Monday, April 29, 2013

Economics 101

Here is the situation:
1) There was a downward spiral, businesses were laying off so customers were not spending. This caused businesses to cut back more, which caused customers to cut back more, which caused businesses to cut back more. 
2) Expectation were also in a downward spiral because everyone saw what was happening so they cut back too. 
3) Deflation joined the party as businesses cut prices to try to get customers, so customers decided prices were going down and decided to wait before buying. 
4) Unemoployment caused people to ask for lower wages when they took a job, which put downward pressure on wages, so cutomers were cutting back even more, (go to 1) 

5) Etc., spiraling ever downward. 

In the past, society learned that the way to fix this is for government to step in and “stimulate” the economy by investing in things like infrastructure project, hiring people to fix roads etc., which stopped the spiral. In fact the Obama stimulus reversed the downward spiral. We were losing 800,000 jobs a month until the stimulus kicked in, then after a while we were gaining jobs again 
But then came the Wall Street-backed “austerians” demanding that government cut back instead of stimulate. Wall Street benefits from unemployment because the very wage drop means they pay less for the labor commodity. And they benefit from deflation because people with lots of money gain while people who owe money lose. And the “study” by Reinhart and Rogoff provided an intellectual justification for Wall Street’s demand.
And Paul Krugman:
Let’s start with what may be the most crucial thing to understand: the economy is not like an individual family. 

Families earn what they can, and spend as much as they think prudent; spending and earning opportunities are two different things. In the economy as a whole, however, income and spending are interdependent: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us slash spending at the same time, both of our incomes will fall too. 
And that’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment, creating the depression that persists to this day. 

Why did spending plunge? Mainly because of a burst housing bubble and an overhang of private-sector debt — but if you ask me, people talk too much about what went wrong during the boom years and not enough about what we should be doing now. For no matter how lurid the excesses of the past, there’s no good reason that we should pay for them with year after year of mass unemployment. 

So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused. 

Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.
Update: Ezra Klein says: The era of austerity is over (for now)

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