Strange Defeat

Following up on the previous post, below the fold is an article Arjun and I wrote last year for the Indian publication Economic and Political Weekly, on how liberal New Keynesian economists planted the seeds of their own defeat in the policy arena. 

I should add that Krugman is very far from the worst in this respect. If I criticize my soon-to-be colleague so much, it’s only because of his visibility, and because the clarity of his writing and his genuinely admirable political commitments make it easier to see the constraints imposed by his theoretical commitments. You might say that his distinct virtues bring the common vices into sharper focus.

Strange Defeat: How Austerity Economics Lost All the Intellectual Battles but Won the War
J. W. Mason[1] and Arjun Jayadev[2]
In 2010, policy makers in the advanced industrialized world pivoted sharply away from the Keynesian policies they had briefly espoused in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-2009. A confluence of economic and political events meant that the fragile consensus in favor of expanding government expenditure broke apart.  Contributing factors included the sharp rise in public debt in much of Europe, largely due to government assumption of the liabilities of failing banks; the rise of “Tea Party” conservatives in the US following the November 2010 congressional elections; and the lack of a convincing political narrative about government expenditure. The Keynesian position was replaced, at least among elite policy makers, with a commitment towards fiscal consolidation and ‘austerity’.
With the hindsight of three years it is clear that this historical recapitulation of the Keynesian versus “Treasury view” debate, 80 years after the original, and the consequent implementation of orthodox policies, was both tragic and farcical. Tragic, because fiscal retrenchment and rectitude prolonged depression conditions in the advanced economies and sentenced millions to the misery of unemployment. Farcical, because the empirical and theoretical foundations of wholesale austerity policies were almost comically weak. A few implausible and empirically questionable papers were used to provide the intellectual cover for the pivot, despite the fact that each in turn was quickly discredited both on their own terms and by real life events. As Mark Blyth (Blyth 2013) put it “Austerity didn’t just fail – it helped blow up the world.”
In the first part of this paper, we review some of the most influential academic arguments for austerity, and describe how they collapsed under scrutiny. In the second, we broaden the focus, and consider the “new consensus” in macroeconomics, shared by most pro-stimulus economists as well as the “austerians.” We argue that this consensus – with its methodological commitment to optimization by rational agents, its uncritical faith in central banks, and its support for the norms of “sound finance” – has offered a favorable environment for arguments for austerity. Even the resounding defeat of particular arguments for austerity is unlikely to have much lasting effect, as long as the economics profession remains committed to a view of the world in which in which lower government debt is always desirable, booms and downturns are just temporary deviations from a stable long-term growth path, and in which – in “normal times” at least — central banks can and do correct all short-run deviations from that optimal path. Many liberal, New Keynesian, and “saltwater” economists have tenaciously opposed austerity in the intellectual and policy arenas.[3] But they are fighting a monster of their own creation.
INTRODUCTION
In April 2013, an influential paper (“Growth in a Time of Debt”) by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (Reinhart and Rogoff 2010) that purported to show hard limits to government debt before causing sharp decreases in growth was the subject of an enormous amount of attention for the second time.  Whereas in its first airing, the paper became a touchstone paper for the austerity movement across the advanced industrialized world, this time it was for less august reasons. Papers by Herndon, Ash and Pollin (2013) and by Dube (2013) showed the paper to have had serious mistakes in both construction and interpretation. This was not the first time that the academic case for austerity had been shown to be invalid or overstated. Two years earlier the major source of intellectual, support for immediate fiscal retrenchment was provided by another paper (“Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending”), again by two Harvard economists-Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna (Alesina and Ardagna 2009). This too was shown almost immediately to be deeply flawed, misapplying lessons from boom periods to periods of recession, wrongly attributing fiscal consolidation to countries undergoing fiscal expansion, wrongly applying the special conditions of small open economies to the world at large, and other egregious errors (IMF, 2010, Jayadev and Konczal 2010).
Below, we examine the claims of these key papers and their logical and empirical failings. But the weakness of these papers invites a broader question: How could the wholesale shift to austerity have been built on such shaky foundations? While some of the blame must go to opportunism by policy makers and confirmation bias by politically motivated researchers, a large share of the blame rests with what is often called the “new consensus” in macroeconomic theory, a consensus shared as much by austerity’s ostensible opponents as by its declared supporters. It is a matter of some amazement that the most effective theoretical counterpoint to the austerity position is provided not by cutting edge scholarship, but by a straightforward application of models that college students learn in their second year. Paul Krugman, for instance, most often makes his claims that “economic theory” has well-established answers to the problem of deep recessions, by referring t the IS-LM model. This was first written down by John Hicks in 1936, and has not appeared in graduate economics textbooks in 50years .That it is being trotted out now as the public face of a professional economics to which it bears no resemblance, is remarkable. But it’s perhaps less of a surprise when one recalls that the essential insights of Keynesian economics have long been  banished from mainstream economics, to linger on only in “the Hades of undergraduate instruction.” (Leijonhufvud, 1981)
Modern macroeconomic theory is organized around inter-temporal optimization and rational expectations, while policy discussions are dominated by a commitment to the doctrines of “sound finance” and a preference for ‘technocratic’ monetary policy conducted by ‘independent’ central banks. The historical processes that led to these commitments are complex.  For present purposes, what is important to note is that they severely limit the scope of economic debate.The need for “structural reform” and for long-term budget balance is agreed across the admissible political spectrum, from pro-austerity European conservatives to American liberals who savor the memory of Clinton era debt reduction. Even someone like Paul Krugman, who has been the foremost critic of austerity policies, treats the idea that governments do not face financing constraints, and that macroeconomic policy cannot be fully trusted to central banks, as special features of the current period of “depression economics,” which must sooner or later come to an end. Mainstream Keynesians then become modern day Augustines: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet”.
THE RISE AND FALL OF AUSTERITY ECONOMICS
In 2010 Alberto Alesina from Harvard University was celebrated by Business Week for his series of papers on fiscal consolidation. This was ‘his hour,’ the article proclaimed (Coy, 2010). His surprising argument that the best way forward for  countries facing high unemplyment was to undertake “Large, credible and decisive spending cuts” was, for a while, on everyone’s lips. Such cuts, he reasoned, would change the expectations of market participants and bring forward investment that was held back by the uncertainty surrounding policy in the recession. Specifically, Alesina and Ardagna purported to show that across a large sample of countries, governments had successfully cut deficits, reduced debts and seen higher growth as a result. The mechanism by which this occurs  enhancing the confidence of investors in countries with “credible” governments, thereby raising investment —  has been derisively labeled ‘the confidence fairy’ by Paul Krugman.
This idea of ‘expansionary austerity’– the notion that cutting spending would increase growth–is both an attack on traditional notions of demand management, and also extraordinarily convenient for conservative macroeconomic policy makers. Not only would reducing the deficit and debt burdens of countries advancetheir  long term goal of reducing  the size of the state, it would riase spending even in the short term, since the confidence effects of fiscal surpluses on private expenditure would more than offset any drag from the public sector contraction. Even better, consolidation was better according to Alesina and Ardagna (2009) if it was weighted towards spending cuts, rather than tax increases. As Coy (2010) notes “The bottom line: Alesina has provided the theoretical ammunition fiscal conservatives want..”
As Blyth (2013) documents, this idea obtained immediate traction among policy-making elites and by mid 2010 the idea of deficit reduction in a period of weak demand (which might otherwise have been deemed nonsensical), was receiving support from high-level policy makers who spoke knowingly about the immediate need to restore ‘confidence’ in the markets.  Thus, for example Jean Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, observed that
“It is an error to think that fiscal austerity is a threat to growth and job creation. At present, a major problem is the lack of confidence on the part of households, firms, savers and investors who feel that fiscal policies are not sound and sustainable”.[4]
As Blyth notes, while the argument for expansionary austerity was enthusiastically endorsed by policymakers (especially but not only in Europe), the intellectual case collapsed almost immediately. The paper was .. “dissected, augmented, tested, refuted and generally hauled over the coals” (Blyth 2013). First, Jayadev and Konczal (2010) noted that none of the alleged cases of expansionary austerity occurred during recessions. They also noted that in some cases Alesina -Ardagna had misclassified periods of fiscal expansion as periods of fiscal consolidation. Immediately following this, the IMF  (IMF, 2010) noted that the way in which Alesina -Ardagna had classified fiscal policy as being expansionary or contractionary seemed to have very little connection with actual fiscal policy changes. In terms of both effects and causes, the empirical work turned out to be valueless for policy.
Faced with mounting challenges to his work, Alesina appeared undeterred and defended his ideas while prognosticating on the future of Europe: “In addition, what is unfolding currently in Europe directly contradicts Jayadev and Konczal. Several European countries have started drastic plans of fiscal adjustment in the middle of a fragile recovery. At the time of this writing, it appears that European speed of recovery is sustained, faster than that of the U.S., and the ECB has recently significantly raised growth forecasts for the Euro area.” (Alesina 2010).
Three years on, this confident prognostication is an embarassment. The Washington Post,  taking stock of the argument, concluded “No advanced economy has proved Alesina correct in the wake of the Great Recession” (Tankersley, 2013). Not only did austerity not deliver higher growth: in the countries that tried it, output contracted more or less exactly in line with the degree of austerity they managed to impose. (Degrauwe and Ji 2013)
But just as the case for short-term fiscal consolidation was disintegrating in the eyes of all but a few diehard believers, a new set of arguments became the intellectual bulwark of the austerity movement. As the Greek debt crisis spun out of control and interest rates on sovereign debt rose   elsewhere in the European periphery, concern with public debt rose even in countries like the US, where  bond markets were untroubled and yields on government debt remained at record lows. For respectable opinion, the question was when, and not if, government debt needed to be cut, if we do’t want to “turn into Greece.”[5]
It was at this point that the paper by Reinhart and Rogoff struck its mark. Using a panel of data on growth and government debt over many decades, Reinhart and Rogoff came up with a magic number – a 90% government debt to GDP ratio — beyond which economies faced a sharp drop-off in growth rates.
As with expansionary austerity, this argument caught on very quickly with policy makers it was cited by David Cameron, Olli Rehn and Paul Ryan, among others,  to justify a push for deep, immediate debt reduction. Unlike the Alesina-Ardagna paper, this one was not easily refuted.  For one thing, the construction of the paper made it difficult for other researchers to try to replicate the results. But despite some early warnings about interpretations of the data (Bivens and Irons 2010. Ferguson and Johnson 2010), this difficulty was generally  interpreted as a reason to defer to its findings rather than as a basis for skepticism. Second, and more insidiously, there is a widespread agreement among mainstream economists that high government debt must eventually reduce growth, and so Reinhart and Rogoff’s work was received without much critical scrutiny. The 90% threshold seemed to simply confirm a widely accepted principle.
It is not surprising therefore that the errors in Reinhart and Rogoff’s work was discovered by researchers decidedly out of the mainstream. Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, all from the University of Massachusetts Amherst—a department that has been called the ‘single most important heterodox department in the country’ — published a paper in April 2013 which showed that the Reinhart-Rogoff results were the consequence of coding errors and omissions and nonstandard weighting of data. The 90% drop-off in growth disappeared when these errors were corrected.
Even more devastatingly, Arindrajit Dube (also from the University of Massachusetts) showed that if at all there was a correlation between debt and growth, it was more likely that episodes of low growth led to higher levels of debt rather than the other way around. ( Dube, 2013) Again, this counter argument had been made by opponents of austerity, and could easily have been verified by supporters of austerity or Reinhart and Rogoff themselves, but simply hadn’t been taken seriously.
With the key intellectual arguments for the austerity consensus falling apart before their eyes, the commentariat went into overdrive, speculating on the reasons why such policies could be adopted with such little vetting.
The media proposed various  relatively benign reasons: confirmation bias, opportunism by politicians, etc.. But while these were surely factors, they surely do not explain the catastrophic failure of the economics profession to offer a rational basis for policy discussion.
James Crotty has provided a larger political economy framing of the austerity wars (Crotty, 2012). He suggests  that austerian policies should  be seen as class conflict—protecting the interests of the wealthy and attacking those of the poor, and that these battles should be seen as the latest skirmish in a longer war of ideas and priorities. Austerity, fro this viewpoint, is less an intellectual failure than a deliberate choice reflecting the political dominance of finance capital and capital in general[6].
Our purpose in this paper is to more deeply explore the battle of ideas and the extent to which the “macroeconomic consensus”, shared by mainstream economists across the political spectrum, must take a large part of the blame. Many liberal “New Keynesian” economists have done yeoman work in making the political case for stimulus and against austerity. But they have not yet come to terms with the role their own theoretical and policy frameworks played in the turn to austerity – and continue to impede realistic discussion of the crisis and effective responses to it.
THE HEGEMONY OF CONSENSUS MACROECONOMICS
While there is much to admire in the doggedness of the UMass-Amherst team (and the alacrity with which a network of left-leaning bloggers and media figures publicized their results) the truth is that knocking down Alesina and Ardagna and Reinhart and Rogoff’s results wasn’t difficult. The real question is, how was such crude work so successful in the first place?
The easy answer is that it was telling policymakers what they wanted to hear. But that lets the economics profession off too easily. For the past thirty years the dominant macroeconomic models that have been in used by central banks and by leading macroeconomists have had very little time and space for discussions of fiscal policy. In particular, the spectrum of models really ranged only from what have been termed real business cycle theory approaches on the one end to New Keynesian approaches on the other: perspectives that are considerably closer in flavor and methodological commitments to each other than to the ‘old Keynesian’ approaches embodied in such models as the IS-LM framework of undergraduate economics. In particular, while demand matters in the short run in New Keynesian models, it can have no effect in the long run; no matter what, the economy always eventually returns to its full-employment growth path.
And while conventional economic theory saw the economy as self-equilibrating, , economic policy discussion was dominated by faith in the stabilizing powers of central banks and in the conventional wisdom of “sound finance.” Perhaps the major reason Reinhart and Rogoff’s work went unscrutinized for so long is that it was only putting numbers on the prevailing consensus.
This is clearly seen when one observes that some of the same economists who today are leading the charge against austerity, were arguing just as forcefully a few years ago that the most important macroeconomic challenge was reducing the size of public debt. More broadly, work like Alesina -Ardagna and Reinhart – Rogoff has been so influential because the new Keynesians in the economics profession do not provide a compelling argument in favor of stimulus. New Keynesians follow Keynes in name only; they’ve certainly given better policy advice than the austerians in recent years, but such advice does not always flow naturally from their models.
There are two distinct failures here, one in economic theory and the other in discussions of economic policy.
The limited support for fiscal expansion in ‘frontier’ theory
On a theoretical level, professional economists today are committed to thinking of the economy in terms of intertemporal optimization by rational agents. In effect, the first question to ask about any economic outcome is, why does this leave people better off than any alternative? In such framework, agents know their endowments and tastes (and everyone else’s,) and the available production technology in all future periods. So they know all possible mixes of consumption and leisure available to them over the entire future and the utility each provides. Based on this knowledge they pick, for all periods simultaneously (“on the 8th day of creation”) the optimal path of labor, output and consumption (Leijonhufvud 1981)).
Given a framework in which explanation in terms of optimization is always the default, it’s natural to think that unemployment is just workers making an optimal choice to take their leisure now, in the knowledge that they will be more productive in the future. In this view — mockingly termed the ‘Great Vacation’ theory of recessions – stimulus is not only ineffective but unneeded, since the “problem” of high unemployment is actually what’s best for everyone. Most economists wouldn’t accept this claim in its bald form. Yet they continue to teach their graduate students that the best way to explain changes in investment and employment is in terms of the optimal allocation of consumption and leisure over time. . New Keynesians have spent a generation trying to show why the economy can move (temporarily) off the optimal path. The solution to these deviations is almost always found in monetary policy and only in very special circumstances can fiscal policy play a (limited)  role.
Degrauwe (2010) distinguishes ‘Old Keynesian’, ‘New Keynesian’ and Real Business cycle (Ricardian) models. He notes that the latter two ‘state of the art’ frameworks are similar in their framing and methodological commitments. As he puts it:

