Michael Hudson on Big Government

Michael Hudson’s latest book J is for Junk Economics is a treasure trove of, by current mainstream standards, radical economic ideas. Here he is on Big Government, that much-maligned feature of modern capitalist economies (p.41-2):

“Europe’s 1848 revolutions by the bourgeoisie against Europe’s royalty, landed aristocracies and their allied vested interests sought to transfer power away from government bodies controlled by these classes (eg., Britain’s House of Lords). Subsequent democratic reform movements favored progressive taxation, consumer protection and general economic regulation. These original liberals fought to tax special interests, not to free them from taxation. The thrust of parliamentary reform since the 19th century accordingly has been to make governments strong enough to tax rent extractors such as landlords, high finance and monopolists.

These rentiers have fought back by wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of individualism. Accusing politicians of corruption and insider dealing, populist demagogues assert that government is by nature incompetent as compared to private management – which turns out to be giant Wall Street corporations and trusts. The effect (indeed, the lobbying aim) of downsizing democratic government is to turn the economy over to the financial sector and its allied rentiers to administer in their own interest. The wealthy are all in favor of Big Government when it is oligarchic.

Trickle-down economists accuse social spending programs of leading to budget deficits that are inherently inflationary, but applaud tax cuts and bank bailouts that benefit primarily the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector. Their lobbyists craft a demagogic rhetoric to attack progressive taxation, regulation and social spending programs by insisting that public management is inherently inefficient as compared to private ownership of basic infrastructure, banking and health care. Claiming that public services are not a proper function of government, they advocate privatization of state-run enterprises, roads and the post office.

Frederick Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944) argued that public planning to subsidize basic needs or regulate “the market” (rent extractors, banksters and fraudsters) to protect consumers and employees leads to socialist or fascist autocracy. His libertarian followers insist that government regulation violates their personal rights to charge whatever the market will bear. Their oligarchic alternative to big government is to roll back democratic reforms by attacking social spending programs, replacing progressive taxes with a low flat tax and sales taxes that fall on labor/consumers; abolishing minimum wage protection, Social Security and other public services; and privatizing public infrastructure to turn it into feudal-style rent-extraction opportunities. The aim is to un-tax the FIRE sector (mainly the One Percent) and eliminate the consumer protection and labor reforms put in place in the early 20th century Progressive Era. The meaning of the word “reform” has been inverted, using libertarian-style language coined in the late 19th century against Big Government under the control of aristocrats and other rentiers.

The real question is thus whether governments will be democratic or oligarchic. Will they subsidize the economy and undertake public infrastructure investment, or will they tax the population at large to subsidize the FIRE sector and other special interests?”

Keynes on global trade, conflict and full employment

keynesThe passage below is taken from the concluding pages of John Maynard Keynes’ famous General Theory, where he speculates on the benefits to international relations from avoiding conflict over international trade. If full employment can be achieved domestically through judicious government policies this would, he hoped, lessen the need for countries to come into conflict with each other over the balance of payments of trade, investment and capital flows.

Given the historical record, I am actually skeptical about the possibilities for achieving and sustaining full employment, however that might be defined. I am therefore not a perennially optimistic Keynesian. Sooner or later, growing economic imbalances will give rise to crisis and recession, and rising unemployment. However, I do think the world economy could be more wisely managed than it is now, with the US the (still?) reluctant hegemon and a rising China among other potentially destabilising trends. Continue reading

Our resurgent enemy: authoritarian nationalism trumps neoliberalism

Institutionalist economist Geoffrey Hodgson writes a fascinating and highly informative blog entitled New Politics. This post from January discusses the authoritarian nationalist turn in world politics and the vital importance of liberalism in countering this threat. His writing is lucid, compelling, and very well-informed by lessons from history.

Although the post is more about politics than economics, from a political economy perspective, the two are more useful when analysed together. In modern capitalist economies, the role of the state is inseparable from other institutions such as the rule of law and the market.

The debate over economic policy should be thoroughly exercised in the public realm of a healthy democracy. This requires well-educated citizens open to engaging critically in such a debate, allowing space for diversity and pluralism without dictating their terms. Intolerance is present in elements of both left and right and is contrary to the liberal perspective. Continue reading

The Koreas: totalitarian socialism vs industrial policy

A link below to Michael Roberts’ blog post on the Koreas. It focuses mainly on some analysis of the post-Korean War economic history of the North, but also some comparison with the capitalist South and his desire to see the two of them reunified under centrally-planned socialism, something that I cannot see being a success.

The diverging fortunes of North and the South in terms of economic (and political) development illustrate the potential dynamism of capitalism versus largely autarkic socialism. But it does not lend support to an idealised and unfettered free-market capitalism either. Continue reading

Richard Koo explains balance sheet recessions

Economist Richard Koo is well known for his concept of  a ‘balance sheet recession’. In this short video he explains how the recent Great Recession, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Japan’s economic stagnation since the 1990s are all examples of this, and what can be done about it.

A number of somewhat iconoclastic economists have explored the nature and consequences of asset-price bubbles, fueled by the accumulation of private sector debt, and their subsequent collapse, followed by private sector deleveraging (paying down debt). They include Koo, Michael Pettis, Steve Keen and Michael Hudson, the latter three being influenced by the late Hyman Minsky and his Financial Instability Hypothesis. The four of them proffer somewhat different solutions to the long stagnation that can follow the collapse of a debt-fueled asset-price bubble, which we are arguably still living through.

Koo favours a fiscal stimulus in which government spending exceeds revenue at a rate sufficient to prevent the economy collapsing as a large number of firms use their cash flow to pay down debt, rather than invest. This is what has been done intermittently in Japan. Koo argues that without the stimulus the Japanese economy would have experienced its own Great Depression, rather than simply years of stagnation.

Keen and Hudson favour a Modern Debt Jubilee in which much private debt is simply forgiven and wiped out, allowing households and firms to raise their spending on consumption and investment and drive economic recovery.

Pettis focuses his analysis on the current account imbalances across the global economy which in his view caused the build-up of debt. The unwinding of these imbalances is required to secure a more sustainable global recovery.

There is something to be said for the ideas of all of the above. I am keen to compare them and integrate the most important aspects, as their thinking overlaps to a significant extent. That will be the subject of a future post! In the meantime, I can definitely recommend watching the video as an introduction to Koo’s thinking.