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In a presumed publicity stunt Merriam-Webster releases an annual word of the year. In 2010 their choice was austerity. Wikipedia probably offers the most relevant definition by borrowing this description: a policy of deficit-cutting, lower spending, and a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided.¹

Unfortunately austerity has largely been perceived as a European phenomenon, addressing only European excesses. It’s the word most closely aligned with last summer’s protests in Greece upon an announcement from their government that business as usual was no longer fiscally possible.

 I expect the 2010 word of the year is going to be a candidate for the esteemed recognition yet again. The timing of its return to popularity is difficult to forecast. In the United States we have adopted every measure possible to try and delay politically unpopular austerity measures. Instead we’ve embarked on an indulgent path of intentionally increasing spending, raising the deficit, prolonging unsustainable government benefits and keeping tax rates low.

The extent to which the word austerity avoids prominent usage in discussions concerning U.S. economic policy will likely be highly correlated to the eventual strength of its campaign for repeat honors. Addressing the issues that face this nation will at some point require a complete reversal of current policy. There’s no reason to expect the austerity measures will be warmly received merely because we’ve passed on making the tough decisions to date. It’s more likely that the eventual cuts will only be deeper and thus met with even more resistance.

As a nation we really have no idea what austerity means. It is understandably difficult to grasp the magnitude of the necessary spending cuts. A popular YouTube video tries to depict the runaway government spending and statistically insignificant proposals to curb such spending with stacks of pennies on the kitchen table. The accuracy of the math is difficult to verify with all those pennies but the point is well-taken: drastic cuts are needed. U.S. government spending can’t continue at this rate indefinitely.

When we come to this realization, perhaps the word draconian will give austerity a run for its money at the top of the charts. The best example of true austerity domestically may in the Kansas City public school system. After years of the Board of Education kicking the can, a new superintendent finally had to address the fiscal reality. His unfortunate recommendation was not to simply reduce headcount or freeze iPad purchases, but instead to reduce the district’s size to one commensurate with the finances. In response a reluctant board narrowly voted in favor of a measure to shut the doors at 28 of their 61 schools.

Just as reckless spending is hardly a European phenomenon, austerity isn’t a word to describe the policies of someone else’s government. The word has made its way across the pond where we’ve chosen to largely ignore it, hoping against all odds it will go back out to sea.

It’s almost humorous which word finished second runner-up in the Merriam-Webster listing: moratorium. The word likely generated website hits by inquisitive readers of the government’s policy to delay further foreclosure proceedings, but the general definition offered is simply “a waiting period.” How appropriate.


[1] “Austerity.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.