Opinion

The Great Debate

Without coordinated leadership, Europe will falter

There is an increasing probability that financial markets will respond negatively to the unfolding economic and political drama unfolding across Europe. So far, the European Central Bank has pumped out cash and calmed the nerves of investors, but it needs to do more. A cut in interest rates by the ECB is crucial to contribute to a revival of growth across the euro zone. On its own, however, that is not enough. Europe’s political authorities need to counter the increasingly widespread perception that they lack the will to confront the zone’s economic ailments and promote a clear path to growth – austerity policies alone will not work.

The situation has become far more serious now that the crisis has moved from the zone’s periphery to its major economies: Spain shows no signs of emerging from prolonged negative growth, Italy is now facing mounting difficulties and France is sliding into recession.

Overall, looking across the euro zone, the jobless data best illustrates the pain of this crisis. The latest statistics from Eurostat show unemployment across the 17-nation euro zone at 11.9percent; 19 million people are out of work. The rates in Greece and Spain are 27 percent and 26.2 percent, respectively, and in both countries the rate for youth unemployment exceeds 55 percent. In Portugal and in Ireland, where major efforts are being made to overcome acute difficulties, the jobless rates are, nevertheless, 17.6 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively. The rate in Cyprus has shot up from 9.9 percent to 14.7 percent over the last year. In Italy, the rate is over 11.5 percent, while in France it now stands at 10.6 percent.

It is most likely that in each of these countries the jobless rates in coming months will rise and, as they do, the public demonstrations will multiply and the risks to the sustainability of existing political structures in a number of countries will increase. Despite such prospects –- with the number of jobless expected to soon to exceed 20 million people — there is no sense that the political authorities are striving to formulate a “Brady Plan” of the kind that opened the way to sustained growth in Latin America, or take into account the lessons of past sovereign debt crises.

We have seen this movie before. The crisis that started in Mexico in 1982 soon engulfed much of Latin America, and the failure of political leadership saw massive public demonstrations. The public in most of the region’s countries rejected authoritarian regimes and embraced democracy. Fortunately, a number of outstanding political leaders emerged who could promote democratic approaches while building support for difficult, yet essential and eventually successful, economic policies. Their efforts made it possible to design and implement the Brady Plan that paved the way to regional economic resurgence.

The dark flip side of European technocracy

How many countries will Germany need to bail out before it has erased the guilt of the Holocaust? That is the provocative question posed by Thilo Sarrazin, a publicity-hungry maverick whose 2010 book attacking immigration shattered Germany’s political consensus and sold more than 1 million copies. Last week he returned to the scene of the crime with a new book called Why Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro. In a much-quoted passage, he says supporters of eurobonds are driven “by that very German reflex according to which atonement for the holocaust and the world wars will never be complete until we have delivered our entire public interest, and even our money, into European hands.” This title has raced to the top of best-seller lists and sent jittery markets into panic. Sarrazin is a narcissist who is more interested in self-promotion than serious analysis. But his views on Europe – as well as the political class’s reaction to them – tell us a lot about how the euro’s political travails have come about, as well as how they are likely to unfold.

An opinion poll last week provides just the latest proof that Sarrazin has his finger on the national pulse: Over half of Germans think their country has suffered by joining the euro, while 79 percent reject eurobonds as a solution to the crisis. Sarrazin – a former regional politician and Bundesbank governor who was stripped of his official positions because of his views on immigration – is not a man to do things by halves. His book breaks not one but two German taboos by linking Holocaust guilt with questions about the sustainability of the euro. (It is designed to be a refutation of Angela Merkel’s argument that the breakup of the euro would lead to the breakup of the EU.) But although – or rather because – Sarrazin is so good at mirroring public opinion, the German political establishment is falling over itself to bury his arguments: Peer Steinbrueck, the former finance minister (and possible candidate for chancellor), described it as “bullshit”; while the current finance minister, Wolfgang Schaueble, described it as “appalling nonsense.”

The antics of Thilo Sarrazin are a product of the constrained, elitist nature of German politics where – after the experience of National Socialism – many topics are declared outside the realm of political competition. As a result, all mainstream parties are in favor of Europe, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism. The result is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – including the decision to replace the über-popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro. But those who dare cross the threshold of political correctness – as Sarrazin has repeatedly done – tap into a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow.

from MacroScope:

The Law of Diminishing Greeks

The Law of Diminishing Returns  states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to  decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren't the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in  less than 2-1/2 minutes.

From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:

More than one in five Greeks is unemployed.

There are more young people without a job than with one.

The record 1.08 million people  without work in January was a  47 percent tumble  in a year.

from Lawrence Summers:

It’s time for the IMF to step up in Europe

By Lawrence Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.

European leaders will meet today for yet another “historic” summit at which the fate of Europe is said to hang in the balance. Yet it is clear that this will not be the last convened to deal with the financial crisis.

If public previews from France and Germany are a guide, there will be commitments to assuring fiscal discipline in Europe and establishing common crisis resolution mechanisms. There will also be much celebration of commitments made by Italy, and a strong political reaffirmation of the permanence of the monetary union. All of this is necessary and desirable, but the world economy will remain on edge.

Given that Europe is the largest single component of the global economy, the rest of the world has a stake in helping to avoid major financial accidents. It also has a stake in aiding continued growth in Europe and ensuring that the European financial system supports investment around the world – particularly as cross-border European bank lending dwarfs that of banks from any other region.

The G20 summit should commit to growth

By Gordon Brown
The views expressed are his own.

The build-up to the G20 summit has been dominated by the euro’s failings. With Europe now the epicenter of the global crisis, its continued weakness will dominate the G20 discussions. Even now, uncertainties about Greece’s future — and about the real strength of Europe’s commitment to its new stability fund — has left little opportunity for a focus on the global economy as a whole.

But even if the state of the world economy has featured less than the euro in the preparatory work for the summit, the decisions world leaders will make on the global economy will dictate the mood of the coming two years. President Sarkozy has major global initiatives he will unveil to improve global food security, and may even force his plan for a global financial levy on the agenda. But there is a big choice the G20 must make. Either the world will come together and agree on a coordinated growth plan — or we will retreat into a new, more acrimonious protectionism.

Already the head of the World Trade Organization is warning of a return to protectionism, and every day we find yet another new country following Brazil, Switzerland, Indian, Korea, and Japan in introducing either new tariffs, currency controls, or capital controls. In response, the draft G20 communiqué assumes a free trade world where each continent steps up what it is doing in order to achieve sustained growth.

from Edward Hadas:

What is the morality of debt?

Debt is a moral matter. While most economic activity is concerned with the “is” of how things are (investment, consumption and so forth), debts are always entwined with an “ought” – to repay. In discussing controversial debts--for example government borrowing in the euro zone and the U.S.--the moral question should be addressed directly: should these debts be paid off in full, or is some forgiveness justified?

Aristotle can help frame the argument. The philosopher condemned all lending at interest because money cannot create wealth by itself; a loan is just a way for the lender to take advantage of the borrower. Some proponents of Islamic finance make a similar argument, but it is not quite right. Capitalism has shown that loans can indeed produce wealth. If the lent funds are invested well, enabling the borrower to improve his lot and the world’s, then interest payments are the lender’s just reward for providing the fruitful funds.

But Aristotle’s moral logic remains relevant; his condemnation is appropriate for loans which do not share wealth justly between borrower and lender. Unfair loans should not be made, and where they have been, full repayment only compounds the original injustice.

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