July 21, 2011
These are interesting times — and I mean that in the worst way. Right now we’re looking at not one but two looming crises, either of which could produce a global disaster. In the United States, right-wing fanatics in Congress may block a necessary rise in the debt ceiling, potentially wreaking havoc in world financial markets. Meanwhile, if the plan just agreed to by European heads of state fails to calm markets, we could see falling dominoes all across southern Europe — which would also wreak havoc in world financial markets.
We can only hope that the politicians huddled in Washington and Brussels succeed in averting these threats. But here’s the thing: Even if we manage to avoid immediate catastrophe, the deals being struck on both sides of the Atlantic are almost guaranteed to make the broader economic slump worse.
In fact, policy makers seem determined to perpetuate what I’ve taken to calling the Lesser Depression, the prolonged era of high unemployment that began with the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continues to this day, more than two years after the recession supposedly ended.
Let’s talk for a moment about why our economies are (still) so depressed.
The great housing bubble of the last decade, which was both an American and a European phenomenon, was accompanied by a huge rise in household debt. When the bubble burst, home construction plunged, and so did consumer spending as debt-burdened families cut back.
Everything might still have been O.K. if other major economic players had stepped up their spending, filling the gap left by the housing plunge and the consumer pullback. But nobody did. In particular, cash-rich corporations see no reason to invest that cash in the face of weak consumer demand.
Nor did governments do much to help. Some governments — those of weaker nations in Europe, and state and local governments here — were actually forced to slash spending in the face of falling revenues. And the modest efforts of stronger governments — including, yes, the Obama stimulus plan — were, at best, barely enough to offset this forced austerity.
So we have depressed economies. What are policy makers proposing to do about it? Less than nothing.
The disappearance of unemployment from elite policy discourse and its replacement by deficit panic has been truly remarkable. It’s not a response to public opinion. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 53 percent of the public named the economy and jobs as the most important problem we face, while only 7 percent named the deficit. Nor is it a response to market pressure. Interest rates on U.S. debt remain near historic lows.
Yet the conversations in Washington and Brussels are all about spending cuts (and maybe tax increases, I mean revisions). That’s obviously true about the various proposals being floated to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis here. But it’s equally true in Europe.
On Thursday, the “heads of state or government of the euro area and the E.U. institutions” — that mouthful tells you, all by itself, how messy European governance has become — issued their big statement. It wasn’t reassuring.
For one thing, it’s hard to believe that the Rube Goldberg financial engineering the statement proposes can really resolve the Greek crisis, let alone the wider European crisis.
But, even if it does, then what? The statement calls for sharp deficit reductions “in all countries except those under a programme” to take place “by 2013 at the latest.” Since those countries “under a programme” are being forced into drastic fiscal austerity, this amounts to a plan to have all of Europe slash spending at the same time. And there is nothing in the European data suggesting that the private sector will be ready to take up the slack in less than two years.
For those who know their 1930s history, this is all too familiar. If either of the current debt negotiations fails, we could be about to replay 1931, the global banking collapse that made the Great Depression great. But, if the negotiations succeed, we will be set to replay the great mistake of 1937: the premature turn to fiscal contraction that derailed economic recovery and ensured that the Depression would last until World War II finally provided the boost the economy needed.
Did I mention that the European Central Bank — although not, thankfully, the Federal Reserve — seems determined to make things even worse by raising interest rates?
There’s an old quotation, attributed to various people, that always comes to mind when I look at public policy: “You do not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.” Now that lack of wisdom is on full display, as policy elites on both sides of the Atlantic bungle the response to economic trauma, ignoring all the lessons of history. And the Lesser Depression goes on.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 22, 2011, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: The Lesser Depression.