Germany Co-Signing Loans for Drunk Cousin with a Gambling Problem (Greece)
If you want to pinpoint the leading source of bad economic policy proposals, I would understand if someone suggested the Obama Administration. But looking to Europe might be even more accurate.
For instance, I’d be hard pressed to identify a policy more misguided than continent-wide eurobonds, which I suggested would be akin to “co-signing a loan for your unemployed alcoholic cousin who has a gambling addiction.”
And now there’s another really foolish idea percolating on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The U.K.-based Financial Times has a story about calls for greater European centralization from Italy.
Italy’s finance minister has called for deeper eurozone integration in the aftermath of the Greek crisis, saying a move “straight towards political union” is the only way to ensure the survival of the common currency. …Italy and France have traditionally been among the most forceful backers of deeper European integration but other countries are sceptical about supporting a greater degree of political convergence. …Italy is calling for a wide set of measures — including the swift completion of banking union, the establishment of a common eurozone budget and the launch of a common unemployment insurance scheme — to reinforce the common currency. He said an elected eurozone parliament alongside the existing European Parliament and a European finance minister should also be considered. “To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy,” Mr Padoan said.
This is nonsense.
The United States has a monetary union and an economic union, yet our fiscal policy was very decentralized for much of our nation’s history. And Switzerland has a monetary and economic union, and its fiscal policy is still very decentralized. Heck, the evidence is very strong that decentralized fiscal systems lead to much better outcomes.
So why is Europe’s political elite so enamored with a fiscal union and so opposed to genuine federalism?
There’s an ideological reason and a practical reason for this bias. The ideological reason is that statists strongly prefer one-size-fits-all systems because government has more power and there’s no jurisdictional competition (which they view as a “race to the bottom“).
The practical reason is that politicians from the weaker European nations see a fiscal union as a way of getting more transfers and redistribution from nations such as Germany, Finland, and the Netherlands.
In the case of Italy, both reasons probably apply. Government debt already is very high in Italy and growth is virtually nonexistent, so it’s presumably just a matter of time before the Italians will be looking for Greek-style bailouts. But the Italian political elite also has a statist ideological perspective. And the best evidence for that is the fact that Signore Padoan used to be a senior bureaucrat at the Paris-based OECD.
The Italian finance minister…served as former chief economist of the OECD.
You won’t be surprised to learn that French politicians also have been urging a supranational government for the eurozone. And presumably for the same reasons of ideology and self-interest. But here’s the man-bites-dog part of the story.
The German government also seems open to the idea, as reported by the U.K.-based Independent.
Wow, don’t the politicians in Berlin know that a fiscal union is just a scheme to extract more money from German taxpayers?!? As I wrote three years ago, this approach “would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.“
But maybe the Germans aren’t completely insane. Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky explains that the current German position is to have a supranational authority with the power to reject national budgets.
The German perspective on a political and fiscal union is a little more cautious. Last year, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and a fellow high-ranking member of the CDU party, Karl Lamers, called for a euro zone parliament (not elected, but comprising European Parliament members from euro area countries) and a budget commissioner with the power to reject national budgets if they contravene a certain set of rules agreed by euro members.
And since the German approach is disliked by the Greeks, then it can’t be all bad.
Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Schaeuble’s most eloquent hater, pointed out in a recent article for Germany’s Die Zeit that, in the Schaeuble-Lamers plan, the budget commissioner is endowed only with “negative” powers, while a true federation — like Germany itself — elects a parliament and a government to formulate positive policies.
But “can’t be all bad” isn’t the same as good.
Simply stated, any sort of eurozone government almost surely will morph over time into a transfer union. And that means more handouts, more subsidies, more harmonization, more bailouts, more centralization, and more bureaucracy.
So, you can see why Europe’s political elite may be even more foolish than their American counterparts.