Eurozone Civilization

15 June 2016

Wednesday


Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk

How briefly can a socioeconomic state of affairs endure and still constitute a distinct and identifiable civilization? To phrase the question in another way, how finely can we parse the concept of civilization? Though this is a question of some theoretical interest, I ask this question now because of recent remarks by President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Tusk was interviewed by the German publication Bild on the topic of the pending referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union (which latter has been given the unfortunate name “Brexit”). Tusk said the following in this interview:

The leave campaign contains a very clear message: “Let us leave, nothing will change, everything will stay as before”. Well, it will not. Not only economic implications will be negative for the UK, but first and foremost geopolitical. Do you know why these consequences are so dangerous? Because in the long-term they are completely unpredictable. As a historian, I am afraid this could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization.

Business Insider, TUSK: ‘This could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization’

And in the original German…

„Die Kampagne für den Brexit hat eine sehr klare Botschaft: ,Lasst uns austreten. Nichts wird sich ändern, alles wird bleiben wie immer.’ Nun, das ist falsch. Nicht nur wirtschaftlich, sondern vor allem geopolitisch wäre es ein Rückschlag für Großbritannien. Warum ist das so gefährlich? Weil niemand die langfristigen Folgen vorhersehen kann. Als Historiker fürchte ich: Der Brexit könnte der Beginn der Zerstörung nicht nur der EU, sondern der gesamten politischen Zivilisation des Westens sein.“

Bild, Nikolaus Blome und Kai Diekmann, EU-Ratspräsident Donald Tusk über die Brexit-Gefahr „Unsere Feinde werden Champagner trinken

There are two interesting qualifications that Tusk makes to his sweeping pronouncement on the beginning of the end of European civilization: “as a historian” (“Als Historiker”) and “Western political civilization” (“politischen Zivilisation des Westens”). I assume that Tusk is making the qualification “as a historian” in order to emphasize that he is not speaking as a politician, or in some other capacity, in this context. (Indeed, Tusk studied history at the University of Gdańsk.) The other qualification — instead of simply invoking “western civilization” he specified “western political civilization” — is more difficult to interpret. One might speculate that he attaches the idea of politics to civilization as a hedge, suggesting that political civilization might unravel, but that is not necessarily the end of civilization simpliciter. However, one probably shouldn’t try to read too much into this qualification.

Can we speak of a Eurozone civilization, or has the Eurozone been too ephemeral in historical terms to qualify as a civilization? I would have no hesitation in referring to a Eurozone civilization, and, in so far as there is a Eurozone civilization, the unraveling of the Eurozone project that could follow from British withdrawal could well begin the unraveling of Eurozone civilization. But let us take a closer look at short-lived civilizations.

I have previously written about Soviet Civilization (cf. Addendum on Failed Civilizations and The Genocide of Homo Sovieticus), which only endured about seventy years, and unraveled when the Soviet Union fell apart. I think that one could, with equal validity, speak of a Nazi civilization, though this endured less than twenty years. In the case of very short-lived political entities like Nazism, it might be more accurate to speak in aspirational terms, i.e., in terms of what the nascent political entity hoped to achieve as a civilization.

In the case of both Soviet civilization and Nazi civilization, we have examples of failed civilizations due to failed central projects; when the central project of these respective civilizations failed, the civilizations failed. Thus if one defines a civilization in terms of a viable central project, the Soviet and Nazi experiments do not constitute civilizations, but rather failed attempts to found civilization de novo. However, this poses additional questions, such as whether a civilization founded on a central project that ultimately proves to be non-viable, but it takes hundreds of years for the civilization to well and truly fail, is a civilization. Should we deny that such failed civilizations constituted civilizations? I think there is a certain bias toward longevity that would make us hesitate to deny a long-lived failed civilization to be a civilization. So should we deny that short-lived failed civilizations are civilizations?

In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I defined civilizations in terms of economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure: where we find both, we have a civilization. I would now amend this, and add that a civilization is an economic infrastructure and an intellectual superstructure joined by a central project. This definition of civilization does not take longevity into account, so it can equally well apply to short-lived or long-lived civilizations.

The Eurozone has all the elements of civilization as I define it. There is an economic infrastructure, which might be identified with Rhine Capitalism; there is an intellectual superstructure, as embodied in the legal and political institutions of the EU, as well as the older ideas of European civilization and western civilization that transcend the specific context of the Eurozone; and there is a central project, the idea of Europe itself, transformed into a political idea.

Superficially, Eurozone civilization would seem to be a highly stable and viable enterprise, as many of the economic institutions and intellectual institutions are mutually supporting. For example, the free movement of populations, now being tested as a central pillar of European integration, is both an economic doctrine and a doctrine of personal liberty. However, despite these apparent virtues of the Eurozone, the project seems doomed to failure in its current incarnation, which, of course, does not mean that the Europeans cannot try again. There have been many movements to unify and integrate Europe over its long history, and we can expect that, if the current template for unification and integration fails, there will be future attempts.

A final thought: Europe has long been unified and integrated as a cultural and intellectual entity, and even as an economic entity. In other words, the unity of Europe is the same as the unity of our planetary civilization: unity in all relevant senses expect political and legal unification. But this legal and political unity has become a kind of fetish, so that we seem to be unable to recognize planetary civilization for what it is simply because we lack a planetary political order (cf. Origins of Globalization). In the same way, Europe has made a fetish of legal and political unification, and this has obscured the extent to which Europe is already one, single European civilization. The transformation of the idea of Europe into a political project may be the essential problem with the Eurozone. The motivation of this project — to prevent any future conflicts on the scale of the world wars of the twentieth century — primarily addresses the Franco-German rivalry that has characterized Europe since the death of Charlemagne. In so far as Britain has always been the “offshore balancer” to this continental rivalry, it is no surprise that Britain is the first powerful nation-state to seriously pose the question of its exit from the EU.

