How Austerity is Killing Europe

On the last day of 2011, a headline in The Wall Street Journal read: “Spain Misses Deficit Target, Sets Cuts.” The cruel forces of poor economic logic were at work to welcome in the new year. The European Union has become a vicious circle of burgeoning debt leading to radical austerity measures, which in turn further weaken economic conditions and result in calls for still more damaging cuts in government spending and higher taxes. The European debt crisis began with Greece, and that nation remains the European Union’s most stricken economy. But it has spread inexorably to Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, and even threatens France and possibly the UK. It need not have done so. Rarely do we get so stark an example of bad—arguably even perverse—economic thinking in action.

Over the past two years, the severe 2009 recession, which started in the US but spread across Europe, have imperiled the finances of one European country after another. As a result, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy are coming under pressure from the EU to cut government spending and raise taxes to reduce their deficits if they wanted to qualify for a bailout. All have done so. Ireland and Portugal sharply cut spending and still had to take tens of billions of euros to help meet financial obligations as of course did Greece. The European Central Bank bought the bonds of Italy and Spain. Britain’s Conservative government led the way in ruthless government cutbacks in 2010. France has adopted its own austerity package, and even Germany, the supposed economic leader of Europe, has planned to cut its deficit by a record 80 billion euros in 2014.

Proponents of austerity claim that as nations take control of their finances businesses become more convinced that interest rates will not rise and that growth will resume. Their reasoning has been abetted by the financial markets, which drove up rates on Greek debt and soon enough on the debt of nations like Portugal, Spain and Italy. Should these nations not be able to pay their debts, bond buyers wanted a high enough interest rate to compensate for the risk.

But this is pre-Great Depression economics. How could the EU so misread history and treat with contempt the teachings of John Maynard Keynes, who argued that during recessions governments must expand economies through spending and tax cuts, not the opposite? In practice, making large-scale budget cuts or raising taxes, as Keynes showed, will reduce demand for goods and services just when an increase is needed. Faltering sales will undermine the confidence of businesses far more than fiscal consolidation will embolden them. By ignoring this, European policy makers will deepen, not solve, the financial crisis and millions of people will suffer needlessly.

Indeed, austerity economics has not worked in one single case in Europe in the last two years. When David Cameron’s government imposed a first round of harsh spending cuts in 2010, it utterly failed to revive the British economy as promised. To the contrary, it probably cut a budding recovery short. Unemployment and the deficit as a percent of GDP remained high. Some pro-Conservative observers I met at the time assured me that the Cameron team, led by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was pragmatic and would reverse course on austerity if it wasn’t working. Yet when growth basically ground to a halt in late 2011, the Cameron team only doubled down, making further cuts. We need more of the same medicine, they told their citizens, a record number of whom are unemployed. Britian is a hair’s breadth away from outright recession only two years after its last one.

In November, meanwhile, Spaniards voted out of office a once-popular Socialist government, in part for its failed austerity program of the past year. The Socialists had earlier presided over a boom and even built a budget surplus. But then the housing and banking crises struck and private Spanish banks ran amok. In response, in 2010 the Socialists sharply reversed an earlier stimulus policy, cut spending, and raised taxes to the tune of about 5 percent of GDP. Government debt is still not high in Spain, and interest rates have not risen the way they have in Italy. But economic growth stalled after these measures were implemented, because reduced public spending weakened the demand for goods and services, pure and simple. With Spain’s official unemployment rate now 21.5 percent, the Socialists lost the election badly—paradoxically pushing voters to elect a conservative leadership that is calling for more austerity. In Spain, recession is now inevitable.

And then there is Ireland. The recent experience of this once booming country should be deeply embarrassing to those who advocate austerity economics. For six months early last year, its national income started growing again after a couple of years of dramatic collapse following its own financial crisis. Ireland guaranteed all the debt of its over-aggressive failing banks to appease investors and then paid for it by cutting social spending sharply. Ireland’s leaders said with almost religious authority that this painful self-discipline was necessary to right the economy, and officials in Ireland and across Europe hailed the country’s brief rebound in 2011 as proof that it works. But then the Irish economy plunged in the third quarter of 2011 at its fastest rate ever. The upturn in the economy proved only temporary under the restraints of austerity economics. It may yet need another bailout.

Climbing out of the morass left by the financial crisis and now the European debt crisis would not be easy even if the right steps had been taken as they unfolded. While the American economy has gathered a little strength, recession in the peripheral nations and possibly Britain could take down France and other stronger nations—particularly in the absence of a coherent policy beyond austerity.

There is a far better solution. And it would not require the failure of the euro. The eurozone and perhaps the entire EU must act like a unified country, ready to recognize that it must take responsibility for the drastic social effects of rapid spending cuts. The US is no shining example of enlightened policies, but the European Central Bank must guarantee the debt of its members just like the Federal Reserve guarantees the debt of the US Treasury. It can then force restructuring of debt in these nations, with some private investors taking losses. A financially unified Eurozone must then issue bonds to raise the money to pay back debts but also to provide a social net for the people of nations that are cutting back their spending on social programs to meet their remaining financial commitments. (This is what the US does, for example, by sending Social Security checks and aid for the unemployment to every state in the union.) This can be accompanied by demands for reforms in nations like Greece where taxes must now be collected more efficiently and unusually excessive public spending stopped.

Germany has the financial wherewithal to lead this rescue. But it is blocking the fiscal union from acting like a single nation with compassion for all Eurozone citizens. It is also refusing to underwrite a substantial new fiscal stimulus—good-old fashioned Keynesianism. Is this a new national arrogance? I hope not. So far, Germany is benefitting from the crisis as investors buy German bonds as safe havens from the turmoil. In fact, the failure to act will soon affect the German economy. It will take financial losses on its banks’ loans to the peripheral nations and its export markets will weaken. The bond buyers who are now gobbling up German debt, thus keeping rates low while they rise in Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, will likely stop doing so.

The EU leaders must get over their obsession with eliminating deficits. They now want to reduce every country’s deficit to less than 0.5 percent. This is disaster. It will lead to very slow growth for a long time. Instead, they must use temporary deficits to restart growth. Rarely has policymaking been this poor. Sooner than later, the citizens of these nations will say, No more!, and political instability will result.

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