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In a highly indebted world, austerity is a permanent state of affairs

By 2010, everyone had heard the ‘austerity’ rallying cry. Immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, especially in Europe, it resounded: ‘Stimulate no more, now is the time for all to tighten!’ And tighten governments did, cutting public expenditure across continental Europe, and in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The logic behind ‘austerity’ holds that ‘the market’ – which the public had just bailed out – did not like the debt incurred when states everywhere rescued and recapitalised their banking systems. Unsurprisingly, tax revenues fell as the economy slowed and state expenditures rose. And what were once private debts on the balance sheets of banks became public debt on the balance sheet of states. Given this sorry state of affairs, states (policymakers and business leaders argued) had to take action to restore ‘business confidence’ – which is apparently always and everywhere created by cutting government spending. So governments cut.

Public debt, however, grew, because economies got smaller and grew slower the more they cut. The ‘confidence fairy’ as Paul Krugman named the expected effect, simply failed to show up. Why?

The reason is simple – and it is surprising anyone thought that anything else would happen. Imagine an economy as a sum, with a numerator and a denominator. Make total debt 100 and stick that on the top (the numerator). Make Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 100 and stick that on the bottom (the denominator) to give us a 100 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio. If you cut total spending by 20 per cent to restore ‘confidence’, the economy is ‘balanced’ at 100/80. That means the debt-to-GDP ratio of the country just went up to 120 per cent, all without the government issuing a single cent of new debt.

In short, cuts to spending in a recession make the underlying economy contract. After all, government workers have lost jobs or income, and government workers not shopping has the same effect as private sector workers not shopping. So the debt goes up as the economy shrinks further. States respond by cutting spending further. The pattern continues.

Having a common currency among different countries actually aggravates the problem because cuts in one state reverberate through many states, depressing them all. In 2008, euro area government debt as a share of the economy, including the already profligate Greeks, averaged around 65 per cent of GDP. Following budget cuts and monetary tightening (the European Central Bank twice pushed up interest rates in 2011) Euro Area government debt, by 2014, had risen to 92 per cent of GDP.

Greece is the poster child for this ‘denominator effect’. Under the auspices of ‘bailouts’ from the IMF and the EU, Greece cut more than 20 per cent of GDP in spending. It lost nearly 30 per cent in final consumption. Yet its debt increased from 103 per cent in 2006 to more than 180 per cent by 2014. That’s a 57 per cent increase in debt while spending is being cut.

Let’s look at the originating question again: how is destroying a third of the economy supposed to inspire consumer and business confidence? It won’t – unless you are a creditor – and that’s where the politics comes in.

If you are a holder of government debt (a creditor), three things hurt the value of your asset: if the inflation rate goes above the interest rate on your bond; if the exchange rate moves against you so that what the bond is worth vis-à-vis other currencies falls; and, of course, default – if the government takes the money and runs.

In the post-crisis world, despite major central banks putting trillions of dollars into the global money supply, there is almost no inflation anywhere in the developed world. Exchange rates (Brexit effects apart) are comparatively stable and ultimately move against each other relatively, so that’s not a huge worry. If the country whose debt you hold can have elections, and the public dares to vote against more budget cuts, the European Central Bank will shut down their banking system to make them revisit their choices. That’s what they did to Greece in the summer of 2015.

In this world, our present world, creditors will get paid and debtors will get squeezed. Budgets will be cut to make sure that bondholders get their money. And, in a highly indebted world, austerity – introduced as an ‘emergency’ measure to save the economy, to right the fiscal ship – becomes a permanent state of affairs.

As Britain’s former prime minister David Cameron said (standing beside a throne in a white bow-tie and tails) in 2013: ‘We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.’ But here’s the question hidden in that blithe statement – are you and me part of the ‘we’ here?

Let’s go back to the huge jump in public debt that occurred when governments, ie the people, bailed out the banks. That debt was not, and is not, a liability. As difficult as it can be to make this reality part of the political conversation, public debt is an asset. Even at today’s low rates, it earns interest and retains value. No one is forced to invest in public debt, but every time bonds are issued investors show up and buy them by the truckload. By market criteria, public debt is a great investment.

But who pays for it? That would be the taxpayer. More generally, those who contribute to the payment of debts by not consuming government-produced services that have been cut. Basically, in most countries, this means that the bottom 70 per cent of the income distribution bears the cost of paying for public debt.

Over the past 25 years, to make up for chronically low wage growth, that same 70 per cent of the population has increased its personal indebtedness. Massively. Which means that in an economy deformed by austerity, they are the ones paying out – twice. With stagnant or declining wages, they have to service both the massive private debt they have accumulated to live and the public debt issued in their name.

Meanwhile, those whose assets the public bailed out – those with investible wealth, those who hold ‘all that debt’ and make money from it – do not suffer from the decline in public spending. Since they are net lenders, the hike in personal indebtedness does not trouble them either.

The result, and the situation in which we find ourselves, is a classic bad equilibrium. Those who can’t pay, and don’t earn enough, are being asked to pay the most to service debt, from which they do not and will not benefit. Those who can pay, and earn almost all the income, both contribute the least and benefit the most from ‘all that debt’.

Strip away all the electoral politics at the moment in the US, the UK, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, and that’s the underlying political economy. It’s a creditor/debtor stand-off where the creditors have the whip hand.

And yet, the more they crack the whip, the more the backlash against austerity, in all its forms, gains strength. Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Marine Le Pen, Pablo Iglesias: Left or Right, they are all riding debtor anger against creditor strength. It might be expressed as anger against, variously, ‘trade’ or ‘the elite’ or the ‘EU’. But what’s underneath all that is the politics of debt.

This is the ‘new normal’. It’s not about flat interest rates or anaemic growth rates. They are the consequences of austerity, not its causes. The new normal is the new politics of debtors versus creditors. It’s here to stay. As we already can see, it’s going to be anything but normal.Aeon counter – do not remove

Mark Blyth

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.