Part of Obama's First Term

The True Lessons of the Recession

The West Can’t Borrow and Spend Its Way to Recovery

According to the conventional interpretation of the global economic recession, growth has ground to a halt in the West because demand has collapsed, a casualty of the massive amount of debt accumulated before the crisis. Households and countries are not spending because they can't borrow the funds to do so, and the best way to revive growth, the argument goes, is to find ways to get the money flowing again. Governments that still can should run up even larger deficits, and central banks should push interest rates even lower to encourage thrifty households to buy rather than save. Leaders should worry about the accumulated debt later, once their economies have picked up again.

This narrative -- the standard Keynesian line, modified for a debt crisis -- is the one to which most Western officials, central bankers, and Wall Street economists subscribe today. As the United States has shown signs of recovery, Keynesian pundits have been quick to claim success for their policies, pointing to Europe's emerging recession as proof of the folly of government austerity. But it is hard to tie recovery (or the lack of it) to specific policy interventions. Until recently, these same pundits were complaining that the stimulus packages in the United States were too small. So they could have claimed credit for Keynesian stimulus even if the recovery had not materialized, saying, "We told you to do more." And the massive fiscal deficits in Europe, as well as the European Central Bank's tremendous increase in lending to banks, suggest that it is not for want of government stimulus that growth is still fragile there.

In fact, today's economic troubles are not simply the result of inadequate demand but the result, equally, of a distorted supply side. For decades before the financial crisis in 2008, advanced economies were losing their ability to grow by making useful things. But they needed to somehow replace the jobs that had been lost to technology and foreign competition and to pay for the pensions and health care of their aging populations. So in an effort to pump up growth, governments spent more than they could afford and promoted easy credit to get households to do the same. The growth that these countries engineered, with its dependence on borrowing, proved unsustainable.

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