Austerity’s inauspicious historical precedents
One of the best aspects of being a journalist is that you get to talk at length to the most knowledgeable and interesting experts on just about any subject you can think of. For me, yesterday was a prime case in point: a long and fascinating lunch with James Macdonald, the author of my favorite book on the history of sovereign debt. Turns out he also has a microscopic vineyard in Tuscany, so the conversation ebbed wonderfully from economics to wine and back.
Macdonald has an economic historian’s view of the current austerity debate, and he was very clear: if you look at the history of countries trying to cut and deflate their way to prosperity while keeping their currencies pegged, it’s pretty grim — all the way back to Napoleonic times. Sometimes, the peg is gold. For a good example of the destructive abilities of that particular peg, look at the UK in the 1920s, which Macdonald says was arguably worse than the US in the 1930s: shallower, to be sure, but substantially longer. The devaluation of the pound, when it finally came, was very long overdue.
At other times, the peg is simply political: Macdonald gives the example of southern Italy being locked into what was essentially the Piedmontese monetary system at the time of the Risorgimento. That might have been well over a century ago, but there’s a case to be made that it has hobbled just about everywhere south of Rome to this day — and that’s in a country with about as much internal labor mobility as between EU countries.
So from a historical perspective, the prospects for countries like Portugal, Ireland and Greece are pretty grim. They can cut their budgets drastically and stay pegged to the euro, but most of them would be better off in the position of Iceland, which can and did devalue in a crisis (and allowed its banks to default, too). So far, the Baltic states have stuck to their deflationary guns with the most determination and discipline, but such things work until they don’t: at some point it’s entirely possible that Latvia or Estonia could pull an Argentina and kickstart growth by devaluing.
All of this is relevant for the US states, of course, which are also locked into a currency union and facing very tough fiscal cuts, as Steven Pearlstein says today:
Will the pain come in the form of prolonged high unemployment? Or wage and salary cuts? Or reduction in the value of homes and financial assets? Or loss of ownership of American companies? Or price inflation? Or higher taxes? Or reductions in government services and benefits?
The right answer, of course, is “all of the above.”
Meanwhile, David Leonhardt takes an important look at Germany, which you might think was benefiting, in some kind of zero-sum mathematics, from the pain of the European periphery. It isn’t: German GDP is still significantly lower than it was in the first quarter of 2008, while US GDP is now back above its pre-crisis levels. (Britain is doing significantly worse than either.)
“The historical lesson of postcrisis austerity movements,” writes Leonhardt, “is a rich one,” and also clear: they don’t work, even if they’re “morally satisfying.”
The answer, it seems, would be for crisis-hit countries to do the equivalent of what Macdonald and I did at lunch yesterday. I was coming off a slightly feverish and bed-ridden Monday, but we still went ahead and ordered the macvin, a spectacular fortified late-harvest white (yellow, really) pinot noir from the Jura. It goes very well indeed with mangalitsa ham. And I feel much better today, thanks.