Harvard economist Larry Summers defends the bailout of large financial institutions in his mixed review of Brown University economist Mark Blyth’s polemic Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (OUP, 2013).
It is entirely legitimate to question whether the Icelandic approach to financial crisis, in which banks were allowed to fail, provides a reasonable model for Cyprus. It is not reasonable to ask whether it would have been availing for the US in 2008 or for Spain today. Instead, as the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse should have demonstrated, cascading failures put at risk the functioning of not just the whole financial sector, but major non-financial companies and a huge range of small and medium-sized businesses. To suggest firm commitment to the non-bailout of major institutions in Europe today is to court calamity.
It is true, as Blyth and many others have pointed out, that bailouts have unjustified beneficiaries. Yes. The fact that wars have unintended innocent victims is not usually taken as an argument against all wars. Equally, any judgment about bailouts must turn on a comparison of costs and benefits. If by bailing out an undeserving few, it is possible to limit a calamity that would otherwise engulf many, it is the right thing to do.
Lawrence Summers, “The end of the line“, Financial Times, 14 April 2013.
Larry Summers is a former US Treasury secretary and former president of Harvard University. He writes that Mark Blyth “is no two-handed economist. He pulls no punches in making the case against austerity.”