The market has sent a shot over our bow to tell us that we cannot accumulate budget and trade deficits forever.
From afar, the defeat of the Republicans in Congress on the matter of the debt ceiling seemed fore-ordained and the inevitable consequence of political ineptitude on an almost heroic scale. Perhaps (and this is the best that might be said) they were staking their future claim to be able to say ‘I told you so’ when the financial catastrophe wrought by the western world’s addiction to spending money it has neither saved nor earns nor strikes not in the comparatively muted fashion that we have experienced hitherto, but in its full and terrible force.
If so, the Republican Party’s moral authority to pose as the party of fiscal prudence and rectitude is distinctly equivocal. Teetotal in opposition, they have been drunk in office. As in most, if not quite all, western countries, the electorate has been offered a choice between profligates, between those who want to overspend on one thing rather than on another, that is to say between those who wish to please one clientele rather than another. The Republicans have been in favor of fiscal rectitude the way weak-willed alcoholics desire complete sobriety.
The American situation is far from unique; in the two countries in which I spend most of my time, Britain and France, the inability of governments of whatever stripe to put public finances on a sound basis is by now plain for all to see. A slowdown in the rate of growth of the national debt is what is now regarded by much of the population as the most ferocious and heartless austerity.
The name of poor old Keynes is regularly invoked, as if he had ever supported deficit spending that (in the case of France) has lasted nearly half a century without interruption. Government deficits are not run any longer, if they ever were, to stimulate demand when demand contracts in the private sector: they are run to create economic dependence on government and as a permanent unearned subsidy (unearned, that is, by the economy as a whole) of the living standards of the entire population. And no population is going to vote, in the name of probity and prudence, for lower living standards, any more than pimps will vote for sexual purity.
The Democrats who defeated the Republicans hope, like M. Hollande in France, that their political victory will somehow overcome economic reality, such that everything can continue just as before, that the economic circle will somehow be squared, that reckless spending will somehow prove able to finance itself. In Britain, at the height of the last government’s spending spree, the man in charge of the economy, the unlamented and deeply egregious Gordon Brown, made no distinction between investment and expenditure, unsurprisingly running up the national debt faster than at any time of history other than in the midst of world wars.
Except in the unlikely event of real economic growth outstripping indebtedness (unlikely because the indebtedness is to pay for current consumption), there are only three conceivable outcomes: depression caused by very harsh government retrenchment, inflation caused by the expansion of the money supply, or some mixture of the two. The first was the choice, at least in theory, of the Republicans; the second that of the Democrats. As the mayoral election in New York has demonstrated, the second now has more electoral appeal than the first: a long chronic illness rather than an acute fever to be followed (it is hoped, but not certainly) by a swift convalescence.
As to the supposed absence hitherto of rapid inflation despite monetary easing on a huge scale – an absence attributable to the relocation of industry to countries that for the moment must accept our currencies in payment for the goods we buy so cheaply from them – what is it but inflation, albeit asset inflation, that means that in the city where I write this, Paris, a tiny apartment costs more than twenty times the average annual income, and where it would take an average worker six months to earn enough to buy one square yard of floor space in the center of the city – provided, of course, that he did not in the meantime eat or clothe himself or keep warm?
The inability of any party seriously to retrench is surely the consequence of the growth of central government, which is now so deeply imbricated in the economy that it is often difficult to distinguish the public from the private. There are many companies – and very large ones too – that are at least as dependent on the government as any single welfare mother: and therefore so are their employees, managers and shareholders. It is not just welfare mothers, therefore, who will vote for the continuation or extension of dependence on government spending, but many of the most prosperous. When the government in Britain finally gave up on its project of the unification of all health care records in a single IT system, after having spent up to $20,000,000,000 on it, there was nothing to show for it except many IT millionaires. Unsurprisingly they were not against the government expenditure that was the foundation of their wealth.
The government is now so big that when it sneezes the whole economy catches cold. That is why, in matters of economics, we are all fascists now. Fortunately we have not adopted the other, more dramatic and brutal, aspects of fascism, and that is no small advantage; but I wouldn’t altogether discount the possibility of something really nasty turning up, especially in Europe, even if does not take exactly the same form as the last time. I know from my clinical experience that, for every way of behaving well, there are a hundred ways to behave badly.
Our ship of state is now so vast that it more resembles a giant liner than a nifty little dinghy that is able to change course as the rocks come into view. My main hope is that the rocks are far enough away that we don’t run into them in my own, now much reduced, lifetime: but I cannot help wondering in the center of Paris, so elegant, so rich, so cultured, whether I am not really aboard the Titanic.