Paul Krugman’s Economic Blinders
Paul Krugman is widely appreciated for his New York Times columns criticizing Republican demands for fiscal austerity. He rightly argues that cutting back public spending will worsen the economic depression into which we are sinking. And despite his partisan Democratic Party politicking, he warned from the outset in 2009 that President Obama’s modest counter-cyclical spending program was not sufficiently bold to spur recovery.
These are the themes of his new book, End This Depression Now. In old-fashioned Keynesian style he believes that the solution to insufficient market demand is for the government to run larger budget deficits. It should start by giving revenue-sharing grants of $300 billion annually to states and localities whose budgets are being squeezed by the decline in property taxes and the general economic slowdown.
All this is a good idea as far as it goes. But Mr. Krugman stops there – as if that is all that is needed today. So what he has done is basically get into a fight with intellectual pygmies. Thus dumbs down his argument, and actually distracts attention from what is needed to avoid the financial and fiscal depression he is warning about.
Here’s the problem: To focus the argument against “Austerian” advocates of fiscal balance, Mr. Krugman hopes that economists will stop distracting attention by talking about what he deems not necessary. It seems not necessary to write down debts, for example. All that is needed is to reduce interest rates on existing debts, enabling them to be carried.
Mr. Krugman also does not advocate shifting taxes off labor onto property. The implication is that California can afford its Proposition #13 – the tax freeze on commercial property and homes at long-ago levels, which has fiscally strangled the state and led to an explosion of debt-leveraged housing prices by leaving the site value untaxed and hence free to be pledged to banks for larger and larger mortgage loans instead of being paid to the public authorities. There is no hint in Mr. Krugman’s journalism of a need to reverse the tax shift off real estate and finance (onto income and sales taxes), except to restore a bit more progressive taxation.
The effect of Mr. Krugman’s suggestions is for the government to subsidize the existing financial and tax structures, leaving the debts intact and ignoring the largely regressive, unfair and inefficient system of taxation. It is unfair because the profits of the rich – and even worse, their asset-price (“capital”) gains are taxed at lower rates and riddled with tax loopholes and giveaways. The wealthy benefit from the windfall gains delivered by the public infrastructure investment advocated by Mr. Krugman, but there is not a word about the public recouping this investment. Governments are indeed able to create their own money as an alternative to taxing, but some taxes – above all, on windfall gains, like site value resulting from public investment in roads or other public transportation – are justified simply on grounds of economic fairness.
So it is important to note what Mr. Krugman does not address these issues that once played so important a role in Democratic Party politics, before the Wall Street faction gained control via the campaign financing process – even before the Citizens United case. For over a century, economists have recognized the need for financial and fiscal reform to go together. Failure to proceed with a joint reform has led the banking and financial sector – along with its major client base, the real estate sector – to scale back property taxes and “free” the economy with taxes so that the revenue can be pledged to the banks as interest to carry larger loans. The effect is to load the economy at large down with private and public debt.
In Mr. Krugman’s reading, private debts need not be written down or the tax system made more efficient. It is to be better subsidized – mainly with easier bank credit and more government spending. So I am afraid that his book might as well have been subtitled “How the Economy can Borrow its Way Out of Debt.” That is what budget deficits do: they add to the debt overhead. In Europe, which has no central bank permitted to monetize the deficit spending, this pays interest to transfers to the bondholders (and their descendants). In the United States the Federal Reserve can monetize this indebtedness – but the effect is to subsidize domestic debt service.
Mr. Krugman has become censorial regarding the debt issue over the last month or so. In last Friday’s New York Times column he wrote: “Every time some self-important politician or pundit starts going on about how deficits are a burden on the next generation, remember that the biggest problem facing young Americans today isn’t the future burden of debt.” Unfortunately, Mr. Krugman’s failure to see today’s economic problem as one of debt deflation reflects his failure (suffered by most economists, to be sure) to recognize the need for debt writedowns, for restructuring the banking and financial system, and for shifting taxes off labor back onto property, economic rent and asset-price (“capital”) gains. The effect of his narrow set of recommendations is to defend the status quo – and for my money, despite his reputation as a liberal, that makes Mr. Krugman a conservative. I see little in his logic that would oppose Rubinomics, which has remained the Democratic Party’s program under the Obama administration.