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Pricing Political Risk

25 February 2016

Thursday


David Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and negotiated a deal with the EU to this end, but the deal undermines the EU, so that the EU is weakened regardless of the referendum outcome.

David Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and negotiated a deal with the EU to this end, but the deal undermines the EU, so that the EU is weakened regardless of the referendum outcome.

The inability of the financial sector to price political risk is being made painfully clear by the “Brexit” situation and what it portends for Europe, for the EU, and for global finance. Now, “Brexit” is an unlovely neologism — much like “Grexit,” from which I believe it derives, both being conjunctions of the names of nation-states with the word “exit,” meaning an exit from the Eurozone, and, symbolically, ouster from Europe, the European project, the European idea — but I will employ it anyway, as it has rapidly become the convention.

It is important to observe that there are no good outcomes for the Eurozone in the wake of the British referendum on Brexit. If Cameron gets his way and Britain retains its EU membership, it will maintain this membership under specially negotiated terms, which demonstrates unambiguously that all members of the EU are equal, but some are more equal than others. If the British people vote against the deal and Britain voluntarily secedes from the EU, it will mean that one of the strongest economies in the EU, including the fabled banking center of London, have chosen to leave the EU, like the first rat leaving a sinking ship.

It isn’t just Britain and Brexit, of course. There is the lingering aftermath of the financial crisis, which began with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, spread contagion-like to Europe, but was never resolved satisfactorily because of the financial difficulties of southern European nation-states like Italy and Spain, but especially Greece. Decisive and definitive action to reform Europe’s banking sector could not be pushed through under these circumstances, and now these unresolved problems are manifesting in unexpected and unintended ways due to the refugee crisis in Europe.

I am not predicting financial collapse in Europe, nor I am predicting social collapse in Europe; nor I am predicting large scale social turmoil. Europe is a very civilized place; the Europeans, by and large (and after spending hundreds of years killing each other), understand that it is in their interest to maintain economically, politically, and socially stable societies in which as many citizens as possible can live stable and prosperous lives. The approximately 500 million people in the EU are not going to suddenly shutter their shops, close their businesses, and stop buying things. Business as usual will continue, with interruptions and disruptions. Europe is, however, facing an existential crisis every bit as momentous as the Civil War that tested American unity as a nation-state. The basis of unity is distinct, and the test is distinct, but the danger is parallel.

We all know that, in cases of warfare, violent revolution, or even extreme social turmoil, that a financial position can unwind with shocking rapidity, leaving investors (typically, those investors slowest to respond to the crisis) holding the bag. The combination of financial ruin and the suddenness of its occurrence can be too much for some, and this is when we see people jumping out of windows rather than facing life as impoverished has-beens. It is no surprise that financial traumas of this kind, that emerge not from predictable market forces, but from human, all-too-human events, driven by emotion, passion, and and what Keynes called animal spirits, are put behind the market as quickly as possible, as the survivors go about the again-predictable business of picking up the pieces and going on with life.

Investment advisers like to tell potential investors that “market timing” is irrelevant, and that a prudent and long-term investor will consider market spikes and dips as somehow too petty to notice, almost beneath contempt. But if you invest your life’s savings in something as stable as bonds (like the investors in WPPSS, the Washington Public Power Supply System) or even in the very corporation that employs you (as with Enron employees who were actively encouraged to invest everything in Enron stock), and these apparently stable investment vehicles go sour due to reasons that have little to do with investment strategies, there is nothing left over to get back into the market. Yes, of course, the market will recover again, in time. By that time your retirement may be long over and you will have lived your final years in poverty before dying penniless. In the big picture such instances of individual suffering are unimportant and irrelevant, but to the individual who loses everything, it is everything.

This investment advice to disregard market timing is a rationalization and justification of the inability of the financial sector to price political risk. Political risk is a blindspot for finance capital, and as the world becomes more economically and politically integrated, this blindspot is becoming a serious stumbling block both to understanding and to action.

We have good economic models to describe how even complex industrialized economies function. But an economic model of a society is only a partial model of society. Sometimes business as usual continues even as a society is disrupted by political and social unrest (like the growing US economy despite Civil Rights protests in the 1960s and Vietnam war protests in the 1970s), but sometimes political and social unrest can cross a threshold beyond which business as usual ceases and the political and social unrest become the focus of all attention and business as usual does not recommence until the turmoil is resolved and business begins again under changed circumstances, sometimes even under changed institutions (as happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union).

A more complete model of society would include social and political factors in a way that the social sciences have not yet been able to pull off. At the end of this process would be a model of civilization itself, including economic, political, social, religious, and other factors. I have often pointed out that we lack a science of civilization, and the financial blindspot in pricing political risk is a perfect practical example of what it means to be without a model of civilization.

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Wednesday


Draghi and Padoan

If the Greek financial crisis were merely a financial crisis, i.e., a financial crisis and nothing else, it would be much less of a crisis than it appears to be today. Many commentators have remarked that Greek GDP represents only a very small portion of the total Eurozone economy, so that the amount of agony expended on the Greek problem is far out of proportion to the size of the problem. But the Greek financial crisis is not merely a financial crisis, it is also a political crisis, and it is a political crisis on many different levels. In so far as the Greek financial crisis is a political crisis, the financial crisis sensu stricto may be viewed as a trigger for larger events. It is this that has magnified the crisis.

Analyses of the crisis sometimes focus on the symbolic importance of a Eurozone nation-state going bankrupt, which is crisis for the idea of Europe, while others focus on the potential fallout and knock-on effects of allowing the Greek financial crisis to run its course without outside assistance (i.e., a bailout and debt forgiveness), which is a financial crisis that ripples outward and grows with its expansion — a trigger event with catastrophic consequences, the textbook case of which is the beginning of the First World War.

