Monday, April 23, 2012

Per austerum ad astra

Updated 4/24/2012
"Oil's up another $3 a barrel... Looks like we'll have to sell you, Bud!" "Aw, Dad, can't I just get a paper route?"
You know how they always say a country is just like a family, in that it has to gather around the kitchen table (well, OK, a family with an eat-in kitchen) and figure out what we need to give up in order to make ends meet? And we always say back that it's a stupid analogy, and end of conversation?

Maybe it's not the analogy that's the problem, but the way it's worked out. Not only is this imaginary family exceptional in the size of its kitchen, it's also exceptional in that it doesn't seem to have to consider the possibility of going into debt. "Oh, we'll trade in the Cadillac for a Subaru and send little Tyler to public school."

If you think of the family vertically, as a succession of generations, and not just as an island of Mom and Dad and the kids, then it's clear that most of us are in fact in a state of debt as permanent as the United States. As the older generation starts to slide out from under, the younger generation starts to slide in, with the school loans, and the car loan, and the credit cards, and ultimately the mortgage.

What we don't ever do if we can avoid it is decide Tyler can't afford to go to college so he'll have to stay home and pick peas, or we can't afford to redo the roof so we'll just have to let it slowly rot away. The boy is going to go to college so he can earn some real money and get out of our hair; the roof will get fixed so we can sell the damned house and move to Far Rockaway (I hope not!). We borrow money to guarantee a future in which we'll be able to pay it back and have some left over.

You can't make any money without spending some. You have to take a shower and put on some clothes before you go to the job interview. You have to do the rail network and the electricity grid and the education system before you can get growth. National austerity budgeting is like the couple in that ghastly Maupassant story that lost the diamond necklace, bought a replacement on credit and retired into obscure penury to spend the rest of their lives in menial jobs trying to pay it off. There's no way they're going to make enough money to pay off all the Euro banksters unless they show up in town ready to do business!
Cécile de France as Mathilde in La Parure for TV, by Claude Chabrol. From Linternaute Television.
Apparently people in the Netherlands don't like austerity for themselves nearly as much as they like it for others. As they howled about bailouts for those reprehensible countries in the south of Europe, the center-right Dutch government was overshooting the E.U. deficit targets by about 50% (it's supposed to stay under 3%, but is expected to rise to 4.6%). But the package of spending cuts and tax increases they proposed can't make it through Parliament, so the prime minister is going to have to visit the queen and there will be early elections, maybe in September.

The Czech center-right government looks set to collapse over an austerity program too. Their case is a little less bizarre than the Dutch one, which is complicated by the fact that the most right-wing party of all—the Freedom Party of Islamechthriac Geert Wilders—is the one that is toppling the government, presumably in the belief that they will do well in the elections, whereas the Czech voters are most likely to simply turn back to the good old center-left.

And it looks as if France is set to take a center-left turn, as you've no doubt heard by now, with the first round of the presidential elections going as expected to the Socialist candidate (not very Socialist, though perhaps well to the left of the party's lamented great rich hope, Dominique Strauss-Kahn) and the second round in two weeks not very likely to go to anybody else (although the scary right did much better than the real left).

And then, if experience is any indication, all the new center-left governments will roll up their sleeves and, sadly, implement some austerity programs, just as in Greece and (by then, no doubt) Spain, and get voted out for their trouble. Oh, well.
"Mr. Viguerie says if we get this batch out in time he'll send us a chicken on Reagan's birthday."
Update 4/24
The Times thinks austerity is going out of fashion all over Europe, as Spain goes back into recession and Timmy Geithner begs them to try some kind of stimulus:
“The formula is not working, and everyone is now talking about whether austerity is the only solution,” said Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, a political scientist and director of the Barcelona Center for International Affairs in Spain. “Does this mean that Merkel has lost completely? No. But it does mean that the very nature of the debate about the euro-zone crisis is changing.”

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