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Some Austerity is Good Austerity


Harvard University professor Robert Barro has a piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning reminding us that some countries in Europe have successfully implemented austerity measures.

Two interesting European cases are Germany and Sweden, each of which moved toward rough budget balance between 2009 and 2011 while sustaining comparatively strong growth — the average growth rate per year of real GDP for 2010 and 2011 was 3.6% for Germany and 4.9% for Sweden. If austerity is so terrible, how come these two countries have done so well?

The answer is that they constrained spending without jacking up taxes.

There is a lesson for America in there, and it’s not that we should spend more money:

For the U.S., my view is that the large fiscal deficits had a moderately positive effect on GDP growth in 2009, but this effect faded quickly and most likely became negative for 2011 and 2012. Yet many Keynesian economists look at the weak U.S. recovery and conclude that the problem was that the government lacked sufficient commitment to fiscal expansion; it should have been even larger and pursued over an extended period.

This viewpoint is dangerously unstable. Every time heightened fiscal deficits fail to produce desirable outcomes, the policy advice is to choose still larger deficits. If, as I believe to be true, fiscal deficits have only a short-run expansionary impact on growth and then become negative, the results from following this policy advice are persistently low economic growth and an exploding ratio of public debt to GDP.

He points to Japan as an example of a country that has chosen to sustain large deficits and failed to grow.

His whole piece is here.

This post, by Carpe Diem’s Mark Perry, reports on Sweden’s successful experimentation with austerity. The following is from the U.K. Spectator’s report:

When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg (pictured above) has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. To critics, this was fiscal lunacy. Borg, on the other hand, thought lunacy meant repeating the economics of the 1970s and expecting a different result.

Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. “Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,” he says. “Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.” Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. The recovery started just in time for the 2010 Swedish election, in which the Conservatives were re-elected for the first time in history.