Budget cuts and pain sharing

Catherine Rampell of The New York Times delivers a gloomy prediction:

If the economy falls back into recession, as many economists are now warning, the bloodletting could be a lot more painful than the last time around.

Given the tumult of the Great Recession, this may be hard to believe. But the economy is much weaker than it was at the outset of the last recession in December 2007, with most major measures of economic health — including jobs, incomes, output and industrial production — worse today than they were back then. And growth has been so weak that almost no ground has been recouped, even though a recovery technically started in June 2009.

After reciting the kinds of pain a demand constrained economy can impose on a people, Rampell goes on to note:

There is at least one factor, though, that could make a second downturn feel milder than the first: corporate profits. Corporate profits are at record highs and, adjusted for inflation, were 22 percent greater in the first quarter of this year than they were in the last quarter of 2007.

Nervous about the future of the economy, corporations are reluctant to make big investments like hiring. As a result, they are sitting on a lot of cash.

While this may not be much comfort to the nation’s 13.9 million unemployed workers, it may be to their employed counterparts.

Do you find it hopeful knowing that America’s corporations are sitting on a lot of cash, money they might use to retain part of their labor force? I do not. Eventually, the American economy will need to grow if it is to master the unemployment and private debt problems. Growth, however welcomed it would be, should not be expected from a stagnating demand constrained economy during a time of politically imposed austerity.

Bankers running amok

Economist Dean Baker points to the world-befouling relationship between a modern and minimalist democracy and a modern central banking system:

The worst part of this story is that these fundamental decisions about economic policy are made by a small, secretive clique operating largely outside of the public’s purview. Central bank decisions on interest rates are likely to have far more impact on jobs and growth than any of the policies that are debated endlessly be [sic] elected parliaments. Yet, these decisions are made largely without democratic input.

In fairness, politicians bear much of the blame for this situation. They established institutional structures that largely place central banks beyond democratic control. There is probably no bank that is as insulated from the democratic process as the ECB, in large part because of its multinational structure, but all the central banks in wealthy countries now enjoy an extraordinary degree of independence from elected governments. In many countries they are even more independent than the judicial system.

Even worse, the politicians have actually mandated many central banks, like the ECB, to pursue an inflation target to the exclusion of other considerations. This gives the central bankers a license to throw millions of people out of work in order to chase their obsession with inflation.

Giving the central bankers free rein to chase inflation targets could perhaps be justified if they had a track record of success, but they don’t. The world economy stands to lose more than $10 trillion in output because of the central banks’ failure to stem the growth of the dangerous housing bubbles.

Baker’s story identifies more than a democracy deficit. It also points to a multifarious accountability deficit. Who, after all, policies the world’s central bankers? Anyone? They are not even constrained by the markets they would govern, at least they ignore the market system in the short-term. Over the longer-term….