Cartoon: Doctor Austerity

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Austerity – the policy of cutting government social spending in order to appease fiscal hawks (and investors and creditors) – is arguably the most harmful economic policy in the world. The economist Paul Krugman describes what was going on in 2010:

…elites all across the western world were gripped by austerity fever, a strange malady that combined extravagant fear with blithe optimism. Every country running significant budget deficits – as nearly all were in the aftermath of the financial crisis – was deemed at imminent risk of becoming another Greece unless it immediately began cutting spending and raising taxes. Concerns that imposing such austerity in already depressed economies would deepen their depression and delay recovery were airily dismissed; fiscal probity, we were assured, would inspire business-boosting confidence, and all would be well. …

Since the global turn to austerity in 2010, every country that introduced significant austerity has seen its economy suffer, with the depth of the suffering closely related to the harshness of the austerity.

And it’s important to understand that even countries that wouldn’t choose austerity policies for themselves, can have those policies forced on them. (This thought is what inspired my cartoon). Creditors from larger, more powerful economies can insist on austerity policies. Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, regarding the economic disaster in Greece, wrote:

Of course, the economics behind the program that the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) foisted on Greece five years ago has been abysmal, resulting in a 25 percent decline in the country’s GDP. I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences: Greece’s rate of youth unemployment, for example, now exceeds 60 percent.

It is startling that the troika has refused to accept responsibility for any of this or admit how bad its forecasts and models have been. But what is even more surprising is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned. The troika is still demanding that Greece achieve a primary budget surplus (excluding interest payments) of 3.5 percent of GDP by 2018.

I think the reason austerity policies have such a hold on certain economic elites (turns and glares at Germany), as well as on many ordinary citizens, is that it tells a story which makes intuitive sense to us. Austerity is a morality play: If a country’s economy is bad, it’s because that country has been spending too much. So the solution is to starve for a while. Tighten your belt, Greece!

But at a country level, belt-tightening is the very worst thing a country can do in a recession. When governments slash spending, that means less people have work; when less people have work, they spend less, and recessions become worse. And if the recession getting worse leads to creditors demanding further cuts, a country can get caught in a vicious cycle.

In the Krugman article I linked to, written in 2015, Krugman wrote that no one believes in austerity anymore. But the idea – or, rather, the ideology – hasn’t gone away, and is currently causing great suffering in the UK.

In the U.S., any time the economy takes a downturn, the austerity ideologues emerge and call for cuts, cuts and more cuts. The more influence they have the next time we’re in a recession, the longer it’ll take us to recover.

In his article “How Austerity Ripped The World Apart,” Umair Haque takes a big-picture view, arguing that austerity is ultimately derived from economic thinking developed in slave-owning America. I don’t agree with everything Haque says, but his definition of austerity really struck me.

Austerity simply means a lack of investment by societies in themselves, in people, in public goods. Things like healthcare, education, transport, energy, retirement, decent jobs, incomes, savings. The problem is that all those things are what underpin the stability of societies, by ensuring that prosperity is something that is realized by all — not just something greedily seized by a tiny few.



This cartoon has four panels. All four panels are set in a doctor’s office. There are three people in each panel. The first is an extremely wealthy looking man – he looks like a stereotypical banker – in a three-piece suit, smoking a pipe. The second man is the patient, a disheveled and emaciated man in boxer shorts and a sleeveless shirt. The third man is Doctor Austerity. Doctor Austerity wears a white doctor’s coat, a stethoscope, and a head mirror. (That’s what they’re called, honest!). Doctor Austerity is a huge, hulking, powerful looking man, with large hands and deep-set eyes.

A caption at the bottom of the cartoon says “DOCTOR AUSTERITY.”


The Banker and Doctor Austerity talk. Both are patting the Patient on the shoulder. The Patient is sitting on the examination table.

BANKER: Doctor Austerity, my friend’s economy is weak. Could you give him your treatment?

DOCTOR AUSTERITY: Of course! My treatment never fails!


Doctor Austerity has his hands around the patients neck, squeezing hard, and has lifted the patient right off the examination table. The patient has wide eyes and his tongue is sticking out of his mouth.

PATIENT: Choke! Ack!

DOCTOR AUSTERITY: Soon he’ll be completely better!


Doctor Austerity has let go of the patient; the patient is bent over, panting and gasping for air. The Banker peers at the patient; Doctor Austerity thinks hard, with one hand on his chin.

BANKER: That’s odd… He’s getting worse.



