Over the past few weeks, the world's public debt crisis, simmering for months, has come to the boil. When the problems were confined to small countries such as Greece and Ireland, it was assumed that any fallout could be contained. Now, however, the crisis has threatened to engulf nearly everyone. The high-wire confrontation over the debt ceiling in the U.S. Congress raised the prospect of a default by the world's biggest borrower. At the same time, the markets turned their attention to Italy, the eurozone's third-largest economy and the world's fourth-biggest debtor, threatening to raise its borrowing costs to unaffordable levels, or even to cut off its access to funds. The two crises differed in many ways -- not least in that America's borrowing costs fell while Italy's rose -- but the outcomes were similar in one respect: both countries have enacted plans to sharply cut their budget deficits.
How different it seems from two years ago. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, the early 20th century British economist who came to fame during the Great Depression, reigned supreme. It was almost universally accepted that his prescription of massive doses of deficit spending constituted the only possible cure for the global economic collapse. But although large-scale government stimulus programs averted economic catastrophe, apparently justifying Keynes's theories, it now seems that the Keynesian plan to rescue the global economy is being left half-baked. His ideas are being abandoned even though unemployment remains far above pre-crisis levels and the economic recovery is stalling. Keynesian economists and politicians may describe their austerity-minded opponents as turkeys voting for Christmas, but they appear to be losing the battle.
Is this just a moment of collective folly, a wilful blindness to the lessons of the past? To Keynesians, after all, the historical record is clear. Misguided attempts to balance the budget in the wake of the 1929 crash turned a nasty recession into the Great Depression. It was only when the government started to run a substantial deficit from 1932 onwards that the slump abated and the economy recovered, aided by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's devaluation of the dollar in 1933. But the recovery was aborted while unemployment was still high, as a result of the premature withdrawal of fiscal and monetary stimulus in 1937. A sharp and unnecessary second recession followed in 1938, and full employment was only restored by the massive additional stimulus provided by war spending, after which Keynesian economic doctrines produced a period of almost uninterrupted growth that lasted until the 1970s.
The recession of 1938 is a pivotal event in this historical narrative, because it seems to parallel so closely the present situation. By attempting to balance the budget before the economic recovery is fully established, the West risks a double-dip recession, just as occurred in the 1930s.
Yet this story is not quite as simple as Keynesians would like to think -- and the events of 1938 are not the only historical example that can be brought to bear on current events. If Keynesians can point to the impact of wartime spending on the economy, austerity advocates can point to the retreat from it, after both world wars. In 1918 and 1945, both the United States and Britain found themselves with very high public debts and economies that had been artificially boosted during the war as a result of deficit spending and loose monetary policies. Their average budget deficit in the last year of war was 25 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Yet within two years after the end of the wars, both countries had returned not just to sustainable levels of deficit, but to surplus. This was a far greater level of fiscal tightening than anything contemplated nowadays, and it was achieved exclusively through spending reductions.
The outcomes of these post-war retrenchments are instructive. In three out of the four cases of British and American post-war adjustment, the economies initially shrunk, but then started a period of strong and sustained growth with low unemployment. (The exception is Britain after World War I, which entered a decade-long economic depression in many ways as severe as America's in the 1930s. The difference here is in monetary policy: While the United States countered post-war inflation with interest rate hikes that brought prices back to 1919 levels but no lower, Britain made a concerted attempt to deflate prices to pre-war levels so as to get back onto the gold standard at the old parity. In other words, it attempted an "internal devaluation" like the one now being prescribed for the uncompetitive peripheral countries of the eurozone -- and the result was disastrous.)
The post-war experience appears to offer some comfort for America and Britain -- if not for the eurozone. It seems that even extreme fiscal contractions can be pursued without long-term harm as long as monetary policy is left easy and deflation is avoided. After the wars there was an inevitable period of difficult adjustment as the economy underwent a change in focus, reducing its dependence on military spending. But once that adjustment was endured, economies rebounded rapidly. This was all the more remarkable because between them, the Allies comprised close to half of the world's GDP, so there was no hope of exporting to some "consumer of last resort."