In the last week I’ve been brooding about what lifted the US out of the Great Depression. The (terrifying) answer is: the Second World War. So you might say (I mused) that what we really need now is a bloody good war. Except of course that today’s wars do not require national mobilization (as we saw with the adventure in Iraq); they just require us to spend unconscionable amounts of public money on fancy kit. And then along comes this remarkable, long, thoughtful and persuasive piece by James Galbraith arguing that nobody — including Obama’s team — has the measure of the scale of the crisis yet.
Is there anything today that we might do that can compare with the transformation of World War II? Almost surely, there is not: World War II doubled production in five years.
Today the largest problems we face are energy security and climate change — massive issues because energy underpins everything we do, and because climate change threatens the survival of civilization. And here, obviously, we need a comprehensive national effort. Such a thing, if done right, combining planning and markets, could add 5 or even 10 percent of GDP to net investment. That’s not the scale of wartime mobilization. But it probably could return the country to full employment and keep it there, for years.
Moreover, the work does resemble wartime mobilization in important financial respects. Weatherization, conservation, mass transit, renewable power, and the smart grid are public investments. As with the armaments in World War II, work on them would generate incomes not matched by the new production of consumer goods. If handled carefully — say, with a new program of deferred claims to future purchasing power like war bonds — the incomes earned by dealing with oil security and climate change have the potential to become a foundation of restored financial wealth for the middle class.
This cannot be made to happen over just three years, as we did in 1942-44. But we could manage it over, say, twenty years or a bit longer. What is required are careful, sustained planning, consistent policy, and the recognition now that there are no quick fixes, no easy return to ‘normal,’ no going back to a world run by bankers — and no alternative to taking the long view.
A paradox of the long view is that the time to embrace it is right now. We need to start down that path before disastrous policy errors, including fatal banker bailouts and cuts in Social Security and Medicare, are put into effect. It is therefore especially important that thought and learning move quickly. Does the Geithner team, forged and trained in normal times, have the range and the flexibility required? If not, everything finally will depend, as it did with Roosevelt, on the imagination and character of President Obama.
This is a great piece — very long but worth the time and effort. Here’s another passage that struck me:
The most likely scenario, should the Geithner plan go through, is a combination of looting, fraud, and a renewed speculation in volatile commodity markets such as oil. Ultimately the losses fall on the public anyway, since deposits are largely insured. There is no chance that the banks will simply resume normal long-term lending. To whom would they lend? For what? Against what collateral? And if banks are recapitalized without changing their management, why should we expect them to change the behavior that caused the insolvency in the first place?
The oddest thing about the Geithner program is its failure to act as though the financial crisis is a true crisis — an integrated, long-term economic threat — rather than merely a couple of related but temporary problems, one in banking and the other in jobs. In banking, the dominant metaphor is of plumbing: there is a blockage to be cleared. Take a plunger to the toxic assets, it is said, and credit conditions will return to normal. This, then, will make the recession essentially normal, validating the stimulus package. Solve these two problems, and the crisis will end. That’s the thinking.
But the plumbing metaphor is misleading. Credit is not a flow. It is not something that can be forced downstream by clearing a pipe. Credit is a contract. It requires a borrower as well as a lender, a customer as well as a bank. And the borrower must meet two conditions. One is creditworthiness, meaning a secure income and, usually, a house with equity in it. Asset prices therefore matter. With a chronic oversupply of houses, prices fall, collateral disappears, and even if borrowers are willing they can’t qualify for loans. The other requirement is a willingness to borrow, motivated by what Keynes called the “animal spirits” of entrepreneurial enthusiasm. In a slump, such optimism is scarce. Even if people have collateral, they want the security of cash. And it is precisely because they want cash that they will not deplete their reserves by plunking down a payment on a new car.
The credit flow metaphor implies that people came flocking to the new-car showrooms last November and were turned away because there were no loans to be had. This is not true — what happened was that people stopped coming in. And they stopped coming in because, suddenly, they felt poor.
Strapped and afraid, people want to be in cash.