Galbraith: Listen to Galbraith or the Economy Gets It!

James K. Galbraith’s Washington Monthly piece “No Return to Normal” is a mix of the completely sensible (propping up bad banks is a recipe for further looting by insiders and more stupid risk-taking) and a totally crazy conviction that modern states are economically magical institutions. That is, it is a James K. Galbraith piece. Here is some crazy:

Apart from cash—protected by deposit insurance and now desperately being conserved—the American middle class finds today that its major source of wealth is the implicit value of Social Security and Medicare—illiquid and intangible but real and inalienable in a way that home and equity values are not. And so it will remain, as long as future benefits are not cut.

Yes, 401(k)s are down, and Galbraith’s thesis seems to be that they always will be unless… guess what? But, okay, suppose he’s right and there is no recovery if we fail to embrace James K. Galbraithianism. In what crazy world does the economy both (a) fail to recover and (b) the government make good on already completely infeasible entitlement commitments? And how bizarre is it to say in the space of two sentences that a source of wealth is “real and inalienable” just as long as benefits are not cut through the democratic process — which of course they can be and probably must be if Galbraith is right about the likelihood of a no-recovery future. If voters can lose some portion of future government transfers by voting for politicians who vote them away, then those transfers are obviously alienable. (The courts clearly say there is no legal right whatsoever to these transfers.) And alienable future transfers from the government that are conditional on political will and economic feasibility are about as “real” as my future lovechild with Gisele Bundchen. Does anyone have an interpretation of Galbraith’s passage that makes sense?

He later goes on to claim, amazingly, that increasing spending on Social Security is “an economic recovery ace in the hole.” So the best I can do is guess that Galbraith is incoherently shuffling back and forth from a scenario in which we don’t use his “ace in the hole” (investments and home values worthless forever!) and one in which we do (Social Security checks good as gold.) But that’s hardly fair, is it? 

A main theme of Galbraith’s article is that things are so bad that mainstream economics can be of no assistance, so you’ve got to go heterodox. But he says nothing to clarify why, if we must abandon the consensus views of professional economics, one should prefer Galbraithianism over other departures from othodoxy. He seems to infer his own views from the alleged failure of standard views. It is rather gentle to note that that doesn’t follow. For example:

In short, if we are in a true collapse of finance, our models will not serve. It is then appropriate to reach back, past the postwar years, to the experience of the Great Depression. And this can only be done by qualitative and historical analysis. Our modern numerical models just don’t capture the key feature of that crisis—which is, precisely, the collapse of the financial system.

I largely agree about the inapplicability of many models, but it’s not at all obvious that the experience of the Great Depression is more rather than less applicable than those models. The Depression was a long time ago. The economy was a lot different then. If one is going to do “qualitative and historical analysis” then it seems that recent collpases in the financial systems of other countries are rather more germane. Why not look at those instead of reaching back “past the postwar years”? Because there’s some ineffable but essential Americanness to the American economy? Galbraith actually seems to think so, which is why one must look away from the examples of Argentina and Indonesia! This seems arbitrary and I don’t get it. Of course, if we go back to the Great Depression, we just become mired in competing “qualitative and historical” analyses, which in reality tends to sound a lot like “Must destroy Amity Shlaes!!!” And that’s obviously a lot more intellectually rigorous and helpful than stupid mainstream economists with their stupid mainstream models.

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