Faced With Discredited Research, WSJ Doubles Down On Calls For Austerity

The Wall Street Journal reinforced its call for spending cuts, seemingly undeterred by recently discredited research and overwhelming evidence showing that fiscal tightening negatively impacts economic growth.

Reacting to recent research that has questioned austerity proponents' most cited figure -- the 90 percent debt-to-GDP threshold as identified by Camen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- an April 30 Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that the new revelations are being used to “revive the spending machine.”

Instead of addressing the fact that the discrediting of Reinhart-Rogoff took, as The Washington Post's Neil Irwin puts it, a “great deal of wind out of the sails from those who argue that high government debt is, anywhere and everywhere, a bad thing,” the WSJ instead used this event to attack government spending in all forms and reinforce calls for austerity. From the editorial:

The Keynesians are now using a false choice between “austerity” and growth to justify more of the government spending they think drives economic prosperity. The brawl over Reinhart-Rogoff is thus less a serious economic debate than it is a political exercise to turn more of the private economy over to government hands.

After five years of trying, we should know this doesn't work. The real way to promote a stronger economy is more austerity and reform in government, and fewer restraints on private investment and risk taking.

Arriving at such a conclusion requires not only obscuring the importance of the Reinhart-Rogoff debt threshold and its importance in pushing global austerity measures, but also ignoring a few key economic realities.

First, the editorial uncritically dismisses the impact of previous economic stimulus in order to bring into question any future government spending:

[Former White House economist Larry] Summers says governments should borrow more now at near-zero interest rates to invest in future growth. But this is what we were told in 2009-2010, when Mr. Summers was in the White House, and the $830 billion stimulus was used to finance not primarily roads or bridges but more unionized teachers, higher transfer payments, and green-energy projects that have since failed. Why will it be different this time?

The WSJ fails to note that the economic stimulus that was enacted in 2009 is widely regarded as a success. According to a WSJ forecasting survey conducted in 2010, 70 percent of economists agree that the stimulus helped the economy, and a May 2012 Congressional Budget Office report noted that it created between 900,000 and 4.7 million full-time-equivalent jobs in 2010 and between 600,000 and 3.6 million in 2011. 

Second, and perhaps more notably, the editorial completely ignores the mounting evidence that too little government spending is already hurting the U.S. economy. When individual contributors to GDP growth are isolated, it becomes clear that in the majority of recent quarters, cuts in government spending have pulled down overall economic growth. In fact, the negative contribution of too little government spending has compromised growth even in the face of strong private contributions.


And while editorial board member Stephen Moore may feel that recently enacted across-the-board spending cuts have helped economic growth, economists and even Fox News personalities recognize that they have and will continue to negatively impact GDP growth.

WSJ's call for ever elusive “pro-growth” spending cuts stands in stark contrast to observations made by former pro-austerity advocates. The International Monetary Fund, which previously called for austerity measures throughout Europe, recently noted that fiscal tightening has failed to deliver a reduction in debt due to declines in output. Even John Makin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute now claims that the U.S. has cut federal spending enough to substantially reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio.