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le 25 octobre 2012
Krugman makes it clear in the kind of prose that even middle school students can appreciate that what we need now is more spending not less. The problem for most of us is that we think about the US government's finances in the way we think about our household or small business finances. If we spend more than we take in we are in trouble. However the US economy as a whole doesn't work that way and neither does the government. As Krugman observes in reference to why we are still in what he calls (variously) "a slump," "a great recession," and in the title, "a depression": "...your spending is my income and my income is your spending." He asks, "if ordinary citizens are tightening their belts--spending less--and the government also spends less, who is going to buy American products?" (p. 28)

So the solution to our economic problem, Krugman insists, is not austerity (which might work for households) but the opposite. We need the government to spend money to create jobs so that people can buy other people's goods and services. We especially need some infrastructure building here at home instead of in the Middle East.

"Collectively," Krugman asserts, "the world's residents are trying to buy less stuff than they are capable of producing, to spend less than they earn. That's possible for an individual, but not for the world as a whole. And the result is the devastation all around us." (p. 30)

The other thing to understand about governments, especially huge governments like the US with a $15-trillion a year economy is that government intervention can smooth out a crisis. This is because the US will not run out of people to buy its debt since its tax base is so huge that the risk of default is miniscule. When the economy gets back on its feet tax revenues will increase and the debts will be paid. Well, not paid in full. That is unlikely to ever happen, since it makes little sense. To borrow to buy something you don't need like luxuries is not wise. (Wars are usually luxuries for governments.) But to borrow to help grow the economy is a fine investment. Sound companies borrow because borrowing allows them to take advantage of their knowhow in producing goods and services that people will buy allowing the company to make money. Borrowing to party big time to impress the neighbors or your girlfriend grows no wealth. (Wars are sometimes shock and awe parties for heads of state looking to stay in power.)

Aside from offering the solution to our economic woes in simple, straightforward terms, Krugman also does an outstanding job of explaining how we got into this mess in the first place. I've read several books and a number of articles explaining the mortgage crisis, the "too big to fail" bank welfare fraud and the derivatives hustles, but nowhere is this spelled out in as clear as fashion as Krugman does here. He is simply the best economist writing for an informed non-professional public at work today. This is not to mention that he is also a Nobel Prize winning economist.

As for wages being too high, Krugman writes:

"...today it's often argued that more labor market `flexibility'--a euphemism for wage cuts--is what we really need" (to cure high unemployment). "But while an individual worker can improve his chances of getting a job by accepting a lower wage, because that makes him more attractive compared to other workers, an across-the-board cut in wages leaves everyone in the same place, except for one thing: it reduces everyone's income, but the level of debt remains the same. So more flexibility in wages (and prices) would just make matters worse." (pp. 52-53)

I think the average person, even the fairly well educated average person, doesn't really understand how banks work and how they make money. I didn't until I was well into my fifties. Certainly the core of the Tea Party doesn't, although some of the supporters of financial institution deregulation do and that is precisely why they want deregulation. Here's how Krugman explains this in part:

First he notes that the Glass-Steagall act of 1933 primarily did two things. It "established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) which guaranteed (and still guarantees) depositors against loss if their bank should happened to fail" (p. 59) Additionally, "Glass-Steagall limited the amount of risk banks could take. This was especially necessary given the establishment of deposit insurance, which could have created enormous `moral hazard.' That is, it could have created a situation in which bankers could raise lots of money, no questions asked--hey, it's all government-insured--then put that money into high-risk, high stakes investments, figuring that it was heads they win, tails the taxpayers lose."

Krugman then reminds us that this is exactly what happened during the savings and loan scandal of the Reagan administration. Likewise, the big investments banks knew during the later years of the George W. Bush administration that they were in fact too big to fail and the government in order to prevent a massive financial meltdown would have to bail them out if their Pandora's Box of risky derivatives (and other "financial instruments") went toxic. This knowledge gave them free rein to gamble like drunken sailors--well, that knowledge and the (how sweet it is!) deregulation of investment banking that took place primarily in the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Toxic those gambles went and both the Bush and the Obama administrations found themselves with no choice but to bail the banks out lest the whole economy come tumbling down.

One of the results of deregulation has been the enormous increase in the wealth of the top one percent (yes, those people) and what has happened to the real income of most of the rest of us. Krugman has two charts on page 74 showing the growth in household income from 1947 to the present. While the rich have indeed gotten richer the average family has seen its income growth "slowed to a crawl."

But it's even worse than Krugman makes it appear. That's because the only reason middle income Americans have been able to tread water is because many of those families became two income families. In other words the head of household's real income has actually fallen.

Another factor in the actual decline in the average worker's buying power and the amazing increase in CEO compensation comes about, Krugman suggests, because worker's unions have lost a lot of their power. "It's surely relevant here to note the sharp decline in unionization during the 1980s, which removed one major player that might have protested huge paychecks for executives." (p. 82)

One more point. Krugman argues that the harsh austerity measures currently being acted out in Greece and other places in Europe are not only mistaken but based on a kind of "morality play" mentality. We all understand how it feels when our neighbors get away with something like buying houses they can't afford. We don't want the government to bail them out. They were fiscally irresponsible and should have to pay the piper. However even if that is true it doesn't help us by administering punishment in the form taking place in Greece, Ireland, Spain, and elsewhere. Our standard of living will suffer if we place our desire to punish others ahead of our doing what is necessary to grow the economy. It would help a lot if somehow some of the mortgage indebtedness were to be forgiven, is what Krugman suggests.

