THE ECONOMY has yet to come roaring back, the bright glow of Reaganomics has turned into a drab ember, and the economists depart into the lengthening shadows. Still, while the confused policies of the current administration may have made a bad situation worse, the fault for all the troubles can hardly be laid at the door of the Reagan administration alone. After all, a longer-run economic deterioration -- inflation and stagnation and industrial decline -- has been in evidence for some years. There are many explanations, as these two books demonstrate.
David Calleo's aim, in The Imperious Economy, is to explain how inflation became endemic to American society over the last two decades. The basic problem, he argues, is that America's ambitions outran its resources, and that there is a fundamental tension between America's objectives of domestic economic expansion and expansive international aspirations. In particular, he faults the United States for failing to adapt to a more plural international economic and political order.
The Imperious Economy is a challenging book. It is also elegant, thoughtful, and resolutely independent, and is certainly a significant contribution to the debate on the ailment of the American economy.
Calleo, a professor at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, assumes the stance of a historian of the recent political economy: "While historical analysis cannot offer the conceptual clarity of economic models, it is more attuned to the complexities of the real world. The historian's long perspective seems particularly useful in analyzing economic policy, for probably no other major subject of general public discussion is more regularly distorted by partial views and sectarian obfuscation."
The institutionalization of inflation is Calleo's central concern. A muted moral disapproval of grand designs and great pretensions, irrespective of party or president, runs through the book. For Calleo, inflation reflects a lack of self control: "The primary function of money, after all, is to serve as the mediator between man's expansive desires and limited resources," he writes. "When, for one reason or other, money no longer serves as a reliable standard of value, the stability of society itself, domestic and international, is undermined . . . Inflation is, so to speak, the revenge of natural law on political power."
Calleo unfolds a subtle analysis of how inflation became embedded in the national fabric, beginning, he argues, with the failure of the Kennedy administration to confront the "fundamental contradiction" between "promoting an ambitious Keynesian expansion at home and a liberal market system for the world." The stress showed up in the balance of payments, resulting ultimately in "Nixon's Revolution" -- the floating of the dollar -- which "which took away the last major institutional restraint on domestic U.S. inflation." The result was "the revolt of primary prices" -- an explosion in the cost of food and oil.
At the same time, the United States exhibited a lack of restraint abroad, seeking to play an imperial role beyond its capacity to pay and out of joint with the changinmg world: "America's historic policy was to restore Europe, not conquer it," he says. But the United States proved unable to step back from and adjust to "a new world balance." Rather, "it wandered into a cul-de-sac of unsustainable geopolitical pretensions and wanton domestic inflation."
Thus, explains Calleo, the troubles of the Reagan administration: it "had never thought through the relationship" between its pledges to "restore not only domestic equilibrium but also foreign power."
Calleo's solutions are to be found in an acknowledgment of scarcity -- "the fundamental fact" that lies at the root "of the social order itself" -- and of restraint. He calls for a sharing out of our foreign policy burdens, and more austerity in domestic budgets. "Austerity would have to precede prosperity . . . a harsh truth for American democracy to accept."
The argument is powerfully carried, though there is some wavering of consistency. The earlier chapters, for instance, seem to have a stronger monetarist view than the later ones. Nor is it all clear as to how Calleo weights the causes he finds for inflation -- between domestic expansion, and the costs of being a superpower.
Moreover, at some points he goes to considerable lengths to deny that the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 were major causes of Ameria's economic discomfort. At other points, however, he acknowledges their heavy responsibility, which the tables in the back of the book do bear out.
With so strong an argument, he almost inevitably tries to fit in more than fits. Thus, he propounds the French theory of the International Energy Agency, arguing that it was formed by Kissinger as a tool of confrontation with OPEC, when, in both theory and practice, it has been meant to serve as a coordinating tool to ameliorate future energy crises.
Finally, a commitment to full employment is easier to criticize when unemployment is running at 5 percent than 10 percent. And one may speculate that the political dangers -- and moral implications -- of high unemployment are no less great than for high inflation.
But The Imperious Economy is a book meant to stimulate debate on such basic issues. It challenges all readers, whatever their intellectual biases or political affiliations, to re-examine their fundamental assumptions. As such, it is a book at the right time.
Quite a different diagnosis is offered in The Real World by financial specialists Hunter Lewis and Donald Allison. They downplay both OPEC and America's foreign burdens as reasons for the current economic problems. Instead, they say, the discomfort stems from business' failure to adjust to the exigencies of the global marketplace, and government's failure to support American industry in ways similar to that received by industtries in other countries. The point of view is conveyed by the subtitle: The Coming Battle for the New Global Economy and Why We are in Danger of Losing. The book offers a breezy survey of a number of old and new and yet-to-emerge industries, all threatened and thrown on the defensive by hard-charging Japanese, European, and newly-industrialized Third World countries.
Many of the recommendations are timely and eminently sensible. For the most part, they are aimed at business decision-makers, who are urged to think globally, to seek larger market shares to lower costs, to take longer time horizons for investments, to avoid letting their investment decisions be governed by Wall Street's fascination with quarterly statements. Government is advised to stop wasting its time on traditional and out- dated antitrust campaigns, and instead to provide long- range support for American industry.
But the authors do move so quickly that all the embattled industries blur together, and all the problems seem to be the same. For instance, they warn that OPEC countries may dislodge American petrochemical companies, which have become very successful exporters. The implication is that this is yet another case of inept American management. Hardly. The OPEC countries are in the position to exploit their own hydrocarbon advantage, and natural gas decontrol in the United States will hinder the competitiveness of American petrochemicals.
Indeed, one might get the impression that American firms have not been competing particularly well in the world, which is not exactly the case. Moreover, Lewis and Allison do not deal with the question of exactly what significance" "nationality" has when talking of multi-national enterprise. For instance, are we to be as alarmed by Volkswagens made in Pennsylvania and chemicals bearing the name of the Germany company Hoechst that are produced in Texas as we might were those products imported here from Germany?
In any event, David Calleo would reply to Lewis and Allison that America's former domination of the world market was an aberration of the way World War II ended--an advantage inevitably to be eroded by European and Japanese recovery.
Deeper focus on a few industries on the part of Lewis and Allison would have left fewer unanswered questions and would have bolstered their argument that the United States is currently going down that same long slide already traveled by Great Britian.