Friday, June 29, 2012

The Real Winners -

June 28, 2012 The Real Winners By PAUL KRUGMAN So the Supreme Court — defying many expectations — upheld the Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare. There will, no doubt, be many headlines declaring this a big victory for President Obama, which it is. But the real winners are ordinary Americans — people like you. How many people are we talking about? You might say 30 million, the number of additional people the Congressional Budget Office says will have health insurance thanks to Obamacare. But that vastly understates the true number of winners because millions of other Americans — including many who oppose the act — would have been at risk of being one of those 30 million. So add in every American who currently works for a company that offers good health insurance but is at risk of losing that job (and who isn’t in this world of outsourcing and private equity buyouts?); every American who would have found health insurance unaffordable but will now receive crucial financial help; every American with a pre-existing condition who would have been flatly denied coverage in many states. In short, unless you belong to that tiny class of wealthy Americans who are insulated and isolated from the realities of most people’s lives, the winners from that Supreme Court decision are your friends, your relatives, the people you work with — and, very likely, you. For almost all of us stand to benefit from making America a kinder and more decent society. But what about the cost? Put it this way: the budget office’s estimate of the cost over the next decade of Obamacare’s “coverage provisions” — basically, the subsidies needed to make insurance affordable for all — is about only a third of the cost of the tax cuts, overwhelmingly favoring the wealthy, that Mitt Romney is proposing over the same period. True, Mr. Romney says that he would offset that cost, but he has failed to provide any plausible explanation of how he’d do that. The Affordable Care Act, by contrast, is fully paid for, with an explicit combination of tax increases and spending cuts elsewhere. So the law that the Supreme Court upheld is an act of human decency that is also fiscally responsible. It’s not perfect, by a long shot — it is, after all, originally a Republican plan, devised long ago as a way to forestall the obvious alternative of extending Medicare to cover everyone. As a result, it’s an awkward hybrid of public and private insurance that isn’t the way anyone would have designed a system from scratch. And there will be a long struggle to make it better, just as there was for Social Security. (Bring back the public option!) But it’s still a big step toward a better — and by that I mean morally better — society. Which brings us to the nature of the people who tried to kill health reform — and who will, of course, continue their efforts despite this unexpected defeat. At one level, the most striking thing about the campaign against reform was its dishonesty. Remember “death panels”? Remember how reform’s opponents would, in the same breath, accuse Mr. Obama of promoting big government and denounce him for cutting Medicare? Politics ain’t beanbag, but, even in these partisan times, the unscrupulous nature of the campaign against reform was exceptional. And, rest assured, all the old lies and probably a bunch of new ones will be rolled out again in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision. Let’s hope the Democrats are ready. But what was and is really striking about the anti-reformers is their cruelty. It would be one thing if, at any point, they had offered any hint of an alternative proposal to help Americans with pre-existing conditions, Americans who simply can’t afford expensive individual insurance, Americans who lose coverage along with their jobs. But it has long been obvious that the opposition’s goal is simply to kill reform, never mind the human consequences. We should all be thankful that, for the moment at least, that effort has failed. Let me add a final word on the Supreme Court. Before the arguments began, the overwhelming consensus among legal experts who aren’t hard-core conservatives — and even among some who are — was that Obamacare was clearly constitutional. And, in the end, thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., the court upheld that view. But four justices dissented, and did so in extreme terms, proclaiming not just the much-disputed individual mandate but the whole act unconstitutional. Given prevailing legal opinion, it’s hard to see that position as anything but naked partisanship. The point is that this isn’t over — not on health care, not on the broader shape of American society. The cruelty and ruthlessness that made this court decision such a nail-biter aren’t going away. But, for now, let’s celebrate. This was a big day, a victory for due process, decency and the American people.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Prisons, Privatization, Patronage

June 21, 2012


Over the past few days, The New York Times has published several terrifying reports about New Jersey’s system of halfway houses — privately run adjuncts to the regular system of prisons. The series is a model of investigative reporting, which everyone should read. But it should also be seen in context. The horrors described are part of a broader pattern in which essential functions of government are being both privatized and degraded.

