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Muddling through with “intelligent austerity”

Written By: - Date published: 4:21 pm, June 23rd, 2012 - 31 comments
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That’s what we’re doing – it’s official according to Treasury. It was revealed on Friday at a lunchtime seminar in Wellington with Dr Girol Karacaoglu, recently appointed Chief Economist at the Treasury.

The best response came from Dr Geoff Bertram, who asked “What’s intelligent about it?”, citing anti-tradables bias and income inequality as two unintelligent outcomes of current policy.

Karacaoglu admitted that Treasury were very aware of anti-tradables bias in current policy settings. Treasury were asking themselves what could they do in the face of high current account deficit, low savings, high real interest rates and low growth.

Good questions all – Treasury’s “intelligent austerity” answer was to focus on increasing savings of the Government sector – budget cuts in my language.

So it was with interest I read today  “How to end this Depression” by Paul Krugman in a recent copy of the New York Review of Books. This is what he had to say about austerity policies:

Assessing the effects of austerity therefore requires painstaking examination of the actual legislation used to implement that austerity.

Fortunately, researchers at the International Monetary Fund have done the legwork, identifying no fewer than 173 cases of fiscal austerity in advanced countries over the period between 1978 and 2009. And what they found was that austerity policies were followed by economic contraction and higher unemployment.

There’s much, much more evidence, but I hope this brief overview gives a sense of what we know and how we know it. I hope in particular that when you read me or Joseph Stiglitz or Christina Romer saying that cutting spending in the face of this depression will make it worse, and that temporary increases in spending could help us recover, you won’t think, “Well, that’s just his/her opinion.” As Romer asserted in a recent speech about research into fiscal policy:

The evidence is stronger than it has ever been that fiscal policy matters—that fiscal stimulus helps the economy add jobs, and that reducing the budget deficit lowers growth at least in the near term. And yet, this evidence does not seem to be getting through to the legislative process.

That’s what we need to change.

I couldn’t agree more. Seems much more intelligent to me. You can read the IMF research here.


31 comments on “Muddling through with “intelligent austerity””

  1. ianmac 1

    Austerity/cutbacks from Mr English in the late 90s made the Recession worse didn’t it? As a non-economist I do not understand how restriction on spending would encourage growth and confidence.

  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    There’s a problem with stimulation – growth. In other words, it’s unsustainable and I really can’t see that imposing unsustainability on the economy is any more intelligent than imposing poverty.

    • fustercluck 2.1

      Growth, in the sense of an expansion of the industrial system we use to manage our interaction with our ecosystem, is indeed unsustainable.

      Growth, in terms of the artificial imagined abstraction we call the monetary system, has no effect in the material world and can readily be used to avert crises associated with human manipulations of this system.

      To put it another way, we can ‘grow’ the monetary system to bring about a fairer distribution of ‘wealth’ and begin the process of turning away from the most destructive aspects of industrialism and towards more sustainable civil practices.

      Since ‘growth’ can mean almost anything one desires, especially in terms of pour abstracted value systems, the question is more how one brings it about rather than abandoning the concept entirely. After all, if we assign great value to sustainable practices, we can ‘grow’ our economy whilst improving environmental practices.

      To put it yet another way, we invented money and we can decide to use it for good or for evil.

      • Bill 2.1.1

        Growth, in terms of the artificial imagined abstraction we call the monetary system, has no effect in the material world …Yes it does. It contributes in massive and obvious ways to the crises you suggest we use the money system to avert. and can readily be used to avert crises associated with human manipulations of this system. No. Manipulations leave the basic nature of the money system or economy in tact and the aspects of the economy you attempt to ‘tame’ through legislation (manipulation) will re-assert themselves. Money and the particular money system or economy we have are distinct entities. Scrap the latter and the former might become a useful tool… depending on the nature of the economy we construct to replace this one we have at the moment.

      • Draco T Bastard 2.1.2

        An increase in monetary income results in an increase in resource use thus growing the “money supply” is as unsustainable as “growing the economy” as it’s essentially the same thing.

        To put it another way, we can ‘grow’ the monetary system to bring about a fairer distribution of ‘wealth’…

        No we can’t as the problem is distribution and overuse of resources. Without addressing distribution we cannot bring down the use of resources. As I’ve said before – we can’t afford rich people and monetary savings are delusional.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 2.2

      Businesses do it all the time- for a limited time.

      eg “Fieldays” promotions for cars run all month on TV – then stop.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 2.3

      Businesses do it all the time- for a limited time.

      eg “Fieldays” promotions for cars run all month on TV – then stop.

    • Stimulus is not an unsustainable strategy if coupled with saving during boom times- ideally your result is roughly zero-sum in that equation. There’s a reason we keep going back to Keynes- in many ways he was one of the original economists with the idea of economic steadfastness that is a sort of precursor to the economics of sustainability. (of course, in sustainable economics, your goal wouldn’t be to get back to growth, it would be to mitigate the extreme of the recession and to cut off the stimulus at just the right point before recovery to avoid an artificial boom without plunging yourself back into recession)

  3. Colonial Viper 3

    ALL of this is imminently depressing.

