TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 March 2013
Right off the top, I liked Austerity, because it directed me to a Youtube video of the author giving a five minute summary of the book in his lovely Scottish accent, immersed in complementary animation that he seemed to direct with his hands. A great start, that made me read with his delivery in mind. Fortunately, his writing is as clear, direct and succinct as his speaking, so it made reading Austerity a pleasure. It added immeasurably to the total experience. Something more authors might consider to get into the heads of their readers.
Austerity (the book) seems to be a bunch of Keystone Kops in dark suits, madly running around accomplishing very little. They rationalize, they contradict themselves and their policies, they make the same dumb moves over and over, they make up incredible formulas that cannot work even in theory, they take down the economies of the world - and they blame their governments for the mess they leave. The result is bankers continuing to pay themselves obscenely, while governments are saddled with assumed banking debt and the ugly prospect of austerity, as Blyth puts it, that "constitutes the greatest bait and switch in human history."
Blyth proves repeatedly that austerity is "zombie economics" - no matter how many times it is disproved, it just keeps coming back for more. No amount of mere fact disconfirms a good ideology, he tells us.
He hammers the point that in essentially every national case except maybe Greece, government spending was not behind the current financial collapse. Government was not overspending, not creating inflation, not distorting the economy. It was the bankers doing that, with theories of efficient markets and off the books vehicles. When it blew up, government had to step in, and the private mess became public debt, with bankers walking away whole - again.
Blyth gives vibrant life to the chaos. Unfortunately, what he doesn't say is that austerity becomes self fulfilling, as people claim the state of the economy is a reflection of the crippling effect of national debt. Faced with this new burden of public-ized bank debt, everyone fears saddling their children with it, and only austerity can reduce the debt. This is doubly unfortunate, because as Blyth proves decisively, austerity actually increases debt, every time and everywhere it is applied.
I disagree with Blyth's acidic view of the euro. He says it is an "unmitigated disaster for everyone but the Germans," and spends a lot of space slamming it. But countries are lined up for years forward to get into the euro, because they see how well their neighbors are doing by it. Even now, countries jostle to get on the waiting list. Countries like Estonia and Slovakia have benefited mightily in just a few years; they could not possibly have done as well with their own insignificant currencies. The original euro members have only themselves to blame for running up deficits. Hardly the fault of the euro, though Blyth blames it instead of them. France's myopic (anti)industrial policy is at least as much to blame for its fiscal woes as anything Societé Generale or BNP did to load up on sovereigns (country bonds). Germany's greed with its surpluses reminds us of China, only the Germans are the good guys for most of us, so it's acceptable. Blyth also conveniently and completely omits the out and out fraud of both Italy and Greece in entering the euro in the first place. While he notes that Greece had not generated a surplus in 50 years, he doesn't relate how it was able to (magically) declare less than 3% deficit in order to qualify for entry. It repeatedly failed to qualify, until the last minute, when it suddenly turned out Greece's ducks were all in a row after all - a model student. Please. But the powers that be bought it, lock, stock and barrel. The same scenario played out for Italy. And in the intervening years, neither country did anything to reform and legitimize their accession. So fraud is why the euro was "an accident waiting to happen" as much as anything Blyth posits about regulations.
Furthermore, the American dollar is living proof of why the euro will survive and thrive. Despite all the crises, the budget deficits, the trade deficits, the debt, the mismanagement and the uncertainty, the dollar refuses to decline. And this despite the treasury printing possibly nine trillion new dollars to save the banks (which Blyth shows is money down the drain). The dollar has no intrinsic value; it is a fiat instrument, just like the euro. Normally, you could not print so very much money and not have it seriously affect the currency. But if all the major fiat currencies are dealing with these same factors, and they're all trying to devalue, they will all remain in place relative to each other. At least that's how it has been working this millennium. It's a confidence game, not a value play. As long as people believe in the euro, there will be value attached to the euro. And that's why the discredited concept "austerity" continues to survive. You can't stop it, much as Blyth wants to, because despite the theory and despite all the evidence, people still believe.
It's no secret the euro is flawed because of all the constraints it members shackled it with to emulate their wonderful old national systems. That is being undone slowly, with small concessions from Germany and workarounds by the ECB, for example. Eventually, the whole thing will have to rationalized, or this will happen again, and worse, just like financial crises in the US. I don't think there's any controversy there. But there's more than just the euro in economics:
Blyth is hypercritical - of everyone and everything. Independent central banks "spread like a rash all over the face of the planet" is a typical description. Hard to please, it seems, but entertaining in an otherwise dismal science.
Austerity the concept needs no more disproof than the IMF and the "economic hit men" who impose it on every developing country, despite its total failure wherever it is implemented. It's garden-variety hypocrisy, and it's global. Contradictions in terms like "expansionary austerity" don't seem to dull its blade either. It's a pesky fly you can swat at, but not kill. But Blyth tries. He beats it up, body slams it to the mat repeatedly and clubs it over the head with an (economic) anvil. He meticulously trashes every study that supports it. I particularly appreciated the point that central banks can offset contracting budget cuts by lowering interest rates, but in our situation of near zero rates, there can only be pain from deep cuts. So in case you missed it - austerity the concept never works. Basically, contractions beget contraction, and expansion begets expansions. Everything else is fantasy.
Austerity the book is an expression of great frustration. If it shows one thing, it's that no economic school or theory works. There is some aspect that fits in every situation, but nothing covers totally or perfectly. They have a hard enough time fitting the past and none of them has a prescription that will work going forward. As JK Galbraith said, the only reason for economic forecasts is to build credibility for astrology.
Unlike austerity the concept, Austerity the book is very rewarding.