Steven Pearlstein argues that The case for austerity isn’t dead yet, and that:
austerity by itself won’t solve the problem of high employment and low growth in developed economies. But neither will fiscal stimulus by itself. Neither will work unless incorporated into a program of serious and credible structural reform.
But this is incorrect, and it confuses long-run growth policy with short-run stabilization. Monetary and fiscal policy can be used to stabilize fluctuations in the economy even without reforms that could raise long-run growth (the short-run stabilization policies may help with long-run growth, e.g. by improving labor market conditions and preventing people from permanently leaving the labor force, so the policies are not fully independent, but it's important to keep them conceptually separate). As Antonio Fatás points out in a post that anticipates and counters this argument (this was written before Pearlstein's piece), the idea that monetary and fiscal policy cannot work to stabilize the economy without structural reform is wrong (especially in countries like the US):
Time travel in Euroland: Unfortunately, this is not news by now, but the president of the Euro group, Jeroen Dijsselbloem in an interview with CNBC yesterday dismissed the role that fiscal policy and monetary policy can have to address the economic crisis (emphasis is mine):
"Monetary policy can really not help us out of the crisis. It can take away the pressure, it can accommodate new growth, but what we really need in all countries is structural reforms in the first place. I'd just like to stress the point that in the policy mix of fiscal policy, monetary policy and structural reforms — I'd like the order to be exactly the other way around. Structural reforms in the first place, fiscal policy and viable targets in the mid-term for all regions in second place — and monetary policy can only accommodate domestic economic problems in the short-term."
It is not exactly clear what to make out of his statement but it seems that long-term solutions should come first before we implement those that will help us in the short term. It is surprising that even today there is such a great confusion about long-term versus cyclical problems.
This confusion comes from a basic belief that some hold that there is nothing inherently different in the dynamics of an economy when one looks at the short run and the long run. This is part of a never-ending academic debate but when it comes to policy makers and politicians it seems to be more a matter of beliefs.
What it is not always understood is that we are dealing with two separate problems and therefore we need two different set of tools or solutions to deal with them.
It is possible that irresponsible behavior, excessive spending and accumulation of debt (private or public) are the cause of the Great Recession. And if this is true, it will require future adjustments to spending plans, deleveraging, and fiscal discipline to avoid a repetition of this event in the future.
But once the crisis started we are dealing with a second problem: a recession that moves us away from full employment. This is a cyclical phenomenon that is well described in macroeconomic textbooks and to deal with it we use monetary and fiscal policy. The fact that potentially debt and excessive spending were the cause of this cyclical event does not mean that we need to deal with these imbalances now to get out of the crisis. We are dealing with two separate phenomena that are only related because one possibly led to the second one, but the dynamics associated with each of them are very different and the recipe to get out of them can be, in some cases, the opposite.
This is what we write in all macroeconomics textbooks: what works in the short run might not work in the long run. As an example, we emphasize the importance of saving in the long run to drive investment and growth. But when we talk about the short run we emphasize the importance of spending to understand fluctuations in economic activity. Excessive spending hurts growth in the long run but it is spending and demand what drives growth in the short run.
There will be a day when we will have to debate about whether the cyclical phenomenon has already been addressed because we are back to full employment and therefore all our focus should be on the long term, but it is very hard to argue that this is where Europe is today. My point is not to deny that there are many deep structural issues to be addressed among Euro countries, but to recognize that we are dealing with two set of dynamics that require different solutions and until we invent time traveling the short term still comes before the long term.