David Cameron’s Herbert Hoover impression

Paul Krugman excoriates our coalition of deficit hawks.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, has issued a denunciation of Europe's deficit hawks -- including our own debt-obsessed double act, Cameron and Osborne -- in his latest column for the New York Times, reproduced in today's Guardian.

The column, entitled "21st-century depression", says the world has experienced two big setbacks in recent economic history (in the 1870s and the 1930s), but argues that we could be on the verge of a third, which "will be primarily a failure of policy". He writes:

Around the world -- most recently at the weekend's deeply discouraging G20 meeting -- governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending.

Krugman excoriates policymakers across the Continent for failing to learn the clear and undeniable lessons of history and, in particular, the history of the Great Depression. He points out:

. . . both the US and Europe are well on their way towards Japan-style deflationary traps.

In the face of this grim picture, you might have expected policymakers to realise that they haven't yet done enough to promote recovery. But no: over the last few months there has been a stunning resurgence of hard-money and balanced-budget orthodoxy.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, the revival of the old-time religion is most evident in Europe, where officials seem to be getting their talking points from the collected speeches of Herbert Hoover, up to and including the claim that raising taxes and cutting spending will actually expand the economy, by improving business confidence. As a practical matter, however, America isn't doing much better. The Fed seems aware of the deflationary risks -- but what it proposes to do about these risks is, well, nothing. The Obama administration understands the dangers of premature fiscal austerity -- but because Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress won't authorise additional aid to state governments, that austerity is coming anyway, in the form of budget cuts at the state and local levels.

But the key point in Krugman's column, which the deficit hawks have yet to address, is how the deflationary antics of European elites are so self-evidently counterproductive, not to mention horribly self-destructive:

The hardliners often invoke the troubles facing Greece and other nations around the edges of Europe to justify their actions. And it's true that bond investors have turned on governments with intractable deficits. But there is no evidence that short-run fiscal austerity in the face of a depressed economy reassures investors. On the contrary: Greece has agreed to harsh austerity, only to find its risk spreads growing ever wider; Ireland has imposed savage cuts in public spending, only to be treated by the markets as a worse risk than Spain, which has been far more reluctant to take the hardliners' medicine.

It's almost as if the financial markets understand what policymakers seemingly don't: that while long-term fiscal responsibility is important, slashing spending in the midst of a depression, which deepens that depression and paves the way for deflation, is actually self-defeating.

In the years to come, we'll regret not listening to the likes of Krugman and his fellow Nobel Prize-winner Joe Stiglitz, and preferring instead the "unavoidable" Budgets of those neo-Hooverites, David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.