First of all, about those halfway houses: In 2010, Chris Christie, the state’s governor — who has close personal ties to Community Education Centers, the largest operator of these facilities, and who once worked as a lobbyist for the firm — described the company’s operations as “representing the very best of the human spirit.” But The Times’s reports instead portray something closer to hell on earth — an understaffed, poorly run system, with a demoralized work force, from which the most dangerous individuals often escape to wreak havoc, while relatively mild offenders face terror and abuse at the hands of other inmates.

It’s a terrible story. But, as I said, you really need to see it in the broader context of a nationwide drive on the part of America’s right to privatize government functions, very much including the operation of prisons. What’s behind this drive?

You might be tempted to say that it reflects conservative belief in the magic of the marketplace, in the superiority of free-market competition over government planning. And that’s certainly the way right-wing politicians like to frame the issue.

But if you think about it even for a minute, you realize that the one thing the companies that make up the prison-industrial complex — companies like Community Education or the private-prison giant Corrections Corporation of America — are definitely not doing is competing in a free market. They are, instead, living off government contracts. There isn’t any market here, and there is, therefore, no reason to expect any magical gains in efficiency.

And, sure enough, despite many promises that prison privatization will lead to big cost savings, such savings — as a comprehensive study by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, concluded — “have simply not materialized.” To the extent that private prison operators do manage to save money, they do so through “reductions in staffing patterns, fringe benefits, and other labor-related costs.”

So let’s see: Privatized prisons save money by employing fewer guards and other workers, and by paying them badly. And then we get horror stories about how these prisons are run. What a surprise!

So what’s really behind the drive to privatize prisons, and just about everything else?

One answer is that privatization can serve as a stealth form of government borrowing, in which governments avoid recording upfront expenses (or even raise money by selling existing facilities) while raising their long-run costs in ways taxpayers can’t see. We hear a lot about the hidden debts that states have incurred in the form of pension liabilities; we don’t hear much about the hidden debts now being accumulated in the form of long-term contracts with private companies hired to operate prisons, schools and more.

Another answer is that privatization is a way of getting rid of public employees, who do have a habit of unionizing and tend to lean Democratic in any case.

But the main answer, surely, is to follow the money. Never mind what privatization does or doesn’t do to state budgets; think instead of what it does for both the campaign coffers and the personal finances of politicians and their friends. As more and more government functions get privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises, in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business. Are the corporations capturing the politicians, or the politicians capturing the corporations? Does it matter?

Now, someone will surely point out that nonprivatized government has its own problems of undue influence, that prison guards and teachers’ unions also have political clout, and this clout sometimes distorts public policy. Fair enough. But such influence tends to be relatively transparent. Everyone knows about those arguably excessive public pensions; it took an investigation by The Times over several months to bring the account of New Jersey’s halfway-house-hell to light.

The point, then, is that you shouldn’t imagine that what The Times discovered about prison privatization in New Jersey is an isolated instance of bad behavior. It is, instead, almost surely a glimpse of a pervasive and growing reality, of a corrupt nexus of privatization and patronage that is undermining government across much of our nation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Greece as Victim

June 17, 2012


Ever since Greece hit the skids, we’ve heard a lot about what’s wrong with everything Greek. Some of the accusations are true, some are false — but all of them are beside the point. Yes, there are big failings in Greece’s economy, its politics and no doubt its society. But those failings aren’t what caused the crisis that is tearing Greece apart, and threatens to spread across Europe.

No, the origins of this disaster lie farther north, in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin, where officials created a deeply — perhaps fatally — flawed monetary system, then compounded the problems of that system by substituting moralizing for analysis. And the solution to the crisis, if there is one, will have to come from the same places.

So, about those Greek failings: Greece does indeed have a lot of corruption and a lot of tax evasion, and the Greek government has had a habit of living beyond its means. Beyond that, Greek labor productivity is low by European standards — about 25 percent below the European Union average. It’s worth noting, however, that labor productivity in, say, Mississippi is similarly low by American standards — and by about the same margin.

On the other hand, many things you hear about Greece just aren’t true. The Greeks aren’t lazy — on the contrary, they work longer hours than almost anyone else in Europe, and much longer hours than the Germans in particular. Nor does Greece have a runaway welfare state, as conservatives like to claim; social expenditure as a percentage of G.D.P., the standard measure of the size of the welfare state, is substantially lower in Greece than in, say, Sweden or Germany, countries that have so far weathered the European crisis pretty well.

