The Corner

EUbris

Paul Krugman is spot-on here on the problems in Spain (which could ultimately dwarf those of Greece):

Now, if Spain were an American state rather than a European country, things wouldn’t be so bad. For one thing, costs and prices wouldn’t have gotten so far out of line: Florida, which among other things was freely able to attract workers from other states and keep labor costs down, never experienced anything like Spain’s relative inflation. For another, Spain would be receiving a lot of automatic support in the crisis: Florida’s housing boom has gone bust, but Washington keeps sending the Social Security and Medicare checks.

But Spain isn’t an American state, and as a result it’s in deep trouble. Greece, of course, is in even deeper trouble, because the Greeks, unlike the Spaniards, actually were fiscally irresponsible. Greece, however, has a small economy, whose troubles matter mainly because they’re spilling over to much bigger economies, like Spain’s. So the inflexibility of the euro, not deficit spending, lies at the heart of the crisis.

None of this should come as a big surprise. Long before the euro came into being, economists warned that Europe wasn’t ready for a single currency. But these warnings were ignored, and the crisis came.

Now what? A breakup of the euro is very nearly unthinkable, as a sheer matter of practicality. As Berkeley’s Barry Eichengreen puts it, an attempt to reintroduce a national currency would trigger “the mother of all financial crises.” So the only way out is forward: to make the euro work, Europe needs to move much further toward political union, so that European nations start to function more like American states.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. What we’ll probably see over the next few years is a painful process of muddling through: bailouts accompanied by demands for savage austerity, all against a background of very high unemployment, perpetuated by the grinding deflation I already mentioned.

It’s an ugly picture. But it’s important to understand the nature of Europe’s fatal flaw. Yes, some governments were irresponsible; but the fundamental problem was hubris, the arrogant belief that Europe could make a single currency work despite strong reasons to believe that it wasn’t ready.

Dead right — and also about the point that the monetary union can only work within the context of a closer political union (that was one of the reasons I have always opposed the single currency). My only quibble is that while I would agree that a break-up of the euro remains unlikely and that Krugman’s projection of bailouts plus austerity (or at least demands for austerity) is correct, I don’t think that we should entirely discount one possibility: that Germany and the Benelux leave the euro (we could debate some other candidates to go too), leaving the euro as the weak currency that the rest of Europe really needs.

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