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Expansionary austerity – fail

Written By: - Date published: 9:00 am, April 21st, 2011 - 32 comments
Categories: economy, Keynes, monetary policy, national - Tags: ,

Expansionary austerity is the idea that cutbacks in government spending can stimulate economic growth. Sounds weird doesn’t it, but here’s the theory as argued by Britain’s current Chancellor of the Exchequer:

Osborne insists that Britain will enjoy what he calls “expansionary austerity”, because the knowledge that the government is getting to grips with the public finances will engender confidence and encourage private spending to replace the cuts in public spending.

This theory relies on a tighter fiscal policy (tax increases and spending cuts) allowing monetary policy (interest rates and the exchange rate) to remain loose. Cheap borrowing costs lead to higher investment, while the low pound stimulates exports. This, in turn, leads to a rebalancing of the economy.

The trouble with this theory is that it’s bollocks. Paul Krugman sums up:

The Stubborn Myth of Expansionary Contraction

Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has been writing lately in his economics blog, Rortybomb, about American conservatives’ continuing insistence that slashing government spending is actually expansionary, as embodied in a recent report from Republicans on the Joint Economic Committee.

As he says, it’s a remarkable thing: the empirical case for expansionary austerity has collapsed on examination, but the doctrine lives on regardless.

One thing Mike fails to note is that another recent paper on deficit reduction from the American Enterprise Institute, which is cited by that J.E.C. study in a way that might make you think that it supports the case for expansionary austerity, actually never provides any evidence to that effect; … It’s notable that the J.E.C. report also blithely cites Canada and Sweden in the 1990s as demonstrations of its case, even though both have in fact been extensively debunked. …

I have to say, it’s remarkable how quickly expansionary austerity has gone from interesting speculation to zombie idea, repeatedly killed by evidence but still shambling toward us, trying to eat our brains.

So the empirical evidence (see Konczal’s work here) doesn’t support the theory. But in Britain the Tories charged ahead with it anyway, slashing spending left right and centre. How’s that working out for them?

Is Osborne fit to run the economy – or to ruin it?

George Osborne is expecting ‘expansionary austerity’ to save the UK economy – which means things are going to get a whole lot worse for ordinary households

… This government has now been in power for almost a year and here’s a check list of their achievements so far. Unemployment, going down a year ago, is now going up. Real incomes fell last year for the first time since 1981 and are on course to fall again this year. Consumer confidence has slumped to levels seen in the depths of the recession. High street retailers are sending out profit warnings. And, to cap it all, the government has been forced to revise up its forecasts for the budget deficit.

… The empirical case against expansionary austerity is that it doesn’t seem to be working in Britain (or in any of the struggling eurozone countries), whereas good old fashioned fiscal expansion does seem to be doing the trick in the US.

Despite two years when bank rate has been pegged at 0.5%, there is a marked reluctance to borrow. Mortgage demand is running at half the levels seen in the 10 years leading up to the financial crisis, and lending to businesses is not picking up.

… Where is the evidence of expansionary austerity? Not in the balance of payments figures, which are getting worse not better. Not in the high street, where consumers would need to see their incomes rise by 6% to compensate for the price increases and tax rises of the past year. And not in the business community, where investment fell in the final three months of last year.

Not so good in practice then. Keynes gets the last laugh.

Right, pop quiz time. Can anyone think of another government, not a million miles from here, that is pinning its hopes on expansionary austerity? Another government that is ignoring the theoretical counter arguments and all the empirical evidence? Another government that is run by Tory fools and getting the same results as the same policies in England? Another government that is seeing its economy flatline, growth stalled, unemployment rising, costs spiralling out of control? Anyone? Anyone?

Makes you wonder doesn’t it. Just how stupid would we be to give these failed policies another term…


32 comments on “Expansionary austerity – fail”

  1. mikesh 1

    “Expansionary austerity” sounds like Orwellian newspeak.

  2. Peter 2

    Key is on record of justifying his policies in terms of the so called “crowding out” effect which implies less Government  making room for more Private Sector growth. This, I would suggest, is his economic plan despite the critics saying he has not got one. This appears to be his version of “expansionary austerity”.
    So it’s simple really, cut Government spending and such issues as employment will eventually address themselves as the Private sector takes up the slack. Don’t expect the ship to turn around quickly but it will happen, trust me!
    This is what wikipedia has to say about crowding out;
    “However, this crowding-out effect might be moderated by the fact that government spending sometimes expands the market for private-sector products through the multiplier and thus stimulates – or “crowds in” – fixed investment (via the “accelerator effect“). This accelerator effect is most important when business suffers from unused industrial capacity, i.e., during a serious recession or a depression.”
    I’m a layman so it would be interesting to read other perspectives from the wise.

