Magazine | October 10, 2016, Issue

How Not to Fix the Euro: More Leftism

The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe, by Joseph E. Stiglitz (Norton, 416 pp., $28.95)

Imagining that a large number of very different economies could be squeezed into a single poorly constructed currency was one fatal conceit. Imagining that the story of what happened next could be squeezed into one rigid “narrative” was another — but that’s what economist Joseph Stiglitz has done in The Euro, a badly flawed book about a disastrous idea.

Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and a Columbia professor, has been crusading for years now against the wickedness of “neoliberalism,” a term that, like “late capitalism,” says more about the person using it than about what it purports to describe. Check out the titles of some of his more recent books: “The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do about Them,” “The Price of Inequality,” “Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.” The Euro is the latest installment in a long leftist tirade.

Stiglitz has valuable points to make on the EU’s dangerous monetary experiment, but it’s easy to lose sight of them amid all the pages devoted to his insistence that the devastation caused by the single currency is another example of the havoc that “market fundamentalism” has wrought.

Yet the euro was, at its core, an exercise in central planning. Stiglitz concedes that it was a “political project” to accelerate the process of European integration. But more than that, it was to be a challenge to the supremacy of the dollar and a permanent brake on the unruliness of foreign-exchange markets, ambitions far removed from market fundamentalism. Indeed, one of the earlier critics of the proposed new currency was Milton Friedman, not that Stiglitz finds the room — or the grace — to mention it.

Stiglitz questions the economic rationale behind the euro (arguing, intriguingly, that, contrary to the claims of its advocates, it was always likely to operate against convergence within the bloc) and the way that it was put together: The structures needed to make it work properly weren’t there. Yet his list of those responsible for the inevitable crisis is tellingly incomplete. To be sure, he acknowledges the important (and often overlooked) fact that individual governments could — even within the constraints of the euro zone — have done more to head off disaster than conventional wisdom now suggests, but, for the most part, he blames the Left’s preferred bogeymen, greedy bubble-blowing bankers and their accomplice, light-touch regulation.

But while there were undoubtedly areas in which regulation was too lax, the greater problem was that regulators were nudging financiers in wrong directions, whether it was toward real-estate-linked lending or into the belief that Greek sovereign risk was not that much greater than German. In the early years of the euro, Greece had to pay (on average) less than 0.3 percent more to borrow than Germany. That was nuts, but those steering the euro zone had persuaded themselves that the economies of the countries now locked into the currency union had truly converged. They hadn’t. And, crucially, the warning signals that would have been sent by the currency markets of old — a drachma crash, say — had been silenced. Ideology trumped reality, politics trumped markets, and the result was catastrophe. There’s a lesson in that, but Stiglitz doesn’t appear to see it.  

Stiglitz is on safer ground criticizing the steps, from bullying the Irish government to assume private bank debt to the indiscriminate emphasis on “austerity,” taken by the euro zone’s leadership after the crisis erupted. The former is very hard to defend, and the latter was, in some cases at least, overdone, poorly timed, or both: There’s a limit to the extent to which a country can be expected to deflate its way to recovery. But to attribute — as Stiglitz does — the tough love shown by the “Troika” (the European Central Bank or ECB, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund) responsible for the euro zone’s bailouts to market fundamentalism is, to put it at its kindest, a misreading. What drove it was the complex internal politics of the currency union.

Stiglitz rightly highlights the difficulty of reconciling the management of the single currency and basic democratic principle. As he notes, voters in the euro zone’s laggards were offered no serious alternative to the harsh and sometimes questionable treatment prescribed for their countries. Beyond that essential but unremarkable insight, he touches on a broader, somewhat neglected issue: what it means when a democracy transfers the oversight of key areas of the economy from the legislature to technocrats and, specifically, to “independent” central banks such as the ECB, a practice Stiglitz attributes to the then (supposedly) prevailing “neoliberal ascendancy.”

