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After Austerity

NEW YORK – This year’s annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund made clear that Europe and the international community remain rudderless when it comes to economic policy. Financial leaders, from finance ministers to leaders of private financial institutions, reiterated the current mantra: the crisis countries have to get their houses in order, reduce their deficits, bring down their national debts, undertake structural reforms, and promote growth. Confidence, it was repeatedly said, needs to be restored.

It is a little precious to hear such pontifications from those who, at the helm of central banks, finance ministries, and private banks, steered the global financial system to the brink of ruin – and created the ongoing mess. Worse, seldom is it explained how to square the circle. How can confidence be restored as the crisis economies plunge into recession? How can growth be revived when austerity will almost surely mean a further decrease in aggregate demand, sending output and employment even lower?

This we should know by now: markets on their own are not stable. Not only do they repeatedly generate destabilizing asset bubbles, but, when demand weakens, forces that exacerbate the downturn come into play. Unemployment, and fear that it will spread, drives down wages, incomes, and consumption – and thus total demand. Decreased rates of household formation – young Americans, for example, are increasingly moving back in with their parents – depress housing prices, leading to still more foreclosures. States with balanced-budget frameworks are forced to cut spending as tax revenues fall – an automatic destabilizer that Europe seems mindlessly bent on adopting.

There are alternative strategies. Some countries, like Germany, have room for fiscal maneuver. Using it for investment would enhance long-term growth, with positive spillovers to the rest of Europe. A long-recognized principle is that balanced expansion of taxes and spending stimulates the economy; if the program is well designed (taxes at the top, combined with spending on education), the increase in GDP and employment can be significant.