Sat, Feb 26, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Cuts don’t bring prosperity

While the recent wave of US government penny-pinching may be morally satisfying, as a policy it does not help improve the economy

By David Leonhardt  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Lance Liu

Remember the German economic boom of last year?

Germany’s economic growth surged in the middle of last year, causing commentators both there and here to proclaim that US stimulus had failed and German austerity had worked. Germany’s announced budget cuts, the commentators said, had given private companies enough confidence in the government to begin spending their own money again.

Well, it turns out the German boom didn’t last long. With its modest stimulus winding down, Germany’s growth slowed sharply late last year, and its economic output still has not recovered to its prerecession peak. Output in the US — where the stimulus program has been bigger and longer lasting — has recovered. This country would now need to suffer through a double-dip recession for its GDP to be in the same condition as Germany’s.

Yet many members of the US Congress continue to insist that budget cuts are the path to prosperity. The only question in Washington seems to be how deeply to cut federal spending this year.

If the economy were at a different point in the cycle — not emerging from a financial crisis — the coming fight over spending could actually be quite productive. Republicans could force Democrats to make government more efficient, which Democrats rarely do on their own. Democrats could force Republicans to abandon the worst of their proposed cuts, like those to medical research, law enforcement, college financial aid and preschools. And maybe such a benevolent compromise can still occur over the next several years.

The immediate problem, however, is the fragility of the economy. GDP may have surpassed its previous peak, but it’s still growing too slowly for companies to be doing much hiring. States, of course, are making major cuts. A big round of federal cuts will only make things worse.

So if the opponents of deep federal cuts, starting with US President Barack Obama, are trying to decide how hard to fight, they may want to err on the side of toughness. Both logic and history make this case.

Let’s start with the logic. The austerity crowd argues that government cuts will lead to more activity by the private sector. How could that be? The main way would be if the government were using up so many resources that it was driving up their price and making it harder for companies to use them.

In the early 1990s, for instance, government borrowing was pushing up interest rates. When the deficit began to fall, interest rates did too. Projects that had not previously been profitable for companies suddenly began to make sense. The resulting economic boom brought in more tax revenue and further reduced the deficit.

However, this virtuous cycle can’t happen today. Interest rates are already very low. They’re low because the financial crisis and recession caused a huge drop in the private sector’s demand for loans. Even with all the government spending to fight the recession, overall demand for loans has remained historically low, the data shows.

Similarly, there is no evidence that the government is gobbling up too many workers and keeping them from the private sector. When Speaker of the House John Boehner said last week that federal payrolls had grown by 200,000 people since Obama took office, he was simply wrong. The federal government has added only 58,000 workers, largely in national security, since January 2009. State and local governments have cut 405,000 jobs over the same span.

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