Opinion

Edward Hadas

Both sides losing austerity fight

Edward Hadas
Jun 27, 2012 12:01 UTC

In one corner of the intellectual boxing ring is Stimulo. His fighting words: more economic stimulus. History and theory, he declaims, teach that governments should run much larger fiscal deficits in a downturn. In the other corner is the Cutback Kid, who delivers the opposite message: more austerity. He asserts that history and theory teach that governments should reduce their deficits. The two contestants for the Economic Policy Prize are in the midst of a long fight. Amazingly, they are both losing.

Stimulo has the open-hearted enthusiasm often associated with residents of the United States, for three decades known as the land of big fiscal deficits and small worries. His favourite example is the 1930s Great Depression, which only government spending could end. Now, almost four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, GDP growth remains slow and the unemployment rate high. The government deficit, he says, should be increased by as much as necessary to push the economy out of its current stagnation.

The Cutback Kid has a more restrained charm, the sort sometimes associated with suave European intellectuals. He praises the virtue of balanced government budgets: sound finances keep inflation far away, support the value of the currency and promote a strong economy by not stealing savings from the private sector, the source of durable growth. After four years of extraordinarily high government deficits, he says, it’s time to cut back.

There have been no knock-out blows. Neither stimulus nor austerity seems to work as predicted. The United States has tried stimulus and the UK austerity, but the results in both countries have been disappointing. The euro zone, which has tried less stimulus and more promises of austerity than either, has not done any better. Japan has been stimulating for years, without either recovery or inflationary disaster.

Here is a summary of the most recent round: Cutback Kid opens with a one-two punch – first Latvia, where punitive austerity is turning the suffering economy around, and then history, which shows that fiscal contractions often help restore economic growth, while large fiscal deficits usually have bad consequences. Stimulo is not deterred. He ducks Latvia – austerity isn’t really working there – and he punches back with examples of successful borrow-and-grow polices. Then he strikes hard with Greece, where austerity is crushing the economy.

Ethical economy: Of morals and markets

Edward Hadas
Jun 20, 2012 14:26 UTC

“Where all good things are bought and sold,” says Michael Sandel, “having money makes all the difference in the world”. And judging by the success of the book he has written based on the premise, the assertion is seductive.

In “What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets”, the Harvard philosophy professor rails against “market reasoning” and its impact on modern societies. He says that justice suffers because money has become the predominant measure of social as well as economic value. He provides examples such as corporate life insurance policies on employees, advertising in bathrooms and payments for children’s academic success.

Sandel’s reading of contemporary society is wrong, and the examples he deploys are atypical. Overall, morals have been displacing markets, not the other way around. Considerations such as justice and the common good increasingly shape economic arrangements. Even where market reasoning does flourish, for example in the production of cars or food, the standards of social responsibility have steadily risen. Whether or not they are profitable, companies are expected to be good employers and good corporate citizens.

The euro crisis as family drama

Edward Hadas
Jun 13, 2012 15:09 UTC

Sometimes big news stories seem unbearably dull. The euro crisis is often presented as an apparently endless stream of technical titbits that only a financial geek could love: alchemical recapitalisations of possibly insolvent banks, and the subtle differences between the European Financial Stability Facility and the European Stability Mechanism. But the mind-numbing details hide an exciting drama about the dysfunctional European family of nations.

Think of Greece as the wayward uncle who never seems to settle down and who keeps asking for a little money to tide him over. Spain is a younger sibling, finally interested in school but still reluctant to admit that she needs to change her ways. Italy is a voluble middle child, talented but with a taste for mischief. Germany is the slightly priggish older brother, who has trouble sympathising with his relatives’ weaknesses – although he usually relents in the end.

As in some tribes, the European family has appointed various councils of elders to guide group decisions. For the most part, the central authorities have worked well, but they have to be careful not to anger big brother Germany. Then there is the European Central Bank. When it was set up, most family members thought it would be just another elder-group, but the monetary authority is increasingly behaving like a sort of powerful Godfather to the whole clan.

Depressions can be avoided

Edward Hadas
Jun 6, 2012 13:26 UTC

Stability has been one of the most elusive economic goods. Despite more than a century of effort, economies remain prone to downturns, which often come after booms that proved unsustainable. Rich countries are currently stuck in one of the down periods, a seemingly endless Lesser Depression.

Economists argue about the details of what went wrong, but they often miss something basic: persistent instability is surprising. Surely, societies which summon enough economic ingenuity and organisation to develop smart phones, manage global supply chains and pay for a dozen years of universal education can manage to maintain a steady pace of overall economic activity? All that is required is the identification and early correction of imbalances, in both the real economy and the financial system.

In the pre-industrial age, good macroeconomic management was all but impossible. As long as agricultural activity was the economic mainstay, a poor harvest led not only to less food but to less spending by farmers. Their purchases of ploughs and shoe leather declined, even though a temporary spell of bad weather had no effect on production capacity.

  •