Book review: “Shutdown”, by Adam Tooze
On some of these questions, Tooze suggests a point of view, in particular his belief that constraints on spending are artificial. He writes that the scale of public spending and central bank intervention in 2020 “confirmed the essential ideas of economic doctrines … such as modern monetary theory.” He quotes John Maynard Keynes – “Whatever we can really do we can afford” – and concludes: “There is no fundamental macroeconomic limit that anyone can discern.” On this point, we do not agree. Not with the scale of the coronavirus response (or the potential scale of future crisis responses), but with the idea that it forever avoids the need for responsible fiscal policy. You don’t have to know where the line is to believe there is a good chance there is.
But resolving political debates is not Tooze’s goal. On the contrary, it largely leaves the facts to highlight the questions it raises. For whose benefit do we mobilize the cogs of the State? Who is left out? Do these choices contribute to the fracture of our policy? Was 2020 “the death of the orthodoxy that had prevailed in economic policy since the 1980s? Can the democratic and decentralized vision of the West finally triumph over China’s “ruthlessly efficient regime”? Can American democracy survive and can the American government function in our “disjointed state”?
And, most urgently, what will happen next time? Whether it’s another pandemic, or another deadly wave of it; nuclear proliferation by rogue states or non-state actors; extreme weather or simply the irreversible and existential threat of climate change, the next crisis is approaching every day. As Tooze writes, “These are the ones who for decades have warned of systemic megarisks who have been overwhelmingly justified.” The first of these questions: why do we intervene and for whom? – is perhaps the most important. When the pandemic threatened to cause economic damage so widespread that the global financial system itself was in jeopardy, it was (comparatively) easy to mobilize Western governments to respond with an equally broad economic policy. The bipartisan CARES law and its progeny had mind-boggling scope and a dearth of conditions. In Europe, the usual rules on state-funded aid have also been suspended.
At the same time, the exception proves the rule. It took an overwhelming threat to the institutions at the heart of our financial system to produce the first significant relief in decades for those living in poverty. The coronavirus was ‘wartime’ and it remains impossible to imagine similar spending in peacetime to tackle the entrenched inequalities that so threaten our country’s future – and, as Tooze points out, have dramatically worsened the pandemic risks for the less fortunate. The question of who benefits and to whom we want to benefit, is a crucial question which, in my opinion, should underlie all political questions. Tooze suggests that it is often ignored because American political debates are limited by inherited orthodoxy. This is at the heart of his implicit critique of traditional concerns about fiscal largesse and it is directly linked to our political paralysis.
Such a concern is certainly correct – although some readers may disagree on the details – but the great service of this book is that it challenges us to consider the ways in which our institutions and systems, and the assumptions , positions and the divisions that underpin them, leave us ill-prepared for the next crisis. You don’t have to believe that an endless cycle of deficit-financed spending, offset by monetary intervention, is sustainable to believe that the scale of spending typically envisioned to deal with an existential threat like climate change. , or a threat like poverty, is woefully inadequate. You can just believe that we have to pay for it.