The austerity debate is back, with American liberals pointing to shrinking European economies as evidence against the wisdom of cutting government spending here.
Typical is this argument from a column by the New York Times’ Paul Krugman last month: “Europe has had several years of experience with harsh austerity programs, and the results are exactly what students of history told you would happen: such programs push depressed economies even deeper into depression.”
Indeed, nine of the European Union’s 27 member-countries were in technical recession by the end of 2011 or the first quarter of 2012 (not all countries report first-quarter data at the same time).
There’s just one problem: There have been no such austerity programs, at least not of the type Krugman and other liberals warn against.
In five of the nine recessionary countries, governments cut spending in 2011. In four, they didn’t. There were another three European countries in which public spending fell without triggering a recession.
Britain, considered a poster child for the hazards of austerity, hasn’t cut spending at all. It did, however, raise the top marginal tax rate: by 10 percentage points in 2010 and an additional 1 point last year.
In fact, the EU’s recessionary countries were just as likely to have raised taxes in 2011 as to have cut spending.
The hardest-hit countries — Greece, Portugal and Spain — did both. These countries are the only ones in Europe that can truthfully say they’ve embraced austerity. Unless, that is, you count Iceland, which returned to robust growth last year despite cutting spending by more than 5 percent.
Yet, in both Portugal and Spain, the tax hikes were larger, percentage-wise, than the spending cuts. So, who’s to say the changes in spending, rather than taxes, are to blame?
What about Ireland, you may ask. Hasn’t the famed “Celtic Tiger” of the 1990s and early 2000s been declawed during the past few years?
Ireland has dipped into recession, and it did cut spending by a whopping 27 percent last year. Of course, it increased spending by an even more whopping 33 percent in 2010 — leaving public expenditures just slightly below the levels in the previous couple of years.
What has changed significantly in Ireland are tax rates. Spending was 1 percent lower in 2011 than in 2008, but the top marginal tax rate — the rate applied to an earner’s next euro of income — rose 17 percent. Again, why should we accept it’s the spending, not the taxing, that has pushed Ireland’s economy down?
One more thing you won’t hear from the anti-austerity crowd is that the tax hikes have not had their intended effects. Britain, for instance, is lowering its top tax rate again after no more than two-fifths of the projected new revenues materialized. All that the higher rate achieved, treasury chief George Osborne noted, was for high-earning Britons to move their money around and change their behavior to avoid the higher rates.
These distortions — which themselves could explain some of the U.K. economy’s troubles — weren’t worth the new revenues that were realized, Osborne explained.
That’s one more thing for Americans to keep in mind as they hear about the policies we should or shouldn’t import from Europe.
– By Kyle Wingfield