    • Key is on record of justifying his policies in terms of the so called “crowding out” effect which implies less Government making room for more Private Sector growth.

      Good grief. Has some finance “journalist” asked him what is the specific sectors in which he believes government is supposedly “crowding out” the private sector, and what is his evidence for this?!

      In theory this can happen, but given the reforms since the 1980s I would think NZ is the last country in the entire world where this could be said to be occurring.

      • Colonial Viper 2.1.1

        However, it may be too much to ask that our financial and economics “journalists” ask good questions of our leaders and demand real answers.
        The simple point is that the Government provides a lot of demand and a lot of sales orders for private business, and when Government stops spending, private businesses hurt and fail.

      • Peter 2.1.2

        He said it, almost as a slip of the tongue, on Q&A a few weeks back. As far as I am aware it is his only reference to the philosophy behind cuts.

      • KJT 2.1.3

        Yeah right.
        Doctors. Teachers, building regulators, power suppliers, state infrastructure, Police crowd out the private sector.

        No State has ever had an efficient and prosperous private sector without a fully functional State.

        The private sector alone results in Anarchy and poverty. Somalia.

        The highly regulated, and taxed, mixed economies of Western Europe have been the most successful States in History.

        The USA, Ireland, UK, NZ and other states that have followed the “free market’ Neo-Liberal Freidmanite dogma of meanness, globalisation of capital and theft from citizenry are fast heading for failure.

  3. Carol 3

    I’m not sure my point is relevant to this issue, but it seems so to me.  These right wing, neoliberal policies seem to me to be a justification for cutting back on the public sector, privatising all activities, whether useful to society or not, and delivering them to the international corporate elite and thereby expanding their profits.
    I don’t know a lot about economics, but ever since I first read some introduction to economic theory, I’ve never understood the logic of differentiating between “tradeable’ and non-tradeable” enterprises.  I hear the same arguments being repeated by politicicans like Bill English today.  So tradeable refers to anything that can be traded internationally, and non-tradeable to economic/financial actitivites that can’t be traded internationally.  But this just seems to me to be a cover for cutting back on the public sector.
    And I’ve never understood how having all countries trading stuff with each other, including stuff countries can produce for themselves, somehow magically makes us all more wealthy.  eg, why are we buying oranges from California, when we produce them ourselves & vice versa?

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      And I’ve never understood how having all countries trading stuff with each other, including stuff countries can produce for themselves, somehow magically makes us all more wealthy.

      That load of bollocks comes from the idea of specialisation. A single person can’t learn everything and so it’s better if individuals specialise. Unfortunately, the stupid idiots (otherwise known as economists) have expanded the idea to include entire societies.

      • Carol 3.1.1

        Thanks.  So I was correct to be suspicious.  This information was presented in a very introductory textbook, as though it was gospel. You’d think more economists would also have seen the problems with the concept.

        • Colonial Viper

          Young economists got granted their PhDs extending worthless economic theory by impressing those established older PhD economists who had come up with the original worthless economic theory in the first place.
          It became an entire circular game. Not corrupt, but clearly pandering.

        • Draco T Bastard

          This information was presented in a very introductory textbook, as though it was gospel.

          That’s because it’s treated as gospel by nearly every economist in the world. I’ve got university level textbooks, written by Ben Bernanke in fact, that treats it the exact same way.

          You’d think more economists would also have seen the problems with the concept.

          You’d think so but, then, we’re dealing with a field that started with a few assumptions a couple of centuries ago and those assumptions haven’t been changed in all that time despite the fact that documented reality has proven those assumptions wrong.

  4. Colonial Viper 4

    Well its time for the Left to reframe this as “Same old shit, different spin”
    People know this is a bunk, they have lived through cycles and cycles of this before.
    Tell them that China and Singapore are laughing at the west bleeding itself out economically (while they themselves invest billions back into their people and infrastructure), as if we are still in the 18th century of medicine with leeches and blood letting.
    Cameron/Osbourne, Key/English are the economic quack doctors of the western world.

  5. ASA 5

    Going by the repeated opinion poll results, it appears that NZers may indeed be that collectively stupid, unless something significant changes in the next 7 months. The bigger question would be to enquire why the NZ media isn’t producing economic analyses similar to the Guardian article. Wouldn’t be hard – just some some substitutions needed e.g. English for Osborne, New Zealand for Britain, National for Conservatives and so on. This would mean the article could just about be used as is, for the situation here is frighteningly similar. Then again, who do our media owe their loyalties to?

