Liberals for Recession

February 28th, 2012  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Socialism  |  1 Comment

Rick Perlstein’s recent Rolling Stone column performs what is now a routine left-liberal critique of Obama: by failing to articulate an ideology and differentiate himself from Republicans, the President has allowed Republicans to redefine mainstream political debate ever farther to the right. This argument has certain charms, but I couldn’t help but notice the way Perlstein himself inadvertently enacts the same error he ascribes to Obama, and “ratifies his opponent’s reality, by folding it into his original negotiating position.” In the course of refuting various Reagan-era calumnies against Jimmy Carter, Perlstein informs us that:

What’s more, to arrest the economy’s slide, Jimmy Carter did something rather heroic and self-sacrificing, well summarized here: He appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chairman with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, which induced the recession that helped defeat Carter – as Carter knew it might – but which also slayed the inflation dragon and, by 1983-84, long after Carter had lost to Reagan, saved the economy.

This has settled in as the preferred narrative of the “Volcker shock” across the mainstream political spectrum, with Carter and Volcker as the self-sacrificing heroes who forced unpleasant but life-saving medicine down the throat of an unruly nation. We are to imagine them wistfully reading Brecht’s “To Posterity” as they sacrifice their political reputations on the altar of contractionary monetary policy; do not judge them too harshly.

Not to worry, for judgment has been remarkably generous, even among liberals. It falls to radical malcontents like Doug Henwood and David Harvey to tell a different story. If the heroic mythology of Volcker’s recession is reminiscent of the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the contemporary pro-austerity faction, this is no coincidence. In the radical account, the Volcker shock is the beginning of the long era of opportunistic disinflation, in which wage and employment gains may never be tolerated if they come at the expense of a little inflation. Here is how Harvey describes the opening salvo:

In October 1979 Paul Volcker, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank under President Carter, engineered a draconian shift in US monetary policy.18 The long-standing commitment in the US liberal democratic state to the principles of the New Deal, which meant broadly Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies with full employment as the key objective, was abandoned in favour of a policy designed to quell inflation no matter what the consequences might be for employment. The real rate of interest, which had often been negative during the double-digit inflationary surge of the 1970s, was rendered positive by fiat of the Federal Reserve (Figure 1.5). The nominal rate of interest was raised overnight and, after a few ups and downs, by July 1981 stood close to 20 per cent. Thus began ‘a long deep recession that would empty factories and break unions in the US and drive debtor countries to the brink of insolvency, beginning the long era of structural adjustment’.19 This, Volcker argued, was the only way out of the grumbling crisis of stagflation that had characterized the US and much of the global economy throughout the 1970s.

This was all understood at the time. Here is the New York Times on December 31, 1981:

The outlook for inflation, said Richard G. Lipsey, of Queens University in Ontario, “turns on the determination of wage increases,” not supply-side tax cuts or quick changes in inflationary expectations. For Mr. Lipsey, this means that the fight against inflation requires accepting the pain of high unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Mr. Volcker said he was optimistic. “The picture looks a little better to me,” he said this week after leading a panel discussion at the social science convention. But, he added with his usual caution, “the evidence is not clear yet.”

“The problem,” Mr. Volcker said, “is not only making gains at a high cost during a recession, but also keeping them when the recovery begins.”

“I’m agnostic,” said Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Carter Administration. “I don’t know. We will get the special ones, like autos, but I don’t know the extent to which they will slop over into the rest of the economy.”

Volcker was trying to accomplish the same thing that Ronald Reagan was trying to do when he smashed the air traffic controllers’ union: weaken labor. Here, Volcker offers that:

the single most important action of the [Reagan] administration in helping the anti-inflation fight was defeating the air traffic controllers’ strike. He thought that this action had had a rather profound, and, from his standpoint, constructive effect on the climate of labor-management relations, even though it had not been a wage issue at the time.

And yet it’s hard to imagine a writer like Rick Perlstein calling Reagan’s attack on PATCO “courageous”.

But perhaps the neglect of the Volcker regime’s class nature reflects a deeper shortcoming in liberal politics. The stagflation that Carter faced was a more intractable problem than the demand shortfall that confronts the American economy today, and it was far less susceptible to the traditional Keynesian remedies. When capital refuses to invest, and labor refuses to take no for an answer, then something has to give. The alternative to neoliberalism’s assault on the working class was not simply a continuation of the Fordist golden age, but a more radical attack on the capitalist mode of production. Reflecting on the stagflation era in 1988, the socialist economist Diane Elson remarks:

Conventional Keynesian fiscal and monetary remedies are unable to deal with a situation in which prices and wages are rising while output and employment are falling. This has opened the way for ‘monetarist’ policies to confront the problem by a combination of deflation and attempts to make markets more ‘competitive’, in the sense of more like the markets of Walrasian and Austrian theory, with prices falling as demand falls. Such policies impose enormous costs in terms of unemployment and wasted resources, and are ultimately self-defeating. Most markets fail to behave like those in Walrasian and Austrian theory not for lack of competition, but precisely because of the existence of competition. An accessible exposition of this point is provided by Okun, who concludes: ‘ . . . the appropriate functioning of customer markets and career labour markets requires a marked departure from the price flexibility of the competitive model. Customers and suppliers, employees and firms develop methods of reducing price variation that help to perpetuate relations and minimize transaction costs over the long run.’ [39] At the micro-level, there are good reasons for firms to raise wages and pass on increased costs in price increases while reducing output and employment. By doing so, they may be better able to maintain the co-operation and loyalty of their customers and workforce than by cutting wages and prices.

The policy conclusion commonly drawn from this type of reasoning is the need for Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy to be supplemented by some kind of incomes policy which will restrain firms from raising wages, and thus make it possible for conventional Keynesian policies to maintain a higher level of demand without running into the problem of inflation. However, this penalizes households in relation to enterprises if there is no complementary mechanism restraining prices. Recognizing this, some advocates of incomes policies also advocate price controls. But if the process of setting prices is left in the hands of enterprises, there still remains a fundamental imbalance: households cannot monitor price formation in a way that enables them to enforce restraint on enterprises in the same way that enterprises can monitor wage formation and enforce a wage restraint programme upon workers. [40] Moreover, the vital knowledge of unit costs and profit margins remains in the hands of enterprises, and without this Price Commissions have no teeth, and the implementation of price guidelines cannot be effectively monitored. This imbalance could only be removed by socializing the price formation process, making it transparent to households by making information on unit costs and profit margins public. Capitalist enterprises will always resist this, because secrecy gives them a competitive advantage and private ownership implies the right to withhold information. State-owned enterprises will also resist such disclosure if they are enjoined to focus their efforts on maximizing their own surpluses, and to relate to other enterprises, and to households, primarily through the market. It is not surprising that price formation is such an explosive issue in the marketization of socialism.

Elson goes on to detail her radical solution, which includes free public services, an unconditional basic income, worker-managed public enterprises, and public accounting of prices and wages. Around the same time, others were experimenting with less ambitious—yet still extremely radical—solutions such as the Rehn-Meidner plan. Such far-reaching proposals may perhaps seem quaint now, and this kind of grand theorizing may indeed be ill-suited to the present moment. But that only underscores the difference between the crisis we face today and the one the capitalism faced around the 1970’s. Today’s crisis stems, ultimately, from labor’s weakness, and its historically low share in total output; this is a problem that the ruling class could in principle solve, even if they choose not do so (whether for political reasons or merely out of ineptitude). The previous crisis was something else, the consequence of labor’s strength and of capital’s increasing inability to contain it.

Such crises represent social democracy’s revolutionary limit, and hence conventional reformist liberalism has no good answers to them. At best, it finds itself in the position of William Greider, mounting a defense of inflation as the friend of the debtor—a reasonable claim at moderate inflation rates, but more tenuous for the situation of the early ’80s. Today, liberals and socialists can find themselves aligned in calling for aggressive fiscal policy to restore effective demand. But if they don’t grapple with the historic impasse that the stagflation era represented, then liberals may well find themselves in the uncomfortable position of endorsing the Volcker shocks of the future.

Responses

  1. JW Mason says:

    February 28th, 2012 at 11:58 am (#)

    Oh man, that is a serious disappointment from Rick. He needs some good hard slaps, rhetorically speaking.

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