Well, I was going going to write an overview of my thoughts on the Tory strategy of cuts and austerity that they are launching on us all today. Then I read an article by Joseph Stiglitz, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, USA. Quite honestly, I couldn’t hope to come near expressing it any better. So I’m going to do something which I try to avoid and just post the text here in full.
The Keynesian policies in the aftermath of the Lehman brothers bankruptcy were a triumph of economic theory. In Europe, the US and Asia, the stimulus packages worked. Those countries that had the largest (relative to the size of their economy) and best-designed packages did best. China, for instance, maintained growth at a rate in excess of 8%, despite a massive decline in exports. In the US the stimulus was both too small and poorly designed – 40% of it went on household tax cuts, which were known not to provide much bang for the buck – and yet unemployment was reduced from what it otherwise would have been – over 12% – to 10%.
The stimulus was always thought of as a stopgap measure until the private sector could recover. In some countries, such as the US, politics rather than economics drove the size and design, with the result that they were too small and less effective than they might have been. Still, they worked. Now, financial markets – the same shortsighted markets that created the crisis – are focusing on soaring deficits and debts.
We should be clear. Most of the increase is not due to the stimulus but to the downturns and the bank bailouts. Those in the financial market are egging on politicians to ask whether we can afford another stimulus. I argue that Britain, and the world, cannot afford not to have another stimulus. We cannot afford austerity. In a better world, we might rightfully debate the size of the public sector. Even now there should be a debate about how government spends its money. But today cutbacks in spending will weaken Britain, and even worsen its long-term fiscal position relative to well-designed government spending.
There is a shortage of aggregate demand – the demand for goods and services that generates jobs. Cutbacks in government spending will mean lower output and higher unemployment, unless something else fills the gap. Monetary policy won’t. Short-term interest rates can’t go any lower, and quantitative easing is not likely to substantially reduce the long-term interest rates government pays – and is even less likely to lead to substantial increases either in consumption or investment. If only one country does it, it might hope to gain an advantage through the weakening of its currency; but if anything the US is more likely to succeed in weakening its currency against sterling through its aggressive quantitative easing, worsening Britain’s trade position.
Of course if Britain succeeds in getting the world to believe that its economic policies are among the worst – an admittedly fierce contest at the moment – its currency may decline, but this is hardly the road to a recovery. Besides, in the malaise into which the global economy is sinking, the challenge will be to maintain exports; they can’t be relied on as a substitute for domestic demand. The few instances where small countries managed to grow in the face of austerity were those where their trading partners were experiencing a boom.
Lower aggregate demand will mean lower tax revenues. But cutbacks in investments in education, technology and infrastructure will be even more costly in future. For they will spell lower growth – and lower revenues. Indeed, higher unemployment itself, especially if it is persistent, will result in a deterioration of skills, in effect the destruction of human capital, a phenomena which Europe experienced in the eighties and which is called hysteresis. Lower tax revenues now and in the future combined with lower growth imply a higher national debt, and an even higher debt-to-GDP ratio.
Matters may be even worse if consumers and investors realise this. Advocates of austerity believe that mystically, as the deficits come down, confidence in the economy will be restored and investment will boom. For 75 years there has been a contest between this theory and Keynesian theory, which argued that spending more now, especially on public investments (or tax cuts designed to encourage private investment) was more likely to restore growth, even though it increased the deficit.
The two prescriptions could not have been more different. Thanks to the IMF, multiple experiments have been conducted – for instance, in east Asia in 1997-98 and a little later in Argentina – and almost all come to the same conclusion: the Keynesian prescription works. Austerity converts downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions. The confidence fairy that the austerity advocates claim will appear never does, partly perhaps because the downturns mean that the deficit reductions are always smaller than was hoped.
Consumers and investors, knowing this and seeing the deteriorating competitive position, the depreciation of human capital and infrastructure, the country’s worsening balance sheet, increasing social tensions, and recognising the inevitability of future tax increases to make up for losses as the economy stagnates, may even cut back on their consumption and investment, worsening the downward spiral.
No business with a potential for making investments yielding high returns would pass up the opportunity to make these investments if it could get access to capital at very low interest rates. But this is what austerity means for the UK.
Critics say government won’t spend the money well. To be sure, there will be waste – though not on the scale that the private sector in the US and Europe wasted money in the years before 2008. But even if money is not spent perfectly, if experience of the past is a guide to the future, the returns on government investments in education, technology and infrastructure are far higher than the government’s cost of capital. Besides, the choices facing the country are bleak. If the government doesn’t spend this money there will be massive waste of resources as its capital and human resources are under-utilised.
Britain is embarking on a highly risky experiment. More likely than not, it will add one more data point to the well- established result that austerity in the midst of a downturn lowers GDP and increases unemployment, and excessive austerity can have long-lasting effects.
If Britain were wealthier, or if the prospects of success were greater, it might be a risk worth taking. But it is a gamble with almost no potential upside. Austerity is a gamble which Britain can ill afford.
So there it is. A very long quote and not a lot of actual writing from me. Feels like being an actual journalist. No doubt I’ll be writing more over the day. In the mean time, let this sink in. Because Stiglitz has it spot on. Austerity is a risk too far for the UK.