Tag: austerity

Italy Slowly Recognizes that the Substance of ‘Austerity’ Matters

Apologists for big government have regularly warned that Europe’s austerity measures would push the European economy into a recession. To some extent they’ve been correct, but not for the reasons they claim. So far austerity in countries like Greece and Italy have been austerity for the private sector, not the public. They’ve attempted to close budget gaps by tax increases rather than spending cuts. Witness Mario Monti’s implementation of a tax on first home purchases (sure to do wonders for your housing and construction labor markets).

Fortunately there is some small ray of hope that Italy has come to recognize the error of its ways. As reported in today’s Financial Times, instead of pushing for an increase in the value-added tax, Italy will focus its next austerity measures on cutting government.  As the Financial Times goes on to explain:

The new government’s €30bn austerity package, passed in December, was heavily oriented towards tax increases rather than spending cuts, an emphasis that is now widely recognised by ministers as having driven Italy deeper into recession.

When even the Financial Times recognizes that tax increases are contractionary, then perhaps there is some hope for Italy (and Europe) after all. Now if we can actually get spending costs of real significance (€30 billion is a rounding error for the Italian government’s budget).

Cutting the Government—Greek Style

After much wrangling and consternation, the Greek government has agreed to the latest round of “drastic austerity measures,” the most significant of which is the promise to cut 15,000 government jobs. In return, the Greeks will receive 130 billion euros ($170 billion) of European bailout money to keep the Greek state afloat and, crucially, in the eurozone. That, anyway, is the plan.

The leaders of the political parties that “support” the Greek technocratic (i.e. unelected) government still have to approve the cuts, which they might not do because the unions threaten a general strike. But, there are additional problems as well. First, many of those 15,000 government workers will likely come from the ranks of those who are close to retirement. While the number of government workers will thus shrink, the government’s unsustainable social security burden will worsen. Second, the government workforce (i.e. public servants and employees of the Greek parastatals) account for over 22 percent of the Greek labor force of 4.4 million. That means that the number of people working for the government will decline from 968,000 to 953,000—a reduction of 1.6 percent. And that is what amounts to a “drastic austerity measure” in Greece!

Cutting Military Spending, Rethinking Grand Strategy

The Associated Press’s Pauline Jelinek has a story on the wires/Interwebs today that pokes holes in Leon Panetta’s claim that Pentagon budget cuts on the order of those contemplated under the debt deal’s sequestration provisions would be “devastating to the department.” Jelinek quoted me, as well as the Center for American Progress’s Larry Korb, and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s Todd Harrison.

Assuming that sequestration will actually happen (a big if), I tried to put the possible cuts in perspective, given the significant increase in military spending over the past decade.

But we shouldn’t put the budgetary cart before the strategic horse. I have said on several occasions that we should not cut military spending without rethinking our strategic ends.

Although Ben Friedman recently made a strong case for using fiscal austerity to drive a change in our grand strategy, I still believe it possible – and wiser – to do this in the reverse order; rethink the strategy first, and then shape the force to fit the strategy.

As Ben has taught me, austerity is a good auditor, but it doesn’t require us to cut anything, or increase taxes on anyone. The current fiscal situation doesn’t even force us to choose to make any difficult decisions now – so long as we’re willing to borrow money to make up the difference. It is that latter point, however, that people are getting hung up on. And rightly so. We’re doing a disservice to our children and grandchildren by saddling them with these debts, and no reasonable plan for retiring them. August’s debt ceiling deal pits two different factions within the Republican Party against one another: budget hawks and tax cutters (OK to cut, not OK to raise taxes) vs. hawkish hawks (not OK to cut military spending, OK to tax increases). Within this battle, the fiscal hawks are OK with sequestration. The hawkish hawks are not.

Leaving the fiscal constraints on military spending to one side, the underlying strategic logic to my argument that we can responsibly cut military spending still holds. Cuts on the order of $800 billion, or even $1 trillion, would not pose a grave risk to U.S. security. Panetta’s claim that it would rests on the dubious assumption that a nation’s strategic ends are fixed. They are not. What the United States chooses to do to advance its security are just that: choices. Some are wise in retrospect. Others are foolish. Some are understood to be foolish before they are undertaken. But it need not be so ad hoc.

