Thursday, May 26, 2011

There's only one thing more annoying than the kind of post Mike Konczal just put up

You know know, the "What does [recent popular culture phenomena] tell us about [______ theory or principle]?" post. Whether it's an embarrassing reality show or a celebrity's public meltdown, someone on the internet will a pretentious excuse to talk about it.

But what's even more annoying is when someone like Mike Konczal not only writes one of these ("What can the movie Bridesmaids tell us about the Recession and Keynesian Economics?"), but actually makes it good enough that I feel compelled to quote it at length.

This is the one year forward survival rate for businesses that have launched in the previous year. So a business that launched between March 2008 and March 2009 has only a 76.3% chance of being around in March 2010. As you can see, it’s actually lower than that. It’s really hard to open a business in a recession.

This is an important point that goes against the “creative destruction” view of recessions. Those who believe that kind of classical theory think that the “work” of a recession is to let the economy recalculate what goods and services are needed going forward, while also letting the virtuous and hard working purge the incompetent and the lazy out of the system. But recessions are terrible for new entrants! Good ideas or bad ideas, who wants to launch a business in a climate with 10% unemployment? Even if you are the best manager, even if your idea is killer, if all your customers can barely pay their own bills it is unlikely that your work will pay off. The realization that this depressed state could perpetuate itself was an important breakthrough for macroeconomics. The government needs to step in to jump start the economy so that the normal trucking and bartering and allocation of a market economy can function.

If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines, you’ll note that the political economy is all wrong about what needs to be done to fix this. Most of the major discussions have been about how to make the established business community feel more encouraged. From writing regulatory rules to slashing the social safety net to extending high-end tax cuts, our hopes seem entirely to rest on whether or not we can get millionaires to work an additional 10 minutes and feel properly appreciated rather than having customers with money in their pockets available for new businesses.

The Polish economist Michal Kalecki wrote an excellent 1943 essay called Political Aspects of Full Employment that warned us about this problem. If during a recession and a weak economy the government doesn’t step up to ensure full employment, then suddenly the business community has powerful indirect control over the economy. Governments give credits and rebates for established companies to expand, businesses spend the money on M&A and consolidation and, most importantly, incumbents expand and entrench their powers. This kind of confidence building isn’t going to help a small bakery that’s trying to open.

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