Opinion

Lawrence Summers

Why isn’t capitalism working?

Lawrence Summers
Jan 9, 2012 12:13 UTC

Americans have traditionally been the most enthusiastic champions of capitalism.  Yet a recent American public opinion survey found that just 50 per cent of people had a positive opinion of capitalism while 40 per cent did not.  The disillusionment was particularly marked among young people 18-29, African Americans and Hispanics, those with incomes under $30,000 and self-described Democrats.

Three elections in a row in the U.S. have been bloodbaths by recent standards for incumbents, with the left side doing well in 2006 and 2008 and the right winning comprehensively in 2010.  With the rise of the Tea Party on the right, and the Occupy movement on the left, this suggests far more is up for grabs than usual in this election year.

So how justified is disillusionment with market capitalism?  This depends on the answer to two critical questions. Do today’s problems inhere in today’s form of market capitalism or are they subject to more direct solution? Are there imaginable better alternatives?

The spread of stagnation and abnormal unemployment from Japan to the rest of the industrialized world does raise doubts about capitalism’s efficacy as a promoter of employment and rising living standards for a broad middle class.  This problem is genuine. Few would confidently bet that the U.S. or Europe will see a return to full employment as previously defined within the next 5 years. The economies of both are likely to be constrained by demand for a long time.

But does this reflect an inherent flaw in capitalism or, as Keynes suggested, a “magneto” problem (like the failure of a car alternator) that can be addressed with proper fiscal and monetary policies, and which will not benefit from large scale structural measures? I believe the evidence overwhelmingly supports the latter. Efforts to reform capitalism are more likely to divert from the steps needed to promote demand than to contribute to putting people back to work. I suspect that if and when macroeconomic policies are appropriately adjusted, much of the contemporary concern will fade away.

It’s time for the IMF to step up in Europe

Lawrence Summers
Dec 8, 2011 19:58 UTC

By Lawrence Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

European leaders will meet today for yet another “historic” summit at which the fate of Europe is said to hang in the balance. Yet it is clear that this will not be the last convened to deal with the financial crisis.

If public previews from France and Germany are a guide, there will be commitments to assuring fiscal discipline in Europe and establishing common crisis resolution mechanisms. There will also be much celebration of commitments made by Italy, and a strong political reaffirmation of the permanence of the monetary union. All of this is necessary and desirable, but the world economy will remain on edge.

Given that Europe is the largest single component of the global economy, the rest of the world has a stake in helping to avoid major financial accidents. It also has a stake in aiding continued growth in Europe and ensuring that the European financial system supports investment around the world – particularly as cross-border European bank lending dwarfs that of banks from any other region.

The fierce urgency of fixing economic inequality

Lawrence Summers
Nov 21, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

The principal problem facing the United States and Europe for the next few years is an output shortfall caused by lack of demand. Nothing would do more to increase the incomes of all citizens—poor, middle class and rich—than an increase in demand, which would bring with it increases in incomes, living standards, and confidence. A more rapid recovery than now appears likely would reverse, at least partially, a growing disillusionment with almost all institutions and doubts about the future.

It would be, however, a serious mistake to suppose that our only problems are cyclical or amenable to macroeconomic solutions. Just as evolution from an agricultural to an industrial economy had far reaching implications for society, so too will the evolution from an industrial to a knowledge economy. Witness structural trends that predate the Great Recession and will be with us long after recovery is achieved: The most important of these is the strong shift in the market reward for a small minority of persons, relative to the rewards available to everyone else. In the United States, according to a recent CBO study, the incomes of the top 1 percent of the population have, after adjusting for inflation, risen by 275 percent from 1979 to 2007. At the same time, incomes for the middle class (in the study, the middle 60 percent of the income scale) grew by only 40 percent. Even this dismal figure overstates the fortunes of typical Americans; the number unable to find work or who have abandoned the job search has risen. In 1965, only 1 in 20 men between ages 25 and 54 was not working. By the end of this decade it will likely be 1 in 6—even if a full cyclical recovery is achieved.

To highlight the disturbing trends in a different way, one calculation suggests that if income distribution had remained constant in the U.S. over the 1979-2007 period, incomes of the top 1 percent would be 59 percent or $780,000 lower and the incomes of the average member of the bottom 80 percent of the population would be 21 percent or over $10,000 dollars higher.

To fix the economy, fix the housing market

Lawrence Summers
Oct 24, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The views expressed are his own.

The central irony of financial crisis is that while it is caused by too much confidence, too much borrowing and lending and too much spending, it can only be resolved with more confidence, more borrowing and lending, and more spending.  Most policy failures in the United States stem from a failure to appreciate this truism and therefore to take steps that would have been productive pre-crisis but are counterproductive now, with the economy severely constrained by lack of confidence and demand.

