For 40 years, elites in rich and poor countries alike promised that neoliberal policies would lead to faster economic growth, and that the benefits would trickle down so that everyone, including the poorest, would be better off. Now that the evidence is in, is it any wonder that trust in elites and confidence in democracy have plummeted?
NEW YORK – At the end of the Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a celebrated essay called “The End of History?” Communism’s collapse, he argued, would clear the last obstacle separating the entire world from its destiny of liberal democracy and market economies. Many people agreed.
Today, as we face a retreat from the rules-based, liberal global order, with autocratic rulers and demagogues leading countries that contain well over half the world’s population, Fukuyama’s idea seems quaint and naive. But it reinforced the neoliberal economic doctrine that has prevailed for the last 40 years.
The credibility of neoliberalism’s faith in unfettered markets as the surest road to shared prosperity is on life-support these days. And well it should be. The simultaneous waning of confidence in neoliberalism and in democracy is no coincidence or mere correlation. Neoliberalism has undermined democracy for 40 years.
The form of globalization prescribed by neoliberalism left individuals and entire societies unable to control an important part of their own destiny, as Dani Rodrik of Harvard University has explained so clearly, and as I argue in my recent books Globalization and Its Discontents Revisited and People, Power, and Profits. The effects of capital-market liberalization were particularly odious: If a leading presidential candidate in an emerging market lost favor with Wall Street, the banks would pull their money out of the country. Voters then faced a stark choice: Give in to Wall Street or face a severe financial crisis. It was as if Wall Street had more political power than the country’s citizens.
Even in rich countries, ordinary citizens were told, “You can’t pursue the policies you want” – whether adequate social protection, decent wages, progressive taxation, or a well-regulated financial system – “because the country will lose competitiveness, jobs will disappear, and you will suffer.”
In rich and poor countries alike, elites promised that neoliberal policies would lead to faster economic growth, and that the benefits would trickle down so that everyone, including the poorest, would be better off. To get there, though, workers would have to accept lower wages, and all citizens would have to accept cutbacks in important government programs.
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The elites claimed that their promises were based on scientific economic models and “evidence-based research.” Well, after 40 years, the numbers are in: growth has slowed, and the fruits of that growth went overwhelmingly to a very few at the top. As wages stagnated and the stock market soared, income and wealth flowed up, rather than trickling down.
How can wage restraint – to attain or maintain competitiveness – and reduced government programs possibly add up to higher standards of living? Ordinary citizens felt like they had been sold a bill of goods. They were right to feel conned.
We are now experiencing the political consequences of this grand deception: distrust of the elites, of the economic “science” on which neoliberalism was based, and of the money-corrupted political system that made it all possible.
The reality is that, despite its name, the era of neoliberalism was far from liberal. It imposed an intellectual orthodoxy whose guardians were utterly intolerant of dissent. Economists with heterodox views were treated as heretics to be shunned, or at best shunted off to a few isolated institutions. Neoliberalism bore little resemblance to the “open society” that Karl Popper had advocated. As George Soros has emphasized, Popper recognized that our society is a complex, ever-evolving system in which the more we learn, the more our knowledge changes the behavior of the system.
Nowhere was this intolerance greater than in macroeconomics, where the prevailing models ruled out the possibility of a crisis like the one we experienced in 2008. When the impossible happened, it was treated as if it were a 500-year flood – a freak occurrence that no model could have predicted. Even today, advocates of these theories refuse to accept that their belief in self-regulating markets and their dismissal of externalities as either nonexistent or unimportant led to the deregulation that was pivotal in fueling the crisis. The theory continues to survive, with Ptolemaic attempts to make it fit the facts, which attests to the reality that bad ideas, once established, often have a slow death.
If the 2008 financial crisis failed to make us realize that unfettered markets don’t work, the climate crisis certainly should: neoliberalism will literally bring an end to our civilization. But it is also clear that demagogues who would have us turn our back on science and tolerance will only make matters worse.
The only way forward, the only way to save our planet and our civilization, is a rebirth of history. We must revitalize the Enlightenment and recommit to honoring its values of freedom, respect for knowledge, and democracy.
Peter Schiff predicted a collapse of the U.S. financial system. The bust-up he didn’t foresee was the one that made mincemeat of investors who took his advice in 2008.
Mr. Schiff’s Darien, Conn., broker-dealer firm, Euro Pacific Capital Inc., advised its clients to bet that the dollar would weaken significantly and that foreign stocks would outpace their U.S. peers. Instead, the dollar advanced against most currencies, magnifying the losses from foreign stocks Mr. Schiff steered his investors into.
