Last week I went to South Korea, to give the opening keynote speech at a conference organised by the government of the Republic of Korea on “Financial Reform: An Emerging Market Perspective”. This conference was part of the preparation by the South Korean government for the summit of the Group of 20 leading countries, which will take place in Korea in November. An objective of the South Korean government is to focus attention on the perspective of emerging economies on the crisis.  Read more

The conservative economic counter-revolution associated with the names of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began some three decades ago. The Great Recession almost certainly marks its end. What follows will be something different, though how different it will is still unclear. This is a good opportunity to assess the broad economic consequences of that revolution.

For the sake of simplicity, I focus on gross domestic product per head in the six biggest high-income economies: the US; Japan; Germany; the UK; France; and Italy. (I also use the Conference Board database. These data are in purchasing power parity (Elteto-Koves-Szulc (EKS) method).)

There is much more to performance than GDP per head. These data ignore the distribution of income, which is of crucial importance, especially for the US, where a very large proportion of additional income seems to have accrued to the wealthiest. The data also ignore the underlying causes of changes in GDP per head: changes in output per hour, in hours per worker and in employment. Even so, they are revealing.

The single most important point from the chart on relative GDP per head is that the US remains where it has been for over a century: the most productive large economy in the world. At its peak, in 1991, Japan’s GDP per head reached 89 per cent of US levels. It then fell substantially in the 1990s. United Germany, France and Italy also experienced substantial relative declines in GDP per head over this period. The UK was the only one of these five countries to have achieved rising GDP per head, relative to the US, since 1990. This surely suggests that reforms led by American and British policymakers did bear some fruit.

The chart on growth of GDP per head elaborates this picture somewhat. The UK and US had the highest trend growth of GDP per head between 1980 and 2009. (All-German data are unavailable for the entire period.) But there are other interesting events: first, there is a progressive deceleration in trend growth: only Japan achieved faster trend growth in GDP per head between 2000-07 (that is, before the recent deep recession) than it did in the 1990s; second, the US growth deceleration in the most recent periods is marked, with growth in GDP per head only at the same rate as Japan between 2000 and 2007 – so much for the magic of the Bush-era tax cuts – and also between 2000 and 2009; third, GDP per head grew at less than 1 per cent a year in Germany, France and Italy in the most recent decade.

At first glance, then, the conservative revolution seems to have achieved some improvements in the previously lagging US and UK economies. But the magic potion started to lose effectiveness in the 2000s, particularly in the US.

The more interesting question, however, is how far this improved performance of the US and UK will turn out to have been a blip. There are two reasons for believing this. Read more

Update: Read Martin Wolf’s response to readers’ comments

It is summer – a good time to ask a big question. So I intend to ask the biggest question in political economy: what is the role of the state?

This question has concerned western thinkers at least since Plato (5th-4th century BCE). It has also concerned thinkers in other cultural traditions: Confucius (6th-5th century BCE); China’s legalist tradition; and India’s Kautilya (4th-3rd century BCE). The perspective here is that of the contemporary democratic west.

The core purpose of the state is protection. This view would be shared by everybody, except anarchists, who believe that the protective role of the state is unnecessary or, more precisely, that people can rely on purely voluntary arrangements. Most people accept that protection against predators, both external and internal, is a natural monopoly: the presence of more than one such organisation within a given territory is a recipe for unbridled lawlessness, civil war, or both.

Contemporary Somalia shows the horrors that can befall a stateless society. Yet horrors can also befall a society with an over-mighty state. It is evident, because it is the story of post-tribal humanity that the powers of the state can be abused for the benefit of those who control it.

In his final book, Power and Prosperity, the late Mancur Olson argued that the state was a “stationary bandit”. A stationary bandit is better than a “roving bandit”, because the latter has no interest in developing the economy, while the former does. But it may not be much better, because those who control the state will seek to extract the surplus over subsistence generated by those under their control.

In the contemporary west, there are three protections against undue exploitation by the stationary bandit: exit, voice (on the first two of these, see this on Albert Hirschman) and restraint. By “exit”, I mean the possibility of escaping from the control of a given jurisdiction, by emigration, capital flight or some form of market exchange. By “voice”, I mean a degree of control over, the state, most obviously by voting. By “restraint”, I mean independent courts, division of powers, federalism and entrenched rights.

This, then, is a brief background to what I consider to be the problem, which is defining what a democratic state, viewed precisely as such a constrained protective arrangement, is entitled to do. My short answer is that this is precisely what politics must be about. Read more

The future of fiscal policy was intensely debated in the FT last week. In this Exchange, I want to examine what is going on in the US and, in particular, what is going on inside the Republican party. This matters for the US and, because the US remains the world’s most important economy, it also matters greatly for the world.

