Austerity, algebra and theology

Florian Schui’s Austerity: The Great Failure is a readable book, which has seen me through my Tube journeys this week, but an odd one. He presents thinking about austerity through the ages as seen through two prisms: the religious and moral strand of thought in western tradition about the inherent virtue of modest living and thrift; and the sensible economic perspective, reaching its pinnacle in Keynesian thought, that analyses consumer spending and fiscal expansion as the source of prosperity. Modern austerity, from Thatcherism and its Hayekian emphasis on the small state, to the post-crisis argument for austerity, is therefore described as essentially theological.

Austerity: The Great Failure

“Today, there is general agreement that growing consumption is a pre-condition for economic growth and the satisfaction of potentially unlimited material wants is accepted as one of the principal objectives of economic activity,” Schui writes. The environmental movement is portrayed as a quasi-religious movement descended from the 19th century Romantics. Yet the final chapter of the book is an assessment of the ‘good life’, in much the same vein as in How Much is Enough? by Edward and Robert Skidelsky. It’s a pretty sudden corner turn right at the end.

Another oddity is that the book hardly mentions debt (as I noted on glancing through the index). Given that today’s case for austerity – and indeed previous versions – rest heavily on debt-related arguments, this is a glaring omission. I think it makes David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, for all that it is a flawed book, a far more credible critique of austerity measures.

A third strange bit of the argument here comes in the discussion of why Keynesianism fell out of favour because of stagflation in the 1970s, to be succeeded by Thatcherism. Schui argues that the true cure for stagflation was not the Hayek-inspired effort to shrink the state that we got (and that had great popular support, given the massively disruptive public sector strikes as unions tried to win higher pay rises), but instead more government spending and indeed an extension of central planning as practiced in the Soviet bloc. This is a boldly contrarian argument to say the least.

A final complaint is that the book claims economics can explain how to maximise growth but can not answer the question, do we need more growth? I think it’s exactly the other way round. Economics says, yes we need more growth – very few of the world’s people enjoy the good life of a distinguished western European academic; and as many economists – including for example Joel Mokyr in The Gifts of Athena (and me too in GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History) – point out, growth is the name we give to the constant process of innovation that has improved our health, life expectancy, and quality of life so massively.

What we don’t know is how to increase growth, the elusive gold of our kind of alchemy. If we did, nobody would see austerity as a dilemma. Faster growth would remove any need to worry about debt. Without it, rescheduling/default or inflation are the more troubling options. This is algebra, not theology.

 

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An austere week

Another hectic week looms – I’m doing book-related interviews and events including this at the CSFI in London tomorrow – and at the moment feel like climbing back under the duvet to read. So to steel myself, I’ve packed Florian Schui’s Austerity: The Great Failure into my bag. It will be interesting to see how it compares/contrasts with Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of A Dangerous Idea. The summary and subtitle make it clear it comes to the same conclusion. And the index makes equally little reference to debt, which seems to me an important variable when comparing austerity episodes, and indeed in concluding as the back cover does: “There are no convincing economic arguments for austerity policies in their current form and there is no compelling moral or political case for them either.” So there must as a matter of logic be some explicit or implicit moral and economic arguments here about alternative means of decreasing debt burdens.

Austerity: The Great Failure  Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea

 

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The borrower from Hell

A book has arrived that will probably have to wait until my summer holiday, or at least Easter, but it has me mightily intrigued. It’s Lending to the Borrower from Hell: Debt, Taxes and Default in the Age of Philip II, by Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth.

Lending to the Borrower from Hell: Debt, Taxes, and Default in the Age of Philip II (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)

I know, I know. But if I’d not quixotically decided to apply to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford (to further my ambition of spending my life being a philosopher like Simone de Beauvoir in a Parisian cafe), and if I hadn’t got in, and if I’d not had a brilliant economics tutor in Peter Sinclair and so ended up being an economist, I would have done a history degree instead. At school we studied 16th and 17th century Europe – these were the days before British schools only taught the Tudors and the Nazis – and what times they were! Q by the Italian writing collective Luther Blisset gives a good flavour of it.

