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Austerity, our ‘Word of the Year’

Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin

I guess one word had to be, so why not austerity? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, fitted the crown to austerity based upon the 250,000 searches on its free online tool. It seems coverage of the so-called “debt crisis” led readers to find out what the coverage meant.

Austerity is a fine word, though not as telling as austere, as in he entered the room and noticed the very austere appointments. But while economics is not literature, if media coverage of our nation’s financial state improves our literacy so be it. Cut the budget and raise reading scores – I like it.

This is not to deny that austerity has legitimate meanings in the field of economics, it does. It connotes a policy of deficit cutting, lower spending, etc. Those are good things, and things that many voted for on November 2nd. I like that too.

But in common parlance, day-to-day language austerity is not, I think, what the people want. I for one don’t need to see austere appointments in classrooms, or the VA hospital, for government to work for me. I think people who call for that miss the point.

Just a bit of sanity would be nice. Don’t reduce everyone’s “benefits” under an austerity policy or pledge, rather determine the proper role of government and fund that well. Government is not unlike our homes where revenue and expenses are concerned. And truthfully, few of us only want our needs funded. We have our wants too. But there is a limit.

The good news is that shoppers this Christmas season seemed not to have visions of austerity dancing in their heads. They spent, and spent again. Wahoo! By most reports I have seen to date retail has been hot, both online, and in stores. Even cars are moving, new cars, and they are priced well. And not just austere cars either, fully 50 percent of new auto purchases are trucks and SUV’s.

No, austerity in government sounds like waiting lines for needed medical services or medicines. Austerity sounds like “death panels” to do in grandma because we don’t have the money to keep her in assisted care or nursing care facilities. And austerity sounds like not having the support troops or equipment we need to back up warriors we have placed in harms way. I don’t like any of that.

But if austerity gets us thinking right about government spending then props to it. If it turns us from runaway deficits and even slows the rate of spending increase then I’m all for it. If it serves as a rallying cry to set tax policies that are not disincentives to business growth, hiring, and expansion, then let it reign.

If austerity can do all of this as our word of the year, then it gets my vote too. But first it will have to work through the extravagant and indulgent thinking of many big spenders in Congress. Maybe “November 2nd,” could be a good runner-up as word of the year.


About Michael Tomlin

2 comments

  1. MIke,

    I will use your focus on this word to take shots not at you but at others of the “tea party” persuasion who have taken to moaning about TARP, higher deficits, and a lot of other government efforts to avoid (successfully, I might add) a second Great Depression.

    There are actually people in this country who deal in facts and are educated about the economic causes of the Great Depression and what our government did (which was nothing) to deal with it. They have names like Bernanke, Geitner, and our last republican president, George Bush.

    When money dried up in the Great Depression and prices for everything (labor, goods, etc.), spiraled downward in a feedback loop, the government decided the best thing to do was nothing. It did not pump dollars into the economy, it did not prop up failing banks, it did nothing. And things got worse and worse, and people poorer and poorer.

    And because of the Great Depression we ended up with economic and political upheaval in places like Germany, which helped birth the Nazi party, and we all know how that turned out.

    So, to listen to the right and the tea party movement moan about our spending over the last few years – while divorcing that spending from the economic and political climate of which it is part – is maddening.

    My word of the year is “ignorance,” which is demonstrated every day in spades by people who actually seem to believe that the best possible thing for this country to do is to turn back the clock to before the New Deal, and who have convinced themselves that our economic problems began not with the previous administration, but the current one.

    And I will close with a couple of criticisms of your post, which are: (a) You can’t have it both ways about spending. You seem to be saying it’s bad, bad, bad, in principle, and needs to stop, unless it’s spending you agree with; and (b) The argument that if we just lower taxes our economy will boom and everything will be hunky dory is a false one. The country has boomed with high taxes and boomed with low taxes. Our economy imploded over the last decade with the Bush tax cuts firmly in place. The economy boomed under Eisenhower when tax rates on the upper income brackets were massive relative to today’s. When we had no federal income tax and virtually no state taxes in the 19th century the country went through terrible economic ups an downs.

    While the free enterprise system is great, in my view the problem with any “system” (be it government, economics, religion), is that the system is us: flawed human beings. The trick is to have an economic system that is regulated by a government that keeps our baser instincts in check. I think we have that, by and large, but am troubled by the idea that if we just kick the referee (the government) out of the game, everything will be fine. It won’t, and there’s no better argument supporting that position than the many countries with weak central governments that are, for the most part, disasters.

  2. That’s great Mr. Tomlin, keep drinking that ole Idaho Kool-aid….it’s basic ingredient is d_e_n_i_a_l. I think you’ll find 2011 is when Idaho sees serious ‘austerity’, the kind you can’t simply dismiss with a few smarmy comments in a struggling business publication, in a struggling state holding virtually no high cards.