High Government Debt

Friday, May 14, 2010

A very interesting and sober analysis by a Keynesian economist:

Historians increasingly attribute the [Great] Depression to broad geopolitical upheavals. World War I shattered the existing global economic order. Dominated by Great Britain, it fostered vibrant trade and rested on the gold standard. (Under the gold standard, paper currencies could be converted into gold coins or bullion.) The war also spawned huge international debts, reflecting German war reparations and large U.S. loans to Britain and France. It was impossible to reconstruct the prewar order. Britain was too weak, the gold standard was too constricting, and the debts were too heavy. But countries tried, because the prewar order had delivered prosperity. This futile effort brought on Depression. Only when economic hardship became unbearable were unrealistic goals (keeping the gold standard, repaying debts) abandoned.

There are eerie, if crude, parallels now. The welfare state is today's equivalent of the gold standard. With aging societies, advanced countries have promised more benefits than their tax bases can support. Hence, high government debt. Greece is merely the canary in the coal mine. But politicians resist cutting popular benefits except under extreme pressure. It takes a crisis. Greece, again. Another unsettling parallel is the global economy. The United States' leadership since World War II is eroding before China's ascent. There's a danger now, as then, of a power vacuum. Witness the long delay in coming to Greece's aid. No one country acted decisively, even as markets grew nervous...

Three [problems] stand out: first, the weight of the welfare state and aging populations; second, the burden of huge private debts (mortgages and consumer loans in America and elsewhere); and finally, huge imbalances in global trade, with some countries -- notably China -- running massive surpluses and others -- notably the United States -- having large deficits...

Everywhere countries face changes of policies, practices and habits that are deeply woven into their social, political and economic fabrics. Can developed countries gradually rein in their welfare states? Will Asia's relentless export economies shift to domestic-led growth? Will Americans save more and spend less -- and the Chinese do the opposite? As after World War I, reverting to what's familiar, comfortable and understood may be hazardous. It was the inability to see and adapt to change in the 1920s -- a process complicated by the war's animosities -- that fundamentally caused the Great Depression, economic historians Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, and Peter Temin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have argued...

But there is another more sobering reading of the Great Depression. It is that painful and once unthinkable changes are made only under the pressure of acute crisis. One reason that central banks were so passive is that they clung to the gold standard: Relaxing credit policies too dramatically to rescue banks might lead to a loss of gold; people would demand metal to replace paper money. Gold was abandoned in various countries only after it seemed untenable. Similarly, the post-World War I debt problem wasn't "solved" until repayment was impossible. As for Britain's place as global leader, the United States assumed that role only in World War II.

Against that backdrop, today's unresolved problems -- over the welfare state, leadership in the global economy -- become more ominous. They suggest that major adjustments won't be made until they're compelled by some sort of crisis. This possibility defines the present economic drama. Will the recovery encourage conscious changes? Or is recovery providing a false sense of security? The stakes are, of course, enormous, because -- as everyone knows -- the economic suffering of the Great Depression transformed many countries' politics for the worse and led to World War II.

Depression 2010?, Robert Samuelson, Real Clear Politics, May 12, 2010, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/05/12/depression2010105530.html.