Tag: austerity

What Greek “Austerity”?

It’s hard to find anything written or spoken about Greece that doesn’t contain a great deal of hand wringing about the alleged austerity – brutal fiscal austerity – that the Greek government has been forced to endure at the hands of the so-called troika. This is Alice in Wonderland economics. It supports my 95% rule: 95% of what you read about economics and finance is either wrong or irrelevant.

The following chart contains the facts courtesy of Eurostat. Social security spending as a percentage of GDP in Greece is clearly bloated relative to the average European Union country—even more so if you only consider the 16 countries that joined the EU after the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. To bring the government in Athens into line with Europe, a serious diet would be necessary – much more serious than anything prescribed by the troika.

Social Security Fund

Austerity, A New Weaselword

The financial press has become inundated with the word “austerity.” Since Greece’s left-wing Syriza proclaimed an “anti-austerity revolution,” strong adjectives, like “incredibly savage,” precede that overused word.

What was once a good word has become a weaselword. That, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a word that destroys the force of a statement, as a weasel ruins an egg by sucking out its contents.” How could that be?

Well, in the hands of an unscrupulous or uninformed writer, the inversion of a perfectly good word into a weaselword is an easy task. All one has to do is leave the meaning of a word undefined or vague, rendering the word’s meaning so obscure as to make it non-operational. With that, a meaningless weaselword is created.

In its current usage, the word austerity is so obscure as to evoke Fritz Machlup’s paraphrase of Goethe’s line from Faust: To conceal ignorance, Mephistopheles counsels a student to misuse words. Such is the story and fate of austerity.

E.U. Austerity, You Must Be Kidding

The leading political lights in Europe – Messrs. Hollande, Valls and Macron in France and Mr. Renzi in Italy – are raising a big stink about fiscal austerity. They don’t like it. And now Greece has jumped on the anti-austerity bandwagon. The pols have plenty of company, too. Yes, they can trot out a host of economists – from Nobelist Krugman on down – to carry their water.

But, with Greece’s public expenditures at 58.5% of GDP, and Italy’s and France’s at 50.6% and 57.1% of GDP, respectively – one can only wonder where all the austerity is (see the accompanying table). Government expenditures cut to the bone? You must be kidding. Even in the United States, where most agree that there is plenty of government largess, the government (federal, plus state and local) only accounts for a whopping 38.1% of GDP.

As Europe sinks under the weight of the State, it’s austerity, not anti-austerity, that should be on the menu.

The EU’s Anti-Austerity Hypocrites

The European Union (EU) is still in the midst of an economic slump. Many members of the political class in Brussels claim that fiscal austerity is to blame. But, this diagnosis is wrong. The EU’s problem is one of monetary, not fiscal, austerity. Money matters. Just look at the accompanying chart. Private credit in the Eurozone has been shrinking since March 2012.

Never mind. The EU fiscal austerity bandwagon keeps rolling on with Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister and current President of the EU, holding the reins. Indeed, Renzi recently went so far as to form an anti-austerity coalition with France and Spain. According to the coalition, its members simply cannot impose further spending cuts. They assert that their budgets have been cut to the bone. This claim is ludicrous. 

<--break- >There is nothing to cut in Italy? Get real. Senior civil servants are being paid over 12 times the national average salary. As for France and Spain, their civil servants are “well paid,” too. It’s time for the public to stop listening to the EU’s anti-austerity hypocrites and start looking at the numbers.

Hungary’s Slide Towards Authoritarianism

Yesterday’s general election in Hungary has given Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, a very comfortable majority in the Hungarian Parliament, while strengthening the openly racist Jobbik party, which earned over 21 percent of the popular vote. Neither of this is good news for Hungarians or for Central Europe as a whole.

In the 1990s, Hungary was among the most successful of transitional economies of Central and Eastern Europe. With a significant exposure to markets in the final years of the Cold War and a political establishment committed to reforms, it was often singled out as an example of how a successful, sustained transition towards market and democracy should look like.

