Global Economic Downturn: Crisis of Political Economy
Classical political economists like Adam Smith or David Ricardo never used the term “economy” by itself. They always used the term “political economy.” For classical economists, it was impossible to understand politics without economics or economics without politics. The two fields are certainly different but they are also intimately linked. The use of the term “economy” by itself did not begin until the late 19th century. Smith understood that while an efficient market would emerge from individual choices, those choices were framed by the political system in which they were made, just as the political system was shaped by economic realities. For classical economists, the political and economic systems were intertwined, each dependent on the other for its existence.
The current economic crisis is best understood as a crisis of political economy. Moreover, it has
to be understood as a global crisis enveloping the United States, Europe and China that has different details but one overriding theme: the relationship between the political order and economic life. On a global scale, or at least for most of the world’s major economies, there is a crisis of political economy. Let’s consider how it evolved.
Origin of the Crisis
As we all know, the origin of the current financial crisis was the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States. To be more precise, it originated in a financial system generating paper assets whose value depended on the price of housing. It assumed that the price of homes would always rise and, at the very least, if the price fluctuated the value of the paper could still be determined. Neither proved to be true. The price of housing declined and, worse, the value of the paper assets became indeterminate. This placed the entire American financial system in a state of gridlock and the crisis spilled over into Europe, where many financial institutions had purchased the paper as well.
From the standpoint of economics, this was essentially a financial crisis: who made or lost money and how much. From the standpoint of political economy it raised a different question: the legitimacy of the financial elite. Think of a national system as a series of subsystems – political, economic, military and so on. Then think of the economic system as being divisible into subsystems – various corporate verticals with their own elites, with one of the verticals being the financial system. Obviously, this oversimplifies the situation, but I’m doing that to make a point. One of the systems, the financial system, failed, and this failure was due to decisions made by the financial elite. This created a massive political problem centered not so much on confidence in any particular financial instrument but on the competence and honesty of the financial elite itself. A sense emerged that the financial elite was either stupid or dishonest or both. The idea was that the financial elite had violated all principles of fiduciary, social and moral responsibility in seeking its own personal gain at the expense of society as a whole.
Fair or not, this perception created a massive political crisis. This was the true systemic crisis, compared to which the crisis of the financial institutions was trivial. The question was whether the political system was capable not merely of fixing the crisis but also of holding the perpetrators responsible.