Welcome To The New Depression


We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.

And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending.

In 2008 and 2009, it seemed as if we might have learned from history. Unlike their predecessors, who raised interest rates in the face of financial crisis, the current leaders of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank slashed rates and moved to support credit markets. Unlike governments of the past, which tried to balance budgets in the face of a plunging economy, today’s governments allowed deficits to rise. And better policies helped the world avoid complete collapse: the recession brought on by the financial crisis arguably ended last summer.

But future historians will tell us that this wasn’t the end of the third depression, just as the business upturn that began in 1933 wasn’t the end of the Great Depression. After all, unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly. And both the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.

In the face of this grim picture, you might have expected policy makers to realize that they haven’t yet done enough to promote recovery. But no: over the last few months there has been a stunning resurgence of hard-money and balanced-budget orthodoxy.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, the revival of the old-time religion is most evident in Europe, where officials seem to be getting their talking points from the collected speeches of Herbert Hoover, up to and including the claim that raising taxes and cutting spending will actually expand the economy, by improving business confidence. As a practical matter, however, America isn’t doing much better. The Fed seems aware of the deflationary risks — but what it proposes to do about these risks is, well, nothing. The Obama administration understands the dangers of premature fiscal austerity — but because Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress won’t authorize additional aid to state governments, that austerity is coming anyway, in the form of budget cuts at the state and local levels.

Why the wrong turn in policy? The hard-liners often invoke the troubles facing Greece and other nations around the edges of Europe to justify their actions. And it’s true that bond investors have turned on governments with intractable deficits. But there is no evidence that short-run fiscal austerity in the face of a depressed economy reassures investors. On the contrary: Greece has agreed to harsh austerity, only to find its risk spreads growing ever wider; Ireland has imposed savage cuts in public spending, only to be treated by the markets as a worse risk than Spain, which has been far more reluctant to take the hard-liners’ medicine.

It’s almost as if the financial markets understand what policy makers seemingly don’t: that while long-term fiscal responsibility is important, slashing spending in the midst of a depression, which deepens that depression and paves the way for deflation, is actually self-defeating.

So I don’t think this is really about Greece, or indeed about any realistic appreciation of the tradeoffs between deficits and jobs. It is, instead, the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times.

And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again.

2 thoughts on “Welcome To The New Depression

  1. lambert keeps asking when Krugman is going to address the role of fraud in banking. Until he does, Krugman can’t spell out what’s really going on: governments have taken on the debt of the criminal financial institutions, so workers and industry must pay.

    In a comment at Ian Welch’s a few weeks ago, someone said Krugman’s role is to limit the discussion on the left. Michael Hudson faces no such constraint (http://neweconomicperspectives.blogspot.com/2010/06/europes-fiscal-dystopia-new-austerity.html):

    ‘. . . It is the rhetoric of fiscal and financial class war. The problem is that there is not enough economic surpluses available to pay the financial sector on its bad loans while also paying pensions and social security. Something has to give. The commission is to provide a cover story for a revived Rubinomics, this time aimed not at the former Soviet Union but here at home. Its aim is to scale back Social Security while reviving George Bush’s aborted privatization plan to send FICA paycheck withholding into the stock market – that is, into the hands of money managers to stick into an array of junk financial packages designed to skim off labor’s savings. . . .

    ‘The fiscal crisis is being blamed on demographic mathematics of an aging population – not on the exponentially soaring private debt overhead, junk loans and massive financial fraud that the government is bailing out.

    ‘What really is causing the financial and fiscal squeeze, of course, is the fact that that government funding is now needed to compensate the financial sector for what promises to be year after year of losses as loans go bad in economies that are all loaned up and sinking into negative equity. . . .

    ‘Somebody must take a loss on the economy’s bad loans – and bankers want the economy to take the loss, to “save the financial system.” From the financial sector’s vantage point, the economy is to be managed to preserve bank liquidity, rather than the financial system run to serve the economy. Government social spending (on everything apart from bank bailouts and financial subsidies) and disposable personal income are to be cut back to keep the debt overhead from being written down. Corporate cash flow is to be used to pay creditors, not employ more labor and make long-term capital investment.

    ‘The economy is to be sacrificed to subsidize the fantasy that debts can be paid, if only banks can be “made whole” to begin lending again – that is, to resume loading the economy down with even more debt, causing yet more intrusive debt deflation.

    ‘This is not the familiar old 19th-century class war of industrial employers against labor, although that is part of what is happening. It is above all a war of the financial sector against the “real” economy: industry as well as labor. . . .

    ‘The explanation, of course, is that today’s economic planning is not being done by elected representatives. Planning authority has been relinquished to the hands of “independent” central banks, which in turn act as the lobbyists for commercial banks selling their product – debt. From the central bank’s vantage point, the “economic problem” is how to keep commercial banks and other financial institutions solvent in a post-bubble economy. How can they get paid for debts that are beyond the ability of many people to pay, in an environment of rising defaults? . . .

    ‘Governments need huge sums to bail out the banks from their bad loans. But they cannot borrow more, because of the debt squeeze. So the bad-debt loss must be passed onto labor and industry. The cover story is that government bailouts will permit the banks to start lending again, to reflate the Bubble Economy’s Ponzi-borrowing. But there is already too much negative equity and there is no leeway left to restart the bubble. . . .

    ‘A half-century of failed IMF austerity plans imposed on hapless Third World debtors should have dispelled forever the idea that the way to prosperity is via austerity. The ground has been paved for this attitude by a generation of purging the academic curriculum of knowledge that there ever was an alternative economic philosophy to that sponsored by the rentier Counter-Enlightenment. Classical value and price theory reflected John Locke’s labor theory of property: A person’s wealth should be what he or she creates with their own labor and enterprise, not by insider dealing or special privilege.

    ‘This is why I say that Europe is dying. If its trajectory is not changed, the EU must succumb to a financial coup d’êtat rolling back the past three centuries of Enlightenment social philosophy. The question is whether a break-up is now the only way to recover its social democratic ideals from the banks that have taken over its central planning organs.’

    These are the kinds of things Krugman is not free to say, instead wringing his hands about why the Establishment just doesn’t get it.

Comments are closed.