We are publishing From Crisis to Recovery, a new book from the OECD Insights series here on the blog, chapter-by-chapter. This book traces the roots and the course of the crisis, how it has affected jobs, pensions and trade, while charting the prospects for recovery.
These chapters are “works in progress” and their content will evolve. Reader comments are encouraged and will be used in shaping the book.
By way of introduction …
Perhaps no image from the Great Depression of the 1930s is more iconic than “Migrant Mother”, a photograph by Dorothea Lange. It shows a tired-looking woman staring out from under a rough canvas tent; in her arms a baby is nestling, against her shoulders two older children are resting.
The woman’s name was Florence Owens Thompson, and she was travelling with her family through California looking for work when she was spotted by Lange. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” the photographer later recalled. “I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.”
Eighty years on, it’s hard to think of a single image that bears such eloquent witness to our era’s “Great Recession”. That’s not too surprising. Even though many people have lost their jobs, and some their homes, the suffering and hardship of the 1930s have not been repeated. Indeed, as economies continue their slow recovery, it’s tempting to imagine that this slowdown will soon be forgotten – just a blip in the world’s otherwise orderly economic progression.
Tempting, but dangerous. Just as the Great Depression defined the lives of a generation and reshaped the world’s economic and political contours, the recession we’ve lived through will have long-term consequences. Some of these will be economic, some social, and some may not become fully apparent for years to come.
To think about some of these long-term impacts, this chapter poses five questions:
► What’s the long-term economic impact?
► When will government policy get back to normal?
► Has the global balance shifted?
► Can the crisis become a green opportunity?
► And, does economics need a rethink?
It isn’t just economies that have been in trouble over the past couple of years; the profession of economics has also been going through a rough patch. Critics argue that, in the wake of the financial crisis, some of the favourite ideas of mainstream economists in recent decades are now looking a little threadbare.
Few have had more to say on the subject than George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist. But rather than just complaining, Soros is trying to do something about it. He’s spent $50 million to establish The Institute for New Economic Thinking, which aims “to confront the flawed mechanisms in our economic and financial infrastructure and develop new paradigms in economic understanding.”
The institute has assembled an impressive advisory board of 26 men (the absence of women has not gone unnoticed), including five Nobel laureates (Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz are among them), leading academics such as Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, the former IMF chief economist and blogger Simon Johnson, and the former BIS economist William White, who now chairs a senior economics committee at the OECD.
The economics commentator Anatole Kaletsky, another of the institute’s advisors, describes the event as an opportunity “to reopen many of the debates closed down by unrealistic theories”.
This is not the first time Soros has challenged economic orthodoxies. The author of a number of books, he’s long questioned approaches like the efficient markets and rational expectation hypotheses, which have provided the intellectual underpinning for market liberalisation in recent decades. Instead, Soros promotes his own theory – “reflexivity” – that he believes better describes the complex interaction between realities and perceptions in markets.
Whether Soros’s theories will ever become mainstream economic thinking remains to be seen. But his commitment to fresh thinking – and deep pockets – may well ensure that The Institute for New Economic Thinking is a player in the search for economics’ next big idea.