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The Economist: Free money: When government spending knows no limits - No.30 - 25th Jul 20

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The Economist: Free money: When government spending knows no limits


Governments must beware the lure of free money

It is sometimes said that governments wasted the global financial crisis of 2007-09 by failing to rethink economic policy after the dust settled. Nobody will say the same about the covid-19 pandemic. It has led to a desperate scramble to enact policies that only a few months ago were either unimaginable or heretical. A profound shift is now taking place in economics as a result, of the sort that happens only once in a generation. Much as in the 1970s when clubby Keynesianism gave way to Milton Friedman’s austere monetarism, and in the 1990s when central banks were given their independence, so the pandemic marks the start of a new era. Its overriding preoccupation will be exploiting the opportunities and containing the enormous risks that stem from a supersized level of state intervention in the economy and financial markets.


This new epoch has four defining features. The first is the jaw-dropping scale of today’s government borrowing, and the seemingly limitless potential for yet more. The imf predicts that rich countries will borrow 17% of their combined gdp this year to fund $4.2trn in spending and tax cuts designed to keep the economy going. They are not done. In America Congress is debating another spending package. The European Union has just agreed on a new stimulus funded by common borrowing, crossing a political Rubicon.


Europe’s €750bn rescue package sets a welcome precedent

hen the leaders of the European Union agreed this week on a €750bn ($869bn) package to help members’ economies recover from covid-19, they answered a looming question: whether Europe was too divided to handle the pandemic. As in earlier crises, the virus’s economic ravages split the eu’s members. Rich countries with low government debt and fewer infections (such as Germany and the Netherlands) can cope on their own. Some of the heavily indebted and infected countries (such as Italy and Spain) cannot. Without fiscal aid, they face recessions deep enough to drag down the whole of the eu.


The programme agreed to in Brussels does not just avert that danger. It does more to strengthen the union than anyone would have imagined a few months ago (see article). The total is equivalent to nearly 5% of the eu’s annual gdp, to be spent over several years, much of it in grants rather than loans. More important is how the money will be raised: through bonds issued by the European Commission. For the first time, the eu will collectively borrow large sums, piggybacking on the creditworthiness of stronger members to help weak ones. By raising total spending by the eu itself (as opposed to member states), from nearly €1.1trn to €1.8trn over seven years, it gives the club a potent fiscal weapon against recession to complement the monetary tools of the European Central Bank. This is especially important when near-zero interest rates are forcing a shift in emphasis from monetary to fiscal policy. To pay the debts back, and avoid direct responsibility, eu countries may be tempted to grant the European Commission more taxing authority.


The best-run cities of America’s Midwest offer lessons in recovery

The dozen states of America’s Midwest have a population of 68m, equal to Britain’s. They share an economy worth some $4trn, equivalent to the gdp of Germany, the world’s fourth-biggest. And the region’s swing voters weigh heavily in politics. Donald Trump won the presidency four years ago thanks to narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This year’s contest may yet be decided there, too. At the same time the Midwest’s troubles, after decades of industrial decline, are also outsized. Detroit, despite its recent improvements, is sadly still emblematic of how hard it is for cities to recover. It has shrunk to just one-third of its peak population of 1.8m in the 1950s. What can the region do to prosper again, and what can the rest of the world learn from its experience?


The Midwest as a whole draws in too few migrants, and too many of its brightest decide to leave. Until that is reversed, renewed prosperity is likely only in some urban parts, not everywhere. A sort of triage is under way. Not everywhere can be saved. Sometimes outsiders—state or federal government perhaps—will have to try to make it easier for people to live, work and study elsewhere, for example by cutting housing costs for those who move or helping pay for better education. But even Flint, Michigan, which has become notorious for economic decline and poisoned municipal water, still has some manufacturing jobs and a decent university.


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