You honestly have to feel for Paul Krugman and the handful of others who have been telling us all along that austerity policies are bound to fail:
Europe’s leaders braced their nations for a turbulent year, with their beleaguered economies facing a threat on two fronts: widening deficits that force more borrowing but increasing austerity measures that put growth further out of reach.
Saying that Europe was facing its “harshest test in decades,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany warned on New Year’s Eve that “next year will no doubt be more difficult than 2011” — a marked change in tone from a year ago, when she praised Germans for “mastering the crisis as no other nation.”
Her blunt message was echoed in Italy, France and Greece, the epicenter of the debt crisis, where Prime Minister Lucas Papademos asked for resolve in seeing reforms through, “so that the sacrifices we have made up to now won’t be in vain.”
While the economic picture in the United States has brightened recently with more upbeat employment figures, Europe remains mired in a slump. Most economists are forecasting a recession for 2012, which will heighten the pressure governments and financial institutions across the Continent are seeing.
Adding to the gloomy outlook is the prospect of a downgrade in France’s sterling credit rating, a move that analysts say could happen early in the new year and have wide-ranging consequences on efforts to stabilize Europe’s finances.
Despite criticism from many economists, though, most European governments are sticking to austerity plans, rejecting the Keynesian approach of economic stimulus favored by Washington after the financial crisis in 2008, in a bid to show investors they are serious about fiscal discipline.
This cycle was evident on Friday, when Spain surprised observers by announcing a larger-than-expected budget gap for 2011 even as the new conservative government there laid out plans to increase property and income taxes in 2012.
Indeed, even in the country where the crisis began, Greece, the cycle of spending cuts, tax increases and contraction has not resulted in a course correction, and the same path now lies in store for much larger economies like those of Italy and Spain.
“Every government in Europe with the exception of Germany is bending over backwards to prove to the market that they won’t hesitate to do what it takes,” said Charles Wyplosz, a professor of economics at the Graduate Institute of Geneva. “We’re going straight into a wall with this kind of policy. It’s sheer madness.”
Rather than the austerity measures now being imposed, Mr. Wyplosz said he would like to see governments halt the recent tax increases and spending reductions, and instead cut consumption taxes in a bid to encourage consumer spending. More belt-tightening, he said, increases the likelihood that Europe will see a “lost decade” of economic torpor like Japan faced in the 1990s.
He has to be pulling his hair out.