Understanding The Austerity Obsession.

Simon Wren-Lewis

It has often been argued, loosely following Keynes, that economists should be like doctors.

Martin Wolf writes “The austerity obsession, even [sic] when borrowing costs are so low, is lunatic”. The IMF, the OECD and pretty much the whole of informed opinion agree. Yet those subject to this austerity obsession are in charge of levels of public investment in the the US, Germany and the UK. One interesting question that arises is whether they are all suffering from the same disease?

The diagnosis in the case of the Republican party in the US is reasonably clear. Judging from the remaining presidential candidates and the actions of Congress the main economic goal is to cut taxes, particularly for the very rich. That requires, sooner or later, less public spending. What about evidence that more public investment would help everyone in the economy, including the rich? The problem is that this group suffers from the delusion that the only way to help the economy is to tax the rich less and starve the beast that is the state. It is a clear case of the patient being infected by the neoliberal ideology virus.

The condition of the ruling class in Germany, however, is much more difficult to diagnose. Some local doctors have labelled it the Swabian syndrome: a belief that the economy is just like a household, and the imperative is to balance the books. This seems like a case of labelling rather than explaining a disease. There may be an allergy involved: an aversion to Keynesian economics, and anything that sounds vaguely Keynesian. But the microeconomic case for additional public investment in Germany is also strong: although German roads are not in such a bad state of repair as those in the US, the German public capital stock has been shrinking for over a decade. One possibility is that Swabian syndrome is being encouraged by an ageing population that worry about their pensions. It will be interesting to see how this is influenced by recent injections of the refugee vaccine.

The nature of the illness in Germany is therefore more of a mystery than in the US. Unfortunately as contacts between German officials and those in the rest of Europe are frequent, we have seen numerous cases of this disease – whatever it is – spreading elsewhere, and in one particular case (Greece) the patient remains in a critical condition. The disease also produces complications after accidents: here Finland – currently in intensive care – is a case in point.

The Conservative Party in the UK also seem to have the symptoms associated with Swabian syndrome. As with Germany, the outbreak reached a peak around 2010/11. For a time it was thought that UK cases might be in decline, but last year saw a renewed outbreak. There are some, however, who argue that in reality the party are feigning the symptoms as a means of winning elections, while still others claim that tests have revealed clear traces of the ideology virus.

What has become clear is that the traditional way of treating the austerity obsession, which involves occasional counselling with well trained economists, is having little effect. We also now know that the financial crisis shock treatment only makes the neoliberal virus more virulent. Extended therapy is the only known cure for this virus. As for Swabian syndrome, our best hope may be that the public gradually develop an immunity to the disease as its consequences become clear.

This post was first published on Mainly Macro




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