Too Much of A Good Thing.

            The Great Depression (1929-1939) rocked capitalism.  Conventional economic thought offered no useful response.  Indeed, following its dictates only made things worse.  It held that governments should not intervene excessively in the natural workings of the capitalist economy.  However, if the “natural workings” of the capitalist economy puts 25 percent of the labor force out of work for a long stretch, then something new needs to be done.  Some countries—the United States, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan–fumbled towards an effective solution.  Government deficit spending would have to fill up the gap between what the economy wanted to produce and what it needed to produce to maintain employment and living standards.  This actually worked, especially under the conditions of total war.[1] 

            It took a while, but after the Second World War these ideas were legitimized as more than just ad-hoc emergency measures.  Labeled “Keynesianism,” the legitimized government interventions, especially deficit spending, as a response to serious downturns in the business cycle.  Along with expanded provision of government services, the new approach seemed to be validated by the “Great Boom” of the post-war decades.  Health, education, and living standards all improved markedly during this time.  British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan crowed that “most of our people have never had it so good.” 

            Inevitably, a fly lit in the ointment.  The fly took the form of consequences that were unintended, unanticipated, and frankly undesired.[2]  Success at dealing with major down-turns tempted democratic political systems to apply the solution to less grave down-turns and then to enhancing up-turns.[3]  This seemed to reflect the invalidation of yet another old nostrum: that deficits financed by just printing money eventually undermine confidence in the currency, eventually stoke inflation to unacceptable levels, and eventually force central banks to raise interest rates.  “Eventually” never put in an appearance, so governments began to get the idea that free money actually is free.[4] 

            Now—or maybe “again” would be more accurate—storm flags are going up.[5]  A “perfect storm” in a rare one that combines several meteorological events.[6]         Cassandras discern something similar developing in economic policies. 

First, printing money raises asset values (stocks and bonds, houses).[7]  That’s great, except that just under half of Americans own no stocks and bonds, and ownership of most stocks and bonds is highly concentrated.[8]  Although much played up by the left, economic inequality really has risen dramatically.  That threatens to de-legitimize capitalism in the eyes of ordinary citizens. 

Second, easy money and government bail-outs do more than curb the negative effects of a recession or depression.  They also curb the positive effects.  Governments step in rather than allowing “creative destruction” to re-allocate economic resources and rewards.  Inefficient, non-performing firms don’t get driven under.  These “zombie”[9] companies continue to tie down capital and labor that would be better directed to new firms that are more competitive, efficient, and innovative.[10]  The share of “zombies” among publically-traded companies has risen from about 2 percent in 2002 to 19 percent by 2019.  Pouring money into “zombie” firms doesn’t increase production or productivity by any significant amount.  Instead, “creative destruction” lies at the heart of functional capitalism.  So, let her rip. 

Third, easy money and bail-outs are a part (not the whole) of the forces that have created an economy dominated by big companies.  Big firms can borrow the money needed to get bigger still.  They can buy start-ups before they grow into real competitors; they can hoover-up talented workers; and they can hire the armies of lawyers needed to cope with the immense and complicated regulations generated by active governments.  Hug rewards flow toward a company that can achieve market dominance.  Stomping on ants may come to seem preferable to thinking about uncomfortable innovations. 

In essence, capitalism is being smothered by the efforts to shield people from risk and adversity.[11]  In theory, it is not necessary to throw out the original Keynesian baby with the bathwater to solve this problem.  Governments must still save the economy in cases of serious down-turns.  The problems lie, first, in what it does after a crisis and, second, what it does when times are good.  The schoolroom solution is that governments should exercise some self-discipline.  After a crisis they should reel back in the debt they issued to revive the economy.  When times are good, they should refrain from trying to make them even better by printing more money. 

The solution rests on a hope that voters or interest groups will reward politicians who follow this path.  That hope, in turn, rests on a belief in civic virtue and a sense of self-restraint.  Will voters and interest group virtuous and capable of self-restraint?  Or are they habituated to government stimulus?[12]  Maybe it will take a big smash-up to change minds.[13] 

That opens up a discussion about “culture” (values, beliefs, behaviors) that is bound to be difficult.  It would be easy to give into cultural pessimism here.  Still, there’s always been “a lot of ruin in the Republic.” 


[1] On all this, see: Charles P. Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-1939 (1973); and Alan S. Milward, War, Economy, and Society, 1939-1945 (1979). 

[2] See Gregor Samsa. 

[3] In the United States, it isn’t possible to blame only the “tax-spend-elect” Democrats for this.  Purely for electoral reasons, Republicans eventually responded with “tax-cut-spend-elect.”  Their latest tax cut came in 2017, when the recession of 2008 hardly even appeared in the rear-view mirror.    

