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.