In the (Old) Keynesian model there is no automatic return to the long run output equilibrium. As a result, policy can have a permanent effect on output. The New Keynesian model, like the Ricardian model, contains a very different view of the economy. In this model fiscal policy shocks lead to adjustments in interest rate, prices and wages that tend to crowd out private investment and consumption. As a result, output is brought back to its initial level. In the Ricardian model this occurs very rapidly; in the New Keynesian models this adjustment takes time because of rigidities in wages and prices. But fundamentally, the structure of these two models is the same.

Moreover, in most cases, the ‘rigidities in wages and prices’ in New Keynesian models are best handled by monetary policy.  While these class of models are extremely large and varied, for the most part, in the New Keynesian approach, the key problem arises because periodically the interest rate generated by imperfect competition and pricing rigidities lead to a ‘wrong’ real interest rate.  As Simon Wren-Lewis (2012) argues:

Once we have the ‘wrong’ real interest rate, then (using imperfect competition as a justification) New Keynesian analysis determines output and perhaps employment only from the demand side, and the determination of effective demand becomes critical to the model. Perhaps a better way of saying this is that if real interest rates are at their natural level, we do not need to think about demand when calculating output. In most cases, it is the job of monetary policy to try and get the economy back to this natural real interest rate. This gives you the key insight into why, ZLB problems apart, it is monetary rather than fiscal policy that is the primary stabilizing policy.

