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David Brooks on the Conservative Economic Legacy
David Brooks has a very good column in the NYTimes today about how we got to where we are today, and the daunting economic challenges ahead. His sober analysis of our economic situation is part of a growing tide of recent analysis looking beyond the momentary crisises, and which are beginning to move the economic debate beyond the stale, brain-dead bromides of the terribly disapointing age of Bush.
Here’s one way to look at the politics of our era: We’ve moved from The Age of Leverage to The Great Unwinding.
For about a generation, the U.S. surfed on a growing wave of debt. The ratio of debt-to-personal-disposable income was 55 percent in 1960. Since then, it has more than doubled, reaching 133 percent in 2007. Total credit market debt — throwing in corporate, financial and other borrowing — has risen apace, surging from 143 percent of G.D.P. in 1951 to 350 percent of G.D.P. last year.
Charts that mark these trends are truly horrifying. There is a steady level of debt through most of the 20th century, until the mid-1980s. Then there is a steep accelerating rise to today’s epic levels.
This rise in debt fueled a consumption binge. Consumption as a share of G.D.P. stood at around 62 percent in the mid-1960s, and rose to about 73 percent by 2008. The baby boomers enjoyed an incredible spending binge. Meanwhile the Chinese, Japanese and European economies became reliant on the overextended U.S. consumer. It couldn’t last.
The leverage wave crashed last fall. Facing the possibility of systemic collapse, the government stepped in and replaced private borrowing with public borrowing. The Federal Reserve printed money at incredible rates, and federal spending ballooned. In 2007, the federal deficit was 1.2 percent of G.D.P. Two years later, it’s at 13 percent.
The crisis response more or less worked. Historians will argue about the Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke reaction, but the economy seems to be stabilizing. And now attention turns to the task of the next decade: slowly unwinding the debt that has built up over the past generation.
Americans aren’t borrowing the way they used to, but the accumulated debt is still there. Over the next many years, Americans will have to save more and borrow less. The American economy will have to transition from an economy based on consumption and imports to an economy with a greater balance of business investment and production. A country that has become accustomed to reasonably fast growth and frothy affluence will probably have to adjust to slower growth and less retail fizz.
The economic challenges will be hard. Reuven Glick and Kevin J. Lansing of the San Francisco Fed estimate that Americans will have to increase their household savings rate from 4 percent to 10 percent by 2018 to restore balance. That, they write, will produce “a near-term drag on overall economic activity.” Meanwhile, capital and labor will have to flow from sectors that depend on discretionary consumption to sectors based on research and investment.
But it’s the political challenges that will be most hellacious. Basically, everything that a politician might do to make voters happier in the near term will have horrible long-term consequences. Stimulate the economy too much now and you wind up with ruinous inflation down the road. Preserve failing companies and you wind up with Japanese stagnation. Cushion the decline in living standards with easy money now and you just move from a housing bubble to a commodities bubble.
The members of the political class face a set of monumental tasks...
Read on to see his recommendations, all of which are a little less compelling than his narrative on how we got here. What is most interesting to me, however, is how Brooks' analysis is itself a complete condemnation of the cultural and economic impact of the recent conservative ascendency. His story rightly points out that this "Age of Leverage," or as Paul Krugman has called it, "The Great Unraveling," was a manifestation of the Reagan Revolution. Rather than being conservative in the classic sense, Brooks has correctly and helpfully begun the labeling of this era of our history as it will be known to future generations - a terribly reckless, irresponsible time where our leaders, in the grip of impractical ideologies, failed to do what was required to ensure American greatness and success in the 21st century.
Digging America out from the hole that been dug by years of reckless, ideological and impractical conservative government remains the greatest governing challenge of this early part of the 21st century, a job that increasingly looks like - given its depth - will last long past the Obama Presidency.
Finally, for all these reasons, I think it is time for us to move beyond the concept of "recovery" as a goal of our economic strategy. Who wants to go back to what we had? A time of bubbles and declining wages, of a policy designed for the few at the expense of the many? Obama has begun to move beyond this frame with his recent attempts to use the term "new foundation." But there is an urgency to this mission - for I think very few Americans are interested in recovering - or going back to - that old economy of the late 20th century and this terribly destructive conservative ascendency.