Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Deconstructing Austerity

                                           Deconstructing Austerity


                                                    Howard Richler

Austerity – a much despised term. Judging by the manner the word is ejaculated by some people you’d get the impression that it represents a form of financial waterboarding. For most people it represents the methods that a government uses in order to get their financial houses in order whether this means cutting social services, pensions or the public payroll.

Like the words “liberal,” “democracy” and “terrorist” when used in political and economic contexts, the meaning of “austerity” is almost automatically processed in accordance with your socio-political beliefs.  Naturally, if you're a resident of a lender country such as Germany, you're more likely to ascribe a positive sense to the concept than if you're a denizen of a borrowing debt-ridden country such as Greece. Actually, the word austeritat is rarely used in German and the term usually employed is sparpolitik, “savings policy.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her disdain for the A-word: “I call it balancing the budget. Everyone else uses the term ‘austerity.’ That makes it sound… truly evil.”

Austerity represents one of the biggest political and economic buzzwords, and like many words in these spheres, its meaning often depends on where you position yourself on the political spectrum. To those on the right, it represents living within ones means and austerity measures represent strict policies that are undertaken by a government to help bring expenditures in line with revenues. This can be accomplished by a combination of spending cuts and increases in taxes or fees. To those on the left, however, austerity often designates causing economic hardship by denying social services to those in need. They might argue that it is much easier for the wealthy to “tighten their belts” and that belt-tightening for the poor effectively leads to the suffering of the most vulnerable in society.

Although we associate austerity chiefly with economics this is a relatively new development in the history of the word.

The term came into the English language from the French austerit√© in the early part of the 15th century, but ironically it can be traced back to the Greek austeros, “severe”, or “dour.” Its first meaning was sternness of manner or appearance and severity of judgement, particularly of a law. Before long it took on a religious sense where it referred to self-denial, moral strictness or rigorous abstinence. This is the sense used by Shakespeare in Midsummer Night's Dream when Theseus says, “Or, on Diana's altar to protest, For aye, austerity and single life.”

By the 17th century the harshness associated with the word was extended to taste where it came to denote sourness or bitterness and within a hundred years it also referred to severe weather or bleak, rugged landscapes.

It is only in the 20th century that it acquired its economic sense. The OED states that in this domain it refers to “restraint in public spending; spec. a programme of government measures designed to reduce public spending and conserve resources, esp. during a time of economic hardship; the conditions resulting from such measures. The term entered common use in 1942, and was freq. used in the context of rationing and other measures introduced by governments in the period of and after the Second World War (1939-45).”

The first citation for this sense came from economist John Maynard Keynes who in 1937 wrote in The Times, “The boom, not the slum, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”  In 1942 the Manchester Guardian stated “His (Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer) declaration that the Government intended to treat the present grave situation with all the 'seriousness and austerity' it demands was loudly cheered” and the same year The Economist wrote “There has been no word about the new government's attitude towards reconstruction and planning for defence, production, and austerity have inevitably filled the stage.”

By 1945, although the term originated in French the economic sense of austerité spread to France and by 1947 this meaning also extended to Italy and Germany.

Interestingly, as austerity is often associated nowadays with governments to the right of the political spectrum, after World War II it became the hallmark of the economic policies of the Labour government of the United Kingdom between 1945-51. In The Age of Austerity, edited by Philip French and Michael Sissons, we learn that because this period in the UK was marked by severe food and coal shortages, rationing was instituted to guarantee a minimum standard of living for the masses. There was scant expenditure on unnecessary luxuries, such as movies imported from Hollywood. Tobacco was excluded from this schema as not to do so might have caused a revolution and tobacco represented a much needed source of tax revenue.

Although the economic sense is the dominant one today, we occasionally see other senses. For example, an article in the February 18, 2015 National Post talked about a promotional movie made for Benjamin Netanyahu's Facebook page that showed the supposed dowdiness of his Jerusalem residence to counter claims of his extravagance. The article said that the movie “painted a picture of domestic austerity bordering on squalor.”

Perhaps it is unfortunate that the term originally used to denote restraint during economic downturns is so laden with associations of self-denial and severity today.

Richler's latest book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.