Austerity Matrix

Excerpt from: Krugman’s Anti-Austerity Madness

– By: Larry Walker, Jr. –

In economics, austerity refers to a policy of deficit-cutting by lowering spending via a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided. Austerity policies are often used by governments to try to reduce their deficit spending and are sometimes coupled with increases in taxes to demonstrate long-term fiscal solvency to creditors. However, austerity policies don’t have to include tax hikes, and in fact as we shall see the optimal austerity policy actually involves a combination tax cuts paired with deficit reduction.

The key phrase above is “to demonstrate long-term fiscal solvency to creditors”. If there were no creditors, then politicians and government officials wouldn’t have to worry about austerity. If there were no creditors, nations could simply print their own currencies on an unlimited basis, and spend without consequence. But in the real world, since creditors exist, some measure of austerity is required no matter what emotions dictate. Besides, history itself teaches us that printing money without restraint is the surest path to the vicious spiral of hyperinflation, a large increase in the money supply not supported by gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which leads to rapid erosion of a nation’s currency and ultimately to ever more pain.

In the table below, I have summarized all the possible fiscal austerity combinations available to the United States and Europe. When viewed graphically the optimal policy choice should be clear.

Although many Americans, including the President, think the way forward should involve some combination of spending cuts and tax hikes, credit ratings agencies disagree. For example, according to Fitch Ratings Co., “Fiscal Indecision Threatens US ‘AAA’ – Under current law, tax increases and spending cuts equivalent to about 5% of GDP will take effect in 2013 – if permanent, such a “fiscal cliff” could derail the US economic recovery…” Yet it’s not the spending cuts that are problematic, deficit reduction is a must, but rather the combination of tax hikes and spending cuts.

Following the Austerity Matrix, it turns out that:

  1. Tax hikes lead to the fiscal cliff no matter what happens with spending. Why? Because tax hikes lead to private sector austerity, resulting in job and benefit cuts, which leads to lower tax revenues and less economic output. So tax hikes should be off the table. The only reason they’re still being discussed in the United States is because of Obama’s “fairness doctrine”, which if you ask me is total nonsense. Besides, raising taxes on 1% of taxpayers won’t change anything for the other 99%, where the main problem is the lack of opportunities.

  2. Maintaining current tax rates can work, but only in conjunction with spending cuts. However, this only leads to slow growth, which is basically what we have now. Our current real gross domestic product (GDP) annual growth rate of 1.3% is not enough to change the trajectory of our ever increasing jobs deficit. If tax rates are maintained while spending levels are maintained or raised, we still wind up plunging over the fiscal cliff.

  3. The optimal fiscal austerity policy involves a combination of tax cuts and deficit reduction, which leads to rapid growth, or exactly what is needed following an economic crash. But, cutting taxes while maintaining or increasing spending levels only hurtles us over the fiscal cliff.

So there is only one viable fiscal austerity alternative: Cut taxes and reduce government spending. But this always brings up the same old moth-eaten question from faithless do nothings. How will you pay for the tax cuts? The apparently not so obvious answer is — with jobs.

Did you get that? Cutting tax rates across the board, which incidentally is included in the Romney-Ryan Plan, is not a way of giving anyone anything, since the government is merely enabling everyone to keep more of their own money. The dirty little secret is that this is how you grow an economy. When the government confiscates less money from the private sector, the economy eventually finds its footings and will dig its own way out of any hole. I challenge anyone to show me when this form of austerity has ever been implemented and failed to deliver greater revenues and higher levels of economic growth.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “Well, Bill Clinton raised taxes and cut spending and everything was copacetic.” But according to history, that’s actually incorrect. Although it’s true that President Clinton raised taxes during his first term, government spending also increased, that is until 1995 when his Democratic party lost control of both Houses of Congress.

It was actually during his second term when the austerity policy I’m talking about took place. That’s when Republicans passed the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, a reconciliation bill that reduced taxes and hence increased the deficit, paired with the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (H.R. 2014 and H.R. 2015 respectively), each signed by President Clinton. Thus, it was actually tax cuts in conjunction with deficit reduction which produced the boom of the 1990’s, not the Clinton tax hikes.

The only differences between 1997 and today are that the United States wasn’t teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff, and Republicans don’t currently control both Houses of Congress, but the solution to greater revenues, less spending and higher economic growth is the same.

Photo Credit:

Covertress | From Riches to Rags: Inflation & Poverty in Zimbabwe

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