When we say something is austere, we evoke everything from an image of monastic poverty to the stark beauty of Modernist design. Because of this, “austerity” as a fiscal policy brings with it the suggestion of a deliberate and disciplined approach to a nation's economy.
Proponents of austerity use the term to bring to mind discipline and prudence: austerity makes one picture a Puritan's tidy farmstead, free from excessive ornament and frill. Austerity implies something solid and square, the sort of hard-minded practicality that we like to believe built this country and kept it upright in the face of chaos and adversity.
Austerity wastes not, we think, and so we assume that with it, we shall not want.
To those on the receiving end, however, like the Spanish and the Greeks, austerity looks a whole lot like poverty.
They've gotten rid of the waste, which turned out to be the tools they needed to survive, and find themselves even more in want. Those tidy Puritan farmsteads are, for them, uncluttered by such adornments as furniture and food.
That many austerity measures are enforced by classes of people who stand to gain from them and demanded by uncaring foreign creditors helps explain why these policies have led to riots and political unrest.
To really understand the new face of austerity, then, add to our traditional positive picture the bitter image of a child eating his gruel after his father has gambled the larder away.