Posts Tagged ‘austerity’


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Bob Trotman, “Business as Usual” (2009)

Is anyone else struck by the contradiction between what is actually going on in the world and the fact that, for those in charge, it’s just business as usual?

Consider, for example, the decision to drop the charges against the three remaining officers facing trial in connection with the April 2015 death in policy custody of Freddie Gray. In fact, according to Mapping Police Violence, “only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved.” Charles Blow, for one, is appropriately “incandescent with rage”:

Bill Clinton, who I found more beguiling than many, apparently, took the stage and shifted the burden of dismantling oppression from the shoulders of the oppressors to the shoulders of the oppressed, saying: “If you’re a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.”

How are the people without the power, the people against whom the power is being exercised, supposed to alter the perversion of that power if the abusers are not held accountable?

I am exhausted. I am repulsed. I am over all the circular dialogue. But I don’t know precisely where that leaves me other than in a hurt and festering place. America is edging ever closer to telling people like me that the eye of justice isn’t blind but jaundiced, and I say back to America, that is incredibly dangerous.

And during that same convention, as broad swathes of Americans continue to suffer from the Wall Street-engineered crash of 2007-08 (not just, as Barack Obama put it, “pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures”), hordes of financial industry executives (as well as drug companies, health insurers, and others) descended on Philadelphia.

While protesters marched in the streets and blocked traffic, Democratic donors congregated in a few reserved hotels and shuttled between private receptions with A-list elected officials. If the talk onstage at the Wells Fargo Center was about reducing inequality and breaking down barriers, downtown Philadelphia evoked the world as it still often is: a stratified society with privilege and access determined by wealth.

In fact, as Thomas Frank warns, Donald Trump might end up stealing the voters Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are taking for granted.

Let’s see: trade agreements, outreach to hawks, “bipartisanship”, Wall Street. All that’s missing is a “Grand Bargain” otherwise it’s the exact same game plan as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people. The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous.

When Democrats sold out their own rank and file in the past it constituted betrayal, but at least it sometimes got them elected. Specifically, the strategy succeeded back in the 1990s when Republicans were market purists and working people truly had “nowhere else to go”. As our modern Clintonists of 2016 move instinctively to dismiss the concerns of working people, however, they should keep this in mind: those people may have finally found somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the European Union is disintegrating and the euro zone continues to impose Draconian austerity measures. As Joseph Stiglitz explains in a recent interview, banks and corporate interests generally have been the only beneficiaries.

Q. In your telling, Germany has imposed austerity across Europe out of faith in a discredited economic idea, the notion that if policy makers concentrate solely on preventing budget deficits and inflation, the markets can be counted on to deliver prosperity. A lot of your book is devoted to demolishing this idea. Does the German elite still really believe in this philosophy, or is something else at play?

A. I’ve visited Germany often, and I’m shocked about how strong the belief is in this view that has been totally discredited elsewhere.

But the policies are mixed together with interests. When the Greek crisis broke out in 2010, what was really at risk were German and to some extent French banks. And there was an enormous bailout that was called a bailout of Greece but was really a bailout of German and French banks. Most of the money went to Greece and then right away went back to Germany and France. . .

Q. You argue that some European leaders secretly welcomed mass unemployment as a means of adjusting to the crisis because this was the only way they could see to spur investment — lowering wages. The strictures of the euro took other options off the table: Crisis countries could not let their currency fall or lower interest rates or expand government spending. Was unemployment really embraced as a fix?

A. They wanted to break the back of workers. Their view was that workers needed to accept a wage cut and we are going to change the bargaining rules to make it more difficult for them to resist. And if we need to add on a little dose of unemployment, well, that’s unfortunate.

Q. Doesn’t that goal predate the crisis?

A. It’s very clear that the euro was a neo-liberal project in its construction. Employers like low wages. They have broken the back of the unions in many of the countries of Europe. They would view that as a great achievement.

However ironically, it has fallen to the Boston Consulting Group [ht: sm] to sound the alarm about attempting to conduct business as usual:

Societies in the United States and Europe are being fundamentally challenged in ways we have not seen for decades—with nationalistic rhetoric and agendas from the far right and a deep distrust of business, globalization, and technology from the far left. Many worry that such a polarization of public opinion and policy making could introduce new risks and uncertainties that would deter investment (which is already far too low, judging by current interest rates) and undermine the basis for future prosperity.

