WSJ Whitewashes Effects Of Austerity On Economic Recovery Efforts

The Wall Street Journal completely ignored the lingering effects of fiscal austerity in its synopsis of the catastrophic recession and sluggish recovery witnessed over the past five years.

In an article titled, “Financial Crisis: Lessons of the Rescue, A Drama in Five Acts,” the Journal analyzed why the myriad government interventions did not create a dramatic economic turnaround with full employment and rising incomes. From the September 8 article:

Americans could rightly wonder why things are still so bad and ask if anything could be been done differently--some policy pursued, some step avoided--to have eased the prolonged economic pain.

After briefly summarizing the Bush and Obama administration's handling of the financial and auto bailouts, the Journal turned its attention to the perceived “failure” of fiscal and monetary stimulus in the wake of the recession.

Mr. Obama won congressional approval of tax cuts and spending increases that, by CBO's latest reckoning, added up to $830 billion over 10 years. The Fed cut short-term interest rates to zero in December 2008 and, nearly five years later, is promising to leave them there for another few years. Figuring that wouldn't be sufficient, it printed, electronically, about $2.8 trillion to buy bonds to push long-term rates down, an unprecedented show of monetary force.

Yet each year for the past few has opened with forecasts that this will be the one that the U.S. economy grows at 3% or better; each year so far has disappointed. CBO estimates that U.S. output of goods and services will be below its potential until 2017. Unemployment remains at levels once seen only in recessions.

In this light, the fiscal and monetary stimulus efforts look like failures, as Republicans frequently observe. Mr. Geithner points to unremitting bad luck: the European sovereign-debt crisis; the disruption following Japan's tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

Top Obama administration and Federal Reserve officials say today they would have preferred more government spending to make up for the shortfall in demand from the private sector.

The WSJ's recollection of economic history failed on two main points: ignoring the economic debate around the stimulus packages, and completely dismissing the lasting effects of Republican-led austerity measures.

First, the article overlooked the fact that the fiscal stimulus programs were likely too small to turn the economy around on their own. The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contributed $152 billion and $831 billion, respectively to recovery efforts. The bulk of that investment went to one-time personal and corporate tax credits, with remaining spending spread out over the next 10 years.

The magnitude of these programs was hotly contested in Washington, but many economists argued that neither stimulus went far enough. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman argued in January 2009 in The New York Times that the proposed Obama stimulus, then estimated to be a $775 billion package, was far too small.

Krugman even predicted that the Obama plan might only reduce the unemployment rate to 7.3 percent, where it stands today, a level that “could easily be spun by critics as a failure.”

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the WSJ failed to acknowledge that, starting in 2011, the Keynesian interventions installed by both the Bush and Obama administrations were replaced by unprecedented fiscal austerity and budgetary constraint.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA), the first priority of a newly minted and deficit-scared Republican House majority, installed immediate and future budget cuts that out-weighed the combined Bush and Obama stimulus acts.

According to analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the BCA reduced discretionary spending by “more than $1 trillion over the ten years from 2012 through 2021” while also establishing a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction with the mandate to reduce the federal deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over the same period. When that committee failed to arrive at a legislative solution, automatic spending cuts known as “sequestration” went into effect.

According to further analysis from the CBPP, Congress and the president had already agreed to more than $1.5 trillion in 10-year discretionary budget cuts by November 2012.

The WSJ's lament on the current state of the economy, which it perceives to be mired in perpetuity, made zero mention of these facts. It also fails to recognize what others have come to accept; fiscal austerity and paranoid deficit-constraint is hurting economic growth. The evidence is even more pronounced in Europe, where austerity-driven policymakers faced little progressive economic resistance, and the International Monetary Fund has recommended a reversal of policy to get back on track.

The problem plaguing the American economy is not the failure of stimulus; it is the presence of austerity.