Indeed, the New Keynesian models that provide any support for fiscal policy only do so at the zero lower bound, where monetary policy has stopped being effective. And even here, the models can provide some tremendously counterintuitive predictions that militate against common-sense. For example, in the canonical model of policy at the ZLB, a payroll tax cuts are contractionary, by the same logic that  government expenditure is expansionary. Since nobody actually believes this odd result – liberal economists universally supported payroll tax cuts as part of the Obama stimulus package in 2009, and bemoaned the demand-reducing effects of the cuts’ expiration at the beginning of this year – it appears that even New Keynesians don’t really believe their own models are useful guides to questions of stimulus and austerity.
Even if one does believe them, the truth is that New Keynesian models provide very little support for stimulus. With Ricardian equivalence built in, this is always going to be case-but as Cogan et al (2010) show, the majority of these models provide very little empirical support for fiscal policy. Instead, the estimates of effectiveness of fiscal expansion coming from the wide array of these models were very small indeed.
Taken as a whole then, neither the New Classical nor New Keynesian theoretical approaches—those that dominate modern macroeconomics– afford a robust case for fiscal expansion. It is not surprising therefore that Keynesians seeking support for stimulus have ‘retreated’ to older Keynesian frameworks like IS-LM. But this embrace of IS-LM is only for purposes of advocacy; in the journals and the graduate classrooms, New Keynesian models are as dominant as ever.[7]
On the specific question of government finances and the sustainability of debt, the analysis in any modern macroeconomics textbook is in terms of the intertemporal budget constraint. The core idea is that the present value of government spending across all future time must be less than or equal to the present value of taxation across all future time, minus the current value of government debt. This assumes that government must balance budget eventually: After infinite time (this is how economists think), debt must go to zero. And it assumes that interest rates and growth rates are can’t be changed by policy, and that inflation makes no difference — any change in inflation is fully anticipated by financial markets and passed through one for one to interest rates. At the same time, the budget constraint assumes that governments face no limit on borrowing in any given period. This is the starting point for all discussions of government budgets in economics teaching and research. In many graduate macroeconomics courses, the entire discussion of government budgets is just the working-out of that one equation.
But this kind of budget constraint has nothing to do with the kind of financial constraint the austerity debates are about.  The textbook constraint is based on the idea that government is setting tax and spending levels for all periods once and for all. There’s no difference between past and future — the equation is unchanged if you reverse the direction of time and simultaneously reverse the sign of the interest rate. This approach isn’t specific to government budgetconstraints, it’s the way most matters are approached in contemporary macroeconomics. The starting point for most macro textbooks is a model of a “representative agent” allocating known production and consumption possibilities across an infinite time horizon.[8] Economic growth simply means that the parameters are such that the household, or planner, chooses a path of output with higher values in later periods than in earlier ones. Financial markets and aggregate demand aren’t completely ignored, of course, but they are treated as details to be added later, not part of the main structure.
One important feature of these models is that the interest rate is not the cost of credit or finance; rather, it’s the rate of substitution, set by tastes and technology, of spending or taxing between different periods. The idea that interest is the cost of money, not the cost of substitution between the future and the present, was arguably the most important single innovation in Keynes’ General Theory. But it has disappeared from contemporary textbooks, and without it there isn’t even the possibility of bond markets limiting government budget options. As soon as we begin talking about the state of confidence in the bond market, we are talking about a financial constraint, not a budget constraint. But the whole logic of contemporary macroeconomics excludes the possibility of government financial constraints. At no point in either of the two most widely-used macro textbook in the US — Paul Romer’s Advanced Macroeconomics and Blanchard and Fischer’s Lectures on Macroeconomics — are they seriously discussed.
This framework at once overstates and understates the limits on government finances. On the one hand, it ignores the positive possibilities of financial repression to hold down interest rate, and of growing or inflating out of debt,[9] and also the possibility — in fact certainty — that government debt can be held by the public permanently rather than being eventually paid off. But on the other hand, it also ignores reasons why governments might not be able to borrow unlimited amounts in any given period. (This goes for private budget constraints too.) The theory simply doesn’t have any place for the questions about government borrowing
A faulty excel spreadsheet was able to carry the field on stimulus and austerity because the economics profession had already limited itself to conceiving of the main problems of fluctuations as either desirable or easily solved by monetary policy. But the limits of modern macroeconomic theory are only half the problem. The other half is the policy implications promoted by consensus macroeconomics — specifically, the consensus that all the hard policy questions can be delegated to the central bank.
The preference for technical monetary policy
In the view of consensus macroeconomics, Keynes was right that markets alone can’t ensure the full use of society’s resources. But that’s only because a single wrong price, the interest rate. Let a wise planner set that correctly, and everything else will fall into place. Historically, this view owes more to Wicksell than to Keynes. [See Axel Leijonhufvud, “The Wicksellian Heritage.” 1987] But Wicksell was deeply worried by the idea that the market rate of interest, determined by the financial system, could depart from the “natural” rate of interest required to balance demands for present versus future goods. For him, this was a grave source of instability in any fully developed system of credit money. For modern economists, there’s no need to worry; the problem is solved by the central bank, which ensures that the rate of interest is always at the natural rate. Lost in this updating of Wicksell is his focus on the specific features of the banking system that allow the market rate to diverge from the natural rate in the first place. But without any discussion of the specific failures that can cause the banking system to set the interest rate at the “wrong” level, it’s not clear why we should have faith that the central bank can overcome those failures.
Nonetheless, faith in monetary-policy ‘Maestros’, became nearly universal in the 1990s as the cult of Greenspan reached full flower in the US, the European Central Bank came into being as the commanding institution of the European Union, and central banks replaced government ministries as the main locus of economic policy in many countries.  Respectable mainstream economists flirted with fatuity in their paeans to the wisdom of central bankers. In a somewhat ill-timed issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Goodfriend (2007) argued that

The worldwide progress in monetary policy is a great achievement that, especially when viewed from the perspective of 30 years ago, is a remarkable success story. Today, academics, central bank economists, and policymakers around the world work together on monetary policy as never before … The worldwide working consensus provides a foundation for future work because it was forged out of hard practical lessons from diverse national experiences over decades, and because it provides common ground upon which academics and central bankers can work to improve monetary policy in the future.

Christina Romer, a leading American New Keynesian who was soon to lead Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, was even more obsequious in her praise for the wisdom of central bankers:

The most striking fact about macropolicy is that we have progressed amazingly. … The Federal Reserve is directly responsible for the low inflation and the virtual disappearance of the business cycle in the last 25 years. … The story of stabilization policy of the last quarter century is one of amazing success. We have seen the triumph of sensible ideas and have reaped the rewards… Real short-run macroeconomic performance has been splendid. … We have seen a glorious counterrevolution in the ideas and conduct of short-run stabilization policy. (Romer 2007)

This was, to put it mildly, an overstatement.
As far as the capabilities of central banks go, there’s reason to doubt that they have the decisive influence on real economic outcomes that the conventional wisdom of the 2000s attributed to them. Short-term interest rates appear to have ceased having much effect on longer rates and on economic activity well before they reached zero.  And if central banks could always guarantee full employment assuming positive interest rates, there would undoubtedly be ways to work around the problem of zero — committing to more expansionary policy in the future, intervening at longer maturities through quantitative easing, and so on. But while the Fed and other central banks – such as the Bank of Japan — have tried many of these unconventional approaches, they have had little impact. This failure should raise serious questions about whether the effectiveness of conventional policy was also exaggerated. The relative stability of output and employment prior to 2008 may not have been, as widely believed, due to the skillful hand of central bankers on the economy’s tiller, but to favorable conditions that were largely outside their control. And in any case, that stability is easy to exaggerate. In the US and Europe, the so-called “Great Moderation” featured asset bubbles and long “jobless recoveries,” while in much of the developing world it witnessed a series of devastating financial crises and repeated collapses in employment and output.
For economists who received their training under the monetarist consensus that has dominated policy discussions since the 1980s, the terms “effective demand failure” and “monetary policy error” were practically synonyms.  This notion that the central bank can achieve any level of money expenditure that it wishes, has always been a matter of faith rather than reason or evidence. But it was a very convenient faith, since it allowed the consensus to remove the most contentious questions of macroeconomic policy from the democratic process, and vest them in a committee of “apolitical” experts.
And that is the other problem with the cult of the central bankers: They have never really been apolitical. Mainstream economists have made the disinterestedness of central banks into an axiom — in standard macro models, the  “reaction function” of monetary policy has the same status as an objective fact about the world as, say, the relationship between unemployment and inflation. It’s taken for granted that while elected officials may be corrupt or captured by particular interests, central bankers are disinterested technicians who only want what’s best for everyone, or at least always follow their stated rules. For prominent liberal economists like Alan Blinder (who served on the Fed board under President Clinton), the performance of “apolitical” central banks is so exemplary that it becomes an argument against political democracy in general:

We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. … the argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. … Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? … The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended to other arenas. … The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if … left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees. (Blinder 1987)

The idea of leaving hard questions to “independent technical bodies” is seductive. But in practice, “independent” often means independent from democratic accountability, not from the interests of finance. Private banks have always had an outsize influence on monetary policy. In the early 1930s, according to to economic historians Gerald Epstein and Thomas Ferguson, expansionary monetary policy was blocked by pressure from private banks, whose interests the Fed put ahead of stabilizing the economy as a whole (Epstein and Ferguson, 1984). More recently, in the 1970s and ’80s, for the Fed of this era, holding down wages was job number one, and they were quite aware that this meant taking the of side of business against labor in acute political conflicts. And when a few high-profile union victories, like 1997’s successful strike of UPS drivers, briefly made it appear that organized labor might be reviving, Fed officials made no effort to hide their displeasure:

I suspect we will find that the [UPS] strike has done a good deal of damage in the past couple of weeks. The settlement may go a long way toward undermining the wage flexibility that we started to get in labor markets with the air traffic controllers’ strike back in the early 1980s. Even before this strike, it appeared that the secular decline in real wages was over.” (Quoted in “Not Yet Dead at the Fed: Unions, Worker Bargaining, and Economy-Wide Wage Determination” (2005) by  Daniel J.B. Mitchell and Christopher L. Erickson.)

Europe today offers the clearest case of “independent” central banks taking on an overtly political role. The ECB has repeatedly refused to support the markets for European sovereign debt, not because such intervention might fail, but precisely because it might work. As Deutsches Bundesbank president Jens Weidman put it last year, “Relieving stress in the sovereign bond markets eases imminent funding pain but blurs the signal to sovereigns about the precarious state of public finances and the urgent need to act.” (“Monetary policy is no panacea for Europe,” Financial Times, May 7 2012.) In a letter to the Financial Times, one European bank executive made the same point even more bluntly: “In addition to price stability, [the ECB] has a mandate to impose structural reform. To this extent, cyclical pain is part of its agenda.” In other words, it is the job of the ECB not simply to maintain price stability or keep Europe’s financial system from collapsing, but to inflict “pain” on democratically elected governments in order to compel them to adopt “reforms” of its own choosing.
What the ECB means by “reforms” was made very clear in a 2011 memo to the Italian government, setting out the conditions under which it would support the market in Italian debt.  The ECB’s demands included “full liberalisation of local public services…. particularly… the provision of local services through large scale privatizations”; “reform [of] the collective wage bargaining system … to tailor wages and working conditions to firms’ specific needs…”;  “thorough review of the rules regulating the hiring and dismissal of employees”; and cuts to private as well as public pensions, “making more stringent the eligibility criteria for seniority pensions” and raising the retirement age of women in the private sector. (Quoted in: “Trichet e Draghi: un’azione pressante per ristabilire la fiducia degli investitori,” Corriere della Serra, September 29, 2011.[10]) Privatization, weaker unions, more employer control over hiring and firing, skimpier pensions. This goes well beyond the textbook remit of a central bank. But it makes perfect sense if one thinks that central banks are not the disinterested experts but representatives of a specific political interest, one that stands to gain from privatization of public goods and weakened protections for workers.
Certainly many economists don’t support the kind of slash-and-burn “reform” being promoted by the ECB. But for the most part, consensus macroeconomics endorsed the delegation of all macroeconomic policymaking to central banks, insisted that monetary policy was a matter for technical expertise and not democratic accountability, and downplayed the real conflicting interests involved. This opened the way to a power grab by the central banks, on behalf of the owners of financial wealth who are their natural constituents.
The theoretical commitment to an economy where markets optimally arrange work, consumption and investment across all time, and the practical commitment to central banks as sole custodians of macroeconomic policy: These were undoubtedly the two most important ways in which the New Keynesian mainstream of economics prepared the way for the success of the austerian Right. A third contribution, less fundamental but more direct, was the commitment of economists to the tenets of “sound finance.”


Commitment to ‘Sound Finance’
The term “sound finance” was adopted in the 1940s by the pioneering American Keynesian Abba Lerner, to describe the view that governments are subject to the same kind of budget constraints as businesses and households, and should therefore guide their fiscal choices by the dangers of excessive debt. He contrasted this view with his own preferred approach, “functional finance,” which held that government budget decisions should be taken with an eye only on the state of the macroeconomy. High unemployment means higher spending and lower taxes are needed, high inflation the opposite; the government’s financial position is irrelevant.
Consensus macroeconomics has a strong commitment to the idea of sound finance. But this commitment is more reflexive, emotional or psychological than based on any coherent vision of the economy. As a result, liberal, “saltwater” economists waver between incompatible views depending on the rhetorical needs of the moment. . On the one hand, when stimulus is  required, they dismiss the idea of financial constraints, and reject the idea of some threshold above which the costs of pubic debt rise precipitously. This was the heart of the Reinhart and Rogoff dispute, and the 90% threshold was the (disproven) cliff. But on the other hand, they invoke the very same cliffs when arguing for surpluses in good times, that they dismiss when arguing for stimulus in bad ones.
This idea that the inflationary constraint to government spending is logically the primary constraint to government spending is rarely promoted. Instead appeals to unobservable ‘cliffs’, nonlinearities and future collapses in confidence dominate the conversation about government spending. Then ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet was roundly attacked by the pro-stimulus economists for arguing, in 2010, in the depths of Europe’s recession, that it was time to cut deficits and raise interest rates, on the grounds that:

The economy may be close to non-linear phenomena such as a rapid deterioration of confidence among broad constituencies of households, enterprises, savers and investors. My understanding is that an overwhelming majority of industrial countries are now in those uncharted waters, where confidence is potentially at stake. Consolidation is a must in such circumstances. (Trichet:”Stimulate no more: Now is the time for all to tighten.” Financial Times, July 22, 2010.)

As the critics rightly pointed out, there is no evidence or systematic argument for these “nonlinear responses.” The Reinhart – Rogoff paper was intended to provide exactly such evidence; its usefulness to conservative policymakers like Trichet was undoubtedly part of the reason for its success. The problem is, the collapse of Reinhart-Rogoff has hardly touched the larger vision of even the richest countries governments as perpetually teetering on the edge of a financial cliff. And one reason for the persistence of this vision is that it is shared by many of Reinhart-Rogoff’s liberal critics.

Here again is Christina Romer — one of the country’s leading “Keynesian” economists—arguing in 2007 that the biggest macroeconomic problem facing the country is that policymakers are not sufficiently worried about holding down government debt. True, she admits, there is no direct evidence high public debt has caused any problems so far. But:

It is possible that the effects of persistent deficits are highly nonlinear. Perhaps over a wide range, deficits and the cumulative public debt really do have little impact on the economy. But, at some point, the debt burden reaches a level that threatens the confidence of investors. Such a meltdown and a sudden stop of lending would unquestionably have enormous real consequences.  (Romer 2007)