A few voices — not many, but a few — have suggested that, implicit in monetary union without banking union was the idea that future crises in the European Monetary Union (EMU) would force a reckoning that would presumptively be resolved by turning to ever closer European integration, so that Europe would gradually, hesitatingly, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back, lurch its way toward full economic integration, and eventually even to full political integration. This is a more sophisticated analysis that sees the Greek crisis in a larger context, and I will not dismiss it out of hand, but I also cannot bring myself to make the many leaps that this argument requires. When have European crises been resolved by tighter integration? European integration has come about, when it has come about, as the result of peacetime negotiations, and not as a response to crisis.

This scenario has been hinted at (although not made fully explicit — nowhere is this formulation fully explicit) by no less a figure than ECB head Mario Draghi:

“This union is imperfect, and being imperfect is fragile, vulnerable and doesn’t deliver, doesn’t deliver all the benefits that it could if it were to be completed. The future now should see decisive steps on further integration.”

Even more recently, in an article on the front page of the Financial Times, “Italian finance minister says political union needed to ensure euro’s survival” (Monday 27 July 2015), Pier Carlo Padoan is quoted as saying, “The exit and therefore the end of irreversibility is now an option on the table. Let’s not fool ourselves… If we want to take that risk away, then we have to have a different euro — a stronger euro… To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy… And this fiscal policy must respond to a parliament, and this parliament must be elected. Otherwise there is no accountability.” Here the whole program is laid out with the relentless logic of a domino theory: if you want to have the Euro, you need full-fledged, economic union, and if you want to have a functioning economic union, you need to have a European government with real power. The only thing missing in this account is the expectation that the first formulation of the Eurozone would inevitably result in crises, and the crises would be the trigger for these dominoes to fall.

Those who see the Greek financial crisis in its geopolitical context express concerns of Greek alienation from the Eurozone resulting in closer ties with Putin’s Russia, recalling Cold War fears when Greece was one of the proxy theaters of the Cold War. It is entirely possible that Greece, rebuffed by the Eurozone, may turn to Russia for loans, and the Putin would be ready and willing to provide these loans, despite the desperate condition of the Greek economy (and, for that matter, of the Russian economy as well), for political reasons rather than for economic reasons. (And in a changed political climate Russian loans would likely be paid back even if European loans were not paid off.) This strikes me as a more plausible scenario than the above interpretation involving a purposeful trainwreck.

It was a great Cold War coup that NATO was able to persuade rivals Greece and Turkey both to join NATO in 1952, when Greece was the only Balkan nation-state to be part of the western military alliance. Now other Balkan nation-states are NATO members, and Greece is not isolated in the region as a consequence of its NATO membership, but it would be a source of particularly acute tension to have a leftist Syriza government courting closer ties with Putin’s Russia at a time of European unease over Russian actions in Ukraine.

The attempt to unify Europe economically dates even to before NATO, and began as a geopolitical project to forestall European wars on the scale of the mid-twentieth century, and now that Eurozone is facing its greatest challenge since the implementation of the EMU, the unification of Europe will continue, if at all, as a geopolitical project.

The economic rationale for European economic union seems to be present — i.e., the economic union of Europe seems to make sense, but just because something seems to make sense doesn’t mean that it is practicable. In the particular case of Greece, accession to the Eurozone was highly impractical. Greece entered into the European Monetary Union (EMU) with a wink and a nod. There was a sotto voce acknowledgement that Greece did not meet the macroeconomic requirements of joining the EMU, but everyone looked the other way anyway because it was thought that Greece was hitching its wagon to a star; the EMU and the European wide common market was going to be such a grand success that the problem was going to be keeping the “wrong sort” out (like Turkey, which repeatedly expressed its interest in joining the Eurozone, but excuses were always found to exclude the Turks). Here the political rationale trumps the economic rationale.

When a large and diverse geographical area is contained within the borders of a single nation-state — as with the United States, Russia, China, India, or Brazil — this geographical diversity is often expressed in economic diversity, with wealthy regions and cities contrasted with impoverished regions and cities. Within a single nation-state wealth transfers will sometimes be undertaken to offset these extremes in the form of state institutions and mechanisms. These wealth transfers can range from generous to nearly non-existent depending on the nation-state in question. We see this in a much more limited way in the international system, when wealthy nation-states will sometimes give aid and assistance to impoverished regions of the world, but this kind of aid never reaches the level of wealth transfers seen within a single nation-state.

The unification of a nation-state from multiple territories, and the subsequent imposition of a unified system of banking and taxation, constitutes a microcosm reflecting the opportunities and risks that face larger-scale attempts at economic and political unification, as in the case of the Eurozone. The unification of Italy from 1815 to 1871 — a process requiring more than a half century, but roughly corresponding to the span of time of post-war Europe — and the unification of Germany in 1871, both contain detailed lessons for a unified Europe. The unification of Germany has, of course, been a fraught matter. Libraries of books have been devoted to the topic. The unification of Italy has sometimes been cited as one cause of the economic backwardness of southern Italy in comparison to the dynamic north of the country; coupling these diverse norther and southern regions into one national state with a single set of national institutions has not come without consequences.

The reader who has made it thus far may find themselves expecting me to make a case for the rescue of the Greek economy at any cost in order to salvage the geopolitical project of the Eurozone, which was, after all, never conceived primarily as an economic project. It is an economic project secondarily, but a geopolitical project primarily. I am not going to make this argument, which has been made many times, and which is fatally flawed. Europe remains a continent of nation-states (like every continent except Antarctica). Power lies in the sovereign legislatures of each nation-state, in their economic capacity, and in their respective militaries (or the lack thereof). If Europe is salvaged as a geopolitical project, it will be because some European nation-state, or combination of nation-states, determines that it is in their sovereign interest to salvage the Eurozone, and not because some abstract entity like “Europe” commands the loyalty of any population or its military forces.

