, Randall Wray, Nouriel Roubini, Dean Baker, Peter Schiff and I had spent years warning that a huge crisis was coming, and had a variety of debt-based explanations as to why it was inevitable. By then, Godley, Wray and I and many other Post Keynesian economists had spent decades imbibing and developing the work of Hyman Minsky.

To my knowledge, of Delong’s motley crew, only Raghuram Rajan was in print with any warnings of an imminent crisis before it began.

DeLong is, in my view, trying to whitewash his contemporaries who did not see the crisis coming, and inaccurately trying to associate them with Hyman Minsky whose theory of debt deflation anticipated many dimensions of the crisis. Adding insult to injury, DeLong seems unwilling to credit those like Schiff and Keen (not to mention Ron Paul) who saw the housing bubble and the excessive debt mountain for what it was — a disaster waiting to happen.

The most disturbing thing about his thesis is that all of the left-neoclassicists he is trying to whitewash have not really been very right about the last four years at all, as DeLong freely admits:

But we – or at least I – have got significant components of the last four years wrong. Three things surprised me (and still do). The first is the failure of central banks to adopt a rule like nominal GDP targeting or its equivalent. Second, I expected wage inflation in the North Atlantic to fall even farther than it has – towards, even if not to, zero. Finally, the yield curve did not steepen sharply for the United States: federal funds rates at zero I expected, but 30-year US Treasury bonds at a nominal rate of 2.7% I did not.

Yet we are supposed to take seriously the widely proposed solution? Throw money at the problem, and assume that just by raising aggregate demand all the other problems will just go away?

As I wrote back in August 2011:

These troubles are non-monetary: military overspending, political and financial corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, systemic fragility, and so forth.

These problems won’t just go away — throwing money around may boost figures in the short term, but the underlying problems will remain.

I believe that the only real way out is to unleash the free market and the spirit of entrepreneurialism. And the only way to do that is to end corporate welfare, end the bailouts (let failed institutions fail), end American imperialism, and slash barriers to entry. Certainly, cleaning up the profligate financial sector would help too (perhaps mandatory gladiatorial sentences for financial crimes would help? No more paying £200 million for manipulating a $350 trillion market — fight a lion in the arena instead!), as would incentives to create the infrastructure people need, and move toward energy independence, green energy and reindustrialisation.

Then again, I suppose there is a silver lining to this cloud. The wronger the establishment are in the long run, the more people will look for new economic horizons.

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Mitt Romney & American Imperial Decline

Mitt Romney’s cure for America’s ills?

More military spending:

Romney set himself apart on Friday, arguing that a weaker military and a smaller global footprint will compromise America’s leadership in the world.

“The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors, and to defend our allies and ourselves,” he said.

Romney said he wants to increase the military budget, mentioning specific projects from naval shipbuilding to a missile defense system. It’s a traditional Republican view of defense that was music to this crowd’s ears.

Romney claims that he wants to cut the debt and cut the deficits and then advocates even greater spending? Gee, that’s just what George W. Bush did:

That huge red spike of debt during George W. Bush’s term? That’s war-spending; Iraq, Afghanistan, and the 865 foreign bases maintained under Bush. That is the spending — not welfare, not medicare, and not infrastructure — that is out of control.

The reality of the American fiscal picture, as I showed in detail here, is that it is a permanent war economy. America’s greatest exports are war and weapons. When it comes to war and weapons, there is no austerity, and that is a sacred cow even to elements of the Tea Party. Look at the world’s top 10 nations in terms of military spending:

Is that a portrait of fiscal restraint? Or is that a portrait of ever-expanding military spending, flying in the face of the fact that the United States won the Cold war, and has no serious global rivals? And has this huge fiscal spending on war and weapons created a resilient and prosperous economy? No — there has been no real growth in the United States since 2007unemployment is persistently highfood stamps participation is rising,reliance on Arab oil and Chinese manufacturing is ever-present, road infrastructure is worsening, and so forth. That’s because spending hasn’t been targeted to what people need, but instead to the destructive and perverse racket that is permanent warfare, that serves the interests only of the military-industrial complex.

Humanity has been here before.

From Niall Ferguson:

Rome fell through a combination of external overreach, internal corruption, religious transformation, and barbarian invasion. That the United States—and, perhaps even more, the European Union—might have something to learn from his account is too seldom acknowledged, perhaps because Americans and Europeans like to pretend that their polities today are something more exalted than empires. But suppose for a moment (as the Georgetown University historian Charles Kupchan has suggested in The End of the American Era ) that Washington really is the Rome of our time, while Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, is Byzantium, the city transformed in the fourth century into the second imperial capital, Constantinople. Like the later Roman Empire, the West today has its Western and Eastern halves, though they are separated by the Atlantic rather than the Adriatic. And that is not the only thing we have in common with our Roman predecessors of a millennium and a half ago.

There is a well-established American tradition, perhaps best expressed by Gore Vidal in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, of worrying that the United States might go the way of Rome. But the perennial liberal fear is of the early Roman predicament more than the late one. It is the fear that the republican institutions of the United States—above all, its hallowed Constitution, based on the careful separation of powers—could be corrupted by the ambitions of an imperial presidency. Every time a commander in chief attempts to increase the power of the executive branch, pleading wartime exigency, there is a predictable chorus of “The Republic is in danger.” We have heard that chorus most recently with respect to the status of prisoners detained without trial at Guantánamo Bay and the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected insurgents in Iraq.