[4] Two “oil shocks” in the 1970s led to a severe inflation.  After central banks defeated this inflation in the early 1980s, they pushed down interest rates to low levels.  Asian “sovereign wealth funds” soaked up a lot of the US Treasury paper thus generated.  See: Jacques Rueff, The Monetary Sin of the West (1972) for its criticism of the US for inflating the whole world’s economy.  More to the point, Rueff’s views influenced French president Charles de Gaulle to attack the value of the dollar in 1965.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exorbitant_privilege 

[5] Ruchir Sharma, “The Rescues Ruining Capitalism,” WSJ, 25-26 July 2020. 

[6] See: Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997). 

[7] After Congress took flight from Keynesianism from 2008 on, the Federal Reserve Bank stepped in with “quantitative easing”: buying privately-owned financial assets to pump up their value. 

[8] Just over half of Americans own some stocks and bonds, but most stocks and bonds are owned by a few people. 

[9] Companies that don’t earn enough profit to pay even the interest on their debts. 

[10] On the very real  problems in Asia, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie_company 

[11] There may be a larger argument to be made about the other unintended effects of the post-war reforms on a broader range of citizens.  For example, Zachary Karabell quotes Alexander Brown, founder of the investment bank Brown Brothers (later Brown Brothers Harriman): “Don’t deal with people about whose character there is a question.  It keeps your mind uneasy.  It is far better to lose the business.”  Karabell, “The Capitalist Culture That Built America,” WSJ, 15-16 May 2021.  Reflecting on some of the comments I have read in my local township Facebook page, I think that you shouldn’t say things that would make Jimmy Stewart or Lee Marvin believe that you should have your mouth washed out with soap. 

[12] A question at the heart of the work of the “Concord Coalition.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concord_Coalition 

[13] William E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963). 

Cosmopolitanism and the Nation State 1.

            Nationalism is the idea that all people who share a common language and a common culture should be organized in independent, self-governing states.  Once upon a time, this posed a revolutionary threat to established boundaries.[1]  “Germany” and “Italy” were geographical expressions equivalent to saying “the Mid-West.”  History had fractured each into multiple independent states.  At the same time, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire were multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-cultural conglomerations.  In many places, different “national” groups were mingled together.  Beginning in the later 19th Century, Nationalism spread into all of these areas, leaving havoc and nation-states in its wake. 

            During the First World War, Britain and France agreed on how to partition the Ottoman Empire after victory had been won.[2]  After the war, the peacemakers in Paris tried to craft national boundaries that would gather as large a share of any national groups as possible into a coherent state.  The best will in the world could not disentangle all of the groups, so national minorities grumbled in many parts of Europe.[3] 

            Between the two world wars, predatory states fed on the grievances of national minorities, their own or those of others that created hostilities that could be exploited.  So German minorities in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland; the lands across the Adriatic that had been promised to Italy, but given to the Artist Formerly Known as Yugoslavia; Hungarians in Rumania; Poles in Czechoslovakia; Croatians and Slovenians in Yugoslavia; and all the lands lost by Russia in 1918.  After the Second World War, the peacemakers drew the lines on maps, then shoved people where they wanted them.  The problem of national minorities was solved. 

            The peacemakers also tried to freeze their lines in place for all coming time.  In 1945 the newly-created United Nations outlawed “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”[4]  In essence, countries that existed had a right to continue existing in their original boundaries.[5]  The break-up of the Western colonial empires soon added many new nations to the world and to the rolls of those who accepted the United Nations’ prior decisions as their price of admission. 

            Now changed flows of power erode the established order.  Vladimir Putin decided not to wait on plebiscites that the United States would never allow.  He took back the Crimea and staged a limited invasion of two predominantly Russian “oblasts” of Ukraine.  He has claimed that Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia “are one people.”  Xi Jinping’s flouting of China’s agreement on the status of Hong Kong may be a preface to retaking Taiwan.  In 2020, Chinese publications sent up trial balloons referring to parts of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan as once part of Imperial China’s domains.  Water runs downhill, so lesser powers may soon start dusting off their claims. 

            Should this be stopped?  Can this be stopped?  Will this be stopped? 


[1] The American Revolution can easily be portrayed as the first war of national liberation.  The Dutch will object. 

[2] The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) gave France Syria and Lebanon; while Britain got Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and Palestine.  The British made a number of other commitments that did not accord well with reality, notably promising much of Turkey to Italy and Greece, an Arab state to the rulers of the Hejaz, and a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. 

