Thursday, December 18, 2008

What economics needs now? Search for more of Keynes

Robert Skidelsky, author of John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman, discusses the ideological flaws of the present crisis- the tussle between the left and the right about regulation and markets. Time now for a middle path, which Keynes argued in the 30s by recognizing that markets are not always efficient and when they are not government can help the economy grow. This does not mean that government has to replace markets—only when there is inefficiency and markets cannot work, the government can help. He also argues that economists need to admit now by saying that the benefits of globalization are real, but have often been exaggerated. Keep it real!

…The enquiry must start with economics. If the case for the deregulated market system is intellectually sound, it will be very hard to change. Free- marketeers claim, contrary to Soros, that the crisis is the fault of governments. US money was kept too cheap for too long after the technology bubble burst in 2000 and the attacks of 11th September 2001. The market was temporarily fooled by the government. This is a shaky defence, to say the least: if the market is so easily fooled, it cannot be very efficient.

…But the main source of instability lies in the financial markets themselves. And here it is clear that the battle of economic ideas still needs to be fought. Keynes is important in this because he produced the most powerful case for supposing that financial markets are not efficient in the sense required by efficient market theory. As he explained in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), classical economics had ignored the two main causes of systemic financial failure: the existence of (unmeasurable) uncertainty and the role of money as a "store of value." The first led to periodic collapses of confidence; the second led investors to hoard cash if interest rates fell too low, making automatic recovery from collapses difficult. The function of government was to remove the depressive effect of both by giving investors continuous confidence to invest.

…Opinion as to the degree of supervision, regulation and control needed to make a market economy well-behaved is to be found along a continuum. At one end are the free-marketeers who believe only the lightest touch only is needed; at the other are classical Marxists who believe it requires public ownership of the whole economy. In between are varieties of social democrats and middle wayers, the most famous of whom is Keynes. This territory is sure to be extensively explored over the next few years as the pendulum starts swinging back. For the question of making markets well behaved goes beyond the question of securing their efficiency. It involves making the market economy compatible with other valued aspects of life. The French social democratic slogan of the mid-1990s—"market economy yes, market society no"—encapsulates the idea that limits should be placed on the power of the market to shape social life according to its own logic.

…But to ensure we have an ordered system requires us to make globalisation efficient and acceptable. In the course of that debate, I expect one crucial point to emerge: the benefits of globalisation are real, but have been exaggerated. Improvements in the allocation of capital and reductions in opportunities for corruption are offset by increased volatility. Globalisation also raises huge issues of political accountability and social cohesion that are scarcely considered by economists, and only lazily by politicians.

…There seem to be four main reasons for this blind spot. The first is the intellectual domination of economics in this debate, with its individualistic and developmental perspective. Globalisation—the integration of markets in goods, services, capital and labour—must be good because it has raised many millions out of poverty in poorer countries faster than would otherwise have been possible. Any interference with this process is impious. A second idea is that it is inevitable: technology—most conspicuously the internet—abolishes national frontiers. Technology cannot be undone. So, whether we like it or not, globalisation is our fate, and our morals and social conventions must adapt to it. The third idea is that globalisation is evolutionary; any check would be regressive. Fourthly, globalisation forces us to think of the world as a unit, which is necessary if we are to solve planet-wide problems.

…In the early 1930s, Keynes thought that the international division of labour could be carried too far. "Let goods be homespun," was the title of an article he wrote in 1932. He wanted a "well-balanced" or "complete" national life, allowing a country to display the full range of its aptitudes, and not simply to be a link in a value-adding productive chain spanning the globe. Moreover, the economic benefits of offshoring are far from evident for richer states.

…Keynes's warning that the pursuit of export-led growth is bound to set nations at each others' throats is still relevant. But that does not mean just sticking as we are. Some rowing back of financial globalisation and cross-border financial institutions is required to rebalance market and state. This process is underway, as national regulators take a tighter grip over the financial institutions they are bailing out. Regulators are increasingly sceptical of banks that depend excessively on wholesale funding. Without this, there will be a natural tendency for banks to shrink back within their own frontiers.

…The crisis has rightly led to a revival of interest in Keynes. But he was a moralist as well as an economist. He believed that material wellbeing is a necessary condition of the good life, but that beyond a certain standard of comfort, its pursuit can produce corruption, both for the individual and for society.

He reunited economics with ethics by taking us back to the primary question: what is wealth for? The good life was one to be lived in harmony with nature and our fellows. Yet "we destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend." Not everything should be sacrificed for efficiency. And Keynes was a liberal nationalist.

In terms of our pendulum analogy, he was someone who instinctively sought an equipoise: not in the timeless equilibrium of classical economics, but in a balance in political economy between freedom and control, national and international wellbeing, efficiency and morality. He was an Aristotelian, who believed that vices are virtues carried to excess. This is a good philosophy for today.