In Armed Prophets of Revolution I cited Machiavelli’s distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. Here is the passage in question:

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI

While it is no longer the custom in Europe to offer up prayers for ideological programs, the secular equivalents of prayers are daily being published in the organs of mainstream thought in Europe. The Eurozone (and its advocates among Europe’s elite opinion) are unarmed prophets of transnational political unification. As unarmed prophets, we would expect them, following Machiavelli, to be destroyed. But Europe exists under the security umbrella provided by the United States, so that while the Eurozone itself may be an unarmed prophet, it is an unarmed prophet with an armed faction prepared to defend it.

What will the US, as the security guarantor of Europe, see as its geopolitical interest in European unification? Will the US provide the muscle to allow the great European experiment to continue, or will it accept European fragmentation, as long as that fragmentation does not follow the pattern of the Balkan wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia (that other great European experiment in the political unification of the South Slavs, whose earlier fragmentation provided us with the term “Balkanization” and triggered the First World War)? At present, the US is making only cautionary statements and is not actively involved in what is, in effect, the re-negotiation of the Eurozone. With an upcoming US election, one would not expect any new political initiatives from the US in regard to the Eurozone. With the US deeply mired in crises in other parts of the globe, Europe is not high on the agenda.

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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, and have occasionally returned to the problem in subsequent pieces, including the following posts:

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

Europe and its Radicals

Default in the Eurozone

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Saturday


Euro sign

An introduction to brinkmanship

The emerging consensus in the financial press is that Greece must default on its debt obligations. No longer is the question, “Will Greece default?” but rather then question is, “When will Greece default?” After a pause, another question comes up: “How exactly will Greece default?” Will a Greek default mean Greece leaves the Eurozone (or, rather, the EMU, the European Monetary Union), or will Greece default and a way will be found to keep the country in the EMU? The more these questions are followed by further questions the more obvious it becomes that those asking the questions are seeking justifications and rationalizations to retain Greece within the Eurozone even as it defaults.

During the last episode of Greek default brinkmanship it became increasingly obvious that the powers that be would find a way to avoid Greek default and exit from the EMU (known by the ugly coinage “Grexit”). How do we know this? There was no significant shorting of the Euro in currency markets. Greek bonds took a hit, but they didn’t collapse. In the final analysis, no one really believed that anything dire would happen. Financial markets remained calm. Now that we are once again approaching the brink, and the drumbeat in the financial press is that Greece must default this time, again financial markets are mostly calm. The Euro is not plunging in value (the Euro is lower in value, but not at historic lows), and Greek bonds recently rallied on the assumption that the sidelining of Yanis Varoufakis would make negotiations easier. It seems, once again, that the conventional wisdom is that the worst will be avoided. In other words, a way will be found for Greece to default on its debt and to remain within the EMU so as to create the fewest waves in the markets.

There are at least two interesting things to notice about this process. The first is how far an institution (or institutions) can be pushed in a desired direction in order to obtain a desired result. The Eurozone is today a rather different entity than when the Eurozone treaties were drafted in the late 1990s and the Eurozone was only imagined. Today the Eurozone is at a crossroads, but as important as the crossroads is the long road behind it — a road of repeated and flagrant violations of the Maastricht criteria that were to govern the Eurozone, in which no nation-state has been held to account for its violations. In this context, the further violations required to keep Greece after default in the EMU do not seem particularly outrageous, as they would have seemed to those drafting the Maastricht criteria.

The “convergence” that didn’t happen

Here a little history is in order, and not the history that you are likely to get from those tying themselves in knots to try to find ways not to put the Eurozone asunder. The conditions for accession to the EMU (also known as “convergence criteria”) are known as the “Maastricht criteria” (cf. Who can join and when?):

Price stability, to show inflation is controlled;

Soundness and sustainability of public finances, through limits on government borrowing and national debt to avoid excessive deficit;

Exchange-rate stability, through participation in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II) for at least two years without strong deviations from the ERM II central rate;

Long-term interest rates, to assess the durability of the convergence achieved by fulfilling the other criteria.

Of course, these are statements of general principle and not quantifiable economic measures, but the Eurozone also has stipulated quantifiable economic measures, and there is a lot of fine print involved in these stipulations.

It is now known and generally acknowledged that Greece did not meet the convergence criteria when it was admitted into the EMU. It doesn’t take much research to find the documentation on this, but you do have to have a memory that goes back more than ten years. Also cf. The politics of the Maastricht convergence criteria by Paul De Grauwe.

Plausible deniability for the Eurozone

To understand why Greece failed to meet accession criteria but was admitted anyway one must enter into the mindset of those laying the groundwork for the EMU. The Eurozone’s monetary union was viewed as a shoe-in for success, and getting in on the ground floor was seen as something as a coup for a marginal economy like Greece, which had hitched its wagon to a star. The people of Greece had only to sit back and watch their economy soar into the stratosphere, pulled along by German and French economies. By allowing Greece into the EMU with a wink and a nod, the EU has plausible deniability when it comes to Greek entry into the Eurozone — their papers were in order, if falsified — but no one at the time really believed the Greece met the Maastricht criteria.

In all fairness, while the Eurozone did not enforce its own accession conditions for the entrance of Greece into the EMU, other nation-states within the Eurozone have repeatedly and routinely failed to meet Eurozone convergence criteria, and they have not been held to account. No consequences follow from having too large of a budge deficit or allowing inflation to get out of hand. The individual economies within the Eurozone appear to enjoy complete impunity in regard to the convergence criteria. This is how the Eurozone has arrived at its present position, which is that of trying to find excuses to allow Greece to default while remaining within the institutional structure of the Eurozone and the EMU.

