This is an interesting graphic that not only illustrates the futility of current monetary stimulus (the QE-ZIRP Paradox), but also the larger contradiction we’ve created in the relationship between politics and economics. I’ll explicate how this contradiction also explains Europe’s predicament with Greece and the other periphery countries in Eurozone, and also applies to emerging countries, especially China.
We can envision economics as a boundary of constraints or possibilities on the choices we can make in life. We might call these budgetary constraints, but it also pertains to constraints on growth and expansion. Relate this to personal finance: economics constrains the choices we have on what kind of house we buy or rent, what cars we drive, what vacations we can take, what schools we attend, etc., etc. Within those constraints we often have many choices and possibilities for trade-offs. We can decide to buy a small house to afford a big car, or a tuition-free school in favor of more exotic vacations. We make these decisions everyday throughout our lifetimes.
The personal choices we make within the constraints of economics are analogous to the social choices we make through democratic politics. So, economics is like the box within which politics can allocate resources by democratic consensus. We can decide on more social welfare, or more national defense, or more leisure time. The irrationality is believing that we can somehow make choices that lie far outside the constraints of economics. Fantasies like we can all fly to the moon, all have a heart transplant, or perhaps live high on the hog without working to produce the necessary prosperity.
Economic constraints and political choices interact, an important dynamic since both are malleable over time. We can make choices that expand the constraints of economics, which would mean an expansion of possibilities through growth. Or we can make choices that shrink the boundaries of the economically possible, reducing our choices in the future. The interesting point to make at this stage of our exposition is that, like the boundaries we set for our children, economic constraints are a disciplinary factor that helps to keep our political choices honest. In other words, economics disciplines our political choices by penalizing bad choices and rewarding good choices.
This has profound implications for how society works.
One can imagine that one of the major economic constraints on our personal set of choices is the amount of money we have. In other words, the fungible value of our assets and savings. Rich people have fewer economic constraints than poor people. But this supply of money is not fixed and can be augmented by borrowing through the issuance of credit and assumption of debt obligations. So, one can buy a more expensive house by borrowing the necessary funds from a mortgage lender and then paying it back over time. We soon figured out that when the supply of money is too strict, economic constraints are unnecessarily tight, so money supply should adapt to the needs of the political economy.
Thus, we can expand the economic constraints facing society by expanding the supply of money through credit. One might think, “Wow, that was easy. Now we have lots more choices!” And the next thought should be, “Well, what’s the limit on how much money we can create?”
First, we should remember that money is not wealth, it merely represents wealth. When money was backed by gold reserves, the supply of gold limited the amount of money in the system. If Country A adopted bad policies relative to its trading partner Country B, gold reserves would flow out, threatening the underlying value of Country A’s currency. This would force Country A to correct its policies or risk impoverishment. The exchange rates between currency A and B did not reflect these changes because both were fixed to gold; but the underlying values had obviously changed demanding a revaluation of both currencies relative to gold. While workable, this was a herky-jerky way of adapting to changing economic conditions and resulted in many financial, economic, and political crises along the way. It took WWI and WWII to finally break away from a gold standard as an economic constraint.
In 1948, the western powers that had been victorious in WWII established an international currency regime (called Bretton Woods) backed by the US$ fixed to gold and a host of institutions to help manage international relations, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations. Unfortunately, this regime depended on US policy to defend the monetary regime, even when it contradicted US domestic economic interests. With Vietnam war spending and Great Society social spending (guns and butter), too many dollars were created, causing a run on US gold redemptions by countries like France. In 1971, the Bretton Woods system finally broke down as Nixon closed the gold window to redemptions and all currencies began to float in value relative to other currencies. There was now no fixed relationship of the currency to anything of tangible value – its value was established by government fiat. The initial effect was a stagnating economy plus inflation, a decade-long slog in the 1970s that gave birth to the term stagflation.
At the time, it was thought that exchange rate movements would signal necessary policy changes to keep each countries’ political priorities aligned with economic constraints. It turns out this assumption did not hold up to political realities because volatile exchange rates do not necessarily affect domestic economic interests to the point where politicians feel the need to respond. How many of us know or care how the US$ is performing relative to the other currencies of the world? The result was that politically favorable (more for everybody!), but economically detrimental, policies could be pursued, while exchange rate volatility could be largely ignored. Thus, the economic discipline to guide political choices was lost, permitting bad policies to persist. We have seen this in the explosion of credit and debt around the world and the volatility in exchange rates and asset markets.
Now we can see the problem illustrated in the graphic above. Instead of forcing necessary fiscal reform, we end up throwing more monetary stimulus at the problem. The results have been rising inequality, asset booms and busts, and massive resource misallocations that will cost society economically for a long time. On the global stage, China is the poster child of excess. It will all end when we finally hit the wall and throwing more money at the problem no longer works.
Europe, the EU, and Greece.
We can consider another case in Europe where volatile exchange rates after 1971 inhibited trade with unnecessary currency risks and conversion costs. The idea was that a currency union under the euro would greatly expand intra-European trade by eliminating these costs. But a currency union requires consistent monetary and fiscal policy and a re-balancing mechanism. In the US this is achieved through a Federal government that taxes and redistributes resources. In the European view, economic discipline would by imposed by a set of consistent policy rules established under the European Union and Parliament. Once, again, the result was that individual country governments found ways to skirt the rules or outright deceive the EU on its government budgets. Sometimes this was necessary given the varying needs of uneven development among countries. We see the result in Greece, when it was soon discovered that Greece had borrowed and spent public funds far in excess of the 3% boundary established by the EU.
So, a currency union also has failed to discipline politics, and the result has been a catastrophe for the Greek people and a severe blow to the concept and credibility of the European Union and the euro.
The bottom line is that democratic politics needs a firm disciplinary constraint, or else a financially manipulated economy will give society just enough rope to hang itself with. Unfortunately, this has happened quite frequently in history.