These Very Serious People present economics as a morality play, in which debt is a sin, and we have all sinned, so now we must all pay the price by tightening our belts together. They tell us the crisis will take a long time to resolve, and must inevitably be painful. All of this, according to Krugman, is the opposite of the truth. Austerity is a self-imposed collective punishment that is not just unnecessary, but won’t work. We know what would work – but for complex political and historical reasons that his book explores, we have chosen to forget. “Ending this depression,” he writes, “should be, could be, almost incredibly easy. So why aren’t we doing it?”
Krugman offers the example of a babysitting co-op, or circle, in which parents are issued with vouchers they can exchange for babysitting hours. If all of the parents simultaneously decide to save their vouchers, the system will grind to a halt. “My spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us try to slash our spending at the same time, then we are also slashing our incomes, so we don’t actually end up saving more.” We could issue more vouchers to everyone, to make them feel “richer” and encourage them to spend – which would be the circle’s equivalent of quantitative easing. But if everyone is determined to save, the parents will hold on to the extra vouchers, and the circle still won’t work. This is what’s called a liquidity trap, “and it’s essentially where we are now”.
The same principles apply to the “paradox of deleverage”. Debt in itself is not a terrible thing, he says. “Debt is one person’s liability, but another person’s asset. So it doesn’t impoverish us necessarily. The real danger with debt is what happens if lots of people decide, or are forced, to pay it off at the same time. High debt levels make us vulnerable to a crisis – and this is when you get the self-destructive spiral of debt deflation. If both of us are trying to pay down our debt at the same time, we end up with lower incomes, so the ratio of our debt to our income goes up.”
Crucially, Krugman continues, “what’s true for an individual is not true for society as a whole”. The analogy between a household budget and a national economy is “seductive, because it’s very easy for people to relate to”, and it makes some sense when we’re not in the grip of a macro-economic crisis. “But when we are, then individually rational behaviour adds up to a collectively disastrous result. It ends up that each individual trying to improve his or her position has the collective effect of making everybody worse off. And that’s the story of our times.”
At these moments someone has to start spending – and, Krugman argues, it is the government. But we’re endlessly being told by the coalition that it has to pay off its debts because servicing the interest is ruinous, and the bond markets will destroy us unless we’re seen to be tackling the deficit.
“Well, now. We know that advanced economies with stable governments that borrow in their own currency are capable of running up very high levels of debt without crisis. And we know it, actually, best of all from the history of the UK – which spent much of the 20th century, including the 30s, with debt levels much higher than it has now.”
In an economy that produces $15tn worth of goods and services each year, $500m “is just not a big number”. Back in 2009, Krugman had warned: “By going with a half-baked stimulus, you’re going to discredit the idea of stimulus without saving the economy.” And that, he sighs, “is exactly what happened. Unfortunately it was one of those predictions that I wish I’d been wrong about. But it was dead on.”
Since the crash Krugman has become the undisputed Cassandra of academia, but he jokes: “I’m kind of sick of being Cassandra. I’d like to actually win for once, instead of being vindicated by the disaster coming – as predicted. I’d like to see my arguments about preventing the disaster taken into account instead.”
I hope none of that gets in the way of his argument. What we need to do, Krugman says, is simple: ditch austerity, kickstart the economy with ambitious government spending, and bring down the deficit when we’re back above water again. Most importantly of all, we need to do it now.
“Five years of very high unemployment do vastly more than five times as much damage as one year of high unemployment. To say: ‘Yes, it’s painful, but time does heal these things … ” He breaks off and sighs in despair. “Well, no. Time may not heal it.”