Robert Skidelsky
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Where do we go from here?
Robert Skidelsky
Prospect | Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Any great failure should force us to rethink. The present economic crisis is a great failure of the market system. As George Soros has rightly pointed out, "the salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like Opec… the crisis was generated by the system itself." It originated in the US, the heart of the world's financial system and the source of much of its financial innovation. That is why the crisis is global, and is indeed a crisis of globalisation.
There were three kinds of failure. The first, discussed by John Kay in this issue, was institutional: banks mutated from utilities into casinos. However, they did so because they, their regulators and the policymakers sitting on top of the regulators all succumbed to something called the "efficient market hypothesis": the view that financial markets could not consistently mis-price assets and therefore needed little regulation. So the second failure was intellectual. The most astonishing admission was that of former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in autumn 2008 that the Fed's regime of monetary management had been based on a "flaw." The "whole intellectual edifice," he said, "collapsed in the summer of last year." Behind the efficient market idea lay the intellectual failure of mainstream economics. It could neither predict nor explain the meltdown because nearly all economists believed that markets were self-correcting. As a consequence, economics itself was marginalised.
But the crisis also represents a moral failure: that of a system built on debt. At the heart of the moral failure is the worship of growth for its own sake, rather than as a way to achieve the "good life." As a result, economic efficiency—the means to growth—has been given absolute priority in our thinking and policy. The only moral compass we now have is the thin and degraded notion of economic welfare. This moral lacuna explains uncritical acceptance of globalisation and financial innovation. Leverage is a duty because it "levers" faster growth. The theological language which would have recognised the collapse of the credit bubble as the "wages of sin," the come-uppance for prodigious profligacy, has become unusable. But the come-uppance has come, nevertheless.
Historians have always been fascinated by cyclical theories of history. Societies are said to swing like pendulums between alternating phases of vigour and decay; progress and reaction; licentiousness and puritanism. Each outward movement produces a crisis of excess which leads to a reaction. The equilibrium position is hard to achieve and always unstable.
In his Cycles of American History (1986) Arthur Schlesinger Jr defined a political economy cycle as "a continuing shift in national involvement between public purpose and private interest." The swing he identified was between "liberal" (what we would call social democratic) and "conservative" epochs. The idea of the "crisis" is central. Liberal periods succumb to the corruption of power, as idealists yield to time-servers, and conservative arguments against rent-seeking excesses win the day. But the conservative era then succumbs to a corruption of money, as financiers and businessmen use the freedom of de-regulation to rip off the public. A crisis of under-regulated markets presages the return to a liberal era.
This idea fits the American historical narrative tolerably well. It also makes sense globally. The era of what Americans would call "conservative" economics opened with the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in 1776. Yet despite the early intellectual ascendancy of free trade, it took a major crisis—the potato famine of the early 1840s—to produce an actual shift in policy: the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws that ushered in the free trade era.
In the 1870s, the pendulum started to swing back to what the historian AV Dicey called the "age of collectivism." The major crisis that triggered this was the first great global depression, produced by a collapse in food prices. It was a severe enough shock to produce a major shift in political economy. This came in two waves. First, all industrial countries except Britain put up tariffs to protect employment in agriculture and industry. (Britain relied on mass emigration to eliminate rural unemployment.) Second, all industrial countries except the US started schemes of social insurance to protect their citizens against life's hazards. The great depression of 1929-32 produced a second wave of collectivism, now associated with the "Keynesian" use of fiscal and monetary policy to maintain full employment. Most capitalist countries nationalised key industries. Roosevelt's new deal regulated banking and the power utilities, and belatedly embarked on the road of social security. International capital movements were severely controlled everywhere.
This movement was not all one way, or else the west would have ended up with communism, which was the fate of large parts of the globe. Even before the crisis of collectivism in the 1970s, a swing back had started, as trade, after 1945, was progressively freed and capital movements liberalised. The rule was free trade abroad and social democracy at home.
The Bretton Woods system, set up with Keynes's help in 1944, was the international expression of liberal/social democratic political economy. It aimed to free foreign trade after the freeze of the 1930s, by providing an environment that reduced incentives for economic nationalism. At its heart was a system of fixed exchange rates, subject to agreed adjustment, to avoid competitive currency depreciation.
