On Europe's Phantom Austerity Spending Cuts
When you were a child and did something wrong, the worse possible words your mom could say were "wait til your father comes home!" and that dreaded anticipatory angst is what Europeans must be feeling now as the threat of austerity hangs like the sword of Damocles over their heads. The reason we say this is that in fact, as Veronique de Rugy of National Review Online notes, the 'savage' spending cuts in Europe have yet to show up anywhere. All the rhetoric of how Europe's austerity has failed, all the hand-wringing and election-winning, and yet all the major nations are spending more than pre-recession levels; France and the UK did not cut spending at all, and even in Greece and Spain cuts have been small (and any meaningful reforms failed to be implemented). In fact, the epicenter of the current meltdown - Spanish banking - has seen only de-minimus headcount reduction over the past few years - so who is tightening their belts? The trouble, of course, is that while the threat of austerity has struck fear in the hearts of every European voter, the action of raising taxes has hurt just as much and perhaps the "trumpeting the failure of austerity as a reason to go full-Keynesian again" chatter will recede as facts overtake fallacies. As Mark Grant recently noted, there's a big divide between austerity pledged and austerity implemented, as it appears its more about raising taxes than cutting spending.
Spanish banking headcount is basically unchanged - and yet remains the absolute epicenter of the crisis...
We are told that austerity in Europe has failed. The elections in France and Greece, for instance, are supposedly evidence of people’s opposition to severe cuts in spending. However, the growing anti-austerity backlash against Europe ignores one fundamental point: If there is austerity in Europe, in most cases it hasn’t taken the form of massive spending cuts.
Following years of large spending expansion, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Greece—countries widely cited for adopting austerity measures—haven’t significantly reduced spending since “austerity” supposedly started in 2008.
First, France and the U.K. have not cut spending. Second, when spending was actually reduced—between 2009-2011 in Greece, Italy, and Spain—the cuts were relatively small compared to the size of their bloated European budgets. While Italy reduced spending between 2009-2010, it also increased spending in the following year by an amount larger than the previous reduction. Most importantly, meaningful structural reforms were seldom implemented. Whenever cuts took place, they were always overwhelmed with large counterproductive tax increases.
This so-called balanced approach—some spending cuts for large tax increases—has been proven to be a recipe for disaster by economists. It fails to stabilize the debt, and it is more likely to cause economic contractions.