So how did Greece get into so much trouble? Blame the euro.

Fifteen years ago Greece was no paradise, but it wasn’t in crisis either. Unemployment was high but not catastrophic, and the nation more or less paid its way on world markets, earning enough from exports, tourism, shipping and other sources to more or less pay for its imports.

Then Greece joined the euro, and a terrible thing happened: people started believing that it was a safe place to invest. Foreign money poured into Greece, some but not all of it financing government deficits; the economy boomed; inflation rose; and Greece became increasingly uncompetitive. To be sure, the Greeks squandered much if not most of the money that came flooding in, but then so did everyone else who got caught up in the euro bubble.

And then the bubble burst, at which point the fundamental flaws in the whole euro system became all too apparent.

Ask yourself, why does the dollar area — also known as the United States of America — more or less work, without the kind of severe regional crises now afflicting Europe? The answer is that we have a strong central government, and the activities of this government in effect provide automatic bailouts to states that get in trouble.

Consider, for example, what would be happening to Florida right now, in the aftermath of its huge housing bubble, if the state had to come up with the money for Social Security and Medicare out of its own suddenly reduced revenues. Luckily for Florida, Washington rather than Tallahassee is picking up the tab, which means that Florida is in effect receiving a bailout on a scale no European nation could dream of.

Or consider an older example, the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, which was largely a Texas affair. Taxpayers ended up paying a huge sum to clean up the mess — but the vast majority of those taxpayers were in states other than Texas. Again, the state received an automatic bailout on a scale inconceivable in modern Europe.

So Greece, although not without sin, is mainly in trouble thanks to the arrogance of European officials, mostly from richer countries, who convinced themselves that they could make a single currency work without a single government. And these same officials have made the situation even worse by insisting, in the teeth of the evidence, that all the currency’s troubles were caused by irresponsible behavior on the part of those Southern Europeans, and that everything would work out if only people were willing to suffer some more.

Which brings us to Sunday’s Greek election, which ended up settling nothing. The governing coalition may have managed to stay in power, although even that’s not clear (the junior partner in the coalition is threatening to defect). But the Greeks can’t solve this crisis anyway.

The only way the euro might — might — be saved is if the Germans and the European Central Bank realize that they’re the ones who need to change their behavior, spending more and, yes, accepting higher inflation. If not — well, Greece will basically go down in history as the victim of other people’s hubris.

Friday, June 15, 2012

We Don’t Need No Education

June 14, 2012


Hope springs eternal. For a few hours I was ready to applaud Mitt Romney for speaking honestly about what his calls for smaller government actually mean.

Never mind. Soon the candidate was being his normal self, denying having said what he said and serving up a bunch of self-contradictory excuses. But let’s talk about his accidental truth-telling, and what it reveals.

In the remarks Mr. Romney later tried to deny, he derided President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Then he declared, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

You can see why I was ready to give points for honesty. For once, he actually admitted what he and his allies mean when they talk about shrinking government. Conservatives love to pretend that there are vast armies of government bureaucrats doing who knows what; in reality, a majority of government workers are employed providing either education (teachers) or public protection (police officers and firefighters).

So would getting rid of teachers, police officers, and firefighters help the American people? Well, some Republicans would prefer to see Americans get less education; remember Rick Santorum’s description of colleges as “indoctrination mills”? Still, neither less education nor worse protection are issues the G.O.P. wants to run on.

But the more relevant question for the moment is whether the public job cuts Mr. Romney applauds are good or bad for the economy. And we now have a lot of evidence bearing on that question.

First of all, there’s our own experience. Conservatives would have you believe that our disappointing economic performance has somehow been caused by excessive government spending, which crowds out private job creation. But the reality is that private-sector job growth has more or less matched the recoveries from the last two recessions; the big difference this time is an unprecedented fall in public employment, which is now about 1.4 million jobs less than it would be if it had grown as fast as it did under President George W. Bush.

And, if we had those extra jobs, the unemployment rate would be much lower than it is — something like 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent. It sure looks as if cutting government when the economy is deeply depressed hurts rather than helps the American people.

The really decisive evidence on government cuts, however, comes from Europe. Consider the case of Ireland, which has reduced public employment by 28,000 since 2008 — the equivalent, as a share of population, of laying off 1.9 million workers here. These cuts were hailed by conservatives, who predicted great results. “The Irish economy is showing encouraging signs of recovery,” declared Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute in June 2010.

