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Pain without Purpose

BERKELEY – Three times in my life (so far), I have concluded that my understanding of the world was substantially wrong. The first time was after the passage in 1994 of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), when the flow of finance to Mexico to build factories to export to the largest consumer market in the world was overwhelmed by the flow of capital headed to the United States in search of a friendlier investment climate. The result was the Mexican peso crisis of later that year (which I, as US Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, had to help contain).

My second epiphany came in the fall and winter of 2008, when it became clear that large banks had no control over either their leverage or their derivatives books, and that the world’s central banks had neither the power nor the will to maintain aggregate demand in the face of a large financial crisis.

The third moment is now. Today, we face a nominal demand shortfall of 8% relative to the pre-recession trend, no signs of gathering inflation, and unemployment rates in the North Atlantic region that are at least three percentage points higher than any credible estimate of the sustainable rate. And yet, even though politicians who fail to safeguard economic growth and high employment tend to lose the next election, leaders in Europe and the US are clamoring to enact policies that would reduce output and employment in the short run.

Am I missing something here?