sexta-feira, 17 de maio de 2013

Paul Krugman: How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled

Ótimo artigo resenha do Krugman no último número da NYRB.

The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire
by Neil Irwin
Penguin, 430 pp., $29.95

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
by Mark Blyth
Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $24.95

The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America
by David A. Stockman
PublicAffairs, 742 pp., $35.00

In normal times, an arithmetic mistake in an economics paper would be a complete nonevent as far as the wider world was concerned. But in April 2013, the discovery of such a mistake—actually, a coding error in a spreadsheet, coupled with several other flaws in the analysis—not only became the talk of the economics profession, but made headlines. Looking back, we might even conclude that it changed the course of policy.

Why? Because the paper in question, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” by the Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, had acquired touchstone status in the debate over economic policy. Ever since the paper was first circulated, austerians—advocates of fiscal austerity, of immediate sharp cuts in government spending—had cited its alleged findings to defend their position and attack their critics. Again and again, suggestions that, as John Maynard Keynes once argued, “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity”—that cuts should wait until economies were stronger—were met with declarations that Reinhart and Rogoff had shown that waiting would be disastrous, that economies fall off a cliff once government debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP.

Indeed, Reinhart-Rogoff may have had more immediate influence on public debate than any previous paper in the history of economics. The 90 percent claim was cited as the decisive argument for austerity by figures ranging from Paul Ryan, the former vice-presidential candidate who chairs the House budget committee, to Olli Rehn, the top economic official at the European Commission, to the editorial board of The Washington Post. So the revelation that the supposed 90 percent threshold was an artifact of programming mistakes, data omissions, and peculiar statistical techniques suddenly made a remarkable number of prominent people look foolish.

The real mystery, however, was why Reinhart-Rogoff was ever taken seriously, let alone canonized, in the first place. Right from the beginning, critics raised strong concerns about the paper’s methodology and conclusions, concerns that should have been enough to give everyone pause. Moreover, Reinhart-Rogoff was actually the second example of a paper seized on as decisive evidence in favor of austerity economics, only to fall apart on careful scrutiny. Much the same thing happened, albeit less spectacularly, after austerians became infatuated with a paper by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna purporting to show that slashing government spending would have little adverse impact on economic growth and might even be expansionary. Surely that experience should have inspired some caution.

So why wasn’t there more caution? The answer, as documented by some of the books reviewed here and unintentionally illustrated by others, lies in both politics and psychology: the case for austerity was and is one that many powerful people want to believe, leading them to seize on anything that looks like a justification. I’ll talk about that will to believe later in this article. First, however, it’s useful to trace the recent history of austerity both as a doctrine and as a policy experiment.


In the beginning was the bubble. There have been many, many books about the excesses of the boom years—in fact, too many books. For as we’ll see, the urge to dwell on the lurid details of the boom, rather than trying to understand the dynamics of the slump, is a recurrent problem for economics and economic policy. For now, suffice it to say that by the beginning of 2008 both America and Europe were poised for a fall. They had become excessively dependent on an overheated housing market, their households were too deep in debt, their financial sectors were undercapitalized and overextended.

All that was needed to collapse these houses of cards was some kind of adverse shock, and in the end the implosion of US subprime-based securities did the deed. By the fall of 2008 the housing bubbles on both sides of the Atlantic had burst, and the whole North Atlantic economy was caught up in “deleveraging,” a process in which many debtors try—or are forced—to pay down their debts at the same time.

Why is this a problem? Because of interdependence: your spending is my income, and my spending is your income. If both of us try to reduce our debt by slashing spending, both of our incomes plunge—and plunging incomes can actually make our indebtedness worse even as they also produce mass unemployment.

Students of economic history watched the process unfolding in 2008 and 2009 with a cold shiver of recognition, because it was very obviously the same kind of process that brought on the Great Depression. Indeed, early in 2009 the economic historians Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke produced shocking charts showing that the first year of the 2008–2009 slump in trade and industrial production was fully comparable to the first year of the great global slump from 1929 to 1933.

So was a second Great Depression about to unfold? The good news was that we had, or thought we had, several big advantages over our grandfathers, helping to limit the damage. Some of these advantages were, you might say, structural, built into the way modern economies operate, and requiring no special action on the part of policymakers. Others were intellectual: surely we had learned something since the 1930s, and would not repeat our grandfathers’ policy mistakes.

On the structural side, probably the biggest advantage over the 1930s was the way taxes and social insurance programs—both much bigger than they were in 1929—acted as “automatic stabilizers.” Wages might fall, but overall income didn’t fall in proportion, both because tax collections plunged and because government checks continued to flow for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, and more. In effect, the existence of the modern welfare state put a floor on total spending, and therefore prevented the economy’s downward spiral from going too far.

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