Joseph Stiglitz, “To Cure the Economy", at Project Syndicate:
As the economic slump that began in 2007 persists, the question on everyone’s minds is obvious: Why? Unless we have a better understanding of the causes of the crisis, we can’t implement an effective recovery strategy. And, so far, we have neither.
We were told that this was a financial crisis, so governments on both sides of the Atlantic focused on the banks. Stimulus programs were sold as being a temporary palliative, needed to bridge the gap until the financial sector recovered and private lending resumed. But, while bank profitability and bonuses have returned, lending has not recovered, despite record-low long- and short-term interest rates.
…But the economy was very sick before the crisis; the housing bubble merely papered over its weaknesses. Without bubble-supported consumption, there would have been a massive shortfall in aggregate demand. Instead, the personal saving rate plunged to 1%, and the bottom 80% of Americans were spending, every year, roughly 110% of their income. Even if the financial sector were fully repaired, and even if these profligate Americans hadn’t learned a lesson about the importance of saving, their consumption would be limited to 100% of their income. So anyone who talks about the consumer “coming back” – even after deleveraging – is living in a fantasy world.
Fixing the financial sector was necessary for economic recovery, but far from sufficient. To understand what needs to be done, we have to understand the economy’s problems before the crisis hit.
…Globalization has been one, but only one, of the factors contributing to the second key problem – growing inequality. Shifting income from those who would spend it to those who won’t lowers aggregate demand. By the same token, soaring energy prices shifted purchasing power from the United States and Europe to oil exporters, who, recognizing the volatility of energy prices, rightly saved much of this income.
…The prescription for what ails the global economy follows directly from the diagnosis: strong government expenditures, aimed at facilitating restructuring, promoting energy conservation, and reducing inequality, and a reform of the global financial system that creates an alternative to the buildup of reserves.