October 19, 2014

The Failed Economics of Austerity in Europe, and its consequences in Denmark.

After the American Century

The way governments responded to the financial crisis of 2008 differed. In Europe, they pursued austerity. They held down deficit spending and cut government jobs. In the US this response was common at the state level, but the Federal Government pursued a different policy. It loaned money to the faltering automobile industry, which has now recovered. It sped up spending on infrastructure, and was not afraid to stimulate the economy. 

Now we can see the results. The US economy has recovered considerably, with unemployment falling almost continuously during the last five years. The economy has grown every year since 2009 when Obama took office.

Contrast almost any country in Europe, where economies are barely holding even or shrinking. The headlines years ago focused on Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.  But now the austerity policy has begun to hurt the larger, stronger economies. Germany is struggling to keep growing. France is in recession. This is now much in the news.

But Denmark is also having economic problems. Its economy has essentially stopped growing, and even shrank during some recent quarters. According to the World Bank, the Danish economy shrank in 2009 by -5.7 %. Five years later it has not gotten back to where it was before the crisis. With growth of -0.4% in 2012 and + 0.4% in 2013, the Danish economy is flat. This failure of economic policy ought to be the focus of attention. 

But the ruling Danish politicians have mounted a massive campaign of distraction. They have managed to convince many journalists and much of the public that unemployment is high and that this is the fault of the universities. Both statements are false. The Danish unemployment rate is historically lower than for most of the last twenty-five years (see chart below.) 

The idea that the universities are somehow responsible for this non-existent unemployment problem is nonsense. The real problem is that the economy as a whole is stagnant and that few new jobs are being created. Moreover, the age of retirement is rising, so that replacement of the old by the young has slowed down. But no politician wants to admit that the economy is stalled. 

Instead, the "solution," the Ministry of Research claims, is to eliminate thousands of admissions to universities, especially in the humanities. But this is all nonsense. The number of unemployed in Denmark was much higher between 1990 and 2005 than between 2010 and the present.

Historically speaking, the number of unemployed is low, if one's point of comparison is any time except 2006-2008. The real problem is that the percentage of people working is falling, both because the economy is weak and because the population is aging.  Starting in 2009, the percentage of the total population that is working has fallen from 75% to 70%. That is a big drop, and that drop has little or nothing to do with the universities.

More generally, the European-wide crisis that began in 2008 was not caused by universities. Regardless of what students majored in, there just are not as many jobs available as there were in 2009. Eliminating thousands of university admissions in the humanities will not create any jobs, but it will create a cohort of uneducated, unemployed people. If 3,000 fewer people enter the universities every year, after a decade there will be 30,000 more Danes who never attended university. As a result, they will earn less, pay less in taxes, and be more often among the unemployed.

Why is the Danish press unable to see through this government PR campaign? The government's analysis of the problem is wrong, and the "solution" to the problem is wrong. Austerity will make matters worse, creating a stagnant pool of unemployable people.  

The total number of Danish jobs has declined, because the government has pursued an austerity policy. It should have listened to Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. He has written about this often, for example in 2012, when he said, "in Europe, as in America, far too many Very Serious People have been taken in by the cult of austerity, by the belief that budget deficits, not mass unemployment, are the clear and present danger, and that deficit reduction will somehow solve a problem brought on by private sector excess." He noted that "research by the International Monetary Fund suggests that spending cuts in deeply depressed economies may actually reduce investor confidence because they accelerate the pace of economic decline."

President Obama's administration listened to such advice, though I should note that Krugman suggested an even higher level of pump-priming than Obama practiced. As a result, the US economy has turned around. In contrast, the Danish politicians obediently marched in lockstep with the Germans, believing against common sense, as well as against the economic analysis of Krugman and others, that if all the European countries reduced spending  their economy would magically improve. 

The Danish government is incompetent in economics, but it is good at creating a distraction, and it has managed to blame the universities for its own mistakes.  As Professor Krugman remarked, with regard to widespread failure of austerity policies to produce the results they had predicted, this is  "a case in which rival theories made different predictions, the predictions of one theory proved completely wrong while those of the other were totally vindicated — but in which adherents of the failed theory, for political and ideological reasons, refuse to accept the facts."

When prophecy fails, a famous psychological study found, its adherents circle the wagons more tightly and re-embrace their mistaken ideas, convinced that someone or something else is responsible for the failure. Today, as Krugman notes, "the prophets of fiscal disaster, no matter how respectable they may seem, are at this point effectively members of a doomsday cult. They are emotionally and professionally committed to the belief that fiscal crisis lurks just around the corner."

The Danish government and its economic advisers are in this situation, and therefore they need to blame someone else for the failure of austerity. And so they blame the universities. The failed logic is that, if only the universities had trained 3,000 more scientists and engineers every year since 2008 rather than humanities students, then these 15,000 people would now be working. But the statistics clearly show that workforce participation has fallen 5% and that there are fewer jobs now than there were five years ago. Even so, the unemployment rate is lower than it has been for most of the  25 years since 1990, because there are more old people and fewer young people. 

Reducing the number getting a university education will not change these facts, but the Danish media seem unable to read statistics, to make elementary calculations, or to read alternative views. Instead of seeing whether there is any logic or statistical basis for the new government policy of austerity for the universities, the Danes have engaged in a heartfelt discussion of the value of the humanities and their place in the development of civilization. An interesting discussion, but it just adds to the confusion artfully created by the government, and it gets in the way of understanding the real situation, which is that the government's German-inspired economic policy has been a fiasco.