    Governments could spend more into the economy, as Krugman suggests, but that would mean significantly more taxes or significantly more debt. And stimulating the economy in this way necessarily means increased consumption of physical resources and energy.

    Notwithstanding that the banksters and financial economists run the show now; there will be no modern WPA.

    • KJT 3.1

      Not necessarily. If we transfer the money spent on jet flights to Hawaii to those who need it for food and housing.

      • Colonial Viper 3.1.1

        Food and housing are a start, allowing basic survival. But people need to work and they need to have roles in building up society. That was what the WPA was about.

  4. Bill 4

    Austerity isn’t about ending recession.

    It’s about driving down wages and wage demands thereby delivering more profit (both directly through the financial precariousity of workers and indirectly through the demise of smaller businesses) into the hands of bigger businesses.

    And it’s also about gutting public services and the conditions of the workers within them and then delivering those public services up to private providers.

    It’s intelligent enough depending on the perspective you view it from. It just ain’t intelligent to believe the spin and call for ‘alternative recessionary measures’ as though seeking an end to the recession was ever really the game plan, is all.

    • Bill 5.1

      But if that scenario was to be pursued, how would it be different to ‘re-setting’ for a re-run and an even bigger mess?

      Financial institutions would bust their arses to overturn any restrictive legislation and know how to go about that stuff these days given their eventual success with regards the Glass-Steagall Act.

      How long would it take them next time around? Another 70 years – the time it took them the first time around? I don’t think so. They already have the ‘democratic’ institutions and personnel in their pockets

      And what about the continued addiction to market growth and consumerism and the climate collapse and resource depletion that results from those things?

  5. roger 6

    It might be smarter to introduce a CGT, introduce a carbon or pollution tax and give advance notice of an increase in the age for superannuation. These steps would bring in more revenue, close the government deficit and would enable raise the top tax rate. The stimulus should come from better (and more) government spending on R&D and high value exports from the manufacturing and tech industries.

  6. RedLogix 7

    And what about the continued addiction to market growth and consumerism and the climate collapse and resource depletion that results from those things?

    It’s hard to answer that decisively Bill. Perhaps the most credible voice is Greer:

    Collapse now, in other words, and avoid the rush.

    There’s a fair amount of subtlety to the strategy defined by those words. As our society stumbles down the ragged curve of its decline, more and more people are going to lose the ability to maintain what counts as a normal lifestyle—or, rather, what counted as a normal lifestyle in the recent past, and is no longer quite so normal today as it once was. Each new round of crisis will push more people further down the slope; minor and localized crises will affect a relatively smaller number of people, while major crises affecting whole nations will affect a much larger number. As each crisis hits, though, there will be a rush of people toward whatever seems to offer a way out, and as each crisis recedes, there will be another rush of people toward whatever seems to offer a way back to what used to be normal. The vast majority of people who join either rush will fail. Remember the tens of thousands of people who applied for a handful of burger-flipping jobs during the recent housing crash, because that was the only job opening they could find? That’s the sort of thing I mean.

    The way to avoid the rush is simple enough: figure out how you will be able to live after the next wave of crisis hits, and to the extent that you can, start living that way now. If you’re worried about the long-term prospects for your job—and you probably should be, no matter what you do for a living—now is the time to figure out how you will get by if the job goes away and you have to make do on much less money. For most people, that means getting out of debt, making sure the place you live costs you much less than you can afford, and picking up some practical skills that will allow you to meet some of your own needs and have opportunities for barter and informal employment. It can mean quite a bit more, depending on your situation, needs, and existing skills. It should certainly involve spending less money—and that money, once it isn’t needed to pay off any debts you have, can go to weatherizing your home and making other sensible preparations that will make life easier for you later on.


    The problem most people have is that to live successfully like this you need a community around you and we just do not have this. I know you have thought about this a great deal Bill…

    • Bill 7.1

      The thing about increasing levels of exclusion through repeated crises isn’t so much the material day to day stuff (shit as that is) so much as the prospect of being denied access to health care, education and a level of welfare that affords some degree of access to resources etc. Think of any number of countries in Africa. Millions of people with no access to water or land (attempt to cultivate a bit of waste land and Go directly to jail. Do not pass go…) etc. That’s bad enough. Then add on the denial of health care etc and human life is a big fat zero.

      I know many people reckon they can hang on in there in the 20% or so that society…or social provisions… will function for in the future. But their kids? Grand kids?

      If we don’t lay the foundations while we still have access to resources or while we can still ‘cash in’ what we have accumulated as individuals in the market and use the resulting ‘pay out’ to invest in a functioning (and I’d maintain) democratic society then we, or more likely our children or grand children, are going to wake up one morning scratching dirt.

      Think Africa. Think South America. You wish that on your descendents? Or anyone elses?

      • Georgecom 7.1.1

        A couple of the best things to start doing

        1. reducing debt
        2. if you have your own home, figure out how you can grow food on it and make a start now putting in gardens, fruit trees etc

        • Colonial Viper

          3. Maintain your health and fitness at best possible levels.

          • Bill

            So….acknowledge that capitalism did not deliver people from ‘short brutish’ lives (or however Hobbes line on the supposed nature of pre-capitalist societies ran) and will in fact deliver to that state of affairs?

