In This Review

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
By Mark Blyth
Oxford University Press, USA, 2013, 304 pp.
The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills
The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills
By David Stuckler, Sanjay Basu
Basic Books, 2013, 240 pp.

Blyth takes on the claim that austerity -- the strategy of cutting budget deficits, mainly by reducing government spending -- is the best way to enhance growth and reduce public debt and finds it utterly deficient, both in its internal logic and in its actual practice. He reviews the intellectual history of the idea, from the Enlightenment to the present, and examines the numerous cases in which it has been tried, all of which proved unsuccessful, except in a few special circumstances. He is attentive not only to the effects of austerity on the economy in the aggregate but also to the way its effects are distributed, usually in ways that disproportionately hurt the poorer members of society. Blyth asserts that the slogan “There is no alternative” is often a cloak that doctrinaire conservatives use to mask their desire to reduce the size of government. He counters that levying much higher taxes on wealthy Americans and Europeans would reduce budget deficits without requiring any spending cuts.

Stuckler and Basu approach austerity policies from a medical perspective, producing an extensive array of evidence to show that austerity -- especially cuts to spending on public health -- increases illness and death. Most compelling is their finding that countries that have suffered through recessions have avoided deterioration in their citizens’ well-being by maintaining government spending on public health. They urge that considerations of health be included in all assessments of public debt and deficits.