Stop Panicking: Capitalism Repeatedly Recovers from Financial Crises

I am just beginning to dive into the awesome book by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Along with great analysis, they have some wonderful pictures, evidence, and data. What I say here is my own take on it.

First, financial crises are remarkably common. Their Figure 5.1 shows the number of countries that have defaulted on their external debt (one possible dimension of a financial crisis) over the last two centuries. The numbers come in episodic waves of defaults and involve a remarkably high number of countries in each wave:

reinhart-rogoff-external-default-1800-2008.png

Second, the global capitalist system does well in the long run anyway.  Average per capita income in the world (a shaky estimate, but probably right order of magnitude) increased by a multiple of 12 over 1800-2008, despite repeated epidemics of financial crises.

The US is arguably the country with democratic capitalism the longest, and it also shows a steady upward trend from 1870 to the present, despite repeated banking crises (using those identified by Reinhart and Rogoff), with usually little effect of each crisis on output relative to trend (except for the Great Depression).

per-capita-income-US.png

Reinhart and Rogoff calculate directly the growth pattern before and after crises in advanced capitalist economies, and growth does indeed recover quickly to the trend growth rate of around 2 percent per capita per annum. 2 percent per capita is roughly the same growth rate that increased US per capita income so much from 1870 to the present.

banking-crises-and-growth.png
y-axis reads “Real GDP Growth (Percent)”

I don’t mean to minimize the short run pain that the current financial crisis has caused. It’s horrible. But there is no reason to panic about the long run growth potential looking forward.

The obvious rejoinder is Keynes’ “in the long run, we are all dead.” But we can’t ignore that Capitalism already survived repeated financial crises and has made us all vastly better off despite them. So here’s a counter-quote: “In the long run, we are all better off because our dead ancestors stuck with capitalism.”


Originally published at AIDWATCH and reproduced here with the author’s permission.