All entries for Friday 16 April 2010

April 16, 2010

Privatized Keynesianism: Rebirth After a Life That Never Was?

Writing about web page http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122498671/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

"Privatised Keynesianism: An Unacknowledged Policy Regime," published in the British Journal of Politics & International Relations11:3 (2009), pp. 382-399  by my Warwick colleague Colin Crouch, has been deservedly recognized and cited by scholars and journalists. The paper starts from the idea that it is a problem to maintain stability and consumer confidence under capitalism. These were secured for thirty years after the war by Keynesian demand management. After that, Crouch writes:

In those countries where capitalism was moving into full partnership with electoral democracy, it was acquiring a new vulnerability. In a fully free market, wages and employment were likely to fluctuate; would workers, who were dependent on their incomes for their level of living and lacked the cushion of wealth of propertied classes, be confident enough to consume at levels adequate to enable capitalists themselves to sustain confidence to invest and maintain profit levels? Would the very characteristics of the market that constituted its strength—flexibility, especially of labour—undermine its own ability to thrive? It should be noted that we are not here talking of the market producing social problems of insecurity in workers’ lives—that might be dealt with by an adequate welfare state—but of its producing problems for itself through its own dependence on workers’ willingness to maintain and increase their consumption. It can be assumed that the level of living at which social policy will sustain purchasing power will be below that needed to sustain an expanding, consumption-driven economy.

And he continues:

In the 1940s it had seemed that only state action could solve this problem for the market. But now, absolutely in tune with neo-liberal ideology and expectations, there was a market solution. And, through the links of these new risk markets to ordinary consumers via extended mortgages and credit card debt, the dependence of the capitalist system on rising wages, a welfare state and government demand management that had seemed essential for mass consumer confidence, had been abolished. The bases of prosperity shifted from the social democratic formula of working classes supported by government intervention to the neo-liberal conservative one of banks, stock exchanges and financial markets.

I have thought about this a lot recently, partly because my students love it -- and reproduce it for me in their essays! I have to say I don't buy it -- at least not in this form. Why am I sceptical? Well, Crouch's argument seems to be that capitalism is vulnerable to underconsumption. From 1945 through the 1970s, the argument goes, the British government ensured demand was sufficient. After the 1970s, Crouch suggests, government retreated and banks stepped in. In his eyes, British capitalism survived on credit.

The big thing here that is clearly true is that as the public debt declined, household debt rose. My problem is with the counterfactual. Implicitly, without government spending in the first phase, and credit expansion in the second, there would have been a problem: not enough demand. In the first phase, that is for most of the period up to the 1970s, it's clear that British capitalism actually suffered from too much demand; that's why there was rising inflation. In the second phase, after the 1970s, the government didn't so much step out of the picture as try to limit demand more fiercely (and hamfistedly at first), eventually delegating the job to the Bank of England. In this phase I don't really see any evidence that British capitalism was going to fall into decline if we hadn't been able to lend lots of money to the workers that they couldn't afford to pay back.

With less household borrowing and less equity realization, what would have happened? Most likely, interest rates and the exchange rate would have been a little lower, and exports would have been a little higher. With more export competitiveness, our manufacturing sector would have declined a little more slowly (and our universities might have expanded a little more). That's about it. Oh, and I guess we would be in slightly better shape today.

Ironically it is only now, in the current recession, after a huge credit crunch and collapse of private demand, that privatized Keynesianism has truly come to life. Hence, in my view, its rebirth, after a life that never was. Here is some evidence, which you'll note is tri-partisan:

  • BBC, July 23, 2009: Chancellor Alistair Darling has urged banks to lend more to small firms, during a meeting with banking bosses ... Alistair Darling has said he is "extremely concerned" that banks may be charging firms too much for loans.
  • Reuters, October 26, 2009: British retail banks should stop paying big cash bonuses and use the money instead to support new lending and contribute to an economic recovery, opposition Conservatives’ finance spokesman George Osborne said on Monday.
  • The Guardian, February 23, 2010: A new government should tear up "ineffectual" lending agreements with Britain's taxpayer-owned banks and force them to lend billions of pounds more to small and medium sized businesses, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable said today.

Thanks to Colin Crouch, we know what to call it: Privatized Keynesianism. It is Keynesian because it uses debt finance to add to aggregate demand. It is privatized because the debt is private and stays off the government's books.

Now, the question is: Is privatized Keynesianism a good idea for today? Hmm. Why are we in the mess we are in? I think it might have been that we had too much private debt in the first place, so banks lent too much to firms and households that had no chance of repaying their debts unless house and stock markets floated ever upwards; and because banks did not keep enough in reserves. Where are we now? House and stock prices are still too high, and they are rising. And the solution these politicos favour is ... more private debt! The bankers are letting us down! They should be out there trying to persuade us to take out more loans! They should be keeping less in reserves! 

You couldn't make it up, could you?

At this point I am going to offer one of those dire aphorisms that runs: "The only thing worse than X is -X." I apologize in advance, but there is no alternative, so here it is:

  • The only thing worse than having bankers making lending decisions is to have politicians making lending decisions.

This does not mean I am complacent about the need for better financial regulation. Politicians have a role to play, and it is in setting prudential rules, limiting guarantees to retail depositors, and removing the incentives for banks to grow "too big to fail." That is a lot, but that is all. Politicians should not be making lending decisions! That is the bankers' job; let them do it.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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