Gibbon could scarcely ignore the question of the Roman republic’s decay. Indeed, there is an important passage in The Decline and Fall that specifically deals with the revival of torture as a tool of tyranny. Few generations of Englishmen were more sensitive than Gibbon’s to the charge that their own ideals of liberty were being subverted by the temptations of empire. The year when his first volume appeared was also the year the American colonies used precisely that charge to justify their own bid for independence.

Yet Gibbon’s real interest lay elsewhere, with the period of Roman decline long after republican virtue had yielded to imperial vice. The Decline and Fall is not concerned with the fall of the republic. It is a story that properly begins with the first signs of imperial overstretch. Until the time of the Emperor Julian (A.D. 331–63), Rome could still confidently send its legions as far as the river Tigris. Yet Julian’s invasion of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq, but then under Persian rule) proved to be his undoing. According to Gibbon, he had resolved, “by the final conquest of Persia, to chastise the haughty nation which had so long resisted and insulted the majesty of Rome.” Although initially victorious at Ctesiphon (approximately 20 miles southeast of modern Baghdad), Julian was forced by his enemy’s scorched-earth policy to retreat back to Roman territory. “As soon as the flames had subsided which interrupted [his] march,” Gibbon relates, “he beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and naked desert.” The Persians harried his famished legions as they withdrew. In one skirmish, Julian himself was fatally wounded.

What had gone wrong? The answer sheds revealing light on some of the problems the United States currently faces in the same troubled region. A recurrent theme of Gibbon’s work is that the Romans gradually lost “the animating health and vigour” which had made them militarily invincible in the glory days of Julian’s predecessor Trajan. They had lost their discipline. They started complaining about the weight of their armor. In a word, they had gone soft. At the same time, like most armies, their fighting effectiveness diminished the farther they were from home.

Most of us take it for granted that the United States Army is the best in the world. It might be more accurate to say that it is the best equipped and the best fed. More doubtful is how well it is configured to win a protracted low-intensity conflict in a country such as Iraq. One sign of the times that might have amused Gibbon has been the recent relaxation of conditions for recruits undergoing basic training. (A friend of mine who was in the army snorted with derision on hearing that trainees are now allowed eight and a half hours of sleep a night.) Another symptom of military malaise has been the heavy reliance of the Defense Department on National Guard and reserve troops, who have at times accounted for about half of the U.S. contingent deployed in Iraq.

The real problem, however, is a simple matter of numbers. To put it bluntly, the United States has a chronic manpower deficit, which means it cannot put enough boots on the ground to maintain law and order in conquered territory. This is not because it lacks young men; it has at least seven times as many as Iraq. It is that it chooses, for a variety of reasons, to employ only a tiny proportion of its population (half of 1 percent) in its armed forces, and to deploy only a fraction of these in overseas conflict zones.

Rome, like America was a distinctly divided empire in terms of social class, in terms of its economy, in terms of ideology, and in terms of geography. Once, the threat of Soviet dominance kept America strong. But no longer. The culture wars are tearing America apart, and America’s imperial grasp for resources is bankrupting the nation’s treasury. Globalisation has ripped the heart out of American supply chains, manufacturing and its labour force. Financialisation has created classes of greedy parasites, and a hungry and furious class of have-nots. Without global goods and oil, a service economy is fundamentally unsustainable.

And that is what this is about — trying to tighten America’s grip on the things on which the American empire is dependent — oil, and foreign goods. Romney’s play is about trying to sustain the free-lunch economics of Nixon and Kissinger instead of undertaking painful and reforms (i.e. energy independence, reindustrialisation, welfare reform, and demilitarisation) necessary to make America competitive in a multi-polar world.

What Romney misunderstands is just how fragile the American Empire is to a global trade war, or an oil shock, or any number of externalities.

As I wrote last month:

In my view, America’s economic health is totally dependent upon two things: the flow of dollars to the middle east in exchange for oil, and the flow of dollars to China for consumer goods. Any disruption to either or both of these flows would result in sustained and significant disruption to America’s economy

More military spending, and subsequent debt acquisition will heavily devalue the already-devalued dollar, which in turn will merely hasten the decline and fall of the American Empire for ultimately the same reasons as Rome: external overreach, internal corruption, religious transformation, and barbarian invasion.

Obama: Class Warfare Against the Poor

Obama claims that his administration and his tax policy is not class warfare against the rich.

From CBS:

Taking a defiant tone against Republicans unwilling to raise taxes in order to close the deficit, President Obama today unveiled a $3 trillion long-term deficit reduction plan that relies heavily on raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

“This is not class warfare — it’s math,” Mr. Obama said from the White House Rose Garden, addressing GOP critiques of his plan head on.

“The money has to come from some place,” he continued. “If we’re not willing to ask those who’ve done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit… the math says everybody else has to do a whole lot more, we’ve got to put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor.”

The policies of his administration are not class warfare against the rich. They’re class warfare by the Obama administration, the establishment, and the military-industrial complex against everyone else.

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