The old economic orthodoxies are finally coming undone. This really matters

A wealth tax to help pay for the cost of fighting the pandemic. An international agreement to prevent a race to the bottom on corporate tax. An insistence that recovery from the second severe crisis in just over a decade should be green and inclusive. A conviction that governments should spend whatever it takes to fend off the threat of mass unemployment, paying no heed to the size of budget deficit.

There’s nothing startlingly new about any of these ideas, which have been knocking around for years, if not decades. What is different is that these are no longer just proposals put forward by progressive thinktanks or marginalised Keynesians in academia, but form part of an agenda being pursued by the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury under Joe Biden’s presidency.

This matters. From the 1980s onwards, the IMF and the US Treasury forged what became known as the Washington consensus: a set of beliefs that was foisted on any country that ran into economic difficulties and came looking for help. The one-size-fits-all approach involved cutting public spending and taxes, and privatisation, to create incentives for risk-taking entrepreneurs, and making inflation the overriding goal of economic policy. These policies inevitably caused pain, but it was thought the “tough love” approach was worth it.

It has been quite a different story in the buildup to the IMF’s spring meeting this week. Biden’s fast-tracking of a $1.9tn stimulus package through Congress, including direct payments to struggling American families, was significant in two ways. First, at about 10% of the annual output of the US economy, it was much bigger than the emergency support provided by Barack Obama after the global financial crisis of 2008. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it contained no promises of future deficit reduction. Austerity has no part in the thinking of the Biden administration, and nor does the idea that demand fuelled by borrowing inevitably leads to higher inflation.

The next phase in Biden’s plan is to spend a further $2tn on rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. This will be funded by reversing some of Donald Trump’s cut to corporate tax rates, which will be opposed by Republicans in Congress but not by the IMF. When asked about the projected increase this week, the fund’s economic counsellor, Gita Gopinath, said Trump’s corporate tax cut had not done much to boost investment. Moreover, Gopinath was positively enthusiastic about the idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate, something the US has traditionally been wary of but which it now supports.

For the past year, the IMF has been trying to increase the financial firepower of its member countries through currency reserves known as special drawing rights. Trump’s concern that Iran would secure these rights meant there could be no progress while he was in the White House. Under Biden’s treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, the deadlock has been broken and a $650bn special drawing rights allocation has now been announced.

If the old Washington consensus believed in small states, low taxes and balanced budgets, the new Washington consensus believes in activist governments, inclusive growth and a green new deal. Until relatively recently, the only outpost of the multilateral system that supported such ideas was the UN’s trade and development arm in Geneva.

That is no longer the case. This week’s regular IMF update on the state of the global economy emphasises how the pandemic has made pre-existing inequalities worse. That’s true within countries, where the virus and its economic consequences have been toughest on the poor, the young, women and ethnic minorities. It is also true between countries, with the central banks and finance ministries in advanced nations having far more scope to mitigate the impact of lockdowns than those in poorer parts of the world.

Both the IMF and its sister organisation, the World Bank, are clear that there can be no final victory in the battle against Covid-19 until everybody is vaccinated. The problem is not simply that developing countries lack sufficient doses; it is that their health systems are underpowered and lack the trained staff to deliver treatments. Similarly, if the world is to make the transition to a zero-carbon future, developing countries need to be included. That means extra financial resources. All this at a time when fears of a new developing-country debt crisis are rife.

Make no mistake, the IMF is still no soft touch. The conditions imposed as the price for financial support are often draconian, and critics note the disconnect between the right-on rhetoric of the IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, and the policies imposed by her organisation’s missions to struggling countries.

Meanwhile, pushback against what Biden has been doing has come from both left and right. Some of the president’s critics accuse him of not being nearly radical enough; others are convinced that all the money creation by the US Federal Reserve and the deficit spending by the US Treasury will inevitably mean much higher inflation. Conjuring up the ghost of economist Milton Friedman, they say it will all eventually end in tears.

For now, though, it is the Friedmanites who look marginalised, with the pandemic accelerating a shift in economic thinking that has been gestating over the past decade. Biden’s approach to running the economy – spending freely and taking a tough line with China – has more in common with that of his immediate predecessor than it does with Obama.

The shift in attitudes has partly been caused by a lack of results. Austerity did not lead to the surge in private investment and faster growth that was promised. Instead, the 2010s were a lost decade of stagnant living standards, which explains why Bidenomics is a big hit with American voters.

Crises also encourage experimentation. Furlough schemes to subsidise the wages of those unable to work are not the same as a basic income, but they are similar enough to get people used to the idea. Necessity rather than ideology explains why Rishi Sunak has spent more than £400bn in the past year on emergency support programmes in the UK, but a Labour chancellor would have done much the same.

There is a sense in which history is repeating itself. It took more than a decade after the end of the first world war for the realisation to dawn that the gold standard was finished. It was the second rather than the first oil shock that opened the door to the economics of the new right in the 1980s. Those who thought that the financial crisis would result in a challenge to the Washington consensus were not wrong. The old nostrums are indeed being questioned. It has just taken 10 years longer than they were expecting, that’s all.

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