Soon after giving this speech, Romer would be one of the leading advocates within the Obama administration for a larger stimulus bill. Lined up against her were economists such as Larry Summers and Peter Orszag. The conservatives’ arguments in that debate recapitulated the language Romer herself had been using less than two years before. Summers, in a contemporary account, “believed that filling the output gap through deficit spending was important, but that a package that was too large could potentially shift fears from the current crisis to the long-term budget deficit, which would have an unwelcome effect on the bond market.”  (Lizza 2009)
Mainstream New Keynesian economists want to argue that lack of fiscal space is never a constraint on stimulus in bad times, but that gaining fiscal space is a reason to run surpluses in good times. Logically, these two views are contradictory. After all, “With low debt, fiscal policy is less costly” and “With high debt, fiscal policy is more costly” are just two ways of saying the same thing. But the mainstream of economists has so far failed to face up to this contradiction. Liberal American economists seem unable to accept that if they give up the idea of a threshold past which the costs of public debt rise steeply, they must also give up the main macroeconomic argument in favor of the Clinton surpluses of the 1990s. Most critics of austerity are reluctant to admit that if high debt is not a constraint on stimulus in bad times, then it is not sensible to talk about “paying for” stimulus with surpluses in good times. Instead, they remain committed to the idea that government surpluses are definitely, absolutely needed – not now, but at some point in the future, they say. But that only cedes the moral high ground to the principled austerians who insist that surpluses are needed today.
In the stimulus vs. austerity wars of the past four years, the New Keynesians who make up the left wing of the mainstream consensus have undoubtedly been on the right side of many big policy questions. Case by case, they certainly have the better arguments. But they have no  vision. And so their victories  overAlesina -Ardagna or  Reinhart- Rogoff, count for much less than you might expect, since in the end, the vision of the economy, of the economics profession, and of economic policy hardly differs between the two camps. Alternative views of the macroeconomy exist, but they are simply ignored.
In this light, it’s interesting to compare Krugman’s 2009 New York Times magazine piece with his recent New York Review of Books piece. In the earlier article, while he has plenty of criticism for politicians, he makes it clear that the  insidious problem is in economics profession. Even the best economists, he writes, prefer mathematical elegance to historical realism, make a fetish of optimization and rational expectations, and ignore the main sources of instability in real economies. In 2009, Krugman was scathing about “the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy,” and made it clear that better policy would require better economics. He was unsparing — and insightful — about his own school as well as his opponents. The New Keynesian models used by “saltwater” economists like himself, he wrote, still “assume that people are perfectly rational and financial markets are perfectly efficient.” He was scornful of the all-purpose excuse that “no one could have predicted,” insisting that the world faced “disasters that could have been predicted, should have been predicted.”[11]
In the 2013 piece,  this self-critical tone is gone. Now, the economics profession as a whole is almost completely exonerated. Their “failure to anticipate the crisis,” he writes, “was a relatively minor sin. Economies are complicated, ever-changing entities; it was understandable that few economists realized” the fragility of the system before the crisis. Instead, his fire is all aimed at politicians, who “turned their back on practically everything economists had learned.”[12]the economists who have given intellectual support for austerity are reduced in this telling to a few outliers, a marginal clique. As a whole, he now says, the profession understands the problem properly; the lack of a proper solution is a sign of “just how little good comes from understanding.” Building a better economics seemed both urgent and promising in 2009; four years later, that project has been abandoned.
CONCLUSION
It is too easy to dismiss the idea of the pivot to austerity as being the failure of flawed papers or as political opportunism alone. Such an analysis misses the fact that, for the majority of the economics profession, , the ideas of stimulus and especially fiscal policy have always been intellectually uncomfortable, while the arguments for austerity and sound finance come naturally. A conception of macroeconomic dynamics in which the economy was by its nature unstable, and central banks could not be relied on to stabilize it, was difficult even to describe in the language of the mainstream. This state of affairs is what Gramsci would identify as hegemony.
The 2008 financial crisis and the multiple subsequent crises it engendered did seem to shake that hegemony. For a brief period, it became obvious that writers such as Keynes, Bagehot, Minsky and even Marx had much more to provide in terms of explanation and solutions than were available from the kind of macroeconomic taught in graduate classes and published in the top journals. But as time has gone on and memories of the crisis have faded, the consensus has reasserted itself. Nowhere, perhaps, has this been more evident, and more consequential, than in the austerity wars.
If Krugman got it right the first time and macroeconomists have no answers today’s urgent questions, and not just that politicians won’t listen to them – the question, then, is what is to be done? There are those who argue that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the ways in which macroeconomics is studied, that it is just a matter of adding a few more frictions. But this is simply the traditional cherished belief of intellectual endeavors that the discipline always improves on itself. As any historian of ideas might suggest, this narrative of continuously closer approximation to the truth is often a myth, and intellectual “progress” is often down a blind alley or wrong turn.
In Axel Leijonhufvud’s eloquent essay on the value of studying the history of economic thought (Leijonhufvud 2002), he offers the metaphor of a traveller who finds himself at a dead end in the road. If he is very bold, he might try to scale the walls (or bushwhack through the forest) blocking the path. But often, it’s better to backtrack, to see if there was a turnoff somewhere earlier on the road that looked less promising at the time but in retrospect might have been a better choice. This, he suggests, is the situation of economics today. In this case, further progress means, first of all, looking back to earlier points in the discipline’s evolution to see what of value might have been overlooked.
How far back we need to go — how long ago did economics take the wrong turn that led us to the current impasse? Was it 40 years ago, when the rational expectations revolution overturned Gordon’s  “Economics of 1978,” which had less faith in central banks and was perhaps better suited to describing economies as systems evolving in time? Or was it 75 years ago, when Keynes’ radical insights abut fundamental uncertainty and the inherent instability of the capitalist investment process were domesticated by writers like Hicks and Samuelson in the neoclassical synthesis? Or was it 150 years ago, when the classical tradition of Ricardo and Marx – with its attention to dynamics, and central concern with distributional conflict  — was displaced by the marginalist approach that made economics primarily about the static problem of efficient allocation? We do not here suggest that there is nothing worth keeping in the current macroeconomic canon, but we think these earlier traditions suggest important routes forward that have been abandoned. Indeed, those economists who worked in alternative traditions (Minskyan, Post-Keynesian, Marxist, and even Austrian) had a much more robust vocabulary for making sense of the crisis and the responses to it.
The industrialized world has gone through a prolonged period of stagnation and misery and may have worse ahead of it. Probably no policy can completely tame the booms and busts that capitalist economies are subject to. And even those steps that can be taken, will not be taken without the pressure of strong popular movements challenging governments from the outside. The ability of economists to shape the world, for good or for ill, is strictly circumscribed. Still, it is undeniable that the case for austerity – so weak on purely intellectual grounds – would never have conquered the commanding heights of policy so easily, if the way had not been prepared for it by the past thirty years of consensus macroeconomics.  Where the possibility and political will for stimulus did exist, modern economics – the stuff of current scholarship and graduate education –  tended to hinder rather than help. While when the turn to austerity came, even shoddy work could have an outsize impact, because it had the whole weight of conventional opinion behind it. For this the mainstream of the economics profession – the liberals as much as the conservatives — must take some share of the blame.
References
Alesina, Alberto (2010) ‘Fiscal Adjustments:  What do We Know and What are We doing?’ Mercatus Center Working Paper September 2010
Alesina, Alberto and Ardagna, Silvia (2009) ‘Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending’, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Working Paper No. 15438.
Ball, Laurence, Davide Furceri, Daniel Leigh, and  Prakash Loungani
(2013) The Distributional Effects of Fiscal  Consolidation. IMF working paper

Bivens, Josh and John Irons (2010)’ Government Debt and Economic Growth’
 
Blinder, Alan S (1987) Is Government Too Political? Foreign Affairs Vol. 76, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 1997), pp. 115-126
 
De Grauwe Paul  (2010) Fiscal policies in “normal” and “abnormal” recessions. VoxEU, 30th March 2010
De Grauwe Paul and Yuemei Ji (2013) Panic-driven austerity in the Eurozone and its implications.  VoxEu 21st Feb 2013.
Kotlikoff, Laurence (2011).America’s debt woe is worse than Greece’s http://www.cnn.com/2011/09/19/opinion/kotlikoff-us-debt-crisis
Leijonhufvud, Axel (1981) Information and Coordination : Essays in Macroeconomic Theory by Axel Leijonhufvud (1981, Paperback)
Lizza, Ryan (2009)  “Inside the Crisis:Larry Summers and the White House economic team”, New Yorker October 2009.
 
Tankersley, James (2013).Sequester, to some economists, is no sweat, Washington Post, April 2013
Taylor, Lance (2004) Reconstructing Macroeconomics: Structuralist Proposals and Critiques of the Mainstream. Harvard University Pres.

  Economic Policy Institute, #271
Blyth, Mark (2013). Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, OUP USA,
Cogan, John F. & Cwik, Tobias & Taylor, John B. & Wieland, Volker, 2010. “New Keynesian versus old Keynesian government spending multipliers,” Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, Elsevier, vol. 34(3), pages 281-295, March
Coy, Peter (2010) ‘Keynes vs Alesina. Alesina Who?’ Bloomberg Business Week, June 3, 2010
Crotty, James (2012) The great austerity war: what caused the US deficit crisis and who should pay to fix it?Camb. J. Econ. (2012) 36 (1): 79-10
Dube, Arindrajit (2013) ‘Growth in a Time Before Debt: A Note Assessing Causal Interpretations of Reinhart and Rogoff (2010)’. Mimeo
Eggertsson, Gauti B., What Fiscal Policy is Effective at Zero Interest Rates? (November 1, 2009). FRB of New York Staff Report No. 402. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1504828 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1504828
Epstein, Gerald, and Thomas Ferguson (1984). “Monetary Policy,Loan Liquidation, and Industrial Conflict: The Federal Reserve and the Open Market Operations of 1932’ Journalof Economic History (December 1984), pp. 957-83.
Ferguson, Thomas and Robert Johnson (2010) “A World Upside Down? Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession”. Roosevelt Institute
Goodfriend, Marvin. 2007. “How the World Achieved Consensus on Monetary Policy.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21(4): 47-68.
Gordon, Robert (2009). “Is Modern Macro or 1978‐era Macro More Relevant to the Understanding of the Current Economic Crisis?”. Mimeo
Herndon, Thomas Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff,” Political Economy Research Institute,  Working Paper 322. April 2013;
IMF (2010). “From stimulus to consolidation: revenue and expenditure policies in advanced and emerging economies” Mimeo
Jayadev, Arjun and Michael Konczal (2010) ‘The Boom Not the Slump: The Right Time For Austerity’, August 23, Roosevelt Institute
Leijonhufvud, Axel, (1997), The Wicksellian Heritage, No 9705, Department of Economics Working Papers, Department of Economics, University of Trento, Italia.
Leijonhufvud, Axel, (2002), The Uses of History. Department of Economics, University of Trento, Italia.
Reinhart, Carmen M and Kenneth S. Rogoff (2010), “Growth in a Time of Debt,” American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 100 (May 2010): 573–578

