As Greece, and now Spain and Italy, struggle with the crushing burden of debt brought on by the modern welfare state, perhaps we should shift our gaze some 1,200 miles north to see how austerity can actually work.
Exhibit #1 is Estonia. This small Baltic nation recently had a spate of notoriety when its president, Toomas Ilves, got into a Twitter debate with Paul Krugman over the country's austerity policies. Krugman sneered at Estonia as the "poster child for austerity defenders," remarking of the nation's recovery from recession, "this is what passes for economic triumph?" In return, President Ilves criticized Krugman as "smug, overbearing, and patronizing."
Twitter-borne tit-for-tat aside, here are the facts: Estonia had been one of the showcases for free-market economic policies and had been growing steadily until the 2008 economic crisis burst a debt-fueled property bubble, shut off credit flows, and curbed export demand, plunging the country into a severe economic downturn.
However, instead of increasing government spending in hopes of stimulating the economy, as Krugman has urged, the Estonians rejected Keynesianism in favor of genuine austerity. Among other measures, the Estonian government cut public-sector wages by 10 percent, gradually raised the retirement age from 61 to 65 by 2026, reduced eligibility for health benefits, and liberalized the country's labormarket, making it easier for businesses to hire and fire workers.
Estonia did unfortunately enact a small increase in its value-added tax, but it deliberately kept taxes low on businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs, refusing to make changes to its flat 21 percent income tax. In fact, the government has put in place plans to reduce the income tax to 20 percent by 2015.
Cutting government spending, reducing taxes, and liberalizing labor markets brings more economic growth, increased employment, less debt, and more prosperity.
Today, Estonia is actually running a budget surplus. Its national debt is 6 percent of GDP. By comparison, Greece's is 159 percent of GDP. Ours is 102 percent.
Economic growth has been a robust 7.6 percent, the best in the EU. And, although the unemployment rate remains too high, at 11.7 percent, that is down from 19 percent during the worst of the recession. It's hard to see how a Krugman-style stimulus would have done much better.
Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.
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