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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.