Austerity Politics, Then and Now

PRINCETON – Britain’s policy of fiscal consolidation, recently announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, sent shock waves around the world. Osborne argued that Britain was on the brink: that there was no alternative to his policy if the country was to avoid a massive crisis of confidence.

Other countries, such as Greece, needed to have a full-blown crisis in order to prompt such adjustment measures, whereas Britain was acting prudently and preemptively. If Britain, with a relatively low share of public debt to GDP (64.6%) is worried, the implication is that many other countries should be much more concerned.

But drastic attempts at fiscal consolidation immediately evoke memories of the Great Depression. Andrew Mellon, the United States Treasury Secretary at the time, talked about liquidating workers, farmers, stocks, and real estate in order “to purge the rottenness out of the system.” In Britain back then, Philip Snowden, a small man with a narrow, pinched face, who needed a cane to walk, seemed to want to remake the British economy in his physical image.

Given these historical analogies, a slew of heavyweight Keynesian critics are warning that the world is about to repeat all the disasters caused by bad fiscal policy in the 1930’s. But this interpretation of the Great Depression, common though it is, is misguided.