The failure of liberal stimulus

Opinion Journal:

Today's G-20 meeting has been advertised as a showdown between the U.S. and Europe over more spending "stimulus," and so it is. But the larger story is the end of the neo-Keynesian economic moment, and perhaps the start of a healthier policy turn.

For going on three years, the developed world's economic policy has been dominated by the revival of the old idea that vast amounts of public spending could prevent deflation, cure a recession, and ignite a new era of government-led prosperity. It hasn't turned out that way.

Now the political and fiscal bills are coming due even as the U.S. and European economies are merely muddling along. The Europeans have had enough and want to swear off the sauce, while the Obama Administration wants to keep running a bar tab. So this would seem to be a good time to examine recent policy history and assess the results.

Like many bad ideas, the current Keynesian revival began under George W. Bush. Larry Summers, then a private economist, told Congress that a "timely, targeted and temporary" spending program of $150 billion was urgently needed to boost consumer "demand." Democrats who had retaken Congress adopted the idea—they love an excuse to spend—and the politically tapped-out Mr. Bush went along with $168 billion in spending and one-time tax rebates.

The cash did produce a statistical blip in GDP growth in mid-2008, but it didn't stop the financial panic and second phase of recession. So enter Stimulus II, with Mr. Summers again leading the intellectual charge, this time as President Obama's adviser and this time suggesting upwards of $500 billion. When Congress was done two months later, in February 2009, the amount was $862 billion. A pair of White House economists famously promised that this spending would keep the unemployment rate below 8%.

Seventeen months later, and despite historically easy monetary policy for that entire period, the jobless rate is still 9.7%. Yesterday, the Bureau of Economic Analysis once again reduced the GDP estimate for first quarter growth, this time to 2.7%, while economic indicators in the second quarter have been mediocre. As the nearby table shows, this is a far cry from the snappy recovery that typically follows a steep recession, most recently in 1983-84 after the Reagan tax cuts.

The response at the White House and among Congressional leaders has been . . . Stimulus III. While talking about the need for "fiscal discipline" some time in the future, President Obama wants more spending today to again boost "demand." Thirty months after Mr. Summers won his first victory, we are back at the same policy stand.

The difference this time is that the Keynesian political consensus is cracking up. In Europe, the bond vigilantes have pulled the credit cards of Greece, Portugal and Spain, with Britain and Italy in their sights. Policy makers are now making a 180-degree turn from their own stimulus blowouts to cut spending and raise taxes. The austerity budget offered this month by the new British government is typical of Europe's new consensus.

...

What we are witnessing is the failure of liberalism. New historians are also challenging the history of the Roosevelt era and the liberal attempt to deal with the Great Depression. Tax cuts and spending cuts are now seen as the best way to get out of a recession, but the liberals have spent so much money that governments in Europe have had to raise taxes as they cut spending.

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