In short, there's a tremendous amount of economic wisdom in this book, so much so I would recommend it as a supplement to a college macroeconomics text. You'll find that a number of the sometimes difficult ideas in those texts are illuminated almost incidentally by Krugman as he explains how we got into this mess and how we can get out. I wish this were required reading for high school students and the members of the Congress of the United States.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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Krugman's book is surprisingly a good read where he tackles the economic situations in both the US and Europe. His analysis is heavily biased towards liberal ideology but he has the honesty to admit that it is the case, unlike many unscrupulous commentators/experts. I like the casual style of its writings and the time he spent debunking commonplace ideas linked to the discourses used since the start of the crisis.

The central idea of this book is that fiscal austerity is not the adequate response to an economy subjected to a liquidity trap, even if the latter has a huge budget deficit. As a self-confessed Keynesian, he recommends bigger, immediate and globally coordinated fiscal stimuli.

As to Europe, his opinion is clear-cut: he was skeptical, he still is and he thinks he will remain so. Its discussion of the euro zone troubles is not original in itself, but the quality of his argument combined to the harsh reality of the facts harbinger of a turbulent future for the nations using the single currency.

In brief, I might not be an economist but I enjoyed the book, I found the topics engaging and the discussions to the point.
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le 14 août 2012
Les lecteurs qui connaissent Krugman retrouveront ici son image favorite : la crèche parentale des Sweeney’s.

Dans la crèche, les parents peuvent échanger une heure de garde d’enfant aujourd’hui contre une heure de garde d’enfant plus tard. C’est tout ; et c’est déjà quelque chose. Lorsque les parents (« pour des raisons dans lesquelles il n’est pas nécessaire d’entrer ici ») décident de thésauriser des tickets, l’économie de la crèche part en vrille. Ils offrent plus de gardes aujourd’hui pour pouvoir confier leurs enfants à la crèche plus tard, malheureusement il n’y a pas assez de demande. Dans le cas de la crèche, les gérants décident d’imprimer plus de tickets, ce qui permet aux parents de les thésauriser jusqu’au point où ils offrent autant de services de garde qu’ils en demandent. On est sortis de la spirale déflationniste.

Mais dans la crise actuelle, un autre paramètre doit être pris en compte. Les taux sont à zéro et imprimer de la monnaie n’a plus d’effet sur la demande. Les parents veulent garder des enfants aujourd’hui et personne (eux-mêmes) n’a besoin de leurs services. Les tickets sont thésaurisés à l’infini sans pour autant rétablir l’équilibre entre l’offre et la demande.

Comme tout modèle, celui-ci simplifie la réalité en faisant abstraction de certains paramètres. Il en retient un : la demande de tickets, c’est-à-dire la demande de monnaie, ou encore la « préférence pour liquidité ». Puis Krugman croit utile d’ajouter un deuxième paramètre qui ne figure pas dans l’exemple de la crèche : la préférence pour des services de garde d’enfant demain relativement à un service de garde aujourd’hui, c’est-à-dire la préférence temporelle ou taux d’intérêt.

Conclusion (provisoire) : en temps normal, la planche à billets suffit ; en temps de crise, le déficit public s’impose. Sinon, les taux resteront à zéro et l’investissement ne repartira pas, et la demande avec lui. C’est la conclusion keynésienne.

Oui, mais…

Ce que Krugman ne dit PAS, ce sont les hypothèses implicites (mais cruciales) de son modèle, et les paramètres qu’il a omis. Il fait des hypothèses et des simplifications, soit !, mais encore faudrait-il en avertir le lecteur.

1) Pas de prix relatifs : la crèche produit un seul service, qui se décline en garde d’enfants aujourd’hui et garde d’enfants plus tard. Mais le prix, c’est-à-dire le ratio auquel on peut échanger un garde aujourd’hui contre une garde plus tard, ce prix est figé. 1 heure = 1 heure. Certains parents seraient prêts à garder deux heures aujourd’hui pour bénéficier d’une heure en retour. Cela résoudrait le problème, mais le système ne le permet pas. Dans l’économie keynésienne cela se traduit par : « les prix sont rigides à la baisse » et il y a surproduction générale par opposition à excès dans certains secteurs et pénurie dans d’autres. Krugman n’en dit pas un mot. Pourtant, si les travailleurs au chômage doivent retrouver du travail dans un autre secteur, ce n’est pas du tout la même chose que de revenir dans leur dernier emploi.

