The big mystery isn’t why austerity has failed to work as advertised: anybody familiar with the concept of “aggregate demand” could explain that one. It is why an area with a population of more than three hundred million has stuck with a policy prescription that was discredited in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. The stock answer, which is that austerity is necessary to preserve the euro, doesn’t hold up. At this stage, austerity is the biggest threat to the euro. If the recession lasts for very much longer, political unrest is sure to mount, and the currency zone could well break up.
So why is this woebegone approach proving so sticky? Some of the answers can be found in a timely and suitably irreverent new book by Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown: “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.” Adopting a tone that is by turns bemused and outraged, Blyth traces the intellectual and political roots of austerity back to the Enlightenment, and the works of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. But he also provides a sharp analysis of Europe’s current predicament, explaining how an unholy alliance of financiers, central bankers, and German politicians foisted a draconian and unworkable policy on an unsuspecting populace.
The central fact about Europe’s “debt crisis” is that it largely originated in the private sector rather than the public sector. In 2007, Blyth reminds us, the ratio of net public debt to G.D.P. was just twelve per cent in Ireland and twenty-six per cent in Spain. In some places, such as Greece and Italy, the ratios were considerably higher. Over all, though, the euro zone was modestly indebted. Then came the financial crisis and the fateful decision to rescue many of the continent’s creaking banks, which had lent heavily into property bubbles and other speculative schemes. In Ireland, Spain, and other countries, bad bank debts were shifted onto the public sector’s balance sheet, which suddenly looked a lot less robust. But rather than recognizing the looming sovereign-debt crisis for what it was—an artifact of the speculative boom and bust in the financial sector—policymakers and commentators put the blame on public-sector profligacy.
“The result of all this opportunistic rebranding was the greatest bait-and-switch operation in modern history,” Blyth writes. “What were essentially private-sector debt problems were rechristened as ‘the Debt’ generated by ‘out-of-control’ public spending.”In other words, austerians are playing a game of ‘blame the victims’ and the consequences for real people’s lives are disastrous.