[3] “Sub-Carpatho Ukraine, land that we love.”  I stole that from Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows (2000). 

[4] Quoted in Yaroslav Trofimov, “The Dangers in A New Era of Territorial Grabs,” WSJ, 19-20 September 2020. 

[5] This amounted to a return to an established principle of 18th and early 19th Century diplomacy. 

My Weekly Reader 14 June 2021.

            “We had won” Winston Churchill later wrote of American entry into full belligerency after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  A “long and hard road” still had to be travelled to victory.  By August 1942, the Japanese had conquered the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and Burma, and were on the frontiers of India.  By the same point, German armies were advancing on Stalingrad in Russia and on Alexandria in Egypt. 

            The war in the Mediterranean linked the two greater Theaters of Operations.  Gibraltar controlled the western entrance to the sea, while also serving as a key naval base protecting Atlantic Ocean convoys.  Suez controlled the eastern entrance, while also anchoring the British position in the Middle East.  In 1942, the Germans and Italians mounted a deadly threat to Suez from the Italian colony of Libya.  The Afrika Korps joined with the Italian army to advance deep into Egypt.  In one sense, holding onto the British position in the Middle East came down to a question of merchant shipping.  The Italian army in North Africa and the Afrika Korps had to be supplied by the short sea route from Sicily to the Libyan port of Benghazi.  The British in the Middle East had to be supplied by the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.  Under these unequal circumstances, the British fought hard to disrupt the Axis supply line. 

            In this effort, the little island of Malta played an over-sized role.  Located at the choke point between the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean, it also stood astride the Sicily-Libya supply route.  Initially judging Malta to be indefensible in modern war, the Royal Navy had largely withdrawn to the Egyptian port of Alexandria at the outbreak of war.  However, the war in North Africa made it essential to hold Malta as a base for submarine attacks on the Italian supply line.  Holding Malta meant running convoys through Italian and German air and naval attacks without much British air cover. 

            In 1940 and 1941, the Royal Navy generally got the better of the Italian “Regia Marina.”[1]  The situation changed dramatically in 1942.  In December 1941, Italian frogmen disabled two British battleships in Alexandria Harbor.  The Japanese assault required the dispatch of other ships to the Indian Ocean.  The German “Luftwaffe” also began to play a larger role.  Britain lost naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.  Three convoys in March and June 1942 suffered heavy losses or were turned back entirely.[2]  Yet Malta had to be held.  Courage and skill would have to make good the deficiency in ships. 

            In August 1942, the British sent off a do-or-die convoy code-named “Pedestal.”[3]  Running eastward past Gibraltar under heavy escort, the convoy came under sustained naval and air attack.  Three days of pure Hell followed. The British lost a carrier, two light cruisers, a destroyer, and nine merchant ships to bombs and torpedoes.  Yet the essential supplies—including a tanker full of fuel oil for submarines and aviation gasoline—got through.  Malta not only hung-on, attacks on the Axis supply line revived. 

            By the end of 1942, the tide of battle had turned against the Axis.  Tobruk, Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad are well-remembered milestones.  So, too, should be “Pedestal.” 


[1] Look up the Battle of Cape Matapan and the attack on the Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto. 

[2] A fictionalized and propagandistic account of the experience of one British cruiser, HMS “Artemis,” on one of these convoys is given by C.S. Forester, The Ship (1943).  Fine stuff. 

[3] Max Hastings, Operation Pedestal (2021), reviewed by Jonathan W. Jordan, WSJ, 12-13 June 2021. 

The Asian Century 20.

            Not so long ago, European hopes for a partnership with China looked promising.  At Davos in 2017, Xi Jinping said all the right things about wanting to combat climate change, continue building an open world economy, and working co-operatively with other nations to solve shared problems.  This made an appealing contrast to the Trump Administration’s “America First” stance.  The “China Market” offered both a growing market for high-end European products and cheap source the consumer goods.  China’s “Belt and Road” initiative dangled generous infrastructure spending before countries still struggling out of the financial crisis and recession of the first years of the 21st Century.[1]  European-Chinese co-operation looked like a low-cost or no-cost policy option. 

            Then the Chinese-American split came out into the open.  Then China’s authoritarianism became too blatant to ignore, with the persecution of the Uighurs and the crack-down on democracy in Hong Kong.  Then China started throwing its weight around in Europe to stave off criticism or coerce compliance. 

