The European: Four years after the beginning of the financial crisis, are you encouraged by the ways in which economists have tried to make sense of it, and by the ways in which those insights have been taken up by policy makers?
Stiglitz: Let me break this down in a slightly different way. Academic economists played a big role in causing the crisis. Their models were overly simplified, distorted, and left out the most important aspects. Those faulty models then encouraged policy-makers to believe that the markets would solve all the problems. Before the crisis, if I had been a narrow-minded economist, I would have been very pleased to see that academics had a big impact on policy. But unfortunately that was bad for the world. After the crisis, you would have hoped that the academic profession had changed and that policy-making had changed with it and would become more skeptical and cautious. You would have expected that after all the wrong predictions of the past, politics would have demanded from academics a rethinking of their theories. I am broadly disappointed on all accounts.
The European: Economists have seen the flaws of their models but have not worked to discard or improve them?
Stiglitz: Within academia, those who believed in free markets before the crisis still do so today. A few people have shifted, and I want to give credit to them for saying: “We were wrong. We underestimated this or that aspect of our models.” But for the most part, the response was different. Believers in the free market have not revised their beliefs.
The European: So let’s take a longer view. Do you think that the crisis will have an effect on future generations of economists and policy-makers, for example by changing the way that economic basics are taught?
Stiglitz: I think that change is really occurring with the young people. My young students overwhelmingly don’t understand how people could have believed in the old models. That is good. But on the other hand, many of them say that if you want to be an economist, you still have to deal with all the old guys who believe in their wrong theories, who teach those theories, and expect you to believe in them as well. So they choose not to go into those branches of economics. But where I have been even more disappointed is American policy-making. Ben Bernanke gives a speech and says something like, there was nothing wrong with economic theory, the problems were a few details in implementation. In fact, there was a lot wrong with economic theory and with the basic policy framework that was derived from theory. If your mindset is that nothing was wrong, you will not demand new models. That’s a big disappointment.
The European: There seemed to have been quite a bit of disagreement among Obama’s economic advisers about the right course of action. And in Europe, fundamental economic principles like the absolute focus on GDP growth have finally come under attack.
Stiglitz: Some American policy-makers have recognized the danger of “too big to fail,” but they are a minority. In Europe, things are a bit better on the rhetorical side. Influential economists like Derek Turner and Mervyn King have recognized that something is wrong. The Vickers Commission has thoughtfully re-examined economic policy. We have nothing like that in the United States. In Germany and France, the financial transactions tax and limits to executive compensation are on the table. Sarkozy says that capitalism hasn’t worked, Merkel says that we were saved by the European social model – and they are both conservative politicians! The bankers still don’t understand this, which explains why we still see the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, arguing that we have to give up the welfare system at a time when Merkel says the exact opposite: That the social model kept us going when the central banks failed to do their regulatory job and used politics to change the nature of our societies.
The European: How have your own convictions been affected by the crisis?
Stiglitz: I don’t think that there has been a fundamental change in my thinking. The crisis has reinforced certain things I said before and shown me how important they are. In 2003, I wrote about the risk of interdependence, where the collapse of one bank can bring about the collapse of other banks and increase the fragility of the banking system. I thought it was important, but the idea wasn’t picked up at the time. The same year we looked at agency problems in finance. Now we recognize just how important those issues are. I argued that the real issue in monetary economics is about credit, not money supply. Now everybody recognizes that the collapse of the credit system brought down the banks. So the crisis really validated and reinforced several strands of theory that I had explored before. One topic that I now consider much more important than I did previously is the question of adjustment and the role of exchange rate systems like the Euro in preventing economic adjustment. A related issues is the linkage between structural adjustment and macroeconomic activity. The events of the crisis have really induced me to think more about them.
The European: The financial transaction tax seems to have died a political death in Europe. Now, economic policy in Europe seems largely dominated by the logic of austerity, and by forcing other European countries to become more like Germany.
