More debt and inflation will not create economic prosperity
“[F]or many philosophers, conflict is inevitable in politics because a government should seek both to make its people equal in wealth and opportunity and also to safeguard their liberty, but it cannot do both because people can be made equal only through serious constraints on their freedom. This is not simply a statement of the obvious fact that different people and different communities hold different values. The argument claims that even a single sensitive person cannot express, either in how he lives or how he votes, all the ideals he knows he should recognize.”
Justice for Hedgehogs
In an article in the April 28, 2011, New York Review of Books, “For a National Investment Bank”, Robert Skidelsky and Felix Martin argue that the Obama Administration ought to create yet another state sponsored financial institution in the US to explicitly stimulate the economy by issuing debt. This is a truly bad idea whose time has come and gone.
The authors rightly describe the lack of aggregate demand in the US, something we have also discussed at some length in this space. “Few dispute that the US is not enjoying a normal recovery by recent standards,” they write. So true. But their suggestion of creating a new government sponsored enterprise (GSE) to address slack growth and employment lacks imagination and practicality. Skidelsky and Martin specifically want to use the NIB to finance public infrastructure projects, but without the new debt required showing up on the federal budget. How clever.
Nowhere do Skidelsky and Martin, nor most neo-Keynesian economists, admit that much of the nominal economic growth of the past several decades in the US was increasingly supported by debt and inflation. The national investment bank they propose would take its place alongside dozens of existing New Deal and Great Society agencies such as Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration, as well as the Bretton Woods GSEs including the IMF and World Bank. Martin, an economist at Thames River Capital LLP, worked at the World Bank for two stretches between 1998 and 2008 and must be familiar with this history. The NIB is more of the same stuff in policy terms.
The NIB proposal shows just how bankrupt the American political discourse has become when it comes to economics, but especially on the left. It also reveals the indifference of liberal economists to the political consequences of economic policy choices. This is not to suggest that Republicans are exactly fonts of economic innovation at present. Most Republicans are indistinguishable from big government Democrats in terms of their willingness to prune back the corporate state. Fiscal conservatives have been fighting this battle for decades now.
The first observation about the NIB proposal is that we are talking, once again, about using debt to create the illusion of economic prosperity. Skidelsky, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick and the author of Keynes: The Return of the Master (2009), is an unabashed advocate of the aggressive state in action. Yet what he and Martin propose promises few benefits in economic terms. Indeed, you cannot make an argument for more GSEs on utilitarian grounds.
The most offensive thing about the NIB proposal is that it pretends to rely upon Keynes. Skidelsky and Martin say that they intend some sort of pump-priming, jump starting catalyst for private sector growth. Keynes was no apologist for using debt to simulate real economic growth but he also believed in individual economic liberty, which he greatly benefited from. Living through the privation in the UK during and after WWII, Keynes understood the desperate situation facing Britain. Modern economists spend too little time considering politics when assessing the motivations of the day.
My friend Sol Sanders and William Alpert talked about Keynes in The Institutional Analyst last month (Keynes, Keynesianism — and Keynesianitis): “‘The day is not far off’, he wrote, ‘when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems/the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.’ In 2010 we are still waiting.”
The same lack of demand and unemployment that faced Keynes and the leaders of the Western economies after WWI and WWII, and to which Skidelsky and Martin rightly raise in alarm, has driven liberals today to embrace ever more inflation and debt. An aggressive combination of reflation by the Fed and restructuring of the housing and banking sectors is the way to restore US economic growth, but you won’t hear about restructuring large banks from adherents of the neo-Keynsian faith.
Skidelsky and Martin assess the political situation facing the Obama administration, saying “that it has become politically impossible to increase the deficit.” Quite right. But the solution offered by these two honorable gentlemen is to create yet another GSE to issue more debt off the books? Such expedients are entirely transparent to the marketplace, but Skidelsky and Martin do not seem to appreciate that more incremental debt buys less and less bang for the buck in terms of nominal economic growth.
Skidelsky and Martin, and their American contemporaries led by the likes of Paul Krugman, call for “fiscal stimulus,” but what they are really arguing for is permanent inflation. The Fed has been pursuing the reflation path via quantitative easing, but with less than astounding results, owing to the lack of benefit for US households.
The only way to fix the twin problems of deflation and unemployment is to keep money easy and restructure the insolvent parts of the banking system and economy. In both the US and EU, the policy has been implemented but the lack of financial restructuring of the insolvent banks of the US and EU is the chief obstacle to economic renewal. To restructure and renew is the alternative to the proposal from Skidelsky and Martin.
Instead, Skidelsky and Martin want to layer more state-guaranteed debt on top of an already wobbly foundation. This is not only bad economic policy, but it has truly hideous political implications. John Stuart Mill acknowledged that utilitarianism had to admit the moral superiority of classical liberalism and that, to save it, certain preferences (those the classical liberals generally would favor) simply had to be acknowledged as preferable.
Why is it that so few economists ever assess the social and political implications of their policies? Skidelsky and Martin are following the road to hell trodden by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Not only do we have the New Deal zombies like Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration as examples of failure, but dozens of parastatal banks and development entities in the EU that are effectively insolvent today. The embrace of the fascist economic model proposed by Skidelsky and Martin has not saved the EU from economic malaise.
As Ronald Dworkin notes in his new book, Justice for Hedgehogs, the differences between different ethical and political systems do matter very much. Keynes believed in using temporary government action to help restore private economic activity, but I doubt he would have supported the type of debt accumulation much less the creation of permanent GSEs that Skidelsky and Martin propose.
Instead of embracing a permanent state of inflation, as has been the case in the US since the 1970s, we need to deflate the bubble and start again. It is not too late for President Obama and Congress to restructure the US financial system, fix the housing market and create the conditions for true economic growth. All we need to succeed is leadership and the knowledge that the bastard children of Lord Keynes cannot help us in the difficult task ahead.