Have we seen self-defeating austerity in the United States?

Everyone has been talking about the revised CBO deficit forecast, which suggests the short-term U.S. fiscal picture is more favorable than had been realized.  It can be said that in the short- to medium-term, the deficit is no longer an issue (in my view that was the case anyway, but that is a different story.)

But I am puzzled as to how the whole story is supposed to fit together, at least from an Old Keynesian perspective.

For instance, we have been told that the United States has been engaged in a good deal of fiscal austerity in the last few years.

We also were told that fiscal self-austerity was quite possibly self-defeating (or here, pdf) or at the very least fairly close to self-defeating.  That is, it would make budget balance harder rather than easier.

The amount of attention, and the fervor of the rhetoric, also suggest that this was seen as a major issue, not one minor to moderate factor with seven other significant confounding factors operating on top of it.  Admittedly this latter point is more of a subjective impression, but I believe many people have shared it.

OK, now here goes the potential story.  We did fiscal austerity, it was self-defeating, that was a major factor, and we ended up in…a better budget situation than we had been expecting?

It is fine to say “our budget situation could have been better yet,” but then the fiscal austerity story then seems to collapse into one factor among many confounding factors.  Which is fine by me, but it is not the story we seem to have been receiving.

I am myself comfortable arguing something like “when underlying fundamentals are sound, and/or there is monetary accommodation, an economy can withstand fiscal consolidation just fine.”  That is simply a more specific variant of the above.

Another “way out” is to question whether “austerity” is always to easy to measure, given the associated modalities and baselines involved in its current definitions, and given the multiple dimensions of fiscal policy, and so perhaps the degree of austerity has not been nearly as high as we were told.  I can buy that too, but still it would be news to the Old Keynesian accounts we have been reading.

So what’s up?


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