Investors open accounts at Euro Pacific to take advantage of Mr. Schiff’s investment advice, which generally involves shunning investments in dollars. Individual returns can vary. Some investors may like gold-mining stocks, while others prefer energy-focused stocks.
Most had one thing in common last year: heavy losses. A number of investors said their Euro Pacific portfolios lost 50% or more in 2008, worse than the 38% drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index last year. People familiar with the firm say that hardly any securities recommended by Euro Pacific brokers gained ground in 2008.
Such losses came as something of a surprise. Mr. Schiff’s prescient call for the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the weakening of the financial system helped him gain fame as an economic guru and savvy investor who promised shelter from the financial storm.
In his 2007 book, “Crash Proof: How to Profit from the Coming Economic Collapse,” he recommends that investors pile into gold, commodities and overseas stocks that spit out steady dividends.
When global markets were soaring, many Euro Pacific investors’ accounts experienced strong performance. For several years, investors saw returns in excess of 20% a year as foreign stocks and commodities surged, according to people familiar with the firm.
In 2008, investors nervous about the state of the U.S. economy who were impressed by Mr. Schiff’s track record poured money into Euro Pacific, nearly doubling the number of accounts to 16,000. But many did so at the worst time possible, much like investors who piled into Internet stocks as the dot-com bubble peaked.
Mr. Schiff, 45 years old, says the downturn in his strategy is a short-term setback. He argues that it is only a matter of time before the dollar collapses, pressured by massive government bailouts, triggering outsize returns for his investors.
“I think the dollar is going to get destroyed,” he says. Investors with the staying power to wait out what he sees as a temporary phase of irrational confidence in the dollar will reap huge rewards, he argues.
Mr. Schiff is still riding high on his housing-market call. This week, he spoke at a global competitiveness conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, alongside former heads of state, prime ministers and American gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps. He is the subject of more than 3,000 YouTube videos, including one called “Peter Schiff Was Right.”
His admirers even created Web sites supporting a possible run for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Mr. Schiff, who was economic adviser to Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2008, says he has no plans to run for the Senate but “anything’s possible.”
Critics say Mr. Schiff’s strategy is much riskier and more aggressive than many investors realize. David Yeske, managing director of Yeske Buie, a Vienna, Va., money manager, says Mr. Schiff’s investment strategy was a focused bet on a single outcome, rather than risk management for investors looking to protect assets from an economic collapse. “He’s a speculator; he thinks he can see the future,” says Mr. Yeske, former chairman of the Financial Planning Association. “That’s not really risk control.”
One of Mr. Schiff’s biggest forecasts was that many overseas economies would “decouple” from the U.S., gaining strength even as the American economy struggled. Instead, overseas stock markets plunged as much or more than U.S. stocks in 2008 as the global economy skidded. Prices for commodities also tanked, torpedoing another favorite investment theme of Mr. Schiff’s. After last year’s losses, his firm has about $845 million in assets.
Early last year, Richard De Gennaro, a retired Harvard University librarian, put $100,000, about 15% of his assets, into a Euro Pacific account that included Canadian Oil Sands Trust, which focuses on crude-oil projects in Canada, and the India Capital Growth Fund, which holds investments in companies that do business in India.
Both investments took big hits in 2008, compounded by the fact that the Canadian dollar and the Indian rupee fell 18% and 19%, respectively, against the U.S. dollar. The 83-year-old retiree’s account is now worth about $37,000, a 63% plunge. Mr. Schiff “goes around saying that he was right,” says Mr. De Gennaro. “He was right about one thing and wrong about everything else.”
Among investors who turned to Mr. Schiff’s firm just as his strategy began to falter, Brian Kullberg, a design engineer in Portland, Ore., says he started to worry about the state of the U.S. economy in early 2008. He put $70,000 into a Euro Pacific account, hoping it would benefit as the U.S. economy and the dollar weakened. By late January 2009, his investment had shrunk to about $25,000.
“It’s curious,” says one longtime client of Mr. Schiff’s who works in finance. “His thesis of how things are going to collapse and crumble and fall apart isn’t effectively executed in [my] account.” The account, which is largely invested in gold, mining and infrastructure stocks from Canada to Australia, was down roughly 35% last year, the client estimates. The Australian dollar weakened 19% against the U.S. dollar in 2008.
Mr. Schiff says one year’s poor performance doesn’t prove he was wrong. He has admitted in notes to clients that his investment thesis hasn’t performed as expected, particularly with respect to the U.S. dollar. But he holds fast to his convictions and has been telling investors to scoop up a number of depressed stocks.
Some clients are inclined to agree. “The decoupling he talked about has not happened,” says Barbara Hearst, a clothing entrepreneur who splits her time between Charleston, S.C., and Bridgehampton, N.Y., and has invested with Mr. Schiff since 2000. But “longer term or medium term, I don’t discount what Peter says.”
