Does fiscal policy need to be paid for in advance?

Let’s be clear: Paul Krugman is a national treasure. On fiscal policy – and politics generally – he has been saying exactly what should be said, clearly and forcefully, and just as important, from a platform that people can’t ignore. No one of remotely his stature has been as clear or consistent a critic of the Administration from the left. That said, his economics can be … problematic. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m interested in trade, or if, ironically but perhaps more likely, it’s because it’s where he made most of his own contributions, but it’s on international economics that Krugman seems most committed to orthodoxy, and correspondingly out of tune with reality. Case in point: This blog post, where he notes, correctly, that the most consistent expansionary response to the crisis has been in Asia, and then goes on to endorse the suggestion of David Pilling (in the Financial Times) that today’s Asian stimulus is the reward for fiscal rectitude in previous years:

Deficit spending is what you should do only when the economy is depressed and interest rates are at or near the zero lower bound. When times are good, you should be paying debt down. Pilling: “The scale of Asia’s stimulus may have matched, even surpassed, the west. But the context has been entirely different. Asian governments had plumped-up their fiscal cushions after the 1997 crisis, building a formidable pool of reserves. … when the crunch came, they had the wherewithal to spend.”

I’m sorry, but this is just wrong. First of all, let’s look at stimulus spending and earlier fiscal stances in various Asian countries:

Country Fiscal stimulus 2008 Average fiscal surplus, 1998-2007 Average fiscal surplus, 2003-2007
Malaysia 0.9 -1.72 -1.72
India 1.5 -5.50 -2.93
Indonesia 2.7 10.04 10.04
Australia 4.4 -3.00 -1.65
Philippines 4.5 -0.69 -0.69
Korea, Rep. of 5.4 0.98 1.20
New Zealand 5.9 -2.10 -2.23
Thailand 7.7 -4.80


Singapore 8 -1.34 -1.93
China 13.5 2.70 4.69
Japan 14.6 -0.80 -0.95

See that striking correlation between prior surpluses and stimulus spending? Yeah, me neither. It’s true that some countries, like China and Korea, show prior surpluses and big stimulus. But others that are pursuing expansionary policy have had fiscal deficits for years, like Japan (as Krugman should know as well as anyone.) Empirically, the Krugman-Pilling argument that in Asia, fiscal surpluses paved the way for fiscal stimulus just does not hold up.
No, what’s allowed Asian countries to respond aggressively to the crisis is not their (mostly nonexistent) fiscal surpluses, but their current account surpluses. Unlike in past crises (or lots of countries in the current crisis, especially on the periphery of Europe) they are not dependent on private capital inflows, so they are under no pressure to undertake contractionary policy to maintain external balance. The case of Korea is exemplary. True, it was running a fiscal surplus prior to the crisis — but it was also running a fiscal surplus in the mid-1990s prior to the Asian Crisis, to which it responded with brutal austerity. The difference was that the current account was in deficit then, and in surplus this time. The fiscal position was irrelevant.(Incidentally, Pilling literally does not seem to realize there is a difference between a current account surplus and a fiscal surplus. That’s why he’s able to write something like “Asian governments had plumped-up their fiscal cushions after the 1997 crisis, building a formidable pool of reserves,” without realizing it’s a non sequitur.)What about the larger argument, that good Keynesian governments should engage in the precautionary accumulation of financial assets in good times to finance demand-boosting spending in bad times? Krugman himself admits that the Bush deficits are not a binding constraint on fiscal policy today, which is rather a blow to his argument. More broadly, it’s far from clear that there is any meaningful sense in which the existing level of public debt affects the space for fiscal policy. The argument for prudential saving might apply to the government of a premodern or underdeveloped country, which rests on a narrow fiscal base; but if substantial excess capacity exists in an industrialized country the government always can mobilize it. (Matt Yglesias gets this, even if Krugman does not.) As for the traditional Keynesian argument for federal surpluses in boom times, it has nothing to do with precautionary accumulation of financial assets, and everything to do with preventing aggregate demand from running ahead of aggregate supply.In the end, I suspect this idea of paid-in-advance Keynesianism says less about his intellectual weaknesses than about his institutional commitments. As a certified big-name economist, you have to make some concessions to orthodoxy if you don’t want to see your intellectual capital devalued. And what orthodoxy demands now — above all from those who want more expansionary policy — is gestures of somber concern with future deficits. (If not austerity today, at least austerity tomorrow.) With a few honorable exceptions, even left-leaning economists seem happy to comply.