Many of Mr. Krugman’s readers find him the leading hope of opposing even worse Republican politics. But what can be worse than the Rubinomics that Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Rahm Emanuel and other Wall Street holdovers from the Democratic Leadership Committee have embraced?
Perhaps I can prod Mr. Krugman into taking a stronger position on this issue. But what worries me is that he has moved sharply to the “Rubinomics” wing of his party. He insists that debt doesn’t matter. Bank fraud, junk mortgages and casino capitalism are not the problem, or at least not so serious that more deficit spending cannot cure it. Criticizing Republicans for emphasizing structural unemployment, he writes: “authoritative-sounding figures insist that our problems are ‘structural,’ that they can’t be fixed quickly. … What does it mean to say that we have a structural unemployment problem? The usual version involves the claim that American workers are stuck in the wrong industries or with the wrong skills.”
Using neoclassical sleight-of-hand to bait and switch, he narrows the meaning of “structural reform” to refer to Chicago School economists who blame today’s unemployment as being “structural,” in the sense of workers trained for the wrong jobs. This diverts the reader’s attention away from the pressing problems that are genuinely structural.
The word “structural” refers to the systemic imbalances that neoclassical economists dismiss as “institutional”: the debt overhead, the legal system – especially unfair and dysfunctional bankruptcy and foreclosure laws, regulations against financial fraud, and wealth distribution in general. In 1979, for example, I juxtaposed economic structuralism to Chicago School monetarism in my monograph on Canada in the New Monetary Order. I have elaborated that discussion my textbook on Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (new ed. 2010). The tradition is grounded in the Progressive Era’s reform program. Correcting such structural and institutional defects, parasitism and privilege seeking “free lunches” is what classical political economy was all about – and what the neoclassical reaction sought to exclude from the economic curriculum. But from the perspective of neoclassical writers through Rubinomics deregulators, the problem of massive, unpayably high debt expanding inexorably by compound interest (and penalty fees) simply disappears.
So the great problem today is whether to stop the siphoning off of income and wealth to financial institutions at the top of the economic pyramid, or reverse the polarization that has taken place over the past thirty years between creditors and debtors, financial institutions and the rest of the economy. I realize that it is more difficult to criticize someone for an error of omission than for an error of commission. But the distinction was erased a month ago when Mr. Krugman got lost in the black hole of banking, finance and international trade theory that has engulfed so many neoclassical and old-style Keynesian economists. But last month Mr. Krugman insisted that banks do not create credit, except by borrowing reserves that (in his view) merely shifts lending savings from wealthy people to those with a higher propensity to consume. Criticizing Steve Keen (who has just published a second edition of his excellent Debunking Economics to explain the dynamics of endogenous money creation), he wrote:
Keen then goes on to assert that lending is, by definition (at least as I understand it), an addition to aggregate demand. I guess I don’t get that at all. If I decide to cut back on my spending and stash the funds in a bank, which lends them out to someone else, this doesn’t have to represent a net increase in demand. Yes, in some (many) cases lending is associated with higher demand, because resources are being transferred to people with a higher propensity to spend; but Keen seems to be saying something else, and I’m not sure what. I think it has something to do with the notion that creating money = creating demand, but again that isn’t right in any model I understand.
Keen says that it’s because once you include banks, lending increases the money supply. OK, but why does that matter? He seems to assume that aggregate demand can’t increase unless the money supply rises, but that’s only true if the velocity of money is fixed;
But “velocity” is just a dummy variable to “balance” any given equation – a tautology, not an analytic tool. As a neoclassical economist, Mr. Krugman is unwilling to acknowledge that banks not only create credit; in doing so, they create debt. That is the essence of balance sheet accounting. But writing like a tyro, Mr. Krugman offers the mythology of banks that can only lend out money taken in from depositors (as though these banks were good old-fashioned savings banks or S&Ls, not what Mr. Keen calls “endogenous money creators”). Banks create deposits electronically in the process of making loans.