    • Bored 5.1

      ASA. I am not sure that NZers may indeed be that collectively stupid, it is more likely the old mushroom syndrome i.e kept in the dark and fed bullshit. By the very same media and corporate smokescreen you question the ownership of.

      My hope is that we as a society have a Damascene moment of clarity, the events that are likely to bring this on are “peak bloody everything”. This will be the moment when we realise that what we have aspired to, what we have believed to be true has been an edifice of contrived bullshit. In between times we will aspire, and as a consequence be robbed blind by those who have.

    • Peter 5.2

      True,  there is plenty of stuff out there (http://www.bryangould.net/id150.html) but the more I get into this the more I realise that our main newspaper is by and large running agendas ( a bit like FOX News). Far easier to divert attention with Polls, Stop Signs and helicopter discussions …… maybe SST will do something.
      As always the vast majority of voters are not interested, so it gets back to packaging alternatives that they will act upon. Winston, as we know, is good at it. National as always effectively justify the status quo with Fear Uncertainty and Doubt. Labour? Greens?

  6. JJ 6

    Yeah man, that trickle down effect, just flies in the face of human nature. But then again so does the idea of socialist utopia, we all know what a hell on earth those ideas created.
    What to do though? Seems to me the country (the whole world) is freaking broke. I guess somebody has all the money though!

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      A socialist utopia is exactly what we should aim for JJ.
      And we know how to do it.
      Take a share of the money and assets from those who are most wealthy and use it to provide common services, support and facilities that everyone in the society can use.
      Then empower ordinary people to become decision makers and participants in the every day running of their workplaces, their communities, their cities.
      Pretty fraking easy really.

      But then again so does the idea of socialist utopia, we all know what a hell on earth those ideas created.

      What, as opposed to the tens of thousands of people dying in the richest country in the world every year because they can’t access healthcare? And the hundreds of thousands more who go broke and suffer family breakups because they can’t afford medical bills?

      What do you call that?

  7. Another great post r0b.
    Nail on head? Hit perfectly.

  8. Afewknowthetruth 8

    It’s all very simple. So simple most people refuse to see it and prefer to tie themselves up in knots of economic theory completely detached from reality. Economics, as practised in the modern world, has no validity whatsoever. It’s all bunk. Economics assumes cheap and readily available resources will appear as if by magic whenever needed. Economics never mentions the huge costs of global pollution. The real world is not like that. Sure, in the past there were cheap resources that could be readily obtained and the Earth did manage to recover from most of the crap we threw at it. But that game is now over, especially the cheap energy game.   

    One year ago Brent oil was around $80. Today it’s over $120.

    That 50% increase in the cost of the prime driver of the economy has led to a global economic squeeze. No amount of jigging with interest rates, tax rates or anything else will alter the fact that the global system is slowly imploding due to competition for declining resources.  

    By the way, just to get the big picture, a decade ago oil was around $20 a barrel. It’s now  6 times that.

    As global oil extraction falls further down Hubbert’s curve we will see ever faster contraction of most sectors of the economies of most nations. The price of oil will continue to rise and money will continue to devalue. At some stage in the fairly near future the entire system will go kaput……probably around 2015 the way things are panning out at the moment.

    The success of China is merely a facade. It is pulling in international dollars simply because the Yuan is so grossly undevalued and workers get such low wages by international standards.  China is dependent on ever increasing imports of energy and resources to maintian its bubble economy, and will fall just like the rest eventually.

    We should also note that most of the money in the system doesn’t exist and has been conjured out of thin air via loans. It’s all a Ponzi scheme. The value of money continues to fall. Gold has gone from below $750 five years ago to over $1500 now. China has been buying up gold of course, whereas the saboteurs who operate western governments have been selling it.

    The ultimate aim of the secretive elites who really running the show seems to be to create a feudal society in the west, a society in which proles are reduced to existence at the peasant level while a gang of elites lords it over them. John Key is just practising at the moment.

    What I find fascinating is tenacity with which people hang on to redundant paradigms and just keep churning out garbage analysis based on fantasies. There seems to be some kind of consensus amongst mainstream commentators that if we ignore the elephants in the room they won’t damage the furniture or knock the walls down.  

    • uke 8.1

      What I find fascinating is tenacity with which people hang on to redundant paradigms and just keep churning out garbage analysis based on fantasies. There seems to be some kind of consensus amongst mainstream commentators that if we ignore the elephants in the room they won’t damage the furniture or knock the walls down.