Thus even as the gap between the economy’s production and its capacity increases and is projected to increase further, fiscal policy turns contractionary, financial regulation turns towards a focus on discouraging risk taking, and monetary policy is constrained by concerns about excess liquidity.   Most significantly the nation’s housing policies especially with regard to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac–institutions whose very purpose is to mitigate cyclicality in housing and who today dominate the mortgage market–have become a textbook case of disastrous and procyclical policy.

Annual construction of new single family homes has plummeted from the 1.7 million range in the middle of the last decade to the 450 thousand range at present.  With housing starts averaging well over a million during the 1990s, the shortfall in housing construction now projected dwarfs the excess of construction during the bubble period and is the largest single component of the shortfall in GDP.

The perils of European incrementalism

Lawrence Summers
Sep 19, 2011 11:01 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The views expressed are his own.

In his celebrated essay “The Stalemate Myth and the Quagmire Machine,” Daniel Ellsberg drew out the lesson regarding the Vietnam War that came out of the 8000 pages of the Pentagon Papers.  It was simply this:  Policymakers acted without illusion.  At every juncture they made the minimum commitments necessary to avoid imminent disaster—offering optimistic rhetoric but never taking steps that even they believed offered the prospect of decisive victory.  They were tragically caught in a kind of no man’s land—unable to reverse a course to which they had committed so much but also unable to generate the political will to take forward steps that gave any realistic prospect of success.  Ultimately, after years of needless suffering, their policy collapsed around them.

Much the same process has played out in Europe over the last two years.  At every stage from the first signs of trouble in Greece to the spread of problems to Portugal and Ireland, to the recognition of Greece’s inability to pay its debts in full, to the rise of debt spreads in Spain and Italy, the authorities have played out the quagmire machine.  They have done just enough beyond euro-orthodoxy to avoid an imminent collapse, but never enough to establish a sound foundation for a resumption of confidence. Perhaps inevitably, the gaps between emergency summits grow shorter and shorter.

The process has taken its toll on policymakers’ credibility.  As I warned European friends quite some time ago, authorities who assert in the face of all evidence that Greece can service on time 100 percent of its debts will have little credibility when they later assert that the fundamentals are sound in Spain and Italy, even if their view is a reasonable one.  After the spectacle of stress tests that treat assets where credit default swaps exceed 500 basis points as riskless, how can markets do otherwise than to ignore regulators assertions about the solvency of certain key financial institutions.

How 9/11 changed university life

Lawrence Summers
Sep 2, 2011 16:53 UTC

By Lawrence Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

September 11, 2001, was the day before classes were to start at Harvard College during my first year as Harvard president. I first heard of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center as I left a routine breakfast at the Faculty Club. Neither I nor anyone around me had full confidence about how to respond to such an event, one without precedent in our life experience. But, by midday, we had decided to hold a kind of service late that afternoon to commemorate what had happened, to try to provide reassurance to a scared community of young people.

It naturally fell to me, as president of the university, to deliver remarks. Those I drafted expressed shock at the magnitude of the tragedy and sympathy for the victims and their families. I promised the support of our community for the victims and those assisting them, but my draft also stressed that the tragedy we’d witnessed was quite unlike an earthquake or tornado: The attacks of September 11 were acts of malignant agency that rightly called forth outrage against the perpetrators. I wrote, too, of the imperative that we be intolerant of intolerance, and I suggested that we would best prevail by simply carrying on the university’s everyday, yet vitally important, work.

My draft remarks seemed to me appropriate and, even, anodyne. I was therefore quite surprised when some whose advice I sought, and some who heard my remarks as delivered, took strong exception to my suggestion that outrage against the 9/11 perpetrators was appropriate. Others objected to my use of the word “prevail.”

A debt deal that solves the wrong problem

Lawrence Summers
Aug 2, 2011 19:45 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

At last Washington has reached a deal that raises the debt limit and averts a default that would have been a national embarrassment and an economic and geopolitical catastrophe.   The forces shaping the deal and the deal itself are multifaceted–and so is the right reaction to it.  Mine has a number of elements.

Relief. There will be no first default in U.S. history; no economy-damaging short-run austerity; no attack on the nation’s core social protection programs or on universal health care; and no repeat of the last month’s shabby spectacle for at least 15 months.  All of this was in doubt even a week ago as Congressional intransigence threatened to make the problem of acceptably raising the debt limit insoluble.  The Hippocratic Oath applies in economics as well as medicine and so it is no small thing for the Administration to have reached an agreement  that does no immediate harm.  It may well be that no better agreement was achievable given the political dynamics in Congress.

Cynicism. An objective observer would predict larger U.S. budget deficits in the outyears than he or she would have predicted a few months ago.  The economic forecast has deteriorated (see chart below), and it is reasonable to estimate that even a half-a-percent reduction growth averaged over 10 years adds well over a trillion dollars to the national debt in 2021.

