Messed-Up Macro

ITHACA – Until a few years ago, economists of all persuasions confidently proclaimed that the Great Depression would never recur. In a way, they were right. After the financial crisis of 2008 erupted, we got the Great Recession instead. Governments managed to limit the damage by pumping huge amounts of money into the global economy and slashing interest rates to near zero. But, having cut off the downward slide of 2008-2009, they ran out of intellectual and political ammunition.

Economic advisers assured their bosses that recovery would be rapid. And there was some revival; but then it stalled in 2010. Meanwhile, governments were running large deficits – a legacy of the economic downturn – which renewed growth was supposed to shrink. In the eurozone, countries like Greece faced sovereign-debt crises as bank bailouts turned private debt into public debt.

Attention switched to the problem of fiscal deficits and the relationship between deficits and economic growth. Should governments deliberately expand their deficits to offset the fall in household and investment demand? Or should they try to cut public spending in order to free up money for private spending?

Depending on which macroeconomic theory one held, both could be presented as pro-growth policies. The first might cause the economy to expand, because the government was increasing public spending; the second, because they were cutting it. Keynesian theory suggests the first; governments unanimously put their faith in the second.