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Monday, March 16, 2009

Paul Krugman: A Continent Adrift

Was European integration and the creation of a common currency a mistake?:

A Continent Adrift, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: I’m concerned about Europe. Actually, I’m concerned about the whole world... But the situation in Europe worries me even more than the situation in America.

Just to be clear, I’m not about to rehash the standard American complaint that Europe’s taxes are too high and its benefits too generous. Big welfare states aren’t the cause of Europe’s current crisis. In fact,... they’re actually a mitigating factor.

The clear and present danger to Europe right now comes from ... the continent’s failure to respond effectively to the financial crisis.

Europe has fallen short in terms of both fiscal and monetary policy... On the fiscal side, the comparison with the United States is striking. Many economists ... have argued that the Obama administration’s stimulus plan is too small... But America’s actions dwarf anything the Europeans are doing.

The difference in monetary policy is equally striking. The European Central Bank has been far less proactive than the Federal Reserve; it has been slow to cut interest rates..., and it has shied away from any strong measures to unfreeze credit markets.

The only thing working in Europe’s favor is the very thing for which it takes the most criticism — the size and generosity of its welfare states, which are cushioning the impact of the economic slump.

This is no small matter. Guaranteed health insurance and generous unemployment benefits ensure that, at least so far, there isn’t as much sheer human suffering in Europe as there is in America. And these programs will also help sustain spending in the slump.

But such “automatic stabilizers” are no substitute for positive action.Why is Europe falling short? Poor leadership is part of the story. European banking officials ... still seem weirdly complacent. And to hear anything in America comparable to the know-nothing diatribes of Germany’s finance minister you have to listen to, well, Republicans.

But there’s a deeper problem: Europe’s economic and monetary integration has run too far ahead of its political institutions. The economies of Europe’s many nations are almost as tightly linked as the economies of America’s many states... But unlike America, Europe doesn’t have the kind of continentwide institutions needed to deal with a continentwide crisis.

This is a major reason for the lack of fiscal action: there’s no government in a position to take responsibility for the European economy as a whole. What Europe has, instead, are national governments, each of which is reluctant to ... finance a stimulus that will convey many if not most of its benefits to voters in other countries.

You might expect monetary policy to be more forceful. After all, while there isn’t a European government, there is a European Central Bank. But the E.C.B. isn’t like the Fed, which can afford to be adventurous because it’s backed by a unitary national government — a government that has already moved to share the risks of the Fed’s boldness, and will surely cover the Fed’s losses if its efforts to unfreeze financial markets go bad. The E.C.B., which must answer to 16 often-quarreling governments, can’t count on the same level of support.

Europe, in other words, is turning out to be structurally weak in a time of crisis. ... Does all this mean that Europe was wrong to let itself become so tightly integrated? Does it mean, in particular, that the creation of the euro was a mistake? Maybe.

But Europe can still prove the skeptics wrong, if its politicians start showing more leadership. Will they?

    Posted by on Monday, March 16, 2009 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Financial System, Fiscal Policy | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (55)

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