These days, austerity-induced depressions are visible all around Europe’s periphery. Greece is the worst case, with unemployment soaring to 20 percent even as public services, including health care, collapse. But Ireland, which has done everything the austerity crowd wanted, is in terrible shape too, with unemployment near 15 percent and real G.D.P. down by double digits. Portugal and Spain are in similarly dire straits.
And austerity in a slump doesn’t just inflict vast suffering. There is growing evidence that it is self-defeating even in purely fiscal terms, as the combination of falling revenues due to a depressed economy and worsened long-term prospects actually reduces market confidence and makes the future debt burden harder to handle. You have to wonder how countries that are systematically denying a future to their young people — youth unemployment in Ireland, which used to be lower than in the United States, is now almost 30 percent, while it’s near 50 percent in Greece — are supposed to achieve enough growth to service their debt.
This was not what was supposed to happen. Two years ago, as many policy makers and pundits began calling for a pivot from stimulus to austerity, they promised big gains in return for the pain. “The idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect,” Jean-Claude Trichet, then the president of the European Central Bank, declared in June 2010. Instead, he insisted, fiscal discipline would inspire confidence, and this would lead to economic growth.
And every slight uptick in an austerity economy has been hailed as proof that the policy works. Irish austerity has been proclaimed a success story not once but twice, first in the summer of 2010, then again last fall; each time the supposed good news quickly evaporated.
You may ask what alternative countries like Greece and Ireland had, and the answer is that they had and have no good alternatives short of leaving the euro, an extreme step that, realistically, their leaders cannot take until all other options have failed — a state of affairs that, if you ask me, Greece is rapidly approaching.
Fortunatamente l'Italia non è la Grecia. Ci ripetono tutti i giorni che le due situazioni non sono assolutamente confrontabili. E ne sono convinto anche io. Credo però che dopo le liberalizzazioni fallite ancora una volta e mentre si discute degli ammortizzatori sociali sarebbe bene tenere presente la situazione in cui ci troviamo oggi: ecco il grafico del PIL trimestrale dal 2008 al 2011. Come ne veniamo fuori?