Why this polarization? While there are many causes, and they vary from country to country, it reflects in large part widespread and growing dissatisfaction with entrenched economic and social inequality and greater personal uncertainty in a fast-changing global economy. It also reflects people’s mistrust of political and corporate elites, who are seen as the architects of this state of affairs. Economic inequality within our societies is a byproduct of the way we have managed the past three and a half decades of global economic integration. At the same time, technology—in particular, recent advances in robotics, machine intelligence, and distributed ledgers (blockchain)—could replace human labor in many areas, further compounding dislocation, inequality, and discontent.

Brexit was a watershed. The British vote to leave the European Union was motivated in large part by frustration with economic stagnation and inequality, and it has created fertile ground for nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiment. The English West Midlands, the region with highest “leave” vote, has experienced stagnating median household incomes for nearly two decades.

The division between those who have captured the vast majority of the benefits from global integration and technological progress and those who haven’t runs between major cities and smaller communities, between young and old, and between people with different levels of education. And it’s not just Great Britain—70% of the US workforce has experienced no real wage increase in the past four decades. Similar patterns can be observed in Canada, Germany, and other European countries. Wealth concentration has also increased globally, with around 1% of people controlling 50% of the world’s assets.


René Magritte, “The Infinite Recognition” (1963)

Dan Rodrick, like most mainstream economists, wouldn’t know left-wing economics if it bit him on the proverbial nose (as I explained in early 2015). What he’s really referring to—in his essay, “The Abdication of the Left”—is liberal economics, the left-of-center wing of mainstream economics.

But, if you replace all his references to “the Left” with “liberalism,” you can read Rodrick’s latest column as a forceful indictment of left-of-center mainstream economics over the course of the past few decades.

As an emerging new establishment consensus grudgingly concedes, globalization accentuates class divisions between those who have the skills and resources to take advantage of global markets and those who don’t. Income and class cleavages, in contrast to identity cleavages based on race, ethnicity, or religion, have traditionally strengthened the political left. So why has the left been unable to mount a significant political challenge to globalization?. . .

Economists and technocrats on the left bear a large part of the blame. Instead of contributing to such a program, they abdicated too easily to market fundamentalism and bought in to its central tenets. Worse still, they led the hyper-globalization movement at crucial junctures.

Rodrick is correct. The liberal wing of mainstream economics (in the academy, as advisers to liberal political parties, and in multinational financial and development agencies) did, in fact, embrace market fundamentalism—from domestic financial markets to international trade and capital flows—and the policies they promoted did serve to accentuate existing income and class cleavages. And then, after creating the conditions (in the form of growing inequality and financial fragility) for the crash of 2007-08, they proceeded to manage the imposition of austerity policies, both within and across countries.

So, indeed, liberals are in large part responsible for the resurgence of the Right, in the form of anti-immigrant protests and nativist populism. Those movements, which have been moving from the fringe to center stage in the United States and Europe, are the more-or-less inevitable backlash against free-market fundamentalism and economic austerity.*

That’s not to say those on the Left—the real Left, not Rodrick’s liberal mainstream economists—do not share some of the blame. Their own weak opposition to market fundamentalism and economic austerity, which often meant little more than a return to Keynesian macroeconomics and the defense of existing welfare-state programs, created a vacuum for other policies and strategies. What was needed (both where the Left was in power, from Greece’s Syriza to Brazil’s Workers’ Party, to where it was not, including the United States and the rest of Europe) was an approach that, at one and the same time, highlighted the structural causes of growing income and class cleavages and proposed alternative economic and social institutions.

If, as Rodrick explains, “the right thrives on deepening divisions in society – ‘us’ versus ‘them’.” and liberalism looks to enact “reforms that bridge” those cleavages, the Left aims to overcome those cleavages by creating new, noncapitalist ways of organizing economic and social life. Not just managing the cleavages but actually eliminating them.

That, as I see it, is the challenge for the Left moving forward.


