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How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled

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Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama and Representative Paul Ryan at a bipartisan meeting on health insurance reform, Washington, D.C., February 2010

In normal times, an arithmetic mistake in an economics paper would be a complete nonevent as far as the wider world was concerned. But in April 2013, the discovery of such a mistake—actually, a coding error in a spreadsheet, coupled with several other flaws in the analysis—not only became the talk of the economics profession, but made headlines. Looking back, we might even conclude that it changed the course of policy.

Why? Because the paper in question, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” by the Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, had acquired touchstone status in the debate over economic policy. Ever since the paper was first circulated, austerians—advocates of fiscal austerity, of immediate sharp cuts in government spending—had cited its alleged findings to defend their position and attack their critics. Again and again, suggestions that, as John Maynard Keynes once argued, “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity”—that cuts should wait until economies were stronger—were met with declarations that Reinhart and Rogoff had shown that waiting would be disastrous, that economies fall off a cliff once government debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP.

Indeed, Reinhart-Rogoff may have had more immediate influence on public debate than any previous paper in the history of economics. The 90 percent claim was cited as the decisive argument for austerity by figures ranging from Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential candidate who chairs the House budget committee, to Olli Rehn, the top economic official at the European Commission, to the editorial board of The Washington Post. So the revelation that the supposed 90 percent threshold was an artifact of programming mistakes, data omissions, and peculiar statistical techniques suddenly made a remarkable number of prominent people look foolish.

The real mystery, however, was why Reinhart-Rogoff was ever taken seriously, let alone canonized, in the first place. Right from the beginning, critics raised strong concerns about the paper’s methodology and conclusions, concerns that should have been enough to give everyone pause. Moreover, Reinhart-Rogoff was actually the second example of a paper seized on as decisive evidence in favor of austerity economics, only to fall apart on careful scrutiny. Much the same thing happened, albeit less spectacularly, after austerians became infatuated with a paper by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna purporting to show that slashing government spending would have little adverse impact on economic growth and might even be expansionary. Surely that experience should have inspired some caution.

So why wasn’t there more caution? The answer, as documented by some of the books reviewed here and unintentionally illustrated by others, lies in both politics and psychology: the case for austerity was and is one that many powerful people want to believe, leading them to seize on anything that looks like a justification. I’ll talk about that will to believe later in this article. First, however, it’s useful to trace the recent history of austerity both as a doctrine and as a policy experiment.

1.

In the beginning was the bubble. There have been many, many books about the excesses of the boom years—in fact, too many books. For as we’ll see, the urge to dwell on the lurid details of the boom, rather than trying to understand the dynamics of the slump, is a recurrent problem for economics and economic policy. For now, suffice it to say that by the beginning of 2008 both America and Europe were poised for a fall. They had become excessively dependent on an overheated housing market, their households were too deep in debt, their financial sectors were undercapitalized and overextended.

All that was needed to collapse these houses of cards was some kind of adverse shock, and in the end the implosion of US subprime-based securities did the deed. By the fall of 2008 the housing bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic had burst, and the whole North Atlantic economy was caught up in “deleveraging,” a process in which many debtors try—or are forced—to pay down their debts at the same time.

Why is this a problem? Because of interdependence: your spending is my income, and my spending is your income. If both of us try to reduce our debt by slashing spending, both of our incomes plunge—and plunging incomes can actually make our indebtedness worse even as they also produce mass unemployment.

Students of economic history watched the process unfolding in 2008 and 2009 with a cold shiver of recognition, because it was very obviously the same kind of process that brought on the Great Depression. Indeed, early in 2009 the economic historians Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke produced shocking charts showing that the first year of the 2008–2009 slump in trade and industrial production was fully comparable to the first year of the great global slump from 1929 to 1933.

So was a second Great Depression about to unfold? The good news was that we had, or thought we had, several big advantages over our grandfathers, helping to limit the damage. Some of these advantages were, you might say, structural, built into the way modern economies operate, and requiring no special action on the part of policymakers. Others were intellectual: surely we had learned something since the 1930s, and would not repeat our grandfathers’ policy mistakes.

