Bruce Bartlett: The Real Lesson Of The New Deal: Deficits were too small, not too large...
The Quantitative Easing Policy Bears Fruit

Department of "Huh?": In Praise of Neoclassical Economics

Why neoclassical economics is an absolutely wonderful thing: Exhibit 1: David Harvey:

Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey: Why the U.S. Stimulus Package is Bound To Fail: A Financial Katrina - Remarks on the Crisis: Much is to be gained by viewing the contemporary crisis as a surface eruption generated out of deep tectonic shifts in the spatio-temporal disposition of capitalist development. The tectonic plates are now accelerating their motion and the likelihood of more frequent and more violent crises of the sort that have been occurring since 1980 or so will almost certainly increase. The manner, form, spatiality and time of these surface disruptions are almost impossible to predict, but that they will occur with greater frequency and depth is almost certain. The events of 2008 have therefore to be situated in the context of a deeper pattern. Since these stresses are internal to the capitalist dynamic (which does not preclude some seemingly external disruptive event like a catastrophic pandemic also occurring), then what better argument could there be, as Marx once put it, “for capitalism to be gone and to make way for some alternative and more rational mode of production.”

I begin with this conclusion since I still find it vital to emphasize, if not dramatize, as I have sought to do over and over again in my writings over the years, that failure to understand the geographical dynamics of capitalism or to treat the geographical dimension as in some sense merely contingent or epiphenomenal, is to both lose the plot on how to understand capitalist uneven geographical development and to miss out on possibilities for constructing radical alternatives. But this poses an acute difficulty for analysis since we are constantly faced with trying to distill universal principles regarding the role of the production of spaces, places and environments in capitalism’s dynamics, out of a sea of often volatile geographical particularities. So how, then, can we integrate geographical understandings into our theories of evolutionary change? Let us look more carefully at the tectonic shifts.

In November 2008, shortly after the election of a new President, the National Intelligence Council of the United States issued its delphic estimates on what the world would be like in 2025. Perhaps for the first time, a quasi-official body in the United States predicted that by 2025 the United States, while still a powerful if not the most powerful single player in world affairs, would no longer be dominant. The world would be multi-polar and less centered and the power of non-state actors would increase. The report conceded that US hegemony had been fading on and off for some time but that its economic, political and even military dominance was now systematically waning. Above all (and it is important to note that the report was prepared before the implosion of the US and British financial systems), “the unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East now under way will continue.”

This “unprecedented shift” has reversed the long- standing drain of wealth from East, Southeast and South Asia to Europe and North America that had been occurring since the eighteenth century (a drain that even Adam Smith had noted with regret in The Wealth of Nations but which accelerated relentlessly throughout the nineteenth century). The rise of Japan in the 1960s followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in the 1970s and then the rapid growth of China after 1980 later accompanied by industrialization spurts in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia during the 1990s, has altered the center of gravity of capitalist development, although it has not done so smoothly (the East and South-East Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 saw wealth flow briefly but strongly back towards Wall Street and the European and Japanese banks). Economic hegemony seems to be moving towards some constellation of powers in East Asia and if crises, as we earlier argued, are moments of radical reconfigurations in capitalist development, then the fact that the United States is having to deficit finance its way out of its financial difficulties on such a huge scale and that the deficits are largely being covered by those countries with saved surpluses – Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and the Gulf states – suggests this may be the moment for such a shift to be consolidated.

Shifts of this sort have occurred before in the long history of capitalism. In Giovanni Arrighi’s thorough account in The Long Twentieth Century, we see hegemony shifting from the city states of Genoa and Venice in the sixteenth century to Amsterdam and the Low Countries in the seventeenth before concentrating in Britain from the late eighteenth century until the United States eventually took control after 1945. There are a number of features to these transitions that Arrighi emphasizes and which are relevant to our analysis. Each shift, Arrighi notes, occurred in the wake of a strong phase of financialization (he cites with approval Braudel’s maxim that financialization announces the autumn of some hegemonic configuration). But each shift also entailed a radical change of scale, from the small city states at the origin to the continent-wide economy of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century. This change of scale makes sense given the capitalist rule of endless accumulation and compound growth of at least three per cent for ever. But hegemonic shifts, Arrighi argues, are not determined in advance. They depend upon the emergence of some power economically able and politically and militarily willing to take on the role of global hegemon (with its costs as well as its advantages). The reluctance of the United States to assume that role before World War II meant an interregnum of multi-polar tensions that could not halt the drift into war (Britain was no longer in a position to assert its prior hegemonic role). Much also depends on how the past hegemon behaves as it faces up to the diminution of its former role. It can pass peaceably or belligerently into history. From this perspective the fact that the United States still holds overwhelming military power (particularly from 30,000 feet up) in a context of its declining economic and financial power and increasingly shaky cultural and moral authority, creates worrying scenarios for any future transition. Furthermore, it is not obvious that the main candidate to displace the United States, China, has the capacity or the will to assert some hegemonic role, for while its population is certainly huge enough to meet the requirements of changing scale, neither its economy nor its political authority (or even its political will) point to any easy accession to the role of global hegemon. Given the nationalist divisions that exist, the idea that some association of East Asian Powers might do the job also appears unlikely as does the possibility for a fragmented and fractious European Union or the so-called BRIC powers (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to stay on a common path for long. For this reason, the prediction that we are headed into another interregnum of multi-polar and conflictual interests and potential global instability appears plausible.

