David Stockman’s The Great Deformation is a tour de force of historical revisionism that demolishes the conventional economic and political wisdom prevailing both prior to and in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Approaching his subject from many different angles, he demonstrates in thorough and specific detail, including much direct personal experience, that the roots of the crisis stretch back many decades. Few if any stones are left unturned; few if any major US political actors escape criticism; and all are subject to healthy scrutiny regardless of their orientation on the left-right spectrum. Indeed, Stockman makes clear that the facile left-right distinction of US politics obscures a deeper crisis of capitalism that spans the breadth of the American economic and political landscape. While he admits he has little hope that America can now change course, in closing he does offer a few specific policy recommendations that might, just might, lay the foundation for a Great American Reformation, were they to be implemented in future.
A most credible source
There is no more credible source for a book detailing the myriad policy failures collectively contributing to America’s decent into crony capitalism than David Stockman. Elected to Congress in the 1970s while still in his 20s, he was selected by President Reagan to be his first budget director at age 31 and was thus the youngest Cabinet-level US official to serve in the entire 20th century.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in comparison to the seasoned older guard dominating the Reagan White House, Stockman became rapidly disillusioned by the striking contrast between Reagan’s lofty rhetoric on the one hand and the reality of White House policies on the other. He left politics in 1985 for the private sector and entered the world of private equity as a partner at the Blackstone Group.
As Stockman himself admits, however, he is not entirely above the criticism he levels repeatedly at others throughout the book. Three prominent examples include his admission of avoiding the Vietnam draft by enrolling in Harvard Divinity School; being repeatedly outmanoeuvred by highly experienced political operatives while serving in the Reagan White House; and bearing at least some responsibility for a handful of poor investment decisions while working at Blackstone.
This honest introspection only serves to make the book more credible. Stockman is an American taking a long look in the mirror and asking the tough questions that few in power will ask, associated as they all are, in some way, with the great tragedy he describes in thorough detail.
The first polemical punch
Stockman wastes no time in landing his first polemical punch: on the first page, he observes that the US ‘Fiscal Cliff’, around which there was such high political drama late last year, is both “permanent and insoluble,” and that the chronic US deficit and debt problem is “the result of capture of the state, especially its central bank, the Federal Reserve, by crony capitalist forces deeply inimical to free markets and democracy.”
What follows is page after page of shocking detail regarding the metastatising crony-capitalist cancer consuming the US economy’s once great potential. While primarily concerned with recent developments, a great strength of the book is that it seeks always to trace the roots of The Great Deformation back to their beginnings, for example, in early 20th century Progressivism; in President Roosevelt’s New Deal; or in the Republican Party’s fateful decision in the 1960s to sever its small-government roots.
Debunking the conventional wisdom
Throughout the book, Stockman relentlessly attacks the economic conventional wisdom. In one instance he reaches back into the Great Depression to demonstrate that numerous policy errors both in the United States and abroad contributed to the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent banking crises of the early 1930s. Moreover, he demonstrates convincingly that it was not the military Keynesianism of the 1940s that ended the Depression but rather a severe and prolonged household and corporate deleveraging facilitated by a combination of women entering the workforce en masse, a general shortage or outright absence of many consumption goods and the associated, unusually high national savings rate.
This goes directly against the mainstream interpretation that increased rates of savings only serve to make financial crises even worse. But Stockman does not stop there. He shows how the rapid public sector deficit reduction in the immediate postwar period and the general fiscal prudence of the Truman and Eisenhower years enabled the rapid, healthy, sustainable growth of the 1950s and 1960s to proceed absent any material increase in the public debt and absent inflationary pressures on prices.
This began to change during the Kennedy administration but it was under Johnson and Nixon that traditional American fiscal convervatism was shown the door for good. From this point forward, the tone of the book changes dramatically as Stockman initiates a devastating assault on the conventional wisdom: The entire left-right narrative of US politics is demonstrated to be a great charade. Even the early Reagan years in which Stockman was a direct policy participant are shown to be an exercise in the relentless growth of government, associated deficits and debt. As he explains it, “Rather than a permanent era of robust free market growth, the Reagan Revolution ushered in two spells of massive statist policy stimulation.” Indeed, Stockman characterises the Reagan and Bush years as a ‘Keynesian Boom’.
