A few weeks ago Zero Hedge offered a modest critique of Jeffrey Sachs after his disastrous performance in a round table debate with Hugh Hendry and Gillian Tett, in which the Columbia professor came out sounding as clueless as a first year economics major. It now appears that Mr. Sachs may be attempting to atone for his myopia memorialized by the BBC, in the following FT Op-Ed in which he unabashedly lashes out at Keynesianism. In it we read: "Mainstream Keynesian economics is facing its last hurrah. The global fiscal stimulus championed last year by the Obama administration is coming undone, repudiated by the same Group of 20 that endorsed it last year. Now, against a backdrop of a widening sovereign debt crisis, we need to abandon short-term thinking in favour of the long-term investments needed for sustained recovery." Such words of caution from a man who as recently as two weeks ago was encouraging precisely the very steps he is now purporting to be against. Nonetheless, we greet with open arms this most recent act of contrition by yet another economist who leaves the warm innards of the corpse of the economic false religion, and finally sees the light. Welcome Jeffrey.
Some other notable points in his op-ed:
Keynesian stimulus was premised on four dubious propositions: that it was needed to prevent a global depression; that a short-run fiscal boost would jump-start the economy; that “shovel-ready projects” could combine short-term cyclical and long-term structural agendas; and, last, that the rapid rise of public debt occasioned by stimulus need not be a concern. That these ideas were so widely accepted was a testament to the perennial political attractiveness of tax cuts and spending increases.
We hope that other high cardinal of Keynes, Paul Krugman is reading this.
In fact, the ubiquitous references last year to the Great Depression were glib; the policymakers had panicked. Adroit central banking could and would prevent depression. The hastily assembled stimulus packages were a throwback to naive Keynesianism. The relevant fact was that the US, UK, Ireland, Spain, Greece and others had over-borrowed for a decade, so a decline in consumption after 2007 was not an anomaly to be fought but an adjustment to be accepted.
Certain counter-cyclical spending is vital on social grounds. But stimulus measures such as temporary tax cuts for households or car scrappage schemes were dispiriting wastes of scarce time and money. They reflected a hope that a temporary fiscal bridge would carry us back to consumption and housing-led growth – a dubious proposition since the old “normal” had been financially unsustainable.
Sachs concludes with the following tirade which could have come from the pen of any Austrian:
Now we face a world economy with weak aggregate demand in the US and Europe, bulging budget deficits, sovereign debt downgrading and consumers unwilling to borrow. Governments are fighting for market credibility via draconian cuts in spending. This too is the wrong approach. We should avoid a simplistic austerity to follow the simplistic stimulus of last year. Here are some suggested guidelines.
First, governments should work within a medium-term budget framework of five years, and within a decade-long strategy on economic transformation. Deficit cutting should start now, not later, to achieve manageable debt-to-GDP ratios before 2015.
Second, governments should explain, and the public should learn, that there is little that economic policy can do to create high-quality jobs in the short term. Good jobs result from good education, cutting-edge technology, reliable infrastructure and adequate outlays of private capital, and thus are the outcome of years of sustained public and private investments. Governments need actively to promote post-secondary education.
Third, governments must of course also ensure social safety nets: income support for the poor, universal access to basic healthcare and education, a scaling up of job training programmes and promotion of higher education.
Fourth, governments should steer their economies towards needed long-term structural transformation. External-deficit countries such as the US and UK will need to promote exports over the next few years, while all countries must promote clean energy and new transport infrastructure.
Fifth, governments and the public should insist that the rich pay more in income and wealth taxes – indeed, a lot more. The upward re-distribution of the past 25 years has made our economies into extravagant playgrounds for the super-wealthy. Politicians of both the mainstream left and right in the US and UK have fawned over those who pay their campaign bills in return for low taxation. Even playgrounds should collect tolls – when it is billionaires in the sandpit.
We need, in sum, to reset our macroeconomic timetables. There are no short-term miracles, only the threat of more bubbles if we pursue economic illusions. To rebuild our economies, the watchword must be investment rather than stimulus.
It is now time for a Hendry-Sachs rematch. Somehow we think it would be far more interesting this time around.