The reality of ‘political economy’ is something that irritates many economists – the ”purists”, if you like. The political element is impossible to model; it often flies in the face of textbook economics; and democratic decision-making and backroom horse trading can be notoriously difficult to predict and painfully slow. And political economy is all pervasive in 2010 – Barack Obama’s proposals to rein in the banks is rooted in public outrage; reading China’s monetary and currency policies is like Kremlinology; capital curbs being introduced in Brazil and elsewhere aim to prevent market overshoot; and British budgetary policies are becoming the political football ahead of this spring’s UK election. The list is long, the outcomes uncertain, the market risk high.
But nowhere is this more apparent than in well-worn arguments over the validity and future of Europe’s single currency — the new milennium’s posterchild for political economy.
For many, the euro simply should never have happened – it thumbed a nose at the belief that all things good come from free financial markets; it removed monetary safety valves for member countries out of sync with their bigger neighbours and put the cart before the horse with monetary union ahead of fiscal policy integration. But the sheer political determination to finish the European’s single market project, stop beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations and face down erratic currency trading meant the currency was born and has thrived for 11 years.
Now the budgetary and bond market upheaval currently afflicting euro member Greece and stalking Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy has reawakened the whole debate. “Will the euro survive?” seems a legitimate question once again.
Apart from financial analysts, Paul Krugman seems to have made his peace with the euro’s existence but he still reckons it was a bad idea. Eric Maskin thinks financial markets are right to question the future of the single currency. And much is being made once again of Milton Friedman – high priest of 20th century monetarism – having reportedly said in 1998 that the euro would not survive the zone’s first serious economic downturn.