Elections are about choices, and 2012 looks to be a big one.
It's not just a philosophical debate over the proper size and role of government. It's an economic one about stimulus versus austerity. President Obama thinks we need to make smart investments -- just don't call it stimulus! -- to get the economy moving again. Governor Romney thinks we need a smarter tax code -- just don't ask what deductions he'd eliminate -- and less spending to get the economy moving again.
In other words, Romney seems to subscribe to the doctrine of "expansionary austerity" -- that prosperity is just a few spending cuts around the corner. It's an idea that has failed rather spectacularly in Europe the past few years. And it's one that even the orthodox International Monetary Fund has warned against, at least for now.
But that seems to be news to Mitt Romney's top economic advisers. Glenn Hubbard, a professor at Columbia University and a veteran of the Bush administration, recently took to the pages of the Financial Times to apparently argue that trimming the deficit will spur growth. Emphasis on apparently. Here's what Hubbard said:
Gradual fiscal consolidation may also be stimulative in the short term. Research by Hoover Institution economists concludes that reducing federal spending relative to GDP to pre-financial crisis levels over a decade would increase GDP in the short and long term. This outcome reflects lower future tax rates and the boost from lower interest rates to investment and net exports.
How would less government spending translate into more spending overall? The question answers itself: If the other parts of the economy subsequently spend more. Those other parts of the economy are the private sector and net exports. And what would make them spend more? Answer: Lower interest rates. When borrowing costs are lower, the private sector is --tautology alert -- more willing to borrow and invest. Think about it this way. If the cost of capital is low, the return on capital doesn't have to be that high for companies to want to invest. Lower interest rates also tend to mean a weaker dollar -- and a weaker dollar is good for trade.
That leaves one big question. Why would interest rates fall when the government spends less? There are two stories here. First, there's less "crowding out". When the government competes with the private sector to borrow money, the private sector ends up paying more to borrow. Less competition from the government means paying less to borrow. And second, the Federal Reserve might be more likely to do more if Congress does less. There are plenty of examples of this kind of austerity working -- like the United States in the 1990s.
But there's a problem. Interest rates have never been lower. Cutting spending won't lower interest rates any further. For one, there isn't any crowding out now. The private sector would rather sit on cash than borrow. For another, the Fed isn't likely to do all that much more given its current paralysis. Austerity will shrink the economy in the world we live in now.
Hubbard is smart. He knows that austerity won't work without lower interest rates. And he knows that interest rates couldn't be much lower than they already are. In other words, he knows that cutting the deficit too much too soon would be a very bad idea today.
Don't let the rhetoric confuse you. Romney might say he's an austerity candidate, but his top economic advisors quietly admit that this might not be wise.
It's almost like Romney might flip flop on this if he wins.
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Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.