What should economists and policy makers learn from the financial crisis?

Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King, Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Axel A. Weber talk at the LSE about the lessons of the crash.

They packed us in like late boarders on a budget flight. I shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder down the narrow passage between the rows of folding chairs in the LSE’s Old Theatre, where in an hour’s time Mervyn King would take the stage with Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Axel A. Weber to discuss the financial crisis.

A returns queue stretched out the door and back into the main lobby where students camped with blankets. I took my seat beside a young man clutching the syllabus of his development economics course while another, to my left, texted Chinese characters. Mobile phones and open laptops flickered like moths in the lamplight as the audience waited.

Anticipation hung in the air and it wasn’t surprising. Since the UK Budget and the crisis in Cyprus it seems that “policy makers” have grown complacent to inflicting pain and, when faced with protests, comfortable with popping in their earplugs. Although the US has embraced stimulus, the country has accrued debt in exchange for small boosts in growth, while some figures point towards the bank bailout (over which Bernanke presided) costing the country 20 times as much as it did in the UK.

Would the outgoing governor of the Bank of England (King), the Chairman of the Federal Reserve (Bernanke), the chief economist of the IMF (Blanchard) a foremost central banker (Weber) and a former US Treasurer (Summers) offer optimism to a jilted audience?  It was hardly Question Time, but there was a sense that we deserved some answers.

The esteemed panel didn’t offer much in the way of revolutionary talk, but humility and an openness to change both arrived as common themes. Each offered filial praise to King, who will step down as BOE governor in June. (Summers credited him with both the industry's most formidable intellect and elegant accent).

For Ben Bernanke, who spoke first, this financial crisis was “a classic” but also “novel” in the complexity of its aftermath. Bernanke’s pet project is the Great Depression and he drew insight from looking back to the other American-born crisis that left the world reeling, and the subsequent currency fluctuations associated with the dropping of the gold standard, which Britain abandoned in 1931. As head of the Fed during the Wall Street crash, Bernanke has been criticised for buying up the troubled assets of AIG and Merrill Lynch. While a lesson in economic histories is fascinating, I couldn’t help feeling he’d shirked the more riveting contemporary account many were hoping for.

The closest he came to outlining an actionable “policy” was an encouragement of “domestic objectives” achieved through “domestic tools”, discouraging emerging markets which rely too heavily on exports.  Fair point: as we’ve seen, demand is less an abundant meadow so much as a grassy cliff on the other side of which lies a self-sufficiency void. It’s wise to be sceptical of heavy capital investment in export processing zones, inherently vulnerable to demand bubbles, but is that really possible in a globalised world? It’s hard to imagine corporations pulling back from cheap labour, or the governments of sweatshop nations turning them away. Export-based economies are often touted as the cure-all investment for third world poverty (think of Bangladesh and post-quake Haiti) and foolish as that may be, until economists put forward a real alternative it seems unlikely to change.

Olivier Blanchard, speaking next, managed to charm with his five take-away lessons to be learned from the crisis: 1. Humility (economists got it wrong); 2. The importance of detail (the minutia of financial systems matter); 3. Interconnectedness (the world is one big economic family); 4. Macroprudential reform (better risk management) 5. The re-examination of central banking (how free should they be to set their own rates?).

Such decent and technical points will surely keep the generation of future economists filling the seats beside me busy – but the most important sting was the first. Blanchard spoke eloquently on the myth of progress (some people already knew) and the myriad problems associated with a rhetoric of upward ascension. It is true and terrifying that economists often forget we aren’t just getting better and better at doing things – and that history often repeats itself.

General conclusions drawn by all were that the crisis will force a reconstruction of macroeconomics and redefine the role of central banks. Though none seemed keen to embrace the policies of frugality (and implicitly backed a Keynesian approached to recovery), the evening lacked the damning tone towards austerity which would have pleased many listeners.

It was left to a nasal Larry Summers to do most of the plain talking; speaking in lofty, maple syrup-coated sentences. While the panel debated how they would each reconstruct macroeconomics, Summers chipped in:

I think there’s a central question: do we define macroeconomics as being about... cyclical fluctuations around something that was determined someplace else, where the goal – if you were successful – was to reduce their amplitude, or as tragic accidents where millions more are unemployed at costs of trillions of dollars that are avoidable with more satisfactory economic arrangements?

Until we adopt the second vision I think we are missing our principal opportunity to achieve human betterment. And as long as this question is conceptualised as ‘what new friction should we insert into the existing model’ I don’t think we’re gonna get to the kind of perspective that I’m advocating.

Economics is perhaps the eeriest of sciences: a lingering, omnipresent force without big bangs or supernovas or medical breakthroughs, but rather a complex and continually shifting clockwork that occasional implodes and shakes the world to its foundation.

For all but the economically adroit (I include myself with the amateurs), a lecture such as this haemorrhages hope like a picked scab. The distance between the policy makers and the people, from their academic language to their casual in-jokes and lack of clear solutions, is troubling. Should it have been a grave affair? Perhaps not, but it would be nice to see someone look a little scared. Down here in the audience, things don’t feel so relaxed.

To hear a podcast or to watch a video of this lecture click here.

US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaking at the LSE on 25 March, 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Taxation without benefits: how our tax system increases inequality

We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Tax may not be the burning issue on everyone’s minds over the next month, but the Panama Papers leak has proven that the thorny issues of who pays what, and what level of tax is fair, are ones that are never too far away from the public consciousness.

One of the most important annual publications on tax is the Office for National Statistics’ Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. Published today, it shows, among other things, the proportion of income paid in tax by people at different points on the income spectrum. This may sound like the natural domain of the data nerd, but it actually tells us some rather interesting facts about our system of taxes and benefits.

First, the good news. Our much maligned welfare system is in fact a beacon of progressiveness, drastically reducing the level of income inequality we see in this country. In fact, overall, taxes and benefits are quite substantially redistributive. Without them, the income of the richest 20 per cent of households would be 14 times higher than the poorest 20 per cent. With them, that gap falls to only four times.

The benefit system as a whole decreases the Gini coefficient, the most frequently used measure of inequality, by 14 percentage points. For anyone who sees taxes and benefits as a key component in reducing economic inequality, or boosting the incomes of the poorest, or, frankly, tackling social injustice, this is rather welcome news.

But now for the bad news.

While our welfare system is undoubtedly progressive, the same cannot be said of our tax system when looked at in isolation. The poorest face a disproportionately heavy tax burden compared to the richest, paying 47 per cent of their income in tax, compared to just 34 per cent for the richest. Last year (2013/14) this difference was 45 per cent – 35 per cent, and the year before (2012/13) the gap was 43 per cent – 35 per cent. So while the proportion of income paid in tax has fallen slightly for the richest, it has increased for the poorest.

While some taxes like income tax are substantially progressive, those such as VAT and Council Tax are not. Even after adjusting for rebates and Council Tax Benefit, the poorest 10 per cent pay 7.1 per cent of their income in council tax while the richest 10 per cent pay only 1.5 per cent.

Should this matter, if our system of benefits continues to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Well, yes, not least because that system is under severe pressure from further cuts. But there are other good reasons to focus on the tax system in isolation from the benefit system.

Polling by Ipsos MORI has shown that the public believes that the tax system by itself reduces inequality, and it is often spoken of by politicians as if that is the case. We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax, for example, when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Understanding why the tax system does not by itself reduce inequality is therefore important for both thinking about how tax revenues could be better raised, and for understanding the importance of the benefit system in narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest.

John Hood is Acting Director of the Equality Trust