Opinion

The Great Debate

from Nicholas Wapshott:

The EU-U.S. love-hate relationship

The elaborate gavotte between the American and European economies continues.

While the Federal Reserve has begun to wind down its controversial quantitative easing (QE) program, the European Central Bank (ECB) the federal reserve of the eurozone, has announced it is considering a QE program of its own.

It is a belated acknowledgement, if not an outright admission, from Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, that five years of the European Union’s austerity policy has failed to lift the eurozone nations out of the economic mire. The ECB has presided over a wholly unnecessary triple-dip recession in the eurozone and sparked a bitter rift between the German-dominated European Union bureaucracy and the Mediterranean nations that must endure the rigors imposed from Brussels. All to little avail.

If there are any “austerians” left standing, let them explain this. Ignoring the cries of the unemployed and those pressing for urgent measures to promote growth in Europe, the ECB blithely imposed its punishing creed, arguing that there would be no gain without pain. The result? Little gain, endless pain.

The eurozone economy endured growth at a miserable 0.2 percent year-on-year in the last quarter of 2013 (after an 18-month-long eurozone recession). Unemployment is at a wretched 11.9 percent. The eurozone is suffering from chronic “lowflation,” with inflation at an annual 0.5 percent,  heading toward perhaps the most destructive economic condition of all -- deflation.

In response to this dunce’s report card, Draghi is considering pumping money into the eurozone through quantitative easing. Even then, he has made clear he does not mean what he says. He sees this policy -- which Washington abandoned when it was seen to be ineffective  -- as a last resort to push up inflation and avoid the spiraling collapse of prices and economic activity that threatened the world economy in the fall of 2008. But he hopes the mere threat of QE will be enough to lift prices and save Europe from the deflation that has dogged the Japanese economy for decades.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

No, austerity did not work

There have been a lot of sighs of relief in Europe lately, where countries like Britain and Spain, long in recession, have finally started to grow. Not by much, nor for long. But such is the political imperative to suggest that all the misery of fiscally tight economic policies was worth the pain that there are tentative claims the worst is now over and, ipso facto, austerity worked.

Hold on a minute. Growth is good. Growth is what allows countries to pay down their national debt by increasing economic activity, putting the unemployed to work and making people prosperous enough to pay taxes. But gross domestic product growth alone is not enough to provide adequate sustained prosperity if it does not also lead to significant job growth.

Take Spain, which has just emerged from two years of recession by posting a third quarter growth rate of 0.1 percent. Technically the Spanish slump is over. But a glance at their job figures shows the country has a long way to go before it can genuinely say it has escaped the diminishing effects of austerity -- in the form of tight fiscal policies, public spending cuts and labor and entitlement reforms -- imposed indirectly by Germany through the European Union.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Austerity is a moral issue

Security worker opens the door of a government job center as people wait to enter in Marbella, Spain, December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the nearly five years since the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, the remedy for the world’s economic doldrums has swung from full-on Keynesianism to unforgiving austerity and back.

The initial Keynesian response halted the collapse in economic activity. But it was soon met by borrowers’ remorse in the shape of paying down debt and raising taxes without delay. In the last year, full-throttle austerity has fallen out of favor with those charged with monitoring the world economy.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Not in the spirit of Hayek

It has been a bad couple of weeks for conservative social scientists. First a doctoral student ran the numbers on the study by Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that underpins austerity and deep public spending cuts as a cure for the Great Recession and found it full of errors. Then a policy analyst, Jason Richwine, who angered Senate Republicans trying to pass immigration reform with a one-sided estimate of the cost of making undocumented workers citizens, was obliged to clear his desk at the Heritage Foundation when it became known his Harvard dissertation suggested Hispanics had lower intelligence than “the white native population.”

It makes you wonder what Friedrich Hayek would have to say about such aberrant research. Hayek has become the patron saint of conservative intellectuals – and with good reason. He went head to head with John Maynard Keynes in 1931 in an effort to stop Keynesianism in its tracks. Hayek failed, but his attempt gave him mythical status among thinkers who deplore big government and central management of the economy.

Hayek became a conservative hero a second time with publication of his Road to Serfdom  (1944) that suggested the larger the state sector, the more there was a tendency to tyranny. Many of today’s Hayekians harden up Hayek’s carefully expressed thoughts to declare that all government is potentially despotic, while also ignoring his arguments in favor of governments providing a generous safety net for the less advantaged, including a home for every citizen and universal health care – perhaps because Americans were first introduced to Serfdom in a much truncated Reader’s Digest edition. They would do well to re-read the original.

Can GOP blame Obama for the sequester?

More than 25 years ago, Representative Jack Kemp told me, “In the past, the left had a thesis: spending, redistribution of wealth and deficits. Republicans were the antithesis: spending is bad.”

He went on to explain, “Ronald Reagan represented a breakthrough for our party. We could talk about lower taxes and more growth. We didn’t have to spend all our time preaching austerity and spending cuts. The question now is: Do we take our thesis and move it further, or do we revert to an anti-spending party?”

We now have the answer. Republicans have reverted to an anti-spending party. Their latest cause? Austerity. Their argument? A shrinking economy is better than big government.

Is Mitt Romney the last true believer in austerity?

There is something oddly retro about Mitt Romney. He appears to have sprung from a nostalgic fifties “Hairspray” world where women sported beehives and cars had fins. Nor has his economic thinking kept up with the times. Although he backed Obama’s $787 billion-dollar Keynesian stimulus, as soon as the borrowers’ remorse that sparked the Tea Party took hold, he turned on a dime and embraced austerity and paying off the national debt.

