Are politicians as stupid as Joe Stiglitz says?

Our politicians are being stupid. Thus says the eminent US International Festival of Literature in Cologne, Germany - 13 Oct 2012economist Joseph Stiglitz in a recent article The Politics of Economic Stupidity. In spite of its title, however, the article spends most it words explaining the economics, and actually says very little about the politics, beyond saying it is stupid in pretty much all of the developed world. He is venturing similar views to fellow US academic and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (who is even more vocal about stupidity) and the FT’s Martin Wolf (whose comments are more closely argued and less polemical). All three are formidable intellects. Why are they saying this? And why are their views having such little impact on those responsible for economic policy?

The starting off point is the meagre rate of economic growth enjoyed by developed economies (mainly the USA, Japan, the Euro area and the UK) since the economic crash of 2007/08. The politicians cheer from the rooftops if growth occasionally reaches the rate of 3% per annum. But all economies are well below where they expected to be at this point by forecasters in 2007. Growth is meagre and living standards for the median citizen are hardly advancing at all. After a recession you should expect a rapid bounce-back, and then a resumption of steady growth of 2-3%, referred to as the “trend” rate, observed since the 1950s.

The proximate cause of this slow growth is, as these economists have it, a lack of demand. In other words our economies are producing enough goods and services, but not enough people are buying them. This shouldn’t happen. Economics is a circle: what we pay people to produce things is spent by them, creating demand. Demand and supply should balance out. But this can go wrong. If people save too much, and this isn’t balanced by investment, then there can be a downward spiral, in a process brought to popular consciousness by the economist Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. This is what seems to be happening across the various world economies now.

The traditional answer to this problem is for governments to stoke up demand artificially and thus stabilise things. In recent decades the consensus was that he best way of doing this is through monetary policy, usually low interest rates. This encourages people and businesses to spend more; once they spend more the system stops leaking, growth picks up and things settle back to a nice even flow. This should all be a nice self-adjusting process which does not lead to worse problems down the track. But, as Mr Stiglitz points out, this process does not seem to be working. I think he is right here, as I have blogged before, although most economists are in various states of denial about this state of affairs Рso central has a particular idea of money and monetary policy become in conventional economics.

That leaves a second weapon in the conventional toolkit: fiscal policy. This means that the governments deliberately spend more than they raise through taxes, creating extra demand that then plugs the gap. This has been the incessant cry of “Keynesians” ever since 2008. But this isn’t as simple as it looks. It is not self-adjusting the way that monetary policy is supposed to be. The risk is that you build a pile of government debt that cannot be repaid, causing another economic disruption down the track that undoes all your good work. Or to¬†put it another way, it often means prolonging unproductive and unsustainable activities that will drag the economy down in due course. It is meant to be a temporary corrective, not a long-term solution.

But, Mr Stiglitz and Mr Wolf say (I’m not so sure about Mr Krugman – he has become so polemical that I’ve stopped reading him), there is a way to square the circle. There is a magic bullet (they don’t actually say that). Public investment. If fiscal policy can be directed towards investment projects it will be sustainable. These projects will generate a return from which government debt can be repaid, either through direct revenues, or through higher taxes. And when government borrowing rates are as low they currently are, it doesn’t take much of a return to achieve this. And yet the developed world governments are reluctant to do this. This is what Mr Stiglitz is calling economic stupidity.

But alas life is not so easy. Public sector investment is an elephant trap. Investment projects that generate their own revenues and collateral don’t need the public sector to run them. Indeed it is almost always better to let them run in the private sector, where management and accountability is sharper. And by and large all the easy ones are being done already. It leaves some big projects that turn out to be very risky – like, for example, Britain’s HS2 fast railway. And because they are risky they are slow to get up and running, and not much use as tool for temporary fiscal policy.

But there is another set projects where the returns are indirect – they come from taxes in various guises. These include things like roads and bridges (given the difficulty of charging economic tolls), schools and hospitals, under Britain’s NHS. But the returns are difficult to judge and projects are selected not through a process of objective rating of financial return, but through political arm-twisting in a bid for short-term prestige. And the more urgent the need to create economic demand, the worse in quality these decisions are.

Examples about. After 2008 China embarked on a massive and urgent infrastructure programme. But although the country remains underdeveloped, much of this money was wasted; whole cities have been built and lie empty. The Chinese government is now grappling with a rising tide of bad debts from the state banks that backed these projects. Japan in the 1990s invested massively in infrastructure projects; the country is littered with “bridges to nowhere” and its economic problems are as intractable as ever. In Britain in the early 2000s the country invested in a whole host of Public Private Partnerships. Many of these are turning sour because it turns out the facilities (notably in the NHS) were not actually needed. Though the political opprobrium surrounds the PPP structure, and the way that there was no real risk sharing with the private sector, we mustn’t forget the problem at the heart of it all – public sector organisations are very bad at choosing investment projects. (Actually private sector organisations aren’t any better if the accountability is weak – but that’s another story). I could go on with other examples of government expenditure that were sensible in principle but badly designed in practice (Labour’s Building Schools for the Future, for example).

The upshot is that public investment is no magic bullet. It’s a good idea, and we should do more of it – but a top down blitz directed by the need to rebalance the economy in the short term is asking for trouble. Each project needs to be properly thought through and well managed. That means you can’t get them going in a hurry.

So what to do? I think we need to be more realistic about the direction our economy is going. Things are changing. The demographics are adverse. The excessive wealth of an elite is economically inefficient. Modern businesses require less physical investment. Technological innovation is more about improving the quality of life than ramping up consumption. Economist such as Mr Stiglitz and Mr Wolf are well aware of these pressures. I think their time would be better spent helping us to craft long term solutions rather than ranting on about “stupidity” that turns out to be not so stupid after all.