Is the Economic narrative changing?
First read this:
S&P and the USA
By PAUL KRUGMAN
OK, so Standard and Poors has gone ahead with the threatened downgrade. It’s a strange situation.
On one hand, there is a case to be made that the madness of the right has made America a fundamentally unsound nation. And yes, it is the madness of the right: if not for the extremism of anti-tax Republicans, we would have no trouble reaching an agreement that would ensure long-run solvency.
On the other hand, it’s hard to think of anyone less qualified to pass judgment on America than the rating agencies. The people who rated subprime-backed securities are now declaring that they are the judges of fiscal policy? Really?
Just to make it perfect, it turns out that S&P got the math wrong by $2 trillion, and after much discussion conceded the point — then went ahead with the downgrade.
More than that, everything I’ve heard about S&P’s demands suggests that it’s talking nonsense about the US fiscal situation. The agency has suggested that the downgrade depended on the size of agreed deficit reduction over the next decade, with $4 trillion apparently the magic number. Yet US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term. What matters is the longer-term prospect, which in turn mainly depends on health care costs.
So what was S&P even talking about? Presumably they had some theory that restraint now is an indicator of the future — but there’s no good reason to believe that theory, and for sure S&P has no authority to make that kind of vague political judgment.
In short, S&P is just making stuff up — and after the mortgage debacle, they really don’t have that right.
So this is an outrage — not because America is A-OK, but because these people are in no position to pass judgment.
The Lesser Depression
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: July 21, 2011
These are interesting times — and I mean that in the worst way. Right now we’re looking at not one but two looming crises, either of which could produce a global disaster. In the United States, right-wing fanatics in Congress may block a necessary rise in the debt ceiling, potentially wreaking havoc in world financial markets. Meanwhile, if the plan just agreed to by European heads of state fails to calm markets, we could see falling dominoes all across southern Europe — which would also wreak havoc in world financial markets.
We can only hope that the politicians huddled in Washington and Brussels succeed in averting these threats. But here’s the thing: Even if we manage to avoid immediate catastrophe, the deals being struck on both sides of the Atlantic are almost guaranteed to make the broader economic slump worse.
In fact, policy makers seem determined to perpetuate what I’ve taken to calling the Lesser Depression, the prolonged era of high unemployment that began with the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continues to this day, more than two years after the recession supposedly ended.
Let’s talk for a moment about why our economies are (still) so depressed.
The great housing bubble of the last decade, which was both an American and a European phenomenon, was accompanied by a huge rise in household debt. When the bubble burst, home construction plunged, and so did consumer spending as debt-burdened families cut back.
Everything might still have been O.K. if other major economic players had stepped up their spending, filling the gap left by the housing plunge and the consumer pullback. But nobody did. In particular, cash-rich corporations see no reason to invest that cash in the face of weak consumer demand.
Nor did governments do much to help. Some governments — those of weaker nations in Europe, and state and local governments here — were actually forced to slash spending in the face of falling revenues. And the modest efforts of stronger governments — including, yes, the Obama stimulus plan — were, at best, barely enough to offset this forced austerity.
So we have depressed economies. What are policy makers proposing to do about it? Less than nothing.
The disappearance of unemployment from elite policy discourse and its replacement by deficit panic has been truly remarkable. It’s not a response to public opinion. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 53 percent of the public named the economy and jobs as the most important problem we face, while only 7 percent named the deficit. Nor is it a response to market pressure. Interest rates on U.S. debt remain near historic lows.
Yet the conversations in Washington and Brussels are all about spending cuts (and maybe tax increases, I mean revisions). That’s obviously true about the various proposals being floated to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis here. But it’s equally true in Europe.
On Thursday, the “heads of state or government of the euro area and the E.U. institutions” — that mouthful tells you, all by itself, how messy European governance has become — issued their big statement. It wasn’t reassuring.
For one thing, it’s hard to believe that the Rube Goldberg financial engineering the statement proposes can really resolve the Greek crisis, let alone the wider European crisis.
But, even if it does, then what? The statement calls for sharp deficit reductions “in all countries except those under a programme” to take place “by 2013 at the latest.” Since those countries “under a programme” are being forced into drastic fiscal austerity, this amounts to a plan to have all of Europe slash spending at the same time. And there is nothing in the European data suggesting that the private sector will be ready to take up the slack in less than two years.
For those who know their 1930s history, this is all too familiar. If either of the current debt negotiations fails, we could be about to replay 1931, the global banking collapse that made the Great Depression great. But, if the negotiations succeed, we will be set to replay the great mistake of 1937: the premature turn to fiscal contraction that derailed economic recovery and ensured that the Depression would last until World War II finally provided the boost the economy needed.
Did I mention that the European Central Bank — although not, thankfully, the Federal Reserve — seems determined to make things even worse by raising interest rates?
There’s an old quotation, attributed to various people, that always comes to mind when I look at public policy: “You do not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.” Now that lack of wisdom is on full display, as policy elites on both sides of the Atlantic bungle the response to economic trauma, ignoring all the lessons of history. And the Lesser Depression goes on.