Spending cuts and the threat to democracy

What America should learn from Europe and the Middle East.

The "sequester", which began on 1 March, is the American form of austerity, or cut-backs in government spending during a recession. Austerity, or stingy government in Europe has kept employment extremely depressed compared to what it would have been with government stimulus, as Paul Krugman argues.

On Saturday, there were massive protests throughout Portugal against Scrooge policies by the government, which have so destroyed the country’s economy that 2 per cent of the population has fled abroad for jobs in the past 2 years alone. On Friday, Greek workers staged a huge general strike. In Italy, anti-austerity feeling made grumpy comedian Beppe Grillo and his party the swing vote in the new parliament. Grillo may single-handedly destroy the eurozone. European newspapers rather amusingly demanded that Grillo now "take responsibility" and "tell us what he wants". He is a contrarian comedian. It would be like having Robin Williams or Tracy Morgan as the swing vote in Congress, with the press hounding them for their agricultural policy and asking them about the dangers of deflation. But Grillo's ascendancy, while less alarming than the resurgence of the Greek far right, is a manifestation of the rejection by the Italian public of the long dreary road prescribed by the "troika", (The International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the Central Bank), of further government cut-backs, reductions in minimum wage, high unemployment, no hope.

While for some odd reason the Middle East does not usually get analysed with the same social science tools as Europe, the political crisis in Egypt is related to the Muslim Brotherhood government’s austerity program. The latter, as Samuel Knight argues, is being pursued under pressure from the International Monetary Fund. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Cairo, also urging acceptance of the austerity program. Austerity is estimated to have reduced Egyptians’ real income by 3 per cent in January alone. Tunisia is doing better than Egypt economically, but the parliament, dominated by the religious Right, is also tempted by austerity measures, seeking to trim a point off the budget deficit this year while seeking 4.5 per cent growth. While letting the value of the Tunisian dinar fall would hurt consumers with regard to imported goods, it would make Tunisian textiles and tourism more affordable for those abroad. Tunisia's exports are hurt by European economic problems, and the country would do well to develop more Asian customers (Brazil has had success reorienting exports to the Pacific Rim). Likewise, although Yemen's economy improved in 2012 after a 10 per cent drop in the revolutionary year of 2011, if anything the government budget deficit of 5.5 per cent is not big enough to stimulate the economy properly.

Reducing the state budget at a time of economic contraction is the opposite of what the great economist John Maynard Keynes prescribed. When the economy is in the doldrums, the businesses are skittish about investing their money, and so keep it in the bank. The only force, Keynes argued, that can and will risk putting a lot of money into the economy during a deep recession is the government. Of course, the government has less money at that point, too, since tax receipts are reduced. So it will simply have to spend money it doesn't technically have, i.e. go into deficit and print extra paper money. The extra paper will, obviously, lose some of its value. But that loss can have benefits, too, since it will make the goods produced by the country less expensive abroad, and spur exports.

This argument is straightforward for most countries, and it is mysterious why European and some Middle Eastern governments reject it. It is complicated in the US by the position of the dollar as a reserve currency and by the fall of manufacturing to only 20 per cent of the US economy. The former means that large budget deficits don't necessarily reduce the dollar's value significantly, because the US only holds about a third of the world's dollars and there is a lot of confidence in its value. The latter means that even when the dollar falls against the yen or euro, the jump in exports is limited to a fifth of the economy and domestic services don’t get much of a boost. But actually these peculiarities of the US economy are not arguments for austerity; on the contrary, the reserve dollar allows the US to do stimulus without as much pain as one would otherwise expect.

Instead, the Tea Party has forced the US into an artificial crisis with the "sequester", taking $100bn a year out of the economy for the next ten years, which will cut half a point of economic growth and harm workers, keeping unemployment high – not to mention the harm it likely will do to medical research, higher education, etc. That this austerity is being pursued by the GOP in part in hopes of disillusioning voters with President Obama in his second term is fairly obvious, but it is also in order to protect the 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, 80 per cent of which have been retained. Sequester, as usual with these things in the US, is actually a tax on the middle classes to benefit the wealthy, since it preserves undeserved tax cuts for the latter by reducing government services for the former.

That austerity does not work economically should be clear. But that it creates populist discontents that are shaking southern Europe and could derail Middle East democratisation is even more alarming. The world needs stimulus, not Scrooge government if it is to pull out of the crisis kicked off by corrupt bankers in 2008.

This is a cross-post from Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment

Barack Obama holds a cabinet meeting at the White House on 4 March. (Photo: Getty.)
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle