Robert Reich is America's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is "Supercapitalism."
The Great Crash of 2008 by Robert Reich (2nd December 2008)
If this isn't a Great Crash I don't know how to define one. Stocks were down another 7 percent today. Since the peak of last year, major stock indexes have dropped 47 percent. We're in range of the Great Crash of 1929. Why is the Great Crash of 2008 happening? First, because investors are beginning to understand the enormity of the bubble economy that began to form in the late 1990s when all contraints were lifted on borrowing in order to buy everything that was assumed to be increasing in value -- starting with houses and including securities and shares of stock themselves. So-called "margin requirements," first instituted in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, were all but abandoned, as big banks and hedge funds found ways around them.
Even more important, investors are starting to fathom the emptiness of American consumers' wallets. Retail sales last Friday and Saturday -- the first days of the Christmas buying season -- were disappointing. Had retailers not discounted to the point of taking losses, sales would have been abysmal. In other words, consumers have gone on strike.
Why have they gone on strike? Not because of the difficulty of getting credit. Most consumers can barely afford to pay the interest charges on the debt they're already carrying. Consumers have gone on strike because their earnings haven't kept up. The recovery that officially ended December, 2007 (the National Bureau of Economic Research now tells us) was the first on record in which median earnings declined, adjusted for inflation. Since then, many people have also lost their jobs or are working part time when they'd rather be working full time, or else know they're in danger of losing their jobs.
The speculative bubble still has some air in it; asset values will continue to drop before they hit bottom. That will take at least a year, possibly two. But don't expect asset values to bounce substantially back, even then. The only way to revive Wall Street is to revive Main Street, and the only way to accomplish this is to get America back on the course of rising median incomes.
The Rebirth of Keynes, and the Debate to Come
The economy has just about come to a standstill – not so much because credit markets are clogged as because there’s not enough demand in the economy to keep it going. Consumer spending has fallen off a cliff. Investment is drying up. And exports are dropping because the recession has now spread around the world. So are we about to return to Keynesianism? Hopefully. Government is the spender of last resort, which means the new Obama administration should probably be considering a stimulus package in the range of $600 billion, roughly 4 percent of national product -- focused on building and repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, providing help to states to maintain services, and investing in new green technologies in order to wean the nation off oil.
But between now and late January, when the stimulus package will be voted on, we're likely to be treated to a great debate over the wisdom of Keynesianism. Fiscal hawks will claim government is already spending way too much. Even without the stimulus package, next year's budget deficit is likely to be in the range of $1.5 trillion, considering the shrinking economy and what’s being spent bailing out Wall Street. The hawks also worry that post-war baby boomers are only a few years away from retirement, meaning that the costs of Social Security and Medicare will balloon.
What the hawks don’t get is what John Maynard Keynes understood: when the economy has as much underutilized capacity as we have now, and are likely to have more of in 2009 and 2010 (in all likelihood, over 8 percent of our workforce unemployed, 13 percent underemployed, millions of houses empty, factories idled, and office space unused), government spending that pushes the economy to fuller capacity will of itself shrink future deficits.
Conservative supply-siders, meanwhile, will call for income-tax cuts rather than government spending, claiming that people with more money in their pockets will get the economy moving again more readily than can government. They're wrong, too. Income-tax cuts go mainly to upper-income people, and they tend to save rather than spend.
Even if a rebate could be fashioned for the middle class, it wouldn't do much good because, as we saw from the last set of rebate checks, people tend to use extra cash to pay off debts rather than buy goods and services. Besides, individual purchases wouldn't generate nearly as many American jobs as government spending on infrastructure, social services, and green technologies, because so much of we as individuals buy comes from abroad.
So the government has to spend big time. The real challenge will be for government to spend it wisely -- avoiding special-interest pleadings and pork projects such as bridges to nowhere. We’ll need a true capital budget that lays out the nation’s priorities rather than the priorities of powerful Washington lobbies. How exactly to achieve this? That's the debate we should be having between now and January 20 or 21st.
p/s photos: Nabila Syakieb