The Political Economy of the Euro Crisis

Chris Caldwell, of the Weekly Standard and the Financial Times, took up Western Europe as his journalist beat at a time, in the 1990s, when all the cool kids were off doing Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans.  Coverage of Continental Western Europe by newspapers like the Times meant a cushy assignment in Paris, with reporting limited mostly to cultural topics, if not food and fashion.  It used to drive serious policy types I knew in Paris crazy – the Times, in particular, treated Paris not as a source of serious economic and political reporting, but as one Parisian friend put it to me, sort of Disneyland.  As for Germany – you must be kidding – save for a spin through Berlin, no 1990s journalist would want to spend a moment covering German policy, because it would require knowing something about … economics, currencies, exports, and all that boring stuff.

Christopher more or less had the place to himself for quite a while as an American journalist.  At the same time, I’m sure it was not easy to find places to publish serious pieces on the political economy of Western Europe.  However, persistence paid off, and Christopher is author of the most important book, to my mind, on Europe in a long time – Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West – as well as columns in the FT.  He’s a friend, and I’m a fan.

In this week’s Weekly Standard, he has an essay specifically on the political economy of the euro-zone crisis, Euro Trashed: Europe’s Rendezvous with Monetary Destiny.  He notes that the European Union is built on a theory of successive crises, and that the euro was foreseen, perhaps intended, to provoke a crisis that would lead toward greater union; he quotes some of its founding fathers to that end.  (I think he might have added the dialectical ideology, alien to most Americans, that underlay that sentiment, but does not.)  (Emphasis added.):

As we contemplate the macroeconomic storm that is now passing through Europe, we must bear in mind that this is a storm that the EU’s promoters knew would come. The euro’s designers understood Rahm Emanuel’s philosophy about not letting a crisis go to waste. “Europe will be forged in crises,” the European Community’s founding father Jean Monnet wrote in his memoirs, “and it will be the sum of the solutions brought to these crises.” When the French statesman Jacques Delors laid out his plan for the euro in the late 1980s, he drew a clear trajectory: A common market had made possible a common currency. A common currency would make possible a common government.

But how would that happen? After all, if a currency worked well within the existing political arrangements, there would be no reason for those arrangements ever to change. New institutions could result only from the currency’s blowing up. Economic crisis would be the accidentally-on-purpose pretext for replacing a system based on parliamentary accountability with a system based on the whims of a handful of experts in Brussels. Europe’s countries now face the choice of giving up either their newfangled money or their ancient national sovereignties. It is unclear which they will choose.

Toward the end, the essay points out that although Greece is every bit as corrupt and profligate as the newspapers suggest, that was not the case with Spain, nor with Ireland, certainly not in the sense of Greece.  It a vitally important intersection of politics and economy, and why this is an essay in political economy rather than macroeconomics:

The euro is an end-of-history currency. The late Dutch central banker Wim Duisenberg called it “the first currency that has not only severed its link to gold, but also its link to the nation state” … Fans of the euro used to sell this post-national vision as a matter of hope. But today they are just as happy to sell it with fear. France’s finance minister, Christine Lagarde, told a German newspaper recently that any wavering from European unity would be a “disaster.” She said, “We need to go further towards a convergence of our economic policies.” One need not be particularly ideological to feel this way. One need only assume that, when economics speaks, politics must fall into line.

Last summer, at the height of the Greek debt crisis, economists looked ahead to other problem countries and came to the uncomfortable conclusion that most of them had not been badly, incompetently, or corruptly run. There were exceptions, of course. Greece was corrupt by any historical or geographical standard. It would today be a basket case whether it had been using the euro, the drachma, or wampum. Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fáil party certainly retained elements of the traditional cronyism that is Irish political culture’s besetting sin, and which no one who has observed Boston politics for even a week will fail to recognize.

But these are not the main problems the euro has wrought. The big damage has been in the private, not the public, sector. Politicians in Ireland may have got the occasional backhander from an unscrupulous property developer, but in the quantitative terms of balancing the budget, the Irish were model fiscal stewards until the property market collapsed. Greece itself proved contagious partly because of the private-sector trade imbalances the euro created, which left French and German banks searching for debt to invest in. It was the Western private sector, as much as the Greek public sector, that rendered Greece too big to fail and put an end to the EU’s no-bailouts rule.

And then there is Spain, the other country whose rescue appears to be coming as inevitably as Christmas. Spain not only balanced its budget—it took precautions to keep its home lending sector from overheating. Unfortunately, even that was not enough to keep the artificially low real interest rates that the euro gave it from doing their damage. According to the Spanish macroeconomist Angel Ubide, Spain “probably should have been running fiscal surpluses of the order of 5-6 percent of GDP to offset the negative real interest rate its borrowers enjoyed.”

Well, as an economic matter, yes. Just as, as an economic matter, the United States should probably have been running surpluses to prepare for the wave of Baby Boom retirements that are fast approaching. But how would you have explained that to the Spanish people? Money burns a hole in the pocket of a democratic electorate. Voters hate reserves, surpluses, or any kind of money lying around. What do they call a 5-6 percent surplus? They call it “my money.”

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