It is the mark of science and perhaps rational thought more generally to operate with a falsifiable understanding of how the world operates. And so it is fair to ask of the economists a fundamental question: What could happen going forward that would cause you to substantially revise your views of how the economy operates and to acknowledge that the model you had been using was substantially flawed? As a vigorous advocate of fiscal expansion as an appropriate response to a major economic slump in an economy with zero or near-zero interest rates, I have for the last several years suggested that if the British economy – with its major attempts at fiscal consolidation – were to enjoy a rapid recovery, it would force me to substantially revise my views about fiscal policy and the workings of the macroeconomy more generally.
With the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate, it is clear both political parties agree that the central issue in the coming presidential election will be the scale and scope of government involvement in the U.S. economy. There will be disagreement over what constituted “normal” levels of spending in the past and indeed over what constitutes “spending.” But there is a widespread view in both parties that it is feasible and desirable that in the future the federal government will be no larger as a share of the overall economy than it has been historically.
Even if the process of economic recovery proves protracted, the American economy will eventually recover, and cyclical issues will cease to dominate the economic conversation. It is likely that issues relating to inequality will move to the forefront. There is no question that income is distributed substantially more unequally than it was a generation ago – with those at the very top gaining share as even the upper middle class loses ground in relative terms. Those with less skill, especially men who in an earlier era would have worked with their hands, are losing ground, not just in relative but in absolute terms.
As the G20 leaders prepare to conclude their meeting today, once again good news has had a half-life in the markets of less than 24 hours. Just as news of European plans to stand behind Spanish banks rallied markets and sentiment for only a few hours, a Greek election outcome that was as good as could have been hoped did not even buoy markets for a day. There could be no clearer evidence that the current strategy of vowing that the European system will hold together, addressing each crisis as it comes in the minimally sufficient way and vowing at every juncture to build a system that is sound in the long term has run its course.
Once again European efforts to contain crisis have fallen short. It was perhaps reasonable to hope that the European Central Bank’s commitment to provide nearly a trillion dollars in cheap three-year funding to banks would, if not resolve the crisis, contain it for a significant interval. Unfortunately, this has proved little more than a palliative. Weak banks, especially in Spain, have bought more of the debt of their weak sovereigns, while foreigners have sold down their holdings. Markets, seeing banks holding the dubious debt of the sovereigns that stand behind them, grow ever nervous. Again, Europe and the global economy approach the brink.
Arithmetic done under the constraints of politics is always suspect, and one should always examine carefully the claims of those seeking votes. But smart observers have learned to distinguish between the claims of political candidates and their advisers on the one hand, and proposals that have been evaluated by independent scorekeepers like the Congressional Budget Office on the other.
Economic forecasters divide into two groups: those who cannot know the future but think they can, and those who recognize their inability to know the future. Shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognized until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the U.S. economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy’s potential now appears as a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when the risks to the consensus modest-growth forecast were to the downside, they are now very much two-sided.
However the U.S. presidential election turns out, the trifecta of the Bush tax cut expiration, the debt limit ceiling on the horizon once again, and the Congressionally mandated sequesters – cuts in domestic spending – will force the president and Congress to wrestle with fiscal issues either in a lame duck session after the election or in early 2013. The decisions they make will have profound impacts on America’s fiscal future.
The year has begun well in markets. Stock markets in 2012 are generally up, and European sovereigns have experienced less difficulty borrowing than many expected. And economic data, particularly in the United States, has come in ahead of expectations. So as President Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address, and as a large group of policymakers and corporate chiefs come together in Davos this week, there is if not a sense of relief at least some diminution in the sense of high alarm that has gripped the global community for much of the last few years. Yet anxiety about the future remains a major driver of economic performance.