As he declares on his website: “The only recipe for fiscal health and a thriving private economy is a government that spends within its means.” He signed the “cut, cap and balance” pledge that will tie his hands if he makes it to the White House. Not trusting himself, perhaps, to remain fiscally continent, he favors an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, obliging Congress to put balancing the budget before all other measures. He would cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, a feat that would entail about $500 billion in cuts. On day one of his presidency, he says he would send Congress a bill that would cut non-security discretionary spending by 5 percent.

His proposed economies include (his estimates in parentheses): repealing Obama’s healthcare plan ($95 billion); privatizing Amtrak ($1.6 billion); reducing federal payments to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation ($600 million); eliminating family planning subsidies ($300 million); cutting foreign aid ($100 million); capping Medicaid (more than $100 billion); replacing only half those who leave the federal workforce ($4 billion); ending the Davis-Bacon Act ($11 billion) and paying federal employees lower wages ($47 billion); and that old elusive crowd-pleaser, reducing waste and fraud ($60 billion).

Britain’s austerity experiment is faltering

It was the Welsh sage Alan Watkins who remarked that a budget that looked good the day it was delivered to the British Parliament was sure to look terrible a week later, and vice versa. The avalanche of new information dumped by the Treasury is simply too much to grasp at a single sitting, and governments tend to bury bad news in a welter of statistics. And so it proved with finance minister George Osborne’s budget served up last week.

The immediate headlines stressed that rich Brits would pay less income tax – down from 50 percent to 45 percent – but it only took a day before even traditional Conservative cheerleaders like the Daily Mail were condemning Osborne for funding tax breaks for bankers and billionaires by stealing from those living in retirement. The paper’s cover screamed: “Osborne picks the pockets of pensioners.”

Osborne insists he is sticking to his “Plan A” to reduce the public deficit by sharply cutting state spending by 25 percent over the five-year parliament and imposing severe austerity. Because he believes his “Plan A” is on target, all he needed was a touch on the tiller. He therefore designed his budget to be fiscally neutral – that is, for every tax cut there was a corresponding tax increase. He put up tobacco and alcohol duties and sliced a little off corporation tax.

Should Obama mimic David Cameron’s austerity?

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

In medieval times, a key member of a monarch’s retinue was the food taster, a hapless fellow who ate what his master was about to eat. If the taster survived, the food was deemed safe for the king’s consumption. President Obama has a taster of sorts in David Cameron, the British prime minister, who has embarked upon an economic experiment that echoes the recipe of wholesale public spending cuts and tax hikes needed if both sides in Congress are to agree to raising the federal government debt ceiling. How the British economy is faring offers Obama an idea of what a similarly radical policy of cutting and taxing here would mean to the American economy.

Cameron’s election in May 2010 coincided with the start of the Greek debt crisis. The Bank of England governor Mervyn King warned him that the public debt in the UK was so large that Britain, too, might see its lending become impossibly expensive, so Cameron decided that there was no time to lose in putting the fiscal books in order. He decided to slash public spending by 25 per cent over four years and immediately raise value added tax on goods and services from 17.5 to 20 per cent. Such a radical remedy found favor with the rump of British Conservatives who felt that Margaret Thatcher’s free-market, small government, “sound money” policies of the Eighties had not been pressed to their limit. In turn, Thatcher’s prescription to reduce the size of the state derived from her favorite thinker Friedrich Hayek, the author of “The Road to Serfdom,” who believed like many Tea Party supporters that government intervention inevitably leads to tyranny.

Cameron’s experiment in applying a radical cure to the British economy caught the attention of a number of conservatives here, among them George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wrote in the Washington Post, “If Cameron’s approach works — dramatically cutting deficits without stalling economic growth — it will be an obvious, powerful example for America.” “If only the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress had been so courageous. Instead, they are choosing to put off these big decisions,” moaned Matthew Bishop, New York bureau chief of the Economist, in a piece co-authored with Michael Green in the Wall Street Journal. Even Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner thought the British experiment worth trying. “I am very impressed, as one man’s view looking from a distance, at the basic strategy [Cameron] has adopted,” Geithner told the BBC.

from James Saft:

Pension savers get the boot

From Dublin to Paris to Budapest to inside those brown UPS trucks delivering holiday packages, it has been a tough few weeks for savers and retirees.

Moves by the Irish, French and Hungarian governments, and by the famous delivery company, showed that in the post-crisis world retirees, present and future, will be paying much of the price and taking on more of the risk.

This goes beyond merely cutting back on pension benefits, rising to actual appropriation of supposedly long-term retirement assets to help fund short term emergencies.

from The Great Debate UK:

A year of austerity looms in 2010

david-kuo_motley-foolthumbnail-David Kuo is director at the Motley Fool. The opinions expressed are his own.-

If you thought 2009 was as bad as things will get, then think again: 2010 could be worse. It is likely to be a year of enforced austerity with both the government and households making obligatory cuts to their budgets.

High on the government’s agenda will be reducing the Budget deficit, if the UK is to avoid the embarrassment of having its sovereign debt rating cut by rating agencies. This will have a knock-on effect on households, which could see their disposable incomes slashed by hikes in both direct and indirect taxes.

There are two possible ways for the government to reduce the Budget deficit. The first is to increase tax revenues and the second will be to slash expenditure – both of which will have an adverse impact on the economy. There is a third, which is to raise revenue through the sale of state assets. These may include the Royal Mint, the nations stake in part-nationalised banks, and anything else the Chancellor might find lurking at the back of the wardrobe.

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