On the structural side, probably the biggest advantage over the 1930s was the way taxes and social insurance programs—both much bigger than they were in 1929—acted as “automatic stabilizers.” Wages might fall, but overall income didn’t fall in proportion, both because tax collections plunged and because government checks continued to flow for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, and more. In effect, the existence of the modern welfare state put a floor on total spending, and therefore prevented the economy’s downward spiral from going too far.

On the intellectual side, modern policymakers knew the history of the Great Depression as a cautionary tale; some, including Ben Bernanke, had actually been major Depression scholars in their previous lives. They had learned from Milton Friedman the folly of letting bank runs collapse the financial system and the desirability of flooding the economy with money in times of panic. They had learned from John Maynard Keynes that under depression conditions government spending can be an effective way to create jobs. They had learned from FDR’s disastrous turn toward austerity in 1937 that abandoning monetary and fiscal stimulus too soon can be a very big mistake.

As a result, where the onset of the Great Depression was accompanied by policies that intensified the slump—interest rate hikes in an attempt to hold on to gold reserves, spending cuts in an attempt to balance budgets—2008 and 2009 were characterized by expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, especially in the United States, where the Federal Reserve not only slashed interest rates, but stepped into the markets to buy everything from commercial paper to long-term government debt, while the Obama administration pushed through an $800 billion program of tax cuts and spending increases. European actions were less dramatic—but on the other hand, Europe’s stronger welfare states arguably reduced the need for deliberate stimulus.

Now, some economists (myself included) warned from the beginning that these monetary and fiscal actions, although welcome, were too small given the severity of the economic shock. Indeed, by the end of 2009 it was clear that although the situation had stabilized, the economic crisis was deeper than policymakers had acknowledged, and likely to prove more persistent than they had imagined. So one might have expected a second round of stimulus to deal with the economic shortfall.

What actually happened, however, was a sudden reversal.

2.

Neil Irwin’s The Alchemists gives us a time and a place at which the major advanced countries abruptly pivoted from stimulus to austerity. The time was early February 2010; the place, somewhat bizarrely, was the remote Canadian Arctic settlement of Iqaluit, where the Group of Seven finance ministers held one of their regularly scheduled summits. Sometimes (often) such summits are little more than ceremonial occasions, and there was plenty of ceremony at this one too, including raw seal meat served at the last dinner (the foreign visitors all declined). But this time something substantive happened. “In the isolation of the Canadian wilderness,” Irwin writes, “the leaders of the world economy collectively agreed that their great challenge had shifted. The economy seemed to be healing; it was time for them to turn their attention away from boosting growth. No more stimulus.”

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How decisive was the turn in policy? Figure 1, which is taken from the IMF’s most recent World Economic Outlook, shows how real government spending behaved in this crisis compared with previous recessions; in the figure, year zero is the year before global recession (2008 in the current slump), and spending is compared with its level in that base year. What you see is that the widespread belief that we are experiencing runaway government spending is false—on the contrary, after a brief surge in 2009, government spending began falling in both Europe and the United States, and is now well below its normal trend. The turn to austerity was very real, and quite large.

On the face of it, this was a very strange turn for policy to take. Standard textbook economics says that slashing government spending reduces overall demand, which leads in turn to reduced output and employment. This may be a desirable thing if the economy is overheating and inflation is rising; alternatively, the adverse effects of reduced government spending can be offset. Central banks (the Fed, the European Central Bank, or their counterparts elsewhere) can cut interest rates, inducing more private spending. However, neither of these conditions applied in early 2010, or for that matter apply now. The major advanced economies were and are deeply depressed, with no hint of inflationary pressure. Meanwhile, short-term interest rates, which are more or less under the central bank’s control, are near zero, leaving little room for monetary policy to offset reduced government spending. So Economics 101 would seem to say that all the austerity we’ve seen is very premature, that it should wait until the economy is stronger.