But the tectonic shift away from United States dominance and hegemony that has been under way for some time is becoming much clearer. The thesis of both excessive financialization and “debt as a principal predictor of leading world powers’ debilitation” has found popular voice in the writings of Kevin Phillips. Attempts now under way to re-build US dominance through reforms in the architecture of both the national and the global state-finance nexus appear not to be working while the exclusions imposed on much of the rest of the world in seeking to re-shape that architecture are almost certain to provoke strong oppositions if not overt economic conflicts.

But tectonic shifts of this sort do not come about as if by magic. While the historical geography of a shifting hegemony as Arrighi describes it has a clear pattern and while it is also clear from the historical record that periods of financialization precede such shifts, Arrighi does not provide any deep analysis of the processes that produce such shifts in the first place. To be sure, he cites “endless accumulation” and therefore the growth syndrome (the three per cent compound growth rule) as critical to explaining the shifts. This implies that hegemony moves from smaller (i.e. Venice) to larger (e.g. the United States) political entities over time. And it also stands to reason that hegemony has to lie with that political entity within which much of the surplus is produced (or to which much of the surplus flows in the form of tribute or imperialist extractions). With total global output standing at $45 trillion as of 2005, the US share of $15 trillion made it, as it were, the dominant and controlling share-holder in global capitalism able to dictate (as it typically does in its role as the chief shareholder in the international institutions such as a the World Bank and the IMF) global policies. The NCIS report in part based its prediction on loss of dominance but maintenance of a strong position on the falling share of global output in the US relative to the rest of the world in general and China in particular.

But as Arrighi points out, the politics of such a shift are by no means certain. The United States bid for global hegemony under Woodrow Wilson during and immediately after World War I was thwarted by a domestic political preference in the United State for isolationism (hence the collapse of the League of Nations) and it was only after World War II (which the US population was against entering until Pearl Harbor occurred) that the US embraced its role as global hegemon through a bi-partisan foreign policy anchored by the Bretton Woods Agreements on how the post-War international order would be organized (in the face of the Cold War and the spreading threat to capitalism of international communism). That the United States had long been developing into a state that in principle could play the role of global hegemon is evident from relatively early days. It possessed relevant doctrines, such as “Manifest Destiny” (continental wide geographical expansion which eventually spilled over into the Pacific and Caribbean before going global without territorial acquisitions) or the Monroe Doctrine which warned European Powers to leave the Americas alone (the doctrine was actually formulated by the British Foreign Secretary Canning in the 1820s but adopted by the US as its own almost immediately). The United States possessed the necessary dynamism to account for a growing share of global output and was quintessentially committed to some version of what can best be called “cornered market” or “monopoly” capitalism backed by an ideology of rugged individualism. So there is a sense in which the US was, throughout much of its history, preparing itself to take on the role of global hegemon. The only surprise was that it took so long to do so and that it was the Second rather than the First World War that led it finally to take up the role leaving the inter-war years as years of multipolarity and chaotic competing imperial ambitions of the sort that the NCIS report fears will be the situation in 2025.

The tectonic shifts now under way are deeply influenced, however, by the radical geographical unevenness in the economic and political possibilities of responding to the current crisis. Let me illustrate how this unevenness is now working by way of a tangible example. As the depression that began in 2007 deepened, the argument was made by many that a full-fledged Keynesian solution was required to extract global capitalism from the mess it was in. To this end various stimulus packages and bank stabilization measures were proposed and to some degree taken up in different countries in different ways in the hope that these would resolve the difficulties. The variety of solutions on offer varied immensely depending upon the economic circumstances and the prevailing forms of political opinion (pitting, for example, Germany against Britain and France in the European Union). Consider, however, the different economic political possibilities in the United States and China and the potential consequences for both shifting hegemony and for the manner in which the crisis might be resolved.

In the United States, any attempt to find an adequate Keynesian solution has been doomed at the start by a number of economic and political barriers that are almost impossible to overcome. A Keynesian solution would require massive and prolonged deficit financing if it were to succeed. It has been correctly argued that Roosevelt’s attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-8 plunged the United States back into depression and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt’s too timid approach to deficit financing in the New Deal. So even if the institutional reforms as well as the push towards a more egalitarian policy did lay the foundations for the Post World War II recovery, the New Deal in itself actually failed to resolve the crisis in the United States.

