The Agenda

Steve Randy Waldman on Gerontocracy

Though there is plenty of room for disagreement on the virtues of NGDP targeting and moderate inflation (i.e., 3-4% inflation as opposed to 0-2$), Steve Randy Waldman, author of the always-provocative Interfluidity blog, has two outstanding posts on the revealed political preference of the market democracies for protecting the interests of incumbent creditors, who tend to be old:

But the preferences of developed, aging polities — first Japan, now the United States and Europe — are obvious to a dispassionate observer. Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors. That’s it. That’s everything. All other considerations are secondary. These preferences are reflected in what the polities do, how they behave. They swoop in with incredible speed and force to bail out the financial sectors in which creditors are invested, trampling over prior norms and laws as necessary. The same preferences are reflected in what the polities omit to do. They do not pursue monetary policy with sufficient force to ensure expenditure growth even at risk of inflation. They do not purse fiscal policy with sufficient force to ensure employment even at risk of inflation. They remain forever vigilant that neither monetary ease nor fiscal profligacy engender inflation. The tepid policy experiments that are occasionally embarked upon they sabotage at the very first hint of inflation. The purchasing power of holders of nominal debt must not be put at risk. That is the overriding preference, in context of which observed behavior is rational.

I am often told that this is absurd because, after all, wouldn’t creditors be better off in a booming economy than in a depressed one? In a depression, creditors may not face unexpected inflation, sure. But they also earn next to nothing on their money, sometimes even a bit less than nothing in real terms. “Financial repression! Savers are being squeezed!” In a boom, they would enjoy positive interest rates.

That’s true. But the revealed preference of the polity is not balanced. It is not some cartoonish capitalist-class conspiracy story, where the goal is to maximize the wealth of exploiters. The revealed preference of the polity is to resist losses for incumbent creditors much more than it is to seek gains. In a world of perfect certainty, given a choice between recession and boom, the polity would choose boom. But in the real world, the polity faces great uncertainty. The policies that might engender a boom are not guaranteed to succeed. They carry with them a short-to-medium-term risk of inflation, perhaps even a significant inflation if things don’t go as planned. The polity prefers inaction to bearing this risk.

This preference is not at all difficult to understand. The ailing developed economies are plutocratic democracies. “The people” do have power, but influence is weighted in a manner correlated with wealth. The median influencer in these economies is not a billionaire, but an older citizen of some affluence who has mostly endowed her own future consumption. She would like to be richer, of course. But she is content with her present wealth, and is panicked by the prospect of becoming poorer. For such a person, the depression status quo is unfortunate but tolerable. The risks associated with expansionary policy, on the other hand, are absolutely terrifying.

In a follow-up post, Waldman defends his claims regarding the economic interests of the median influencer. He also adds the following suggestive fact regarding the age structure of several of the market democracies:

In Japan, Germany, and France, more than 50% of the total population is over 40 years old. (56.5%, 57.2%, and 50.2% respectively.) They do have children in these countries, so there are many more retirees and working-age people over 40 than there are younger workers. In the US, “only” 45.5% of the population is over 40, but I think as a polity, the United States behaves as though it is substantially older, because its unusual fecundity (for a developed economy) comes from relatively poor and disenfranchised immigrants. By comparison, China’s over-40 share is 40.3%, Brazil’s is 32.8%, and India’s is 27.1%. In the 1970s, when the US policy was, um, plainly inflationary, the over-40 share of the population was 36.1%.

Using 40-years-old as a cut-off age is arbitrary. “Retirees and near-retirees” is a vague formulation, and 40+ is admittedly a stretch. But people do not turn suddenly into zombie-like asset hoarders. As cohorts of workers age, they accumulate financial assets and become less likely to face unemployment. When they retire, their fear of unemployment disappears entirely, and their dependence upon saved assets increases. There is a continuum between the young and poor, who should prefer the risk of stimulus, and the old and rich who should not. It’d probably be best to modify my story to declare “affluent retirees and older workers” the “median influencer”.

Like Waldman, though for perhaps somewhat different reasons, I’m intrigued by the idea of “starter savings accounts.” I see these accounts as a possible alternative to traditional deposit insurance and the rigid regulation of the financial system that flows from concerns about the resulting moral hazard. 

P.S. Gabriel Rossman makes the important point that the politics of pensions and retirement security programs are of course also shaped by this gerontocracy dynamic. But I assume there is a reason Waldman didn’t discuss this case, e.g., it could be that he is more sympathetic to defined benefit pensions and pay-as-you-go retirement security programs than most of us on the right or he for he (understandably) considers it less salient to the larger macroeconomic environment. If anything, I think there is a case that the defense of status quo pension regimes is a clearer case of this dynamic at work, and the economy-wide implications are certainly not trivial. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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