Since the release earlier this month of the paper by IMF economists Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh, I've noticed a lot of comments on blogs and news websites suggesting that the IMF economists and their inability to properly measure the size of the fiscal multiplier earlier are to blame for making political leaders believe that fiscal austerity could be expansionary and for misleading them into enacting austerity measures within their respective nations.
That's nonsense. As if the decision to go down the road of austerity depended on a technical detail such as the potency of the fiscal multiplier. Such a statement is as implausible as suggesting that some of the ill-advised military interventions in the Middle East during the last decade would have been prevented had those leaders who decided to enter those wars had been provided better intelligence.
Those looking to blame someone for the current disaster created by fiscal austerity should instead turn to the real culprits, the politicians themselves, as well as their horde of political aides who recommended a course of action that flies in the face of both common sense and empirical evidence.
As I discussed in an earlier post, the case against expansionary austerity was well established even before nations decided to enact austerity measures. And amazingly, the empirical evidence against expansionary fiscal austerity stems from one of the most highly circulated economics papers of 2009, which, ironically, was branded as supporting the case for expansionary fiscal austerity.
This paper is the study by Alberto
Alesina and Sylvia Ardagna, which found that the combination of austerity and
growth occurred in 25 percent of the relevant episodes recorded by the
OECD between 1970 and 2007 (2009, Data Appendix:Table A2).
In other words, the study demonstrated that the odds of successfully
reducing public debt levels and achieving increased growth through
austerity were 1 in 4. As far as empirical support in favor of expansionary fiscal austerity goes, that's pretty weak. With such information available, going ahead with austerity was tantamount to someone deciding to intentionally leave their umbrella at home knowing that there is a 75 percent chance of rain that day. So much for the theory of the rational decision-maker!
And now economists are to blame?
The bottom line is that the disaster of austerity is not about economists getting it wrong. Rather, it is a typical example of a policy-making failure: policymakers making decisions without regard for the facts. But, more importantly, fiscal austerity was a prepackaged "solution to a problem" that fits with today's dominant policy-making ideology, which holds that governments have little or no purpose other than catering to financial interests and leaving the path clear for free-market actors to find solutions to every problem facing society.
To conclude, fiscal austerity is simply another example of a "solution looking for a problem", an empty and empirically ineffectual idea with no clear rationale other than giving the appearance that "something is being done". In this sense, fiscal austerity joins the list of other well-known solutions looking for problems that have been tried and failed in the last thirty years such as deregulation, privatization, supply-side economics and so on.
Alesina, A and Ardagna, S., "Large Changes in Fiscal Policy: Taxes vs Spending", NBER Working Paper No. 15438, October 2009
Blanchard, O. and D. Leigh, "Growth Forecast Errors and Fiscal Multiplier", IMF Working Paper WP/13/1, January 2013