Superstar economist Paul Krugman wants us to change course, but his solutions are simplistic.
By Jeremy Warner 386 Comments What does the future hold as Europe slides, ever more hopelessly, towards the abyss? As David Cameron has pointed out, there have been 18 EU summits since he became Prime Minister little more than two years ago, and none of them has produced anything remotely resembling a solution.
The stand-off got a whole lot worse this week. France and Germany are now in open conflict over the way forward, if indeed there is one. For the UK, already bleeding badly from the after-effects of the financial crisis, the situation could scarcely look more threatening.
The fiscal consolidation chosen by the Coalition was always likely to have a negative impact on output, at least in the short term. To make it work, the Government needed the following wind of decent growth elsewhere in the world economy. Instead, it’s facing a hurricane. We look set to be broken by the storm.
But fear not – salvation is at hand. Next week, there comes to these shores a Messiah, a prophet of great wisdom and understanding whose teachings promise to vanquish despair and “end this depression”. He is Prof Paul Krugman, a superstar polemicist who has been described by The Economist as “the most celebrated economist of his generation”. Actually, “celebrated” is not exactly the right word, for Krugman divides opinion like no other. To his followers, he’s a saint; to his detractors, he’s a false prophet with satanic intent.
I’ve been a little misleading here. He’s not really coming to Britain to save us, but rather to promote his latest book, End This Depression Now! Krugman is an economist with attitude, and he thinks Britain is in the midst of a “massive blunder” in economic policy. The UK is the very worst example of austerity economics, he believes, for unlike the poor beleaguered nations of the eurozone periphery, we’ve not had this misery forced on us by the ghastly euro, but have opted for it as an unnecessary penance for the sins of the boom. If only we could be persuaded to forsake “Osbornomics” and tread the path originally set out by our dearly beloved former leader, Gordon Brown – that of spending our way back to growth – then all would be well again.
Put like that, of course, it sounds ridiculous, but the fact that Krugman is a Nobel prize-winning economist gives Labour’s calls for a U-turn on the economy an intellectual credibility they would otherwise struggle to attain.
All the great economists – from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes – were as much moral philosophers as dispassionate analysts of events, and Krugman is no exception, preaching his message with all the passion of the religious zealot. He feels our pain and begs us to let him help. “The road out of depression and back to full employment is still wide open,” he insists. “We don’t have to suffer like this.”
Krugman may appear loud and radical, but he follows a fairly standard Keynesian text. By his own admission, the social cost of the present downturn doesn’t come anywhere close to the Great Depression of the interwar years, or not yet. None the less, there are parallels, and we already meet Keynes’s classic definition of a depression as a “chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards complete collapse”.
In such circumstances, monetary policy can help, but only up to a point. In a depression, even those with the balance sheet strength to spend and invest won’t do so, whatever the encouragement offered through ultra-low interest rates. It follows that governments should step into the breach and do the job instead, as a kind of spender of last resort. They can worry about the accumulated debt later, once output has picked up again.
To Krugman, it’s understandable that policymakers screwed up so monumentally in the Great Depression; they didn’t understand what was going on and there was no template for the circumstances they found themselves in. To his mind, there is no excuse this time around; it’s textbook stuff, which is being wilfully ignored.
But haven’t we already tried borrowing to stimulate? And what did it deliver other than fiscal ruin, which in the eurozone periphery is so serious that markets have stopped lending altogether? Krugman has an answer for these questions, too. It’s not the policy that was wrong, merely that the stimulus wasn’t big and sustained enough. As for the eurozone, again, it wasn’t the policy, but the euro. Countries with their own currencies and central banks won’t run into this kind of problem. In extremis, they can always print the money.
Easy peasy, then. What’s not to like? Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. It may or may not be possible for a vast, largely internalised economy such as the US, with its reserve currency status, to run double-digit deficits into the indefinite future without adverse consequences, but for the UK it is a much more questionable policy.
True, Britain has lived with much higher debts relative to GDP in the past, but this has nearly always coincided with major wars. With demilitarisation, much of this borrowing to spend falls away and domestic consumption comes roaring back. No such get-out-of-jail-free card exists this time around. Further, the demographic is completely different from that of the post-war baby boom generation, where growth and therefore debt erosion were more or less guaranteed. Today, the unfunded liabilities of an ageing population stretch menacingly into the long-term future.
As it is, government spending in the UK is already approaching 50 per cent of GDP. Just how high does Prof Krugman propose it should go? It’s all very well to say “jobs first” and worry about the deficit later, but once government spending becomes entrenched, it’s very difficult to get rid of it. Even Reagan and Thatcher struggled to make significant inroads.
In any case, the picture Krugman presents of wrong-headed British austerity is a caricature of the reality, though one admittedly encouraged by the Coalition’s rhetoric. Yesterday’s revised GDP figures, showing that the country is even deeper in recession than we thought, would appear to support the mocking tone in which Krugman condemns the idea of “expansionary austerity”. But where is this austerity? In fact, one of the few positive contributors to output in the last quarter was government spending, which grew by 1.6 per cent. Krugman seems to have forgotten the automatic stabilisers, which because of our welfare state are considerably bigger than in the US. In America, much current UK spending would count as a discretionary fiscal stimulus of the sort End This Depression Now! advocates.
As Raghuram Rajan, a former IMF chief economist, has argued, today’s troubles are not simply the result of inadequate demand, but of major changes in the world economy brought about by globalisation. The old monopoly of knowledge and expertise once enjoyed by advanced economies has been swept away. For decades, we compensated for the jobs and income lost to technology and cheaper foreign competition with unaffordable government spending and easy credit. Much of the growth enjoyed in these pre-crisis years was simply unsustainable.
Paul Krugman’s message is seductive, but it’s also unrealistic. If only the solutions to our plight were as simple as he thinks.
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