Jan 5th 2015

Paul Krugman and the Obama Recovery

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

NEW YORK – For several years, and often several times a month, the Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist and blogger Paul Krugman has delivered one main message to his loyal readers: deficit-cutting “austerians” (as he calls advocates of fiscal austerity) are deluded. Fiscal retrenchment amid weak private demand would lead to chronically high unemployment. Indeed, deficit cuts would court a reprise of 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt prematurely reduced the New Deal stimulus and thereby threw the United States back into recession.

Well, Congress and the White House did indeed play the austerian card from mid-2011 onward. The federal budget deficit has declined from 8.4% of GDP in 2011 to a predicted 2.9% of GDP for all of 2014. And, according to the International Monetary Fund, the structural deficit (sometimes called the “full-employment deficit”), a measure of fiscal stimulus, has fallen from 7.8% of potential GDP to 4% of potential GDP from 2011 to 2014.

Krugman has vigorously protested that deficit reduction has prolonged and even intensified what he repeatedly calls a “depression” (or sometimes a “low-grade depression”). Only fools like the United Kingdom’s leaders (who reminded him of the Three Stooges) could believe otherwise.

Yet, rather than a new recession, or an ongoing depression, the US unemployment rate has fallen from 8.6% in November 2011 to 5.8% in November 2014. Real economic growth in 2011 stood at 1.6%, and the IMF expects it to be 2.2% for 2014 as a whole. GDP in the third quarter of 2014 grew at a vigorous 5% annual rate, suggesting that aggregate growth for all of 2015 will be above 3%.

So much for Krugman’s predictions. Not one of his New York Times commentaries in the first half of 2013, when “austerian” deficit cutting was taking effect, forecast a major reduction in unemployment or that economic growth would recover to brisk rates. On the contrary, “the disastrous turn toward austerity has destroyed millions of jobs and ruined many lives,” he argued, with the US Congress exposing Americans to “the imminent threat of severe economic damage from short-term spending cuts.” As a result, “Full recovery still looks a very long way off,” he warned. “And I’m beginning to worry that it may never happen.”

I raise all of this because Krugman took a victory lap in his end-of-2014 column on “The Obama Recovery.” The recovery, according to Krugman, has come not despite the austerity he railed against for years, but because we “seem to have stopped tightening the screws: Public spending isn’t surging, but at least it has stopped falling. And the economy is doing much better as a result.”

That is an incredible claim. The budget deficit has been brought down sharply, and unemployment has declined. Yet Krugman now says that everything has turned out just as he predicted.

In fact, Krugman has been conflating two distinct ideas as if both were components of “progressive” thinking. On one hand, he has been the “conscience of a liberal,” rightly focusing on how government can combat poverty, poor health, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and other social ills. I admire that side of Krugman’s writing, and, as I wrote in my book The Price of Civilizations, I agree with him.

On the other hand, Krugman has inexplicably taken up the mantle of crude aggregate-demand management, making it seem that favoring large budget deficits in recent years is also part of progressive economics. (Krugman’s position is sometimes called Keynesianism, but John Maynard Keynes knew much better than Krugman that we should not depend on mechanistic “demand multipliers” to set the unemployment rate.) Deficits were not increased enough in 2009 to escape from high unemployment, he insisted, and were falling dangerously fast after 2010.

Obviously, recent trends – a significant decline in the unemployment rate and a reasonably high and accelerating rate of economic growth – cast doubt on Krugman’s macroeconomic diagnosis (though not on his progressive politics). And the same trends have been apparent in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has cut the structural budget deficit from 8.4% of potential GDP in 2010 to 4.1% in 2014, while the unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9% when Cameron took office to 6%, according to the most recent data for the fall of 2014.

To be clear, I believe that we do need more government spending as a share of GDP – for education, infrastructure, low-carbon energy, research and development, and family benefits for low-income families. But we should pay for this through higher taxes on high incomes and high net worth, a carbon tax, and future tolls collected on new infrastructure. We need the liberal conscience, but without the chronic budget deficits.

There is nothing progressive about large budget deficits and a rising debt-to-GDP ratio. After all, large deficits have no reliable effect on reducing unemployment, and deficit reduction can be consistent with falling unemployment.

Krugman is a great economic theorist – and a great polemicist. But he should replace his polemical hat with his analytical one and reflect more deeply on recent experience: deficit-cutting accompanied by recovery, job creation, and lower unemployment. This should be an occasion for him to rethink his long-standing macroeconomic mantra, rather than claiming vindication for ideas that recent trends seem to contradict.




Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org




 


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 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."