            The suggestions above (Get lucky with health, grow food, kill debt etc) might be necessary, but they certainly aren’t sufficient in terms of creating a full or rewarding life. They are essentially ‘island’ solutions and since ‘no man (sic) is an island’….

            • Foreigh Waka

              Three things that stand in the way of this utopian world and have aided the minority since time memorial:
              1/ greed
              2/ envy
              3/ gluttony
              always, always works. Never has failed and delivered on the spot. How do you propose to change that? It is a trait that in inherent in every person, not just the rich. This is why it works.

              • Bill

                Don’t know where you picked up the notion of utopia in this thread, but…What other traits, besides greed, envy and gluttony would you say are inherently human? And if we are talking of economic reward leading to reinforcement of certain traits, then which do you think it would be better to have rewarded and which not? And when you’ve decided on which traits to emphasise, then why not construct an economy that encourages those aspects of our nature and discourages the others?

                • Foreign Waka

                  Hi Bill, my comment was not meant to contravene yours, just to express my point of view over years of experience.
                  I referred to Utopia in respect to the belief that human nature can be changed. Wars have shown us over centuries that greed, submission to it and the envy towards others with more luck coupled with the waste of everything once the goods are in possession has not changed. So why would it now? Yes, the government can build incentives into politics, but do we not know that these are to create greater gain for those in power?
                  Given a chance, many would cheat the system. The rich with tax evasion the poor with benefit fraud etc…. You pointed out Africa. The mining that has produced so much wealth has impoverished the people of the continent and as long as the VALUE of society is centered around GOLD, MONEY, OIL, CROPS etc. nothing will change.

                  • That’s not what utopia means. In the lowercase sense, that’s not specific to the orignal reference:

                    2. ( usually lowercase ) an ideal place or state.
                    3. ( usually lowercase ) any visionary system of political or social perfection.

                    People are not agreed as to whether such systems or states are possible within human nature, and cynics use the word “utopian” as something of a synonym for “impractical”. Much of today’s society would sound fanciful or impractical if you focused enough on the positives when trying to describe it to say, someone from the 1700s. I imagine that if we can deal with the coming disasters the previous generations have managed to tee up for us, things will eventually level out, and from there continue to improve. There’s a lot of opportunity for positive social change in coping with disaster, anyway.

                    • RedLogix

                      The usual mistake people make is to assert that human nature is fixed and never changes.

                      In fact it is highly variable and adapts very promptly to the social circumstances it finds itself in.

                    • Foreign Waka

                      My apologies, – Utopia should be utopia? Despite speaking 4 languages, I have yet to master to be perfect.

            • Georgecom

              Bill, agree about maintaining some necessities of life as being different from leading rewarding lives. The first three items above (I have added a fourthm below) are simple individual actions someone can take. There will need to be societal modifications as well. These include, but not limited to, a stronger emphasis on localism over globalism, some guarantee of income/universal basic income, flexible sharing of work, maintenance of a social wage.

              This publication, as an example, speaks of “Prosperity without growth”
              I see that as the notion of ‘relative’ prosperity. If nothing else it is a strong repudiation of neo-liberal alchemist economics.

          • Georgecom

            4. Learn to grow and cure your own tobacco

  7. lefty 8

    This morning several people on this site are actually speaking political and economic sense.

    Why can’t any of our politicians understand this stuff?

    Instead they either want austerity (National) or another round of the same mindless cycle of growth which means even greater inequality, more power to the finance sector, less democracy etc (Labour) or a combination of the two but called green growth (the Greens).

    We are totally trapped unless we have a political revolution that redefines democracy in a form where thinking and debate are valued.

    • Bill 8.1

      Why can’t any of our politicians understand this stuff?

      Oh, I think they understand it alright. But there’s a belief problem that gets in the way: their belief that a capitalist (market) economy and parliamentary democracy are to some degree natural, necessary and/or benevolent.

      So their belief will determine that all solutions must be capitalist and parliamentary in nature.

      Oh yeah, almost forgot to mention the wee aside that their belief is aided and abetted in no small measure by the fact that their lifestyle and position in society is in that upper 20% tier…a position that offers them a daily perspective far, far removed from that of ever growing numbers of people.

      To be fair to them, it’s not as though too many of us did anything other than turn a blind eye to the underlying factors that decimated human life in places away from ‘the west’. Our focus revolved and revolves primarily around us, our well being, our prospects. Their problems were and are something to do with them…y’know, they were and are deficient in some way. But we were nice enough to donate a couple of bob when starving belly’s showed up on the TV screen. And we do have governments and NGO’s that continue to run aid agencies. So y’know, we are good people and we’re willing to extend something of a helping hand even in the most hopeless and sadly natural set of circumstances.

      Expect the same mindset to continue with the difference that the 20% will be viewing ‘us’ this time around, just in the same way we previously viewed the billions whose lifes were blighted in parts of Africa, S. America and Asia.

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