Nov 3rd 2010

Austerity Politics, Then and Now

by Harold James

Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and Marie Curie Professor of History at the European University Institute, Florence. His most recent book is The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle.

PRINCETON - Britain's policy of fiscal consolidation, recently announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, sent shock waves around the world. Osborne argued that Britain was on the brink: that there was no alternative to his policy if the country was to avoid a massive crisis of confidence.

Other countries, such as Greece, needed to have a full-blown crisis in order to prompt such adjustment measures, whereas Britain was acting prudently and preemptively. If Britain, with a relatively low share of public debt to GDP (64.6%) is worried, the implication is that many other countries should be much more concerned.

But drastic attempts at fiscal consolidation immediately evoke memories of the Great Depression. Andrew Mellon, the United States Treasury Secretary at the time, talked about liquidating workers, farmers, stocks, and real estate in order "to purge the rottenness out of the system." In Britain back then, Philip Snowden, a small man with a narrow, pinched face, who needed a cane to walk, seemed to want to remake the British economy in his physical image.

Given these historical analogies, a slew of heavyweight Keynesian critics are warning that the world is about to repeat all the disasters caused by bad fiscal policy in the 1930's. But this interpretation of the Great Depression, common though it is, is misguided.

In the first place, the critics get their history wrong. US President Herbert Hoover's administration did not initially respond to the depression by emphasizing the need for fiscal austerity. On the contrary, Hoover and other figures argued in a perfectly modern, Keynesian fashion that large-scale public-works programs were needed to pull the economy out of the trough.

Moreover, today's Keynesians ignore the urgency behind the depression-era concern with balanced budgets. When the Hoover administration did swing to fiscal tightening, it was responding to pressures from the capital and foreign-exchange markets, which in turn were responding to the crises in Latin America and Central Europe, where public finances had been a major part of the problem.

Beginning in September 1931, the markets became nervous about the US, causing large outflows from American banks - and thus from the dollar. The Depression had rendered capital markets incapable of absorbing large quantities of government (or, indeed, any other) debt. As a result, fiscal consolidation appeared to be the only way to restore confidence.

Great Britainin 1931 already grasped this logic. Snowden was worried that any attempt by the British government to borrow would fail, which would constitute an "admission of national bankruptcy." That September, concerns about public debt and the British government's ability to enforce austerity led to a run on the pound. Rather than trying to mount a last-ditch defense of the fixed exchange rate, the government, at the suggestion of the Bank of England, agreed to abandon the gold standard and devalue the pound.

A third problem with the conventional Keynesian interpretation is that the balanced-budget approach during the Great Depression did actually work. It calmed markets, and Britain's departure from the gold standard freed monetary policy from its previous constraints, and allowed a monetary stabilization. The country was no longer subject to imported deflation via the fixed exchange rate.

But an equally important part of the recovery process was that Britain had left gold with a more or less balanced budget. That was why monetary policy could be managed with greater flexibility. The balanced budget thus allowed Britain to have a strong recovery, ensuring that the 1930's were a much better decade for the British economy than the 1920's had been.

Finally, those who view the Great Depression as fundamentally a product of tight fiscal policies and "Treasury orthodoxy" overlook the much greater culpability of a fixed exchange-rate regime for the transmission of bad monetary policy, and thus for fueling the contraction.

The major question today should be whether the failure of capital markets (and the implications for government debt) after 2007 has been as severe as during the Great Depression. At the moment, there has not been widespread revulsion against all government debt, and some countries today clearly have better access than others to capital markets, enabling them to finance their deficits externally.

The debate about room for fiscal maneuver in practice soon becomes a debate about whether countries that have easily financed debt in the past can automatically continue to do so. We are still in the last stages of a bubble in government debt that arose in the first stage of the financial crisis from the "flight to security" of US Treasuries. When that bubble collapses, it will hit not just the weaker countries - the equivalent of sub-prime mortgages - but also stronger creditors.

In the Great Depression, one of the big surprises was the devastating abruptness with which markets turned on the US. In the late summer of 1931, the dollar, alongside the French franc, appeared to be the strongest currency in the international system. That precedent should serve as a warning of how vulnerable governments and their finances can rapidly become, and of how fiscal policy can stand in the way of a monetary approach oriented toward stability.

