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The Silence of the Austerians

Here's Why 2014 Could Be the Year America Finally Ditches its Inane Deficit Obsession

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The year 2013 will be seen as a year of crushing intellectual defeat for advocates of fiscal austerity. There were many smaller victories, but this big one came in April. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts examined the Austerian paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt," by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, which said that countries whose debt-to-GDP ratio reaches 90 percent experience dramatically slower growth. The UMass folks found not only dodgy statistics and backwards causation, but a goof in the paper's Excel spreadsheet. The causation and statistics errors were more serious, but the fact that elites around the globe had gleefully embraced something with a flub any office temp could understand was horribly embarrassing.

It was an intellectual rout that badly wrong-footed the Austerians, who have since been notably half-hearted in the face of a resurgent left now campaigning on economic justice. This includes, for example, increasing Social Security benefits, which was unthinkable two years ago, when the fight to stop benefits from being cut was nearly lost.

The question for 2014, then, will be whether this triumph can be consolidated and expanded into the policy sphere. Because despite the intellectual collapse, Austerian assumptions and reasoning still dominate United States policy, which is undertaking fiscal consolidation at a pace not seen since the WWII demobilization. If the current Austerian death grip on the framework of policy negotiation can be broken, there might be a chance.

The answer to this question turns on how one views intellectual debate. Given the history of the last few years, one could be forgiven for thinking it's pointless. As the Polish economist Michal Kalecki demonstrated brilliantly, there are powerful cultural and class-based reasons for both political and business elites to favor austerity now.

We see this today, as Steve Randy Waldman has demonstrated, in the blatant double standards applied to austerity as compared to inequality or raising the minimum wage. Consider a recent paper by the liberal economist Jared Bernstein, which, while outlining much excellent evidence about the economic harm of inequality, is stuffed with unnecessary hedging and hesitation. The Reinhart and Rogoff paper, by contrast, was weak even without knowing about the Excel and stats errors (as Paul Krugman, among others, observed at the time), but elites nearly tripped over their own feet seizing on it anyway. Their bogus "90 percent" conclusion was stated as economic fact by everyone from Paul Ryan to the Washington Post editorial board.

However, biased reasoning is different than no reasoning at all. Seizing on a fig leaf paper fulfills a deep psychological need. Current elites may be largely greedy, corrupt hypocrites, but the cultural credibility of science is such that what amounts to outright class warfare must have an "evidence-based" patina. It's far too gauche to simply ram through one's favored policies because you want all the money or to kick the poor.

Therefore, fiscal policy in 2014 and 2015 will hinge on whether the Austerian coalition can be split (assuming, as is probable, that progressive Democrats don't sweep the 2014 midterms).

Roughly speaking, we're talking about the center and the right, and there are good reasons to suppose that neither will be brought around. For the center, it takes an intellectual defeat roughly akin to the Battle of Trafalgar to get them to grudgingly abandon austerity. (And if some hack economist churns out another pro-austerity paper, they will probably grab it eagerly.) Meanwhile, "straight" reporters have been culturally conditioned to code deficit reduction as a non-ideological good thing, so even very recent straight reporting still contains buried Austerian assumptions.

And on the right, things look especially hopeless. Denial and motivated reasoning are so epidemic that even Mitt Romney believed the "unskewed" polls before the 2012 election. Ivory tower arguments alone are useless here.

However, all hope is not lost. The key is to change what is considered acceptable for budgetary negotiations. Right now, they all assume that any new spending must be "offset" by cuts elsewhere. That aversion to deficit spending is 100 percent Austerian.

So while Republicans are largely immune to evidence, it's also true they don't actually care about the deficit in and of itself. They favor reduced taxes on the rich and cutting social insurance. What's more, conservative reformists at places like National Affairs have gotten louder and bolder in their advocacy of new thinking, even including infrastructure spending.

So if the center, especially including President Obama, can be persuaded to drop their deficit obsession (and again, it's hardly possible to overstate how badly this debate has been lost), we could trade tax cuts for some austerity relief, like re-extending unemployment benefits and food stamps. And, it's important to note, both spending increases and tax cuts count as austerity relief. Tax cuts, especially on the rich, aren't very good stimulus, but they still put money into people's pockets.

But the main point is to shift ground for negotiation. This strategy of "tax cuts for more spending" has been suggested many times in the past few years and gone nowhere. But before that, it had been the basis for many successful bipartisan deals, including expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and the CHIP program in the 1990s.

So while the deck is stacked against the anti-Austerians, continuing the intellectual battle is by no account useless. It's highly possible to influence even a crooked debate.