March 24, 2011- Portugal’s government has just fallen in a dispute over austerity proposals. Irish bond yields have topped 10 percent for the first time. And the British government has just marked its economic forecast down and its deficit forecast up.
What do these events have in common? They’re all evidence that slashing spending in the face of high unemployment is a mistake. Austerity advocates predicted that spending cuts would bring quick dividends in the form of rising confidence, and that there would be few, if any, adverse effects on growth and jobs; but they were wrong.
It’s too bad, then, that these days you’re not considered serious in Washington unless you profess allegiance to the same doctrine that’s failing so dismally in Europe.
It was not always thus. Two years ago, faced with soaring unemployment and large budget deficits — both the consequences of a severe financial crisis — most advanced-country leaders seemingly understood that the problems had to be tackled in sequence, with an immediate focus on creating jobs combined with a long-run strategy of deficit reduction.
Why not slash deficits immediately? Because tax increases and cuts in government spending would depress economies further, worsening unemployment. And cutting spending in a deeply depressed economy is largely self-defeating even in purely fiscal terms: any savings achieved at the front end are partly offset by lower revenue, as the economy shrinks.
So jobs now, deficits later was and is the right strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that has been abandoned in the face of phantom risks and delusional hopes. On one side, we’re constantly told that if we don’t slash spending immediately we’ll end up just like Greece, unable to borrow except at exorbitant interest rates. On the other, we’re told not to worry about the impact of spending cuts on jobs because fiscal austerity will actually create jobs by raising confidence.
How’s that story working out so far?