Advocates of government stimulus are running victory laps on recent developments that appear to vindicate their strategy. In particular, Paul Krugman compares the sluggish growth in Europe to the somewhat-less-sluggish growth in the US to prove that stimulus was more effective than austerity. Other economists are using government inflation measures to defend Fed Chairman Bernanke's easy-money policy. The only problem is, they're calling the race before the finish line is even in sight.
As usual, Paul Krugman overlooks basic economics (which, despite his Nobel Prize, is a science about which Mr. Krugman really knows very little). The reason stimulus is so politically popular is that it appears to work in the short-term. However, appearances can often be deceiving, as they are right now in the US. Stimulus merely numbs the pain of economic contraction, as the underlying trauma gets worse. Austerity might slow an economy down, but at least the wounds are able to heal. America has chosen the former and Europe the latter, albeit not quite as large a dose as needed. The fact that in the short-run Europe is suffering more than the US does not vindicate Washington's approach. On the contrary, this is exactly what is to be expected.
What we're seeing is like a race where each runner has a broken ankle. One has a coach who tells him to pace himself and not worry so much about winning this one, while the other coach gives his runner a shot of painkillers and tells him to give it all he's got. Of course, early in the race, the doped-up runner is going to be flying down the track like nothing's wrong, while the other runner might be limping at half his normal speed. However, when the drugs wear off, the sprinter is liable to collapse from pain, leaving the better-coached runner to limp across the finish line.
The true test is not the immediate effects of stimulus or austerity, but the long-term results. For that reason, Krugman's conclusions are meaningless. The apparent success of stimulus simply results from spending more borrowed money on government programs and consumption. But don't we all agree now that this is exactly what caused the financial crisis in the first place?
As far as inflation is concerned, a vindication of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is equally premature. First of all, it's not that Quantitative Easing will lead to inflation; it's that QE is inflation. Secondly, there is a lag between QE and rising consumer prices, so the jury is still out as to how high consumer prices will ultimately rise as a result of current and past Fed policy mistakes.
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