A return to that thirties feeling

BERLIN – Suddenly, creating jobs is out, inflicting pain is in. Condemning deficits and refusing to help a still-struggling economy has become the new fashion everywhere, including the United States, where 52 senators voted against extending aid to the unemployed despite the highest rate of long-term joblessness since the 1930s.

Many economists, myself included, regard this turn to austerity as a huge mistake. It raises memories of 1937, when FDR’s premature attempt to balance the budget helped plunge a recovering economy back into severe recession. And here in Germany, a few scholars see parallels to the policies of Heinrich Bruening, the chancellor from 1930 to 1932, whose devotion to financial orthodoxy ended up sealing the doom of the Weimar Republic.

But despite these warnings, the deficit hawks are prevailing in most places – and nowhere more than here, where the government has pledged 80 billion euros, almost $100 billion, in tax increases and spending cuts even though the economy continues to operate far below capacity. What’s the economic logic behind the government’s moves? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that there isn’t any. Press German officials to explain why they need to impose austerity on a depressed economy, and you get rationales that don’t add up. Point this out, and they come up with different rationales, which also don’t add up. Arguing with German deficit hawks feels more than a bit like arguing with U.S. Iraq hawks back in 2002: They know what they want to do, and every time you refute one argument, they just come up with another.

In America, many self-described deficit hawks are hypocrites, pure and simple: They’re eager to slash benefits for those in need, but their concerns about red ink vanish when it comes to tax breaks for the wealthy. Thus, Sen. Ben Nelson, who sanctimoniously declared that we can’t afford $77 billion in aid to the unemployed, was instrumental in passing the first Bush tax cut, which cost a cool $1.3 trillion.

German austerity will worsen the crisis in the euro area, making it that much harder for Spain and other troubled economies to recover. Europe’s troubles are also leading to a weak euro, which perversely helps German manufacturing, but also exports the consequences of German austerity to the rest of the world, including the United States.

But German politicians seem determined to prove their strength by imposing suffering – and politicians around the world are following their lead.

How bad will it be? Will it really be 1937 all over again? I don’t know. What I do know is that economic policy around the world has taken a major wrong turn, and that the odds of a prolonged slump are rising by the day.

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