The Austerity Trap

As the prognosis for the global economy gets darker by the day, we are hearing one word over and over: austerity.  The British government has announced that it will extend its austerity measures past the next election in 2015. In Canada, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has reiterated that the solution to the current economic crisis, both here and in Europe, is more “belt-tightening.”

But not everyone agrees about the virtues of austerity. Labour finance spokesperson Ed Balls called the British Government’s economic plans a “catastrophic error of judgment.” Two million British public sector workers are on strike over the effects of those austerity measures on their pensions. Closer to home, the former World Bank Chief Economist and Nobel-laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, recently told a Toronto audience, “Austerity is a suicide path.”

These critics are a diverse lot, including people affected by the cuts, Occupy activists, politicians of various stripes, and the leader of the International Monetary Fund. In different ways, they all point to some serious flaws in the current rush to austerity.  It’s worth looking at three of them:

1) The fallacy of composition (or: why Canadian debt isn’t just a bigger version of your family’s debt).

In a recent speech in Toronto, Flaherty noted that he’s applying to the federal government the same advice that he’s offering to Canadians: to tighten their belts and reduce debt. This sounds like it makes perfect sense. Except that it’s a classic error of logic that philosophers call the fallacy of composition: what is true of the parts is not necessarily also true of the whole.

Of course it makes sense for a Canadian family that has taken on too much debt to reduce it. But if all Canadian families at the same time reduce spending in order to pay off debt, then suddenly demand for goods drops, firms reduce production, and jobs are cut. As people lose jobs, it becomes much harder for households to reduce debt; in fact, they may have to take on more to pay the bills. And the risk to the economy is even greater if the federal government doesn’t step in to support demand but actually undermines it further by cutting back on vital services.

This same dilemma applies at the international level. Sure, Canada was able to get its act in order in the 1990’s through austerity measures (at great cost to our health system and infrastructure). But this was at a time when the Canadian economy and the global economy were in good shape.  And while we were cutting back, other countries were doing the opposite, taking up the slack. If everyone cuts back at the same time, there is no one left to keep the global economy going—making it likely that the outcome will be a deeper global recession and more, rather than less, debt in the long run.

2) The costs of austerity (or: why even the IMF thinks it’s a bad idea just now)

In a recent paper, IMF staff concluded that austerity measures do considerable damage in the short and longer term: “This conclusion reverses earlier suggestions in the literature that cutting the budget deficit can spur growth in the short term.” In other words, when someone tells you that austerity will stimulate short-term growth, they’re lying (or as Mark Blyth puts it in a brilliant short video on austerity, this is just about as believable as “a unicorn with a magic bag of salt.”)

What are the costs of austerity?  The IMF paper suggests that they include lower incomes in the short term and higher unemployment in the longer term. As more people become unemployed for longer, there is a real danger that unemployment will become entrenched. The costs of austerity are even higher in cases where a government can’t compensate by significantly lowering interest rates—as is the case today here and in Europe. Because of these very real costs, the IMF head, Christine Lagarde, is suggesting that countries like Canada and the UK not impose any immediate austerity programs while growth is fragile; instead they should be delayed until the economy is healthier. When even the IMF tells us not to impose austerity, and still the Conservative government insists on it, you have to wonder.

3) Inequality (or: whose belt are you tightening anyway?)

Not surprisingly, the IMF study also found that the costs of austerity are not equally borne by everyone. Reductions in wage income caused by austerity are three times larger than those from other kinds of income. It also notes that austerity will “add to the pain of those who are likely to be already suffering—the long term unemployed.” This means that working class people have to tighten their belts much more than others do, through job loss, reduced income and pensions, and the loss of services they rely on. As Blyth puts it: “This ‘common sense’ of austerity—of reducing public debt all at once through slashing services—involves a question of equity—who pays and who doesn’t. Those who made this mess won’t, while those who have paid for it already through the bailouts will pay again through austerity.”

Politicians proposing unpopular and foolhardy policies like to claim that ‘there is no alternative’. But there are alternatives, at least for those in Canada, the UK and other countries not struggling under the kind of crushing debt burden facing Greece. In his recent speech, Stiglitz proposed several suggestions, including investing in infrastructure and education (which would earn returns of 20-30%). The goal is not to reduce the amount that the government spends but rather to reduce government debt, which depends on the overall health of the economy. As Stiglitz notes, “Putting more people to work today means that over the next five to ten years the debt would be lower, GDP higher, the debt to GDP ratio immeasurably improved.”

Remember the unicorn next time you hear someone talk about austerity and growth in the same sentence.

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