Photo by Maz Kessler
Joan Walsh of www.salon.com asked me some questions on Occupy Wall Street and wrote this article:
As the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads to dozens more cities and towns, it’s waking many Americans to the unrivaled control Wall Street exerts over American politics and the economy. It’s also shining a spotlight on the crushing amount of debt carried by Americans today – debt that’s at the core of our lingering economic troubles, which many experts believe can never realistically be repaid.
In 2007, American debt was 100 percent of GDP; today, after an austerity binge, it’s down to 90 percent, which is still a stunning imbalance. Almost a quarter of all home mortgages today are currently underwater, 2 million homes are in the foreclosure process – and at least 5 million homes have already lost to foreclosure since 2007. American student loan debt is over $1 trillion right now, higher than American credit card debt, with the average student leaving school with about $24,000 in loans.
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Tonight, Wednesday 3 August 2011 at 08.00pm BST (GMT +1), BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a 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:
Debaters considered whether Keynes or Hayek had the solution to the present financial crisis. The economist George Selgin and philosopher Jamie Whyte spoke for Hayek; Keynes’s biographer Robert Skidelsky and the economist Duncan Weldon spoke for Keynes.
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.
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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.
Bill gets it. On the deficit that is. Thanks to Left Foot Forward and Mehdi Hasan we have all read Clinton’s speech:
“(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?
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Bernard Madoff’s 90ft yacht ‘Bull’ is offered for sale in Monaco for €3m this week. Image source: associated press.
I learnt to my cost that the role of Cassandra is no fun. Why “Apollo’s cursed gift is a source of endless pain and frustration.”
While it is possible to note that the ‘tectonic plates’ of the financial system are shifting and that those shifts presage a ‘financial earthquake’…unless one can get the timing of these things right – one’s insights are, rightly, scorned and ridiculed.
But I am now more attuned to the signs.
In the run-up to the 2007-9 crisis advertisements for yachts started appearing in the FT’s ‘How to Spend It’ magazine. First, there were one or two. Then more. Then they expanded and became double-page spreads. The vast backgrounds of sea and sky, set against the shiny white of the boats were blinding to the casual, disinterested reader. But as the credit-fuelled asset bubble expanded, text on these glossy ads disappeared. There was just the sea, the sky, the vast burnished white boat and some numbers: $7 million.
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Apropos the last post: we dissidents are not alone. Have belatedly come across David Malone’s excellent post (written earlier but somehow missed by me) on the same theme – the airbrushing of the financial crisis from all political discourse. David goes further and highlights the implications for democracy and the rule of law. I hope he does not mind if I reproduce a few paragraphs for the benefit of those that have not already read it.
It really is very good.
“The official narrative today is that the plan of recovery is working. The narrative focuses on the rise of the stock markets to almost pre-crash heights. The failure of housing or commercial property markets to recover and the fact that unemployment is hideously high is simply no longer part of the recovery narrative. These things have been dropped. What has been added has been the ‘shocking’ level of public, national debt. In the new narrative the cause of the ballooning of public debt has been steered away from facts about the cost of the bail outs or how the disintegration of the speculative bubble caused a subsequent collapse of real economic activity. The new story is that the debts we have now are nothing to do with the banks and their temporary difficulties. They are due to a deeper incontinence in public spending.
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Tin produced at a Glencore plant in Vinto, Bolivia
“Experience shows that when policies falter in managing capital flows, there is no limit to the damage that international finance can inflict on an economy.”
Yilmaz Akyüz, “Capital Flows to Developing Countries in a Historical Perspective: Will the current Boom End with a Bust?”
Today, as speculation and leverage in global, financialised commodity markets reach manic levels; as we witness an ‘epic rout’ (FT 5 May, 2011) in commodity prices, and as the boom in capital flows peaks, is another crash inevitable? And is it coming soon?
I know from experience that while it may be possible to analyse fundamentals, it is always difficult to predict precisely what dynamic will trigger the next crisis, and when it will happen. Back in 2003, together with colleagues at the new economics foundation in London, and with very little funding, I assembled and edited a series of essays on the ‘outlook’ for the global economy. We titled it: ‘Real world economic outlook’, and added a subtitle, ‘the legacy of globalization: debt and deflation’. We intended the report to be annual, and to act as a counter to the IMF’s annual World Economic Outlook, which in our view was irrationally optimistic about developments in the global economy.
We were pretty pessimistic about global imbalances, and predicted a crash. Sadly, our timing was way out: the crash was four years away. It does not always help to be right on the fundamentals. Given the inevitability of the then forthcoming crash, we argued that there was once more a need for a ‘great transformation’ of the global economy. The starting point we wrote ‘will be to reverse the most pernicious elements of the ‘globalization’ experiment’ by the ‘taming of financial markets through the re-introduction of capital controls; restraints in the growth of credit; the establishment of an International Clearing Agency; and a Tobin Tax’.
Back then it was hard to talk/write about these matters – and be heard. Our cheerfully-titled report and predictions did not hit the best-seller lists. Funding for the project was withdrawn, and the project wound down. It’s major flaw? We had breached areas of economic debate that at the time were carefully circumscribed. It took the financial crisis of 2007-9 to loosen the intellectual chains to which orthodox economics had so heavily tied economic debate. Today the Tobin Tax, or Robin Hood Tax is a high-profile issue, with some signs that EU governments are considering implementation of such a tax. (See point 8 of Euro leaders’ statement, March 11, 2011). So that taboo has been broken.
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6th February 2010
There’s a lot of rigging of jobs data, so it’s easy for any new announcement to get my adrenalin pumping. Add to that the way journalists and economists talk about these numbers – and it’s enough to get a girl blogging.
The particular article raising my ire today is James Politi’s in the FT: “US data send out mixed message as 1m more jobs lost”.
In it Politi writes: “Yesterday’s data included revisions to figures from a year ago showing 8.4m jobs were lost since the crisis started, nearly 1m more than earlier estimates, offering a stark (a touch of empathy inserted here) reminder” “of the trouble the labour market finds itself in.” Continue reading… ›
5th February 2010
My conversation earlier this week with Elena Sisti – of Italy’s Altreconomia on macro-economics, reform of the finance sector, money, and yes, how we women have left the all-important matter of finance to the boys. Big mistake. It’s time to get in there, and exercise influence. Too much is at stake. Continue reading… ›
The Motley Fool, September 2nd, 2009
Motley Fool blogger TMF Sinchiruna spotlights the Times interview, describing me as “once ridiculed, later vindicated…” TMF Sinchiruna goes on to say: “Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Niall Fergusson, Ann Pettifor … these are the voices that I believe investors need to hear. Turn off the tv and look deep into the events of last year and consider for yourselves whether anything more than a hail-mary reflationary maelstrom has been heaped upon the fire that started it all.”
Read the Motley Fool article >
Also just did an interview for You and Yours on Radio 4 which was broadcast Wednesday. You can listen to it here.
From Open Democracy: August 13, 2009
“A single day, 9 August 2007, will go down in history as ‘Debtonation Day’ – the beginning of the end of the deregulation and privatisation of finance that marks the era of globalisation.”
I wrote these words on 13 August 2007, in anticipation that the great stock-market collapse of four days earlier presaged the end of the era of neo-liberal globalisation.
So it has proved.
Read Open Democracy article>