This is the time of year when we’re reminded of all the famous people who died over the last twelve months, a list which includes two of my favorite guitar players (Hubert Sumlin and Cornell Dupree). But there were also some notable non-human deaths in 2011, especially in the world of economic policy.
One of those deaths should have completely altered the political debate in Washington. The name of the deceased was “Austerity Economics,” and it was first glimpsed in a 1921 paper by conservative economist Frank Wright. Austerity died of natural causes brought on by prolonged exposure to reality.
But the debate in Washington didn’t change nearly enough after its passing. In the nation’s capital, dead things still rule the night.
“Austerity economics” backers claim that today’s economic woes can only be fixed by dramatic reductions in government spending, which will lead to increased private-sector confidence and therefore to greater investment and growth.
But it’s never worked. And if investors have lost confidence in the U.S. government’s fiscal stability, they’re sure not acting that way. There hasn’t been this much demand for Treasury bonds since the government began tracking it twenty years ago, and they haven’t performed as well since the go-go 1990s.
It’s easy to understand austerity’s attraction for power elites inside and outside of government. The people who suffer from austerity budgets aren’t the kinds of people they know personally, since they’re typically public employees like teachers, police, firefighters and the administrators of social programs; people who need government assistance, like the poor; and middle-class people with the temerity to either grow old or become disabled.
Austerity’s attraction became even greater in the U.S. because once it became conventional wisdom that tax increases on the wealthy was “politically infeasible.” That made it a program whose sole purpose was to cut government spending, lowering the pressure to increase taxes on the wealthy from today’s historically low levels.
For a one-percenter, what’s not to love?
Austerity Comes of Age
The idea’s been around in one form or another since that 1921 paper, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had been imposing it on Third World nations for decades.
But 2009 was the year that austerity really came of age. That was the year that a wealthy stockbroker’s son named David Cameron began campaigning for Prime Minister of Great Britain on an explicitly pro-austerity platform.
It was also the year that Cameron helped to form a group named European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) dedicated to electing like-minded politicians across Europe and helping them collaborate on ways to slash government spending. It was also the year that right-leaning Angela Merkel won reelection as the Chancellor of Germany with a stronger mandate than she’d been given in her first term.
With Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France, Great Britain was the only major European power not yet in the hands of the corporate-backed austerity crowd.
The Global Sado-Erotic Thrill Machine
That changed with Cameron’s election as Prime Minister in May 2010, an event that threw pro-austerity Americans into throes of near-erotic ecstasy. And if that sounds like hyperbole, consider conservative Anne Appelbaum’s reaction to Cameron’s budget in September of 2010:
Vicious cuts.” “Savage cuts.” “Swingeing (sic) cuts.” The language that the British use to describe their new government’s spending-reduction policy is apocalyptic in the extreme. The ministers in charge of the country’s finances are known as “axe-wielders” who will be “hacking” away at the budget. Articles about the nation’s finances are filled with talk of blood, knives, and amputation.
And the British love it.
What can I say? There are people who collect serial-killer memorabilia, too. But Appelbaum wasn’t just speaking for herself. It became unacceptable for any politician in Washington, Democrat or Republican, to advocate anything other than an austerity budget for the United States.
And it was more than an economic strategy to its backers. Austerity became a way to demonize those who had suffered most from the banking abuses and self-indulgences of the wealthy, a totemic “blame the victim” response that turned the political debate into a grotesque inversion of morality. Again, Appelbaum:
“Not only is austerity being touted as the solution to Britain’s economic woes; it is also being described as the answer to the country’s moral failings.”
Bad Metaphors vs. Good Economists
The Democratic President of the United States, Barack Obama, jumped onto the bandwagon with both feet by repeatedly lecturing Americans on the need for government to stop “spending beyond its means.” Obama recycled the popular conservative metaphor of a family that has to sit around the kitchen table and decide how much money it has to spend.
That’s one of the worst metaphors in modern politics. Does a family establish its own currency — especially one that has the unique position of the dollar? Can a family borrow money at rates so low they’re effectively less than zero? Would a family let Grandma go hungry because Junior bought too many Porsches out of the family kitty and then gambled it away on lousy mortgage investments?
The world’s top economists, those who had successfully predicted the crisis of 2008, tried telling the rest of the world what was wrong with the idea: Joblessness and consumer fears were killing any chance of real recovery. More short-term spending was needed to get the economy moving again. Austerity would make things worse, not better.
But nobody listened. Austerity’s S&M-like attraction had the world’s elites in its grip.
Death of a Delusion
And then something else came into the picture: Reality.
Cameron’s austerity budget had a shattering effect on the already-struggling British economy. His government’s financial stability was downgraded five times during his first year in power and retail sales had fallen 2.5 percent. Household income was projected to fall an additional 2 percent if his austerity plans were carried forward. Britain’s modest employment gains were reversed, youth unemployment reached record levels, and income inequality was the worst it had been in more than half a century.
Anne Appelbaum’s erotic dreams had become Great Britain’s nightmare.
As Europe’s ruling austerity class pushed forward with their plans, even the IMF tried to dissuade them. It was clear to anyone who wasn’t blinded by ideology or political cynicism that austerity economics was a failed program. Even in countries like Greece, where government was far graver than elsewhere, the austerity programs imposed from outside threatened to destabilize society while other reasonable measures like improved tax collection were still not taken seriously enough.
And now the entire Eurozone hangs in the balance. Bankers became wealthy by treating governments as if they were mortgages, lending recklessly and pocketing their fees without considering the long-term reliability of their loans. European leaders insisted for months they were take the kind of sensible steps that should’ve been taken in the United States by requiring bankers to accept at least part of the losses for the bad loans they had issed.
That plan was quietly dropped last month. “Austerity economics” never calls for austerity from those who have gotten rich by being irresponsible, only from those who didn’t benefit from it at all.
President Obama has dropped his austerity rhetoric, at least for the time being, but the Republicans have not. Listening to Mitt Romney discuss economics is like having a doctor wave a dead chicken over your head and saying he’s decided to cast a spell on you rather than operate on that thing they found in your X-rays.
Aside from the bill introduced this month by the House Progressive Caucus to almost no media attention, there’s no comprehensive plan for dropping this country’s ineffective austerity strategy and replacing it with an agenda that works.
Rational solutions to our economic problems are being ignored. There won’t be a real debate about alternatives to austerity until an entire political party, not just part of it, adopts this kind of program. Until then there will be chaos. And where there is chaos, austerity’s powerful advocates can step in and take charge.
Austerity economics died in 2011 and is survived by the British, German, and French governments as well as the GOP and large portions of the Democratic Party. Instead of sending flowers, the family has asked the public to abandon all hopes of future economic growth.