Greece in the spring of 2010 sent a wake-up call to Great Britain. The British response should prompt other industrial economies, above all the US, to tackle their long-term fiscal weaknesses.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
www.project-syndicate.org
For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:
http://media.blubrry.com/ps/media.libsyn.com/media/ps/james46.mp3

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 19th 2018
Over the centuries, Jews have been blamed for all sorts of ills in Christian and Muslim societies, from the Great Plague of the fourteenth century to the financial crashes of modern times. In 1903, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced by Imperial Russia’s secret police, “exposed” a diabolical Jewish plot to achieve world domination by promoting liberalism – and became a pretext for anti-Semitism in Europe. These narratives endure to this day, only now they are being projected onto a single Jew: George Soros............A disciple of the philosopher Karl Popper, Soros has promoted open societies as the ultimate guarantee of freedom from tyranny and religious or ideological indoctrination.....
Dec 17th 2018
Theresa May has survived a vote of no confidence in her leadership but to quote the prime minister: “Nothing has changed.” The Conservative Party remains just as divided as it was before. While divisions over Europe have been very prominent recently, they have been a thorn in the side of the party leadership for many years now. That said, looking at the situation today it’s hard to imagine how these rival ideologies have managed to coexist within the same party for so long.
Dec 11th 2018
WASHINGTON, DC – Though he rarely admits even the slightest discontent with the job he schemed for in unprecedented ways and somewhat accidentally fell into (thanks to the vagaries of the Electoral College), Donald Trump’s presidency hasn’t been what Americans would call a bowl of cherries. Yet no other week of his presidency so far has been filled with such problems and so many dark omens for him.
Dec 10th 2018
This Human Rights Day (December 10) marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, events over the past few years show that the world is failing to uphold the commitments enshrined in that document, particularly when it comes to protecting children. For example, in separatist-controlled parts of Eastern Ukraine, where more than 200,000 children are receiving their education in militarized areas, bullets have struck kindergarten windows. In April, the Afghan air force, backed by US-led NATO coalition advisers, reportedly killed 36 students, teachers, and parents, and wounded 71 others, at a graduation ceremony. And in August, the Saudi-led coalition that has been waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen dropped a bomb on a school bus, killing 40 boys between the ages of six and 11.
Dec 7th 2018
Figures like Boris Johnson, with his Churchillian pretensions, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, who resembles a minor character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, are anachronisms. In earlier times, they might have run an empire. Now they are mere politicians in a middle-ranking state. Brexit for the likes of Johnson or Rees-Mogg is more like a deluded grab for power, undertaken in the name of the common people, supposedly in revolt against the elites of which these politicians are themselves conspicuous members. Their nostalgia for grander forms of rule has already done great damage to the country they claim to love. This is all the more reason, now that the potential catastrophe of Brexit is so plain to see, why those common people should have a second chance to vote for a way to avoid it.
Dec 4th 2018
The argument against a second referendum is that it would be deeply divisive, especially if it leads to a reversal of the first referendum. But this rather misses the point. The hardline Brexiteers will reject any compromise with the EU. As ideological purists, they will not be satisfied until the UK is fully out of the EU, even if it means jumping off a cliff. Happily, the British public is unlikely to accept that option. So, whatever happens, the Brexit debate will rumble on. In the meantime, we Britons should apologize to our friends around the world. Our national spectacle of self-harm must be growing tiresome.
Dec 1st 2018
.......since last summer, Putin’s approval ratings have again dropped precipitously, to 66% in October and November. Beyond “making Russia great again” on the international stage, Putin was supposed to improve Russians’ standard of living. Instead, after four years of falling real incomes, the government announced deeply unpopular pension reforms, which included an increase in the retirement age.
Nov 30th 2018
The Senate slapped the Trump administration around on Wednesday, voting 63-37 to bring to the floor a proposal to end US involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. I should declare my own interest by saying that I was one of 50-some Middle East experts and policy-makers who signed a letter to the senators urging them to take this step........The vote was the most significant bipartisan measure to come out of the senate in ages, and fell just short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority.
Nov 23rd 2018
Vibrant capitalist economies have always depended on a carefully calibrated balance between government policy and private competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s significantly extended the previously minimal role of the US federal government. But, rather than holding back growth and destroying private enterprise, it was followed by 30 years of spectacular capitalist development, spreading prosperity as never before and dramatically expanding the ranks of the American middle class. Ayn Rand’s free-market utopia, so beloved by climate-change deniers, is as detached from real-world complexities, and as likely to produce social and environmental disaster, as simplistic Marxist faith in the inevitable efficiency and incorruptibility of the state.
Nov 22nd 2018
