Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: Shortsighted Austerity

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In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, more than 70 per cent of the world population is without proper social protections, the United Nations labour agency today reported, urging governments to scale up investment in child and family benefits, pensions and other public expenditures.

“The global community agreed in 1948 that social security and health care for children, working age people who face unemployment or injury and older persons are a universal human right,” said Sandra Polaski, Deputy Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“And yet in 2014 the promise of universal social protection remains unfilled for the large majority of the world’s population.”

As many as 122 governments are contracting public expenditures in 2014, of which 82 are developing countries, according to the findings of the World Social Protection Report 2014/15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice.

“The case for social protection is even more compelling in these times of economic uncertainty, low growth and increased inequality,” Ms. Polaski added, noting that it is also an issue that the international community should embrace prominently in the development agenda following the Millennium Development Goals deadline in 2015.

At the beginning of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, at least 48 high- and middle-income countries put in place stimulus packages totalling $2.4 trillion that devoted roughly a quarter to social protection measures.

But from 2010 onwards, many governments reversed course and embarked prematurely on fiscal consolidation, despite the urgent need to continue supporting vulnerable populations and stabilizing consumption.

In the European Union, cuts in social protection have already contributed to increases in poverty which now affect 123 million people or 24 per cent of the population, many of whom are children, women, older persons and persons with disabilities, the ILO reported.

The report also shows that about 39 per cent of the world population lacks any affiliation to a health system or scheme. The number reaches more than 90 per cent in low-income countries.

The report also highlights the cases of Thailand and South Africa, which have achieved universal health coverage in just a few years, showing that it can be done.

“It is now a matter of political will to make it a reality. Modern society can afford to provide social protection,” Ms. Polaski stated.

Macroeconomic Implications:

The Macroeconomic implications of premature austerity are fairly straightforward. Keynesian national income accounting tells us that insufficient private demand can be compensated for with increased public spending (Y = C + I + G + M-X). For the world as a whole, net exports (X-M) are, by definition, 0. Therefore, when global private demand (consumption, “C”) goes down, it can be compensated for by only be increasing stimulus spending (or cutting taxes, but the economic multiplier of tax cuts is lower than for stimulus spending, especially in a liquidity trap when even near zero interest rates are insufficient to stimulate private demand to full employment levels).

If C and G are both insufficiently low, we get dangerously close to deflation–something almost every modernized economy is aggressively trying to avoid at the moment. High levels of debt and deflation causes a vicious economic cycle, where government spending cuts results in a higher level of “real” debt (even though the gross number associated with debt is reduced, the real value of that debt–what it can buy–goes up). This is one of the things that made the Great Depression so painful for so many people; as the programs that would have helped them were cut, the countries fiscal position worsened, leading to further cuts.

Microeconomic Implications:

It is the effect on people, on human development, that we truly care about here at Normative Narratives. In the context of high unemployment, one could see how cutting welfare programs, government jobs, etc. could be particularly painful on already vulnerable groups. I would need to conduct more in depth analysis of specific cuts in specific countries to speak on exactly how these cuts have negatively impacted people. The report highlights high unemployment and lack of access to healthcare as specific impacts of premature austerity movements.

One human rights violation opens the way for others, often resulting in [extreme] poverty. For example, without access to safe drinking water or sanitation services, people become sick. Lack of access to healthcare can cause a person to lose their job. Lack of access to a quality job means a person is reliant on personal savings (which poor people tend not to have) and welfare programs (which, remember, are being cut). A shock or crisis that may result in a minor inconvenience for someone whose human rights are fulfilled can be catastrophic for those less fortunate. In Europe, the combination of high unemployment and austerity is resulting in a “lost generation” of potential, and that’s Europe! In places with extreme poverty, weak financial institutions, and unresponsive governance, the human costs of premature austerity are naturally greater.

While I think a basic income guarantee is probably fiscally unsustainable (and in a country like the U.S., politically impossible), I do strongly believe in government job guarantee programs. Anyone who is willing to work hard to make their community / city / state / country a better place should be able to make an honest living doing so (just as anybody who is willing to defend U.S. national security can get a job in the military). Of course this would require greater levels of taxation and public spending, not less.

The combination of corporate income tax minimization (from “inversion“, off-shore tax dodging, and government subsidies / tax breaks / and other loopholes in tax codes) and companies forgoing workers for capital is unsustainable–companies are reaping record after tax profits while people suffer without having their basic rights fulfilled. As a result, tax reform and guaranteed public employment must figure more prominently in future political economy debates and policies.

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