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NYT’s Leonhardt Produces Rare Factually Accurate Article About Spending and Recessions

I think you can simply take a look at every European country that has tried austerity, and their demonstrably worse economic picture as a result, and confirm for yourself that austerity in a time of economic struggle is a pretty rotten idea. But it’s rare and remarkable when someonein the traditional media does it.

Germany’s economic growth surged in the middle of last year, causing commentators both there and here to proclaim that American stimulus had failed and German austerity had worked. Germany’s announced budget cuts, the commentators said, had given private companies enough confidence in the government to begin spending their own money again.

Well, it turns out the German boom didn’t last long. With its modest stimulus winding down, Germany’s growth slowed sharply late last year, and its economic output still has not recovered to its prerecession peak. Output in the United States — where the stimulus program has been bigger and longer lasting — has recovered. This country would now need to suffer through a double-dip recession for its gross domestic product to be in the same condition as Germany’s […]

Without the government spending of the last two years — including tax cuts — the economy would be in vastly worse shape. Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

That’s the historical lesson of postcrisis austerity movements. The history is a rich one, too, because people understandably react to a bubble’s excesses by calling for the reverse. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, he repeatedly called for a balanced budget.

But no matter how morally satisfying austerity may be, it’s the wrong answer. Hoover’s austere instincts worsened the Depression. Roosevelt’s postelection reversal helped, but he also prolonged the Depression by raising taxes and cutting spending in 1937. Only the giant stimulus program known as World War II finally ended the Depression. When the private sector is hesitant to spend, the government has to — or no one will.

David Leonhardt is speaking simple economic truths in what must sound like a foreign language, given the tenor of debates over the past few months. Standard economic theories haven’t applied in Washington for a while, so Leonhardt’s essay has the force of the running man throwing the hammer into the Big Brother TV screen in the famous Apple 1984 commercial.

Leonhardt manages to mention that GDP is still growing too slowly in the US for mass hiring, even with a higher growth rate than Germany. He manages to note the state and local cuts that will blunt recovery. He manages to look at interest rates, which are historically low, and reason that government spending is not crowding out the private sector in any way. He calls John Boehner a liar for saying the federal workforce has grown by 200,000 employees since Barack Obama’s tenure in office (it’s about 1/4 that). He says that the problem right now is a lack of demand. He cites the much better example of Britain, which has gone whole-hog for austerity and seen negative job growth and negative GDP growth since.

I’d like to think that this kind of truth would, like resuscitating a dying patient, shock the political class back to life. More likely it will just fall down the memory hole, drowned out by the bipartisan cries of “we all want to cut spending.” The unemployed are still invisible, economic theory is still upside down, and one article won’t change that.

It would be nice if it did.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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