I thoroughly enjoyed reading The End of Influence by Stephen Cohen and Brad DeLong.* For one thing, it’s not specifically about the financial crisis (although that does play a role), so you don’t have to read the nineteenth explanation of how a CDO works or what a NINJA loan is. For another, it’s short–only 150 pages, and small pages at that–and easy to read, so it will probably jump your queue of books to read and you can cross it off your list in just a couple of hours.
Despite being a short book, it’s about a lot of things. The most obvious is the much-bemoaned fact that the U.S. is now a huge debtor nation and is unlikely to maintain its status as the world’s importer of last resort indefinitely, and what that all means. The most central, however, is probably the global shift away economic neoliberalism–the idea that governments should withdraw from the economic sphere and allow free market forces to work their magic, symbolized by the recent effort to convince sovereign wealth funds to behave like ordinary, return-seeking institutional investors (see pages 85-89). Cohen and DeLong show that the last few decades of neoliberalism are really just a historical blip and that most of history–including most of the post-World War II–saw plenty of government intervention, even industrial policy, in countries like France (TGV, Airbus, etc.) and the United States (via the Pentagon). They see a resurgence of industrial policy all around the world (although it never really went away–see China, for example), and even if it often ends badly, it is something we will have to reckon with.
If the book isn’t centrally about the financial sector and the financial crisis, though, they still have a minor starring role. In their account, the recent period in which developing countries wanted to lend us their dollar surpluses gave us a great opportunity: “It gave America the opportunity, while absorbing more and more routine manufacturing from Asia at the expense of those same industries at home,” to shift its own economy into what should have been the ‘sectors of the future.’” Instead, though we shifted our economy into finance. “The freedom of action that the United States enjoyed because it had the money was squandered” (pp. 12-13).
Cohen and DeLong recount (in admirably condensed form) the charges generally leveled against the financial sector, but they also point out something that often is overlooked:
“[Finance] had achieved the cultural dominance that so often goes hand-in-hand with economic dominance: its gigantism and ubiquity, its tonic impact on the entire economy, its fabulous success, the sheer gushing of money, its generous funding fo elected politicians, its seconding of its top executives to top posts throughout the regulatory apparatus of government, and its simple and powerful message of ‘let the market work its magic.’ It was so easy” (pp. 112-13).
Cohen and DeLong do not make the financial sector the sole villain in their story. Another one is inequality: “Faced with stagnant incomes, seeing themselves falling behind those above them on the income scale, and spending their evenings watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, what did the average American family do?” (p. 107). They worked more, and they borrowed more.
So where do we go from here? Although their book is all about the decline of U.S. financial power, Cohen and DeLong are far from prophets of doom. America simply needs to become a little bit more like a normal country–only a little, because we are still the world’s largest economy and its only superpower. “A drop in the value of the dollar, even a big drop, is not the end of the American economy” (p. 100). We don’t have as much weight to throw around in international meetings. I agree.
This is me talking now, not Cohen and DeLong: There is a lot of hand-wringing over global imbalances, but the answer is quite simple: the dollar needs to fall. Imported goods will get more expensive, but domestic goods won’t, and we’ll adapt. We won’t be able to dictate to the world as much as we used to, but frankly that’s a good thing, given how many other parts of the world we have messed up in our history and how wrong our extreme free market ideas turned out to be. In the long, long, long term, maybe the United States will become just another country–a larger, somewhat richer version of Canada, or Belgium, or Denmark, or something like that. We could do a lot worse.
* Which I bought myself, two days before someone offered me a free copy.
By James Kwak