Economic specialization is a feature, not a bug

Lawrence Summers
Jul 26, 2011 22:00 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading economists to reply to Mark Thoma’s Op-Ed on the “great divide” in economics and will be publishing the responses. Below is Reuters columnist Lawrence Summers’s reply.  Here are responses from Roger MartinAshwin Parameswaran, James HamiltonDean Baker, and a recap of Paul Krugman’s.

Mark Thoma is obviously right that academic economists should listen more to practitioners – both economists who who work outside the academy and also, although he does not stress this point, to those who are active participants in the economy as buyers and sellers of products, labor, securities or anything else.  He is also right that much of what goes on in academic economics is rather removed from any reality and that there are all sorts of important practical problems that should get more attention from academics.  However there are a number of respects in which his arguments is naive, incomplete, or goes to far and his analogy with what doctors do is misplaced.

First, there is a proper division of labor between those who develop theories and those who meet day to day challenges.  It is progress, not regress, that today we have physicists who conceive theories and do experiments and civil engineers who build bridges.  This work was done by the same people centuries ago.  In the same way, it represents progress through the division of labor that it is no longer true that academics are the people best informed about the evolution of next quarter’s GDP as was the case even in the 1960s.  While there are exceptions, much of the progress in modern medicine comes from scientific research done by people who do not on a regular basis see patients.  Watson and Crick would have been slowed down, not helped, if they had spent time with MD’s.

Europe’s dangerous new phase

Lawrence Summers
Jul 18, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

With last week’s tumult in Italian markets, the European financial crisis has entered a new and far more dangerous phase. Where the crisis had been existential for small economies on the periphery of Europe but not systemically threatening to either the idea of European monetary union or to the functioning of the global financial system, it now threatens both European integration and the global recovery. Last week’s drama surrounding bond auctions in Europe’s third leading economy should convince even the most hardened bureaucrat that the world can no longer let policy responses be shaped by dogma, bureaucratic agenda and expediency. It is to be hoped that European officials can engineer a decisive change in direction but if not, the world can no longer afford the deference that the IMF and non-European G20 officials have shown towards European policy makers over the last 15 months.

Three realities must be recognized if there is to be a chance of success. First, the maintenance of systemic confidence is essential in a financial crisis. Teaching investors a lesson is a wish, not a policy. U.S. policymakers were applauded for about 12 hours for their willingness to let Lehman go bankrupt. The adverse consequences of the shattering effect that had on confidence are still being felt now. The European Central Bank (ECB) is right in its concern that punishing creditors for the sake of teaching lessons or building political support is reckless in a system that depends on confidence. Those who let Lehman go believed because time had passed since the Bear Stearns bailout the market had learned lessons and so was prepared. In fact the main lessons learned had to do with how to best find the exits, and so uncontrolled bankruptcies had systemic consequences that far exceeded their expectations.

Second, no country can be expected to generate huge primary surpluses for long periods for the benefit of foreign creditors. Meeting debt burdens at rates currently charged by the official sector for credit – let alone the private sector – would involve burdens on Greece, Ireland and Portugal comparable to the reparations burdens Keynes warned about in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

The jobs crisis

Lawrence Summers
Jun 13, 2011 11:00 UTC

By Lawrence H. Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

Even with the massive 2008-2009 policy effort that successfully prevented financial collapse and Depression, the United States is now half way to a lost economic decade. Over the last 5 years, from the first quarter of 2006 to the first quarter of 2011, the U.S. economy’s growth rate averaged less than 1 percent a year, about like Japan during the period when its bubble burst. At the same time the fraction of the population working has fallen from 63.1 to 58.4 percent, reducing the number of those with jobs by more than 10 million. The fraction of the population working remains almost exactly at its recession trough and recent reports suggest that growth is slowing.

Beyond the lack of jobs and incomes, an economy producing below its potential for a prolonged interval sacrifices its future. To an extent that once would have been unimaginable, new college graduates are this month moving back in with their parents because they have no job or means of support. Strapped school districts across the country are cutting out advanced courses in math and science and in some cases only opening school 4 days a week. And reduced incomes and tax collections at present and in the future are the most important cause of unacceptable budget deficits at present and in the future.

You cannot prescribe for a malady unless you diagnose it accurately and understand its causes. Recessions are times when there is too little demand for the products of businesses, and so they fail to employ all those who want to work. That the problem in a period of high unemployment like the present one is a lack of business demand for employees not any lack of desire to work is all but self-evident. It is demonstrated by the observations that (i)the propensity of workers to quit jobs and the level of job openings are at near-record low levels; (ii) rises in nonemployment have taken place among essentially all demographic skill and education groups; and (iii) rising rates of profit and falling rates of wage growth suggest that it is employers, not workers, who have the power in almost every market.

  •