Austerity Works

By Michael Tanner (June 20, 2012)

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 labor market, 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.

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.

Next door, Latvia has also embarked on a successful austerity program. In 2008, facing a deep recession — the worst in Europe, with a 24 percent drop in GDP from 2007 to 2009 — and a run on the country’s largest bank, Latvia turned to Europe for a €7.5 billion bailout. But unlike Greece and other countries that seem to look at such assistance as a form of permanent welfare payment, Latvia used the EU loan as an opportunity to make the painful government reforms necessary to restore long-term economic health.

Latvia embarked on the toughest budget cuts in Europe. Half of all government-run agencies were eliminated, the number of public employees was reduced by a third, and public-sector wages were slashed by an average of 25 percent.

In the end, Latvia borrowed just €4.4 billion of the available €7.5 billion, and its economy is on the rebound. Unemployment, which reached 19 percent at the height of the recession, has declined to around 15 percent. Real GDP growth was 5.5 percent last yearCanada and is expected to be at least 3.5 percent this year. This year’s budget deficit will be just 1.2 percent of GDP, and the national debt is just 37 percent of GDP and declining. The credit-rating agencies recently upgraded the country’s credit-worthiness. And, while Greece mulls leaving the euro zone, Latvia has been pronounced eligible for membership.