Since the financial crisis of 2008, the conversation about economic recovery has centered on the question of debt: whether we have too much of it, whose debt to forgive, and how to cut the deficit. But what if we’ve been asking the wrong questions all along? In Debtors’ Prison, leading economic thinker Robert Kuttner makes the most powerful argument to date that with austerity as a solution all we’re doing is jailing ourselves.
Just as debtors’ prisons once prevented individuals from resuming a productive life, austerity measures shackle, rather than restore, economic growth. This is the simple truth belied by the sound bites of presidential elections and fiscal-cliff debates, and the perverse policies of the European Union. Blending current affairs with economics and history, from Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe’s campaign for debt forgiveness in the seventeenth century to the two world wars and Bretton Woods, Kuttner uncovers the double standards in the politics of debt. Lucid, authoritative, provocative—a book that corrects the economic conversation and encourages a search for new solutions.
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Robert Kuttner is cofounder and coeditor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. He was a longtime columnist for BusinessWeek and continues to write columns in The Boston Globe, The New York Times Global Edition, and The Huffington Post. This is his tenth book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In this, the fifth year of a prolonged downturn triggered by a financial crash, the prevailing view is that we all must pay for yesterday’s excess. This case is made in both economic and moral terms. Nations and households ran up unsustainable debts; these obligations must be honored—to satisfy creditors, restore market confidence, deter future recklessness, and compel people and nations to live within their means.
A phrase often heard is “moral hazard,” a concept borrowed by economists from the insurance industry. In its original usage, the term referred to the risk that insuring against an adverse event would invite the event. For example, someone who insured a house for more than its worth would have an incentive to burn it down. Nowadays, economists use the term to mean any unintended reward for bad behavior. Presumably, if we give debt relief to struggling homeowners or beleaguered nations, we invite more profligacy in the future. Hence, belts need to be tightened not just to improve fiscal balance but as punishment for past misdeeds and inducement for better self-discipline in the future.
There are several problems with the application of the moral hazard doctrine to the present crisis. It’s certainly true that under normal circumstances debts need to be honored, with bankruptcy reserved for special cases. Public policy should neither encourage governments, households, enterprises, or banks to borrow beyond prudent limits nor make it too easy for them to walk away from debts. But after a collapse, a debt overhang becomes a macroeconomic problem, not a personal or moral one. In a deflated economy, debt burdens undermine both debtors’ capacity to pay and their ability to pursue productive economic activity. Intensified belt-tightening deepens depression by further undercutting purchasing power generally. Despite facile analogies between governments and households, government is different from other actors. In a depression, even with high levels of public debt, additional government borrowing and spending may be the only way to jump-start the economy’s productive capacity at a time when the private sector is too traumatized to invest and spend.
The idea that anxiety about future deficits harms investor or consumer confidence is contradicted by both economic theory and evidence. At this writing, the U.S. government is able to borrow from private money markets for ten years at interest rates well under 2 percent and for thirty years at less than 3 percent. If markets were concerned that higher deficits five or even twenty-five years from now would cause rising inflation or a weaker dollar, they would not dream of lending the government money for thirty years at 3 percent interest. Consumers are reluctant to spend and businesses hesitant to invest because of reduced purchasing power in a weak economy. Abstract worries about the federal deficit are simply not part of this calculus.
“Living within one’s means” is an appealing but oversimplified metaphor. Before the crisis, some families and nations did borrow to finance consumption—a good definition of living beyond one’s means. But this borrowing was not the prime cause of the crisis. Today, far larger numbers of entirely prudent people find themselves with diminished means as a result of broader circumstances beyond their control, and bad policies compound the problem.
After a general collapse, one’s means are influenced by whether the economy is growing or shrinking. If I am out of work, with depleted income, almost any normal expenditure is beyond my means. If my lack of a job throws you out of work, soon you are living beyond your means, too, and the whole economy cascades downward. In an already depressed economy, demanding that we all live within our (depleted) means can further reduce everyone’s means. If you put an entire nation under a rigid austerity regime, its capacity for economic growth is crippled. Even creditors will eventually suffer from the distress and social chaos that follow.
Take a closer look at moral hazard ex ante from ex post and you will find that blame is widely attributed to the wrong immoralists. Governments and families are being asked to accept austerity for the common good. Yet the prime movers of the crisis were bankers who incurred massive debts in order to pursue speculative activities. The weak reforms to date have not changed the incentives for excessively risky banker behaviors, which persist.