Mr. Krugman then doubled down on his assertion that bank debt creation doesn’t matter. People decide how much income they want to save, or decide how much to borrow to buy goods that their stagnant wage levels no longer enable them to afford. Everything is a matter of choice, not a necessity (“price-inelastic” is the neoclassical euphemism):
First of all, any individual bank does, in fact, have to lend out the money it receives in deposits. Bank loan officers can’t just issue checks out of thin air; like employees of any financial intermediary, they must buy assets with funds they have on hand.
So how much currency does the public choose to hold, as opposed to stashing funds in bank deposits? Well, that’s an economic decision, which responds to things like income, prices, interest rates, etc.. In other words, we’re firmly back in the domain of ordinary economics, in which decisions get made at the margin and all that. Banks are important, but they don’t take us into an alternative economic universe.
As I read various stuff on banking — comments here, but also various writings here and there — I often see the view that banks can create credit out of thin air. There are vehement denials of the proposition that banks’ lending is limited by their deposits, or that the monetary base plays any important role; banks, we’re told, hold hardly any reserves (which is true), so the Fed’s creation or destruction of reserves has no effect.
Not only do banks create new credit – debt, from the vantage point of their customers – but in the absence of government spending and regulation along more progressive lines, this new debt creation is the only way that the economy has avoided a sharp shrinking of consumption as real wages have remained stagnant since the late 1970s. The banks offer is one most people can’t refuse: “Take out a mortgage or go without a home,” or “Take out a student loan or go without an education and try to get a job at McDonald’s.” In other words, “Your money or your life.” It is what banks have been saying through the ages. The difference is that they can now create credit freely – and as Alan Greenspan has pointed out to Senate committees, workers are so debt-burdened (“one check away from homelessness”) that they are afraid that if they complain about working conditions, ask for higher salaries (to say nothing of trying to unionize), they will be fired. If they miss a paycheck their credit-card rates will soar to about 29%. And if they miss a mortgage payment, they may face foreclosure and lose their home. So the banking system has cowed the population with its credit- and debt-creating power.
Mr. Krugman’s blind spot with regard to the debt overhead derails trade theory as well. If Greece leaves the Eurozone and devalues its currency (the drachma), for example, debts denominated in euros or other hard currency will rise proportionally. So Greece cannot leave without repudiating its debts in today’s litigious global economy. Yet Mr. Krugman believes in the old neoclassical nonsense that all that is needed is “devaluation” to lower the cost of domestic labor. It is as if he is indifferent to the suffering that such austerity imposes – as Latin American countries suffered at the hands of IMF austerity plans from the 1970s onward. Costs can “be brought in line by adjusting exchange rates.” The problem thus is simply one of exchange rates (which translates into labor costs in short order). Currency depreciation will (in Mr. Krugman’s trade theory) reduce labor’s cost and other domestic costs to the point where governments can export enough not only to cover their imports, but to pay their foreign-currency debts (which will soar in depreciated local-currency terms).
If this were the case, Germany could have paid its reparations debt by depreciating the mark in 1921. But it did so by a billion-fold, even this did not suffice to pay. Neither neoclassical trade theorists nor Chicago School monetarists get the fact that when public or private debts are denominated in a foreign (hard) currency, devaluation devastates the economy. The past half-century has shown this again and again (most recently in Iceland). Domestic assets are transferred into foreign hands – including those of domestic oligarchies operating out of their offshore dollar or Swiss-franc accounts.
