Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: Magic Asterisks v. Cross-Country Analysis

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The Great Debate Continues–The Austerity v. Stimulus Referendum of 2014:

It has been over 6 years since the beginning of “The Great Recession”. As the stimulus vs. austerity debate rages on, it is worthwhile to evaluate the efficacy of these competing economic ideologies, as they are essentially up for referendum in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections.

It is almost impossible to find truly neutral economic analysis; there are experts and spin-doctors across the political spectrum, people whose jobs are to cherry-pick facts and provide anecdotes to vindicate their positions. I try my best to be objective, but I am sure that my progressive biases are evident to my readers.

One thing that cannot be faked, at least in modern democracies, is macroeconomic history (thanks to advances in data collection, government budgetary transparency / accountability and communications technologies). So what have the past 6 years taught us?

On one hand, the doctrine of “expansionary austerity” relies on “magic asterisks“–the math doesn’t add up. This is not just a liberal claim, it is backed up by the [absence of] economic growth in countries and states that have tried / been force-fed the bitter pill of “expansionary austerity”.

On the other hand, robust, cross-country analyses of post-Great Recession economic policies, carried out by the IMF, have [slowly] acknowledged the damage caused by austerity / benefits of stimulus spending (and this is the IMF here, not exactly a pro-poor institution).

The Case For Austerity–Magic asterisks:

At the state level, Republican governors — and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, in particular — have been going all in on tax cuts despite troubled budgets, with confident assertions that growth will solve all problems. It’s not happening, and in Kansas a rebellion by moderates may deliver the state to Democrats. But the true believers show no sign of wavering.

the nature of the budget debate means that Republican leaders need to believe in the ways of magic. For years people like Mr. Ryan have posed as champions of fiscal discipline even while advocating huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. They have also called for savage cuts in aid to the poor, but these have never been big enough to offset the revenue loss. So how can they make things add up?

Well, for years they have relied on magic asterisks — claims that they will make up for lost revenue by closing loopholes and slashing spending, details to follow. But this dodge has been losing effectiveness as the years go by and the specifics keep not coming…

The Case For Stimulus–IMF Cross Country Analysis:

The International Monetary Fund, showing heightened concern over a slowing world economy, said on Tuesday that cash-rich countries like Germany needed to step up large public investments to help keep the flagging global recovery on track.

Its estimate for United States growth in 2015, 3.1 percent, outpaces all major industrialized countries and exceeds as well a number of emerging markets, which in theory are supposed to grow at a substantially more rapid clip.

The fund unveiled this week a paper arguing that large-scale infrastructure investments, if properly undertaken, could bring relatively quick growth benefits — a message that seemed to be directed at deficit-obsessed eurozone governments, including Germany.

“Infrastructure investment, even if debt-financed, may well be justified,” Olivier Blanchard, the fund’s senior economist, said at the news conference on Tuesday.

Mr. Blanchard pointed out that with interest rates at modern-day lows — Germany can borrow money for 10 years at below 1 percent — taking on extra debt to stimulate the economy need not be seen as profligacy.

He offered up a brief economic primer to underscore his point. “It is an irony of macroeconomics,” he said with a small smile, “that for countries with too much debt, sometimes the solution is to create more debt.”

Mr. Blanchard, who oversees economic research at the I.M.F., was behind the fund’s public recognition two years ago that heavy-handed austerity policies in Europe had a larger-than-expected impact on economic growth.

Now, it seems, the global watchdog seems to be going one step further by urging eurozone officials to relax their rigid austerity measures.

What Does “American Exceptionalism” Mean to You?:

In America, those who oppose stimulus spending–fiscal conservatives–also tend to believe in “American Exceptionalism”. What happens in other countries is not relevant to America; “we’re special”, they claim.

These same opponents of stimulus spending may also argue (with negative connotation) that “the U.S. is turning into Europe”. However,  as you can see from the graphs at the top of the post, the U.S. has far lower spending and unemployment rates than other wealthy economies.

The great irony, which I am sure is lost on those who worry about the “eurofication” of America, is that it was in large part our ability to pursue policies that they would consider “European” (the ARRA, QE), that enabled the U.S. to lead the global economic recovery.

I too believe in “American Exceptionalism”. To me, however, this exceptionalism is more about the extra-territorial obligations that come with being the world’s strongest economy, military, and reserve currency, than an heir of hubris which precludes considering the experiences of other countries when drafting policy. But that’s just my opinion.

Debt Sustainability, MMT, and Context Sensitive Macroeconomics:

The issue of debt sustainability, however, is far less subjective. America’s relatively high growth rates, and historically low interest rates (thanks to central bank independence and a sterling history of honoring our debts), make stimulus spending both feasible and fiscally responsible.

I am not fully sold on the merits of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), it seems too radical to me. I am, however, a proponent of context sensitive macroeconomics; expansionary fiscal policy (stimulus spending) is appropriate now, but may not always be. However, the temporal nature of democratic politics makes offering future deficit reductions in exchange for stimulus spending, impracticable (which is unfortunate, as this approach is just what the doctor ordered). 

Government spending need not take the form of “paying people to dig holes and then refill them”, a picture anti-government proponents love to paint. There are glaring infrastructure weaknesses that pose serious problems from both public safety and economic perspectives.

Furthermore, in the current context, government spending would not “crowd out” private investment. In fact, if properly enacted, stimulus spending should increase private spending. Governments around the world are increasingly embracing public private partnerships (PPP)–leveraging public money to raise private funds when it serves both sectors interests (such as infrastructure spending, job training, etc).

Corporate cash hording, despite very low interest rates, suggests that private companies are able and would be willing to spend more if either a) the government contributes funding (PPP), or b) aggregate demand increased (which in the short run can be catalyzed either by increasing government spending, or by putting more money in the hands of those with the highest marginal propensity to consume–poorer people).

Of course, there are limits to what stimulus spending can achieve. The “multiplier” effect of a stimulus program depends on the necessity, targetability, efficiency, and accountability of its components. Beyond government spending, major policy changes, such as tax reform and minimum wage increases, are also desperately needed.

Liberal economic policies in the U.S. cannot fix the world’s problems, but they can increase American growth, set our economy up for higher future growth rates, and rekindle “The American Dream”. The U.S can lead both by action and example, serving as a model for other countries to emulate as best they can.

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