Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Is there a crisis of capitalist democracy?

The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy
Richard Posner’s recent book, ‘The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy’, is mainly about the global financial crisis, how it came about in the US, the lessons that the author thinks we should have learned from it and what governments should do to prevent similar crises in future. According to this distinguished author the crisis came about because of lax regulation; we have learned from it that the financial system is inherently fragile and that Keynes is still relevant; and the way to avoid similar crises in future is to introduce regulatory reform in the financial sector.

To be fair, Posner condemns some of the knee jerk responses of governments introducing tighter financial regulation and acknowledges that he is not entirely happy with his own suggestions for regulatory reform. He views the only ambitious proposal that he discussed sympathetically – the separation of commercial banking from other forms of financial intermediation – as ‘fraught with problems’ (p.362).

It is arguable that the global financial crisis was a crisis of capitalism. A milder financial crisis might still have occurred if central banks had not previously acted in ways that led major financial institutions to expect that they would be bailed out if their excessive risk-taking resulted in major losses. It is even possible to entertain the idea (as I did here) that the financial crisis has highlighted a fundamental problem in that laws governing the financial system currently permit financial intermediaries to make promises that they can’t always keep. But why view this economic crisis as a crisis of democracy?

The title of the book arises from Posner’s view that while the American political system can react promptly and effectively to an emergency, it ‘tends to be ineffectual’ in dealing with longer term challenges:
‘The financial collapse and the ensuing depression (as I insist we must call it) have both underscored and amplified grave problems of American public finance that will not yield to the populist solutions that command political and public support. The problems include the enormous public debt created by the decline of tax revenues in the depression, the enormous expenses incurred by government in fighting the depression, and the boost the depression has given to expanding the government’s role in the economy. These developments, interacting with a seeming inability of government to cut existing spending programs (however foolish), to insist that costly new programs be funded, to limit the growth of entitlement programs, or to raise taxes, constitute the crisis of American-style capitalist democracy’ (p.387-8).

Unfortunately, the quoted passage appears in the final paragraph in the book rather than the introduction. There is not much discussion in this book about this supposed weakness of the US democratic system. The author implies that it is largely a problem of political culture. Republicans favour low taxes but they have been reluctant to reduce government spending. Democrats favour high levels of government spending but they have been reluctant to raise taxes. As a result:
‘From the standpoint of economic policy we have only one party, and it is the party of profligacy’ (p.384).

As a person living in a democratic country in which a large part of the electorate has come to equate responsible economic management with budget surpluses and minimal public debt (to the dismay of some left wing economists who would like to see more public sector investment) I find it difficult to take seriously the idea that the current political culture in the United States involves a crisis of capitalist democracy. I am confident that before too long Americans will insist that their governments balance their books in order to avoid the problems currently being experienced in Greece and other European countries.

However, the picture might look a lot different from within the US. Before a change in political culture can occur in the US it will be necessary for a lot more Americans to become concerned about the future implications of current fiscal policies. Richard Posner claims that he has no idea how to solve the problem of America’s political culture (p.385) but I think he is contributing to the solution by merely raising awareness of the problem.

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