Op-Ed | The Austerity Myth
There’s a street near where I work in Springfield where you can walk past a huge grassy lot, separated from the street by a chain link fence. If you look through the weeds and overgrowth you can see the ruins of a neighborhood. A year ago a tornado whipped through this place, which used to be a complex of low-income housing. It has yet to be rebuilt, as do many damaged buildings and homes all over the city.
This week came the news that the Springfield Library is closing branches in addition to the severely reduced hours under which they’re already struggling. Budget cuts, reduced property values, and a lack of aid from the state are to blame. It’s another blow for a city that’s taken too many of them during the last year. Worse, this is Massachusetts, where unemployment is actually pretty low and times aren’t all that bad. There’s still a desperate lack of money to do the things that need doing. Can you imagine how bad it would get if the reins were tightened even further?
Meanwhile, Connecticut’s Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays and former WWE CEO Linda McMahon, met in a contentious debate on Thursday. Beyond the nonsense about whether running a wrestling empire makes a person morally fit for the U.S. Senate, both candidates spent the first half trying to convince voters that they were the one who would fire more federal workers, cut more programs, and generally slash spending as much as possible. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney agrees. He’s come under fire recently for attacking the notion of hiring more teachers, policemen, and firefighters.
I’m bothered by this, because it seems thoughtless to me. This is what’s left of conservative economics, the complex legacy of Reagan and Goldwater reduced to nothing but cuts. The people who are listening to the Republican candidates, nodding their heads along in approval, are in for a rude shock if these policies are ever actually implemented. Firing social workers, bureaucrats, teachers, librarians and policemen doesn’t lead to economic prosperity. Cutting social services and Medicare doesn’t lead to prosperity, either, nor does cutting the military budget — ask Groton about that, if you dare.
All that the plans of indiscriminate budget cutters will do is drive us deeper into economic pain. The economic crisis of 2008 was a terrible storm, and we’re still trying to rebuild. Cutting back on government spending now would add to our burdens, not relieve them.
If you want proof, take a look across the water. European nations, faced with an unprecedented fiscal crisis, decided to embrace austerity. Their economic implosion is being felt here, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon. The United Kingdom recently fell back into recession. Budget cuts are clearly not working there.
Austerity seems like a great idea at first. After all, that’s what we do when times are tough, right? We tighten our belts. But government isn’t like a single household or small business. Governments interact in complex ways with the economy and society, and cutting back indiscriminately can be a disaster.
This should be obvious: government jobs aren’t a special category of job that somehow is walled off from the rest of the economy. Cutting workers leads to unemployment. Slashing salaries means fewer dollars available to buy from stores. Constant budget cuts means we can’t rebuild our cities when disaster strikes. Slashing funds for libraries, schools, and social services means our workforce is less and less prepared to deal with changing conditions, and our society becomes a little more than a shadow of what it could have been.
When cuts do happen, they often come at the expense of people who are too poor to fight back as they are too busy working to make ends meet. Cuts get handed down from federal to state to local, ending up landing on neighborhood libraries where kids go after school to get help with their homework. Homes destroyed by storms don’t get rebuilt. School budgets get slashed. Arts and music disappear. Public college tuition goes up. Social workers vanish. Class sizes increase. Life gets worse for the lower and middle classes, and the promised pay-off, an economic revival, never materializes. After all, how can candidates claim to be creating jobs when they’re cutting them?
This is where the thoughtless austerity leads and both Linda McMahon and Chris Shays seem to be espousing it. We ought to be wary. Our goal should be smarter, more effective government, not simply less government. We should want to rebuild our broken neighborhoods and keep our libraries open, instead of giving up and trying to forget they exist. There are smarter ways to streamline and modernize government, but we have to overcome the force of austerity and economic disaster before we can do that.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the former owner of CT Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.