It’s a strange choice to hear debated. Of course most of us will choose growth, if the alternative is austerity. Mr Hollande’s slogan was the more popular in the French election. In a way the surprise was how narrow the gap turned out to be , not how wide, between him and his rival.
It’s also a false choice. You cannot have either auserity or growth, if you start from the position of many European countries with high state spending and high state borrowing. Most serious people in the debate from all parts of the political spectrum agree that highly indebted countries with large deficits need to get the deficits down. Most agree that borrowing more is not the way out of debt. The argument is over how you get the deficit down.
Some say that if a country heavily in debt with a large deficit allowed itself just one more “fiscal stimulus” – allowed itself to spend just a little bit more in the public sector – and pay for that with more borrowing, it would trigger growth. It is difficult to see why that might work. After all, the Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards have been running huge budget deficits for some time, yet their economies are amongst the weakest in the EU. State spending that is financed by borrowing may provide very little stimulus to activity. If the money is borrowed from the private sector in that country, the private sector then has less to spend, similar to the effect of a tax rise.
Many of these heavily indebted countries want to get their deficits down by more tax revenue, rather than by cutting spending. If this happened through the proceeds of growth, that would be benign. Unfortunately in several cases there is no growth, or there are large falls in output and in tax revenue. If the countries then respond by increasing the tax rates or becoming more aggressive on tax collection, they may make the position worse. They might take their countries above the tax saturation point, and end up with less revenue, not more. The rich, the enterprising are always looking out for legal ways to arrange their affairs to pay less tax, or move to more hospitable jurisdictions. Others in the society may simply move into an enlarged black economy.
Countries in a financial mess have to do enough to control spending to keep the confidence of markets and to create some downward pressure on total spending. They also need to do enough to promote a more vigorous private sector led recovery. Higher taxes could kill that. Weak banks are also a big part of the underlying problem. If a country gets into a badly exposed situaiton like Greece, then the banks will find it hard to keep hold of deposits, leading to further contraction. As bank deposits fall, so bank lending has to be reined more as well.