Stimulus or Austerity: Can Either Succeed?

by John Brian Shannon

In the age-old debate between stimulus and austerity, many commentators fail to realize both schools of thought could be correct — and in fact, both are.

For one, look at the uncountable billions of stimulus added to the American economy during President Reagan‘s two terms. Unprecedented billions were directed towards defense, R&D, infrastructure — and even to Chrysler — although, strictly speaking, those were loan guarantees.

Do loan guarantees count as stimulus? Almost. And those guarantees tied up billions of U.S. Government dollars until they were no longer required — and served to establish and add gravitas to a new momentum in the U.S. economy. Courtesy of President Reagan’s leadership, I hasten to add.

When we look at historic stimulus, it works. When the stimulus is added at the first sign of recession it is most effective. Once all those factories are shuttered, trying to add stimulus to improve the economy is an uphill battle, every day.

The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe at the end of WWII is a classic stimulus success story. Anyone who visited 1945 Europe and then visited again in 1960 can attest to that! About $40 billion dollars were used to stimulate the European economy — a lot of money in those days, even by United States’ standards.

Think of stimulus spending as emergency funding to keep the economy functioning. It really only works when applied immediately and at the first sign of recession.

For two, austerity does work. Although, it must be said, removing obscene debt and irresponsible deficits from a large economy constitute a major structural change. It is no band-aid solution — although as I said above, band-aids do work.

Austerity fixes the underlying structural problem — while stimulus fixes the symptoms, if you will.

There is no doubt about the Baltic austerity success story and there are others. You need only look as far as Canada in the 1990’s. Canada’s credit rating was on the rocks, the economy was in the tank and economic vital signs were heading in the wrong direction.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his astute Finance Minister Paul Martin, decided to adopt aggressive Canadian-style austerity and it worked (short-term pain for long-term gain) better than anyone had imagined. It just took some political leadership, unusually good communications with voters and some serious brainstorming.

A final word on economist’s everywhere. European economists work for Europe’s well-being, Chinese economists work for China, er, directly! While American economists work to arrange things to America’s advantage — you can’t begrudge any side for ‘playing for the home team’.

If the New York Times, Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Paul Krugman believes that it is in America’s best interests to float the economy with stimulus money, then he is right. Of course while agreeing with him, I always point out that stimulus is a merely a temporary fix and that additional deficit-financing (and accumulated debt) should be ‘pared down’ during the boom times.

Just as John Maynard Keynes suggested.

When this is not done, decade after decade, or should I say, recession after recession, it adds to the unbalanced economy and the entire economic structure is thereby weakened.

For now, stimulus — although it is almost too late for band-aids. Then, during the next boom, adroit movement towards zero-deficit financing — then, once that is achieved, regular scheduled debt paydowns after that.

Stimulus will stop the worst of the present economic malaise from taking an even higher toll — and later, austerity will begin to improve the entire structure of the U.S. economy.

John Brian Shannon