2) Pas de capital : le service de la crèche ne peut pas être stocké, congelé, mémorisé. La seule manière d’avoir une garde d’enfants demain est que quelqu’un garde vos enfants (on n’a pas encore de robots gardes d’enfants). Par conséquent, si toute la crèche désire épargner, ce n’est pas prévu, pas possible. Mais dans l’économie réelle, l’épargne est vitale, et la fabrication de biens durables, d’usines, etc. est créatrice d’emplois tout autant que la fabrication des biens de consommation (pensez : esquimo ou marshmallow). Dans la crèche, si les gens veulent épargner, ils se retrouvent au chômage ; dans l’économie, non.

3) Pas de taux d’intérêt : dans la crèche, il est quand même possible pour un individu d’épargner, même si la crèche ne peut pas accumuler de capital dans son ensemble. Un parent peut échanger une heure de garde aujourd’hui contre une heure plus tard en thésaurisant un ticket. Sa créance sur la communauté des parents devient son capital. La dette de l’un est le capital de l’autre. Mais dans le modèle de Krugman, même ce mécanisme fonctionne mal puisque, comme on l’a vu, le prix est figé. Si un parent décide d’épargner plus, il faut que les autres parents aient simultanément – par hasard – le désir opposé. Sinon son projet échoue.

Quelle conclusion un lecteur averti peut-il tirer de ce modèle de la crèche parentale ? Que SI les hypothèses sont satisfaites, ALORS des conséquences en résultent. Plus exactement : SI il n’y a aucun prix relatifs permettant de réallouer les ressources en excès vers les secteurs en pénurie, ALORS des ressources resteront inutilisées (chômage). SI il n’y a pas de capital et que la société décide d’épargner, ALORS les gens se retrouveront au chômage. SI il n’y a pas de marchés financiers permettant d’acheter une créance sur d’autres agents, et qu’un seul individu décide d’épargner, ALORS il en résultera du chômage.

Mais dans l’économie IL Y A des prix relatifs. Il y a eu trop d’investissements dans certains secteurs et de consommation de certains produits. Le problème n’est pas nécessairement une surproduction générale, mais plutôt une surproduction à certains endroits (immobilier, automobile, finance) et une pénurie ailleurs. Dès lors, la phrase d’Andrew Mellon prend tout son sens : « Liquidez les actifs ! Liquidez le travail ! Liquidez les stocks ! » signifie que des ressources doivent être libérées dans les branches où elles sont en excès, afin de pouvoir être utilisées là où elles seraient plus utiles.

Dans l’économie réelle, IL Y A aussi du capital et des produits financiers. Un individu ou une société qui décident d’épargner, cela ne mène pas l’économie dans le gouffre comme dans le modèle simplifié à l’absurde de Krugman.

Pour toutes ces raison, le livre de Krugman est anti-pédagogique. Il prétend enseigner à son lecteur non-initié un raisonnement économique de base, ce qui serait une bonne chose. Mais en réalité il le trompe avec un sophisme, en occultant les prémices et en attirant l’attention uniquement sur la conclusion.

Krugman a écrit de bonnes choses, notamment La mondialisation n’est pas coupable. Ici, il nous livre un remake de Pourquoi les crises reviennent toujours, à la limite de la malhonnêteté intellectuelle. Comme il l’écrit lui-même candidement : « Mon but est d’exercer une pression, par l’intermédiaire d’un public informé, afin que nous changions de cap et qu’il soit mis fin à cette dépression. » Drôle de conception de l’information…
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le 3 janvier 2013
très bien vulgarisé, reprend les éléments qu'il a publié sur son blog mais en plus clair. donne des éléments pour vos discussions éclairés (pas assez de place au point de vue des partisans de l'austérité : dommage le bouquin aurait été encore plus utile !)
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le 1 juin 2012
A very interesting book on the advantages of stimulating the economy and the dangers of austerity. Basic economic theories on deficit, interest rates, demand, fiscal policies are clearly described with historical examples. Motivations of today's politicians are well explored and Krugman suggests well argued choices to get out of the mess we're in. However his model is based on constant growth of demand if correctly stimulated and the assumption that if GDP growth is greater that deficit then relative debt mechanically declines. A proven theory in a world of infinite resources but by all accounts resources are no longer infinite and therefore one day or another growth in demand may also be limited. It would be interesting to see Krugman's reply to a future world of declining fossil fuels and natural resources when the constant debt dwarfing growth model may no longer perform, bacause "past performance is no guarantee of future results".

I conclude that the book is a good enjoyable read, well written with a great sense of humor and deserves top marks.
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le 26 septembre 2012
People who have followed Krugman's writings won't learn much about his views reading this book but it's still insightful to have it all gathered in a single place. He makes a compelling case against the policies of austerity advocated by certain politicians and economists.

As usual Krugman explains his views and economic concepts in layman's terms, allowing non-economists to take part in the debate. Of course Krugman leans to the left to put it mildly, but his argument is not ideological which allows the reader to at least honestly reflect on the economic situation we are in right now and what our leaders are doing to deal with it.

Book well worth reading.
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le 18 juin 2012
I had read one chapter of this book, translated into spanish, in Krugman's blog en 'El pais'.
I found it so interesting that I needed to read the entire book, only few days after availabilty,
without waiting for the french traduction.
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