On the heels of this fall's Tea Party tempest, austerity is all the rage in Washington. Witness President Obama's call for a five-year freeze in domestic spending in his the State of the Union speech this week and the GOP's push, in response, for a far fuller gutting of the federal government.
And it's not just here. In Europe, English and German politicians are casting themselves as righteous warriors against out-of-control spending.
There is, undoubtedly, something appealing about the rhetoric — something appealing about the notion of cleaning up the balance sheet after years of excess.
But Brown University political science professor Mark Blyth says austerity isn't as virtuous as it sounds. The social services cuts, after all, hit the people who feel the sharpest sting of the recession — the same people who footed the bill for the bailout of the banks.
The heavy cutting, he warns, can only stall a fragile recovery and, ultimately, lead to a class politics that will end badly.
The Phoenix caught up with Blyth this week to discuss austerity, virtue, and where we go from here. The interview is edited and condensed for length.
WHY IS AUSTERITY SUCH AN ATTRACTIVE NOTION? Because it has a wonderful moral ring to it and a six-year-old could understand the argument.
For example, Germany — where I was last week — they love austerity politics, even though they don't actually practice it. But they pretend to do austerity politics. And they have this narrative about themselves: well, we're just being punished for being good. It's not our fault all those Greeks are in debt.
And it just ignores all the interlinkages that brought the Eurozone to the crisis point that it's in just now. Rather than thinking about very complex things like, well hang on a minute, wasn't it the German banks that bought all those Greek bonds to benefit from the spread between them and German bonds, which lowered interest rates in Greece, and allowed them to buy your BMWs? You see, there's about four steps in that argument you have to follow through.
The other one is, "they're just a bunch of greedy malcontents and tax dodgers and now they have to tighten their belts. This is a problem, it has nothing to do with me. It's them, the profligate." Might as well just say it: the sinners. It almost has a religious overtone. And it's unbelievably self-righteous, which also helps.
DOES THE AMERICAN AVERSION TO CLASS POLITICS MEAN WE'LL NEVER SEE A REAL, SUSTAINED REVOLT AGAINST THE SLASHING OF PUBLIC SERVICES? There was a piece in the Times about one of the towns outside San Francisco where literally they're shutting the fire department. When you get to that level, then people perhaps wake up.
[This] happens in the poorer communities and not the richer ones because the tax base is smaller. And they're the ones who have been hit by the recession and consequent budget cuts.
BUT IT SEEMS LIKE IT'S GOING TO TAKE A PRETTY EXTREME COLLAPSE FOR FIRE DEPARTMENTS TO BE SHUT DOWN EN MASSE. No, it's well on its way. Basically every state budget in the union is under pressure — half of them are basically insolvent.