This is a critical moment for economic policy in the industrialized countries. After a year and a half of emergency rescue, with large fiscal deficits and rock-bottom interest rates, governments are beginning to pull back. Especially in countries with large current account deficits, stimulus spending is being withdrawn, and central banks are under pressure to begin raising rates and tightening money. The threat of deflation and cascading insolvencies in the financial system are so yesterday; today’s threat is said to be inflation and sovereign default.
If you survey the center-to-left economics blogs, including this one—economists who see the world at least in part through Keynesian eyes—you will find howls of protest. It is simply irrational, we say, to allow this slump to run its course. There is no threat of inflation at all, which is actually a problem, since a bit of inflation would be medicine against effectively high nominal interest rates at the zero lower bound. And every indication is that the recovery under way owes its feeble pulse to the lingering effects of last year’s stimulus.
But is this just a problem of economic analysis? Is it only that New, Post and other Keynesians haven’t been persuasive enough? Does economic argument and evidence drive policy?
In a sense yes: those who make the decisions summon economic arguments to justify their actions. But who gets to make the decisions and what arguments they find appealing is not the outcome of academic seminars. What got us into this mess in the first place, and what now threatens to throw us back into the maelstrom, is the political hegemony of the “finance perspective”, the interests and outlook of those whose main concern is maximizing (and now simply protecting) the value of their financial assets.
Within the world of elite interests, this is almost a mass constituency. While the bulk of such assets are held by an infinitesimal few, perhaps the top 10-20% of the population in the industrialized countries have significant financial wealth and actively monitor their returns. Their understanding of how economies work and what priorities policy-makers should adhere to follow from their personal position. Inflation is a constant threat to asset-holders. They fear the laxity of central banks as well as the buildup of government debt, which can serve as an incentive to future inflation. They want their portfolios to have a component of absolutely risk-free government securities, and the very whisper of sovereign default chills them to the core. They believe in the inherent reasonableness of financial markets and believe that anyone who wishes to borrow from them should demonstrate their prudence and fiscal rectitude. They were willing to relax their principles temporarily during the panic, but now that they have caught their breath they want to see a return to “sound” practices. Governments will bend to their wishes not because they have better arguments, but because they hold power.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not making the crude claim that policy is driven directly by interests. In fact, I believe that, if they get their way, holders of financial assets will suffer along with the rest of us. (Not as much, of course: succumbing to a haircut because of debt deflation cannot be compared to losing one’s job and not being able to meet basic needs.) The process is more complicated: where one sits in society and the kinds of problems one typically has to solve leads to a way of thinking, and this manner of thinking then informs politics. For centuries, the finance perspective has played a central role in economic theorizing, and there is ordinarily a body of research to support it. What I am proposing is this: economic orthodoxy is regaining control over policy because it reflects the outlook of those who occupy the upper reaches of government and business.
Up to this point, the Great Economic Event we are passing through has not caused even a hint of political realignment, and that is why policy is returning to the old normal.