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How the Corona Crisis Liberated Massive Public Spending

Cinque illustri economisti – Joseph E. Stiglitz, James K. Galbraith, Heather Boushey, Josh Bivens, Gerald Epstein – discutono in una tavola rotonda il ruolo e le misure di politica di bilancio da intraprendere per prevenire la recessione economica in tempi di pandemia. Da “The American Prospect”.

Deficit phobia is mercifully dead for the duration of the corona pandemic. Along with its devastation of the economy and the public’s health, the crisis has upended the standard economic story about public spending, deficit, and debts.

But austerity economics is one of those zombies that keep arising from the dead. Is deficit obsession really defunct for good? For now, Congress and the Fed are willing to create almost limitless sums of money to save the economy from outright collapse. A New York Times opinion writer sub-headed his column: “Everyone’s a socialist in a pandemic.”

The macroeconomic counterpart: In an economic collapse, everyone’s a Keynesian. But what sort of Keynesian, and for how long? That is a hugely consequential question, both for practice and for theory. At the rate Congress has authorized borrowing to prevent the total devastation of purchasing power, the deficit could easily grow from its current $1 trillion to $3 or $4 trillion dollars this year. If anything, it needs to be even higher.

The obsessively watched ratio of public debt to GDP could rise from its pre-corona level of about 80 percent of GDP to twice that before this crisis is over. What then? If we review the theory and practice of deficit politics for the past few decades, one category is pure deficit-hawkery, personified by the late investment banker and billionaire influence-monger Peter G. Peterson and his multiple front groups.

In this view, federal deficits and the rising debt load are toxic for the economy because they raise interest costs on the public debt and thereby “crowd out” productive private investments. Peterson and company argued that lower deficits and debts, per se, quite apart from their impact on interest rates, would increase private investment because they would be good for business confidence. Paul Krugman famously ridiculed this view as belief in the “confidence fairy,” who of course never comes.

As a good conservative Republican, Peterson averted his eyes from deficits created by GOP tax cuts. His real target was government spending, especially Social Security and Medicare. Over four decades, Peterson predicted catastrophe driven by public debts. But when the economy collapsed in 2008, the culprit was private speculative debt; and it was new public debt that kept the collapse from turning into a second Great Depression. Other nominal deficit hawks in the business elite suddenly suspended their concerns, as long as government bailout money went to them.

A second category is made up of situational deficit hawks, who consider themselves “neo-Keynesians.” They dominated both the Clinton and Obama administrations, reflecting Wall Street’s capture of both. In 1993, Clinton agreed to a grand bargain in which he cut the deficit, and in return, Fed Chair Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates, stimulating a boom that became a bubble. So enamored were Clinton and his aides with deficit reduction that they made it a badge of virtue, pushing the budget all the way into surplus by 1999, to the point where serious people worried about how the Fed would conduct monetary policy when all Treasury bonds were retired.

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