Clear evidence on the effects of economic policy is usually hard to come by. Governments generally change policies reluctantly, and it’s hard to distinguish the effects of the half-measures they undertake from all the other things going on in the world. The Obama stimulus, for example, was both temporary and fairly small compared with the size of the US economy, never amounting to much more than 2 percent of GDP, and it took effect in an economy whipsawed by the biggest financial crisis in three generations. How much of what took place in 2009–2011, good or bad, can be attributed to the stimulus? Nobody really knows.
The turn to austerity after 2010, however, was so drastic, particularly in European debtor nations, that the usual cautions lose most of their force. Greece imposed spending cuts and tax increases amounting to 15 percent of GDP; Ireland and Portugal rang in with around 6 percent; and unlike the half-hearted efforts at stimulus, these cuts were sustained and indeed intensified year after year. So how did austerity actually work?
The answer is that the results were disastrous—just about as one would have predicted from textbook macroeconomics. Figure 2, for example, shows what happened to a selection of European nations (each represented by a diamond-shaped symbol). The horizontal axis shows austerity measures—spending cuts and tax increases—as a share of GDP, as estimated by the International Monetary Fund. The vertical axis shows the actual percentage change in real GDP. As you can see, the countries forced into severe austerity experienced very severe downturns, and the downturns were more or less proportional to the degree of austerity.
There have been some attempts to explain away these results, notably at the European Commission. But the IMF, looking hard at the data, has not only concluded that austerity has had major adverse economic effects, it has issued what amounts to a mea culpa for having underestimated these adverse effects.*
But is there any alternative to austerity? What about the risks of excessive debt?
In early 2010, with the Greek disaster fresh in everyone’s mind, the risks of excessive debt seemed obvious; those risks seemed even greater by 2011, as Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Italy joined the ranks of nations having to pay large interest rate premiums. But a funny thing happened to other countries with high debt levels, including Japan, the United States, and Britain: despite large deficits and rapidly rising debt, their borrowing costs remained very low. The crucial difference, as the Belgian economist Paul DeGrauwe pointed out, seemed to be whether countries had their own currencies, and borrowed in those currencies. Such countries can’t run out of money because they can print it if needed, and absent the risk of a cash squeeze, advanced nations are evidently able to carry quite high levels of debt without crisis.
Three years after the turn to austerity, then, both the hopes and the fears of the austerians appear to have been misplaced. Austerity did not lead to a surge in confidence; deficits did not lead to crisis. But wasn’t the austerity movement grounded in serious economic research? Actually, it turned out that it wasn’t—the research the austerians cited was deeply flawed.
First to go down was the notion of expansionary austerity. Even before the results of Europe’s austerity experiment were in, the Alesina-Ardagna paper was falling apart under scrutiny. Researchers at the Roosevelt Institute pointed out that none of the alleged examples of austerity leading to expansion of the economy actually took place in the midst of an economic slump; researchers at the IMF found that the Alesina-Ardagna measure of fiscal policy bore little relationship to actual policy changes. “By the middle of 2011,” Blyth writes, “empirical and theoretical support for expansionary austerity was slipping away.” Slowly, with little fanfare, the whole notion that austerity might actually boost economies slunk off the public stage.
Reinhart-Rogoff lasted longer, even though serious questions about their work were raised early on. As early as July 2010 Josh Bivens and John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute had identified both a clear mistake—a misinterpretation of US data immediately after World War II—and a severe conceptual problem. Reinhart and Rogoff, as they pointed out, offered no evidence that the correlation ran from high debt to low growth rather than the other way around, and other evidence suggested that the latter was more likely. But such criticisms had little impact; for austerians, one might say, Reinhart-Rogoff was a story too good to check.
So the revelations in April 2013 of the errors of Reinhart and Rogoff came as a shock. Despite their paper’s influence, Reinhart and Rogoff had not made their data widely available—and researchers working with seemingly comparable data hadn’t been able to reproduce their results. Finally, they made their spreadsheet available to Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—and he found it very odd indeed. There was one actual coding error, although that made only a small contribution to their conclusions. More important, their data set failed to include the experience of several Allied nations—Canada, New Zealand, and Australia—that emerged from World War II with high debt but nonetheless posted solid growth. And they had used an odd weighting scheme in which each “episode” of high debt counted the same, whether it occurred during one year of bad growth or seventeen years of good growth.
Without these errors and oddities, there was still a negative correlation between debt and growth—but this could be, and probably was, mostly a matter of low growth leading to high debt, not the other way around. And the “threshold” at 90 percent vanished, undermining the scare stories being used to sell austerity.
Not surprisingly, Reinhart and Rogoff have tried to defend their work; but their responses have been weak at best, evasive at worst. Notably, they continue to write in a way that suggests, without stating outright, that debt at 90 percent of GDP is some kind of threshold at which bad things happen. In reality, even if one ignores the issue of causality—whether low growth causes high debt or the other way around—the apparent effects on growth of debt rising from, say, 85 to 95 percent of GDP are fairly small, and don’t justify the debt panic that has been such a powerful influence on policy.
At this point, then, austerity economics is in a very bad way. Its predictions have proved utterly wrong; its founding academic documents haven’t just lost their canonized status, they’ve become the objects of much ridicule. But as I’ve pointed out, none of this (except that Excel error) should have come as a surprise: basic macroeconomics should have told everyone to expect what did, in fact, happen, and the papers that have now fallen into disrepute were obviously flawed from the start.
This raises the obvious question: Why did austerity economics get such a powerful grip on elite opinion in the first place?