Wednesday, May 16, 2012

european voters have rejected austerity, so, what now?

Time | So voters in France and Greece sent an inescapable signal to the euro zone: No more austerity. In doing so, they showed that the average guy on the street understands economics better than the people in power. Rather than reducing debt and returning the European economy to health, the all-austerity approach to solving the debt crisis was sending the weaker economies of Europe into a death spiral of recession, unemployment, and ultimately, continued strain on national finances.

But there’s a problem. Whatever the verdict of the ballot box, Europe can’t avoid austerity. Its indebted governments can’t simply return to spending and borrowing as they had in the past. Financial markets just wouldn’t stand for it. So the question going forward is not what replaces austerity, but what new mix of policies along with austerity are needed to restore prospects for growth, fix national finances and quell the debt crisis.

There are no easy answers. Austerity, by its very nature, is growth-killing. The trick is finding a combination of policies, both at the national and Europe-wide levels, that can balance out that effect. There is no agreement on how that can be achieved. What we are about to see in Europe is a continent-wide debate on what the next steps might be to both end the debt crisis and restore the euro zone to economic health. The outcome of that debate is highly uncertain.

(MORE: Ballot Box Breakdown: How Europe’s Elections Will Heat Up the Debt Crisis)

There is a case to be made that the problem with austerity is not the austerity itself, but the pace at which it is being imposed. Rather than a mad rush to meet euro-zone deficit limits, more flexibility is needed to allow governments to adjust over a longer period of time and benefit from economic recovery. Here how Christina D. Romer, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, explained it in a recent essay in The New York Times: