Paul Krugman takes the British voters to task for ushering in the Age of Austerity with this week's massive Conservative Party majority win, which most likely the end of a number of English social institutions and programs.
Simon Wren-Lewis of the University of Oxford, who has been a tireless but lonely crusader for economic sense, calls it “mediamacro.” It’s a story about Britain that runs like this: First, the Labour government that ruled Britain until 2010 was wildly irresponsible, spending far beyond its means. Second, this fiscal profligacy caused the economic crisis of 2008-2009. Third, this in turn left the coalition that took power in 2010 with no choice except to impose austerity policies despite the depressed state of the economy. Finally, Britain’s return to economic growth in 2013 vindicated austerity and proved its critics wrong.
Now, every piece of this story is demonstrably, ludicrously wrong. Pre-crisis Britain wasn’t fiscally profligate. Debt and deficits were low, and at the time everyone expected them to stay that way; big deficits only arose as a result of the crisis. The crisis, which was a global phenomenon, was driven by runaway banks and private debt, not government deficits. There was no urgency about austerity: financial markets never showed any concern about British solvency. And Britain, which returned to growth only after a pause in the austerity drive, has made up none of the ground it lost during the coalition’s first two years.
Yet this nonsense narrative completely dominates news reporting, where it is treated as a fact rather than a hypothesis. And Labour hasn’t tried to push back, probably because they considered this a political fight they couldn’t win. But why?
Mr. Wren-Lewis suggests that it has a lot to do with the power of misleading analogies between governments and households, and also with the malign influence of economists working for the financial industry, who in Britain as in America constantly peddle scare stories about deficits and pay no price for being consistently wrong. If U.S. experience is any guide, my guess is that Britain also suffers from the desire of public figures to sound serious, a pose which they associate with stern talk about the need to make hard choices (at other people’s expense, of course.)
Still, it’s quite amazing. The fact is that Britain and America didn’t need to make hard choices in the aftermath of crisis. What they needed, instead, was hard thinking — a willingness to understand that this was a special environment, that the usual rules don’t apply in a persistently depressed economy, one in which government borrowing doesn’t compete with private investment and costs next to nothing.
Democrats on this side of the pond at least did that. Labour did not make its case, especially to the Scots, and frankly they want out after Labour screwed them over. I don't blame them. The result? A broken Labour Party and Conservative domination.
The Brits are going to find out the hard way what this will mean. And I don't feel sorry for them.
We need to pay attention here, or we'll make the same mistake next year.