Cognitive bias as a guide to political economy

To return to the two things I said above deserve to be noted in the present situation, the second thing to notice is that, however far an institution (or institutions) can be pushed, there eventually comes a breaking point — the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were — and the real brinkmanship going on is not whether Greece will default or whether Greece will leave the Eurozone, but whether the Eurozone will push its institutions to the breaking point. I want to pause over this ancient problem of brinkmanship and breaking points, because recent scholarship can shed light on this in an unexpected way.

A good portion of Daniel Kahneman’s book about cognitive biases, Thinking, Fast and Slow (especially Part I, section 9, “Answering an Easier Question”), is devoted to cognitive biases in which we substitute an answer for a difficult question with an easier question that we know how to answer and to which we can give a definitive answer. I don’t think that we can stress strongly enough how important (and how under-appreciated) this insight is in relation to economics and politics. All you have to do is to read the reasoning of traders in volatile commodities, and review their elaborate justifications for investments that miss the point of the biggest questions, in order to see how profoundly this affects our world today. Because it is relatively easy to talk about quantitative measures of the economy, and what these have predicted in the past, but it is very difficult to say exactly when public discontent is rising to the point that an unprecedented disruption (or a revolution) is about to occur, it is not surprising that economists and politicians alike prefer to answer the easy question, and sometimes they even convince themselves that the easy question is the only question.

The theology of the insurance adjustor

Not to worry. Insurance companies are ready for such unprecedented events. I have often reflected on the theology of the insurance adjustor who must adjudicate between events anticipated by the language of a policy and those events not anticipated or predicted, and so come under the all-embracing umbrella of “Acts of God.” Wikipedia says that, “An act of God is a legal term for events outside human control, such as sudden natural disasters, for which no one can be held responsible.” This term of art from the insurance industry can paper over a multitude of sins and cognitive biases: deal with the easy problem you’ve substituted for the difficult problem, and then when the difficult problem asserts itself, call it an “Act of God” (or the political equivalent thereof).

If we are honest, we must admit that we do not know what will become of the Eurozone and the EMU. Trying to predict the future of an enterprise so large and so complex is like trying to predict the weather: we can say pretty well what will happen tomorrow, within certain parameters, but the farther we go into the future the more our models for predicting the future diverge, until at some point different models are making inconsistent if not antithetical predictions. This is the essence of a chaotic system, and financial markets and political communities are chaotic systems.

A political and not an economic union

The Eurozone is not fundamentally economic, but political. It is a political project masquerading as an economic project, and while diplomacy often requires masquerades, when the music stops and the ball comes to an end, the masks must come off. Because the Eurozone is a political project, the glosses on its presumed political meaning are legion. I have read accounts in reputable media claiming that it was the intention of the Eurozone that, once economic unification had started, member states would lurch from crisis to crisis, and these crises would force member states to surrender political sovereignty, thus slowly transforming the Eurozone into a political union — perhaps the political union it should have been from its inception. I wouldn’t go quite this far, but such an account at least understands that only political union would make possible the wealth transfers within the Eurozone that would make the EMU workable in the longer term.

Since these is no clear idea of what the Eurozone stands for, one cannot convict the Eurozone of hypocrisy or contradiction. And there is no question that the Eurozone can find some way for Greece to default and to remain within the Eurozone, but any such arrangement will have to accept that Greece will in no sense be an equal member of the Eurozone and EMU. What, then, will Greece be?

What will become of Greece?

Quite some time ago I noted the possibility of “Euroization,” that is to say, the adoption of the Euro as a currency by a nation-state (or other political entity) not part of the EU, much less the EMU. There is precedent for this in dollarization — the use of the US dollar outside US territories. The Ecuadorian economy dollarized, and the Argentinian economy is partially dollarized, with real estate purchases traditionally transacted in US dollars and its many dollar-denominated financial instruments.

If Greece defaults but remains within the EMU, it will become a de facto “Euroized” economy that employs the Euro as its currency, but which has little real participation in the European economy. The Greek economy is not large enough, even in its presumed implosion, to seriously threaten the economies of the other EMU nation-states. If Greece defaults and exits the EMU, both Greece and the remaining nation-states of the EMU will pass through a painful adjustment, but Greece would probably be better off than languishing in the perpetual twilight of Euroized poor cousin to the EMU.

Some consequences of a Greek exit form the EMU are quite easy to guess. Tourism has been a major component of the Greek economy for some decades, and it is likely that most of the upmarket hotels patronized by foreign visitors will price their rooms in dollars or Euros, and in so doing a major sector of the Greek economy will take in hard, convertible foreign currencies. This alone will keep a substantial portion of the Greek economy in operation, even if no one wants to think of their country as nothing but a tourist destination. This is not at all unusual. Many hotels I have stayed at in South America price their rooms in dollars, and some will only take dollars. I especially noticed this in Argentina when I was there in 2010. Even as the Argentine economy stumbles under mismanagement, those who have a hotel that attracts foreign guests capable of paying in hard convertible currencies can do quite well in such an economy desperate for dollars. But while the Greek economy can subsist, after a fashion, on tourism, agriculture was always the strength of the Argentinian economy, and tourism does not represent a substantial contribution to the overall economy.

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Wednesday


Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

Financial crisis or political crisis?

Democracy does not come naturally to the governments of Europe. Europe may have the institutions of democracy, and have them in a stronger form than elsewhere in the world, but democracy has shallow roots in the Old World, and in extremis we are not surprised to see Europe move in the direction of statism or populism. The problem of elite opinion, which I began to examine in The Technocratic Elite, is especially strong in Europe, and it repeatedly encounters the limits of engineering consent.

