Podcast • September 15, 2016

What Would Keynes Do?

This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; ...

This election has been about everything but the economy, stupid (according to John Harwood of The New York Times). Americans are split right down the middle—48 to 48—on which candidate will handle money matters better; instead the wedge issues are tolerance, territory, immigration, constitutional rights, political (and factual) correctness. Why is that?

There are a lot of theories bouncing around this week, and we imagine them all overlooked by John Maynard Keynes, the economic wizard behind the Bretton Woods world order and the boom years between 1930 and 1970. He may have been the last genius of economics who also understood human life, in all its excesses and “animal spirits.” What would his keen mind have brought to a moment with so much ambiguity? 

1. We’re on the comeback.

Harwood argued last Thursday that the lukewarm economy gives neither side an advantage: the Obama recovery was neither strong enough to gloat over nor weak enough to attack.  

But early this week, a Census survey of economic indicators revealed that in fact, 2015 looked like a historic uptick: median household income rose 5.2%, the biggest jump since 1967. 3.5 million Americans climbed out of poverty; unemployment dropped to 4.9%, half its post-crash high. All three stock indexes have hit record highs, and more than half of Americans say the economy seems “good”—there’s genuine relief in the air.

2. But we’re still a long way from “morning in America.”

Yet 60% of Americans still think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. The median wage may be up this year, but it’s still below its balmy 1999 high. The body is recovering, but the collective psychology is still anxious and depressed. When people look in their wallets—or toward their futures—they feel shortchanged and blame Washington. 

Our guest, the protest journalist Sarah Jaffe, calls attention to the people who are really still feeling the squeeze—of anti-Keynesian austerity and casino capitalism, for example—in her new book, Necessary Trouble. It’s a chronicle of people on the march against punitive student debt, foreclosures, and slashed public budgets—and for moving the conversation forward.

3. Growth may be ending.

Heavy-hitting economists like Larry Summers have started to worry aloud about “secular stagnation”: a period in which growth itself may slow—or stop—in our Energizer-bunny economy. What would that mean for the American dream, which depends on rising wages buying more and better goods at cheaper prices?

4. But our minds are changing, too.

A radical shift that the new bipartisan consensus emerging in the candidates: that signing onto NAFTA, letting infrastructure languish, and cutting spending was a mistake—in short, that the government still has a stimulating role to play in the American economy. 

To make the case, our good friend Mark Blyth—the Brown University political economist whose magisterial book Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea lowered the hammer on the false promise of cut budgets. Mike Konczal, one of the big-thinking financial reformers and fellows at the Roosevelt Institute, will make the case that this fraught election might be concealing a new and healthy economic consensus.

Finally, Lord Robert Skidelsky paints us a portrait of Keynes himself, as a cosmopolitan elite who nonetheless empathized with those out of work and on the dole. Keynes is the kind of economist we wish we still had around, offering not only timely economic prescriptions (extend global financial regulation, double down on government infrastructure spending, experiment with basic income plans), but also a model—of a holistic, cross-disciplinary, concerned mind:

The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts …. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.

 

 

By the Way • March 26, 2015

Michael Lewis’s Age of Money

Michael Lewis is the great tale-spinner in the Second Gilded Age in America. He’s part muckraker, but part Mark Twain, too, for finding classic characters as good as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry ...

Michael Lewis is the great tale-spinner in the Second Gilded Age in America. He’s part muckraker, but part Mark Twain, too, for finding classic characters as good as the King and the Duke in Huckleberry Finn on Wall Street today: the good, the bad, the geeky, the banks and traders making billions mostly in the dark.

Like a great novelist, Lewis writes the moral ecology of the story.  Five years ago in The Big Short, after the meltdown of the subprime mortgage racket, the center of the story was a thick air of anger and doom – because near-autistic social misfits saw the problem, when the go-along greedy guys didn’t.  Only the mentally strange acted,  and they weren’t called heroes for being right.

Now Lewis has taken on another disease in the money system: Trading is a war of robots, a black box that almost none of the players get to see inside – too fast, too algorithmic, too fragmented, too automated, too layered for human understanding. He says the market at the heart of capitalism is still rigged and that it’s become a means of systematizing unfairness.

Meanwhile the eccentrics and iconoclasts are still not rewarded for their clear sight:

It’s a problem that people who speak truth to power get quickly classified as oddball rather than important. Maybe it’s always been that way. It’s a big problem in culture of elites, in the structure of institutions. On Wal Stret, elites have lack of sense of responsibility — or their responsibility is not to the larger society. They have responsibility to shareholders, to the bottom-line, to short-term results, etc. But there isn’t a sense of noblesse oblige. That got drained out of us, I think. They don’t have any sense that they’re lucky to be there. They think they deserved whatever they got.

Podcast • October 17, 2011

Mark Blyth (6): Going to school on “Occupy Wall St.”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (20 minutes, 8 mb mp3) I arrived in the States twenty years ago, to the month. When I look at the wealth and income distribution in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (20 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

I arrived in the States twenty years ago, to the month. When I look at the wealth and income distribution in the United States today, I’m looking at Mexico in the 1970s and Brazil in the 1960s. This is not America. This is not a land of opportunity. You can’t talk about opportunity when 60 percent of the population can’t afford to go to college, where the costs of basically a middle-class education far outstrip the resources of the average family; when you have 54-million people living, in a family of four, on less than $22,314 a year; and meanwhile, the top one percent have trebled their share of income…

Mark Blyth with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute

Mark Blyth, political economist and ever the argumentative Scot, has gone humble before the Wall Street protest. He and we should be learning from the crowd in Zuccotti Park — and in Boston’s Dewey Square — just what people have discovered from their own experience, their own anxiety.

