Impossible Choices in a World Depression

Impossible Choices
in a World Depression

Immanuel Wallerstein
Agence Global
June 15, 2010

As the world’s leaders and pundits continue to deny the reality of the world
depression — they won’t even use the word — the impossible choices that
are faced by government after government become more and more obvious
every day. Consider what has happened in just the last month.

The United States had its worst unemployment figures in quite a while. Yes,
there were some new jobs, but 95% of them were of temporary census workers.
Private employers added just 10% of the jobs they were expected to add.
Despite this, it has now become politically impossible to get further stimulus
money voted by Congress. And the Federal Reserve has ceased to buy
Treasury securities and mortgage bonds. These had been the two main
strategies to increase jobs. Why? The call for deficit cuts has grown too strong.

The most immediate consequence can be seen at the level of the budgets of
the separate state governments. The cost of Medicaid has gone up because of
the economic crisis. This cost is borne by the separate states. They have
been helped in the past year by increased federal subsidies of state
spending on Medicaid. Congress won’t renew this. Gov. Edward Rendell of
Pennsylvania says this will increase his state’s budgetary shortfall by
two-thirds, and force it to lay off 20,000 teachers, police officers, and
other government workers. Of course, this is in addition to lost medical
services for many people.

In Great Britain, the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, says that cutting
down on borrowing is “the most urgent issue facing Britain today.” The
Financial Times sums up his proposals in its headline: “Cameron pitches an
age of austerity.” Its assessment of this policy: “If the government is to
make such steep reductions in spending, it cannot avoid visibly damaging
frontline services. The cuts will be more savage than anything contemplated
by even the Thatcher government.”

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has announced her version of austerity: deep
public spending cuts immediately, rising in amount each year for the next
four years. She has also announced new taxes on airlines, which the world’s
airlines immediately announced would seriously hurt their ability to reduce
their negative balance-sheets and save them from bankruptcy. Germany’s
unemployment rates will increase, but its unemployment benefits will be
reduced. Other governments in Europe plus the United States have been urging
Germany to spend more and export less, in order to restore world demand.
Merkel rejected these demands, saying that debt reduction was her priority.

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, warned the country that the debt
situation is so bad that Japan could face a situation comparable to that of
Greece. To remedy this, he proposed some increased taxation, more regulation
of the financial arena, and new kinds of public expenditures.

In the middle of all this super-austerity in the North, a most remarkable thing
has occurred, which seems to have escaped almost all notice. As everyone
knows, Spain is one of the many European countries now in economic
difficulty because of very large debt ratios. On May 30, Fitch Ratings joined
other ratings companies in reducing Spanish bond ratings from AAA to AA+.
The question is why. Just the day before, the Spanish parliament had
voted the country’s deepest budget cuts in 30 years.

Budget cuts are presumably what Germany and others have been calling for
in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other countries threatened by too much debt.
Spain responded to this pressure. And just because it did, Fitch Ratings
downgraded it. Brian Coulton, Fitch’s person in charge of ratings for Spain,
said in the statement downgrading Spain: “The process of adjustment to a
lower level of private sector and external indebtedness will materially
reduce the rate of growth of the Spanish economy over the medium-term.”

So there it is — damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. The financial
speculators have created a disastrous fall in the world-economy. The ball was
then thrown to the states to solve the problem. The states have less money
and more demands on them. What can they do? They can borrow, until
those who lend money won’t do it, or demand too high a rate of interest.
They can tax, and the businesses say that this will cut back their ability
to create jobs. They can reduce expenditures. And in addition to the terrible
pain this inflicts on everyone, but especially on the more vulnerable,
this action also will reduce the possibility of growth, as Mr. Coulton points
out for Spain.

Of course, there is one big place to reduce expenditures — the military.
Military expenditures do provide jobs but far fewer than if the money were
used otherwise. This does not apply only to the biggest spenders like the
United States. A virtually uncommented aspect of Greece’s debt problems was
its heavy expenditure on the military. But are governments ready to reduce
significantly military expenditures? It doesn’t seem too likely.*

So, what can the states do? They are trying one thing today, and another
thing tomorrow. Last year, it was stimulus. This year, it’s debt reduction.
The year after, it will be taxation. In any case, the overall situation will
be worse and worse.

Can China save us? Stephen Roach, Morgan Stanley‘s very acute analyst,
seems to think so, provided the government “stimulate(s) private growth.”
In that case, rising wages will be offset by higher productivity. Maybe. But
the Chinese government has been resistant to such a policy up to now, not
for economic but for political reasons. Its drive to maintain political
stability has been paramount up to now. Furthermore, even Roach has one
great fear — China-bashing in Washington leading to trade sanctions.
Myself, I think that’s a high probability, as the U.S. economic situation
continues to deteriorate.

The way out of all of this is not some small adjustment here or there —
whether of the monetarist or the Keynesian variety. To emerge from the
economic box in which the world finds itself requires a fundamental
overhaul of the world-system. This will surely have to come, but how soon?

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the
author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New
Press).

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Posted in Economic and Human Rights