The best cure for moral hazard is the proverbial ounce of prevention. Moral hazard was rampant in the run-up to the crash because the financial industry was allowed to make wildly speculative bets and to pass along risks to the rest of the society. Yet in its aftermath, this financial crisis is being treated more as an object lesson in personal improvidence than as a case for drastic financial reform.
Austerity and Its Alternatives
The last great financial collapse, by contrast, transformed America’s economics. First, however, the Roosevelt administration needed to transform politics. FDR’s reforms during the Great Depression constrained both the financial abuses that caused the crash of 1929 and the political power of Wall Street. Deficit-financed public spending under the New Deal restored growth rates but did not eliminate joblessness. The much larger spending of World War II—with deficits averaging 26 percent of gross domestic product for each of the four war years—finally brought the economy back to full employment, setting the stage for the postwar recovery.
By the war’s end, the U.S. government’s public debt exceeded 120 per- cent of GDP, almost twice today’s ratio. America worked off that debt not by tightening its belt but by liberating the economy’s potential. In 1945, there was no panel like President Obama’s Bowles-Simpson commission targeting the debt ratio a decade into the future and commending ten years of budget cuts. Rather, the greater worry was that absent the stimulus of war and with twelve million newly jobless GIs returning home, the civilian economy would revert to depression. So America doubled down on its public investments with programs like the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan. For three decades, the economy grew faster than the debt, and the debt dwindled to less than 30 percent of GDP. Finance was well regulated so that there was no speculation in the public debt. The Department of the Treasury pegged the rate that the government would pay for its bonds at an affordable 2.5 percent. The Federal Reserve Board provided liquidity as necessary.
The Franklin Roosevelt era ushered in an exceptional period in the dismal history of debt politics. Not only were banks well regulated, but the government used innovative public institutions such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to recapitalize banks and industrial enterprises and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to refinance home mortgages. Chastened by the catastrophe of the reparations extracted from Germany after World War I, the victorious Allies in 1948 wrote off nearly all of the Nazi debt so that the German economy could recover and then sweetened the pot with Marshall Plan aid. Globally, the Bretton Woods accord created a new international monetary system that limited the power of private financiers, offered new public forms of credit, and biased the financial system toward economic expansion. This story is told in detail in the chapters that follow.
In 1936, John Maynard Keynes provocatively called for “the euthanasia of the rentier.” He meant that once an economy was stabilized into a high-growth regime of managed capitalism, combining low real interest rates with strictures against speculation, and using macroeconomic management of the business cycle to maintain full employment, capital markets would efficiently and even passively channel financial investment into productive enterprise. In such a world, there would still be innovative entrepreneurs, but the parasitic role of a purely financial class reaping immense profits from the manipulation of paper would dwindle to insignificance. Legitimate passive investors—pension funds, life insurance companies, small savers, and the proverbial trust accounts of widows and orphans—would reap decent returns, but there would be neither windfalls for the financial middlemen nor catastrophic risks imposed by them on the rest of the economy. Stripped of the hyperbole, this picture describes the orderly but dynamic economy of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, a time when finance was harnessed to the public interest, true innovators were rewarded, most investors earned merely normal returns, and windfall speculative profits were not available—because the rules of the game gave priority to investment in the real productive economy.
In today’s economy, which is dominated by high finance, small debtors and small creditors are on the same side of a larger class divide. The economic prospects of working families are sandbagged by the mortgage debt overhang. Meanwhile, retirees can’t get decent returns on their investments because central banks have cut interest rates to historic lows to prevent the crisis from deepening. Yet the paydays of hedge fund managers and of executives of large banks that only yesterday were given debt relief by the government are bigger than ever. And corporate executives and their private equity affiliates can shed debts using the bankruptcy code and then sail merrily on.
Exaggerated worries about public debt are a staple of conservative rhetoric in good times and bad. Many misguided critics preached austerity even during the Great Depression. As banks, factories, and farms were failing in a cumulative economic collapse, Andrew Mellon, one of America’s richest men and Treasury secretary from 1921 to 1932, famously advised President Hoover to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate . . . it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life.” The sentiments, which today sound ludicrous against the history of the Depression, are not so different from those being solemnly expressed by the U.S. austerity lobby or the German Bundesbank.
