Robert Kuttner has a new article, Austerity Does Not Produce Prosperity. It is a strong statement that current thinking on the need to limit government debt is likely to extend the recession in Europe and the US. Kuttner makes it clear that he believes in Keynesian policy, and does not want to see the west succumb to concerns over debt.
The budget deficit here and overseas does need to return to a more moderate level — after we get an economic recovery. But the problem with the austerity treatment during a recession is that if everyone tightens their belts at once, there is nobody to buy the products; the economy shrinks and repayment of debt is even more arduous. As John Maynard Keynes famously wrote, “The patient does not need rest. He needs exercise.”
Kuttner goes on to review the recovery of the Great Depression, when the US experienced a debt/GDP ratio of 120%. Of course, they went on to pay-off debt with rapidly expanding incomes through the 1950’s and 60’s. Kuttner claims the situation today is different because the spending came in the 40’s because of the war, and common folk were helping finance the debt buying war bonds.
I am not so sure the US debt has not been helped along with spending in the military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather, the difference might be that these wars are not creating new industry and new training for workers.
But all of the war spending recapitalized industry, re-employed and trained jobless workers; and after the war pent up consumer demand powered a record boom and rising revenues paid down the debt.
There was plenty of wartime sacrifice, but it was shared. Citizens bought war bonds and used ration books. There were wage and price controls. Surtaxes on high incomes were over 90 percent. Interest rates were administered through a deal between the Treasury and the Fed, and the war debt was financed with cheap money.
It seems to me that Kuttner is pointing out enough differences that there may be room to disagree with his main point, that we should follow history’s example.