Yesterday I gave a lecture at Reading University. I asked the question, does austerity work as an economic policy? Why do the IMF and the Euro area favour austerity programmes for countries in trouble? Do they succeed in rescuing countries by these means?
Austerity is a wide ranging word, not a precise term of economics. It has come to mean in recent debates the idea that a country in debt with a large deficit should cut spending and raise taxes in order to reduce its deficit. This has led to passionate debates about the wisdom and the impact of such a course of action.
In the UK between 2009 and 2013 the main parties all agreed the deficit was too large and needed to be brought down. All agreed if left unchecked the deficit could lead to crisis interest rates, an unaffordable cost of interest on a burgeoning public debt, and an eventual squeeze as the debt grew out of control. We could see the damage unchecked deficits caused in countries like Greece or Venezuela. There was nonetheless a tough argument with Labour saying the coalition wished to cut the deficit too far and too fast, whilst the coalition said it needed to speed up the pace of deficit reduction it had inherited as the financial situation was grave.
We now know the outcome of these policies. Labour’s prediction of rising unemployment, a dip into a new recession, and more personal misery as a result proved to be untrue. Instead the UK economy has grown over the four years of deficit reduction so far, employment has grown rapidly and unemployment has fallen. The deficit has been cut, though not by as much as planned as tax revenues have fallen short of budget.
Labour never answered my questions of 2010 and 2011 as to how the US economy was recovering so well when the US was cutting its deficit more rapidly than the UK. Since the worst year at the end of the last decade the USA has brought its deficit down from over 10% to 2.5% of GDP. This deficit reduction has included some big cuts in states spending and defence spending. The US economy has grown well every year this decade, contrary to predictions that austerity policies stop growth.The UK deficit has been brought down from a peak of over 11% of GDP to 5% of GDP, a bit less than the USA.
The economic records of the USA and UK in recent years show us that bringing deficits down does not necessarily stop growth. Indeed, some of the deficit reduction occurs thanks to growth, which raises revenues. Growth however, does not automatically follow from cuts to public spending. There need to be other policies towards banks, money and private investment to ensure success with a strong private sector led recovery. In a future posting I will look at some of the harder cases of extreme austerity in the Euro area, where damage has been done by the policies pursued.