Paul Romer once said that "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." A crisis, it is widely believed, gives you the chance to change long-entrenched institutions and make long-needed reforms. It's hard to read that quote without thinking the uncomfortable thought: Doesn't that mean that provoking, or at least allowing, a crisis is the best way to improve your institutions for the long-term?
This thought has been running through my head as I have interacted with three groups of people: 1) Southern European economists, 2) Western "Japan hands", and 3) American opponents of monetary and fiscal stabilization policy.
Regarding South European economists, my evidence is anecdotal, but every single Italian, Spanish, and Greek economist I've talked to has seemed very down on the notion of fiscal stimulus, and highly disdainful of Paul Krugman. Alberto Alesina seems to be an exemplar of their thinking. When discussing stimulus spending, they tend to predict that this spending will be captured by special interests and wasted. Monetary easing receives scarcely more respect. Inevitably, any discussion of the European crisis leads quickly to a discussion of broken institutions in the Southern European countries - poor tax collection systems, over-regulation, sclerotic labor markets, political corruption, and even a poor cultural work ethic.
Now, this could simply be selection bias; the U.S. is considered a bastion of laissez-faire, conservative macroeconomics, so it's possible that the conservative South Europeans are the ones who make it here. But interestingly, I see a very similar attitude among long-time Western observers of Japan (called "Japan hands"), who are mostly very skeptical of Abenomics, and very focused on structural issues. For example, here is Peter Drysdale:
The first two ‘arrows’ [in Abe's quiver] are crude Keynesianism and are controversial, not least because, if they work, they could bring unintended consequences for the currency and the Japanese government bond market...
The ‘third arrow’ of revitalisation is therefore critical for the success of all these measures. If there is no effective reform program for promoting private sector investment-led growth, the chances of a bond market collapse and a fiscal mess multiply dramatically...
A return to stable, relatively rapid growth, requires a more flexible and competitive Japanese economy. As Harner explains, ‘restrictions, anticompetitive and onerous laws and regulations, multi-tiered, bureaucratic interference and inflexibility, relatively high taxes — all these obstacles to free market exchange and competition have sapped profitability, international competitiveness, and growth from vast swaths of Japan’s economy’.
Without getting rid of these burdens, Japan is not going to be able to grow its way out of stagnation and the risks would then be for deepening of the crisis.As for American opponents of stabilization policy, these include John Cochrane, who pooh-poohs both fiscal and monetary stimulus, saying that we need to get rid of "sand in the gears" of our institutions in order to promote growth. They also include Tyler Cowen, who often disparages Keynesianism (though he sits on the fence in terms of monetary easing), and who often writes about the need to improve our political institutions.
What unites all these and other "austerians"? There are several possibilities. One is that austerity is a good idea, and that these smart people recognize that it is a good idea. Another is that these are political conservatives who are worried that countercyclical macroeconomic policy will redistribute income and regulatory privilege away from themselves or their favored social groups. A third is that the psychological impulse toward austerity - tighten your belt in bad times! - is simply very very strong among all humans. And a fourth possibility, favored by Paul Krugman, is the idea that austerity is perceived as morally virtuous.
I want to suggest a fifth possibility. I conjecture that "austerians" are concerned that anti-recessionary macro policy will allow a country to "muddle through" a crisis without improving its institutions. In other words, they fear that a successful stimulus would be wasting a good crisis.
Consider the perspective of someone who has long advocated institutional reforms. For example, imagine yourself as a Western "Japan hand". For decades, you have watched Japan stagnate. You have seen the revolving door of prime ministers come and go, come and go. You have watched the long-ruling LDP dish out trillions of dollars of taxpayer money to pay politically connected construction firms to pour concrete over every riverbed in the country, even as women were forced into unproductive housewifery by a sexist and hidebound corporate culture and foreign imports were blocked by ever more creative non-tariff barriers.
And as you watched Japan's economy stagnate and its productivity fall behind, you waited. You waited and waited for the day when things would get too dire, and the old system would eventually collapse under its own weight, and Japan would be forced to undergo an economic and social revolution. "One day," you told yourself, "they're not going to be able to muddle through anymore."
In 2011, it seemed that that day had finally come. Japan's economy had taken powerful blows from the 2008 crisis and the 2011 earthquake. The Fukushima nuclear accident had exposed the depths of government corruption. The long-ruling LDP had been replaced by the DPJ, but it was clear that the new guys were cut from the same tattered cloth, and only a massive political "realignment" could restore efficacy to Japan's Diet. And most of all, the Japanese debt continued to skyrocket, until it seemed inevitable that deep cutbacks were coming.
And then came Shinzo Abe, a stalwart of the old LDP, swept into power on a promise to beat deflation and use monetary stimulus to get Japan back on its feet. And Abenomics seemed to be working: the yen fell, inflation expectations budged, and the stock market soared. Suddenly there seemed to be a real possibility that Japan would "muddle through" yet again. Sure, Abe has also promised structural reforms, but - you think to yourself - you've heard that song and dance before. If Japan manages to muddle through under Abe's aggressive recession-fighting policy, there will be no real incentive for the old system to change. The day of reckoning will be pushed back another decade.
I can only imagine that a similar thought process is running through the heads of many South Europeans as they watch the macroeconomic debate. If monetary stimulus (including a euro exit) and fiscal stimulus manage to just barely save Greece and Italy and Spain from their own days of reckoning, won't the euro-sclerosis just deepen before things finally collapse in ten years' time? And I imagine that something similar might be running through the minds of John Cochrane and Tyler Cowen (Update: And Richard Fisher!), as they decry "sand in the gears". Suppose a Krugman-style stimulus really did work! Wouldn't that allow the sand to stay in the gears, reducing our long-term growth rate just to produce a little short-term stability?
In other words, maybe people like the idea of austerity because they think an economic stagnation is our best chance to address what they perceive to be our long-term challenges. Allowing a crisis might be less terrible than wasting it.
Now, when stated that way, the idea sounds kind of silly - why don't we just periodically bomb our own cities, in the hope that governance will improve during the rebuilding? But I find it very difficult to state with any confidence that the idea is wrong. When economists discuss the costs of stabilization policy, they limit their discussion to distortionary taxation, unexpected inflation, and things like that. They almost never bring politics or institutions into the picture. The fact is, we just don't know how institutions really work. So I can't dismiss the idea that anti-recessionary macro policy might, in fact, rob us of our best chances to make needed reforms.
But what I think we should do is to discuss this idea explicitly. If people really do think that the danger of stimulus is not that it might fail, but that it might succeed, they need to say so. Only then, I believe, can we have an optimal public discussion about costs and benefits.
Update: Eerily, the very day after I wrote this post, Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post made exactly this argument for austerity. Tyler Cowen links approvingly, calling the argument "wisdom".