My reading of contemporary Republican thinking is that there is no chance of any attempt to arrest adverse long-term fiscal trends should they return to power. Moreover, since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era’s successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts. In practice, then, nothing will be done.

Indeed, nothing may be done even if a genuine fiscal crisis were to emerge. According to my friend, Bruce Bartlett, a highly informed, if jaundiced, observer, some “conservatives” (in truth, extreme radicals) think a federal default would be an effective way to bring public spending they detest under control. It should be noted, in passing, that a federal default would surely create the biggest financial crisis in world economic history.

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.

The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch? Read more

Update: Read Martin Wolf’s conclusions on the debate

Something strange happened to economics about a century ago. In moving from classical to neo-classical economics — the dominant academic school today — economists expunged land — or natural resources. Neo-classical value theory — based on marginalism and subjective valuation — still makes a great deal of sense. Expunging natural resources from the way economists think about the world does not.

In classical economics, land, labour and capital were the three factors of production. With neo-classical economics, the standard production function had just two factors of production: capital and labour. Land — by which we mean the totality of natural resources — was then incorporated into capital.

All thinking about the world involves a degree of abstraction. Economics has taken this principle further than any other social science. This is a fruitful intellectual procedure. But it is also risky. The necessary process of abstraction may end up leaving essential aspects of the world out of the analysis. That can be intellectually crippling. I believe that that is exactly what has happened, in this case. Read more

People with a free-market orientation believe that the economy has a strong tendency towards equilibrium. Over the long term money is “neutral”: a rise in the money supply merely raises the price level. In the short term, however, monetary policy may have a big impact on the economy. A big question, however, is over how to measure the impact of monetary policy in an environment such as the present one, when short-term interest rates are close to zero and the credit system is damaged.

The difficulty arises because of the huge divergence between what is happening to the monetary base (the monetary liabilities of the government, including the central bank) and what is happening to broader measures of money (principally the liabilities of the banking system). The former has exploded. But the growth rate of the latter is extremely low. (Look at the chart that accompanied my column, “Why it is right for central banks to keep printing”)

People worried that governments are “printing money” point to the balance sheets of central banks with horror and insist this is bound to be inflationary. Inside the eurozone, Germans are particularly concerned about the willingness of the European Central Bank to buy the debt of governments. Yet the growth of broad money (M3) in the eurozone over the past twelve months has been close to zero. That would suggest there is no inflationary pressure whatsoever.

So which measure is relevant? My responses would be as follows: Read more

The conventional wisdom in both Japan itself and the west is that the country has an unmanageable public debt problem. I find this quite unpersuasive. All the country needs to do is generate, say, expectations of 3 per cent inflation and the public debt problem should melt away like snow. But the longer it waits the bigger the ultimate adjustment will need to be.

In 2010, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Japan will pay net interest of 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product on net financial liabilities of 105 per cent of GDP. Since 2000, Japan’s average rate of deflation (on the GDP deflator, the widest measure of inflation) was 1.2 per cent. So let’s treat the expected real rate of interest on Japanese government borrowing at 2 per cent. Read more

First comes financial crisis; then comes sovereign debt crisis; then comes financial repression. This is the view of Carmen Reinhart, co-author of This Time is Different, the masterly study of financial crises through the ages. I recently had a fascinating conversation on this topic with her, here in New York, where I have been living since the beginning of April.

So the question for the exchange is: how likely is financial repression? What forms might it take? Might this even be the end of the era of globalised finance? Read more

Update: Read Martin’s final response to readers’ comments.

The question I wish to pose for the next two weeks is whether it is possible for countries to accept large net inflows of capital from abroad, without ending up in crisis. If not, how do we manage a world of capital mobility? Read more

EU flagOne of the most interesting set of questions to arise out of the Greek crisis in the eurozone is whether – and, if so, what – institutional changes are needed to make it easier to manage disarray of this kind.

Some would argue that there is really no problem. When countries within the eurozone get into difficulty, they are supposed to look after themselves. The European Central Bank should continue to look at the performance of the economy as a whole. Meanwhile, given the “no bail-out” provisions of the treaty, each country must be on its own. If a country cannot raise the money it needs to finance its government, it has no choice but to raise taxes, cut spending and, in extremis, restructure its debt. The latter is likely to mean a deep recession, not least because the private sector is likely to be badly affected by a sovereign default. This would be particularly true for the financial sector. Read more

This is the first of a series of fortnightly posts on the new Martin Wolf Exchange. From now on comments on my columns will be appended to the columns themselves. I will continue to try to comment, when I feel moved to do so. In this forum, however, I will open the discussion of a topic that I am thinking about. My aim will be to elicit views of readers. I will give my own response to the question I have raised, before posting the next issue for discussion.

Martin Wolf's Exchange My first topic is a little arcane, but important: it is the view of the crisis given by Austrian economics.  Read more