Paying For Our Past Sins

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.

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