In discussing the forthcoming UK budget, Robert Peston writes:
“And before I am savaged (as I always am) by the Krugman crew of Keynesian economists for even allowing George Osborne's argument an airing, I am not saying that the net negative impact on our national income and living standards of cutting the deficit faster is less than their alternative route of slower so-called fiscal consolidation.
I am simply pointing out that there is a debate here (though Krugman, Wren-Lewis and Portes are utterly persuaded they've won this match - and take the somewhat patronising view that voters who think differently are ignorant sheep led astray by a malign or blinkered media).”
I do not want to disappoint, and as I was about to write something on the macroeconomic consensus on austerity anyway, let me oblige - not in savaging (I leave that to my American colleague in arms!), but in justifying why I think there is such a consensus in the places that count. By consensus I do not mean that everyone agrees - of course not - but that a very large majority do, which probably counts as consensus in economics.
Unfortunately we do not have a great deal of information on what academic economists as a whole think about austerity, but we do have two important survey results which are pretty conclusive. In the US, there is the IFM Forum, which regularly asks a group of distinguished economists - including many macroeconomists - their views on key policy issues. The last poll I have seen suggests that 82% of that panel thought the 2009 Obama stimulus had reduced unemployment, while only 2% disagreed. In the UK, the CFM survey asked a similar question to a smaller group of academic economists, most of whom are macroeconomists. Only 15% agreed that the austerity policies of the coalition government have had a positive effect on aggregate economic activity, while 66% disagreed. That consensus is not universal - it would not apply in Germany for example - but I doubt if anyone would disagree when I say that US economists call the shots as far as academic macroeconomics is concerned.
This is why economists the world over continue to teach Keynesian macro to undergraduates, and normally not as one ‘school of thought’ but rather as an initial approximation of how the economy actually works. As Amartya Sen so forcefully reminds us, the experience of the last hundred years has earned Keynesian theory this central role.
However we have another, more indirect, source of evidence. If you asked whether there was a standard model for analysing the business cycle among economists in academia and in policy making institutions, the answer would have to be the New Keynesian model. I want to include economists in central banks in particular because they have to put theories of the business cycle into practice on a regular basis. The key macromodels that central banks use to forecast and to analyse policy are Keynesian, and many are New Keynesian. Having worked a great deal with New Keynesian models myself, I also know what they imply about temporary changes in government spending in a liquidity trap (see this paper by Mike Woodford, for example). It may be possible to adapt these models to give you expansionary austerity, but no such adaptations command general or even partial support.
The models used by pretty well all central banks would therefore imply that temporary cuts in government spending were contractionary, absent any monetary policy offset. The governors of the central banks of the UK and US say this publicly. European central bank governors do not tend to say this, and instead continue to advocate austerity despite deflation. The reason why they might do this despite what their models tell them will be the subject of a later post, but I suspect it has little to do with conventional macroeconomics (but see also the point about German academic views above, and Sen’s article). If temporary cuts in government spending are contractionary in a liquidity trap, it follows that it is much better to delay this form of austerity.
I could add repeated arguments from economists at the IMF (e.g. here and most recently here), and now also the OECD (FT here, or ungated here). Of course there are some academic economists who continue to argue that the impact of austerity is expansionary or at least minor - I suspect there always will be, as long as this remains an intense political debate. They would be joined by many City economists, but they are neither unbiased nor the source of any particular expertise on this issue.
This is why, among economists with expertise, there is a clear majority view that fiscal austerity is significantly contractionary in a liquidity trap. That does not automatically mean that the 2010 policy switch was wrong, or that it had a big impact on the UK in 2010-2012: there are additional issues here which I have discussed many times. How damaging to the macroeconomy any additional austerity from Osborne will be also depends on whether we are or will be in a liquidity trap. But the fact that we might well be means that additional austerity now is a big mistake, and on this I believe the great majority of academic macroeconomists and those macroeconomists working in policy making institutions would agree.
As far as the media is concerned, I cannot believe that Robert Peston would disagree that a large section are ‘malign’, given how political this issue is. When I have talked to journalists who have some freedom to report the facts rather than what their editors want them to report, the argument I most often hear is that because this issue is political, they have to report it as a ‘debate’ come what may. I have never had the pleasure of talking to Robert Peston (he is welcome to email at any time), and I would be very interested in how he would respond to the evidence I have laid out. As for the public, the word sheep is his not mine. Would he really argue that the public are independently well informed on these matters, or unaffected by the media’s presentation of this and similar issues? Which is why I will continue to - as he might say - bang on about this, even though my audience is tiny in comparison to most journalists.