The Great Conflation
Austerity economics conflates several kinds of debt, each with its own causes, consequences, and remedies. The reality is that public debt, financial industry debt, consumer debt, and debt owed to foreign creditors are entirely different creatures.
The prime nemesis of the conventional account is government debt. Public borrowing is said to crowd out productive private investment, raise interest rates, and risk inflation. At some point, the nation goes broke paying interest on past debt, the world stops trusting the dollar, and we end up like Greece or Weimar Germany. Deficit hawks further conflate current increases in the deficit caused by the recession itself with projected deficits in Social Security and Medicare. Supposedly, cutting Social Security benefits over the next decade or two will restore financial confidence now. Since businesses don’t base investment decisions on such projections, those claims defy credulity.
Until the collapse of 2008, most government debts were manageable. Spain and Ireland, two of the alleged sinner nations, actually had low ratios of debt to gross domestic product. Ireland ran up its public debt bailing out the reckless bets of private banks. Spain suffered the consequences of a housing bubble, later exacerbated by a run on its government bonds. The United States had a budget surplus and a sharply declining debt-to-GDP ratio as recently as 2001. In that year, thanks to low unemployment and increasing payroll tax revenues, Social Security’s reserves were projected to increase faster than the claims of retirees. (More on Social Security in chapter 3.)
The U.S. debt ratio rose between 2001 and 2008 because of two wars and gratuitous tax cuts for the wealthy, not because of an excess of social generosity. The deficit then spiked mainly because of a dramatic falloff in government revenues as a result of the recession itself. The sharp increase in government debt was the effect of the collapse, not the cause.
The United States and other nations had far higher ratios of public debt to GDP at different points in their histories, and those debts did not prevent prosperity—as long as other sensible policies were followed. Britain’s debt was well over 200 percent of GDP after the Napoleonic Wars, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. It rose to more than 260 percent at the end of World War II, a period that ushered in the British economy’s best three decades of performance since before World War I.
Along with government borrowing, consumer debt is the other villain of the orthodox account. Supposedly, people went on a borrowing binge to finance purchases they couldn’t afford, and now the piper must be paid. This contention is a half-truth that leaves out two key details.
One is the worsening economic situation of ordinary families. In the first three decades after World War II, wages rose in lockstep with productivity. As the economy, on average, became more prosperous, that prosperity was broadly shared. American consumers took out mortgages to buy homes (with very low default rates) but engaged in little other borrowing. However earnings stagnated in the 1970s, and that trend worsened after 2001. Nearly all the productivity gains of the economy went to the top 1 percent.
Wages began to lag because of changes in America’s social contract. Unions were weakened. Good unemployment insurance and other government support of workers’ bargaining power eroded. High unemployment created pressure to cut wages. Corporations that had once been benignly paternalistic became less loyal to their employees. Deregulation undermined stable work arrangements. Globalization on corporate terms made it easier for employers to look for cheaper labor abroad. (See chapter 2 for more on lagging wages.)
During this same period, housing values began to increase faster than the rate of inflation, as interest rates steadily fell after 1982. Many critics ascribe the housing bubble to the subprime scandal, but in fact subprime loans accounted for just the last few puffs. The rise in prices mostly reflected the fact that standard mortgages kept getting cheaper, thanks to a climate of declining interest rates. Low-interest mortgage loans meant that more people could become homeowners and that existing homeowners could afford more expensive houses. With 30-year mortgages at 8 percent, a $2,000 monthly payment finances about a $275,000 home. Cut mortgage rates to 4 percent and the same payment buys a $550,000 home. Low interest rates bid up housing prices. And the higher the paper value of a home, the more one can borrow against it. (It’s possible to temper asset bubbles with regulatory measures, such as varying down-payments or cracking down on risky mortgage products. But the Fed has resisted using these powers.)
The combination of these two trends—declining real wages and inflated asset prices—led the American middle class to use debt as a substitute for income. People lacked adequate earnings but felt wealthier. A generation of Americans grew accustomed to borrowing against their homes to finance consumption, and banks were more than happy to be their enablers. In my generation, second mortgages were considered highly risky for homeowners. The financial industry rebranded them as home equity loans, and they became ubiquitous. Third mortgages, even riskier, were marketed as “home equity lines of credit.”
State legislatures, meanwhile, paid for tax cuts by reducing funding for public ...
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