The crisis of liberalism, or social democracy, unfolded with stagflation and ungovernability in the 1970s. It broadly fits Schlesinger's notion of the "corruption of power." The Keynesian/social democratic policymakers succumbed to hubris, an intellectual corruption which convinced them that they possessed the knowledge and the tools to manage and control the economy and society from the top. This was the malady against which Hayek inveighed in his classic The Road to Serfdom (1944). The attempt in the 1970s to control inflation by wage and price controls led directly to a "crisis of governability," as trade unions, particularly in Britain, refused to accept them. Large state subsidies to producer groups, both public and private, fed the typical corruptions of behaviour identified by the new right: rent-seeking, moral hazard, free-riding. Palpable evidence of government failure obliterated memories of market failure. The new generation of economists abandoned Keynes and, with the help of sophisticated mathematics, reinvented the classical economics of the self-correcting market. Battered by the crises of the 1970s, governments caved in to the "inevitability" of free market forces. The swing-back became worldwide with the collapse of communism.
A conspicuous casualty of the swing-back was the Bretton Woods system that succumbed in the 1970s to the refusal of the US to curb its domestic spending. Currencies were set free to float and controls on international capital flows were progressively lifted. This heralded a wholesale change of direction towards free markets and the idea of globalisation. This was, in concept, not unattractive. The idea was that the nation state—which had been responsible for so much organised violence and wasteful spending—was on its way out, to be replaced by the global market. The prospectus was perhaps best set out by the Canadian philosopher, John Ralston Saul, in a 2004 essay in which he proclaimed the collapse of globalisation: "In the future, economics, not politics or arms, would determine the course of human events. Freed markets would quickly establish natural international balances, impervious to the old boom-and-bust cycles. The growth in international trade, as a result of lowering barriers, would unleash an economic-social tide that would raise all ships, whether of our western poor or of the developing world in general. Prosperous markets would turn dictatorships into democracies."
Today we are living through a crisis of conservatism. The financial crisis has brought to a head a growing dissatisfaction with the corruption of money. Neo-conservatism has sought to justify fabulous rewards to a financial plutocracy while median incomes stagnate or even fall; in the name of efficiency it has promoted the off-shoring of millions of jobs, the undermining of national communities, and the rape of nature. Such a system needs to be fabulously successful to command allegiance. Spectacular failure is bound to discredit it.
The situation we are in now thus puts into question the speed and direction of progress. Will there be a pause for thought, or will we continue much as before after a cascade of minor adjustments? The answer lies in the intellectual and moral sphere. Is economics capable of rethinking its core principles? What institutions, policies and rules are needed to make markets "well behaved"? Do we have the moral resources to challenge the dominance of money without reverting to the selfish nationalisms of the 1930s?
The enquiry must start with economics. If the case for the deregulated market system is intellectually sound, it will be very hard to change. Free- marketeers claim, contrary to Soros, that the crisis is the fault of governments. US money was kept too cheap for too long after the technology bubble burst in 2000 and the attacks of 11th September 2001. The market was temporarily fooled by the government. This is a shaky defence, to say the least: if the market is so easily fooled, it cannot be very efficient.
One can also argue that the problem is not with the market system, but the fact that markets are too few and inflexible. This seems to be the view of Yale economist Robert J Shiller. He likens the financial system to an early aircraft. Just because it is prone to crash doesn't mean we should stop trying to perfect it. Shiller claims that new derivative products will soon be able to insure homeowners against the risk of house prices going down. To my mind, this is an example of trying to cure a state of inebriation by having another whiskey. There are two things wrong with it. First, if financial innovation is, in fact, the route to greater market efficiency, the financial system would have been getting more stable in the last 25 years of explosive financial engineering. Instead it has become more volatile. Second, the assumption that, given enough innovation, uncertainty can be reduced to risk, is just wrong. There will never be sufficient knowledge to enable contracts to be made to cover all future contingencies.
An analogous argument is that there was not enough marketisation in the global monetary system. Instead of the "clean" floating of currencies, "dirty" floating became the rule. Importantly, China and most of east Asia refused to float their currencies freely. China reverted unilaterally to a form of Bretton Woods, deliberately undervaluing the yuan against the US dollar. The resulting imbalances enabled American consumers to borrow $700bn a year from the parsimonious but super-competitive Chinese, at the cost of losing millions of manufacturing jobs to them. The Chinese saved, the Americans spent, and their debt-fuelled spending created the asset bubbles that led to the credit collapse. This source of instability needs no revision of economic theory, simply the establishment of a free market in foreign currencies. However, the assumption that a world in which currencies were allowed to float freely would be immune from the financial storms we have experienced depends on the belief that currencies will always trade at the correct prices—the global version of the efficient market hypothesis.