In 2014, the situation could not be more different. Hungary’s economic policies have become increasingly populist and haphazard, as the government has confiscated the assets of private pension funds, undermined the independence of the central bank, and botched the consolidation of the country’s public finances (p. 77). Worse yet, Hungary has seen a growth of nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments which have not been adequately countered by the country’s political elites. In a recent column, I wrote about Mr. Orbán’s personal responsibility for the disconcerting political and economic developments in Hungary:

Mr. Orbán’s catering to petty nationalism often borders on selective amnesia about certain parts of Hungarian history. Recently the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, the Mazsihisz, announced it would not take part in the Orbán government’s Holocaust commemorations. According to the Mazsihisz, the framing of the ceremonies whitewashes the role that the Hungarian government played and focuses exclusively on the crimes perpetrated by the Germans—despite the fact that Hungary adopted its first anti-Jewish laws as early as 1938.

Mr. Orbán’s tone-deafness when it comes to historical symbols goes hand in hand with a concerted effort to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy and rule of law in Hungary. Since Mr. Orbán came to office four years ago, Fidesz has consolidated its political power and used it to pass controversial legislation tightening media oversight, as well as constitutional changes that curb judicial power and restrict political advertising, among other measures.

The Missing Data in Krugman’s German Austerity Narrative

There’s an ongoing debate about Keynesian economics, stimulus spending, and various versions of fiscal austerity, and regular readers know I do everything possible to explain that you can promote added prosperity by reducing the burden of government spending.

Simply stated, we get more jobs, output, and growth when resources are allocated by competitive markets. But when resources are allocated by political forces, cronyism and pork cause inefficiency and waste.

That’s why statist nations languish and market-oriented countries flourish.

Paul Krugman has a different perspective on these issues, which is hardly a revelation. But I am surprised that he often times doesn’t get the numbers quite right when he delves into specific case studies.

He claimed that spending cuts caused an Estonian economic downturn in 2008, but the government’s budget actually skyrocketed by 18 percent that year.

He complained about a “government pullback” in the United Kingdom even though the data show that government spending was climbing faster than inflation.

He even claimed that Hollande’s election in France was a revolt against austerity, notwithstanding the fact that the burden of government spending rose during the Sarkozy years.

My colleague Alan Reynolds pointed out that Krugman mischaracterized the supposed austerity in the PIIGS nations such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

We have another example to add to the list.

He now wants us to believe that Germany has been a good Keynesian nation.

Larry Summers Redefines Balanced Budgets as Stimulus and Big Deficits as Austerity

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, in June 4 testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, offers a scatter diagram which allegedly shows “that countries that pursued harsher austerity policies in recent years also had lower real GDP growth.”  He acknowledges, but does not adequately explain, that the causality may well be backwards: Bond markets would not allow countries in severe economic distress (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) to continue financing deficits at the peak levels of 2010.

Summers defines “austerity” as the three-year change (regardless of the level) from 2010 to 2013 in cyclically-adjusted “primary” deficits (excluding interest expense) as a percent of potential GDP.  His scatter diagram then compares those changes to average real GDP growth from 2010 to 2013, using unexplained estimates for 2013.

Measuring fiscal stimulus by the change in budget deficits means several countries with little or no budget deficit in both 2010 and 2013 appear as employing the most “fiscal stimulus” in Summers’ graph. Sweden’s deficit is estimated at 0.1 percent of GDP for 2013, according to The Economist, and was literally zero in 2010.  Keeping the budget balanced puts Sweden on the admirable left side of Summers’ diagram – the side ostensibly choosing growth rather than austerity.  Germany is another country Summers counts as avoiding austerity, even though Germany’s brief cyclically-adjusted deficit of 3.5 percent of GDP in 2010 was cut to zero in 2012-2013.

When it comes to real GDP Growth, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Slovak Republic and South Korea appear near the top of Summers’ graph.  It is revealing that Hong Kong is also far to the left on the pro-growth side of the austerity axis.  This may appear paradoxical since Hong Kong ran budget surpluses in 7 of the past 8 years, and will do so again in 2013. No amount of cyclical adjusting could turn chronic surpluses into deficits.  Simply because Hong Kong has not switched from a big deficit to a smaller one, that alone suffices to place it among the least “austere” economies on list.  Similarly, South Korea’s budget surplus is estimated at 1.3-1.4 percent of GDP in both 2010 and 2013, according to the OECD, but keeping the budget in surplus between those years counts as stimulative policy in Summers’ reckoning.