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Books > Business & Money > Economics > Economic Conditions > B00A1O4L46
  1. Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility
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  2. Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility

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One of our foremost economic thinkers challenges a cherished tenet of today’s financial orthodoxy: that spending less, refusing to forgive debt, and shrinking government—“austerity”—is the solution to a persisting economic crisis like ours or Europe’s, now in its fifth year.

Since the collapse of September 2008, the conversation about economic recovery has centered on the question of debt: whether we have too much of it, whose debt to forgive, and how to cut the deficit. These questions dominated the sound bites of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the fiscal-cliff debates, and the perverse policies of the European Union.

Robert Kuttner makes the most powerful argument to date that these are the wrong questions and that austerity is the wrong answer. Blending economics with historical contrasts of effective debt relief and punitive debt enforcement, he makes clear that universal belt-tightening, as a prescription for recession, defies economic logic. And while the public debt gets most of the attention, it is private debts that crashed the economy and are sandbagging the recovery—mortgages, student loans, consumer borrowing to make up for lagging wages, speculative shortfalls incurred by banks. As Kuttner observes, corporations get to use bankruptcy to walk away from debts. Homeowners and small nations don’t. Thus, we need more public borrowing and investment to revive a depressed economy, and more forgiveness and reform of the overhang of past debts.

In making his case, Kuttner uncovers the double standards in the politics of debt, from Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe’s campaign for debt forgiveness in the seventeenth century to the two world wars and Bretton Woods. Just as debtors’ prisons once prevented individuals from surmounting their debts and resuming productive life, austerity measures shackle, rather than restore, economic growth—as the weight of past debt crushes the economy’s future potential. Above all, Kuttner shows how austerity serves only the interest of creditors—the very bankers and financial elites whose actions precipitated the collapse. Lucid, authoritative, provocative—a book that will shape the economic conversation and the search for new solutions.  

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Robert Kuttner
Kindle Edition
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

This book gets to the truth that DEBT is the TAPROOT of our economic disease. It goes beyond the self-serving platitudes that the political parties have been espousing in their nostrums to recover us from the Great Recession. As author Robert Kuttner points out, the economy is declining for two fundamental reasons that go beyond political plattitudes:

1. Too few Americans are able to find work. The jobs of their parents' generation have either been outsourced overseas or eliminated by corporate cost-cutting enabled by mergers and acquisitions and improvements in technology and automation. If people don't have jobs they don't have money to buy anything or pay taxes. If people don't buy anything the economy fails. If they don't pay taxes the government fails.

2. We have an unpayable debt burden weighting us down. Our public and private debt was structured according to the parameters of full employment, rising wages, and an economy growing at 3% to 4% each year... Read more
Author Kuttner contends that our overall perspectives on debt have now become impediments to economic revival. The alleged benefits of fiscal discipline to business confidence will not materialize because businesses will hesitate to invest in the resulting depressed economy. Moral claims keep getting conflated with practical economic questions, and our debates focus obsessively on the wrong debts - public, instead of private (student debt, underwater mortgages). Further, he points out that rising public deficits did not cause the recent financial collapse, rather the collapse caused the higher deficits. Reality - private debt caused the crash and prolongs its aftermath. Our children's prospects depend on whether the economy can product better job opportunities and less private debt in the immediate future, not on eg. projected finances for Social Security a decade from now.

Kuttner also sees double standards in our attitudes towards debt relief - corporations are allowed to... Read more
This is a very hopeful book. It rightly points out that we were able to recover quickly from WWII. By we I mean everybody. Germany, for God's sake, recovered nicely in the 50's. Who would have thought? So if we can recover from the great depression/ WWII, the future is not hopeless. Here's a quote from the book that boils it all down:

Sooner or later (later unless we drastically revise prevailing assumptions and policies), recovery will occur. And at that point, the Fed will indeed allow rates to rise. Investors locked into low-rate long-term bonds of the Bernanke era will share the same fate as their counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s: they will have negative real rates of return. But there are worse things than a period of negative real interest rates. One is a prolonged depression. A key question today is whether gradual liquidation of government debt using the several strategies of repressing finance is better than the alternative of prolonged economic... Read more
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