But recovery never came; Irish unemployment is currently more than 14 percent. Ireland’s experience shows that austerity in the face of a depressed economy is a terrible mistake to be avoided if possible.

And the point is that in America it is possible. You can argue that countries like Ireland had and have very limited policy choices. But America — which unlike Europe has a federal government — has an easy way to reverse the job cuts that are killing the recovery: have the feds, who can borrow at historically low rates, provide aid that helps state and local governments weather the hard times. That, in essence, is what the president was proposing and Mr. Romney was deriding.

So the former governor of Massachusetts was telling the truth the first time: by opposing aid to beleaguered state and local governments, he is, in effect, calling for more layoffs of teachers, policemen and firemen.

Actually, it’s kind of ironic. While Republicans love to engage in Europe-bashing, they’re actually the ones who want us to emulate European-style austerity and experience a European-style depression.

And that’s not just an inference. Last week R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University, a top Romney adviser, published an article in a German newspaper urging the Germans to ignore advice from Mr. Obama and continue pushing their hard-line policies. In so doing, Mr. Hubbard was deliberately undercutting a sitting president’s foreign policy. More important, however, he was throwing his support behind a policy that is collapsing as you read this.

In fact, almost everyone following the situation now realizes that Germany’s austerity obsession has brought Europe to the edge of catastrophe — almost everyone, that is, except the Germans themselves and, it turns out, the Romney economic team.

Needless to say, this bodes ill if Mr. Romney wins in November. For all indications are that his idea of smart policy is to double down on the very spending cuts that have hobbled recovery here and sent Europe into an economic and political tailspin.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Reagan Was a Keynesian

June 7, 2012


There’s no question that America’s recovery from the financial crisis has been disappointing. In fact, I’ve been arguing that the era since 2007 is best viewed as a “depression,” an extended period of economic weakness and high unemployment that, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, persists despite episodes during which the economy grows. And Republicans are, of course, trying — with considerable success — to turn this dismal state of affairs to their political advantage.

They love, in particular, to contrast President Obama’s record with that of Ronald Reagan, who, by this point in his presidency, was indeed presiding over a strong economic recovery. You might think that the more relevant comparison is with George W. Bush, who, at this stage of his administration, was — unlike Mr. Obama — still presiding over a large loss in private-sector jobs. And, as I’ll explain shortly, the economic slump Reagan faced was very different from our current depression, and much easier to deal with. Still, the Reagan-Obama comparison is revealing in some ways. So let’s look at that comparison, shall we?

For the truth is that on at least one dimension, government spending, there was a large difference between the two presidencies, with total government spending adjusted for inflation and population growth rising much faster under one than under the other. I find it especially instructive to look at spending levels three years into each man’s administration — that is, in the first quarter of 1984 in Reagan’s case, and in the first quarter of 2012 in Mr. Obama’s — compared with four years earlier, which in each case more or less corresponds to the start of an economic crisis. Under one president, real per capita government spending at that point was 14.4 percent higher than four years previously; under the other, less than half as much, just 6.4 percent.

O.K., by now many readers have probably figured out the trick here: Reagan, not Obama, was the big spender. While there was a brief burst of government spending early in the Obama administration — mainly for emergency aid programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps — that burst is long past. Indeed, at this point, government spending is falling fast, with real per capita spending falling over the past year at a rate not seen since the demobilization that followed the Korean War.

Why was government spending much stronger under Reagan than in the current slump? “Weaponized Keynesianism” — Reagan’s big military buildup — played some role. But the big difference was real per capita spending at the state and local level, which continued to rise under Reagan but has fallen significantly this time around.

And this, in turn, reflects a changed political environment. For one thing, states and local governments used to benefit from revenue-sharing — automatic aid from the federal government, a program that Reagan eventually killed but only after the slump was past. More important, in the 1980s, anti-tax dogma hadn’t taken effect to the same extent it has today, so state and local governments were much more willing than they are now to cover temporary deficits with temporary tax increases, thereby avoiding sharp spending cuts.

In short, if you want to see government responding to economic hard times with the “tax and spend” policies conservatives always denounce, you should look to the Reagan era — not the Obama years.