Blindness to the debt issue results in especial nonsense when applied to analysis of why the U.S. economy has lost its export competitiveness. How on earth can American industry be expected to compete when employees must pay about 40 percent of their wages on debt-leveraged housing, about 10 percent more on student loans, credit cards and other bank debt, 15 percent on FICA, and about 10 to 15 percent more in income and sales taxes? Between 75 and 80 percent of the wage payment is absorbed by the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sector even before employees can start buying goods and services! No wonder the economy is shrinking, sales are falling off, and new investment and hiring have followed suit.
How will the government running a larger deficit cope with today’s dimension of the debt problem – except by taking Mr. Krugman’s suggestion to enable states and localities to spend marginally more revenue and avoid further layoffs, while the military industrial complex steps up its “Pentagon capitalism”? So far, the great increase in recent government debt has been to bail out the banking sector, not to help the “real” economy recover.
Increasing the debt burden of European nations has the same dire consequences. Germany balks at bailing out Greece unless Greece moves to streamline its bloated government and inefficient bureaucracy, stop tax evasion by the wealthy, clean up corruption and, in a word, be more Germanic. The U.S. “Austerian” budget cutters whom Mr. Krugman criticizes likewise can point to wasteful government spending, failing to distinguish positive infrastructure investment from pork-barrel “roads to nowhere” and tax loopholes promoted by Congressional politicians whose campaigns are sponsored by special financial interests, real estate and monopolies.
But I fear that Mr. Krugman is being drawn into the gravitational pull of Rubinomics, the Democratic Party’s black hole from which the light of clarity dealing with the debt issue and bad financial and legal structures simply cannot escape. The only variables he admits are structure-free: The federal government can indeed spend more and reduce interest rates (especially on mortgages) so that the higher mortgage debt, student debt, personal debt and corporate debt overhead can be afforded more easily. No need to write any of these debts down. That seemingly obvious and sensible structural solution lies outside the scope of Mr. Krugman’s neoclassical economics. He fails to recognize that debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. This is the immediate problem facing the U.S. and European economies today – and the way in which it is resolved will shape the coming generation.
The problem with Mr. Krugman’s analysis is that bank debt creation plays no analytic role in Mr. Krugman’s proposals to rescue the economy. It is as if the economy operates without wealth or debt, simply on the basis of spending power flowing into the economy from the government, and being spent on consumer goods, investment goods and taxes – not on debt service, pension fund set-asides or asset price inflation. If the government will spend enough – run up a large enough deficit to pump money into the spending stream, Keynesian-style – the economy can revive by enough to “earn its way out of debt.” The assumption is that the government will revive the economy on a broad enough scale to enable the individuals who owe the mortgages, student loans and other debts – and presumably even the states and localities that have fallen behind in their pension plan funding – to “catch up.”
Without recognizing the role of debt and taking into account the magnitude of negative equity and earnings shortfalls, one cannot see that what is preventing American industry from exporting more is the heavy debt overhead that diverts income to pay Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) expenditures. How can U.S. labor compete with foreign labor when employees and their employers are obliged to pay such high mortgage debt for its housing, such high student debt for its education, such high medical insurance and Social Security (FICA withholding), such high credit-card debt – all this even before spending on goods and services?
In fact, how can wage earners even afford to buy what they produce? The problem interfering with the circular flow between producers and consumers (“Say’s Law”) is not “saving” as such. It is debt payment. And unless debts are written down, the U.S. economy will shrink just as will the economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Iceland and other countries subjected to the Washington Consensus of neoliberal austerity.
Michael Hudson’s new book summarizing his economic theories, “The Bubble and Beyond,” will be available in a few weeks on Amazon. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached via his website, email@example.com
 Paul Krugman, “Easy Useless Economics,” The New York Times, May 11, 2012.
 Paul Krugman, “Conscience of a Liberal” blog, March 27, 2012, Minsky and Methodology (Wonkish).
 Banking Mysticism, Continued, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” March 30, 2012.
 Paul Krugman, “The Euro Trap,” The New York Times, April 30, 2010.