“If insanity, as Albert Einstein is said to have once remarked, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then our leaders have gone mad” writes Mehdi Hassan
There is a spectre haunting Europe – the spectre of mass unemployment. On Thursday it was announced that the eurozone’s unemployment rate had risen to a record high of 10.7% in January. That’s 16.9 million people out of work across the 17-nation euro area.
Across the 27-member European Union unemployment is also topping 10% for the first time: a jaw-dropping 24.3 million jobless.
The sheer size of the continent’s growing army of unemployed workers is difficult to comprehend.
Spain holds the EU record, with unemployment at 23.3%, or 5.3 million people – and rising. “This is the terrible cancer of our society,” said Rafael Zornoza Boy, the bishop of Cadiz, last week. Yet prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s new (and conservative) government’s pleas to give Madrid some leeway on spending cuts fell on deaf ears at Friday’s EU summit of fiscal self-flagellists in Brussels. Then there is poor Greece, where EU-imposed cuts have left one in five unemployed and have driven up the suicide rate by 40%. Austerity is, literally, killing Europeans.
Poll after poll shows voters across the EU care much more about the jobs deficit than they do about the budget deficit. Nonetheless, the proverbial Martian, landing in Brussels last week, would have been stunned to witness the complacency and indifference of the continent’s political elites to the crisis of spiralling joblessness. EU leaders continue to fiddle – over borrowing limits, fiscal compacts, treaty changes – as their economies crash and burn. The austerity gamble hasn’t paid off. Fiscal consolidation has failed to spur growth or boost employment.
Fiscal stimulus, on the other hand, works. The US has had 23 consecutive months of private-sector job growth, with 3.7m new jobs created over the past two years thanks to Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. US unemployment benefit claims are now at a four-year low.
But Europe’s political and financial elites – led by austerity junkies such as “Merkozy“, the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi and, of course, our very own David Cameron – pretend not to notice. Here on the jobless side of the Atlantic, the only solution to austerity-induced unemployment, it seems, is more austerity. In Brussels, eurozone finance ministers threatened to impose swingeing fines on those member states, such as Spain and the Netherlands, that may miss their budget deficit targets. If insanity, as Albert Einstein is said to have once remarked, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then our leaders have gone mad.
The irony is that mass unemployment itself is the biggest barrier to deficit reduction. Basic economics teaches us that the best way to cut borrowing levels is to get people back to work and paying taxes. Or as John Maynard Keynes put it: “Look after unemployment and the budget will look after itself.”
But Europe’s crisis isn’t just about economics. Unlike GDP or inflation, unemployment is the only major economic indicator that measures real human beings, rather than growth or prices.
Having a job isn’t just about earning a living or paying taxes; it’s about human dignity and self-worth. The human and social costs of unemployment are well-documented: financial hardship, emotional stress, depression, lethargy, loss of morale and status, shame, sickness and premature death. Then there is the hopelessness that often leads to rising crime, disorder and social unrest. We can probably expect a new wave of riots and violence in the continent’s city centres.
The tragedy is that there is nothing unavoidable about Europe’s unemployment crisis. The US is proof that even the most modest of fiscal stimuli can create jobs. But politicians in Germany, where mass unemployment in the 1930s helped the Nazis seize power, refuse to countenance any loosening of the fiscal purse strings inside the EU, arguing that such a move would increase borrowing costs and might panic the bond markets. Yet, as the Nobel-prizewinning economist Christopher Pissarides has written, “a small rise in gilt interest rates is a small price to pay for more jobs”.
Here in the UK, where unemployment stands at a 17-year high of 2.7 million (or a staggering 6.3 million if the “underemployed” are included), our own do-nothing chancellor, George Osborne, continues to proclaim that “the British government has run out of money”. Really? Perhaps he should have a word with Mervyn King. Over the past three years, the Bank of England governor has, with a mere tap on his keyboard, authorised the creation of £325bn of new money, out of thin air, through a process of “quantitative easing” (QE). This, however, has so far been used only to bail out the bankers. Why not use it to bail out millions of jobless Britons?
If we assume it would cost £26,000 (the median salary for UK workers) to create each new job, the cost to the government of putting a million people back to work would be £26bn – or around half of the latest £50bn tranche of QE released by the Bank last month.
How many more of Europe’s jobs will be sacrificed at the altar of deficit reduction? How many more lives ruined, families impoverished and communities destroyed in pursuit of growth-choking, job-killing, self-defeating austerity? It is unacceptable for governments to stand by as dole queues lengthen. Unemployment is not a price worth paying. Nor is it a price that has to be paid.
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