John Cochrane, The Grumpy Economist, on Austerity, Stimulus, or Growth Now?
Where will the money come from? Greece, Spain and Italy simply cannot borrow any more. So, say the Keynesians, Germany should pay. But even Germany has limits. The U.S. can still borrow at remarkably low rates, they point out. But remember that Greece was able to borrow at low rates right up to the moment that it couldn’t borrow at all. There is nobody to bail out the U.S. when our time comes. What should we do then?
The traditional Keynesian answer was: move on to monetary stimulus. Deliberately inflate and devalue. Break up the euro so the southern European countries can inflate and devalue even more.
Lately, Keynesians have been pushing an even more audacious idea: deficits pay for themselves. In a March 17 column, Krugman wrote: “there’s a plausible case that spending more now actually improves the long-run fiscal picture.”
U.S. Federal revenue is less than 20 percent of GDP. For deficit spending to pay for itself, then, $1 of spending must create more than $5 of output. Economists have been arguing about whether this “multiplier” is more or less than one; five is beyond any reported estimate. Keynesians made fun of “supply siders” in the 1980s, who made similar claims for tax cuts. At least those cuts had incentives on their side, which stimulus doesn’t.
Is there another explanation, and a more plausible way forward?
The stimulus explanation is curious for what it omits. Think of Greece. Is it irrelevant that Greece is 100th on the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” list, behind Yemen, 135th on “starting a business” and 155th on “protecting investors?” Is it irrelevant that professions from truck driving to pharmacies are still rigorously protected, that businesses can’t fire people, that (according to a Greek colleague) you can’t even get a driver’s license without paying a bribe? Does it not matter at all that, as the International Monetary Fund delicately put it in its latest report on Greece, the “structural reform program” aimed at “deeply ingrained structural rigidities in labor, product, and service markets” got nowhere?
Does it not matter that Greece has a high combination of individual, corporate, wealth and social taxes, higher still under “austerity?” True, Greeks famously don’t pay taxes, but businesses that must operate illegally to avoid taxes are much less efficient.
Money is fleeing Greece, Italy and Spain. Does talk of exiting the euro, followed quickly by devaluation, inflation (the IMF predicts 35 percent in Greece, should it leave), and capital controls, have nothing to do with lack of investment?