No policy is as self-defeating during recessionary times as the pursuit of a budget surplus for the purpose of containing public debt – austerity, for short. So, as the world approaches the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it is appropriate to ask why austerity proved so popular with Western political elites following the financial sector’s implosion in 2008. The economic case against austerity is cut and dried: An economic downturn, by definition, implies shrinking private-sector expenditure. A government that cuts public spending in response to falling tax revenues inadvertently depresses national income (which is the sum of private and public spending) and, inevitably, its own revenues. It thus defeats the original purpose of cutting the deficit.
Clearly, there must be another, non-economic, rationale for supporting austerity. In fact, those favoring austerity are divided among three rather different tribes, each promoting it for its own reasons.
The first, and best known, “austerian” tribe is motivated by the tendency to view the state as no different from a business or a household that must tighten its belt during bad times. Overlooking the crucial interdependence between a government’s expenditure and (tax) income (from which businesses and households are blissfully free), they make the erroneous intellectual leap from private parsimony to public austerity. Of course, this is no arbitrary error; it is powerfully motivated by an ideological commitment to small government, which in turn veils a more sinister class interest in redistributing risks and losses to the poor.
A second, less recognized, austerian tribe can be found within European social democracy. To take one towering example, when the 2008 crisis erupted, Germany’s finance ministry was in the hands of Peer Steinbrück, a leading member of the Social Democratic Party. Almost immediately, Steinbrück prescribed a dose of austerity as Germany’s optimal response to the Great Recession.
Moreover, Steinbrück championed a constitutional amendment that would ban all future German governments from deviating from austerity, no matter how deep the economic downturn. Why, one may ask, would a social democrat turn self-defeating austerity into a constitutional edict during capitalism’s worst crisis in decades?
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