Trump’s statement on his policy toward Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder in Istanbul of dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi brought a profound shame on the United States that will, as FDR put it, live in infamy. Trump began by saying he was putting America first, but that was the last thing he was doing. He was putting his own personal predilections and policies, and perhaps profit, above the interests of the United States. Here are the ways he put America last:
Nov 21st 2018
.......the Trump administration’s disruptive behavior has left the French and German governments furious. But, beyond fueling anger, Trump’s attacks on other countries’ sovereignty are adding momentum to a new push for European political unification...........Trump’s actions are actually something of a godsend, because they have forced Europeans to accept that they must stand together in defense of their sovereignty and prosperity. A union of almost 450 million people (after Brexit) cannot allow a country two-thirds its size to treat it like a group of vassal states.
Nov 20th 2018
The world’s central bankers have begun to discuss the idea of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), and now even the International Monetary Fund and its managing director, Christine Lagarde, are talking openly about the pros and cons of the idea. This conversation is past due. Cash is being used less and less, and has nearly disappeared in countries such as Sweden and China. At the same time, digital payment systems – PayPal, Venmo, and others in the West; Alipay and WeChat in China; M-Pesa in Kenya; Paytm in India – offer attractive alternatives to services once provided by traditional commercial banks.
Nov 19th 2018
They came in the middle of the night. At about 2.30am on May 11, Amal Fathy, her husband Mohamed Lotfy, and their three-year-old child were awakened by Egyptian security personnel. For hours, a special forces detachment of seven armed men in uniform and two plainclothes officers raided their home..........Amal, a former actress and fashion model, had posted a Facebook Live commentary expressing her anger about being sexual harassed two days earlier. In the 12-minute video,....
Nov 16th 2018
For while Iran has been receptive to Chinese investment in the past, it has equally sought European investment to balance this out and to prevent China from playing too dominant a role in the country. The sanctions have now made China’s dominance all the more likely. ..........possibly the most significant implication is how sanctions have led to widespread de-dollarisation, whereby the dominant global status of the dollar has been challenged. Since sanctioned states are no longer attached to the established system, it is easier for them to adopt an alternative way of operating. An example is the Petro Yuan – whereby China’s oil imports have been priced in yuan rather than in dollars – which has been adopted by oil-rich states targeted by sanctions, most notably Russia and Venezuela. The sanctions on Iran will only exacerbate this process.
Nov 12th 2018
It is clearly time for New Deal II. Instead of promising more tax breaks for the richest citizens, a more equitable fiscal policy could pay for necessary bridges and other public goods and services that would improve everyone’s life. Affordable health care for all citizens is a mark of a civilized society. The US is still a long way from that goal. The same is true of high-quality public education. It is grotesque that so many people who stand to benefit from such “socialist” policies are still persuaded to vote against them because they are supposedly “un-American.”
Nov 2nd 2018
The cold-blooded killing of the journalist Khashoggi, however gruesome, pales compared to the brutality and gross human rights violations Saudi Arabia is committing in Yemen. The Saudis are deliberately preventing food and medicine from reaching areas where children are dying from starvation or disease. Their indiscriminate bombings are killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children, leaving whole communities in ruin. The saddest part of this unfolding tragedy is that the US and other Western powers are supplying the Saudis with the weapons they need to massacre the Yemenites, who are trapped in this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran (which neither can win), and the Yemenites will continue to pay with their blood.............Out of a total population of 28 million people, 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid. Nearly 5.2 million children are starving to death, and nearly one million are believed to be infected with cholera. Over 8 million people are facing famine, and 2 million are displaced and deprived of basic needs.
Oct 29th 2018
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice. The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Oct 23rd 2018
As the Brexit negotiations peter out this week in Brussels, fevered Brexit fanatics – from Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees Mogg in the Telegraph, to many others on Twitter – are ranting and raving about the most sensible thing Theresa May has done in two and a half years of Brexit negotiations by suggesting extending the transition period in an attempt at genuine compromise. This would be a good opportunity to remind ourselves of some salient facts. These Conservative MPs are speaking on behalf of the hardest of Brexiteers, a collection of somewhere between 60-80 of the Tory MPs. That’s somewhere between 60 and 80 MPs out of a total of 317 Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. And while having 317 MPs means the Conservatives are the largest party at the last election, they did not win enough of the votes to form a majority. Therefore, for all their bluster and bloviating, let’s just state clearly what the members of this small group are: they are a minority faction, holding a minority view, in a minority government.
Oct 23rd 2018

A billboard at a construction site, with a photo of an Ottoman-style mosque with four minarets and the flag of Turkey, was erected recently in the center of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Oct 17th 2018
Yemen is a country of some 29 million persons, but over a third of them are at risk of starvation if Saudi and UAE bombing campaigns continue.