Reports from the Economic Front

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

Confronting Savage Growth

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The media is full of stories about the ever more heated debate over the best way to reignite growth: austerity or deficit spending.  

Paul Krugman, a leading proponent of the deficit spending side, puts it like this:  

For the past two years most policy makers in Europe and many politicians and pundits in America have been in thrall to a destructive economic doctrine. According to this doctrine, governments should respond to a severely depressed economy not the way the textbooks say they should — by spending more to offset falling private demand — but with fiscal austerity, slashing spending in an effort to balance their budgets.

Critics warned from the beginning that austerity in the face of depression would only make that depression worse. But the “austerians” insisted that the reverse would happen. Why? Confidence! “Confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery,” declared Jean-Claude Trichet, the former president of the European Central Bank — a claim echoed by Republicans in Congress here. . . .

The good news is that many influential people are finally admitting that the confidence fairy was a myth. The bad news is that despite this admission there seems to be little prospect of a near-term course change either in Europe or here in America, where we never fully embraced the doctrine, but have, nonetheless, had de facto austerity in the form of huge spending and employment cuts at the state and local level.

There is no doubt that the European experience has put those supporting austerity on the defensive.  As the New York Times explains:

Britain has fallen into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s, according to official figures released Wednesday, a development that raised more questions about whether government belt-tightening in Europe has gone too far. Britain is now in its second recession in three years. . . .

In a packed British Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron had to defend his austerity drive against critics like Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labour Party, who called the economic numbers “catastrophic.”

The raucous scene was the latest manifestation of growing popular frustration with the strict fiscal diet that has been prescribed by the European Central Bank and German leaders in response to the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis. While Britain is not a member of the euro zone, its economic fortunes are closely linked with those of the currency union.

The discontent was on view in French elections last weekend and played a role in the collapse of the Dutch government on Monday. Greece, Spain and Italy have been the scene of mass demonstrations for months, but the turmoil now seems to be spreading to countries that were not seen as being at the heart of the crisis. Britain joined Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain in recession.

Of course, as Krugman notes, that doesn’t mean that the austerity defenders have given up. Here is the solution to the crisis put forward by Mr. Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, as reported by the New York Times:

He urged national leaders to take steps to promote long-term growth even when it is politically difficult. Some leaders have raised taxes or cut infrastructure projects, when instead they should be reducing government operating expenses, Mr. Draghi said.

Tragically, those in Mr. Draghi’s camp continue to blame Europe’s crisis on too much government spending when its roots lie far more in the collapse of speculative bubbles driven by private financial interests and German austerity policies.  Of course, this understanding would require taking a critical stance against dominant capitalist interests; far easier to make the working class pay.  

However, we should also be careful about assuming that the bankruptcy of the austerity strategy proves the wisdom of relying on deficit spending to solve our economic problems.  The fact of the matter is that spending to stimulate growth will not solve our problems.  The reason is that existing economic structures operate to generate what the United Nations Development Program has called “savage growth.”  Savage growth refers to a growth process that enriches the few at the expense of the many.  In other words, a process that is neither desirable nor sustainable.  Therefore, unless we change the nature of our economy, deficit spending will just temporarily postpone the start of a new crisis.

Here are two charts from an Economic Policy Institute report that highlight the workings of savage growth in the United States.  The first shows a sharp divergence, beginning in the mid-1970s, between productivity and hourly compensation for private-sector production/nonsupervisory workers (a group comprising over 80 percent of payroll employment).  In other words, the owners of the means of production have basically stopped sharing gains in output with their workers.  This wedge between productivity and compensation helps explain both the growth in inequality and the need for debt to sustain consumption.

The second provides a closer look at post-1973 trends.  A key point: median hourly compensation basically stopped growing starting early in the 2000s, even though the economy continued to expand for several more years, and it continues to fall despite the end of the recession.

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In sum, if we are serious about improving economic conditions we need to move past the austerity-deficit financing debate and begin pressing for adoption of trade, finance, production, and labor policies that strengthen the position of workers relative to those who own the means of production.  Anything short of that just won’t do.

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