The latest in the cuts saga: Trichet v Bernanke

Which of the two is more familiar with “depression economics”?

There has been much discussion of the op-ed by Jean Claude Trichet, the French governor of the European Central Bank, in today's Financial Times. The Tories will be pleased to see Trichet wholeheartedly and passionately backing the draconian "austerity" measures adopted by European governments in recent weeks, writing:

With hindsight, we see how unfortunate was the oversimplified message of fiscal stimulus given to all industrial economies under the motto: "stimulate", "activate", "spend"! . . . there is little doubt that the need to implement a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation strategy is valid for all countries now

Trichet's comments cannot be ignored and will, as I said, bolster the deficit hawks on the right. But, for me, the more significant and fascinating contribution to this debate has been from Ben Bernanke, governor of the US Federal Reserve. Speaking yesterday in front of the House financial services committee on Capitol Hill, Bernanke spurned the UK and the eurozone's approach to the deficit, rejecting immediate cuts and instead urging legislators to maintain support for fiscal stimulus.

From the Guardian:

In a second day of testimony to Congress, Bernanke said the Obama administration should delay measures to reduce Washington's record budget deficits by cutting spending or increasing taxes.

"I believe we should maintain our stimulus in the short term," Bernanke said, as the latest batch of economic data from the world's biggest economy showed an increase in weekly unemployment claims, a drop in home sales and the second easing of activity in three months.

Bernanke's opposition to fiscal retrenchment until economic recovery has been assured is in contrast to the approach favoured by Britain and the eurozone countries, where governments believe action to reduce budget deficits cannot be delayed.

Bernanke is not your run-of-the-mill central banker, and his views on "depression economics" carry special weight in a way in which Trichet's do not. He spent much of his pre-Fed, academic career immersed in studying the causes and consequences of the Great Depression in the 1930s, publishing essays and books on the subject.

As Dennis Cauchon wrote in USA Today, "Bernanke, a former Princeton University economist, is considered the pre-eminent living scholar of the Great Depression. He is practising today what he preached in his book: Flood the system with money to avoid a depression."

So who are you going to trust on avoiding a rerun of the 1930s? The American central banker or the European central banker? I know who my money's on.

Meanwhile, if you want to read a rebuttal to Trichet's piece, check out this op-ed from the US economist Brad DeLong, also writing in the Financial Times. DeLong writes:

History teaches us that when none of the three clear and present dangers that justify retrenchment and austerity -- interest-rate crowding-out, rising inflationary pressures on consumer prices, national overleverage via borrowing in foreign currencies -- are present, you should not retrench and austerity: don't call the fire truck when there is no smoke. And history teaches us that when economies suffer from high unemployment, enormous excess capacity, incipient deflation, businesses terrified of a lack of customers, and an enormous excess demand for high quality assets, then is the time for expansion and stimulus: when the deck is awash, start bailing.

Yet Jean-Claude Trichet rejects these counsels of history. He seems to me to place himself in the position of, as British interwar bureaucrat R.G. Hawtrey described his precedessors at the start of the Great Depression, somebody: "crying 'Fire! Fire!' in Noah's flood."

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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.