In good times inefficient systems can survive. Buffet’s comment that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” applies to “countries” as well as companies. While the debt tide may not have actually turned, it is in the process of turning.
The law of diminishing returns applies to debt as much as it does to other things that can increase GDP. Diminishing returns to debt have well and truly set in across the Western world. If it is not already, its impact on GDP will soon be negative. The instant markets recognized this the new paradigm will be born. A new normal will then begin its reign.
Time is running out for the Western welfare state. We will soon see who is swimming naked. Our apparent fair and progressive system is about to be revealed as but one more path to perdition. A slower less direct path than some, but the destination no less certain. Assorted schools of economics will be consigned to the dustbin of history as their vacuous ideology is revealed for what it is. Alas they will rise again in perverted form, when we have forgotten our past and times again appear to suit them.
At this unraveling of the Keynesian concept it seems apt to cite a Keynesian:
“To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes. Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter. Weeks, months or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery. (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly enough, feels no loss. There is a net increase in psychic wealth.) At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in – or more precisely not in – the country’s business and banks. This inventory – it should perhaps be called the bezzle – amounts at any moment to many millions of dollars. It also varies in size with the business cycle. In good times people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful. But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more. Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases rapidly.”
John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash of 1929
It is also apt that Galbraith was wrong in this as in so much else. Embezzlement is not alone among the various forms of larceny in having a time parameter. The Western welfare state also has a time parameter. It is simply the public mirror of private sector embezzlement. As with so many government failures when compared to their private sector equivalent, its effect will be worse. It is likely to be maintained for longer, be more pervasive and have far worse consequences. Our welfare state may have made us feel wealthier than we were for years or decades, but it can not change reality.
The reality is that embezzlement lies at the heart of our welfare state. Welfare recipients are paid with taxes from workers on the promise that those workers will be similarly treated in their time of need. With fewer workers and ever more welfare recipients there is only one way it can end, absent prodigious productivity increases. Alas crony capitalism is not associated with rapid rises in productivity. Neither is socialism or traditional and tribal socioeconomic structures.
We need capitalist incentives to maintain any semblance of our expected way of life. Advocate for it now. All it takes for evil to triumph is for the good to remain silent.