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Mark Tansey, “Source of the Loue” (1988)

Two giants of mainstream economics—Joseph Stiglitz and Lawrence Summers—have been engaged in an acrimonious, titanic battle in recent weeks. The question is, what’s it all about? And, even more important, what’s at stake in this debate?

At first glance, the intense, even personal back-and-forth between Stiglitz and Summers seems a bit odd. Both economists are firmly in the liberal wing of mainstream economics and politics—as against, for example, Gene Epstein (an Austrian economist, who accuses Stiglitz of regularly siding with left-wing populists like Hugo Chávez) or John Taylor (a committed supply-sider, who has long been suspicious of “demand-side discretionary stimulus packages”). Both Stiglitz and Summers have pointed out the limitations of monetary policy, especially in the midst of deep economic recessions, and have favored relatively large fiscal-policy interventions, a hallmark of mainstream liberal economic policy.

One might be tempted to see it as merely a clash of outsized egos, which of course is not at all rare among mainstream economists. Their exaggerated sense of self-importance and intellectual arrogance are legion. Neither Stiglitz nor Summers has ever been accused of being a shrinking-violet when it comes to debates in the many academic and policy-related positions they’ve held.* And there’s certainly a degree of personal animus behind the current debate. Apparently, Summers [ht: bn] successfully lobbied in 2000 for Stiglitz’s removal from the World Bank, reportedly as a condition of the reappointment of Jim Wolfensohn as President of the World Bank. And, in 2013, Stiglitz came out strongly in favor of Janet Yellen, over Summers, for head of the Federal Reserve.**

That’s certainly part of the story. And the personal attacks and evident animosity from both sides have attracted a great deal attention of onlookers. But I think much more is at stake.

The current debate began with the critique Stiglitz leveled at the notion of “secular stagnation,” which Summers has championed starting in 2013 as an explanation for the slow recovery of the U.S. economy after the crash of 2007-08. The worry among many mainstream economists has been that, given the severity and duration of the Second Great Depression, capitalism could no longer deliver the goods.*** In particular, Summers invoked the specter of persistently slow growth, which had originally been put forward in the midst of the first Great Depression by Alvin Hansen, created by demography: the decrease in the number of available workers, itself a result of the declines in the rate of population growth and the labor force participation rate. The worry is that, looking forward, there simply won’t be enough workers to sustain the rates of potential economic growth we saw in the years leading up to the most recent crisis of capitalism. In the meantime, Summers, in traditional Keynesian fashion, expressed his support for raising the level of aggregate demand, through public and private spending, even at low real interest rates (which, in his view, were incapable of fulfilling their traditional role of boosting spending).****

Stiglitz for his part has dismissed the idea of secular stagnation, as “an excuse for flawed economic policies” (especially the inadequate stimulus package proposed and enacted by the administration of Barack Obama), and put forward an alternative analysis for capitalism’s slow growth problem: its inability to manage structural transformations of the economy. According to Stiglitz, the shift from manufacturing-led growth to services-led growth characterized the U.S. economy in the years before the most recent crash, analogous to the manner in which the crisis in agriculture “led to a decrease in demand for urban goods and thus to an economy-wide downturn” in the lead-up to the depression of the 1930s. Thus, in his view, World War II brought about a structural transformation in the United States (“as the war effort moved large numbers of people from rural areas to urban centers and retrained them with the skills needed for a manufacturing economy”) but nothing similar was undertaken in the wake of the crash of 2007-08.

The Obama administration made a crucial mistake in 2009 in not pursuing a larger, longer, better-structured, and more flexible fiscal stimulus. Had it done so, the economy’s rebound would have been stronger, and there would have been no talk of secular stagnation.

These are the terms of the theoretical debate, then, between Stiglitz and Summers: a focus on sectoral shifts versus a worry about secular stagnation. The first concerns the way the private forces of American capitalism have been inept in handling structural transformations of the economy, while the second focuses on ways in which “the private economy may not find its way back to full employment following a sharp contraction.”

For my part, both stories have an important role to play in making sense of both economic depressions—the first as well as the second. The problem is, neither Stiglitz nor Summers has presented an analysis of how American capitalism created the conditions for either crash. Stiglitz does not explain how the crisis in agriculture in the 1920s or the move away from manufacturing in recent decades was created by tendencies within existing economic institutions. Similarly, Summers does not conduct an analysis of the changes in U.S. capitalism that, in addition to producing lower growth rates, led to the massive downturn beginning in 2007-08. Their respective approaches are characterized by exogenous event rather than the endogenous changes leading to instability one might look for in a capitalist economy.

Moreover, both Stiglitz and Summers presume that the appropriate stimulus project will fulfill the mainstream macroeconomic utopia characterized by levels of output and a price level that corresponds to full employment and price stability. There is nothing in either of their approaches that recognizes capitalism’s inherent instability or its tendency, even in recovery, of generating one-sided outcomes. For Stiglitz, “the challenge was—and remains—political, not economic: there is nothing that inherently prevents our economy from being run in a way that ensures full employment and shared prosperity.” Similarly, Summers emphasizes the way “fiscal policies and structural measures to support sustained and adequate aggregate demand” can overcome the problems posed by secular stagnation. In other words, both Stiglitz and Summers redirect attention from capitalism’s own tendencies toward instability and uneven recoveries and focus instead on the set of economic policies that in their view are able to create full employment and price stability.

Finally, while Stiglitz and Summers mention en passant the problem of growing inequality, neither takes the problem seriously, at least in terms of analyzing the conditions that led to the crash of 2007-08—or, for that matter, the lopsided nature of the recovery. There’s nothing in the debate (or in their other writings) about how rising inequality across decades, based on stagnant wages and record profits, served to dismantle government regulations on the financial sector (because those who received the profits had both the means and interest to do so) and to propel the tremendous growth (on both the demand and supply sides) of financial activities within the U.S. economy. Nor is there a discussion of how focusing on the recovery of banks, large corporations, and the incomes and wealth of a tiny group at the top was based on a deterioration of the economic and social conditions of everyone else—much less how a larger stimulus package would have produced a substantially different outcome.

The fact is, the debate between Stiglitz and Summers is based on a discussion of terms and a mode of analysis that are firmly inscribed within the liberal wing of mainstream economics. Focusing on the choice between one or the other merely to serves to block, brick by brick, the development of much more germane approaches to analyzing the conditions and consequences of the ways American capitalism has been characterized by fundamental instability and obscene levels of inequality—today as in the past.


*Stiglitz is a recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal (1979) and the Nobel Prize in Economics (2001). He served as the Chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers (1995-1997) and Chief Economist at the World Bank (1997-2000). He is currently a professor of economics at Columbia University (since 2001). Summers is former Vice President of Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank (1991–93), senior U.S. Treasury Department official throughout Clinton’s administration (ultimately Treasury Secretary, 1999–2001), and former director of the National Economic Council for President Obama (2009–2010). He is a former president of Harvard University (2001–2006), where he is currently a professor and director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

**My choice, for what it’s worth, was Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Raskin.

***As I explained in 2016, contemporary capitalism has a slow-growth problem—”because growth is both a premise and promise of a particularly capitalist way of organizing our economic activities.”

****An archive of Summers’s various blog posts on secular stagnation can be found here.


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