A slight change from the usual in my day job at MHP Communications has come courtesy of our client Richard Duncan and his new book, The New Depression, which is primarily about the US but with lessons that are very applicable to the UK.
In a nutshell, his case is half-Austrian. Or indeed half-Keynesian. That is because whilst Duncan’s diagnosis of the current economic ills is very much in the Austrian school of economics, with its emphasis on the role of credit, his prescription for fixing the economy is large-scale borrowing to fund infrastructure work, all of which sounds rather Keynesian.
It is a more fiscally responsible version of Keynesianism than some, for Duncan argues that, “The U.S. government can now borrow money for ten years at a cost of 2 percent interest a year. If it borrows at that rate and invests in projects that yield even 3 percent … on a grand scale in grand projects … [our economy] could be transformed”. In other words, borrow massively to boost economic growth, but spend those funds on projects that will generate future returns which make the borrowing affordable.
Duncan has a particular set of target for his investment plans for the American economy – developing new industries to reduce the trade deficit and generate new tax revenues. In particular, he talks about renewable energy, arguing that massive investment will cut energy bills whilst also providing the sort of financial return that makes the massive spending of money on it a prudent rather than profligate move.
All that means there are three main bones of contention in the book: is Richard Duncan right in blaming the crash on credit conditions; is he right that massive infrastructure investment on projects which pay returns the answer; and if money is to be invested in infrastructure that pays returns, does renewable energy fit the bill? Although a book principally about the US economy and the policy choices faced by Americans, those three questions are very applicable to other countries too, even if his evidence tends to be centred on the USA.
As he mulls over these three questions, most readers will find at least one eye-catching piece of evidence to savour, such as when he describes how heavily the financial system became dependent on credit not going sour:
In 1945 [American] commercial banks held reserves and vault cash of … the equivalent of 12 percent of their total assets … By 2007, the banks’ reserves and vault cash [was] 0.6 percent.
He goes on to argue that
Economic progress was no longer achieved the old-fashioned way through savings and investments, but, rather, by borrowing and consumption … The new reality is that credit has displaced money as the key economic variable.
Hence the book’s subtitle, “The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy”.
Each of the three main questions in themselves could sustain not merely one whole book but a mini-book publishing flurry of titles. To condense credible arguments over all three into one relatively slim and easy to follow volume is tribute to the Duncan, even if some readers may choose to agree with less than all three of the main points of his case.