by Mark Thornton, Ludwig von Mises Institute
President Barack Obama has recently released his budget in which he calls for an “end of austerity.” This is an amazing statement from a president whose government has spent the highest percentage of GDP in history and added more to the national debt than all past presidents combined. What must he mean by austerity?
There are demonstrations around the world over austerity on an almost daily basis. It is condemned as an evil poison for tough economic times while others tout it as the elixir for economic depressions.
The president’s rejection of austerity represents the Keynesian view which completely rejects austerity in favor of the “borrow and spend” — increase aggregate demand — approach to recession. What he really is rejecting is the infinitesimal cutbacks in the rate of spending increases and the political roadblocks to new spending programs.
While the 2009-2012 budgets have been relatively flat, they are still more than 15 percent higher than in 2008 and 75 percent higher than in the previous decade. This four year leap in spending was financed with a $5 trillion increase in the national debt. No austerity here!
The type of austerity that gets the most worldwide press attention on a daily basis is that promoted by economists at the International Monetary Fund. This “austerian” approach involves cutbacks in government services and tax increases on the beleaguered public in order to, at all costs, repay the government’s corrupt creditors. This pro-bankster approach is what generates a massive amount of media attention and sometimes violent demonstrations.
Austrian School economists reject both the Keynesian stimulus approach and the IMF-style high-tax, pro-bankster approach as counterproductive. Although “Austrians” are often lumped in with “Austerians,” Austrian School economists support real austerity. Real austerity involves cutting government budgets by reducing salaries, employee benefits, and retirement benefits. It also involves selling government assets and even repudiating government debt. Instead of increasing taxes, the Austrian approach advocates decreasing taxes.
Despite all the hoopla in countries like Greece, there is no real austerity except in the countries of Eastern Europe. For example, Latvia is Europe’s most austere country and also one of the fastest growing economies. Estonia implemented an austerity policy that depended largely on cuts in government salaries. In contrast there simply is no significant austerity in most of Western Europe or the U.S. As Professor Philipp Bagus explains,
“the problem of Europe (and the United States) is not too much but too little austerity — or its complete absence.”
Real austerity for individuals means living a highly restricted lifestyle. The best example is the monk who lives on a subsistence-level diet, wears simple clothing, possesses a few basic pieces of furniture, and uses only necessary utensils. His days consist of long hours of work and prayer with no leisure activities and he may not even enjoy indoor heating or plumbing.
Austerity applied to whole countries, is not necessarily so harsh or ascetic. It simply means that the government has to live within its means.
If government were to adopt a thoroughgoing “Libertarian Monk” lifestyle, then the national government would be cut back to only national defense without standing armies and nuclear weapons. The national debt would be wholly repudiated. This would involve certain short-run hardships, although much greater long-run prosperity.
In contrast, the typical austerity policy is not severe. Government employees would be given cuts in wages, benefits, and retirement benefits necessary to balance the budget. The biggest cuts would fall on politicians, appointees, and senior bureaucrats. Given that such cutbacks occur when most everyone is facing cutbacks and hardships and given that government employees are typically very well compensated, it is not unreasonable to expect them to bear most of the burden of an austerity policy.
One particularly promising area for cutbacks is government regulation. Regulation is a burden on taxpayers, discourages entrepreneurship, and makes us less safe. One recent empirical study found that regulation was extremely costly and that “eliminating the job of a single regulator grows the American economy by $6.2 million and nearly 100 private sector jobs annually.”
Real austerity actually works best with tax cuts. To help austerity create growth it needs to be understood that certain taxes are highly discouraging to production. Tax cuts on investment and capital in contrast stimulate economic activity and production.
IMF-inspired tax increases make no sense. In hard times, government policies should be guided by the idea of increasing production, not of making production more burdensome via higher taxes. In much the same way, our ascetic monk does not force his duties and burdens on ordinary citizens.
President Obama has also suggested higher taxes (again) this time such as the removal of “tax breaks” for the retired rich. This would be the first step toward robbing our IRAs. Some have even suggested that “austerity” should involve extending existing taxes onto charities and nonprofits. Others have suggested taking away the tax-exempted status of charities and non-profits, which is nothing but a backdoor tax increase. These are some of the dumbest suggestions, especially in economic crises and are not real austerity.
Austerity does not mean, for example, budget cuts that would eliminate garbage collection or shutting down the fire department while leaving the military, education, and the spy state untouched. This is just a form of extortion that does not solve the problem. It only reveals the true nature and intent of those who work in government.
The Keynesian stimulus approach does not work. The IMF-inspired austerian approach also does not work. Only real austerity works. This means cutting government employee incomes, benefits, and retirement benefits. This alone would encourage them to run a tighter ship in the future. Eliminating regulators and regulations, cutting taxes, and selling government assets would all aid in the recovery process.
President Obama and Congress should get busy doing what is best for the economy and the American public instead of enriching themselves and those who feed at the public trough.