This was one of Barry Posen’s pleas in his article “The Case for Restraint.” Posen made the case for rethinking our strategic goals well before the present fiscal crisis. But he began by reminding readers of the importance of strategy, or, more simply, what grand strategy is:

A state’s grand strategy is its foreign policy elite’s theory about how to produce national security. Security has traditionally encompassed the preservation of a nation’s physical safety, the country’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity, and its power position—the last being the necessary means to the first three. States have traditionally been willing to risk the safety of their people to protect sovereignty, territorial integrity and power position. A grand strategy enumerates and prioritizes threats and adduces political and military remedies for them. A grand strategy also explains why some threats attain a certain priority, and why and how the remedies proposed could work.

Our grand strategy has done none of those things (or at least not well), because the particular strategy that we have pursued for more than two decades—primacy, benevolent global hegemony, unipolarity, pick your term—is loathe to choose. Every crisis is a primary concern for the United States. No regional conflict can be handled by regional actors. Every humanitarian disaster, manmade or heaven-sent, demands U.S. intervention.

The list of goals that flows from such a grand strategy is just that—a list—with little or no consideration of how these should be ranked. We must be everywhere. We must do everything. The various strategy documents, meanwhile, are all based on the assumption that primacy is the only reasonable strategy for the United States. Taking the ends and ways as a given, they begin with a force structure (the means), and work backwards. Sometimes they don’t even do that.

Most of us who believe that we can responsibly reduce military spending without undermining U.S. security argue that point from the perspective that our strategy is flawed, and, therefore, that our resources are misallocated. The alternative claim—that our strategy is sound, but we can achieve the same ends with fewer means—is not tenable.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The Biggest Budget in History

The Wall Street Journal notes today that the federal government spent more money in the just-concluded 2011 fiscal year than in any year in history, and no one noticed. What happened to all that austerity and all those spending cuts that we heard about all year? Well, some of us warned over the past year that they were all smoke and mirrors.

Now that the year’s over, you can see in this chart from the Journal that the federal government spent more and borrowed more in 2011 than in any previous year—$900 billion more than just four years ago, and $150 billion more than last year:

Tina Brown and the Economics of Recession

Talking about royal weddings on NPR, Tina Brown says that there’s high unemployment in Britain, as there was in 1981, because of Conservative governments’ budget cuts (transcript edited to match broadcast):

Of course, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana occurred three decades ago, but Brown points out that there are plenty of similarities between the two eras. “2.5 million are out of work right now with the budget slashes and all the economic austerity that’s happening in England,” Brown says. “There were actually the same amount of people exactly out of work at the time of Charles and Diana, when Mrs. Thatcher came in and began her draconian moves.”

I know that Tina Brown is a journalist, not an economist, but surely she’s heard of the recessions of 1979 and 2009, both of which may have helped to usher in a new government pledged to economic reform. It isn’t budget cuts that have increased British unemployment, it’s the recession. The unemployment rate started rising in early 2008 and kept right on rising during the world financial crisis, which featured not budget cuts but massive spending by governments around the world.

Mega-Consumers against Consumerism

Adjacent articles in the latest New Yorker deplore “consumerism” among the American revolutionaries and the modern Chinese. You wonder how a magazine so concerned about manifestations of consumer desire would support itself. Surely it struggles along on a shoestring, preaching the message of austerity and simplicity to sincere but poor readers. In fact, however, these laments about consumerism in societies vastly poorer than our own are sandwiched between lush full-page advertisements for Chanel watches, Samsung home entertainment centers, single malt Scotch, Grey Goose vodka, Cristal champagne, David Yurman jewelry, German automobiles, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. The articles themselves appear on pages lined with small, elegant ads for Jay-Z’s book-ebook-app, tours of Wales, monogram rings, Aeron chairs, European berets, cashmere caps, and a remarkable number of expensive psychiatric facilities, perhaps specializing in the treatment of cognitive dissonance.