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Trouble in store

18 July 2012 By Edward Hadas

There is only one good, proven, way to organise a political economy in the modern world – and that’s via the Big Honest State. Right now, one key aspect of the BHS is under serious threat.

What is the BHS? As the name suggests, it is large. In quantity, the various organs of a BHS account for 30-60 percent of GDP. In quality, the state dominates education, health care, industrial policy and the financial system. The BHS is also trustworthy. Its official bureaucracies are expected to be, and mostly are, meritocratic and dedicated to the common good. A BHS, though, is far from the total government of fascists and communists. One of the defining facets of the BHS, indeed, is that it works alongside a vibrant non-state sector.

The basic BHS model has been adopted in all advanced economies and it is aspired to by most leaders in almost every developing country. Universal adoption is easy to explain: the BHS works well. It has delivered a reasonable mix of prosperity, protection and social support. It has proved remarkably sturdy. Since the Second World War, no BHS country has had collapsed into chaos, become impoverished or suffered fundamental social breakdown. The system is also popular with voters, even if many government-hating Americans hate to admit it.

However, the BHS is vulnerable to moral decay. It relies on professional integrity and hard work. Such virtues are easily lost, either through corruption or a more insidious failure of will. It is the latter, what old fashioned philosophers called spiritual sloth, that threatens the monetary side of the BHS. Until recently, the BHS was able to produce money which basically kept its value and a financial system which served the common good. If politicians and regulators don’t wake up fairly soon, these accomplishments could be lost.

There are four threats. The first is fiscal laxity. Politicians around the world have become blasé about deficits. To be fair, the record deficits have as yet done no obvious harm and the mechanism which can turn unbalanced government spending into high inflation is poorly understood. Nonetheless, the lack of concern is disturbing, and the willingness of many American politicians to drive the government to the edge of a fiscal cliff is positively alarming.

The second danger is monetary incompetence. Again, the economic effects of years of zero policy interest rates and haphazard bank subsidies are basically unknown. The theory is inadequate and the current experiment is unprecedented. However, after four years of extreme policy it is intellectually lazy to assume, as most central bankers seem to, that all will be well soon enough.

The third risk is only regional, but the region in question holds great practical and symbolic importance. The euro zone has the world’s second largest GDP, only 15 percent smaller than that of the United States, and it is the spiritual home of the BHS. If the politicians and central bankers there fail to keep the single currency together, global economic chaos would be hard to avoid.

Finally, the BHS model could be undermined by poor management of international economic relations. Trade imbalances are still large enough to create political tension, through shifts of employment, financial havoc, and the foolish investment of the funds created by surpluses. Then there are investors who move money in and out of countries at whim, distorting the economic landscape.

How dangerous are these interlocking threats to the BHS model? A collection of “should” statements supports an optimistic judgement. Politicians around the world should be able to manage their budgets back towards balance. Central bankers should be able to manage the return to normal interest rates. Euro zone leaders should manage to unify the rest of their BHS enough to support the single currency. With a little less intellectual laziness about the virtues of free trade, it should be possible to manage cross-border economic in a more responsible way.

In addition, even if developed countries wallow in financial decay, China, Brazil and other developing countries should continue to strive for something like a BHS model. If anything, they should learn from the failures of others. Indeed, everyone should be studying history and everyone should be trying to find ways to make the financial system as solid as the other parts of the BHS – although sloth also seems to be creeping into the management of health care and retirement expense.

Perhaps the best reason for confidence is the scale of the problem. In comparison to the wealth of most of the countries currently stuck in a financial quagmire, the losses involved in reconstituting a solid and sustainable financial system are modest. They should be manageable.

Unfortunately, there is a very persuasive reason for pessimism – a shortage of the virtue ready to oppose to the vice of sloth. None of these “should” statements can possibly come true unless there is far more political fortitude than has been seen for many years.


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