This week I appeared on Newsnight with Gillian Tett of the FT and Louise Cooper of BGC Partners. We discussed our graphs of 2011 (see mine below) and wider questions around the global financial crisis this year – and how ecnomists and policy makers need to respond.
Last week I gave a talk in Brussels at a debate moderated by Pierre Defraigne, Executive Director of the Madariaga – College of Europe Foundation. It was ACitizen’s Controversy with Lars Feld, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Freiburg and Member of the German Council of Economic Experts.
As bank shares and stock markets plummet, and investors flock to the safety of government bonds; as obstinate EU leaders crucify their countries in a futile struggle to defend today’s equivalent of the gold standard; as British and American politicians adopt austerity policies and drive their economies closer to the cliffs of depression; and as most professional economists stand aloof from the escalating crisis – what lies ahead for ordinary punters like you and me?
First, let’s take look at the big political picture. This crisis is already sharpening the divide between left and right in both the EU and the United States. Studying a precedent – the implosion of the 1920s credit bubble in 1929 – we note that four years after that crisis erupted, the political divide sharpened decisively. The United States and Britain moved to the left. Germany chose a different path. After 1930, Germany’s Centre party under Chancellor Brüning adopted austerity policies that resulted in cuts in welfare benefits and wages, while credit was tightened. At the same time the German government engaged in wildly excessive borrowing from the liberalised international capital markets. The ground was laid for the rise of fascism.
I appeared on Al Jazeera’s ‘Empire‘ on Thursday evening – hosted by Marwan Bishara, the panel was made up of myself, Dr. Georges Corm (former Lebanese finance minister and former special consultant), World Bank Professor Alex Callinicos (director of European Studies, King’s College London and author of ‘Bonfire Of Illusions’) and Dr Mario Blejer (former governor, Argentine Central Bank and former advisor, Bank Of England).
Tonight, Wednesday 3 August 2011 at 08.00pm BST (GMT +1), BBC Radio 4 will broadcasta debate which took place at the London School of Economics (LSE) on 26 July. This broadcast will be repeated on Saturday, 6 August, at 10.15 p.m BST (GMT +1).
Along with my colleagues Prof. Victoria Chick and Douglas Coe at PRIME we have written the following response to the debate:
On the one hand we are pleased that the BBC and the LSE now acknowledge rival positions to the present austerity policies of Western governments. On the other we are concerned that the debate might have served mainly to reinforce existing prejudices, rather than to clarify the substance of the matters under discussion, matters which – there can be no doubt – are of the most profound importance.
Lord Skidelsky provocatively but justly reminded the audience that in the early 1930s, the same orthodoxy driving western austerity policies directed the actions of Germany’s 1931 Bruning government and paved the way for the rise of Nazism. These actions – vigorously opposed by Keynes – were the final straw for a Germany crushed by defeat and the disastrous boom-bust cycle that followed their return to the gold standard. Reparations were easily circumvented by wildly excessive borrowing from financial interests around the world, in a manner that even Keynes did not anticipate. It was these financial and fiscal policies that brought Hitler to power.
With financial interests still firmly in the ascendency and reactionary right-wing forces increasing their grip in the United States and much of the Western world, we must not forget these lessons from history, which formed the background to the original debate between Keynes and Hayek themselves. The stakes are high indeed.
Aviva has brought together a collection of prominent thinkers to provoke renewed debate and fresh ideas about future prosperity and creating a culture of sustainable savings. The group, names the ‘Future Prosperity Panel‘, published their report ‘Big picture thinking – Towards sustainable savings’.
The austerity brigade is rattled. Young Daniel Knowles over at the Daily Telegraph is so worried, he has had to rise to the defence of the Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility – and then resorts to proposing Greece’s economic strategy for the UK. Why? Because orthodox economic ideology has been challenged by none other than Daniel’s ‘hero’ that notorious womaniser, President Bill Clinton.
“(the) UK’s finding this out now. They adopted this big austerity budget. And there’s a good chance that economic activity will go down so much that tax revenues will be reduced even more than spending is cut and their deficit will increase.”