A different claim, which goes back to Marx, is that certain structures of economy are less stable than others. Globalisation has increased instability by producing a shift in world GDP shares from wages to profits as the release of low-wage populations into the global economy has undermined the bargaining power of labour in rich countries. This has led to a crisis of under-consumption, staved off only by the expansion of debt (as Gerald Holtham points out, in Prospect's December 2008 issue). There is some truth in this. A greater equality of incomes would create more stable purchasing power.
But the main source of instability lies in the financial markets themselves. And here it is clear that the battle of economic ideas still needs to be fought. Keynes is important in this because he produced the most powerful case for supposing that financial markets are not efficient in the sense required by efficient market theory. As he explained in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), classical economics had ignored the two main causes of systemic financial failure: the existence of (unmeasurable) uncertainty and the role of money as a "store of value." The first led to periodic collapses of confidence; the second led investors to hoard cash if interest rates fell too low, making automatic recovery from collapses difficult. The function of government was to remove the depressive effect of both by giving investors continuous confidence to invest.
Contrary to the belief of some recent economic theories, the future is just as unknowable as Keynes thought it was. The mathematical "quants" who set up the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund in 1994 worked to a risk model which showed that the kind of financial meltdown which, in fact, bankrupted them four years later, could occur only once every four million years. This was not a rationalisation of financial interests: it was self-deception.
What economics needs, therefore, if it is to have any purchase on real world behaviour, is a new starting point. It needs to accept that the changing nature of the world precludes people from having enough information to always make contracts at the "right" prices. Such a change is a necessary condition for a permanent change in policy. Each previous crisis has produced a leading economist with the authority to challenge the prevailing consensus. So the call for a new Keynes is not just rhetorical.
Opinion as to the degree of supervision, regulation and control needed to make a market economy well-behaved is to be found along a continuum. At one end are the free-marketeers who believe only the lightest touch only is needed; at the other are classical Marxists who believe it requires public ownership of the whole economy. In between are varieties of social democrats and middle wayers, the most famous of whom is Keynes. This territory is sure to be extensively explored over the next few years as the pendulum starts swinging back. For the question of making markets well behaved goes beyond the question of securing their efficiency. It involves making the market economy compatible with other valued aspects of life. The French social democratic slogan of the mid-1990s—"market economy yes, market society no"—encapsulates the idea that limits should be placed on the power of the market to shape social life according to its own logic.
The battleground will be about the role of the nation-state in the globalising economy of the future, for the nation-state is the main repository and guardian of the values and traditions threatened by the disruptive power of the global market. A paradox of globalisation—which was supposed to see a withering of the nation-state—is that it has led to a revival of nationalism. A deregulated world turned out, unsurprisingly, to be one dominated by the strong. This process reached its apogee with the presidency of George W Bush and the Iraq war—which emphasised US determination to act as a free agent. Other states, too, in Europe and elsewhere, are now acting as semi-free agents. The effective choice is between a more regulated global capitalist system and its possibly violent breakup into a menagerie of warrior nationalisms.
But to ensure we have an ordered system requires us to make globalisation efficient and acceptable. In the course of that debate, I expect one crucial point to emerge: the benefits of globalisation are real, but have been exaggerated. Improvements in the allocation of capital and reductions in opportunities for corruption are offset by increased volatility. Globalisation also raises huge issues of political accountability and social cohesion that are scarcely considered by economists, and only lazily by politicians.
There seem to be four main reasons for this blind spot. The first is the intellectual domination of economics in this debate, with its individualistic and developmental perspective. Globalisation—the integration of markets in goods, services, capital and labour—must be good because it has raised many millions out of poverty in poorer countries faster than would otherwise have been possible. Any interference with this process is impious. A second idea is that it is inevitable: technology—most conspicuously the internet—abolishes national frontiers. Technology cannot be undone. So, whether we like it or not, globalisation is our fate, and our morals and social conventions must adapt to it. The third idea is that globalisation is evolutionary; any check would be regressive. Fourthly, globalisation forces us to think of the world as a unit, which is necessary if we are to solve planet-wide problems.
