20 April 2009

“Everyone has elites; the important thing is to change them”

Okay, now I'm worried. Simon Johnson, recently chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, lays out his view of how the US economy has gone wrong in an article titled "The Quiet Coup" from the latest Atlantic.

The challenges the United States faces are familiar territory to the people at the IMF. If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary. . . .

This may seem like strong medicine. But in fact, while necessary, it is insufficient. The second problem the U.S. faces--the power of the oligarchy--is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs. . . .

To paraphrase Joseph Schumpeter, the early-20th-century economist, everyone has elites; the important thing is to change them from time to time. If the U.S. were just another country, coming to the IMF with hat in hand, I might be fairly optimistic about its future. Most of the emerging-market crises that I’ve mentioned ended relatively quickly, and gave way, for the most part, to relatively strong recoveries. But this, alas, brings us to the limit of the analogy between the U.S. and emerging markets.

Emerging-market countries have only a precarious hold on wealth, and are weaklings globally. When they get into trouble, they quite literally run out of money--or at least out of foreign currency, without which they cannot survive. . . .

But the U.S., of course, is the world’s most powerful nation, rich beyond measure, and blessed with the exorbitant privilege of paying its foreign debts in its own currency, which it can print. As a result, it could very well stumble along for years--as Japan did during its lost decade--never summoning the courage to do what it needs to do, and never really recovering.
More from Johnson and colleagues at The Baseline Scenario.

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