The question, then, is why economic leaders were so ready to throw the textbook out the window.

One answer is that many of them never believed in that textbook stuff in the first place. The German political and intellectual establishment has never had much use for Keynesian economics; neither has much of the Republican Party in the United States. In the heat of an acute economic crisis—as in the autumn of 2008 and the winter of 2009—these dissenting voices could to some extent be shouted down; but once things had calmed they began pushing back hard.

A larger answer is the one we’ll get to later: the underlying political and psychological reasons why many influential figures hate the notions of deficit spending and easy money. Again, once the crisis became less acute, there was more room to indulge in these sentiments.

In addition to these underlying factors, however, were two more contingent aspects of the situation in early 2010: the new crisis in Greece, and the appearance of seemingly rigorous, high-quality economic research that supported the austerian position.

The Greek crisis came as a shock to almost everyone, not least the new Greek government that took office in October 2009. The incoming leadership knew it faced a budget deficit—but it was only after arriving that it learned that the previous government had been cooking the books, and that both the deficit and the accumulated stock of debt were far higher than anyone imagined. As the news sank in with investors, first Greece, then much of Europe, found itself in a new kind of crisis—one not of failing banks but of failing governments, unable to borrow on world markets.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, and the Greek crisis was a godsend for anti-Keynesians. They had been warning about the dangers of deficit spending; the Greek debacle seemed to show just how dangerous fiscal profligacy can be. To this day, anyone arguing against fiscal austerity, let alone suggesting that we need another round of stimulus, can expect to be attacked as someone who will turn America (or Britain, as the case may be) into another Greece.

If Greece provided the obvious real-world cautionary tale, Reinhart and Rogoff seemed to provide the math. Their paper seemed to show not just that debt hurts growth, but that there is a “threshold,” a sort of trigger point, when debt crosses 90 percent of GDP. Go beyond that point, their numbers suggested, and economic growth stalls. Greece, of course, already had debt greater than the magic number. More to the point, major advanced countries, the United States included, were running large budget deficits and closing in on the threshold. Put Greece and Reinhart-Rogoff together, and there seemed to be a compelling case for a sharp, immediate turn toward austerity.

But wouldn’t such a turn toward austerity in an economy still depressed by private deleveraging have an immediate negative impact? Not to worry, said another remarkably influential academic paper, “Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending,” by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna.

One of the especially good things in Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea is the way he traces the rise and fall of the idea of “expansionary austerity,” the proposition that cutting spending would actually lead to higher output. As he shows, this is very much a proposition associated with a group of Italian economists (whom he dubs “the Bocconi boys”) who made their case with a series of papers that grew more strident and less qualified over time, culminating in the 2009 analysis by Alesina and Ardagna.

In essence, Alesina and Ardagna made a full frontal assault on the Keynesian proposition that cutting spending in a weak economy produces further weakness. Like Reinhart and Rogoff, they marshaled historical evidence to make their case. According to Alesina and Ardagna, large spending cuts in advanced countries were, on average, followed by expansion rather than contraction. The reason, they suggested, was that decisive fiscal austerity created confidence in the private sector, and this increased confidence more than offset any direct drag from smaller government outlays.

As Mark Blyth documents, this idea spread like wildfire. Alesina and Ardagna made a special presentation in April 2010 to the Economic and Financial Affairs Council of the European Council of Ministers; the analysis quickly made its way into official pronouncements from the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Thus in June 2010 Jean-Claude Trichet, the then president of the ECB, dismissed concerns that austerity might hurt growth:

As regards the economy, the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect…. In fact, in these circumstances, everything that helps to increase the confidence of households, firms and investors in the sustainability of public finances is good for the consolidation of growth and job creation. I firmly believe that in the current circumstances confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery, because confidence is the key factor today.

This was straight Alesina-Ardagna.

By the summer of 2010, then, a full-fledged austerity orthodoxy had taken shape, becoming dominant in European policy circles and influential on this side of the Atlantic. So how have things gone in the almost three years that have passed since?

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