*As Brad DeLong admits, the liberal fantasy of free markets and globalization—his own view of the world—”did go horribly wrong”:

Financial globalization was intended to take down barriers to capital inflows erected by rent-seekers in developing countries, and so speed growth in economies that had been starved of capital while also equalizing incomes. Financial deregulation was supposed to break up the cozy investment banking and other oligarchies of Wall Street and diminish their private-sector tax on the American economy. Financial deregulation was supposed to provide the poorer half of America with the access to fairly priced credit that it lacked and with the opportunity to invest in assets that would yield equity-class returns, which it also lacked. And, in a world in which central banks had the powers and the will to successfully stabilize aggregate demand, there seemed little downside to letting people who could not put together a 20% down payment buy a house, to forcing Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to deal with competition from Citigroup and Bank of America, and to allow entrepreneurs in Mexico to raise funds not just from a cozy oligarchy of Mexico City banks but on the global capital market.

And France’s socialist technocrats were right: in highly-open economies the task of managing aggregate demand has to be a global, or at least a North Atlantic-wide, or at least a continent-wide exercise. In a good world, large exchange rate changes should only take place in response to persistent fundamental disequilibria rather than being used as first-line tools for demand management.

It all did go horribly wrong.


Clearly, mainstream economists don’t like it when their advice is ignored. But that’s what seems to have happened with Brexit, Britain’s decision to exit the European Union.

In the lead up to the 23 June referendum, 12 Nobel Laureates and 175 U.K.-based mainstream economists launched their version of Project Fear to warn voters about the economic dangers—recession, inflation, falling investment, lower growth, and higher taxes—from deciding against Remain. But the people ignored the dramatic pleas for economic stability on the part of the “high priests of capitalism” and voted instead to Leave.*

Jean Pisani-Ferry sees the result as one example of a much broader “angry attitude toward the bearers of knowledge and expertise”—but one that is specifically aimed at mainstream economists. Why? The presumed expertise of mainstream economists was compromised because they “failed to warn them about the risk of a financial crisis in 2008,” they’re biased toward “mobility of labor across borders, trade openness, and globalization more generally,” and because they “tend to disregard or minimize” the effects of openness on particular classes or communities.

While Pisani-Ferry gives greater weight to the third explanation, the fact is they’re related. The thread running through all three factors is the issue of distribution. Mainstream economists tend to treat the inequalities that are both the cause and consequence of capitalism as either irrelevant (because everyone gets what they deserve) or as exogenous (created outside and independent of the economy itself). Thus, they ignored the role of inequality both in creating the conditions leading up to the crash of 2007-08 and as a consequence of the way the recovery was crafted and took place; and they tend to model and support economic globalization—in people, trade, finances, and much else—as if everyone benefits, rather than seeing winners and losers. Because mainstream economists relegate issues like power and class to (and, in many cases, beyond) the margins, they literally don’t see for themselves or show to others the unequal distributions that are either presumed by capitalism or that follow from capitalist ways of organizing economic and social life.

Neil Irwin, too, has expressed his concern about the rejection of expert opinion with respect to Brexit (and, he adds, the success of Donald Trump’s campaign). And draws much the same lesson: mainstream economists (and, more generally, the members of the economic elite whose views they tend to celebrate) focus their attention on efficiency and economic growth—with respect to issues ranging from rent control to international trade—and not on the unequal outcomes of those policies. Thus, he asks, “what if those gaps between the economic elite and the general public are created not by differences in expertise but in priorities?”

In the end, the problem identified by Pisani-Ferry and Irwin is not really one of economic expertise. It is, rather, a question of priorities and perspectives. Mainstream economists hold one set of theories, according to which capitalist markets lead to (or, at least can, with the appropriate policies, end up with) efficient, dynamic outcomes from which everyone benefits. But other economists—both other academic economists and everyday economists—use different economic theories, many of which highlight the unequal conditions and consequences of capitalist activities and institutions. In other words, each of these groups has a different expertise, informed by a different way of organizing their knowledge about the economy, including the effects of economic practices and policies.

What we’re seeing, then—with Brexit, but also after the most recent financial crash and the uneven recovery, the success of the campaigns of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, not to mention the battles over austerity and much else across Europe and the rest of the world right now—is a widespread challenge to the self-professed expertise of mainstream economists. It’s also a challenge to the economic and social system glorified by mainstream economists and by the elites that both govern and gain from that system.

