The latest in the cuts saga: Trichet v Bernanke

Which of the two is more familiar with “depression economics”?

There has been much discussion of the op-ed by Jean Claude Trichet, the French governor of the European Central Bank, in today's Financial Times. The Tories will be pleased to see Trichet wholeheartedly and passionately backing the draconian "austerity" measures adopted by European governments in recent weeks, writing:

With hindsight, we see how unfortunate was the oversimplified message of fiscal stimulus given to all industrial economies under the motto: "stimulate", "activate", "spend"! . . . there is little doubt that the need to implement a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation strategy is valid for all countries now

Trichet's comments cannot be ignored and will, as I said, bolster the deficit hawks on the right. But, for me, the more significant and fascinating contribution to this debate has been from Ben Bernanke, governor of the US Federal Reserve. Speaking yesterday in front of the House financial services committee on Capitol Hill, Bernanke spurned the UK and the eurozone's approach to the deficit, rejecting immediate cuts and instead urging legislators to maintain support for fiscal stimulus.

From the Guardian:

In a second day of testimony to Congress, Bernanke said the Obama administration should delay measures to reduce Washington's record budget deficits by cutting spending or increasing taxes.

"I believe we should maintain our stimulus in the short term," Bernanke said, as the latest batch of economic data from the world's biggest economy showed an increase in weekly unemployment claims, a drop in home sales and the second easing of activity in three months.

Bernanke's opposition to fiscal retrenchment until economic recovery has been assured is in contrast to the approach favoured by Britain and the eurozone countries, where governments believe action to reduce budget deficits cannot be delayed.

Bernanke is not your run-of-the-mill central banker, and his views on "depression economics" carry special weight in a way in which Trichet's do not. He spent much of his pre-Fed, academic career immersed in studying the causes and consequences of the Great Depression in the 1930s, publishing essays and books on the subject.

As Dennis Cauchon wrote in USA Today, "Bernanke, a former Princeton University economist, is considered the pre-eminent living scholar of the Great Depression. He is practising today what he preached in his book: Flood the system with money to avoid a depression."

So who are you going to trust on avoiding a rerun of the 1930s? The American central banker or the European central banker? I know who my money's on.

Meanwhile, if you want to read a rebuttal to Trichet's piece, check out this op-ed from the US economist Brad DeLong, also writing in the Financial Times. DeLong writes:

History teaches us that when none of the three clear and present dangers that justify retrenchment and austerity -- interest-rate crowding-out, rising inflationary pressures on consumer prices, national overleverage via borrowing in foreign currencies -- are present, you should not retrench and austerity: don't call the fire truck when there is no smoke. And history teaches us that when economies suffer from high unemployment, enormous excess capacity, incipient deflation, businesses terrified of a lack of customers, and an enormous excess demand for high quality assets, then is the time for expansion and stimulus: when the deck is awash, start bailing.

Yet Jean-Claude Trichet rejects these counsels of history. He seems to me to place himself in the position of, as British interwar bureaucrat R.G. Hawtrey described his precedessors at the start of the Great Depression, somebody: "crying 'Fire! Fire!' in Noah's flood."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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