Doctor Austerity and the Banker smile at each other, chatting, while the doctor resumes choking the patient to death.

BANKER: Better apply more treatment.


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6 Responses to Cartoon: Doctor Austerity

  1. 1
    Kate says:

    I get the sense, from the use of strangulation (there is no plausible benefit) and the facial expressions (the doctor’s in particular) that you see the harm to the patient as intentional. I tend to agree that it often is.
    If one wanted to suggest that the treatment was actually being applied in good faith (which I think it is in some cases), it seems like the old practice of bleeding (with the intent of balancing the humors, or clearing out toxins) would be an apt metaphor.

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    Yeah, that would definitely work, too.

  3. 3
    LimitsOfLanguage says:

    It’s a lot more complicated than ‘austerity bad, spending good.’ In the long term, countries do have to spend within their means.

    What spending actually is, is consuming something that was produced by someone else. You can only consume a good if it is actually made. A complication is that people tend to want to consume more than they want to produce.

    The solution to this, capitalism, encourages production by requiring a quid-pro-quo: you only get things produced by others if you produce things that others want. Under this model, spending within your means consists of consuming as much value produced by others, as the value that you can produce for others.

    Of course, a complication is that some people are really bad at producing value and we feel bad about having these people consume very little or no goods. So we have welfare and such. However, the higher we make welfare, the lower the incentives to produce and thus the fewer goods produced.

    So social-democrats tend to seek a balance, where we are willing to pay enough welfare so people can eat and have a home, but not so much that they can afford a Ferrari.

    Another complication is that the ability to produce is not constant. Someone can lose their job and temporarily produce very little value for others, until they find a new job. They can get temporarily sick, etc. It’s very disadvantageous if that person then has to sell off their goods and radically cut their spending when they lose their income, only to reacquire them or increase their spending when they regain it. For example, it’s very costly to sell and then reacquire a house. One way to prevent this inefficiency is for the individual to loan money. Another is for the government to (temporarily) supplement their income until they regain their ability to produce that much value.

    The same basics are true for countries. Countries don’t lose their job, but they experience temporary recessions. Keynes argued for anti-cyclic policies, where the government spends more during a recession and less during a boom. The ideal is that the spending of the country reflects their long term means, not the means they have in the short term.

    Nations may also decide that they want to (temporarily or permanently) provide welfare to other countries, which increases their means. However, that is always going to be limited and is going to act as austerity for the donating country.

    Countries do have to spend within their means in the long term, if you remove the effects of booms & recessions and temporary welfare.

    Keynesian policies are not a solution to chronic overspending, which is/was a problem with Greece and Venezuela.

    It’s a big problem when a recession and a chronic overspending coincide, because then you’d want a stimulus to combat a recession, but austerity to create a sustainable economy. So it’s best to never get into that situation in the first place.

    Such a situation is indicative of an irresponsible government, which logically makes others wary of donating lots of money, out of fear that the government that gets the money will not reform their economy to live within their means, but to keep being irresponsible.

  4. 4
    RonF says:

    Perhaps if the role of the government was more limited and left more of the economy to private enterprise the state of the economy would not be so dependent on government spending. I would be interested to see a comparison of the state of a given country’s economy vs. the percent of government spending in the role of said economy.

  5. 5
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    RonF, I’m not sure it’s possible to compare different countries economies in this way, especially since it appears that the strength of a country’s economy is correlated with a willingness to increase government spending. It’s also true that optimal government spending as a percentage of GDP will not be the same for countries with different sized economies. The US and Venezuelan governments both spend about 40% of their respect GDP’s, but we can afford to do this, while Venezuela cannot. So if you do sort countries by their spending as a percentage of GDP, you’ll end up with a many impoverished countries on the bottom of the list, with the always weird outlier that is Singapore.

  6. 6
    desipis says:

    Perhaps if the role of the government was more limited and left more of the economy to private enterprise the state of the economy would not be so dependent on government spending.

    That’s quite the truism. As an analogy, if we stop providing medical treatment to sick people, then obviously spending on healthcare will decrease, but there’s also a significant consequential cost (both ethical and economic).

    Also, given the plummeting economic value of unskilled and low skilled labour, there will need to be increased government involvement if we don’t want a significant portion of the population to be little more than a beggar underclass. A strict libertarian style no-welfare system would result in the free-market judging large portions of the population as valueless and not worthy of life, resulting in large scale death that rivals the death toll from communism.

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