Daniel W. Drezner

Are we at a focal point for rejecting expansionary austerity?

The term "inflection point" has become one of those overused bits of meaningless jargon in political discourse.  I’m rather more fond of the notion of a "focal point" — that is to say, an event or cluster of events in which everyone that cares about a particular problem focuses on the same set of stylized ...

The term "inflection point" has become one of those overused bits of meaningless jargon in political discourse.  I’m rather more fond of the notion of a "focal point" — that is to say, an event or cluster of events in which everyone that cares about a particular problem focuses on the same set of stylized facts — after which, they conclude that, gee, maybe the status quo set of policies ain’t working so well and there should be a new status quo. 

The fall of 2008 was one such focal point, during which there was remarkable consensus that a Keynesian boost in public spending was the only way to avert another Great Depression.  At the fiirst G-20 leaders summit in  Washington, there was consensus on expansionary fiscal policy.  Oh, sure, there were grumblings about "crass Keynesianism," but even Germany reluctantly went along. 

The Greek sovereign debt crisis was another such focal point.  Greek profligacy seemed to be a synecdoche for excessive government borrowing and lax fiscal discipline.  With the global economy seemingly still in the doldrums, a lot of Europrean governments climbed on the "expansionary austerity" bandwagon.  By the Toronto G-20 summit in June 2010, the consensus had switched from Keynesian stimulus to fiscal rectitude.  Oh, sure there were mutterings about "short-term austerity makes no macroeconomic sense whatsoever in a slack economy" but even Barack Obama started talking about slashing government spending. 

Are we at another focal point?  Consider the following:

1)  According to the New York Times’ Stephen Castle, European leaders now seem to recognize that austerity on its own ain’t working: 

Bowing to mounting evidence that  austerity alone cannot solve the debt crisis, European leaders are expected to conclude  this week that what the debt-laden, sclerotic countries of the Continent need are a dose of economic growth.

A draft of the European Union summit meeting communiqué calls for ‘‘growth-friendly consolidation and job-friendly growth,’’ an indication that European leaders  have come to realize that austerity measures, like those being put in countries like Greece and Italy,  risk stoking a recession and plunging fragile economies into a  downward spiral.

2)  The data is starting to come in on governments that have embraced austerity whole-heartedly, and it’s pretty grim.  Cue Paul Krugman on Great Britain:

Last week the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a British think tank, released a startling chart comparing the current slump with past recessions and recoveries. It turns out that by one important measure — changes in real G.D.P. since the recession began — Britain is doing worse this time than it did during the Great Depression. Four years into the Depression, British G.D.P. had regained its previous peak; four years after the Great Recession began, Britain is nowhere close to regaining its lost ground.

Nor is Britain unique. Italy is also doing worse than it did in the 1930s — and with Spain clearly headed for a double-dip recession, that makes three of Europe’s big five economies members of the worse-than club. Yes, there are some caveats and complications. But this nonetheless represents a stunning failure of policy.

And it’s a failure, in particular, of the austerity doctrine that has dominated elite policy discussion both in Europe and, to a large extent, in the United States for the past two years.

3)  Even commentators who would be tempermentally sympathetic with austerity are starting to bash Germany question whether it’s a solution.  Consider Walter Russell Mead

It takes some truly talented screw ups to come up with a worse plan for Greece than the one the Greeks have developed for themselves, but the Germans have risen to occasion in fine form….

Deep reform is needed if Greece is to stay in the euro, and so far the Greek political establishment — firmly backed by public opinion — is digging in its heels.  Much whining, much talk, many promises and precious little action seems to be the favored Greek approach to the crisis.  On the other hand, the austerity policies the Germans favor are hopelessly biased in favor of German banking interests and are aimed more at the preservation of the reputations of German politicians than at helping Greece.

The German political establishment seems willing to destroy Europe to avoid telling German voters the truth about how stupid it has been. 

[UPDATE:  For exhibit B of this trend, see this Niall Ferguson interview with Henry Blodget.  My favorite part of the interview is this quotation:  "I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work…. My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago."]

4)  U.S. 4th quarter data reveals that, consistent with GOP criticisms, the government has been the real drag on the U.S. economy.  Not quite consistent with GOP criticisms:  the reason why the government is dragging down the U.S. economy.  Cue Mark Thoma

[P]remature austerity — cutting spending before the economy is ready for it — is taking a toll on the recovery. The fall in government spending reduced fourth-quarter growth by 0.93 percent; if government spending had remained constant, GDP growth would have been 3.7 percent, rather than 2.8 percent. 

This is the opposite of what the government should be doing to support the recovery. We need a temporary increase in government spending to increase demand and employment through, for example, building infrastructure. That would help to get us out of the deep hole we are in. Instead, the government seems to be trying to make it harder to escape.

We do need to address our long-run budget problems once the economy is healthy enough to withstand the tax increases and program cuts that will be required. But the idea of "expansionary" austerity has failed. Austerity in the short-term simply makes it harder for the economy to recover and delays the day when you can finally address budget issues without harming the economy. The lesson is that government needs to support the recovery, not oppose it through a false promise that contraction of one sector in the economy will be expansionary.

5)  Central banks are acting more gung-ho on expansionary monetary policy.  The unspoken quid pro quo in Europe seems to the that the ECB will expand its balance sheet and turn on the monetary taps in return for some kind of fiscal compact.  The U.S. Federal Reserve announced a zero-interest rate policy for the next three years.  Even China is showing (halting) signs that its reverted back to monetary easing. 

Given that the United States has been the country to move the slowest on austerity, and given that the United States is doing the best job among the OECD economies (an admittedly low bar) of restoring confidence among investors and paying down non-governmental debt, have we reached another focal point? 

One could argue that Krugman and Thoma are just biased in favor of Keynesianism, that Greece and the other Club Med countries haven’t really embraced austerity, that the Euromess is dragging down British economic growth, and that the long-term numbers on developed country debt are really very scary.  There are some large grains of truth in many of those statements. 

It doesn’t necessarily matter, however.  Greece was not a genuine harbinger of the fiscal problems of large markets — but it was a useful hook for austerity advocates to spread their gospel.  What matters now is not whether these perceptions about the failure of austerity are 100% accurate, but whether they are accurate enough to become the new conventional wisdom. 

What do you think? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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