Austerity: The Great Failure

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My summer reading includes a book called ‘Austerity: The Great Failure’ by Florian Schui. Dr. Schui is a lecturer at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. ‘Austerity,’ the book, is a work of economic history, an attempt to discuss a concept that is dominating world politics and decisions by nations.

‘Austerity’ is a good book though it has one serious flaw, which I will mention below, in closing. Yet, the book does provide those interested in this topic a chance to understand the long path the West has taken to now, from the vantage point of austerity, an ideal according to Schui that dates back to the era of Aristotle. I suspect it goes back further but Schui is only concerned with the West here, so any other nation, or civilization that considered austerity is not spoken in the text.

The chapters provide a lucid narrative: Austerity for capitalism, Austerity for reason, Austerity can wait, and it all ends with, a chapter called Is greed good? The stars of Western thought figure prominently as well. Keynes is here as is Hayek and Aristotle, and other lesser known contributors to the field of economics in the West, such as Mandeville, and William Trufant Foster and Waddill Catchings. This is basic Western thought; a back and forth and deeply probing analysis of the world as know it from an economic vantage point.

Early in the introduction, Schui asks the question that besets the world right now: “How can we explain this steadfastness in the face of failure?” The steadfastness is the West’s continued dedication to austere policies even in times of great difficulty such as now, in a post-Depression period. It is something that Schui tries hard to illuminate upon in these pages.

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Now for the verdict. I liked the book. I enjoyed learning economic history and observe a writer digging deeper for answers. Yet, I was disappointed. Those who are mostly hurt by austere ideals and policies are not in this book. Their thinkers and writers are not here. Michael Harrington, the key player on the War on Poverty in the U.S., is not here.

But forget about Harrington. Have him if you want. The people who are really missing are the non-European thinkers and writers. Surely, in history they have commented on this topic and how it affects them and their worlds directly. Where is Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois? Where is Eric Williams and C.L.R. James? Where is Walter Rodney? Angela Davis? Grace Lee Boggs?

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I am sure there are more such writers (forgive my own shortcomings) and thinkers from other parts of the world but the real point is, the austerity movement is partly driven by a continued hoarding of resources held by Europeans, and denied to non-Europeans. The recent UK vote to leave the EU is related to this unfortunate racial split. Some voted to leave obviously because they think their country is harboring too many free riders who aren’t of the same racial or ethnic background as them.

In the U.S., this is well known. This excerpt from the book “2$ a day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” by Kathyrn J.Edin and H. Luke Shaefer is case in point:

“Although negative racial stereotypes had plagued welfare throughout its existence, the emphasis on race was more widespread and virulent after Reagan turned his focus to the system. His welfare queen soon became deeply ingrained in American culture. She was black, decked out in furs, and driving her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up her check. None of these stereotypes even came close to reflecting reality, particularly in regard to race. It was true that as of the late 1960s and beyond, a disproportionate percentage of blacks participated in AFDC. But there was never a point at which blacks accounted for a majority of recipients. The typical AFDC recipient, even in Reagan’s day, was white.”

Thoughts like this became the justification for policy, the destruction of government, in favor of lower taxes for the wealthy, the very ideas that Schui condemns so well in his book. Austerity proponents dominate the discourse today and it is mainly because those who can make the case are not turned to when the issue is being discussed. The very communities that are most hurt by austerity have been once again not invited to the debate, as seems to always be the case.

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