These are powerful propositions, derived from the era of scarcity and not adjusted to the era of partial abundance, nor to the existence of natural limits to growth. Today the benefits of globalisation are much more obvious for poor than for rich countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, the northern hemisphere was for free trade, the southern protectionist. Today the position is partly reversed. Globalisation offers the best hope for poor countries to catch up with the rich. But growth has become less important for rich countries. In the early 1930s, Keynes thought that the international division of labour could be carried too far. "Let goods be homespun," was the title of an article he wrote in 1932. He wanted a "well-balanced" or "complete" national life, allowing a country to display the full range of its aptitudes, and not simply to be a link in a value-adding productive chain spanning the globe. Moreover, the economic benefits of offshoring are far from evident for richer states. Since 1997, Britain has lost 1.1m manufacturing jobs—29 per cent of its total—many of them to developing countries. The result has been a dramatic deterioration in Britain's current account balance, and a decline into deficit on the investment income balance too, meaning we pay more to foreign investors in interest and dividends than we receive from abroad. This makes it harder for Britons to pay down their huge debts to the outside world.
Keynes's warning that the pursuit of export-led growth is bound to set nations at each others' throats is still relevant. But that does not mean just sticking as we are. Some rowing back of financial globalisation and cross-border financial institutions is required to rebalance market and state. This process is underway, as national regulators take a tighter grip over the financial institutions they are bailing out. Regulators are increasingly sceptical of banks that depend excessively on wholesale funding. Without this, there will be a natural tendency for banks to shrink back within their own frontiers.
One of the biggest problems with the global trading order remains the enormous arbitrages in tax, labour and non-wage costs that exist. These have encouraged companies to relocate operations, and depressed the bargaining power of labour. Companies like WalMart of the US and Nokia of Finland have been huge outsourcers to Asia. The only solution short of raising barriers is for governments to co-operate in flattening out some of these differences—for China, for example, to increase wages. Ralston Saul has noted that the era of globalisation saw "multiple binding economic treaties… put in place while almost no counterbalancing binding treaties were negotiated for work conditions, taxation, the environment or legal obligations." It will be difficult to create new global systems that balance public good and self interest. But the alternative is the beggar-my-neighbour world of protectionism.
Another way to curb outsourcers would be to use antitrust powers. Breaking up megalithic multinationals would at least prevent them enjoying quasi-monopoly rents, and thus reduce the incentive.
Globalisation is necessarily blind to the idea of political accountability because none exists at the planetary level. Yet the crisis has challenged the idea that we should all unthinkingly follow the logic of the bond market. When the crunch came, we discovered that national taxpayers still stand behind banks, and national insolvency regimes matter. A more rules-based exchange rate system is not inconceivable. This might seek to put some curbs on capital movements—especially at times of economic stress.
And, in this new climate, national politicians are likely to reach for ideas and influences that until recently would have seemed exotic. The idea, for example, that economic growth does not, beyond a certain point, make people happier. David Cameron, a market-friendly Conservative, has talked about the importance of general wellbeing as an alternative to the mania for economic growth. Rich countries could probably abandon the globalist project without much damage to their material standards and with possible gain to their quality of life. Rejecting the inevitability of market-based globalisation would not necessarily be harmful—especially if it were accompanied by a reassertion of democracy at a national level. This is not a pipe dream. New Zealand, which was the first country to attempt to become a post-national nation state in the 1980s with a radical programme of privatisation and deregulation, changed tack in 1999. The electorate endorsed an interventionist government devoted to raising taxes, reimposing economic regulations and establishing a stable private sector. It happened because reform failed to deliver the goods. Other countries may follow suit if the political costs of maintaining a global economy are seen as too high. Rich countries surely have a duty to help poor countries, but not at the expense of an awful way of life.
"Well-behaved" markets should not only be more stable, they should be more morally acceptable. It is indefensible for a top American CEO to earn 367 times more than the average worker (against 40 times in the 1970s). Part of the swing-back in political economy will be to use the tax system to redress the balance between capital and impotent labour.
The crisis has rightly led to a revival of interest in Keynes. But he was a moralist as well as an economist. He believed that material wellbeing is a necessary condition of the good life, but that beyond a certain standard of comfort, its pursuit can produce corruption, both for the individual and for society.
He reunited economics with ethics by taking us back to the primary question: what is wealth for? The good life was one to be lived in harmony with nature and our fellows. Yet "we destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend." Not everything should be sacrificed for efficiency. And Keynes was a liberal nationalist.
In terms of our pendulum analogy, he was someone who instinctively sought an equipoise: not in the timeless equilibrium of classical economics, but in a balance in political economy between freedom and control, national and international wellbeing, efficiency and morality. He was an Aristotelian, who believed that vices are virtues carried to excess. This is a good philosophy for today.
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