The Tyranny of Zombie Economics in America

By Jared Bernstein

How a stubborn misreading of classical economists -- combined with a hyper-partisan Republican Party -- haunts the U.S. economy

615 bachmann debate.jpgREUTERS/CHRIS KEANE

The story of where we are is a story of the destructive ideas that guided us here. Bad ideas about how capitalism works--ideas that fail to describe how economies actually function--have combined with conservative politics to promote policies that stifle growth, redistribute what growth there is upward, skew our fiscal outlook, and handcuff our policy process.

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We are like travelers who have followed a road map to a destination that promised bliss but instead delivered stagnation and joblessness to many and political dysfunction to all. The economic geography behind that roadmap is a misreading of the original mapmakers--the founders of free markets--which eventually morphed into the deeply damaging belief that markets never fail and always self-correct; and therefore, government actions can only distort otherwise self-correcting markets.

Adam Smith and J.S. Mill never held this view. Of course it's true that Smith's brilliant insight was that unfettered price signals coordinate individuals' actions in markets in ways that deliver optimal outcomes. But he and later thinkers never let that distract them from the fact that, left to their own devices, markets would underinvest in public goods, pollute the environment, and generate unacceptably high levels of inequality and poverty. While there are contemporary macroeconomists that still teach their students that market bubbles are impossible, these early thinkers were intimately familiar with credit bubbles and did not for a second believe financial markets could self-regulate. (John Cassidy's book, When Markets Fail, is essential reading on these points.)

Hyper-rational economics promoted by hyper-partisan lobbyists is squeezing the middle class

Yet some of our top university professors, winners of Nobel prizes, and central bankers who are the subjects of adoring books, still preach the hyper-efficiency of self-correcting markets. They demonize the actions of policy makers who try to intervene to help offset demand contractions (as in the Recovery Act), impose regulatory structure on key markets (financial regulatory reform), strengthen social insurance (health care reform), invest in public goods (infrastructure spending), or pursue industrial policies to better position our national economy (President Obama's clean energy agenda).

The intellectual actions of these extreme free marketeers do not take place in a vacuum. They interact with a political structure comprised of lobbies and pseudo think-tanks to promote policies that, while wrapped in the cloak of promoting free markets, ultimately serve to redistribute growth to the top of the wealth scale. "Efficient market hypotheses" and "rational expectations"--the idea that absent government interference, market participants will make optimally efficient decisions--leads directly to supply-side tax cuts, deregulation of financial markets, the formation of financial bubbles, the acceptance of income stagnation, and disinvestment in public goods. And these measures, in turn, have delivered levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the late 1920s, along with policy handcuffs that today have us arguing about how to reduce, rather than strengthen, regulations.

THE MARKETPLACE OF BAD IDEAS

These are strong accusations. Why should you believe me? Why shouldn't you believe the hyper-rationalists?

Because the predictions that fall out of the model I'm describing have largely all come to pass. Deregulation coupled with lack of attention to the existent regulatory regime has led to the shampoo economy: bubble, bust, repeat. This last bubble--in housing--has been particularly devastating. It is directly responsible for literally trillions of dollars in output lost forever, for lives lastingly disrupted through millions of foreclosures, for lifetime earnings trajectories that will likely be permanently altered downward, for hundreds of millions of lost hours of work.

We are stuck in an intractable "growth" recession--GDP is rising, but far too slowly to bring down the elevated jobless rate (real GDP grew 0.7% in the first half of this year). And while the President and his estimable economics team are fighting for jobs programs that could actually help right now, the opposition is arguing for immediate spending cuts, more deregulation, and even deeper permanent tax cuts for the wealthy. And while their arguments may well be motivated by pure politics--"if the President proposes it, we're against it"--their rationale appeals to "free market" economics.

Even after the devastating failure of the dominant model should have been clear to all in recent years, the Obama administration has struggled to victories -- in stimulus spending, health reform, and financial regulation -- that many considered too incremental.

THE LONG RUN

Do not get me wrong. I'm still a firm believer in the Churchillian notion that Americans will do the right thing after exhausting all other options. Despite the destruction wrecked upon us by decades of misguided thinking, our potential is as strong as ever. Our workforce, though terribly underemployed, remains highly productive. Our markets, which will continue to go off the rails every few years if we don't at least implement financial reforms, remain remarkably fluid and flexible. Just look at how quickly the corporate sector snapped back from the Great Recession: profits as a share of GDP have more than recovered from their pre-recession peak, although the compensation share is at a 55-year low.

While the dynamics described above have had a damaging (and poorly understood) impact on one of America's greatest attributes--our entrepreneurial innovators--that sector surely has the potential to rise again. But we need good ideas to lift us. And the political moment does not give one confidence that we have turned a corner on the dominance of zombie economics.

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/09/the-tyranny-of-zombie-economics-in-america/244588/