Does Austerity Really “Kill”?

Does austerity kill? In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu claim that fiscal austerity leads to a worsening of health outcomes, using higher suicide and disease rates across Southern Europe as their case-in-point. But there are problems with this formulation.

First, the authors make the mistake of linking fiscal austerity with less health spending.  Greece, Spain, and Italy chose to cut health spending even though there were better choices for cuts. And health spending didn’t put them into deep debt to begin with. Borrowing at cheap interest rates and spending it on pet projects and political patronage — which includes the welfare state, but not so much in health — put them in deep debt. Estonia swiftly and severely began to reduce the size of government in 2009, but it increased health spending during that period and suffered no health declines.

Second, Stuckler and Basu point to high unemployment and trimmed social services as the sources of increased depression and suicide in Southern Europe. But this is not an argument against austerity; it is an argument to make people less dependent on the social welfare system. In Southern Europe, labor markets are broken. That’s why the IMF gave each country a failing grade in labor market efficiency in 2010. In Italy, it’s illegal to fire employees for poor performance and difficult to dismiss them for outright negligence. Layoffs also are a long and expensive process. So,when recession comes, employers can’t hire at lower wages and don’t want to hire because of these factors — which makes matters even worse. Droves of Italians and Spaniards wouldn’t be dependent upon state welfare today if labor markets were more flexible. That’s why austerity should regard not just cutting spending and revenues, but also shrinking the regulatory state. Job protections,  a hidden cost of the welfare state, are the real killer.

The narrative with which the authors open their op-ed—in which an older Italian family commits suicide because Italy’s increasing the pension eligibility age forced the main breadwinner back into a workforce with meager opportunities—tells us to abandon not austerity but the level of commitment to current welfare-state policies. If businesses had more flexibility to hire and fire workers, if the implicit tax rate on labor wasn’t the highest in all of Europe, and if Italy’s court system was more efficient in resolving labor disputes, this family wouldn’t have been so reliant on receiving a state pension in the first place. Finding work would not have been such a hopeless proposition that it  ended in such tragedy.

Third, the authors bring up Estonia’s experience with poor health outcomes during its transition from communism but conveniently fail to mention its success with real austerity from 2009 to the present. After making deep cuts to both spending and revenues beginning in January 2009 (unlike any other country in the Euro Area), Estonia experienced positive economic growth by the third quarter of that year — more than 2 percent growth in 2010, and 7.6 percent growth in 2011. Unemployment began to decrease by the sixth quarter after austerity and is now below the Euro Area average. And most importantly to Stuckler and Basu, neither the change in the rate of suicides nor the change in the total death rate were statistically significant relative to Estonia’s previous 10 years. See my in-depth statistical report for more information:

Painting austerity as the grim reaper is more than a stretch. “Austerity” need not mean a reduction in health spending. And focusing on the short-term effects of trimming the welfare state ignores the long-term causes behind why some citizens’ lives depended so heavily upon it. Does austerity “kill”? It doesn’t have to.