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Austerity Fails Again: 2 major blows this week to the case for federal budget cuts

It’s been a tough week for proponents of austerity economics—the misguided notion that government spending cuts and debt reduction magically produce economic growth. First, a team of respected mainstream economists completely discredited [1] one of the foundational studies [2] supporting the claim that excessive public debt holds back economic growth. Then, the International Monetary Fund [3]—formerly a bastion of austerity economics—warned [4] the United States that its budget cuts (including sequestration) had gone too far and would likely damage the nation’s economic growth.

Essentially, these developments repudiate the idea that high levels of public debt hurt economic growth along with the fantasy that cutting government spending help economic growth. Altogether, it’s been a bad week for austerity, as we can see below the fold….

In the first piece of bad news for deficit hawks, a team of mainstream economists [1] succeeded in replicating—and completely discrediting [5]—a highly influential study [2] conducted by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in 2009. The original piece looked at countries’ economic growth and debt-loads from 1950-2000 and made the claim [6]widely repeated [2] by proponents of debt-reduction-through-budget-cuts—that countries with a national debt in excess of 90% of GDP experienced a catastrophic slow-down in economic growth, often tipping into recession.

After crunching the same numbers, the team discovered [7] that Reinhart and Rogoff’s remarkable conclusion about debt and economic growth was based on a computational error made in the original authors’ excel spreadsheet [5].  Apparently, the original paper actually excluded from their analysis three countries that experienced fast economic growth at the exact same time their debt-levels exceeded the supposedly magic line of 90% of GDP—Canada, New Zealand, and Australia during the period 1946-1950.

Once these countries were included and the spreadsheet error corrected, it turns out that countries with a national debt equal to 90% of GDP grew at 2.2% per year instead of the -0.1% projected by Reinhart and Rogoff.  (Click here [8] for a great graphical depiction of the corrected relationship between debt and GDP growth (courtesy of Jared Bernstein).


At a more fundamental level, the Reinhart and Rogoff paper was also found to have ignored the unique historical contexts of each different business cycle in each different country—in effect ignoring how different types of recessions in different economies produce different results in growth and debt loads. This glaring oversight led Reinhart and Rogoff to assume that high debt loads reduced economic growth, without considering the reverse [9]—that slow-downs in economic growth often generate greater debt loads, as attention to the historical record (especially the case of Japan) would have made clear.

Taken together, these problems completely discredits this key piece of evidence used to support austerity. If a debt-load in excess of 90% of GDP doesn’t meaningfully reduce economic growth over the long-term, then the notion of a looming American debt crisis completely vanishes. And so does the economic justification for deep budget cuts.

Secondly, at the same time as a key pillar for austerity economics collapsed, the IMF gave the whole approach another blow [10] on Tuesday. In in the biannual World Economic Outlook [11], the IMF pointedly referenced the failed austerity experiments in the Eurozone [12] and warned the United States  that deep cuts to government spending in the middle of the ongoing sluggish recovery is a bad idea.  As reported in the NYT [4] yesterday,

The I.M.F. said that the United States had proved too aggressive in carrying out budget cuts, given its still-sluggish rates of growth and high unemployment levels. It said it anticipated that the across-the-board $85 billion in budget cuts known as sequestration would push down growth levels this year and beyond.

So not only does high levels of public debt NOT hurt economic growth, but excessive cuts to government spending–the “medicine” for “fixing the debt” most favord by proponents of austerity economics–turn out to be the real source for slowing down economic growth.

In light of these two different developments, the lesson for this weeks is that attempting to reduce the federal debt through deep cuts to government spending will not only yield no positive results in terms of economic growth but will instead produce the opposite result—slower growth, fewer jobs, and less prosperity.