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Setting the record straight on secular stagnation

Sep 08,2018 - Last updated at Sep 08,2018

CAMBRIDGE — Joseph Stiglitz recently dismissed the relevance of secular stagnation to the American economy, and in the process attacked, without naming me, my work in the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I am not a disinterested observer, but this is not the first time that I find Stiglitz’s policy commentary as weak as his academic theoretical work is strong.

Stiglitz echoes conservatives like John Taylor in suggesting that secular stagnation was a fatalistic doctrine invented to provide an excuse for poor economic performance during the Obama years. This is simply not right. The theory of secular stagnation, as advanced by Alvin Hansen and echoed by me, holds that, left to its own devices, the private economy may not find its way back to full employment, which makes public policy essential. I think this is what Stiglitz believes, so I do not understand his attacks.

In all of my accounts of secular stagnation, I stressed that it was an argument not for any kind of fatalism, but rather for policies to promote demand, especially through fiscal expansion. In 2012, Brad DeLong and I argued that fiscal expansion would likely pay for itself. I also highlighted the role of rising inequality in increasing saving and the role of structural changes toward the demassification of the economy in reducing demand.  

What about the policy record? Stiglitz condemns the Obama administration’s failure to implement a larger fiscal stimulus policy and suggests that this reflects a failure of economic understanding. He was a signatory to a November 19, 2008 letter also signed by noted progressives James K. Galbraith, Dean Baker and Larry Mishel calling for a stimulus of $300-$400 billion, less than half of what the Obama administration proposed. So matters were less clear in prospect than in retrospect.

We on the Obama economic team believed that a stimulus of at least $800 billion, and likely more, was desirable, given the gravity of the economic situation. We were told by those on the new president’s political team to generate as much validation as possible for a large stimulus because big numbers approaching $1 trillion would generate “sticker shock” in the political system. So we worked to encourage a variety of economists, including Stiglitz, to offer larger estimates of what was appropriate, as reflected in the briefing memo I prepared for Obama.

Despite the incoming president’s popularity and an all-out political effort, the Recovery Act passed by the thinnest of margins, with doubts about its ultimate passage lingering until the last moment. I cannot see the basis for the argument that a substantially larger fiscal stimulus was feasible. And the effort to seek a much larger one certainly would have meant more delay at a time when the economy was collapsing, and could have led to the defeat of fiscal expansion. While I wish the political climate had been different, I think Obama made the right choices in approaching fiscal stimulus. It is of course also highly regrettable that after the initial Recovery Act, Congress refused to support a variety of Obama’s proposals for infrastructure and targeted tax credits.

Unrelated to the topic of secular stagnation, Stiglitz takes a swipe at me by saying that Obama turned to “the same individuals bearing culpability for the under-regulation of the economy in its pre-crisis days” and expected them “to fix what they had helped break”. I find this a bit rich. Under the auspices of the government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) Fannie Mae, Stiglitz published a paper in 2002 arguing that the chance that the mortgage lender’s capital would be depleted was less than one in 500,000, and in 2009 he called for nationalisation of the US banking system. So I would expect Stiglitz to be well aware that hindsight is clearer than foresight.

What about the Clinton administration record on financial regulation? With hindsight, it clearly would have been better if we had foreseen the need for legislation like the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms and had a way to enact it with a Republican-controlled Congress. And certainly we did not foresee the financial crisis that came eight years after we left office. Nor did we anticipate the ways in which credit default swaps would mushroom after 2000. We did, however, advocate for GSE reform and for measures to rein in predatory lending, which, if enacted by Congress, would have done much to forestall the accumulation of risks before 2008.

I have not seen a convincing causal argument linking the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and the financial crisis. The observation that most of the institutions involved, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, the GSE Freddie Mac, AIG, WaMu and Wachovia, were not covered by Glass-Steagall calls into question its centrality. Yes, Citi and Bank of America were centrally involved, but the activities that generated major losses were fully permissible under Glass-Steagall. And, in important respects, the repeal of Glass-Steagall actually enabled the resolution of the crisis, by permitting the merger of Bear and JPMorgan Chase and by allowing the US Federal Reserve (Fed) to open its discount window for Morgan Stanley and Goldman when they otherwise could have been sources of systemic risk.

The other principal attack on the Clinton administration’s record targets the deregulation of derivatives in 2000. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had not supported this legislation. But, given the extreme deregulatory approach of president George W. Bush’s administration, it defies belief to suggest that it would have created major new rules regarding derivatives but for the 2000 act; so I am not sure how consequential our decisions were. It is also important to recall that we pursued the 2000 legislation not because we wanted to deregulate for its own sake, but rather to remove what the career lawyers at the US Treasury, the Fed and the Securities and Exchange Commission saw as systemic risk arising from legal uncertainty surrounding derivatives contracts.

More important than litigating the past is thinking about the future. Even if we disagree about past political judgements and about the use of the term “secular stagnation”, I am glad that an eminent theorist like Stiglitz agrees with what I intended to emphasise in resurrecting that theory: We cannot rely on interest-rate policies to ensure full employment. We must think hard about fiscal policies and structural measures to support sustained and adequate aggregate demand.

 

Lawrence H. Summers was US secretary of the treasury (1999-2001), director of the US national economic council (2009-2010), and president of Harvard University (2001-2006), where he is currently university professor. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

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HOUSE CLEAN AND LEFT CLEANER AND YET NO POLITICAL BAD TALK AMONG SOME STRATA CAN NEVER BE COMPLETE WITHOUT THE
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