After the crisis: Five questions

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?

If one of us fails, everyone suffers…

Trillions of taxpayers’ dollars were needed to save the very institutions that provoked the worst financial crisis in 60 years. The bailouts seem to have succeeded, but to stop the same thing happening again, the structure of the global financial system has to be rethought, notably to deal with the risks linked to counterparty failure and contagion.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal,  Adrian Blundell-Wignall of the OECD puts forward a proposal to contain risk by addressing what banks actually do. The proposal does not require draconian Glass-Steagall divestment of securities businesses from commercial banks. But it does require some important structural changes for banking conglomerates to make sure that the failure of one does not mean trouble for all.

Useful links:  The Financial Crisis: Reform and Exit Strategies

Where your money goes

Most OECD countries have seen huge rises in public debt during the crisis. That’s going to have to be repaid eventually, which is going to mean higher taxes or lower spending or – more likely – both. So, government spending priorities are set to be a hot topic over the next few years. To get a sense of current priorities, take a look at this interactive graphic on the OECD Factblog.