Because of the strong democratic traditions of the nation-states of the western hemisphere, governments are eventually aligned more-or-less with public opinion, but in Europe the attempt to maintain a facade according to which elite opinion is presented as mass opinion leads to periodic instability in which the distance between elite and mass opinion opens up like a fault line during an earthquake, at time swallowing whole the political order entire. The European press, which is itself split between elite opinion and mass opinion, documents this divide. If you visit a European nation-state you will find highbrow media of a quality far superior to that of the US, but you will also find popular newspapers and magazines pandering to the lowest common denominator (the “yellow press”). The individual who reads the Financial Times (as I do) is likely to never read The Sun, and vice versa.

I do not read the mass opinion press of Europe, so I do not know what it says, but I read quite a bit of the elite opinion media from Europe, and this tells us that Syriza, just elected to power in Greece, is a “radical party” of the left; the press also tells us that the National Front in France is a “radical party” of the right. There is a real concern, rooted in the painful lessons of European history, that Europe might once again turn to radicalism and extremism. How radical are these parties? Is Syriza a front for Stalinism or the National Front a front for fascism? Is Europe truly on a verge of an ugly populism that must be suppressed in order to assure the continuity of democratic institutions in Europe? This, as I read it, is the sotto voce position of elite opinion in Europe.

There are, of course, limits to European radicalism. One of the best explications of these limits that I have heard was to be found in a series of lectures by Jeremy Shearmur, an Australian philosopher and political scientist, who recorded a series for The Great Courses titled “Ideas in Politics.” Like many of my favorite lectures from The Great Courses, these have been discontinued and are no longer available (other discontinued favorites include An Introduction to Archaaeology by Susan Foster McCarter and The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophy, Theories and Interpretations by Darren Staloff). Shearmur noted in one of his lectures that if a truly radical government were elected, as soon as it came to power there would serious financial consequences: the currency would be bid down on international markets, foreign investors would seek to take their money elsewhere, and the country would become an international pariah. The leaders of a radical regime would then be forced from financial necessity to try to step in and calm the markets by making moderate-sounding statements. The lesson is that all the advanced industrialized nation-states are tightly integrated into the international financial system, and it would be quite painful for anyone of them–even a smallish economy like that of Greece–to separate themselves from this system.

What I have just described is a mechanism of moderation within elite opinion that guides the international system. It is assumed that political leaders will say radical things to get elected, but as soon as they get elected they will begin to moderate their stance. In fact, we have already seen this with Syriza in Greece, and the deal that Greece struck with the EU was not quite the renunciation of its bail out that Syriza had campaigned on. In fact, this pattern is so predictable that truly radical leaders with little or no concern for pragmatism have been elected on the assumption that, once they came to power, they would moderate their tone and their demands. This was one of the mechanisms that made it possible for Hitler and the Nazi party to come to power.

But this is not Germany in 1933. Conditions have changed. Indeed, we could with greater justification call these changes “radical” that to call contemporary European political parties or their leaders “radical.” The rule of Syriza is not going to initiate a new communist crackdown on Greek society, in which artists and poets will be jailed and Lysenkoism is imposed upon agriculture. Syriza may well effect an economic leveling that makes everyone except the nomenklatura and apparatchiks equally poor (this is, after all, what communist regimes typically do), but making everyone equally poor through economic policies known to be disastrous might be stupid, and it might mean the loss of an enormous amount of human potential, but it is unlikely to be criminal in the way that twentieth century communist regimes were criminal. Moreover, these are the policies that the people have voted for, and apparently it is necessary every single generation that people be taught a lesson on the unworkable nature of socialist economic policies.

If Syriza is communist (and Yanis Varoufakis, e.g., has been very upfront about the influence of Marx on his own views), it is a kinder and gentler form of communism (to borrow a phrase from George H. W. Bush). And if the National Front is fascist, it is kinder and gentler form of fascism. No more than Syriza is going to jail opposition intellectuals is Marine Le Pen and the National Front going to preside over a Kristallnacht aimed at Muslims living in France, though if you read the records of elite opinion in Europe you very clearly get the idea that there is a profound undercurrent of anxiety that extremists will come to power in Europe who will repeat the most brutal episodes in European history. However, this anxiety seems to be almost entirely focused on a right-of-center populist reaction against Muslim influence in Europe, as elite opinion journals seem to have little interest in the rise of an extremist left.

It could be argued that Europe would benefit from some political diversity (not to mention controversy), since monolithic elite opinion since the end of the Second World War has had the practical effect of denying the bully pulpit to alternative views. The election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the rallies of Pegida in Germany, and the improving poll numbers of the National Front in France are in this sense welcome. In so far as they give the bully pulpit to politicians who do not automatically mouth the euphemisms of elite European opinion, they actually give greater credibility to the EU and its programs.

In so far as the EU and the PR spin doctors of Europe’s elite opinion seek to deny even a voice to radical and marginal parties, they are making the same mistake in relation to politics today that they made with religion in earlier centuries. Instead of a free market of ideas, the attempt to shape a top-down definition of acceptable views has the opposite effect of making the “official” view laughable while piquing curiosity about the other views. In so far as some view is universally condemned in official sources, intellectually alert individuals will take notice and will suppose that there is something of interest and possible even something that is a clear and present danger to the established order in these marginal views.

Of course, the Europeans are not so stupid or as vulgar as to ban minority views outright (although there are a number of laws that make it illegal to make certain claims), but kinder and gentler elite opinion (like kinder and gentler communism and fascism) can be almost as effective in mere disapproval as it can be in outright legal sanction. Again, one need only pay attention to the monolithic on-message character of European politics. If you’re a careerist, you cannot possibly afford to neglect this.

