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Arjun Jayadev

Who does it hurt? The IMF on fiscal consolidation

In 2010 Alberto Alesina from Harvard University was celebrate by Business Week for his series of papers on fiscal consolidation. This was ‘his hour’ the article argued. The surprising argument that he and his coauthors made that was that the best way forward for several countries facing debt issues was to undertake “Large, credible and decisive spending cuts”. Such cuts would work to change the expectations of market participants and bring forward investment that was held back by the uncertainty surrounding policies in the recession.

The idea of ‘expansionary austerity’ has failed spectacularly by any account. Martin Wolf’s latest article in the New York Review of Books goes over this, as does Paul Krugman’s earlier piece in the same outlet. In a forthcoming paper written by Josh and I  (which I will blog about later), we argue that austerity succeeded at least in part because of the nature of consensus macroeconomics (by which we mean both New Keynesian and Real Business Cycle approaches).

One paper that I had wanted to write was to discuss the distributional implications of austerity. For many reasons, including those elucidated by Jim Crotty, Josh and Jerry Epstein, austerian policies and should really be seen as class conflict—protecting the interests of the wealthy and attacking those of the poor.

I never got to the empirical tracing out of this argument- but the IMF has. And the abstract really does say it all:

This paper examines the distributional effects of fiscal consolidation. Using episodes of fiscal consolidation for a sample of 17 OECD countries over the period 1978–2009, we find that fiscal consolidation has typically had significant distributional effects by raising inequality, decreasing wage income shares and increasing long-term unemployment. The evidence also suggests that spending-based adjustments have had, on average, larger distributional effects than tax-based adjustments

In other words—it does hurt, and it hurts the relatively poor more. Even more importantly, the claim that spending cuts are ‘better’ for the economy than tax raises as argued by Alesina and some coauthors forgets to ask for whom this is better. The IMF’s answer is that spending cuts are definitely not good for the working class and that advocating spending cuts rather than tax increases imposes distributional costs to those least capable of bearing it.

What a surprise!

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4 Responses to “Who does it hurt? The IMF on fiscal consolidation”

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