Europe and the US: the tortoise and the hare

Comparing the European economy to that of the US reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the race between the tortoise and the hare.  The US’s flexible labour and product markets, and decisive interventions in time of crisis, give it the ease of the hare.  To US politicians you only have to mention Europe to conjure up a picture of stagnant, over taxed and socialist economies.

But the tortoise wins the race in the fable.  And indeed, if you look beyond crude GDP growth statistics the race looks close, depending on the precise time frames and so on.  GDP per head tells a different picture to aggregate GDP (this is regularly quoted by The Economist, though I haven’t found a recent example to link to).  Other statistics on the incidence of poverty, life expectancy and so on, show Europe in a better light – though the US still does well in self-reported wellbeing, but not as well as Scandinavian countries.

All of which demonstrates how commentators, especially in the US and here in the UK (whom I shall collectively call the Anglo Saxons, following French practice – though this is a dangerous shorthand) don’t understand the dynamics of European economic policy.  As the EU lurches into another round of crises, this is worth taking on board.   Once again the US hare looks better placed than the European tortoise.  But look closer, and it isn’t so clear.

This is not to underestimate the scale of the crisis facing the Eurozone in particular.  Massive problems confront the economies of Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal; the French economy is not in a place of safety either.  But Anglo Saxon commentators tend to relentlessly focus on the short term problems, to the exclusion of longer term issues, which they assume best dealt dealt with at a later time.  Europeans (from which I exclude the British, for now, though for most purposes the British are very much European) tend to look at the problem differently.  A crisis is one of the few opportunities to tackle longer term problems, and fixing the crisis while neglecting the long term is criminal.

The southern European economies are inefficient by developed country standards, and uncompetitive within the current Euro structure, and can’t sustain the level of social benefits that their electorates have come to expect.  This lack of competitiveness was not invented by joining the Euro – it predates it, and is based on decades of poor economic leadership.  Joining the Euro gave these economies a boost by reducing government borrowing costs – but this boost was used to put solving the bigger problems off until later.  Their northern European partners are to blame for going along with this, until a crisis threatened to engulf them all.  When the Euro project was launched, its supporters advocated it on the basis it would force governments to confront the inefficiencies of their economies, rather than rely on devaluation to put the problem off – a strategy that ultimately leads to stagflation, and even hyperinflation.  But somehow these supporters seemed think that the omelette could be made without breaking eggs.  But Europe’s leaders are keenly aware of their mistakes now.

The position of the southern European economies is not unlike that of Britain in the 1970s.  A massively inefficient and uncompetitive economy had been kept alive by a benign international economic climate, until the 1973 oil shock knocked it over.  There was no quick fix, no macroeconomic palliative to ease the pain.  A floating currency hindered rather than helped.  The turning point came in 1976, when the Labour government had to call in the IMF.  Then started a painful process of government cuts and market reforms.  This wasn’t what the party had promised when elected in 1974, and the government was grudging in the reform process.  They lost the election in 1979, with Margaret Thatcher being swept to power, redoubling the pace of the reform process through the 198os.  This cut huge swathes through much of British industry – making the current economic crisis in the UK look like a picnic, whatever the GDP figures say.  It took about a decade of pain from 1976 before clear benefits started to show.

A similar hard road awaits the southern European economies.  Leaving the Euro and devaluing won’t help (during the Thatcher years, to continue the comparison, the pound stayed high), and is institutionally much more difficult than most Anglo Saxon commentators assume.  Europe’s politicians know this, and so aren’t looking for quick fixes.  They are looking at a process of near continuous crisis in which the institutions, and political culture, required to make the Euro work are gradually put in place.   Greece may be a casualty – it faces a real danger of being expelled from the Euro and probably the Union as a whole (it’s difficult to disentangle the two).  It is slowly but surely being isolated to make that option less and less of a threat to the zone as a whole.  But unlike many British commentators assume, Greece will find life no easier outside the Euro.

Martin Wolf’s gloomy article in today’s FT illustrates the difficulty Anglo Saxon commentators have in viewing the scene – and Mr Wolf is no shallow commentator.  He makes reference to the comparison with Britain, thus:

This leaves “structural policies”, which is what eurozone leaders mean by a growth policy. But the view that such reforms offer a swift return to growth is nonsense. In the medium run, they will raise unemployment, accelerate deflation and increase the real burden of debt. Even in the more favourable environment of the 1980s, it took more than a decade for much benefit to be derived from Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in the UK.

Structural reforms are dismissed as taking too long.  But is there any other way that such necessary reforms can be taken forward?  Surely the British case illustrates that miserable economic performance for an extended period is unavoidable?

How different from the US approach!  By comparison, the US’s economic problems are nowhere near as great as those facing southern Europe: at the core the US economy remains wonderfully competitive.  But they have a terrible problem of government finance and social justice, which neither politicians nor public want to confront.  Instead we get a series of short term fixes, which look decisive, but which simply increase the scale of the problem that has to be tackled later.   Americans have to choose between higher taxes and reduced Medicare and Social Security benefits, or some combination of both – and yet neither are seriously on the political agenda.

In the fable the hare loses the race because he is so confident he takes a nap.  A similar misjudgement by America’s political class, abetted by British and American observers is in the process of unfolding.


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