Stiglitz: Austerity itself will almost surely be disastrous. It is leading to a double-dip recession that could be quite serious. It will probably make the Euro crisis worse. The short-term consequences are going to be very bad for Europe. But the broader issue is about the “German model.” There are many aspects to it – among them the social model – that allow Germany to weather a very big dip in GDP by offering high levels of social protection. The German model of vocational training is also very successful. But there are other characteristics that are not so good. Germany is an export economy, but that cannot be true for all countries. If some countries have export surpluses, they are forcing other countries to have export deficits. Germany has taken a policy that other countries cannot imitate and tried to apply it to Europe in a way that contributes to Europe’s problems. The fact that some aspects of the German model are good does not mean that all aspects can be applied across Europe.
The European: And it does not mean that economic growth satisfied the criteria of social fairness.
Stiglitz: Yes, so there is one other thing we have to take into account: What is happening to most citizens in a country? When you look at America, you have to concede that we have failed. Most Americans today are worse off than they were fifteen years ago. A full-time worker in the US is worse off today than he or she was 44 years ago. That is astounding – half a century of stagnation. The economic system is not delivering. It does not matter whether a few people at the top benefitted tremendously – when the majority of citizens are not better off, the economic system is not working. We also have to ask of the German system whether it has been delivering. I haven’t studied all the data, but my impression is no.
The European: What do you say to someone who argues thus: Demographic change and the end of the industrial age have made the welfare state financially unsustainable. We cannot expect to cut down on our debt without fundamentally reducing welfare costs in the long run.
Stiglitz: That is absurd. The question of social protection does not have to do with the structure of production. It has to do with social cohesion or solidarity. That is why I am also very critical of Draghi’s argument at the European Central Bank that social protection has to be undone. There are no grounds upon which to base that argument. The countries that are doing very well in Europe are the Scandinavian countries. Denmark is different from Sweden, Sweden is different from Norway – but they all have strong social protection and they are all growing. The argument that the response to the current crisis has to be a lessening of social protection is really an argument by the 1% to say: “We have to grab a bigger share of the pie.” But if the majority of people don’t benefit from the economic pie, the system is a failure. I don’t want to talk about GDP anymore, I want to talk about what is happening to most citizens.
The European: Has the political Left been able to articulate that criticism?
Stiglitz: Paul Krugman has been very strong on articulating criticism of the austerity arguments. The broader attack has been made, but I am not sure whether it has been fully heard. The critical question right now is how we grade economic systems. It hasn’t been fully articulated yet but I think we will win this one. Even the Right is beginning to agree that GDP is not a good measure of economic progress. The notion of the welfare of most citizens is almost a no-brainer.
The European: It seems to me that much of the discussion is still about statistical measurements – if we’re not measuring GDP, we’re measuring something else, like happiness or income differences. But is there an element to these discussions that cannot be put in numerical terms – something about the values we implicitly bake into our economic system?
Stiglitz: In the long run, we ought to have those ethical discussions. But I am beginning from a much narrower base. We know that income doesn’t reflect many things we care about. But even with an imperfect indicator such as income, we should care about what happens to most citizens. It’s nice that Bill Gates is doing well. But if all the money went to Bill Gates, the system could not be graded as successful.
The European: If the political Left hasn’t been able to fully articulate that idea, has civil society been able to fill the gap?
Stiglitz: Yes, the Occupy movement has been very successful in bringing those ideas to the forefront of political discussion. I wrote an article for Vanity Fair in 2011 – “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” – that really resonated with a lot of people because it spoke to our worries. Protests like the ones at Occupy Wall Street are only successful when they pick up on these shared concerns. There was one newspaper article that described the rough police tactics in Oakland. They interviewed many people, including police officers, who said: “I agree with the protesters.” If you ask about the message, the overwhelming response has been supportive, and the big concern has been that the Occupy movement hasn’t been effective enough in getting that message across.
