The Three Types of Austerity
Reading the financial press, one gets the impression there are only two sides to the austerity debate: pro-austerity and anti-austerity. In reality, we have three forms of austerity. There is the Keynesian-Krugman-Robert Reich form which promotes more government spending and higher taxes. There is the Angela Merkel form of less government spending and higher taxes, and there is the Austrian form of less spending and lower taxes. Of the three forms of austerity, only the third increases the size of the private sector relative to the public sector, frees up resources for private investment, and has actual evidence of success in boosting growth.
Let’s take a closer look at the Merkel form of austerity being implemented in Europe in which governments “plan” to cut their spending and raise tax revenues. Of course, “planned” cuts are not actual cuts. Four years after the crash of 2008, the UK government had only implemented 6 percent of planned cuts in spending and only 12 percent of planned cuts in benefits. In almost all European countries, government spending is higher today than it was in 2008. A new study by Constantin Gurdgiev of Trinity College in Dublin examined government spending as a percentage of GDP in 2012 compared with the average level of pre-recession spending (2003–2007). Only Germany, Malta, and Sweden had actually cut spending.
Although several governments have raised tax rates, tax revenues have collapsed in response. The large and growing black markets in Greece, Italy, Spain, and even France are a testament to wrongheaded European tax policies. Current commitments to reign in tax fraud are a joke when tax rates are already at nosebleed levels.
Notably, the Merkel form of austerity has led to an increase, not a decrease, in the relative size of the public sector. For example, the Greek public sector, while getting smaller, has nonetheless been contracting at a slower rate than the private sector. Since the first bailout, Greece lost at least 500,000 private sector jobs but shed far fewer public sector jobs. For years, the Greek government has been pledging to cut 500,000 public sector jobs, and in recent months, the Greek government has finally pledged to begin laying off public sector workers over the next two years. A total of 12,500 civil servants, including teachers and police, face reassignment or the axe by the end of the year, with a further 15,000 facing the same options next year. Not only is this too little, too late, but it is also only a pledge.
The Keynesian form of austerity is no better. According to these economists, we need even more government spending to boost demand to obtain growth. For the Keynesians, the lavish amounts of money already spent was apparently too little and not spent in the right places, yet the last five years are a testament to the failure of this type of austerity. We are now left with a massive debt overhang and little growth to show for it. Government spending has simply “crowded out” private spending.
Ignored is the fact that we don’t need government to boost demand because there is never a deficiency of demand. Governments instead should be more concerned with the ability of the private sector to produce the right supply.
Growth will come from the private sector, and the austerity we need is one that makes the private sector larger than the public sector and one similar to that implemented in 1920 in the United States. In what Thomas Woods calls “The Forgotten Depression of 1920,” the U.S. government cut spending 50 percent and sharply reduced taxes. The public debt was reduced by a third, while monetary policy was kept on hold. The economy recovered quickly (in 18 months) and by 1923 the unemployment rate had fallen below 3 percent.
A more recent example of similar tactics is Latvia which followed a similar strategy in 2009-2010. It cut government spending from 44 percent of GDP to 36 percent. It fired 30 percent of the civil servants, closed half the state agencies, and reduced the average public salary by 26 percent in one year. Government ministers took personal wage cuts of 35 percent, although pensions and social benefits were barely reduced and the flat tax on personal income was left untouched at 25 percent.
The Latvian economy dropped 24 percent in two years, but rebounded sharply in 2011 and 2012 with yearly real growth of over 5 percent. Unemployment hit 20.7 percent in 2010, but has steadily declined to a little over 12 percent today. Because the cuts prompted deregulation, Latvia enjoyed a boom in the creation of new enterprises in 2011. It was able to transition from a bloated construction sector to a vibrant economy of many small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Latvia borrowed heavily from the IMF, and was criticized in 2009 for its overly aggressive economic strategy. Latvia recently repaid its loan to the IMF three years early, indirectly silencing its critics.
Austerity worked because it was the right form of austerity: one which gave people hope and one with a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, Europe has austerity fatigue. It missed the opportunity to implement the right type of policies.
Since it now seems impossible to implement the right form of austerity, what should Europe do? To get back on the path to growth, Europe needs to dump policies to spur aggregate demand, and focus on policies which bring the right products at the right prices. As J.B. Say said:
The encouragement of mere consumption is no benefit to commerce, for the difficulty lies in supplying the means, not in stimulating the desire of consumption; and we have seen that production alone, furnishes those means. Thus, it is the aim of Good Government to stimulate production, of bad Government to encourage consumption.
Without growth, Europe is heading for a train wreck since it will shortly be unable to finance its debt. It must refocus its strategy toward stimulating production, freeing up Europe’s entrepreneurial spirit. This is a policy much more likely to succeed.