Romer, Christina (2007), “Macroeconomic  Policy in the 1960s: The Causes and Consequences of a Misguided Revolution” Speech delivered at the Economic History Association Annual Meeting
Wren-Lewis, Simon (2012).  What is New Keynesian economics really about? http://mainlymacro.blogspot.com/2012/07/what-is-new-keynesian-economics-really.html
[1]          University of Massachusetts Amherst and Roosevelt University
[2]          University of Massachusetts Boston and Azim Premji University
            We would like to thank, without implicating, Suresh Naidu, Jim Crotty, Mark Blyth, Peter Spiegler and an anonymous referee for very helpful comments.
[3]   There is a challenge of terminology here, since economists, perhaps even more than most academics, are committed to the idea of a professional consensus. For the purposes of this article, “liberal”  refers to the left side of mainstream U.S. politics, as opposed to conservative. “New Keynesian” refers to a particular methodology in macroeconomics, which combines the Walrasian general-equilibrium framework of neoclassical economics with a specific set of “frictions” that allow for superficially Keynesian results in the short run, including some form of aggregate demand. (This is opposed by “New Classical” economists, who believe that the long-run models they and the New Keynesians share should be used for the short run as well.) “Saltwater” refers to one side of a sociological divide within the economics profession, with saltwater economists more eclectic, more willing to modify their models as needed to describe particular events or support particular policies, while “freshwater” economists are more committed to logically consistent reasoning from first principles. While these three divisions are distinct in principle, in practice there is much overlap between them. The important point for our purposes is that a strong set of assumptions is shared across all these divides, especially with respect to methodology but also with respect to policy. There is a much wider field of economic beyond this consensus, from the postwar economics of Samuelson, Solow and Tobin; to the radical (or “heterodox”) Keynesian economics kept alive at places like UMass-Amherst, The New School, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City; to the various traditions of Marxism. But since these schools currently have little or no influence on policy in the US or in Europe, they are outside the scope of this article.
[4]          See European Central Bank, Interview with Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the ECB, and Liberation, July 8 2010
[5]          For example, Laurence Kotlikoff (2011) – a respected financial economist —  argued  “The financial sharks are circling Greece because Greece is small and defenseless, but they’ll soon be swimming our way.”
[6]          It is interesting in this regard that a recent paper by the IMF addresses the distributional effects of austerity (Ball et al. 2013) . The abstract alone confirms the Crotty viewpoint: “This paper examines the distributional effects of fiscal consolidation. Using episodes of fiscal consolidation for a sample of 17 OECD countries over the period 1978–2009, we find that fiscal consolidation has typically had significant distributional effects by raising inequality, decreasing wage income shares and increasing long-term unemployment. The evidence also suggests that spending-based adjustments have had, on average, larger distributional effects than tax-based adjustments
[7]   For a sense of what a serious academic development of “IS-LM-style” models could look like, the best starting point is probably the work of Lance Taylor, particularly Reconstructing Macroeconomics. Taylor (2004)
[8]   It is somewhat ironic that the specific growth model that is most often used is the version developed by Robert Solow, since Solow himself is quite critical of the turn toward intertemporal optimization as the core methodology of macroeconomics. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1987/solow-lecture.html
[9]          This is also ironic because Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have both argued (albeit unenthusiastically) for financial repression or inflation.
[10]        See also the discussion on the Triple Crisis blog: http://triplecrisis.com/from-technocrats-to-autocrats/
[11]        “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong,” New York Times Magazine, September 2, 2009.
[12] “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled,” New York Review of Books, June 6, 2013.

“The Labouring Classes Should Have a Taste for Comforts and Enjoyments”

McDonald’s model budget for its minimum-wage employees — along with the smug, fatuous, those-people-aren’t-like-us-dear defenses of it — has been the target of well-deserved scorn.

This kind of thing has been around forever (or at least as long as capitalism). Two hundred years ago, liberal reformers offered “Promoting Sobriety and Frugality, and an Abhorrence of Gaming”as the solution to the collapse of wages following the Napoleonic wars, and gave workers instruction on “the use of roasted wheat as a substitute for coffee.” You could make an endless list of these helpful suggestions to the poor to better manage their poverty.

To be fair, liberals today do mostly see this stuff as, at best, an effort by low-wage employers to divert attention from their own compensation policies to the personal responsibility of their workers. And at worst, when the budget help includes assistance enrolling in Medicaid or the EITC, as a way of getting the public to subsidize low-wage employment.

But there’s a nagging sense in these conversations that, disingenuous as McDonald’s is here, still, at the end of the day, frugality, living within one’s means, is a virtue; that the ability to prioritize expenses and make a budget is a useful skill to have. Against that view, here’s Ricardo on wages:

It is not to be understood that the natural price of labour, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. … It essentially depends on the habits and customs of the people. An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where ‘man’s life is cheap’, and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries at an earlier period of our history. 

The friends of humanity cannot but wish that in all countries the labouring classes should have a taste for comforts and enjoyments, and that they should be stimulated by all legal means in their exertions to procure them. … In those countries, where the labouring classes have the fewest wants, and are contented with the cheapest food, the people are exposed to the greatest vicissitudes and miseries.

In a world where the price of labor power depends on its cost, there’s no benefit to workers from budgeting responsibly, from learning to get by on less. The less people can live on, the lower wages will be. On the other hand, to the extent that former luxuries — a decent car, some nice clothes, dinner out once in a while, whatever consumer electronics item the scolds are going on about now — come to be seen as necessities, such that it’s not worth putting up with the bullshit of a job if you still can’t afford them, then wages will have to rise enough to cover that too.

For much of the 20th century, it seemed like we had left Ricardo’s world behind. Among economists, it became a well-established stylized fact that it’s the wage share, not the real wage that is relatively fixed. To even sympathetic critics of Marx, the failure of real wages to gravitate toward a (socially determined) subsistence level looked like a major departure of modern economies from the capitalism he described.

These days, though, the world is looking more Ricardian. For the majority of workers without credentials or other shelter from the logic of the labor market, real wages look less like a technologically-fixed share of output than the minimum necessary to keep people participating in wage labor at all. In the subsistence-wage world of industrializing Britain, workers’ “frugality, discipline or acquisitive virtues brought profit to their masters rather than success to themselves.”  Conversely, in that world, which may also be our world, profligacy, waste and irresponsibility could be a kind of solidarity.

I would never presume to tell someone surviving on a minimum-wage paycheck how to live their life. I know that being poor is incredibly hard work, in a way that those of us who haven’t experienced it can hardly imagine.  But as a friend of humanity, I do worry that the biggest danger isn’t that people can’t live on the minimum wage, but that they can. In which case we’re all better off if McDonald’s employees throw the bosses’ helpful budget advice away.

Where Do the Rich Get Their Money, Again?

This was an early topic at the Slack Wire, but worth revisiting.

There’s this widespread idea that the rich today are no different from us. We no longer have the pseudo-aristocratic rentiers of Fitzgerald or Henry James, but hard-working (if perhaps overcompensated) superstars of the labor market. When a highbrow webzine does an “interview with a rich person,” it turns out to be a successful graphic designer earning $140,000 a year.

Sorry, that is not a rich person.

The 1 percent cutoff for household income is around $350,000. The 0.1 percent, around $2 million. The 0.01 percent, around $10 million. Those are rich people, and they’re not graphic designers, or even lawyers or bankers. They’re owners.

From the IRS Statistics of Income for 2010:

Wages and Salaries Pensions, Social Security, UI Interests, Dividends, Inheritance Business Income Capital Gains Total Capital Income
Total 64.5% 18.5% 6.1% 7.2% 3.8% 17.1%
Median Household 72.7% 21.5% 2.4% 2.4% 0.0% 4.8%
The 0.01% 14.6% 0.7% 23.1% 19.0% 40.6% 82.7%

As we can see, for households at the very top of the distribution, income overwhelmingly comes from property ownership. Total property income at the far right, the sum of preceding three columns. (The numbers don’t add to quite 100% because I’ve left out a few small, hard-to-classify categories like alimony and gambling winnings.) The top 0.01 percent’s 15 percent of labor income is not much more than the same stratum got from wages and salaries in 1929. No doubt many of these people spend time at an office of some kind, but the idea of “the working rich” is a myth.

Here’s the same breakdown across the income distribution. The X-axis is adjusted gross income.


So across a broad part of the income distribution, wages make up a stable 70-75 percent of income, with public and private social insurance providing most of the rest. Capital income catches up with labor income around $500,000, making the one percent line a good qualitative as well as quantitative cutoff. It’s interesting to see how business income peaks in the $1 to $2 million range, the signature of the old middle class or petite bourgeoisie. And at the top, again, capital income is absolutely dominant.
It’s an interesting question why this isn’t more widely recognized. Mainstream discussions of rising inequality take it for granted that “those at the top were more likely to earn than inherit their riches,” with the clear understanding that “earn” means a paycheck. Even very smart Marxists like Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy concede that “a large fraction of the income of the wealthiest segments of the population is made of wages,” giving a figure of 48.8 percent for the wage share of the top 0.1 percent. Yet the IRS figures show that the wage share for this stratum is not nearly half, but less than a third. What gives?
I think at least some of the confusion is the fault of Piketty and Saez. Their income distribution work is state of the art, they’ve done as much as anyone to bring the concentration of income at the top into public discussion; I’d be a fool to criticize their work on the substance. They do, however, make a somewhat peculiar choice about presentation. In the headline numbers in much of their work, they give not the top 0.01, 0.1, 1, etc. percent by income, but rather the top percentiles by income excluding capital gains. [*] This is clearly stated in their papers but it is almost never noted, as far as I can tell, by people who cite them.
There are various good reasons, in principle, for distinguishing capital gains from other income. But in an era when capital gains are the largest single source of income at the top, defining top income fractiles  excluding capital gains seriously distorts your picture of the very top. For instance, you may miss people like this guy: In both 2010 and 2011, the majority of Mitt Romney’s income took the form of capital gains.

“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,” or if you prefer, “Save your money — same like yesterday.”
[*] The fractiles are defined this way even when capital gains income is reported. You have to dig around a bit in their data to find the composition of income by raw income fractiles, equivalent to my table above.

