Despite the apparent deficit-cutting solidarity that emerged from this weekend's G-20 meeting in Toronto, it is clear that the great powers of the industrialized world have not been this philosophically estranged since the end of the Cold War. Ironically, in this new contest, the former belligerents have switched sides – the capitalists are now the socialists, and vice versa.
We now are witnessing a struggle between two camps that I playfully call the "Stimulators" and the "Austrians." Both warn that a worldwide depression will ensue if governments now make the wrong choices: the Stimulators say the danger lies in spending too little and the Austereians from spending too much. Each side also has their own economic champion: the Stimulators follow the banner of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, while the Austereians are forming up behind the recently reformed former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. (It is cold comfort to witness "The Maestro" belatedly returning to the hard-money positions that characterized his earlier years.)
In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Greenspan argued that the best economic stimulus would be for the world's leading debtors (the United States, UK, Japan, Italy, et al.) to rein in their budget deficits, a strategy dubbed "austerity" by the press. Greenspan explains that because lower deficits will restore confidence, diminish the threat of inflation, and allow savings to flow to private-sector investment rather than public-sector consumption, the short-term pain will lead to gains both in the mid- and long-term. Rather than redistributing a shrinking pie, this approach allows the pie to grow. Greenspan's Austereian view has been echoed loudly in the highest policy circles of Berlin, Ottawa, Moscow, Beijing, and Canberra.
Meanwhile, in several articles for his New York Times column, including one yesterday, Krugman has argued that those who push for austerity in the face of recession are either doing so for political expediency or out of a "crazy" fealty to archaic economic views. Krugman has apparently judged inadequate the trillions of dollars worth of deficit spending unleashed by the United States and European governments in the last 24 months. He believes our only remedy is to spend more – no matter how much debt results. Absent this, he claims, millions of workers "will never work again." Unfortunately, Washington has clearly aligned itself with Krugman and the Stimulators.