So does the Reagan-era economic recovery demonstrate the superiority of Keynesian economics? Not exactly. For, as I said, the truth is that the slump of the 1980s — which was more or less deliberately caused by the Federal Reserve, as a way to bring down inflation — was very different from our current depression, which was brought on by private-sector excess: above all, the surge in household debt during the Bush years. The Reagan slump could be and was brought to a rapid end when the Fed decided to relent and cut interest rates, sparking a giant housing boom. That option isn’t available now because rates are already close to zero.

As many economists have pointed out, America is currently suffering from a classic case of debt deflation: all across the economy people are trying to pay down debt by slashing spending, but, in so doing, they are causing a depression that makes their debt problems even worse. This is exactly the situation in which government spending should temporarily rise to offset the slump in private spending and give the private sector time to repair its finances. Yet that’s not happening.

The point, then, is that we’d be in much better shape if we were following Reagan-style Keynesianism. Reagan may have preached small government, but in practice he presided over a lot of spending growth — and right now that’s exactly what America needs.

Monday, June 4, 2012

This Republican Economy

June 3, 2012


What should be done about the economy? Republicans claim to have the answer: slash spending and cut taxes. What they hope voters won’t notice is that that’s precisely the policy we’ve been following the past couple of years. Never mind the Democrat in the White House; for all practical purposes, this is already the economic policy of Republican dreams.

So the Republican electoral strategy is, in effect, a gigantic con game: it depends on convincing voters that the bad economy is the result of big-spending policies that President Obama hasn’t followed (in large part because the G.O.P. wouldn’t let him), and that our woes can be cured by pursuing more of the same policies that have already failed.

For some reason, however, neither the press nor Mr. Obama’s political team has done a very good job of exposing the con.

What do I mean by saying that this is already a Republican economy? Look first at total government spending — federal, state and local. Adjusted for population growth and inflation, such spending has recently been falling at a rate not seen since the demobilization that followed the Korean War.

How is that possible? Isn’t Mr. Obama a big spender? Actually, no; there was a brief burst of spending in late 2009 and early 2010 as the stimulus kicked in, but that boost is long behind us. Since then it has been all downhill. Cash-strapped state and local governments have laid off teachers, firefighters and police officers; meanwhile, unemployment benefits have been trailing off even though unemployment remains extremely high.

Over all, the picture for America in 2012 bears a stunning resemblance to the great mistake of 1937, when F.D.R. prematurely slashed spending, sending the U.S. economy — which had actually been recovering fairly fast until that point — into the second leg of the Great Depression. In F.D.R.’s case, however, this was an unforced error, since he had a solidly Democratic Congress. In President Obama’s case, much though not all of the responsibility for the policy wrong turn lies with a completely obstructionist Republican majority in the House.

That same obstructionist House majority effectively blackmailed the president into continuing all the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, so that federal taxes as a share of G.D.P. are near historic lows — much lower, in particular, than at any point during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

As I said, for all practical purposes this is already a Republican economy.

As an aside, I think it’s worth pointing out that although the economy’s performance has been disappointing, to say the least, none of the disasters Republicans predicted have come to pass. Remember all those assertions that budget deficits would lead to soaring interest rates? Well, U.S. borrowing costs have just hit a record low. And remember those dire warnings about inflation and the “debasement” of the dollar? Well, inflation remains low, and the dollar has been stronger than it was in the Bush years.

Put it this way: Republicans have been warning that we were about to turn into Greece because President Obama was doing too much to boost the economy; Keynesian economists like myself warned that we were, on the contrary, at risk of turning into Japan because he was doing too little. And Japanification it is, except with a level of misery the Japanese never had to endure.

So why don’t voters know any of this?

Part of the answer is that far too much economic reporting is still of the he-said, she-said variety, with dueling quotes from hired guns on either side. But it’s also true that the Obama team has consistently failed to highlight Republican obstruction, perhaps out of a fear of seeming weak. Instead, the president’s advisers keep turning to happy talk, seizing on a few months’ good economic news as proof that their policies are working — and then ending up looking foolish when the numbers turn down again. Remarkably, they’ve made this mistake three times in a row: in 2010, 2011 and now once again.

