Austerity Chic Its This Years Weapons of Mass Destruction

Richard Eskow

Sometimes our political commentariat seems to go fashion-crazy. When a new trend gets popular it overwhelms everything in its path: logic, poltical divisions, even expert opinion. The latest vogue is deficit reduction, and our nation’s Anna Wintours tell us we simply have to have it. In Washington, screaming about being in the red is the new black.

Call it “austerity chic,” and it’s catching on fast. We’ve already written about an odd quartet of recent austerity-chic pieces from pundits that included Tom Friedman and Anne Applebaum. These pieces tell us why we should find this new style appealing: Self-denial is what makes a nation great.

We’ve seen this herd mentality before, of course, most notably in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The experts warned us what would happen, but our keyboard-clacking dedicated followers of fashion thought they knew better. Ever eager to issue the clarion call for sacrifice – on somebody else’s part – they issued their calls to arms. Their support played a pivotal role in building support for the invasion.

How’d that work out for you?

Once again, the experts tell us that the warning lights are flashing red and the fashionistas aren’t listening. That was made clear again this morning, when a conference call was held to announce that 300 economist and civic leaders have signed a statement saying that “there is a grave danger that the still-fragile economic recovery will be undercut by austerity economics.” The statement, released by the Institute For America’s Future*, adds: “A turn by major governments away from the promotion of growth and jobs and to premature focus on deficit reduction could slow growth and increase unemployment – and could push us back into recession.”

Contrast those sentences with the fetishized way Friedman approached reduced spending in his column. “The Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice,” he writes, whereas today’s Americans “had a values breakdown.” Here’s what Friedman’s missing: With 15 million people unemployed and 44 million in poverty, a lot of people are sacrificing right now. As for Applebaum, her orgiastic descriptions of “axe-wielding,” “slashing” British budget cuts have to be read to be believed (although I did provide a summary here, if you’re the type who shuts their eyes during slasher movies.)

Friedman and Applebaum aren’t the only dedicated followers of fashion to join the austerity trend, of course. As we noted in the Friedman/Applebaum piece, Megan McArdle high-fived another business writer for dismissing retirement as a “vacation” while adding that “decades-long” vacations are an indulgence we can no longer afford. And Fareed Zakaria has flirted with the Austerians more than once, although he leans more toward letting all the tax cuts expire. Zakaria’s followed at least two other trends recently – the notion that fear of Obama is hampering business investment and the idea that the Great Recession was really your fault – so this isn’t a great surprise. (I’m not as down on Zakaria as it might sound. He’s a smart guy and his TV show’s usually quite interesting. Maybe his “fashion sense” just gets in the way of his common sense.)

In the world of political fashion, Republicans set the trend and others follow. Austerity chic’s no exception. As with Iraq, it has just enough Democratic support to provide the “bipartisan” gloss needed to give it critical mass. The latest supporter is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who upped the rhetorical ante recently by declaring the deficit a “national security threat.” Erskine Bowles and Rep. Steny Hoyer are among the other prominent Democrats who have jumped on the bandwagon.

But if some Democrats are including are wearing a splash of this year’s color, right-wingers are painting their faces with it. John Boehner’s call for a 15% cut in domestic spending would plunge the nation back into a deep recession. The Tea Partiers’ calls for deep cuts in Social Security would immediately plunge 20 million seniors into poverty, followed shortly thereafter by a massive spike in unemployment as their purchasing power leaves the economy. And their cuts to Medicare and education would further crush our already-wounded economy. (For more information, see Adele Stan’s Five Ways the Tea Party Agenda Screws Tea Party Supporters.)

As Dean Baker pointed out on this morning’s call, government spending is not the cause of our current deficits. Two wars and a massive tax cut turned a surplus into a massive deficit. (I’d add a massive bank bailout with no reqruiements to limit profits or increase lending.) And, as Baker observed, greater unemployment always leads to greater deficits. Robert Reich, another participant in the call, observed that last quarter’s slowdown in the growth of the economy is a warning sign in an already-grave situation. Theresa Ghilarducci suggested that an increase in Social Security could help stimulate growth. All agreed that greater spending is urgently needed to stimulate the economy, leaving deficits to be addressed once economic conditions are healthier.

If “austerity” is this year’s “WMD,” that doesn’t mean that’s deficits aren’t a concern. They are, and so is the need to keep powerful weapons out of the wrong hands. It’s a matter of proportion and priority. The economists who signed today’s statement understand the need to reduce the deficit. But they also know that the economy needs to recover first, and that budget cuts – like military might – must be directed toward genuine threats.

Right now the 300 people who signed this statement are as outnumbered as the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Let’s hope they do as well. As for Applebaum and Friedman, is it churlish to point out that they were both cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq? I don’t think so. Then, as now, they embraced and promoted a Beltway trend without sufficient thought or foresight. And they’ve demonstrated a stubborn resistance to face reality in both cases. Applebaum greeted the bipartisan Baker report on Iraq with resentment. She continues to insist, against most experts’ opinions, that we won’t know whether the war went well for at least a decade. And now, unbowed by past errors, she’s trying to drum up support for an attack on Iran.

As for Friedman, he said “we need to give the war six more months” so many times that observers began describing these intervals as “Friedman units.” Friedman’s enthusiasm for that war led him to the most notorious moment of his career, when he told Charlie Rose that it didn’t matter which country we attacked. Any Muslim nation would do, he said, as long as Muslims everywhere saw “American boys and girls going door to door and saying … you don’t think we care? … You think this bubble fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.”

That was fifteen Friedman units ago, and people change. Friedman’s done his mea culpa on the war, which is commendable, and his support for a government-backed “green revolution” is an excellent idea (one that contradicts his newfound austerity passion). Still, he’s about to do another major disservice to the American people. He may think it’s wise and even inspirational to frame spending cuts as a form of national sacrifice. But the wrong people will be sacrificed,especially in this political climate The economists who signed today’s statement understand better than Friedman does what will happen if austerity wins the day.

When asked what piece of fashion advice she would give, Catherine Deneuve suggested that women look in the mirror before going out and remove one piece of jewelry. Austerity-for-its-own sake is a bauble that makes its wearer look overdressed and leaves other people unclothed. We need to have the courage to invest in the future, rather than slashing spending out of political trendiness and a failure of nerve.

A lot of people are hurting right now. To let them languish would be Washington’s way of telling them to “suck on this.” But helping them would also help the economy recover and grow, which would benefit everybody. It would also send a message to them, and to the world, the this country still believes in its own future. It would be a signal of renewed confidence in the American Dream.

Sure, it will be hard work to turn things around, but it’s like the old folks used to say: Hard work never goes out of fashion.

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*I am a fellow at the Campaign For America’s Future, the Institute’s sister organization.

(UPDATE: Yet another fashionista dresses himself in austerity chic as a journalist applauds.)

(UPDATE II: Via Glenn Greenwald, we learn that Digby told us of an an austerity-chic pioneer who can afford all the newest fashions.)

For more information on the statement, see here, here, and here.

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