Abstract: Conflation of real capital with finance capital is at the heart of current misunderstandings of economic crisis and recession. We ground this distinction in the classical analysis of rent and the difference between productive and unproductive credit. We then apply it to current conditions, in which household credit — especially mortgage credit — is the premier form of unproductive credit. This is supported by an institutional analysis of postwar U.S. development and a review of quantitative empirical research across many countries. Finally, we discuss contemporary consequences of the financial sector’s malformation and overdevelopment.
Why have economies polarized so sharply since the 1980s, and especially since the 2008 crisis? How did we get so indebted without real wage and living standards rising, while cities, states, and entire nations are falling into default? Only when we answer these questions can we formulate policies to extract ourselves from the current debt crises. There is widespread sentiment that this crisis is fundamental, and that we cannot simply “go back to normal.” But deep confusion remains over the theoretical framework that should guide analysis of the post-bubble economy.
The last quarter century’s macro-monetary management, and the theory and ideology that underpinned it, was lauded by leading macroeconomists asserting that “The State of Macro[economics] is Good” (Blanchard 2008, 1). Oliver Blanchard, Ben Bernanke, Gordon Brown, and others credited their own monetary policies for the remarkably low inflation and stable growth of what they called the “Great Moderation” (Bernanke 2004), and proclaimed the “end of boom and bust,” as Gordon Brown did in 2007. But it was precisely this period from the mid-1980s to 2007 that saw the fastest and most corrosive inflation in real estate, stocks, and bonds since World War II.
Nearly all this asset-price inflation was debt-leveraged. Money and credit were not spent on tangible capital investment to produce goods and non-financial services, and did not raise wage levels. The traditional monetary tautology MV=PT, which excludes assets and their prices, is irrelevant to this process. Current cutting-edge macroeconomic models since the 1980s do not include credit, debt, or a financial sector (King 2012; Sbordone et al. 2010), and are equally unhelpful. They are the models of those who “did not see it coming” (Bezemer 2010, 676).