Is there hope?

Published on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by Peter Radford, June 3, 2011.

I suppose we should start to ask the obvious questions.

I read a couple of days ago an analyst arguing that the world should move on and begin to make more concrete plans for a post-America era. One main part of his argument was that the American political system is now so outdated and defunct that it can no longer make sensible long term decisions. It seems the US is stuck in what I call post-illusion denial. Most everything it has done over the last thirty years turns out to have been an error. The after effects of the Cold War left America with no plan B of how to behave.  

Its politics were ill equipped to deal with the more modern problems of serious economic competition and commodity constraints on its life style – by which I mean higher priced oil. When faced with a challenge, the response was to huff and puff about American “exceptionalism” and to pout. Worse: American style economic doctrine, so deeply flawed as it was to turn out to be, was foisted on others.

The error, or course, was to revert to happy face politics. That was what Reagan sold the country on back in 1980. The happy face was plastered everywhere in order to avoid confrontation with fundamental issues. The idea, such as it was, being that free market magic would solve any ills. All we had to do was get government out of the way and things would work out.

What actually happened is that we used debt to paper over the fact that real growth was insufficient. We never paid for the wars we engaged in. We never paid to renew our infrastructure. We allowed our factories to decay. We cut taxes, but not costs. We pumped money into fantasy assets in any number of get rich quick schemes – the result being the succession of destructive bubbles we have lived through. Our policy leadership drifted into a zombie like self congratulatory dream world where it genuinely thought it had conquered history. Business cycle history that is. The magic worked we were all told. As recently as 2004 and 2005 top officials were slapping themselves on the back for having solved the problems of infinite growth.

Economics became a Disney like cartoon of itself. It became disconnected from the serious goal of solving problems for the benefit of all. It simply served to justify the aggrandizement of a few. It constructed utopias and imaginary worlds to explore. This was because it gave up on the more messy problems encountered here on earth. Prizes were awarded on the basis of magic and sleight of hand … //

… It was unfettered capitalism that drove this illusion. It was deregulation that allowed the banks to upend the economy. It was the unleashing of markets that drove bubble manias. It was capitalists, not workers, who gouged shareholders for enormous and undeserved bonuses. It was market driven finance that misallocated capital into real estate and away from factories. It was a belief in market magic that created the illusion we could borrow and not tax to pay our bills. Indeed it was that part of our leadership – that word again – who most profoundly sought to re-engineer society in the grand tradition of the neo-liberal thinkers like Hayek and his misguided or ill-informed followers, who led us furthest astray.

Institutions matter in actual economies. They matter mightily. Like the banks of our great rivers, they bind capitalism into a channel where we can extract value from it without falling prey to its anti-social extremism. We get the work. We get the energy. But we avoid most of the mayhem. When those institutions are kicked away, when the river banks are breached, the system wobbles off course. Strange and very nasty things happen. Ordinary people drown. In particular, democratic society is torn apart. Political cliques dominate over the majority. The agenda narrows to serve a few. Unrest builds. Until …

With our elite now indulging in a self-referential discussion about problems that exist only within its small and exclusive world. With the recovery clearly showing signs of slowing down. With debt burdens forcing household retrenchment. And with unsafe banking ready to undermine everything. I have to ask:

Is there hope?

I, for one, wonder. (full text).

Comments are closed.