As Stockman explains, for all the talk to this day of Reagan’s fiscal conservatism, the only meaningful conservative policy victory of the time was achieved by the Fed, not the government. Paul Volcker did what was required to stabilise the dollar and bring down inflation following the disastrous stagflationary 1970s, the inevitable consequence of Johnson’s and Nixon’s fiscal largesse, the hugely expensive Vietnam war, soaring government deficits, de-pegging the dollar’s link to gold and the Fed’s accommodation of, among other associated phenomena, higher crude oil prices via OPEC.
As is the consistently the case throughout the book, however, Stockman highlights the links between failed economic policies and their unfortunate social consequences: The relentless growth of moral hazard and crony capitalism. Once Volker had left the stage, replaced by Alan ‘Bubbles’ Greenspan (sic), he explains how the Fed began de facto to target asset prices, in particular the stock and housing markets, and that “Under the Fed’s new prosperity management regime … the buildup of wealth did not require sacrifice or deferred consumption. Instead, it would be obtained from a perpetual windfall of capital gains arising from the financial casinos.” Wow.
That’s right, for decades the stock market has been a financial casino, rigged as desired by the Fed to (mis)manage the economy, and now all that is left is a “bull market culture” that has “totally deformed the free market.”
Stockman also points out how the decades leading up to 2008 were replete with ‘foreshocks’ of the eventual financial earthquake. For example, there was the S&L crisis of the late-1980s and early 1990s. There was the Long-Term-Capital debacle. And each and every time that the Fed’s economic management led, either directly or not, to near-calamity, the bailout beneficiaries were enriched anew.
With most of Stockman’s criticism is directed at Washington, Wall Street and the Fed, he nevertheless reserves some for the non-financial corporate sector. As he explains:
Alongside the Fed’s cheap credit regime, there arose a noxious distortion of the tax code best summarized as ‘leveraged inside buildup’. The linchpin was successive legislative reductions of the tax rate on capital gains that resulted in a wide gap between high rates on ordinary income and negligible taxes on capital gains. This huge tax wedge became a powerful incentive to rearrange capital structures so that ordinary income could be converted into capital gains.
In Stockman’s view there is thus plenty of blame to go around. On a few occasions he even criticises the defence establishment, holding up Eisenhower as the last example of Pentagon budgetary discipline. While he hardly comes across as a dove in foreign policy, he is certainly not as hawkish as recent administrations and he points out a handful of examples of failed defence policies and budgetary largesse past and present.
Beyond left and right
Readers who attempt to understand this book according to any variation of the current economic policy mainstream or through the obsolete left-right narrative of US politics will struggle to understand Stockman’s independent perspective. The Great Deformation is written by an old-school, small-government ‘Eisenhower Republican’ and champion of the free-market who perceives more clearly than most just how far the insidious crony-capitalist rot has spread, whether it be facilitated by purportedly left-leaning ‘regulation’ or encouraged by right-leaning tax-reform. As Stockman repeatedly demonstrates, the concept of ‘capture’ applies equally to both.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the horrifying state of affairs he so cogently describes, Stockman is not sanguine about America’s future. The US is travelling down Hayek’s fabled ‘Road to Serfdom’ as the government and central bank respond to the damaging effects of failed interventionism with escalating interventionism. Indeed, since at least 2008, the evidence is overwhelming that America has been accelerating down that tragic road.
In closing, Stockman offers some ideas that might help the US to reverse course, although he strongly doubts that they will be adopted. If anything, the political winds from both left and right continue to blow in the other direction. No doubt his polemic will be rebuffed by those in power on both sides of the aisle in Congress and his recommendations for reform will go unheeded. That Stockman knows this, but wrote this book regardless, demonstrates his love for America. Anyone sharing that love should read it.