Pain Is the Agenda: The Method in the ECB’s Madness

Krugman is puzzled by the European Central Bank:

I’ve been hearing various attempts to explain the ECB’s utterly bizarre refusal to cut interest rates… The most popular story seems to be that the ECB wants to “hold politicians’ feet to the fire”, letting them know that they won’t get relief unless they do what’s necessary (whatever that is). This really doesn’t make any sense. If we’re talking about enforcing austerity and wage cuts in the periphery, how much more incentive do these economies need?

He is certainly right that if the goal is resolving the crisis, or even price stability, then refusing further rate cuts is mighty strange. But who says those are the goals? His final question is meant to be rhetorical, but it really isn’t. Because the more austerity you want, the more enforcement you need.

I met someone the other day with a fairly senior position at the Greek tax authority; her salary had just been cut by 40 percent. When, outside of an apocalyptic crisis, do you see pay cuts like that? Which, for you or me or Paul Krugman, is an argument to End This Depression Now. But if you are someone who sees pay cuts as the goal, then it could be an argument for not quite yet.

It’s a tenet of liberalism — and a premise of the conversation Krugman is part of — that there are conflicting opinions, but not conflicting interests. But sometimes, when people seem to keep doing things with the wrong outcome, it’s because that’s the outcome they actually want. Paranoid? Conspiracy theory? Maybe. On the other hand, here’s Deutsches Bundsbank president Jens Weidmann:

Relieving stress in the sovereign bond markets eases imminent funding pain but blurs the signal to sovereigns about the precarious state of public finances and the urgent need to act. Macroeconomic imbalances and unsustainable public and private debt in some member states lie at the heart of the sovereign debt crisis. It may appeal to politicians to abstain from unpopular decisions and try to solve problems through monetary accommodation. However, it is up to monetary policymakers to fend off these pressures.

That seems pretty clear. From the perspective of the central banker, resolving the crisis too painlessly would be bad, because that would allow governments to “avoid unpopular decisions.” And it’s true: If there’s something you really want governments to do, but you don’t think they will make the necessary decisions except in a crisis, then it is perfectly rational to prolong the crisis until you see the right decisions being made.

So, what kind of decision are we talking about, exactly? Krugman professes bafflement — “whatever that is” — but it’s not really such a mystery. Here’s an editorial in the FT on the occasion of last summer’s ECB intervention to support the market for Italy’s public debt:

Structural reform is the quid pro quo for the European Central Bank’s purchases last week of Italian government bonds, an action that bought Italy breathing space by driving down yields. … As the government belatedly recognises, boosting Italy’s growth prospects requires a liberalisation of rigid labour markets and a bracing dose of competition in the economy’s sheltered service sectors. This is where the unions and professional bodies must play their part. Susanna Camusso, leader of the CGIL, Italy’s biggest trade union, is threatening to call a general strike to block the proposed labour law reforms. She would be better advised to co-operate with the government and employers… The government’s austerity measures are sure to curtail economic growth in the short run. Only if long overdue structural reforms take root will the pain be worthwhile.

A couple of things worth noting here. First the explicit language of the quid pro quo — the ECB was not just doing what was needed to stabilize the Italian bond market, but offering stabilization as a bargaining chip in order to achieve its other goals. If ECB was selling expansionary policy last year, why be surprised they’re not giving it away for free today? Note also the suggestion that a sacrifice of short-term output is potentially worthwhile — this isn’t some flimflam about expansionary austerity, but an acknowledgement that expansion is being give up to achieve some other goal. And third, that other goal: Everything mentioned is labor market reform, it’s all about concessions by labor (including professionals). No mention of more efficient public services, better regulation of the financial system, or anything like that.

The FT editorialist is accurately presenting the ECB’s view. My old teacher Jerry Epstein has a good summary at TripleCrisis of the conditions for intervention; among other things, the ECB demanded “full liberalisation of local public services…. particularly… the provision of local services through large scale privatizations”; “reform [of] the collective wage bargaining system … to tailor wages and working conditions to firms’ specific needs…”;  “thorough review of the rules regulating the hiring and dismissal of employees”; and cuts to private as well as public pensions, “making more stringent the eligibility criteria for seniority pensions” and raising the retirement age of women in the private sector. Privatization, weaker unions, more employer control over hiring and firing, skimpier pensions. This is well beyond what we normally think of as the remit of a central bank.

So what Krugman presents as a vague, speculative story about the ECB’s motives — that they want to hold politicians’ feet to the fire — is, on the contrary, exactly what they say they are doing.

It’s true that the conditions imposed by the ECB on Italy and Greece were in the context of programs relating specifically to those countries’ public debt, while here we are talking about a rate cut. But there’s no fundamental difference — cutting rates and buying bonds are two ways of describing the same basic policy. If there’s conditions for one, we should expect conditions for the other, and in fact we find the same “quid pro quo” language is being used now as then.

Here’s a banker in the FT:

The future of Europe will therefore be determined by the interests of the ECB. Self-preservation suggests that it will prevent complete collapse. If necessary, it will overrule Germany to do this, as the longer-term refinancing operations and government bond purchase programme suggest. But self-preservation and preventing collapse do not amount to genuine cyclical relief and policy stimulus. Indeed, the ECB appears to believe that in addition to price stability it has a mandate to impose structural reform. To this extent, cyclical pain is part of its agenda.

Again, there’s nothing irrational about this. If you really believe that structural reform is vital, and that democratic governments won’t carry it out except under the pressure of a crisis, then what would be irrational would be to relieve the crisis before the reforms are carried out. In this context, an “irrational” moralism can be an advantage. While one can take a hard line in negotiations and still be ready to blink if the costs of non-agreement get too high, it’s best if the other side believes that you’ll blow it all up if you don’t get what you want.  Fiat justitia et pereat mundus, says Martin Wolf, is a dangerous motto. Yes; but it’s a strong negotiating position.

But this invites a question: Why does the ECB regard labor market liberalization (aka structural reform) as part of its mandate? Or perhaps more precisely, when the ECB negotiates with national governments, on whose behalf is it negotiating?

The answer the ECB itself might give is, society as a whole. After all, this is the consensus view of central banks’ role. Elected governments are subject to time inconsistency, or are captured by rent seekers, or just don’t work, so an “independent” body is needed to take the long view. It’s never been clear why this should apply only to monetary policy, and in fact there’s a well-established liberal view that the independent central bank model should be extended to other areas of policy. Alan Blinder:

We have drawn the line in the wrong place, leaving too many policy decisions in the realm of politics and too few in the realm of technocracy. … the argument for the Fed’s independence applies just as forcefully to many other areas of government policy. Many policy decisions require complex technical judgments and have consequences that stretch into the distant future. Think of decisions on health policy (should we spend more on cancer or aids research?), tax policy (should we reduce taxes on capital gains?), or environmental policy (how should we cope with damage to the ozone layer?). Yet in such cases, elected politicians make the key decisions. Why should monetary policy be different? … The justification for central bank independence is valid. Perhaps the model should be extended to other arenas. … The tax system would surely be simpler, fairer, and more efficient if … left to an independent technical body like the Federal Reserve rather than to congressional committees.

I’m sure there are plenty of people at the ECB who think along the same lines as the former Fed Vice-Chair. Indeed, that central banks want what’s best for everyone is practically an axiom of modern economics. Still, it’s funny, isn’t it, that “structural reform” so consistently turns out to mean lower wages?

Martin Wolf’s stuff on the European crisis has been essential. But it has one blind spot: The only conflicts he sees are between nations. What perplexes him is “the riddle of German self-interest.” But maybe the answer to the riddle is that national interests are not the only ones in play.

It’s hard not to think here of Perry Anderson’s thesis, developed (alongside other themes) in The New Old World, that the EU project is fundamentally a response by European elites to their inability to roll back social democracy at the national level. The new supra-national institutions of the EU have allowed them to bypass political cultures that remain stubbornly (if incompletely) egalitarian and solidaristic. In Alain Supiot’s summary:

In Anderson’s view, the European project has engendered neither a federation nor an intergovernmental organization; rather it is the most fully realized form of Hayek’s ultraliberal ‘catallaxy’. … Like a secular version of faith in divine providence, belief in the spontaneous order of the markets entails a desire to protect it from the untimely interventions of people seeking ‘a just distribution’ which, according to Hayek, is nothing more than ‘an atavism, based on primordial emotions’. Hence the need to ‘dethrone the political’ by means of constitutional steps which create ‘a functioning market in which nobody can conclusively determine how well-off particular groups or individuals will be’. In other words, it is necessary to put the division of labour and the distribution of its fruits beyond the reach of the electorate. This is the dream that the European institutions have turned into a reality. Beneath the chaste veil of what is conventionally known as the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ lies a denial of democracy.

Jerry Epstein puts it more bluntly. The ECB’s insistence on structural reform “represents a cynical raw power calculus to destroy worker and citizen protections  without any real belief in the underlying neo-liberal economics they use to justify it.” (If you prefer your political economy in audiovisual form, he has a video talking about this stuff.)