With Round Two of the Eurozone crisis being played out across Europe, and headlines looking a lot like they looked a few years ago, although this time with Syriza in power in Greece, European elite opinion is faced once again with kicking the can down the road or dealing with the problems on the merits. Given the record of European elite opinion being so tightly focused on message, in contradistinction to meaningful action, the likely result seems to be further muddling through while hoping all turns out OK in the end. How many times can Europe lurch to the brink of crisis only to lurch backward from the brink at the last possible moment? European elite opinion worries about the brinkmanship of Europe’s radicals, but it is elite opinion itself that is pushing Europe toward the brink.

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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, including the following posts:

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

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Tuesday


Mario Monti said of the Euro that, “the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there.” Today, perhaps yes, but what will the will be tomorrow?

Each time the Eurozone puts together another bailout package the markets follow with a brief (sometimes very brief) rally, which collapses pretty much as soon as reality reasserts itself and it becomes obvious that most of the measures constitute creative ways of kicking the can down the road, while those more ambitious measures that are more than kicking the can down the road are probably overly ambitious and not likely to be practical policies in the midst of a financial crisis.

Simply from a practical point of view, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can believe that a more comprehensive fiscal and political union can be brought about in the midst of the crisis, although formulated with the best intentions of saving the Eurozone, since the original (and much more limited) Eurozone was negotiated, planned, and implemented over a period of many years, not over a period of few days as inter-bank loan rates are climbing by the hour. Apart from this practical problem, there are several issues of principle at stake in the Eurozone crisis and the attempts to rescue the European Monetary Union.

Mario Monti was quoted in a Reuter’s article, Monti says EU hinges on summit talks outcome: report, in defense of strengthening financial and political ties within the Eurozone as a way to save that Euro that:

“Europeans know where they’re going… the markets are convinced that having given birth to the euro, the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there and will be strengthened by other steps towards integration.”

Can the Euro be made “indissoluble and irrevocable”? Can anything be made indissoluble and irrevocable? I think not, and this is a matter of principle to which I attach great importance.

I have several times quoted Edward Gibbon on the impossibility of present legislators binding the acts of future legislators:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.

Since I have quoted this several times (in The Imperative of Regime Survival, The Institution of Language, and The Chilean Model, e.g.), implicitly maintaining that it states an important principle, I am now going give this principle a name: Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle.

As I have tried to make explicit, Gibbon’s Principle holds for political entities, but I have also quoted a passage from Sartre that presents essentially the same idea for individuals rather than for political entities:

“I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational. I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be. Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be. Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” Nor does this mean that I should not belong to a party, but only that I should be without illusion and that I should do what I can. For instance, if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (lecture from 1946, translated by Philip Mairet)

This I will now also name with a principle: Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle.

If that weren’t already enough principles for today, I going to formulate another principle, and although this is my own I’m not going to name it after myself after the fashion of the names I’ve given to Gibbon’s Principle or Sartre’s Principle. This additional principle is The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual (admittedly awkward — I will try to think of a better name for this): political autonomy is predicated upon individual autonomy. In other words, Gibbon’s Principle carries the force that it does because of Sartre’s Principle, and this makes Sartre’s Principle the more fundamental.

At present I am not going to argue for The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual, but I will simply assume that Gibbon’s Principle supervenes upon Sartre’s Principle, but I wanted to make clear that I understand that there are those who would reject this principle, and that there are arguments on both sides of the question. There is no establish literature on this principle so far as I know, as I am not aware that anyone has previously formulated it in an explicit form, but I can easily imagine arguments taken from classic sources that bear on both sides of the principle (i.e., its affirmation or its denial).

Because, as Sartre said, “men are free agents and will freely decide,” the Euro cannot be made “indissoluble and irrevocable” and the attempt to try to make it seem so is pure folly. For in order to maintain this appearance, we must be dishonest with ourselves; we must make claims and assertions that we know to be false. This cannot be a robust foundation for any political effort. If, tomorrow, a deeper economic and political union of the Eurozone becomes of the truth of Europe, this does not mean that the day after tomorrow that this will remain the truth of Europe.

And this brings us to yet another principle, and this principle is a negative formulation of a principle that I have formulated in the past, the principle of historical viability. According to the principle of historical viability, an existent must change as the world changes or it will be eliminated from history. This means that entities that remain in existence must be so malleable that they can change in their essence, for if they fail to change, they experience adverse selection.

A negative formulation of the principle of historical viability might be called the principle of historical calamity: any existent so constituted that it cannot change is doomed to extinction, and sooner rather than later. In other words, any effort that is made to make the Euro “indissoluble and irrevocable” not only will fail to make the Euro indissoluble and irrevocable, but will in fact make the Euro all the more vulnerable to historical forces that would destroy it.

When I previously discussed Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle (before I had named these principles as such) in The Imperative of Regime Survival, I cited an effort in Cuba to incorporate Castro’s vision of Cuba’s socio-economic system into the constitution as a permanent feature of the government of Cuba that would presumably hold until the end of time. This would be laughable were it not the source of so much human suffering and misery.

Well, the Europeans aren’t imposing any misery on themselves on the level of that which has been imposed upon the Cuban people by their elites, but the folly in each class of elites is essentially the same: the belief that those in power today, at the present moment, are in a privileged position to dictate the only correct institutional model for all time and eternity. In other words, the End of History has arrived.

Why not make the Euro an open, flexible, and malleable institution that can respond to political, social, economic, and demographic changes? Sir Karl Popper famously wrote about The Open Society and its Enemies — ought not an open society to have open institutions? And would not open institutions be those that are formulated with an eye toward the continuous evolution in the light of further and future experience?

To deny Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle is to count oneself among the enemies of open societies and open institutions.

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Friday


There is a famous song by The Beatles that begins, “I read the news today, Oh boy.” This is what I felt like when I looked at today’s Financial Times (since I am still a newspaper reader, despite the declining position of the papers today). The Old World once again appears to be coming apart at the seams. All around the Mediterranean basin, throughout the region where once reigned the Roman Empire, there is turmoil: the Eurozone economic crisis playing out in Greece, Italy, and Spain, the Egyptian military canceling the election results, and civil war in Syria.

