“Austerity doesn’t work. Period.” This quote is the punch line of Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, second edition just out. If that quote was made into bumper stickers and t-shirts it would have been icing on the cake for what was an amazingly well placed and marketed book. As just about every review in the popular press has noted, Blyth’s book is well researched, accessible to a broad array of readers, and right.
For academics and critical thinkers however, there is more to it than that. This is not only a book where an established academic engages with a broader audience and “gives” that audience the tools to understand a contemporary problem. Blyth should be praised for that in and of itself. During this crisis and many others most academics have not been bold enough or too dis-incentivized to enter the fray beyond the water cooler. But Blyth also makes key contributions to the academic literature in international political economy as well. Blyth shows how and why the idea of austerity keeps on living in our politics.
The book starts with an accessible discussion of how the crises in the U.S. and EU were banking crises, not the sovereign debt crises (especially in the European case) that they and their aftermath have been described of in the financial press and media. In two crisp chapters, he shows how banks created the messes in the United States and in Europe—and how government debt became a big issue only after governments bailed out and propped up banks.