The European: How do we move from talking about economic inequality to tangible change? As you said earlier, the theoretical recognition of economic problems has often not been translated into policy.
Stiglitz: If my forecast about the consequences of austerity is correct, you will see a new round of protest movements. We had a crisis in 2008. We are now in the fifth year of crisis, and we haven’t solved it. There’s not even a light at the end of the tunnel. When we come to that conclusion, the discourse will change.
The European: The situation needs to be really bad before it will get better?
Stiglitz: Yes, I fear.
The European: You recently wrote about the “irreversible decay” of the American Midwest. Is this crisis a sign that the US has begun an irreversible economic decline, even while we still regard the country as a potent political player?
Stiglitz: We are facing a very difficult transition from manufacturing to a service economy. We have failed to manage that transition smoothly. If we don’t correct that mistake, we will pay a very high price. Already, the average American is suffering from the failed transition. My concern is that we have set in motion an adverse economics and an adverse politics. A lot of American inequality is caused by rent-seeking: Monopolies, military spending, procurement, extractive industries, drugs. We have some economic sectors that are very good, but we also have a lot of parasites. The hopeful view is that the economy can grow if we rid ourselves of the parasites and focus on the productive sectors. But in any disease there is always the risk that the parasites will devour the healthy body parts. The jury is still out on that.
The European: Have we at least understood the disease well enough to prescribe the correct therapy? Especially with regard to policy-making and the Euro crisis, there seems to be a lot of shooting into the dark.
Stiglitz: I think the problem is not a lack of understanding by dispassionate social scientists. We know the basic dilemma, and we know the effect of campaign contributions on policy-makers. So we are facing a vicious circle: Because money matters in politics, that leads to outcomes in which money matters in society, which increases the role of money in politics. You have more gerrymandering and more disillusionment with parliamentary politics.
The European: Has politics become too focused on outcomes, and is it not sensitive enough to the processes that lead to those outcomes? The bedrock of democracy seems to hinge on the avenues for participation, not on the effectiveness of particular policies.
Stiglitz: Let me put it this way: Some people criticize by saying that we have become too focused on inequality and are not concerned enough about opportunity. But in the United States, we are also the country with the biggest inequality of opportunity. Most Americans understand that fraud political processes play in fraud outcomes. But we don’t know how to break into that system. Our Supreme Court was appointed by moneyed interests and – not surprisingly – concluded that moneyed interests had unrestricted influence on politics. In the short run, we are exacerbating the influence of money, with negative consequences for the economy and for society.
The European: Where is change rooted? In parliament? In academia? In the streets?
Stiglitz: You look in the streets and a little bit in academia as well. When I say that the major thrust of the economics profession has disappointed me, I need to qualify that statement. There have been groups that push new economic thinking and challenge the old models.
The European: You have written that the challenge is to respond to bad ideas not with rejection but with better ideas. Where is the longest and strongest lever to bring new economic thinking into the realm of policy?
Stiglitz: The diagnosis is that politics is at the root of the problem: That is where the rules of the game are made, that is where we decide on policies that favor the rich and that have allowed the financial sector to amass vast economic and political power. The first step has to be political reform: Change campaign finance laws. Make it easier for people to vote – in Australia, they even have compulsory voting. Address the problem of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering makes it so that your vote doesn’t count. If it does not count, you are leaving it to moneyed interests to push their own agenda. Change the filibuster, which turned from a barely used congressional tactic into a regular feature of politics. It disempowers Americans. Even if you have a majority vote, you cannot win.
The European: We’re looking at six months of presidential campaigning. The role of money has been embraced by both parties. Campaign finance reform seems rather unlikely.
Stiglitz: Even the Republicans have become more aware of the power of money by seeing how it influenced and distorted the primaries. The outcomes are not what the Republican party establishment had hoped for. The disaster is becoming clear – but that will not lead to immediate remedies. Those who become elected depend on that money. It will require a strong third party or civil society to do something about this.