Daniel Knowles challenges his hero, on these grounds:
“The government cannot spend so much that net revenues actually increase. By Clinton’s logic we should increase spending until our deficit goes away. ”
“The Office of Budget Responsibility..using a Keynesian model, estimates that the fiscal multiplier is about .35”……that means that…overall the deficit is will be smaller than it would have been without cuts….. (Note: Knowles Update: I actually made a mistake with that statistic – 0.35 is the estimate for the multiplier for VAT. Estimates of the fiscal multiplier overall, including those of the OBR, IMF and others, are closer to 0.)
Greece: spending cuts have reduced the deficit from 15.4% of GDP in 2009 to 9.5% now.
The first two points are rightly, morphed together in Knowles’s argument. The first is to do with the impact of government spending. In a slump – which we are living through now – it is vital for the government to spend to fill the investment vacuum created by an over-indebted and extremely nervous private sector, desperately trying to de-leverage its debt. Right now the UK private sector is busily hoarding cash, because they are – rightly – worried about their levels of debt; and because they fear – rightly – that if they do invest, customers (both private and corporate) will not walk through the door – because customers too, are heavily indebted and worried about the threat of unemployment and falling house prices.
So given these circumstances of widespread fear and paralysis in the economy – what the ONS calls ‘flat-lining’ – say the government invests £1 billion in libraries. What would happen next?
Unemployment poster ‘jobless men keep going, we can’t take care of our own’, 1931.
We write to encourage you – to urge you on in your resistance.
In your defiance, you understand Greece is slave to the interests of private wealth.
You must understand too that it is private wealth that needs Greece. Greece does not need private wealth.
As is obvious to you – if not to EU finance ministers – Greek and other EU taxpayers are asked to shore up the immense wealth and reckless lending of private French, German, British and American banks.
Without your taxes, your sacrifices, the privatisation of your government’s assets, these bankers once again face Armageddon – as they did in autumn of 2008.
Just as then, so now they have rushed behind the ‘skirts’ of their defenders at the IMF and the EU. On their behalf, these unelected officials and some elected politicians demand that Greek and EU taxpayers shield private sector risk-takers from the consequences of their risks. The very antipathy of market principles.
In the process, the European Union is torn apart. Politicians, backed by officials, now defy the founding goals of the Community and, in the interests of private wealth, set the peoples of Europe against each other.
On 20 June, 2011 the acting Head of the IMF called for “immediate and far-reaching structural reforms, privatization, and the opening of markets to foreign ownership and competition.”
Which proves our point: private wealth needs Greece. Greece does not need private wealth.
(Photo: REUTERS / Yiorgos Karahalis ) A Greek riot policeman stands in front of graffiti written on the wall of a bank during violent demonstrations over austerity measures in Athens, May 5, 2010. Greece faced a day of violent protests and a nationwide strike by civil servants outraged by the announcement of draconian austeristy measures.
Dear readers….Recovering from ‘flu and a trip down to Hay on Wye…Thought you might be interested in this piece I have written for Prime.
“We should note recent developments in political economy, that – while understated – are, we hope, of significance. Last week, the OECD published their latest World Economic Outlook, which features chapters on each developed economy as well as an assessment of the world economy as a whole.
The report is schizophrenic. It clumsily offers an outlook of excessive optimism; makes a selective assessment of ‘risks’; but continues adherence to an economic policy doctrine that is clearly making OECD economists very uncomfortable.
While the OECD report contains the expected justifications and support for the ‘austerity’ approach, nevertheless the organisation’s ‘cold feet’ are becoming apparent, even before the full extent of austerity programmes has begun to impact. There is no better example of this unease than their approach to the UK.
The report commends UK policymakers for their “current fiscal consolidation (which) strikes the right balance and should continue.” At the same time, OECD economists hedge their bets by urging the UK government to embark on “higher infrastructure spending (that) would lower the short-term negative growth effects of consolidation without affecting its pace.” At a press conference last week, the OECD chief economist warned that the UK should be prepared to cool austerity in the wake of weaker growth.