That’s a debatable proposition to start with and it has next to nothing to do with the independence of the ECB, which echoes (as Stiglitz recognizes) the traditions of the Bundesbank (Buba), Germany’s legendary central bank. Far from being the product of late-20th-century neoliberalism, Buba’s independence — and its inflation-fighting mandate — date back to its origins in a ruined country that believed it knew where debauching a currency could lead.

Without Germany, there would have been no euro. But, proud of their Deutschmark, German voters didn’t want to switch to a new currency. Sadly, they were never given the chance to reject it, but assurances from their government that the ECB would, for all practical purposes, be a Buba 2.0 were part of a package of promises (no bailouts was another) designed to soothe their unease. Stiglitz discusses the fact that Germany shaped the ECB but fails to give enough weight to the democratic concerns that help explain why.

In any event, those promises were broken, and not just by a series of bailouts. Whether by effectively permitting local central banks to “print” new euros, or by allowing unpaid balances to mount up in its clearing system, or, belatedly (Stiglitz would argue), by a series of increasingly elaborate market operations culminating in the European version of “quantitative easing,” the ECB has turned out to be far less stingy a central bank than German voters had been led to believe it would be.

Stiglitz does not seem too bothered by this: Some democratic failures are evidently more equal than others. He is (legitimately) angry about the way that the Troika forced out the socialist Greek premier George Papandreou (his “long-term friend”), but he has nothing to say about the not-dissimilar putsch that replaced a less ideologically sympathetic figure, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with an unelected, obedient proconsul.

Then again, this is the Stiglitz who claims that the objectives of European integration included “strengthening democracy” — a revealing interpretation of a project born of the notion that Europe’s voters could not be trusted to keep the peace. The idea behind what became the EU was that power should be transferred away from democratic nation-states to a supranational authority staffed by largely unaccountable technocrats. And over the decades, it was, often by the sleight of hand made necessary by European electorates’ stubborn suspicion of Brussels’ relentless drive toward ever closer union.

But a new currency was not something that could be introduced on the sly. People would notice. To a greater or lesser degree, the inhabitants of the future euro zone would have to consent to such a change, and to a greater or lesser degree they did. But they were not prepared to surrender enough sovereignty to give the euro a better chance of success. As much as Stiglitz might wish otherwise, that hasn’t changed. If there is to be any realistic prospect of keeping the current euro zone intact while restoring prosperity to its weaker brethren, it will, one way or another, involve a pooling of resources, but the richer countries won’t agree to that on terms that the poorer could accept. This impasse owes nothing to market fundamentalism and a great deal to the absence of a shared identity: Germans are Germans, Greeks are Greeks; neither are Eurozonian. They lack the needed sense of mutual obligation.

Stiglitz maintains that if the euro zone’s members won’t agree to a more comprehensive monetary union, big trouble lies ahead, threatening not only the euro but, maybe, the broader European project. I’m not convinced: “Muddling through” with what Stiglitz labels a blend of “temporary palliatives” as well as some “justly celebrated” deeper reforms has kept the currency going so far, albeit at a terrible cost. It could continue to do so for quite a while yet. And, despite the best efforts of the rebellious Brits, the EU seems set to endure too.

It’s worth adding that Stiglitz’s definition of that more comprehensive monetary union begins, understandably enough, with a credible “banking union,” debt mutualization, and the like, but then spills over into a vision of a command-and-control euro zone that — if that is what is really required to make the currency union work well — is another good argument for putting a stake through it once and for all.

A different way to go could, reckons Stiglitz, be the creation of a system under which euro-zone countries (or groups of countries) adopt “flexible euros” that trade against each other within a (much) more tightly managed version of Europe’s earlier exchange-rate regimes. He also puts forward yet another solution, some form of “amicable divorce”: Either Germany (alone or in conjunction with other northern European countries) should quit the euro zone, or the currency should be divided into new euros — northern and southern, a division that has, in my view, long been the right way to go. What unites these alternatives is the welcome recognition that one size does not fit all: A currency must reflect the realities of its home economy. Tragically, there’s no sign that the central planners in Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Paris, and Berlin agree. After all, they tell us, the euro-zone crisis is over.

We’ll see.

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