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Solidarity sells

June 6, 2012

In an opinion piece for DW's Transatlantic Voices column, James K. Galbraith argues that neither growth nor austerity are the right remedies for the eurozone crisis. Instead, the focus should be on solidarity.

Euro coin pictured on globe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. Chair in Government-Business Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis (Oxford University Press).

The austerity moment is passing. Britain's double-dip recession and Europe's 11 percent unemployment show where austerity leads. Public protests in Greece and Spain show the suffering it causes. Political upheaval, so far in France, shows that electorates will not tolerate it for long.

Now fashionable opinion offers the growth alternative. Growth means higher profits, better wages and more jobs. What a fine idea. The problem, though, is that growth is only a goal. It is not a policy. And every lobbyist, political hack and 10-cent crank has a strategy to make growth happen. The details consist of whatever it was they most wanted beforehand.

Thus the American rich urge tax cuts as a "growth strategy." European employers urge "labor market reform," bankers favor deregulation. And today both "stimulus" and "fiscal consolidation" are "pro-growth," depending on who you ask. The most adept American thinkers favor both: stimulus now and consolidation later. In this way they can even embrace cuts in pensions and health care as part of a "strategy for growth."

Neither here nor there

This is nonsense and most people see that clearly. If austerity was a deceit, growth is a chimera. At a recent conference in Berlin, high European Central Bank officials could cite only Latvia to support their claim that austerity produces growth. That was, to put it bluntly, pathetic.

In truth the protestors of Greece and Spain and Italy, the voters of France and the Occupy Movement in America, who oppose austerity, do not clamor for growth. They do not care about profits or even all that much about wages. What they want, mainly, is to protect the institutions that make their lives tolerable, safe and attractive. These are health care, education, local public services, culture, the environment and the right to retire in modest comfort at a reasonable age.

These citizens know where their interests lie. In modern life, schools, universities, clinics, hospitals, clean and safe streets and secure future are not expendable. They have become the central features of life, the sum-and-substance of desire and happiness. Cars, computers, booze, and tobacco, these are the extras now. The companies who make them seek profits, and therefore growth. But the people would take solidarity instead, if they could.

James Galbraith Professor University of Texas
James K. GalbraithImage: Galbraith

Seeking solidarity

This tension, now a great battle, is not new. In Europe solidarity and social progress arose from war. In the US it rose from slavery, and the great struggle over the limits of solidarity has always been racial. Even in the New Deal blacks were at first excluded: mostly black farm workers were not covered by Social Security and domestics were exempted from the minimum wage. Now the fight is mainly over the place of immigrants. Barriers remain, but the American moral tendency has been to reduce them, slowly, over time.

In Europe, on the other hand, the idea that solidarity must extend across nations has not yet taken hold. Germans never promised to pay Spanish pensions; they took it as a European principle that they would never have to. But today Spain is in debt trouble, and the practical issue is whether Spaniards - or the Portuguese, or the Greeks - can have any social protections at all, if they stay in Europe.

Northern Europeans have enjoyed basic social protections since the 1950s. Spaniards, Portuguese and Greeks acquired them only after the end of fascism in the 1970s. Europe was supposed to consolidate those gains; it was not supposed to take them away. But it is doing exactly that, as everyone knows. And that is why these peoples object, now, to what they are being told to do.

And who can blame them? Surely not Germans, who invented the social market and have prospered under it for 60 years. And when the social market had to be extended to the East, Germany did so. It was the right thing then, though difficult. And, like it or not, this same principle of solidarity - not the deceit of austerity or the chimera of growth - is the only thing that can save Europe now.

Editor: Rob Mudge