Those academic and economic elites are clearly worried their opinions, backed up by their presumed expertise, no longer hold sway in the way they once did. And for good reason.

All they have to do is remember the fate of their predecessors who suggested the downtrodden and everyone else who had been marginalized or otherwise beaten down by the system just eat cake.


*As Rafael Behr explains, “People had many motives to vote leave, but the most potent elements were resentment of an elite political class, rage at decades of social alienation in large swaths of the country, and a determination to reverse a tide of mass migration. Those forces overwhelmed expert pleas for economic stability.”



As if to confirm my view yesterday, that the recent paper on neoliberalism by Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, published in the IMF’s Finance and Development, does not signal a new, non-neoliberal set of IMF policies, here’s an extract from an interview with IMF Chief Economist Maury Obstfeld:

IMF Survey: Do you agree with some who have argued that a recent article in F&D (“Neoliberalism: Oversold?”) signifies a major change in Fund thinking? For example, is the IMF now saying that austerity does not work and, indeed, that it exacerbates inequality?

Obstfeld: That article has been widely misinterpreted—it does not signify a major change in the Fund’s approach.

I think it is misleading to frame the question as the Fund being for or against austerity. Nobody wants needless austerity. We are in favor of fiscal policies that support growth and equity over the long term. What those policies will be can differ from country to country and from situation to situation.

Governments simply have to live within their means on a long-term basis, or face some form of debt default, which normally is quite costly for citizens, and especially the poorest. This is a fact, not an ideological position.

Our job is to advise how governments can best manage their fiscal policies so as to avoid bad outcomes. Sometimes, this requires us to recognize situations in which excessive budget cutting can be counterproductive to growth, equity, and even fiscal sustainability goals.


A new paper on “Neoliberalism: Oversold?” by Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri (pdf), is attracting a great deal of publicity these days.

It’s not really because of the arguments in the paper, which are basically some pretty mild criticisms of some aspects of neoliberalism. It’s only because of where the paper appeared— in Finance and Development, a quarterly magazine published by the International Monetary Fund.

But it’s a mistake to assume the IMF has rejected neoliberalism.

Ostray et al. begin by defining what they mean by neoliberalism, in terms of two main dimensions:

The first is increased competition—achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.

They then proceed to show that, while in their view, “there is much to cheer in the neoliberal agenda. . .there are aspects of the neoliberal agenda that have not delivered as expected.” In particular, removing restrictions on the movement of capital across borders and fiscal consolidation have not, in general, increased growth—but they have led to increased inequality, which in turn tends to hurt the level and sustainability of growth.

There’s nothing earth-shattering there. In fact, you don’t have to use heterodox economics to arrive at those conclusions. It’s pretty much the Keynesian critique of “hot money” and austerity, which (as Paul Krugman will tell any and all) is standard macroeconomics (except, as I have shown, Krugman doesn’t put much stock in the idea that inequality hinders capitalist growth).

Rather, the reason the Ostray et al. paper has garnered attention in many quarters is the fact that it names neoliberalism and it was published in an IMF-sponsored journal.

However, to keep things in perspective, the publication of the article doesn’t mean there’s a fundamental change in IMF policy in the works. As Myles Udland argues, while the authors may offer “a stunning argument against what has been the prevailing conventional wisdom among many in the international political and economic elite for a generation,”

This paper. . .reinforces the divide, at times, between the IMF’s “house view” on policy and the views of its research staff with regard to how that policy may actually work.

Last summer’s report from the IMF’s research arm that Greece’s creditors needed to take a haircut while IMF officials were working to secure Greece additional bailout funding is a prime example of this tension playing out in public.

Even more succinctly, Peter Doyle,

an economist and former senior manager at the IMF who resigned from the lender in protest in 2012 over its handling of Greece, dismissed the paper as nothing more than “what three guys at the IMF think.”

“This has no broad sanction. It has no status,” he said. “Three different guys might have produced a different article.”

So, yes, neoliberalism was definitely oversold (to an all-too-willing “international political and economic elite”) but don’t expect IMF policies—or, for that matter, the neoliberal approach of the other two members of the European troika—to change anytime soon.


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