Progressives economists who spent much of the last four years warning against the implementation of austerity policies in the US did not share in the surprise expressed by many lawmakers and mainstream pundits when new GDP data released Wednesday showed Q4 growth trending the economy back towards official recession.
As warned by experts not cowed by the "deficit hawk" alarmists who dominate the national conversation on the economy, the dip in growth was not the result of "uncertainty" in the private sector or the future demands of public spending obligations, but rather on the contraction of public spending and the tax increases prematurely foisted on low-income and middle class workers in the form of a payroll tax increase that took effect on January 1.
As Washington Post policy analyst Ezra Klein writes: "The government is hurting the recovery, and badly. But it’s not because it’s spending too much, or because of concerns over future policy. It’s because government, at all levels, is spending and investing too little."
And as Robert Borosage, from the Campaign for America's Future, told the Huffington Post: "Inflicting austerity on a weak economy is ruinous and is likely to drive us back into a recession."
"Those dismissing the downturn as due to an odd drop in government spending should consider that more of these are on the docket," Borosage continued, making reference to further government spending cuts, known as 'sequestration,' that will likely be implemented in March.
Meanwhile, Josh Bivens and Nicholas Finio—analysts at the progressive Economic Policy Institute—said the new GDP numbers were disappointing, but argued the economy wasn't likely to teeter back into full recession. The essential lesson, they said of the report, was an easy and long-established one: when government spending contracts, so does a struggling economy.
"When government spending drops, the economy suffers," they said. "The rest of the economy is simply not growing strong enough to make up for losses in demand due to government spending cuts."
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"Wednesday's GDP report, while overstating the current weakness in the economy, clearly illustrates what economists have known since the 1930s: Government fiscal contraction during periods of excess capacity—particularly when interest rates are already near-zero—is exactly the wrong thing to do."
And the Huffington Post adds:
Congress is still driving headlong into the forced austerity known as sequestration, scheduled to take effect in March, which requires across-the-board spending cuts at the Pentagon and among domestic policy programs.
"Today's GDP numbers show the toll that political conflict over fiscal policy is taking on U.S. economic growth," said Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, a think tank closely allied with the Obama administration. "The 0.1 percent economic contraction puts the United States on the precipice of recession. Our economy would certainly have grown at a faster rate last quarter, were it not for political brinkmanship over the debt ceiling and the risk of sharp fiscal contraction in the form of automatic 'sequestration' budget cuts. That contraction is now unfolding."
Warnings about the dangers of austerity have been growing louder in recent months, even from sources that conventionally applaud austerity regimes. In October, the International Monetary Fund issued a report concluding that global policymakers had dramatically underestimated the significance of government spending during a recession. As a result, lawmakers expecting modest drags from austerity instead saw their economies plunge back into a devastating recession. The United Kingdom, where unemployment now stands at 7.7 percent, has experienced a triple-dip recession. In Spain and Greece, unemployment is over 25 percent, with savage humanitarian consequences: HIV infections in Greece are up by over 1,500 percent since the austerity campaign began in 2010.
And Klein concludes his analysis on the situation in the US this way:
So yes, the government is hurting the recovery. But it’s not because of deficits or uncertainty, or at least, it’s hard to find evidence for either theory. The real, provable damage the government has done to economic growth in recent years has been in cutting back on spending and investment since 2010.