This kind of language makes people uncomfortable. Rather than acknowledge that the behavior of people in power could represent a particular interest — let alone that of the top against the bottom, or capital against labor — much better to throw your hands up and profess bafflement: their choices are “bizarre,” a “riddle.” This isn’t, let’s be clear, a personal failing. If you or I occupied the same kind of positions as Krugman or Wolf, we’d be subject to the same constraints. And I anyway don’t want to find myself talking to no one but a handful of grumpy old Marxists.

But on the other hand, as Doug Henwood likes to quote our late friend Bob Fitch, “vulgar Marxism explains 90 percent of what happens in the world.” And then, I keep looking back through FT articles on the crisis, and finding stuff like this:

The central bank has long called for eurozone economies to press ahead with structural reforms. That the ‘E’ in EMU, or Economic and Monetary Union, has not occurred is a complaint often voiced by ECB officials. On this score, the central bank has managed to win an important concession in forcing Italy to sign up to liberalising its economy. Some may see this as a pyrrhic victory for the damage that the bond purchases have done to the central bank’s independence. But there was a significant threat to stability if the central bank did not act. …That Mr Trichet, always among the more politically savvy of central bankers, managed to get some concessions on structural reform was all that could be hoped for.

One has to wonder: What does it mean for the ECB to “win an important concession” from an elected government? Who is it winning the concession for? And if the problem with the ECB is just an ideological fixation on its inflation-fighting credibility, why would it be willing to sacrifice some of that credibility to advance this other goal?

It’s hard to suppress a lingering suppression that central bankers are, after all, bankers. And then you think, isn’t there an important sense in which finance embodies the interests of the capitalist class as a whole? (In an anodyne way, this is even sort of what its conventional capital-allocation function means) You wonder if the only reason Karl Marx called “the modern executive is a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” is that central banks didn’t yet exist.

Imagine you’re a European capitalist, or business owner if you prefer the sound of that. You look at the United States and see the promised land. Employment at will — imagine, no laws limiting your ability to fire whoever you want. Private pensions, gone. Unions almost gone, strikes a thing of the past. Meanwhile, in 2002, 95 out of every 1,000 workers in the Euro area — nearly ten percent — was on strike at some point during the year. (In Spain, it was 270 out of every 1,000. In Italy, over 300.) And of course there’s the vastly greater share of income going to your American peers. Look at it from their point of view: Why wouldn’t they want what their American cousins have?

It seems to me that what would really be bizarre, would be if European capitalists did not see the crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They’d be crazy — they’d be betraying their own interests — if, given the ECB’s suddenly increased power vis-a-vis national governments, they didn’t insist that it extract all the concessions it can.

Isn’t that what they’re doing? Moreover, isn’t it what they say they’re doing? When the “Global Head of Market Economics” at the world’s biggest bank says that the ECB should only cut rates “as part of a quid pro quo with governments agreeing to more far-reaching structural reform,” what do you think he means?

Disgorge the Cash!

It’s well known that some basic parameters of the economy changed around 1980, in a mutation that’s often called neoliberalism or financialization. Here’s one piece of that shift that doesn’t get talked about much, but might be relevant to our current predicament.

Source: Flow of Funds



The blue line shows the after-tax profits of nonfinancial corporations. The dotted red line shows dividend payments by those same corporations, and the solid red line shows total payout to shareholders, that is dividends plus net share repurchases. All three are expressed as a share of trend GDP. The thing to look at it is the relationship between the blue line and the solid red one.

In the pre-neoliberal era, up until 1980 or so, nonfinancial businesses paid out about 40 percent of their profits to shareholders. But in most of the years since 1980, they’ve paid out more than all of them. In 2006, for example, nonfinancial corporations had after-tax earnings of $800 billion, and paid out $365 billion in dividends and $565 in net stock repurchases. In 2007, earnings were $750 billion, dividends were $480 billion, and net stock repurchases were $790 billion. (Yes, net stock repurchases exceeded after-tax profits.) In 2008 it was $600, $470, and $340 billion. And so on. [1]

It was a common trope in accounts of the housing bubble that greedy or shortsighted homeowners were extracting equity from their houses with second mortgages or cash-out refinancings to pay for extra consumption. What nobody mentioned was that the rentier class had been doing this longer, and on a much larger scale, to the country’s productive enterprises. At the top of every boom in the neoliberal era, there’s been a massive round of stock buybacks, which you could think of as shareholders cashing out their bubble wealth. It’s a bit like the homeowners “using their houses as ATMs” during the 2000s. The difference, of course, is that if you took too much equity out of your house in the bubble, you’re the one stuck with the mortgage payments today. Whereas when shareholders use businesses as ATMs, those businesses’ workers and customers get to share the pain.

One way of thinking about this increase in the share of profits flowing out of the firm, is in terms of changing relations between managers and the owning class. The managerial capitalism of Galbraith or Berle and Means, with firms pursuing a variety of objectives and “owners” just one constituency among many, really existed, but only in the decades after World War II. That, anyway, is the argument of Dumenil and Levy’s Crisis of Neoliberalism. In the postwar period,

corporations were managed with concerns, such as investment and technical change, significantly distinct from the creation of “shareholder value.” Managers enjoyed relative freedom to act vis-a-vis owners, with a considerable share of profits retained within the firm for the purpose of investment. … Neoliberalism put an end to this autonomy because it implied a containment of capitalist interests, and established a new compromise at the top of the social hierarchies… during the 1980s, the disciplinary aspect of the new relationship between the capitalist and the managerial classes was dominant… after 2000, managers had become a pillar of Finance. 

When I’ve heard Dumenil talk about this development, he calls the new configuration at the top a “loving marriage”; the book says, less evocatively, that today

income patterns suggest that a process of “hybridization” or merger is underway. … The boundary between high-ranking managers and the capitalist classes is blurred.

The key thing is that at one point, large businesses really were run by people who, while autocratic within the firm and often vicious in defense of their privileges, really did identify with the particular businesses they managed and focused their energy on their survival and growth, and even on the sheer disinterested desire to do their kind of business well. You can find a few businesses that are still run like this — I’ve been meaning to write a post on Steve Jobs — but by far the dominant ethos among managers today is that a business exists only to enrich its shareholders, including, of course, senior managers themselves. Which they have done very successfully, as the graph above (or a look at the world outside) shows.

In terms of the specific process by which this cam about, the best guide is chapter 6 of Doug Henwood’s Wall Street (available for free download here.) [2] As Doug makes clear, the increased payouts to shareholders didn’t just happen. They’re the result of a conscious, deliberate effort by owners of financial assets to reassert their claims on corporate income, using the carrot of high pay and stock for mangers and the stick of hostile takeovers for those who didn’t come through. Here’s Michael Jensen spelling out the problem from finance’s point of view:

Conflicts of interest between shareholders and managers over payout policies are especially severe when the organization generates substantial cashflow. The problem is how to motivate managers to disgorge the cash rather than investing it at below the cost of capital or wasting it on organization inefficiencies [by which Jensen seems to have mostly meant high wages].

Peter Rona, also quoted in Wall Street, expresses the same thought but in a decidedly less finance-friendly way: Shareholders “take pretty much the same view of the corporation as a praying mantis does of her mate.”

You don’t see the overt Jensen-type arguments as much now that management at most firms is happy to disgorge all of its cash and then some. But they’re not gone. A while back I saw a column in the business press — wish I could remember where — expressing outrage at Apple’s huge cash reserves. Because they should be investing that in new technology, or expanding production and hiring people? Of course not. It’s outrageous because that’s the shareholders’ money, and why isn’t Apple handing it over immediately. More than that, why doesn’t Apple issue a bunch of bonds, as much as the market will take, and pay the proceeds out to the shareholders too? From the point of view of the creatures on Wall Street, a company that prioritizes its long-term growth and survival is stealing from them.

UPDATE: Ah, here’s the piece I was thinking of: Forget iPad, it’s time for iGetsomemoneyback. From right before the iPad launch, it’s a gem of the rentier mindset, complete with mockery of Apple for investing in this silly tablet thing instead of just handing all its money to Wall Street.

Why is Apple hoarding its cash? A company spokesman explains: “We have maintained our cash and strong balance sheet to preserve the flexibility to make strategic investments and/or acquisitions.” … Steve Jobs really doesn’t need an acquisitions warchest of around $30 billion … He should start handing back this money to stockholders through dividends. … The money belongs to stockholders: Give. Indeed Jobs should go further. Apple should — gasp — start borrowing, and hand that money back, too.
Disgorge the cash!

SECOND UPDATE: Welcome to visitors from Dealbreaker, Felix Salmon and Powerline. If you like this, other posts here you might like include Selfish Masters, Selfless Servants; The Financial Crisis and the Recession; What Do Bosses Want?; and in sort of a different vein, Satisfaction.

[1] There’s something very odd going on in the fourth quarter of 2005: According to the Flow of Funds, dividend payments by nonfinancial firms dropped to essentially zero. The shortfall was made up in the preceding and following quarters. I suspect there must be some tax change involved. Does anybody (Bruce Wilder, maybe) have any idea what it is?

[2] John Smithin’s Macroeconomic Policy and the Future of Capitalism is also very good on this; it’s subtitle (“the revenge of the rentiers”) gives a better flavor of the argument than the bland title.