Thursday, July 22, 2010

The false debate on austerity

The debate on austerity has brought a harsh confrontation between keynesians and anti-keynesians. This has been going on for sometime in the US with the 'deficit hawks' who claim that the US fiscal stimulus plans will lead to an unsustainable path of public finance . As Krugman argued, they just mess up with numbers; the US economy can cope with the federal debt burden- which is just above 60% of US GDP- which is exactly what the Maastricht criteria set as a limit for debt sustainability - thanks to low interest rates. Furthermore, it is rather obvious that ending the fiscal stimulus - or even tightening fiscal policy would just put the economy and jobs in peril.

Now, Niall Ferguson, a British historian, claims that keynesians haven't learnt anything from the 30s (FT July 20) . It is true that the world has changed since the 30s; we are much wealthier than at that time, although that wealth has led to greater inequalities among people. It is therefore difficult to compare deficits in the 30s with the fiscal situation today. In 1930, governments did not use monetary and fiscal policy to offset the contraction of economic activity as they did in 2008-2009.

In replying to Ferguson's anti-keynesian argument, Lord Skidelsky, author of a voluminous biography of Keynes, points out that ... expansionary fiscal policy (in the UK and the US) was ruled out by adherence to the doctrine of balanced budget; in the US, a large part of the banking system was allowed to collapse. Public policy, that is, was not used to counteract the fall in private spending. In 2008-09 all the tools available to government were broght into play - bail-out of banks, open market operations, fiscal stimulus. the reason for the different response was the change of theory associated with the name of Keynes" (FT July 22).

Another point made by Skidelsky is on the economics which underpins the anti-keynesian argument. There is, in fact, some analogy with the supporters of the 'Treasury view' which keynes fought vigorously and which argue that 'bond financed government spending was bound to "crowd out" private sector spending". The other well known argument is that multipliers are quite small because of the openness of the economies and therefore the demand effect leaks out to other economies. Recently, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that each dollar spent to assist the unemployed brought about $1.90 dollars in additional economic output.

Fiscal conservatism is not the solution to reduce uncertainty and restore confidence among private investors. Governments have allowed banks to act as they wanted, being aware of the risks of a financial meltdown. As a result of the banking crisis, millions of people lost their homes and savings and were left without any protection.

The debate is less between austerity and fiscal stimulus; it is about a fundamental choice in favour of policies which create jobs and provide decent incomes for those most in need.

1 comment:

  1. Mr Trichet does not seem to be anxious about the austerity drive. He calls (FT July 23) for ending fiscal stimulus and fiscal tightening for all because of rising public debt in euro area countries. 'Consolidation is a must' he says and rejects the idea that it might have a negative impact on growth in current circumstances. Whow are deflationary risks addressed? Will this help reducing mass unemployment, which is currently jeopardising our democratic societies? I think that these questions are being completely overlooked.