No time for austerity

Basic Income Earth Network (This article originally ran in 2011)

I can’t believe the news. We are in the midst of the worst global depression in 70 years, and the governments of almost every major industrialized country are talking about austerity. They’re cutting government services; laying off public sector workers; cutting pay, pensions, and benefits for public employees—all in the name of austerity and balanced budgets.

This astounds me because we’ve been through it before. We’ve seen what works, and we know that austerity is not the way out of a major depression. Austerity makes depressions worse. To get out of a depression, the government needs to spend money—and lots of it. The lessons of history are clear, and the reading of history I’m going to discuss to make my point is not terribly controversial among economists. Let me explain.

In a depression (or a deep recession or whatever you want to call it), we get stuck at the bottom. People can’t spend as much because they’re not making as much, but they aren’t making as much because people aren’t spending as much. Debt is a related problem, and so, I believe, is the real estate market, but there’s no room in this editorial for a full explanation. If you understand the idea of getting stuck at the bottom because of the feedback between spending and income, you get the essence of it. This kind of unemployment is pure waste. Human resources (not to mention idle shops and factories) are simply going to waste unused. We can wait for all that to work itself out on its own—as Japan has been waiting since 1989—or the government can take action.

Austerity is a reasonable response to—say—finding half of our industrial capacity destroyed by aerial bombardment. If our physical capacity to produce goods has fallen, then we’ll all have to make do with a little less for a while. But austerity is the worst possible response to an economy in a depression, because a depression economy is no less able to produce goods than before; it’s simply letting productive capacity go to waste. And that waste exists because people aren’t spending as much. If the governments of the world respond by spending less as well, they simply exacerbate the problem.

We learned how to take action in a big way at the outset of World War II. I wrote a few years ago about “the economic lesson of 1938” (August 2009). Today’s editorial could as well be called “the economic lesson of 1941.” The accompanying graph (at the bottom) shows U.S. per capita GDP for the years 1929 to 1947—from the stock market crash at the beginning of the Great Depression to the bottom of the post-war recession. Per capita GDP is the income of the average American. The figures are in “inflation-adjusted” 2008 dollars, meaning they’re multiplied by an index to show the purchasing power that the incomes of the time would have at today’s prices. No inflation adjustment is perfect, but they give you a rough idea. In general the graph shows we were much poorer back then, but it shows much more about the times.

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