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There is NO Going Back

Galbraith the Younger explains in New Deal 2.0 how his father understood the Great Depression and how it is different now in some ways but in others very similar.  He is one of the very few leading conventional economists who can perceive the link between great macro-economic movements and changes in the real world, in this case climate change and fossil fuel peaking.

I’ve always taken exception to the constant reference to “stimulus” as the policy objective, because implied in that word is the idea that all one needs to do is to undertake one or more relatively short term spending sprees, on whatever happens to be available at the moment, and that this will somehow return the economy to its pre-crisis state, putting it on a path of what economists like to call “self-sustaining growth.” I maintain that in the present environment there is no such thing as a return to self-sustaining growth. There will be no return to the supposedly normal conditions, which were in fact, from a historical point of view, highly abnormal, of the 1990s and 2000s.

What one needs is to set a strategic direction for renewal of economic activity. We need to create the institutions that will support that direction. Those institutions are public institutions, which create a framework for private activity. This is the way it is done. It is the way countries have always developed in the past and, to the extent that they are successful, they will always do so in the future or they won’t succeed. Seventy years ago when we were in the Great Depression, they built a national infrastructure: roads, airfields, schools, power-grids – this kind of thing was the priority. In the post-war period, the creation and maintenance of a large middle class with social security, with medical care, with housing programs, universities – these were the priorities of the post-war period.

Now we clearly face an enormous challenge with energy and climate. It’s a challenge that requires us to think in very creative ways, in very ambitious ways about how to change how we live, so as to make life on the planet tolerable a century or two centuries hence. This is a huge challenge. It requires design, planning, implementation, something with enormous potential for providing employment because things have to be done, enormous potential for guiding new public and private investment because one has to provide people with the means of making it realistic for individual activity to support this larger objective. And that is the way to move toward a renewed economic expansion. This strikes me very far from being a stimulus proposal. It is a proposal for setting a new strategic direction for the economy and doing so over a relatively long time horizon with a view that you’re sustaining effort for 15, 20, 30 years. That’s the way I think you need to think about this.

Just to wrap up a long answer to a short question: Why can’t we go back to the pre-crisis period? The answer is that restructuring of the private household debts is an enormous task which necessarily takes a very long period of time. During that time, the pre-crisis pattern of increasing debt will not resume. The asset against which the American household sector collateralized its debt for 15 to 20 years, its housing, has radically fallen in financial value. The houses are still there but you can’t sell them for nearly as much as you could have three years ago. And that is a structural impediment to returning to the previous pattern of economic expansion. And that impediment isn’t going to be removed in any short period of time for the simple reason that the houses remain there as an excess supply on the market and they remain therefore as a drag on housing prices. (link to article)

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