      Possibly it’s because the idea of Growth and Progress are in effect reality principles wired into the Western mindset. They have an unshakeable existential and spiritual solidity. People cannot conceive of an economy without the goal of Growth, any more than they can conceive of Time running backwards.

  9. “Trickle down economics” is PC speak for the rich pissing on the poor.

  10. PeteG 10

    This post takes a narrow view.
    Is there no such thing as wasteful or too much government spending? Why shouldn’t the major expansion of the public sevice and public spending under the last Labour government be scutinised for value for money?
    It’s just possible that the aim is to cut unecessary costs when there isn’t much money available.
    The “expand when the economy is good, expand when the economy is bad” approach is flawed. When should government spending increase – good times or bad?

    • Draco T Bastard 10.1

      The economy cannot expand beyond the limits of the environment and government spending is, in a democracy such as ours, the spending of the people. Government is not divorced from its society – no matter how much you RWNJs want to portray it as such.

  11. Afewknowthetruth 11

    ‘Makes you wonder doesn’t it. Just how stupid would we be to give these failed policies another term…’

    Very true. The problem is, Labour is locked into the same kind of dysfucntional economic garbage as National, all of it predicated on economic growth that cannot occur and predicated on ignoring the environmental catastrophe that is gathering pace.   

    And Ben, when are you going to recognise that we are at ‘peak everything’ (as Bored has again pointed out) and start formulating policies that are appropriate to the times we live in? At the moment you seem to be avoiding reality like the plague! Or is your ‘plan’ to quietly drive NZ off the cliff slightly more slowly than National is currently doing?

    We are still waiting for answers.

    We’ve been wating for answers for many weeks.

    You can only keep hiding for so long.

    The truth is going to get you in the end.

    • Draco T Bastard 11.1

      The problem is, Labour is locked into the same kind of dysfucntional economic garbage as National, all of it predicated on economic growth that cannot occur and predicated on ignoring the environmental catastrophe that is gathering pace.

      Exactly. A rational economy would look to minimising use of natural resources. The capitalist free-market economy works by using those resources up as fast as possible so as to maximise profits which results in everybody having nothing at all.
      The capitalist free-market is completely irrational but that shouldn’t be a surprise – it was, after all, designed by psychopaths (the capitalists).

  12. Peter 12

    I don’t believe this post is a discussion about value for money, it’s actually about the best way forward, and the potential pitfalls of Key’s economic assumptions. Playing the private and public sectors off against each other does not do it for me, although it is clearly a vote catcher.
    The real question is how should both sectors work together because neither is going away? After all right now the Government is spending an awful lot of money on RWC. You could be cynical enough to believe they are using civil servants to help their election prospects, or more positively to boost the prospects of private sector exporters. Why is it that we don’t hear gratitude from the private sector for the support and business opportunities offered by the public sector?
    If you take Natonal’s narrative to the extreme you would easily believe that we would all be far better-off if the balance was something like Public (bad) 10% and Private (good) 90% of GDP. I’m sure there are people reading this who could provide you with international evidence that more Government would be an improvement. Besides if that’s where we are heading why haven’t the private sector provided the extra jobs required, plenty of people are waiting.
    But ,if you want to turn the discussion to so called efficiency! Why shouldn’t the private sector also be scrutinised for value for money? For example AMI insurance policies, shonky property development, collapsing finance companies, the  social cost of alcohol abuse unpaid for by “big beer”, the economic and social cost of high unemployment, the overseas sell-off of badly run NZ owned companies, virtual monopolies such as SKY, media company bailouts, the South Canterbury bailout, and if you like using airforce helicopters to dash-off to PR photo-opportunities.
    Without Nationals  convenient use of the public sector where would they and the private sector be right now?

    • Colonial Viper 12.1

      Well let’s remember first principles here: the structure and running of the economy should primarily be for the good of the society.
      Not the other way around.

    • Draco T Bastard 12.2

      Why shouldn’t the private sector also be scrutinised for value for money?

      Because then the delusion that the private sector is inherently more efficient than government would be shown for what it is – a delusion.

      Without Nationals  convenient use of the public sector where would they and the private sector be right now?

      Collapsing. That has always been true of conservative government though. As much as they rail against Big Government they’re usually the ones that use the government most. Usually in subsidies, bailouts and pork barrel politics.

      • KJT 12.2.1

        An occasional left wing Government is a necessity, for Neo-Liberal types, to build things up so they can rob us again. As they are too incompetent to make their own businesses work they have to steal the public’s.
        Round one 1984 to 1990,s started it. The first ACT Government, then National. Now they are back for another go.
        I wonder which failed private businesses, which buy into necessary infrastructure, we will have to bail out or buy back this time.

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