Why is Europe so Messed Up? An Illuminating History

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John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

When the Great Recession struck, U.S. policymakers did what mainstream textbooks recommend: they introduced monetary and fiscal-stimulus programs, which helped offset the retrenchments and job losses in the private sector. In Europe, austerity has been the order of the day, and it still is. Nearly five years after the financial crisis, governments are still trimming spending and cutting benefits in a vain attempt to bring down their budget deficits.

The big mystery isn’t why austerity has failed to work as advertised: anybody familiar with the concept of “aggregate demand” could explain that one. It is why an area with a population of more than three hundred million has stuck with a policy prescription that was discredited in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. The stock answer, which is that austerity is necessary to preserve the euro, doesn’t hold up. At this stage, austerity is the biggest threat to the euro. If the recession lasts for very much longer, political unrest is sure to mount, and the currency zone could well break up.

So why is this woebegone approach proving so sticky? Some of the answers can be found in a timely and suitably irreverent new book by Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown: “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.” Adopting a tone that is by turns bemused and outraged, Blyth traces the intellectual and political roots of austerity back to the Enlightenment, and the works of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. But he also provides a sharp analysis of Europe’s current predicament, explaining how an unholy alliance of financiers, central bankers, and German politicians foisted a draconian and unworkable policy on an unsuspecting populace.

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