Both sides losing austerity fight
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.
And so it goes on. Stimulo responds to his failures with cries for more of the same, while Cutback Kid demands more policy finesse and more patience, because hard work cures slowly. As they argue, the economic news from almost every rich country does not get better. It’s hard to believe either side really has what it takes to win.
The boxing image fits the pugilistic tone of the stimulus-austerity argument. The protagonists often sound less like calm economists than politicians trying to “diss” their opponents. Indeed, the fervour reflects strongly held political views: the trust in governments and distrust of finance on one side and wariness of government and enthusiasm for fair markets on the other. However, the debate is emotional, not rational. The economic theory on both sides is flimsy and the historical evidence is ambiguous.
The intellectual obscurity is so great that even basic definitions are controversial. Does any fiscal deficit count as “stimulus”, or only increasing deficits? Or is stimulus limited to deficits that go beyond those created by the higher spending and lower revenue that inevitably arrive with an economic slowdown? Do virtuous intentions to reduce deficits count as “austerity”, or only actual reductions? Where does monetary stimulus – low policy interest rates, central bank purchases of debt and support for financial institutions – fit into the picture?
Despite the wild claims from the intellectual boxing ring, no one really knows how to restore financial order and economic health after a financial meltdown in countries which account for half of the world’s GDP. The best that can be said is that policymakers should restore confidence, strengthen institutions, avoid unnecessary financial pressure and reduce debts without destroying the financial infrastructure. The translation of those platitudes into policy is, to put it mildly, not obvious.
History’s lessons are hard to read, but there is one relevant – and frightening – precedent for the current problems: the discrediting of the orthodox 19th century model of laissez-faire capitalism and hard money. The failure started to become clear about a century ago; it then took 40 years – with depressions, great inflations and two world wars – to develop a more stable arrangement.
The post-war system evolved over the subsequent decades into one based on much debt, little regulation, free capital movements and narrowly focussed central banks. The Lesser Depression has discredited this model, and it will take time and imagination to find a replacement. The fight between Stimulo and the Cutback Kid is a pointless diversion from the task.