J. Bradford DeLong
May 20, 2015 · 3 min read

Hoisted from Others’ Archives: Simon Wren-Lewis reminds us he got it absolutely right three years ago:

Simon Wren-Lewis (2012): Dangerous Voices and Macroeconomic Spin: “Dangerous voices are what the British Prime Minister called those who criticised austerity…

…One of those dangerous voices, Martin Wolf, became shrill in Friday’s FT ($). After noting the observation by Jonathan Portes that public investment could currently be financed very cheaply because UK long term real interest rates are so low, he writes:

it is impossible to believe that the government cannot find investments…. that do not earn more than the real cost of funds. Not only the economy, but the government itself is virtually certain to be better off if it undertook such investments and if it were to do its accounting in a rational way. No sane institution analyses its decisions on the basis of cash flows, annual borrowings and its debt stock. Yet government is the longest-lived agent in the economy. This does not even deserve the label primitive. It is simply ridiculous.

Ridiculous it is, but as a piece of spin, the focus on reducing debt works as long as the Euro crisis lasts…. It is good politics to say that ‘there, but for austerity, go us’. I doubt very much that the government actually believes what it says, but the spin is too good to abandon…. If debt was the constraint, the government would have tried balanced budget fiscal expansion…. So why have they not taken it? One answer (there are others) is that the short term lack of growth in the economy, and rising unemployment, is not actually a big problem… [but] is consistent with their five year strategy… to shrink the size of the state, and the need to reduce debt provides an obvious public justification….

The calculation might be as follows:

(1) The recession has not hit the Conservative’s political base hard, so in the short term there is no overwhelming internal pressure to change policy.

(2) By the time of the next election in 2015, economic growth will have returned, and the macroeconomic spin will be ‘we said it would be hard, but growth shows the policy has been successful’.

Some economists will complain about the output gap, but that will get lost in argument…. Others will point to average growth over five years, but then the well-tested line about clearing up the mess… will come back into play. In terms of macroeconomic spin, I think it is a pretty good strategy. Good spin is simple, and plays off real events…. ‘We have to reduce debt quickly because otherwise we will be like Greece, or Spain’ works… the response ‘but the Eurozone is special because member countries do not have their own central bank’ is too technical…. [What] Wolf and Portes put forward above — why not invest when it’s so cheap to borrow — is effective, which is why it is dangerous. So of course is ‘austerity is stifling growth’, as long as growth is negative or negligible. However, come 2015, the spin ‘we have done the hard work and the strategy has worked’ will accord with (relatively) strong growth, while talk of output gaps and lost capacity will have less resonance. True, unemployment will still be high, but not many of the unemployed are Conservative voters….

Will the strategy, and the associated spin, work? The risk that growth will not be respectable in 2014 must be low…. If there is a chance that it might not be, I expect to see some… incentives for firms to bring forward investment…. The Office for Budget Responsibility, that very positive innovation by the current government, will in all likelihood be pointing to the need for continuing austerity, because the earlier absence of growth will have… reduced capacity…. Do not be surprised to hear the following bit of spin in 2015: ‘Austerity laid the foundation for our current growth, so we need to stick with it to ensure growth continues’. As you can see, I think the connection between macroeconomic spin and macroeconomic reality is pretty tenuous. Please someone convince me that I’m being too cynical.

Originally published at www.bradford-delong.com.

J. Bradford DeLong

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Artisanal non-sponsored thinky-think from a primate, economist, utopian, shrill. Also: http://delong.typepad.com | http://equitablegrowth.org/blog | @delong

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