Monday, January 30, 2012

Definitely Not Expansionary, Maybe Not Even Austerity

. Monday, January 30, 2012

Dan Drezner has a post on whether we are now at a focal point that will discredit the idea of expansionary austerity:

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... 

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:... 

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:...  
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:...

Before I get into this too deep, I should just note that I've always thought the accusations of belief in "expansionary austerity" from the Krugman/DeLong wing have always been something of a strawman.  The strongest view I've seen regularly expressed is that fiscal policy has essentially a null effect on growth because of forward-looking rational expectations, or because the central bank moves last, not that austerity will actually lead to expansion. I haven't even seen much supply-side voodoo being expressed lately. Can't recall the last time, actually.

First of all, I'd quibble with the claim that the G-20 ever climbed on the "expansionary austerity" bandwagon. Look at the Toronto Summit Declaration that Drezner mentions. No seriously, read it. There's a lot of language like "Unprecedented and globally coordinated fiscal and monetary stimulus is playing a major role in helping to restore private demand and lending" and "To sustain recovery, we need to follow through on delivering existing stimulus plans". Here's the first thing it says about budget deficits (emph added): "At the same time, recent events highlight the importance of sustainable public finances and the need for our countries to put in place credible, properly phased and growth-friendly plans to deliver fiscal sustainability, differentiated for and tailored to national circumstances."

To be fair, the next sentence advocates "consolidation" for countries with "serious fiscal challenges", but does that sound like doctrinaire Treasury View economics? Not to me, and certainly not for anyone outside of Club Med. And while Obama started talking about cutting government spending as Drezner notes -- not sure "slashing" is at all the right word -- other than token cuts all of the significant stuff was reserved for a few years down the road when the recovery was expected to well in progress. The Obama administration also thought in 2010 that growth was taking off; remember "Recovery Summer"? If they'd been right, it would be time to start thinking about cuts in the shortish-run future.

As for European views, it's possible that some people thought Greece's short run growth potential would benefit from austerity, but I don't remember much of that. After all, austerity is called austerity for a reason. All the talk I heard was about austerity as a sufficiently strong commitment mechanism that donors from the EFSF and IMF could be convinced that their transfers to Greece wouldn't be squandered, nor that they would be embedding moral hazard into the EMU that would encourage future profligacy. Now that may not be the best possible economic strategy, but this is a political game not an optimization problem, and in any case it doesn't follow from this observation that anyone believed that austerity would lead to expansion. The Germans cared about getting their money back, not generating growth in Greece, except to the extent that the two are related (and maybe not even that much). My recollection of the early discussions was that if European leaders believed in any of Krugman's oft-mentioned myths it was the "Confidence Fairy", not expansionary austerity.

And, while we're on the subject, the most recent proposal is for lots more austerity for Greece, with Germany taking over Greece's political system if they can't manage that themselves. It doesn't sound like the austerity consensus is at risk of breaking.

Regarding Great Britain and the United States, I'm not sure that the "austerity has failed" line is all that accurate. Here's Scott Sumner:
Here are the three biggest budget deficits of 2011: 
1. Egypt 10% of GDP 
2. Greece: 9.5% of GDP 
3. Britain: 8.8% of GDP 
A slightly more respectable argument is that the current deficit is slightly smaller than in 2010 (when it was 10.1% of GDP.) But that shouldn’t cause a recession. Think about the Keynesian model you studied in school. If you are three years into a recession, and you slightly reduce the deficit to still astronomical levels, is that supposed to cause another recession? That’s not the model I studied. ...

To get a sense of just how expansionary UK fiscal policy really is, compare it to France (5.8% of GDP), Germany (1.0% of GDP), or Italy (4.0% of GDP). Lots of people blame ECB policies for the recession, but Britain is not in the eurozone. Outside the eurozone you have Denmark (3.9% of GDP), Sweden (zero), Switzerland (1% surplus).
In other words, any "cuts" in spending have to be considered in context. Britain's cuts were from an insanely-high (and completely unsustainable) level to an exceptionally-high (and completely unsustainable) level. You can call that "austerity" if you like, and blame the lack of recovery on it if you like, or you could say that Britain has run historically high deficits in each of the last few years. Which is, pretty much, the opposite of austerity. (In any case, Cameron's administration knew that these cuts would not be expansionary, estimating that they'd cost more than a million jobs over five years.)

Similarly, with regards to the United States, Kevin Grier notes that "Federal spending is still [sic] than 30% higher than it was in January of 2007. State and Local spending is still around 12% higher than it was in January 2007. Is this really austerity? ... Can we really run a trillion dollar deficit and bemoan austerity simultaneously?"

I would tend to answer that question with a loud "No".* "Austerity" does not mean "not spending more on infrastructure". "Austerity" does not mean "not enacting a major jobs program". The U.S. did not continue to use fiscal stimulus at the same rate as the emergency measures taken in 2009, but that doesn't mean there's been all that much retrenchment. We haven't stopped mailing the food stamps. We haven't cut off Social Security payments. We haven't raised any taxes, and have cut quite a few. How is that austerity? Maybe that's not enough for Krugman's your taste -- and in fact I'd support higher deficits right now -- but fiscal transfers are political choices, subject to political pressures. Doing more now implies a greater burden for certain segments of the population later, and Obama's continued pursuit of a "millionaire's tax" and "Buffett rule" and "TBTF tax" and corporate tax reform and international corporate minimum tax just drives that point home.

So upper-income Americans don't have to believe in expansionary austerity to oppose further deficit spending; they just have to realize that when the bill does come due they'll be the ones paying it. They couldn't care less whether the fiscal multiplier is greater than 1 or not, because they won't be getting most of the benefit but will be paying almost all of the cost. Substitute "Germans" for "Upper-income Americans" and you're describing the Euro-crisis as well.

Drezner refers to an austerity "gospel", but I'm not seeing all that many true believers. I see it more as a competition between interests.

*Perhaps ironically, so does Krugman. From the article Drezner links: "True, the federal government has avoided all-out austerity" although he contradicts Grier by saying right after "But state and local governments, which must run more or less balanced budgets, have slashed spending and employment as federal aid runs out — and this has been a major drag on the overall economy". Grier provides data, so I'd tend to believe that he's more right, but Krugman usually doesn't make that sort of error so maybe a more nuanced perspective is needed.

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Definitely Not Expansionary, Maybe Not Even Austerity
 

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