The Perils of 2012

Published on Project Syndicate, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, January 12, 2012.

KOLKATA – The year 2011 will be remembered as the time when many ever-optimistic Americans began to give up hope. President John F. Kennedy once said that a rising tide lifts all boats. But now, in the receding tide, Americans are beginning to see not only that those with taller masts had been lifted far higher, but also that many of the smaller boats had been dashed to pieces in their wake. 

In that brief moment when the rising tide was indeed rising, millions of people believed that they might have a fair chance of realizing the “American Dream.” Now those dreams, too, are receding. By 2011, the savings of those who had lost their jobs in 2008 or 2009 had been spent. Unemployment checks had run out. Headlines announcing new hiring – still not enough to keep pace with the number of those who would normally have entered the labor force – meant little to the 50 year olds with little hope of ever holding a job again.

Indeed, middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realized that they were, in fact, forcibly retired. Young people who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all. People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless. Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss. More than seven million American families have lost their homes … //

… The good news is that addressing these long-term problems would actually help to solve the short-term problems. Increased investment to retrofit the economy for global warming would help to stimulate economic activity, growth, and job creation. More progressive taxation, in effect redistributing income from the top to the middle and bottom, would simultaneously reduce inequality and increase employment by boosting total demand. Higher taxes at the top could generate revenues to finance needed public investment, and to provide some social protection for those at the bottom, including the unemployed.

Even without widening the fiscal deficit, such “balanced budget” increases in taxes and spending would lower unemployment and increase output. The worry, however, is that politics and ideology on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in the US, will not allow any of this to occur. Fixation on the deficit will induce cutbacks in social spending, worsening inequality. Likewise, the enduring attraction of supply-side economics, despite all of the evidence against it (especially in a period in which there is high unemployment), will prevent raising taxes at the top.

Even before the crisis, there was a rebalancing of economic power – in fact, a correction of a 200-year historical anomaly, in which Asia’s share of global GDP fell from nearly 50% to, at one point, below 10%. The pragmatic commitment to growth that one sees in Asia and other emerging markets today stands in contrast to the West’s misguided policies, which, driven by a combination of ideology and vested interests, almost seem to reflect a commitment not to grow.

As a result, global economic rebalancing is likely to accelerate, almost inevitably giving rise to political tensions. With all of the problems confronting the global economy, we will be lucky if these strains do not begin to manifest themselves within the next twelve months. (full text).

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