How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled


In the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman reviews Neil Irwin's The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire, David A. Stockman's The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America, and Mark Blyth's Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea:

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, and the Greek crisis was a godsend for anti-Keynesians. They had been warning about the dangers of deficit spending; the Greek debacle seemed to show just how dangerous fiscal profligacy can be. To this day, anyone arguing against fiscal austerity, let alone suggesting that we need another round of stimulus, can expect to be attacked as someone who will turn America (or Britain, as the case may be) into another Greece.

If Greece provided the obvious real-world cautionary tale, Reinhart and Rogoff seemed to provide the math. Their paper seemed to show not just that debt hurts growth, but that there is a “threshold,” a sort of trigger point, when debt crosses 90 percent of GDP. Go beyond that point, their numbers suggested, and economic growth stalls. Greece, of course, already had debt greater than the magic number. More to the point, major advanced countries, the United States included, were running large budget deficits and closing in on the threshold. Put Greece and Reinhart-Rogoff together, and there seemed to be a compelling case for a sharp, immediate turn toward austerity.

But wouldn’t such a turn toward austerity in an economy still depressed by private deleveraging have an immediate negative impact? Not to worry, said another remarkably influential academic paper, “Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes Versus Spending,” by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna.

One of the especially good things in Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea is the way he traces the rise and fall of the idea of “expansionary austerity,” the proposition that cutting spending would actually lead to higher output. As he shows, this is very much a proposition associated with a group of Italian economists (whom he dubs “the Bocconi boys”) who made their case with a series of papers that grew more strident and less qualified over time, culminating in the 2009 analysis by Alesina and Ardagna.

In essence, Alesina and Ardagna made a full frontal assault on the Keynesian proposition that cutting spending in a weak economy produces further weakness. Like Reinhart and Rogoff, they marshaled historical evidence to make their case. According to Alesina and Ardagna, large spending cuts in advanced countries were, on average, followed by expansion rather than contraction. The reason, they suggested, was that decisive fiscal austerity created confidence in the private sector, and this increased confidence more than offset any direct drag from smaller government outlays.