At this point, however, Mr. Obama and his political team don’t seem to have much choice. They can point with pride to some big economic achievements, above all the successful rescue of the auto industry, which is responsible for a large part of whatever job growth we are managing to get. But they’re not going to be able to sell a narrative of overall economic success. Their best bet, surely, is to do a Harry Truman, to run against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress that has, in reality, blocked proposals — for tax cuts as well as more spending — that would have made 2012 a much better year than it’s turning out to be.

For that, in the end, is the best argument against Republicans’ claims that they can fix the economy. The fact is that we have already seen the Republican economic future — and it doesn’t work.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Austerity Agenda

May 31, 2012



“The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.” So declared John Maynard Keynes 75 years ago, and he was right. Even if you have a long-run deficit problem — and who doesn’t? — slashing spending while the economy is deeply depressed is a self-defeating strategy, because it just deepens the depression.

So why is Britain doing exactly what it shouldn’t? Unlike the governments of, say, Spain or California, the British government can borrow freely, at historically low interest rates. So why is that government sharply reducing investment and eliminating hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs, rather than waiting until the economy is stronger?

Over the past few days, I’ve posed that question to a number of supporters of the government of Prime Minister David Cameron, sometimes in private, sometimes on TV. And all these conversations followed the same arc: They began with a bad metaphor and ended with the revelation of ulterior motives.

The bad metaphor — which you’ve surely heard many times — equates the debt problems of a national economy with the debt problems of an individual family. A family that has run up too much debt, the story goes, must tighten its belt. So if Britain, as a whole, has run up too much debt — which it has, although it’s mostly private rather than public debt — shouldn’t it do the same? What’s wrong with this comparison?

The answer is that an economy is not like an indebted family. Our debt is mostly money we owe to each other; even more important, our income mostly comes from selling things to each other. Your spending is my income, and my spending is your income.

So what happens if everyone simultaneously slashes spending in an attempt to pay down debt? The answer is that everyone’s income falls — my income falls because you’re spending less, and your income falls because I’m spending less. And, as our incomes plunge, our debt problem gets worse, not better.

This isn’t a new insight. The great American economist Irving Fisher explained it all the way back in 1933, summarizing what he called “debt deflation” with the pithy slogan “the more the debtors pay, the more they owe.” Recent events, above all the austerity death spiral in Europe, have dramatically illustrated the truth of Fisher’s insight.

And there’s a clear moral to this story: When the private sector is frantically trying to pay down debt, the public sector should do the opposite, spending when the private sector can’t or won’t. By all means, let’s balance our budget once the economy has recovered — but not now. The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity.

As I said, this isn’t a new insight. So why have so many politicians insisted on pursuing austerity in slump? And why won’t they change course even as experience confirms the lessons of theory and history?

Well, that’s where it gets interesting. For when you push “austerians” on the badness of their metaphor, they almost always retreat to assertions along the lines of: “But it’s essential that we shrink the size of the state.”

Now, these assertions often go along with claims that the economic crisis itself demonstrates the need to shrink government. But that’s manifestly not true. Look at the countries in Europe that have weathered the storm best, and near the top of the list you’ll find big-government nations like Sweden and Austria.

And if you look, on the other hand, at the nations conservatives admired before the crisis, you’ll find George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer and the architect of the country’s current economic policy, describing Ireland as “a shining example of the art of the possible.” Meanwhile, the Cato Institute was praising Iceland’s low taxes and hoping that other industrial nations “will learn from Iceland’s success.”

So the austerity drive in Britain isn’t really about debt and deficits at all; it’s about using deficit panic as an excuse to dismantle social programs. And this is, of course, exactly the same thing that has been happening in America.

In fairness to Britain’s conservatives, they aren’t quite as crude as their American counterparts. They don’t rail against the evils of deficits in one breath, then demand huge tax cuts for the wealthy in the next (although the Cameron government has, in fact, significantly cut the top tax rate). And, in general, they seem less determined than America’s right to aid the rich and punish the poor. Still, the direction of policy is the same — and so is the fundamental insincerity of the calls for austerity.

The big question here is whether the evident failure of austerity to produce an economic recovery will lead to a “Plan B.” Maybe. But my guess is that even if such a plan is announced, it won’t amount to much. For economic recovery was never the point; the drive for austerity was about using the crisis, not solving it. And it still is.