Dec 10th 2010

Thinking the Unthinkable in Europe

by Dani Rodrik

Dani Rodrik, Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the first recipient of the Social Science Research Council’s Albert O. Hirschman Prize. His latest book is One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth.

CAMBRIDGE - When Greece was bailed out by a joint eurozone-IMF rescue package back in May, it was clear that the deal had bought only a temporary respite. Now the other shoe has dropped. With Ireland's troubles threatening to spill over to Portugal, Spain, and even Italy, it is time to rethink the viability of Europe's currency union.

These words do not come easily, as I am no Euroskeptic. Unlike others, such as my Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein, who argue that Europe is not a natural monetary area, I believed that monetary union made perfect sense in the context of a broader European project that emphasized - as it still does - political institution-building alongside economic integration.

Europe's bad luck was to be hit with the worst financial crisis since the 1930's while still only halfway through its integration process. The eurozone was too integrated for cross-border spillovers not to cause mayhem in national economies, but not integrated enough to have the institutional capacity needed to manage the crisis.

Consider what happens when banks in Texas, Florida, or California make bad lending decisions that threaten their survival. If the banks are merely illiquid, the Federal Reserve in Washington is ready to act as a lender of last resort. If they are judged to be insolvent, they are allowed to fail or are taken over by federal authorities, while depositors are made whole by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Similarly, in case of bankruptcy, federal laws and courts readily adjudicate claims among creditors, and do so without regard to state borders. Regardless of the outcome, private debt is not socialized by state governments (but by the federal government, if at all), and does not threaten public finances at the state level.

State governments in turn have no legal power to abrogate debt contracts vis-à-vis out-of-state creditors, and no incentive to do so (given the help they get from the federal government). So, even in the throes of a financial crisis, banks and non-financial firms can continue to borrow if their balance sheets are sound, uncontaminated by the "sovereign risk" of their state government.

Meanwhile, the federal government makes up for a good chunk of the drop in state incomes by transfers or reduced taxes. Workers who nonetheless have it bad can move easily to better-performing states without worries about language differences or culture shock. Almost all of this happens automatically, without long, contentious negotiations among state governors and federal officials, assistance from the IMF, or calling into question the existence of the United States as a unified political-economic entity.

So the real problem in Europe is not that Spain or Ireland has borrowed a lot, or that too much Spanish and Irish debt sits on banks balance sheets elsewhere in Europe. After all, who cares about Florida's current-account deficit - or even knows what it amounts to? No, the real problem is that Europe has not created the union-wide institutions that an integrated financial market requires.

This reflects the absence of adequate political institutions at the center. The European Union has taught us valuable lessons over the last few decades: first, that financial integration requires eliminating volatility among national currencies; next, that eradicating exchange-rate risk requires doing away with national currencies altogether; and now, that monetary union is impossible, among democracies, without political union.

It should have been expected that the political side of the equation would take time to fall into place. It is easy to blame European politicians for lack of leadership. But let us not underestimate the magnitude of the task that European governments took on.

In fact, the closest analogue to it is America's own historical experience with building a federal republic. As the long American struggle for "states' rights" - and indeed the Civil War - shows, creating a political union out of a collection of self-governing entities is hardly a smooth or speedy process.

States naturally cherish their sovereignty. Worse still, economic union itself can fan the fires of nationalism and endanger political integration. It places strains on each country's institutions (seen in the pressure on Europe's welfare states), breeds resentment against foreigners (witness the recent success of anti-immigration parties), and renders financial crises originating from abroad both likelier and costlier (as the current situation makes all too clear).

Alas, it may now be too late for the eurozone. Ireland and the southern European countries must reduce their debt burden and sharply enhance their economies' competitiveness. It is hard to see how they can achieve both aims while remaining in the eurozone.

The Greek and Irish bailouts are only temporary palliatives: they do nothing to curtail indebtedness, and they have not stopped contagion. Moreover, the fiscal austerity they prescribe delays economic recovery. The idea that structural and labor-market reforms can deliver quick growth is nothing but a mirage. So the need for debt restructuring is an unavoidable reality.

Even if the Germans and other creditors acquiesce in a restructuring - not from 2013 on, as German Chancellor Angel Merkel has asked for, but now - there is the further problem of restoring competitiveness. This problem is shared by all deficit countries, but is acute in Southern Europe. Membership in the same monetary zone as Germany will condemn these countries to years of deflation, high unemployment, and domestic political turmoil. An exit from the eurozone may be at this point the only realistic option for recovery.

A breakup of the eurozone may not doom it forever. Countries can rejoin, and do so credibly, when the fiscal, regulatory, and political prerequisites are in place. For the moment, the eurozone may well have reached the point where an amicable divorce is a better option than years of economic decline and political acrimony.

Dani Rodrik is Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the author of One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
www.project-syndicate.org
For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:
http://media.blubrry.com/ps/media.libsyn.com/media/ps/rodrik51.mp3

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."