The problem for the United States in 2008-9 is that it starts from a position of chronic indebtedness to the rest of the world (it has been borrowing at the rate of more than $2 billion a day over the last ten years or more) and this poses an economic limitation upon the size of the extra deficit that can now be incurred. (This was not a serious problem for Roosevelt who began with a roughly balanced budget). There is also a geo-political limitation since the funding of any extra deficit is contingent upon the willingness of other powers (principally from East Asia and the Gulf States) to lend. On both counts, the economic stimulus available to the United States will almost certainly be neither large enough nor sustained enough to be up to the task of reflating the economy. This problem is exacerbated by ideological reluctance on the part of both political parties to embrace the huge amounts of deficit spending that will be required, ironically in part because the previous Republican administration worked on Dick Cheney’s principle that “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter.” As Paul Krugman, the leading public advocate for a Keynesian solution, for one has argued, the $800 billion reluctantly voted on by Congress in 2009, while better than nothing, is nowhere near enough. It may take something of the order to $2 trillion to do the job and that is indeed excessive debt relative to where the US deficit now stands. The only possible economic option, would be to replace the weak Keynesianism of excessive military expenditures by the much stronger Keynesianism of social programs. Cutting the US defense budget in half (bringing it more in line with that of Europe in relation to proportion of GDP) might technically help but it would be, of course, political suicide, given the posture of the Republican Party as well as many Democrats, for anyone who proposed it...

Ronald Reagan might say: under such a huge pile of *(@^ there must be an argument somewhere. I really have my doubts.

After ten extremely dense paragraphs of--what can I call it? I can't call what David Harvey does pointless intellectual masturbation because what David Harvey does does not feel good at all--we finally come to the suggestion of a shadow of an argument:

The problem for the United States... is... chronic indebtedness to the rest of the world... [which] poses an economic limitation upon the size of the extra deficit.... [T]he funding of any extra deficit is contingent upon the willingness of other powers... to lend. On both counts, the economic stimulus available to the United States will almost certainly be neither large enough nor sustained enough to be up to the task of reflating the economy...

And we can see that here we have an internationalized version of Fama's Fallacy. If we forced Harvey to actually construct on argument here, he might be able to: he might say that deficit financing means that the U.S. government borrow from somewhere, that Americans don't have the savings to finance deficit spending, and that foreigners' willingness to buy U.S. Treasury bonds is tapped out because of massive borrowing earlier in this decade. And it is at this point that we draw on neoclassical economics to save us--specifically, John Hicks (1937), "Mr. Keynes and the Classics," the fons et origo of the neoclassical synthesis. Hicks's IS curve gives us a menu of combinations of levels of production and interest rates at which private investment spending and public deficit spending are financed out of the flow of savings. When the level of production is higher, private savings are higher--and thus the combination of private investent and deficit that can be financed is bigger. When the level of production is lower, private savings are lower--and thus the combination of private investment and deficit that can be financed is lower. Any level of deficit can be financed if the interest rate is such that the deficit plus the private investment spending equals the savings that come out of the incomes generated by the corresponding level of output.

The question is thus not can government deficit spending be financed--for it can--the question is at what interest rate will financial markets finance that deficit spending. That then tells us what level of economic activity it will support. Harvey cannot say that the debt overhang means that the U.S. government cannot borrow. He must be saying that the debt overhang means that the U.S. government can only borrow at a very high interest rate that will crowd out private investment and household wealth-supported consumption spending and leave the level of production unaffected or little affected.[1]

It could happen. Crowding-out is real. Is it likely to happen? Well, if it were going to happen we would have seen the interest rates on U.S. long-term government bonds spiking upwards to scarily-high levels as the stimulus bill moves through the congress and its chances of final passage grow. Did we? No. High long-term interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds are simply not a concern right now:

Path Finder

The point is general. People who say that the stimulus won't work are relying--whether they know it or not--on one of two channels. Either they believe that resources are in short enough supply that increased nominal spending will not increase real spending because it will be eaten up by inflation, or they believe that financial markets are such that the increased supply of bonds produced by deficit spending will push bond prices down and interest rates up enough to crowd out exports and investment spending roughly dollar-for-dollar. Both of these claims are empirical claims. And both of them are completely without support in the present conjuncture.

If we forced Harvey to turn his... um... into an argument we would see that the argument he would be making does not hold together. But, of course, we cannot say that Harvey's argument does not hold together because he does not make one. He doesn't understand Keynes, probably never read Hicks, does not understand Friedman, and I'm sure has never heard of Patinkin or Tobin or Modigliani. Yet somehow he thinks he has standing to make judgments as to the likely success of Keynesian policy moves.

It is a great mystery.

[1] Actually, Harvey can--and does--say any damned foolish thing he pleases. The proper form of the argument is: "if we assume that Harvey intends to make any sense, he must be attempting to say..."