I used to be optimistic about the capacity of our political leaders and central bankers to avoid the policy mistakes that could turn the current global recession into a deep and lasting global depression. Now I’m not so sure.I don't think anyone is that sure anymore. He continues
I used to believe that the unavoidable protectionist and mercantilist rhetoric would not be matched by protectionist and mercantilist deeds. Protectionism was one of the factors that turned a US financial crisis into a global depression in the 1930s. Protectionism imposes large-scale structural sectoral dislocation, as exporters are ejected from their foreign markets and domestic producers that depend on cheap imported imports suddenly find themselves to no longer be competitive, on top of the global effective demand failure we are already suffering from.Unfortunately when we look at recent moves in the US, the rhetoric looks like it is being matched by deeds. Buiter goes on to say
I used to believe that our fiscal policy makers would, when faced with a combination of national and global disaster, manage to come up with a set of national fiscal packages that would be modulated according to national fiscal spare capacity and that would be designed not only to boost domestic and global demand but also to eliminate or at any rate reduce the underlying global imbalances that are an important part of the story of this global crisis. Instead we find the US engaged in fiscal policies that will aggravate the underlying global imbalances.On the issue of protectionism Buiter explains
The odious US House of Representatives has tagged a Buy American clause onto the Obama administration’s $819 bn (or more) fiscal stimulus bill. If this were to become law, US federal spending would, wherever possible, be restricted to goods and services produced by US companies. The main promotor of this act of global economic vandalism was the US steel industry, but other import-competing industries have lobbied also. It is quite likely that the Buy American net will be cast even more widely when the Senate gets its turn at the fiscal stimulus act.A wuss would be my guess.
There is little doubt that if the Buy American provisions of the Economic Stimulus Package were to become law, this would amount to an economic declaration of war on the rest of the world. The response of the assembled non-US finance ministers in Davos made this clear. Retaliation from the EU countries and the rest of the world would follow swiftly. Because this disastrous US Congressional actions follows so closely on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s declaration that China is manipulating its currency, it is essential that the Obama administration draw a clear line in the sand. If anything like the Buy American clause inserted by the House survives in the bill president Obama gets on his desk, he must veto it. The questionable value of the fiscal stimulus is overwhelmed by the unquestionable domestic and global harm caused by the Buy American clause. If president Obama fails to veto a protectionism-laced bill, it will be clear that we have a wuss in the White House. If such is the case, God help us all.
I have not covered all of his section on protectionism and I have missed out his sections on monetary and fiscal policy, so read the the whole article. It is provocative, to say the least.
But Buiter's conclusion?
We can go down in history as the generation that created the Great Depression of the Noughties. Just keep on beating the protectionist drums. Keep on the footdragging that prevents effective qualitative and quantitative monetary policy easing in the Eurozone and the UK. And go ahead with unsustainable fiscal stimuli in the US, the UK and elsewhere that will spook markets, push up long-term interest rates and raise the spectre of sovereign default by countries not belonging to the group of usual suspects. Yes we can! I hope we won’t.Update: The Inquiring Mind comments on the Buiter column here and also discusses a Economist article on The return of economic nationalism.