Governments Move to Cut Spending, in 1930s EchoGo read the original to get the full text and the embedded links.
The world’s rich countries are now conducting a dangerous experiment. They are repeating an economic policy out of the 1930s — starting to cut spending and raise taxes before a recovery is assured — and hoping today’s situation is different enough to assure a different outcome.
In effect, policy makers are betting that the private sector can make up for the withdrawal of stimulus over the next couple of years. If they’re right, they will have made a head start on closing their enormous budget deficits. If they’re wrong, they may set off a vicious new cycle, in which public spending cuts weaken the world economy and beget new private spending cuts.
On Tuesday, pessimism seemed the better bet. Stocks fell around the world, over worries about economic growth.
On the other hand, the most recent economic numbers have offered some reason for worry, and the coming fiscal tightening in this country won’t be much smaller than the 1930s version. From 1936 to 1938, when the Roosevelt administration believed that the Great Depression was largely over, tax increases and spending declines combined to equal 5 percent of gross domestic product.
The policy mistakes of the 1930s stemmed mostly from ignorance. John Maynard Keynes was still a practicing economist in those days, and his central insight about depressions — that governments need to spend when the private sector isn’t — was not widely understood. In the 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed to outdo Herbert Hoover by balancing the budget. Much of Europe was also tightening at the time.
If anything, the initial stages of our own recent crisis were more severe than the Great Depression. Global trade, industrial production and stocks all dropped more in 2008-9 than in 1929-30, as a study by Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H. O’Rourke found.
In 2008, though, policy makers in most countries knew to act aggressively. The Federal Reserve and other central banks flooded the world with cheap money. The United States, China, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Europe, increased spending and cut taxes.
It worked. By early last year, within six months of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, economies were starting to recover.
The recovery has continued this year, and it has the potential to create a virtuous cycle. Higher profits and incomes can lead to more spending — and yet higher profits and incomes. Government stimulus, in that case, would no longer be necessary.
The parallels to 1937 are not reassuring. From 1933 to 1937, the United States economy expanded more than 40 percent, even surpassing its 1929 high. But the recovery was still not durable enough to survive Roosevelt’s spending cuts and new Social Security tax. In 1938, the economy shrank 3.4 percent, and unemployment spiked.
Given this history, why would policy makers want to put on another fiscal hair shirt today?
The reasons for the new American austerity are subtler, but not shocking. Our economy remains in rough shape, by any measure. So it’s easy to confuse its condition (bad) with its direction (better) and to lose sight of how much worse it could be. The unyielding criticism from those who opposed stimulus from the get-go — laissez-faire economists, Congressional Republicans, German leaders — plays a role, too. They’re able to shout louder than the data.
In an ideal world, countries would pair more short-term spending and tax cuts with long-term spending cuts and tax increases. But not a single big country has figured out, politically, how to do that.
Instead, we are left to hope that we have absorbed just enough of the 1930s lesson.
Most of what I read says that despite the lack of stimulus, the US will squeak by with slim to no growth later this year and early next year. But my fear is that the crazies who push the stupid policy of "austerity" are going to push the US back into a second dip and prolong this Great Recession. It doesn't hurt big shots to call for austerity. They have wealth to pad themselves and they are generally secure in high paying jobs, so they don't feel the pinch of unemployment. It is easy to talk about going on a diet when you have a table laden with foods sitting in front of you. But it sure makes no sense to tell the family that can't afford food, let alone housing, that they should "trim" their food purchases!