            Now, the deepening rivalry between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China is forcing other countries to choose sides.  They can back the US, or back China, or try for non-aligned independence.[2]    

            Some in the European Union (EU) want to back the US.  For exponents of an up-dated “Atlantic Alliance,” the US is the only choice: both countries uphold the same values and the US possesses formidable military and diplomatic power.  They choose to see Donald Trump as a destructive anomaly.  They argue that neither the US nor the EU are strong enough alone to counter the PRC, but together than can win.[3] 

One problem here is that the EU is crumbling.  The divide between the original founder countries of the EU and the later additions has surfaced with “Brexit” and the dissent of some of the Eastern Europeans from Franco-German leadership.  The divide between Northern and Southern Europeans revealed by the financial crisis has only been papered over, not solved. 

Others clearly want to pursue non-alignment in a manner that will enable them to hold the ring between the US and the PRC.  Gaining this kind of power involves closer ties with Russia.  Russia has greater military power than do the European countries; Russia has abundant oil and gas flowing to Europe through its pipelines.  The EU and Russia would make a far more impressive bloc than does the EU alone. 

One problem here is that Russia will exact a high price for its co-operation.  Europeans might be willing to see Russia restore order a la Putin to the kleptocratic Ukraine.  How would they deal with Russian irredentism around its Western and Southern frontiers?  Then, Chinese dissidents end up in prison.  Russian dissidents end up dead. 

            Is “Europe” too divided, weak, and even misguided, to chart an independent course in the world? 


[1] Chinese management’s reform of half of the shipping facilities of the Piraeus probably delighted Northern Europeans fed up with Greek sloth, fraud, and incompetence. 

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Europe’s Face-Off With China,” WSJ, 29 February-1 March 2020. 

[3] You can see this as Pessimistic in that it implies that the PRC has already gained so much strength that the US alone cannot check China’s course.  Or perhaps it’s just Realistic. 

All the News That Fits Is Printed.

            Why do people believe nonsense?[1]  One answer might be that people operate in an environment of nothing but nonsense.  They don’t have any choice.  Obviously, that’s not the case today, at least in Western-style democracies with public education systems, a free press, modern medicine, economies based on science and technology, and a general celebration of human reason.  These institutions churn out immense amounts of “sense.” 

            Another answer might be that people filter information according to their group identity.  According to sociologists and psychologists, people always have some sense of belonging to a sub-group of society, their “in-group.”  It is a basic evolutionary survival strategy.  That sense of group identity can vary with the larger social and political context.  In a period of dramatic change or conflict, those larger events can intensify the sense of belonging to an in-group.  Belonging can strengthen one’s sense of security when the person feels embattled by hostile forces.  “News” about whatever forces or groups that are seen as threatening the in-group can become one of the shared elements reinforcing group identity. 

            Word of mouth communication of “news” provides validation.  External or authoritative repetition of the “news” provides an even stronger validation.  On the one hand, when that “news” is voiced or sponsored by a major public figure, then it seems more plausible still.  It gains credibility from being stated by a public figure.  It also expands the reference community of the “in-group” beyond local acquaintance.  On the other hand, media exposure and endorsement of the “news” lends further credibility while massively expanding awareness of it.  Social media has become a particular concern because of the feed-back from “likes” and “shares” provides an affirmation to the person who posts some bit of the “news.” 

            Taken together, “in a highly polarized society,” these factors “pull heavily toward in-group solidarity and out-group derogation.  They do not much favor consensus reality or abstract ideals of accuracy.”  In the context of contemporary American politics, this is concerning. 

            It’s possible that the cause for concern is real, but that both the degree of danger and the novelty of the situation are over-stated.  In 1678 Titus Oates cooked up the story of a “Popish Plot” to kill British King Charles II.  He accused the Jesuits and a long list of prominent Catholics.  The government investigated and the list of accused people grew.  Then the magistrate investigating the charges was found murdered.  You can imagine the television reports, if there had been television in the 17th Century: “New Plot by the ‘Scarlet Whore of Rome’!”; “Jesuit Secret Agents at Work in England!”; “Catholics Are Traitors!”  The accusations played into all the fears and prejudices of ordinary Englishmen after a century of domestic and foreign conflict.  Parliament took up the cause, forcing the king—who suspected the whole thing was a crock—to allow Oates to continue.  At least fifteen innocent men were executed for participation in the “Popish Plot.”  By 1681, tempers had begun to calm down.  Just as quickly as people had believed in the plot, they suddenly disbelieved in it. 

            So why are “misinformation” and “fake news” such an urgent issue now?  Perhaps it’s because, in America’s polarized politics, both “in-groups” feel under assault; prominent figures sound the alarm; and every corner of the media is filled with passionate intensity.  Or maybe not. 


[1] Max Fisher, “In an Us-Versus-Them World, Misinformation Reigns,” NYT, 10 May 2021.