And as the intro to this book points out, in extraordinary times like 2008 and its aftermath, the long history of debt and default might hold useful lessons. Economists in general should pay more attention to economic history. History should be reintroduced as a requirement in all Econ PhD courses – I benefited greatly from courses by Barry Eichengreen and Steve Marglin in mine, possibly grumbling at the time, but young people don’t entirely know what’s good for them.

Q

I’ve read the first three pages of The Borrower from Hell and am going to have to tear myself away….

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What is different, and what isn’t

I’ve been a bit mystified by Excel-gate (see this good, balanced summary by Gavyn Davies). Bravo for Thomas Herndon, the graduate student who uncovered the error in the now-notorious paper by Carmen Reinhardt and Kenneth Rogoff; his job prospects will be rightly enhanced by this episode.

But the glee with which anti-Austerians pounced on this episode to ‘prove’ that austerity doesn’t work seems to involve an assumption that the original Reinhardt-Rogoff paper of 2010 ‘proved’ anything to the contrary in the first place. There are lots of papers about the impact of debt/GDP ratios on growth, and they demonstrate all kinds of different things – see for example this BIS paper by Cecchetti and others, or this IMF paper (pdf) from last year on the Caribbean economies, or this Fed paper published in December (pdf), or this much-cited 2010 paper by Koehler-Geib and others, or for that matter the new paper debunking Reinhardt and Rogoff’s 90% as it too finds the same correlation albeit with different numbers.

Well, you get the idea. Taking these together, we ‘know’ there might be a threshold for sovereign debt, but it varies over time and across countries, it’s a correlation whose causal direction and mechanism is unclear, and there isn’t enough data for any estimates to be robust (because history only runs once). All of which only goes to underline how little is known about the macroeconomy, not to mention how hard any macroeconomists and their camp followers find it to resist claiming certainty where there is none.

No doubt Reinhardt and Rogoff were tempted into over-claiming for their work by the politicisation of the debt threshold issue. But the underlying message of their big 2009 book, This Time is Different, is unscathed: unlike the later paper, it makes it absolutely clear that debt ‘thresholds’ above which increasing borrowing is correlated with lower growth vary widely in different countries and at different times (no magic 90% here); and that the historical record indicates it generally takes a long time for growth to recover after banking crises involving debt overhangs.

This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly

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Who is responsible for the Greek debt crisis?

The headlines are full of Greek politics – will the country opt out of the austerity/bailout/Euro package or not? It seems the rest of the Eurozone is presenting the issue as an ultimatum.

It set me to wondering why there hasn’t been more discussion about exactly what the terms of the bailout cover, and why. Because it was a shock to learn – via Paul Seabright’s recent Princeton in Europe lecture – that by 2008 Greece had become the world’s fifth biggest arms importer (pdf), and the second and third biggest customer for German and French arms exporters respectively, presumably in deals financed by German and French banks. Even in 2011, Greece’s defence spending amounted to 3.2% of GDP, the highest in Europe as a share of GDP,  and $1230 per Greek citizen.

(Parochial note – the UK is the world’s 5th biggest arms exporter, Europe’s 3rd behind France and Germany, and our biggest customers by 2008 were the US, India and Chile.)

Stopping the purchases would make a handy dent in the 9% of GDP budget deficit. So surely would ending interest payments – even defaulting – on those loans that financed the earlier arms build-up. If German and French banks were encouraged to extend them by their governments for geopolitical reasons, then those governments should take responsibility and face their own taxpayers, rather than placing the whole burden on Greek taxpayers.

This obviously isn’t the whole story. After all, not that many Greeks are taxpayers (only just over half, it seems), so there is definitely a need for Greece to face up to its own responsibilities too. But I find it odd that the story about Greece’s astonishing military build-up isn’t better known. All I could find is one Guardian article that mentioned it.

The data source is the highly-regarded SIPRI Yearbook. This is one of the shadowy areas of the global economy that economists don’t discuss enough, along with the outright illegal economy – as I touched on at the weekend with a little rant about the vampire cephalopods of the global economy.

SIPRI Yearbook 2011: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (SIPRI Yearbook Series)

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