There’s a crisis of income growth in this country that’s papered over by credit. That’s why there’s $56-billion in student loan debt. That’s why there’s $14-trillion in mortgage debt. That’s why there’s more than $1-trillion in home equity lines of credit outstanding. Because people have been borrowing against an uncertain future to finance an ever more expensive present. At the same time income has stagnated. Let’s be clear. When you adjust wages for prices, when you look at the real wage, it’s stagnant for 40 percent of the population; and for the next 20 percent of the population it’s barely edged up over 25 years. Meanwhile the top one percent has increased its share from the late 1970s, from 9 percent of national income to 24 percent just now. You can’t say these things are not causally related… Economically, inequality is a bad thing. You don’t even need to make a moral argument. You don’t have to mention the word justice once. More equal societies grow faster. They’re better…”

It turns out that Americans have more reverence for “fairness” than for equality. We’re not Sweden, and perhaps just as well, Mark Blyth allows. “But we get out of shape when we realize that the risks are being socialized and the profits are being privatized. And that’s what’s happening on Wall Street… “

Podcast • April 14, 2010

James Kwak: The Problem is Bank-o-cracy

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Kwak. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3) James Kwak extends Michael Lewis’s point and feeds my fascination with apocalyptic hysteria and helpless torpor as the twin markers of ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Kwak. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

James Kwak extends Michael Lewis’s point and feeds my fascination with apocalyptic hysteria and helpless torpor as the twin markers of American politics these days. He makes it believable that the angry Tea Party wackitude in the far countryside and the smug sleepiness inside the Beltway and the media mainstream are both symptoms of the same “quiet coup” that James Kwak and his writing partner Simon Johnson diagnosed in The Atlantic last Spring.

To Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now professor of entrepreneurship at MIT, the deeper condition of the American republic looks all too familiar. The essential problem — easily recognizable if we were looking at, say, Thailand or Korea or Russia — is known in the trade as “state capture,” meaning the accretion of overwhelming political power by a financial elite, an oligarchy, known in our case as Wall Street, or in the title of the riveting analysis by Johnson and Kwak, Thirteen Bankers. The idea of “capture” extends by now past the political parties, Congress and the controlling agencies of the executive branch. James Kwak, in conversation, quips that “capture” encompasses “media capture,” too, and “ideology capture.” And the same oligarchy seems to be working its will in foreign as well as domestic misadventures:

JK: One of the parallels between the financial crisis and the Iraq War is that despite all the things that have gone wrong we still have largely the same people. We see the same people on TV, the same people in Congress telling us how we should understand the crisis and what we should do next. And during the Bush Administration people were saying, “Why didn’t anyone get fired for the Iraq War?” And the same question applies now: Why hasn’t anyone been fired because of the financial crisis?

I think there’s another parallel as well, which is that, again, the cover-up that’s going on by Wall Street today is this idea that the financial crisis was an accident, that it was a lot of people making mistakes—it was lenders making bad lending decisions, and homebuyers making bad borrowing decisions, and rating agencies making bad decisions when they rated these toxic securities, and unbelievably these investment banks holding onto their own toxic assets, and then regulators being asleep at the switch.

CL: Perfect storm.

JK: Yes, exactly. It’s the perfect storm theory. And what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to analogize the financial crisis to a natural disaster. How do you blame someone for a natural disaster? And you hear the same language from the Administration. You hear Timothy Geithner saying, “Well, do we want to protect against a hundred-year flood or a 30-year flood?”

I think this is all deeply wrong, and it’s an exact parallel to the Iraq War. Because you know, as we all remember, we invaded Iraq, we didn’t find Weapons of Mass Destruction, and what did people say? They said, “Oh, it was bad intelligence.” So people gathering the intelligence made mistakes, people analyzing the intelligence made mistakes, people brought the intelligence to President Bush and Vice President Cheney and they made an error of judgment because of the bad intelligence, and then a majority of the Congress went and voted for this war because they had been misled. It’s the same idea. It’s the same idea that it’s all an accident, it’s not our fault, it’s somebody else’s fault and it was just a big mistake. And in both cases that is just fundamentally wrong. I mean, we invaded Iraq because our political leaders wanted to invade Iraq, and our Congress voted for it because they did not want to be seen as voting against a war in the run-up to an election, and that’s all there is to it.

And with the financial crisis: I’m not saying that bankers wanted the financial crisis, but they engineered it. They engineered a climate of deregulation and non-regulation that allowed them to invent whatever products they wanted to, sell them to anyone they wanted to, increase their leverage so that they could make larger and larger profits, and they engineered that consciously. This was the product of intention, and it was bound to blow up. And it finally blew up. And that is the message that Wall Street does not want people to hear. They want people to think it was all a colossal mistake made by well-meaning people who had mistakes in their models. That is not what happened.

James Kwak in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 12, 2010.