Despite the apparent deficit-cutting solidarity that emerged from this weekend's G-20 meeting in Toronto, it is clear that the great powers of the industrialized world have not been this philosophically estranged since the end of the Cold War. Ironically, in this new contest, the former belligerents have switched sides - the capitalists are now the socialists, and vice versa.
We now are witnessing a struggle between two camps that I playfully call the "Stimulators" and the "Austereians." Both warn that a worldwide depression will ensue if governments now make the wrong choices: the Stimulators say the danger lies in spending too little and the Austereians from spending too much. Each side also has their own economic champion: the Stimulators follow the banner of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, while the Austereians are forming up behind the recently reformed former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. (It is cold comfort to witness "The Maestro" belatedly returning to the hard-money positions that characterized his earlier years.)
In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Greenspan argued that the best economic stimulus would be for the world's leading debtors (the United States, UK, Japan, Italy, et al) to rein in their budget deficits, a strategy dubbed "austerity" by the press. Greenspan explains that because lower deficits will restore confidence, diminish the threat of inflation, and allow savings to flow to private-sector investment rather than public-sector consumption, the short-term pain will lead to gains both in the mid- and long-term. Rather than redistributing a shrinking pie, this approach allows the pie to grow. Greenspan's Austereian view has been echoed loudly in the highest policy circles of Berlin, Ottawa, Moscow, Beijing, and Canberra.
Meanwhile, in several articles for his New York Times column, including one today, Krugman has argued that those who push for austerity in the face of recession are either doing so for political expediency or out of a "crazy" fealty to archaic economic views. Krugman has apparently judged inadequate the trillions of dollars worth of deficit spending unleashed by the United States and European governments in the last 24 months. He believes our only remedy is to spend more - no matter how much debt results. Absent this, he claims, millions of workers "will never work again." Unfortunately, Washington has clearly aligned itself with Krugman and the Stimulators.
Reading straight from the Keynesian playbook, Krugman argues that cutting government spending now will simply send the economy back into recession. He asserts that by flooding the economy with money, i.e. "stimulus," governments can encourage consumers to spend. Once the spending creates better conditions, so the argument goes, the economy will be better positioned to withstand the spending cuts, tax hikes, and higher interest rates necessary to address the staggering deficits left behind.
Krugman proposes an enticing argument that is nevertheless built on rubbish. Economies do not grow because consumers spend; consumers spend because economies grow [for a detailed explanation of how this works, read my latest book: How an Economy Grows]. Investment capital comes from savings, and when governments borrow, savings are diverted from private investment. While it is possible for governments to invest as well, it is much more likely that the money will be spent on entitlements or "invested" in projects that may be politically advantageous but economically useless.
Any money spent by governments is not available to the private sector to invest. The Stimulators don't make this connection because they believe money grows on trees and that a printing press is a legitimate creator of wealth. However, printing money merely encourages people to spend their savings now rather than wait for it to lose value through inflation. This is okay to Stimulators, because stimulating "demand" by any means necessary is the only goal they can see.
What really grows an economy is not more demand, but more supply [also explained in my book]. The Austereian argument is that reductions in government spending will allow the private sector to generate the additional supply of goods and services. Europe seems to understand this; unfortunately, the US does not. Judging by the recent weakness of the dollar - not only against gold, but other fiat currencies, including the pound and the euro - the markets are coming to the same conclusion.
As sovereign-debt worries initially spread throughout Europe, the dollar benefitted. However, now that Europe has demonstrated a willingness to reduce its debts, while we have committed to make ours even larger, the sovereign-debt worries are moving west.
If Greenspan and the Austereians are correct, the stimulus will fail and leave us in a much deeper hole. As long as governments create bigger deficits, we will never have a sustainable recovery. Instead, we will be chasing our tail, and wearing ourselves out in the process. When we finally realize the folly of this approach, the austerity measures that we will then be forced to adopt will make those currently proposed by the Europeans seem relatively painless.
My guess is that before year-end, our stimulus-induced recovery will falter, prompting Obama and Congress to administer even more stimulus. After all, the Stimulators have no other answer. However, given the adverse reaction this will produce in the currency and debt markets, this next jolt will likely vindicate the Austereians, as the world witnesses its greatest power careen into inflationary depression.