What Krugman & Stiglitz Can Tell Us

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The economist Paul Krugman

Five years after the onset of the financial crisis that badly damaged the US economy, the nation remains mired in chronic joblessness. The unemployment rate, stubbornly above 8 percent, actually makes the situation look better than it is. Many millions have given up looking for work and no longer figure in the statistics. Long-term unemployment remains at levels unseen since the Great Depression. Young Americans are entering the worst job market in at least a half-century. For both the long-term unemployed and new job seekers, this sustained absence from the workforce will have permanent effects on both their earnings and their well-being. And not just theirs. We have all lost, and continue to lose, from the prolonged mass idleness of potentially productive workers.

Yet Washington is stuck in neutral. Worse than neutral; it is in reverse. As the last elements of the 2009 stimulus phase out, the initial flood of federal aid has slowed to a trickle. If no agreement is reached before early next year, the trickle will become a huge backward flow, as President Obama’s payroll tax cut and all the Bush tax cuts expire while automatic spending cuts agreed to in previous legislative sessions kick in. Already, Republican leaders are threatening to replay last year’s standoff over the debt ceiling. Meanwhile, state and local governments—prohibited from running sustained deficits, increasingly dominated by anti-spending forces—continue to cut aid to those out of work and slash programs that invest in the nation’s future while laying off teachers and other public workers. Without those layoffs, the current unemployment rate would probably be around 7 percent.

Against this backdrop, no book could be more timely than Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! Since the crisis began, Krugman has argued with consistency and increasing frustration that the United States has become caught not in a normal recession, but in a “liquidity trap.” Since interest rates are already at rock bottom, normal measures, such as easy credit, won’t work, and expanded government expenditures must play a central part in boosting anemic demand. Otherwise, the efforts of private citizens to pay down debts laid bare by the financial crisis will continue to hold the economy back.

To Krugman, this is all the more regrettable because it is almost wholly preventable. We know what to do, he argues: increase public spending and make it clear that monetary expansion will continue until the economy fully recovers. Krugman advocates greater federal aid to state and local governments, as well as an aggressive effort to relieve private mortgage debts. He also argues that the Fed has been too timid in setting higher inflation targets to restore expectations of growth. “Unfortunately,” Krugman writes,

we’re not using the knowledge we have, because too many people who matter—politicians, public officials, and the broader class of writers and talkers who define the conventional wisdom—have, for a variety of reasons,…

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