Michael Kinsley Gets It Wrong On “Austerians”

By Mike Konczal |

While I was on vacation, the Internet exploded over a column by Michael Kinsley beefing with Paul Krugman and his follow-up response. The biggest problem with his attempt to reclaim the word “austerians” from its detractors is that he doesn’t provide a working definition, an argument, or even specific people or proposals for what he has in mind. He apparently takes “austerian” to mean “anti-Krugman,” and since Kinsley and others feels that they don’t line up with Krugman, they must all be austerians.

This leads into the second biggest problem with Kinsley’s posts: he concludes that everyone is basically on the same page. It’s just a matter of how you weigh your priorities and concerns. Kinsley writes that “Krugman now says that what he is against is ‘premature’ fiscal austerity. So is everybody. They just disagree on what is ‘premature.’” Also that “[y]ou can be a right-wing Austerian, a left-wing Austerian, a right-wing Keynesian, or a left-wing Keynesian. And (as I also noted last week) the differences are not so great.” (My underlines.)

This is wrong. I’ll quickly summarize three different approaches to the deficit, trying hard to not make straw men of them. There’s (1) Team Keynesian, which thinks that the government should increase the short-term deficit, full-stop. Extend the payroll tax cut for two years. Invest in an infrastructure bank. Mail people checks. Get to the point where the Federal Reserve has traction again on the economy before worrying about the debt.

People in this category are all for ways to deal with the long-term deficit. But they realize that: (a) Medicare is the major driver of those costs, Obamacare needs a chance to deal with this, and it may even be working already; (b) reducing the long-term deficit should require a combination of taxes and spending, and the GOP will refuse any and all tax increases, making a deal impossible; and (c) the GOP wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare rather than bring them into a healthy long-term financial situation, so not everyone is even on the same page.

However, people in (2) Team Barbell think that stimulus must be paired with long-term deficit reduction at the same time. For an example, there’s the original Domenici-Rivlin Restoring America’s Future plan: “First, we must recover from the deep recession that has thrown millions out of work… Second, we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt… These two challenges must be addressed at the same time, not sequentially.”

I assume when Kinsley references needing to eat spinach along with dessert as macroeconomic policy he’s referring to a need for both stimulus and deficit reduction to complement each other. Sadly for him, there’s never been a clear economic case for why these should be addressed together, and plenty of evidence that addressing the second will do little for the first.

(Noah Smith started a conversation recently about whether elites want a slower recovery in order to do structural reform. The original Domenici-Rivlin reform quoted above basically said, “We know unemployment is devastating, and we know more upfront stimulus will help. However, we are going to need you to turn Medicare into a giant Groupon system in order to get it.”)

These two approaches are very different than the arguments for (3) Team Austerity. The argument here is that, if done right, austerity will have a negligible effect on the economy and could even increase prosperity by restoring confidence to private capital. This is not a strawman; it’s the economic plan the GOP put forward when they took the House in 2011, which they got from AEI, which they got from Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna of Harvard.

The 2011 GOP plan also noted, “Analyzing 20 developed countries between 1946 and 2009, Reinhart and Rogoff found a distinct threshold for gross government debt equal to 90 percent of GDP.” They believed action was needed to avoid crossing this threshold, even if it might be painful. (Thankfully, it wouldn’t be according this argument.)

No Pain, No Gain?

Kinsley’s misdiagnosis that the policy disagreements are all a matter of relative priorities then leads him to believe that more weight on short-term pain will lead to better long-term conclusions: “I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be…The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians.”

This set the Internet on fire. I’m genuinely not sure what he’s referencing here when he mentions the middle-class. Is Kinsley at the point where he doesn’t get editors? I’m going to rewrite this for him: “During the 2000s, the middle class borrowed way too much, speculating on housing and using fake home equity to go on a spending spree. Now that this bubble has burst, the middle class needs to spend less and save more. There will be, yes, suffering, but they should have been saving more all along. Americans didn’t save enough, and now they have to save more and work off all the bad debts.”

And here’s how I would have responded to that better argument: “Yes, but two things. The first is that everyone can’t all save at the same time. If everyone is saving, nobody is spending, and we start to hit some major problems. Second, the bad debts to be worked off aren’t set in stone. If unemployment is higher, or wage growth slower, or inflation is under-target, that means the pile of bad debts is even greater. Since they are greater, people save more, and then there are even more problems. So even if you have a strongly moralistic tone about what needs to be done, or read this as a pox on our middle class, stimulus in the short term is crucial.”

Because austerity won’t even do the job Kinsley is proposing it will do. In 1933, John Maynard Keynes said, “You will never balance the Budget through measures which reduce the national income.” He argued this because he was a childless gay hedonist saw that austerity won’t even function to reduce the debt load, because a weaker GDP will eliminate any debt savings. This is precisely what is happening in Europe, and it could happen here if we suffocate the recovery too early.


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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.