Two high-ranking financial whistleblowers say they tried to warn their superiors about defective and even fraudulent mortgages. So why haven’t the companies or their executives been prosecuted? Steve Kroft reports.
This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. The Great Economic Myth of 2008, challenging the accounting to accounting principal.
Brian Wesbury is Chief Economist at First Trust Advisors L.P., a financial services firm based in Wheaton, Illinois.
Mr. Wesbury has been a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago since 1999. In 2012, he was named a Fellow of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, TX where he works closely with its 4%-Growth Project. His writing appears in various magazines, newspapers and blogs, and he appears regularly on Fox, Bloomberg, CNBCand BNN Canada TV. In 1995 and 1996, he served as Chief Economist for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. The Wall Street Journal ranked Mr. Wesbury the nation’s #1 U.S. economic forecaster in 2001, and USA Today ranked him as one of the nation’s top 10 forecasters in 2004. Mr. Wesbury began his career in 1982 at the Harris Bank in Chicago. Former positions include Vice President and Economist for the Chicago Corporation and Senior Vice President and Chief Economist for Griffin, Kubik, Stephens, & Thompson. Mr. Wesbury received an M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and a B.A. in Economics from the University of Montana. McGraw-Hill published his first book, The New Era of Wealth, in October 1999. His most recent book, It’s Not As Bad As You Think, was published in November 2009 by John Wiley & Sons. In 2011, Mr. Wesbury received the University of Montana’s Distinguished Alumni Award. This award honors outstanding alumni who have “brought honor to the University, the state or the nation.” There have been 267 recipients of this award out of a potential pool of 91,000 graduates.
VICE on HBO looks at factors that led to the 2008 financial crisis and the efforts made by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner, and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to save the United States from an economic collapse. The feature-length documentary explores the challenges these men faced, as well as the consequences of their decisions.
In a 2004 interview, Elizabeth Warren predicted the 2008 financial crisis four years before it would happen.
We can save our broken economic system from itself.
Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.
But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s regulatory “reforms,” which reduced the ability of government to curb the excesses of the market, were sold as great energizers of the economy. But just the opposite happened: Growth slowed, and weirder still, this happened in the innovation capital of the world.
The sugar rush produced by President Trump’s largess to corporations in the 2017 tax law didn’t deal with any of these long-run problems, and is already fading. Growth is expected to be a little under 2 percent next year.
This is where we’ve descended to, but not where we have to stay. A progressive capitalism based on an understanding of what gives rise to growth and societal well-being gives us a way out of this quagmire and a way up for our living standards.
Standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century for two reasons:
- the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and
- developments in social organization (as a society, we learned how to work together, through institutions like the rule of law, and democracies with checks and balances).
Key to both were systems of assessing and verifying the truth. The real and long-lasting danger of the Trump presidency is the risk it poses to these pillars of our economy and society, its attack on the very idea of knowledge and expertise, and its hostility to institutions that help us discover and assess the truth.
There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.
America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.
Beginning with the Reagan era, economic policy played a key role in this dystopia: Just as forces of globalization and technological change were contributing to growing inequality, we adopted policies that worsened societal inequities. Even as economic theories like information economics (dealing with the ever-present situation where information is imperfect), behavioral economics and game theory arose to explain why markets on their own are often not efficient, fair, stable or seemingly rational, we relied more on markets and scaled back social protections.
We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.
If we don’t change course matters will likely grow worse, as machines (artificial intelligence and robots) replace an increasing fraction of routine labor, including many of the jobs of the several million Americans making their living by driving.
The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.
If we had curbed exploitation in all of its forms and encouraged wealth creation, we would have had a more dynamic economy with less inequality. We might have curbed the opioid crisis and avoided the 2008 financial crisis. If we had done more to blunt the power of oligopolies and strengthen the power of workers, and if we had held our banks accountable, the sense of powerlessness might not be so pervasive and Americans might have greater trust in our institutions.
The neoliberal fantasy that unfettered markets will deliver prosperity to everyone should be put to rest. It is as fatally flawed as the notion after the fall of the Iron Curtain that we were seeing “the end of history” and that we would all soon be liberal democracies with capitalist economies.
Most important, our exploitive capitalism has shaped who we are as individuals and as a society. The rampant dishonesty we’ve seen from Wells Fargo and Volkswagen or from members of the Sackler family as they promoted drugs they knew were addictive — this is what is to be expected in a society that lauds the pursuit of profits as leading, to quote Adam Smith, “as if by an invisible hand,” to the well-being of society, with no regard to whether those profits derive from exploitation or wealth creation.