The failures in Europe and the failures in the Arab world will certainly interact in unpredictable ways. What remains to be seen — unlikely though possible — is whether these failures escalate each other and result in a complex catastrophic failure of the complex system that is the Old World. Will European economic failure mean that peoples from the Arab world will no longer seek to migrate to Europe, or will it mean that Europe’s weakness will create the conditions allowing a greater transfer of population? This is a complex question, and only time can tell what direction events will take.

When the Eurozone was created there were predictable but also believable claims made on its behalf that it would surpass the US as an integrated economic zone. Now we know that this is not going to happen. The next few years and decades will see countless analyses of what went wrong with the Eurozone. There will be more than one diagnosis, and ongoing events in Europe will continue to churn the mix, turning up further interpretations.

What lies ahead for Europe? Will Europe have a “lost decade” such as Japan experienced, or more than a decade? Again, only time will tell, but there are some general observations that can be made. The future of European development will exemplify regionalism rather than continental integration. I have suggested that a new economic zone in Northern Europe, a modern analogue of the Hanseatic League, might be more successful as an economic bloc. Even if nothing so ambitious is tried again, and there is no Hansa to replace the Euro, the economics of Northern Europe are likely do much better than those of the south. All one needs to do is to look at their economies today to see that they are set for future development, while much of Southern Europe is set for stagnation.

It took a decade for the Euro to reveal its fatal weaknesses. It took a year for the Arab Spring to reveal its weaknesses. It would be easy to be cynical about what has been accomplished, or what was not accomplished, by the protests throughout North Africa, the Levant, and the Persian Gulf, but we should not abandon our hope so quickly.

The Arab peoples have been living under perversely repressive regimes for decades, and in some cases for centuries. Such stagnancy from retrograde regimes cannot be shaken off in a year. We should understand the Arab Spring, whatever its successes or failures, as one of those periodic uprisings that mark societies struggling to free themselves. There will be further unrest, and more Arab Springs to come in the future.

Denis Diderot, committed as he was to the extirpation of the old order in the Old World, notoriously said, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” This was never more true than it is today, although today we ought to say, “Man will never be free until the last Sheik is strangled with the entrails of the last Mullah.”

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Thursday


It continues to be a fascinating exercise to read the Financial Times each day to see the ongoing machinations and maneuvering around the fate and future of the Eurozone currency union. Some say it will be held together; others say Greece and a few others will leave the currency union and things will be fine; there are a few who insist that a Greek exit means that the currency union will collapse altogether. I have myself added to this lengthy debate with several posts, such as What would a rump Eurozone look like? and The Economic Future of Europe.


Euro area Member States
Non-euro area Member States
Member States with an opt-out

I have suggested that with the departure of marginal economies (nation-states that never were peer-competitors to the core Eurozone economies) will leave the Euro stronger than before, and with prospects for a distant futurity. The proof of this is that, while the Euro is down on international currency markets, it has not been aggressively bid down in a scenario such as would be the case if currency traders expected the Euro to be circling the drain. In comparison to other major world currencies, the Euro remains today in a stronger position than when it was first issued.


Which countries have adopted the euro – and when?


However, some of the recent arguments I have read suggesting that the Eurozone cannot continue to exist in its current form post-Greek departure have in them a hard kernel of truth. Some of this is semantics: if we say that the Euro cannot continue in its current form, all we are saying is that it could continue in an altered form. Read a little deeper in the context, though, and it becomes apparent that there rather more pessimism about the Euro than is captured by a mere semantic shift from the Euro based in the current Eurozone and a Euro based in a Eurozone minus Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland.

One of the reasons that the Euro is not being aggressively bid down on international currency markets is that the core Eurozone economies have strong fundamentals, and these fundamentals are not going to disappear in a puff of smoke even if the Euro evaporates. Germany and France will continue to do business in some currency or other, and while their economies would take a major hit from the demise of the currency union, their fundamentals will ensure that they will recover and eventually resume economic expansion.

What I would like to suggest is that the Eurozone adopt a policy of economic shock therapy and take the bad news all at once, on the principle that a ratcheting downward of the Eurozone would create economic chaos and uncertainly each time a nation-state departed the currency union (a consequence of European leaders’ failure to see far enough down the road to make institutional provisions for both entry into and exit from the Eurozone). Europe could conceivably perpetuate the crisis of the Eurozone for a decade if marginal member nation-states fell away once every year or two. This would be a worst-case scenario that would set back the whole of the European economy for more than a decade as ongoing adjustments are made in the wake of further departures.

However, such a radical shock therapy need not mean the abandonment of some kind of currency union in Europe. I have suggested previously that the nation-states of Northern Europe that are on a more-or-less equal economic footing, and with more-or-less comparable social institutions and expectations, can work together well within a currency union in which tough economic standards are expected, enforced, and adhered to. Such a currency union of Northern Europe would roughly correspond to the extent of the Hanseatic League, which was a medieval trading group that flourish in the later middle ages and the early modern period — an international trading corporation before there was any such legal entity as a corporation or any such political entity as a nation-state (and therefore no sense of “internationalism” as we think of it today).

The Extent of the Hanseatic League in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period.

A currency union in Northern Europe that roughly approximated the geographical region that once comprised the Hanseatic League would, I think, not only be sustainable, but would be a benefit to its members in the same way that being part of the Hanseatic League was a benefit to these late medieval and early modern merchants with their trading depots around the Baltic Sea. Rather than being dragged backward by non-compliant members, a union of economic peers would serve to pull each other forward. Strong provisions in any treaty governing such a union could ensure this not only by having a clearly defined legal process for departure from the union, but also, and as importantly, a clearly defined legal process to eject non-compliant members from the union.

In the map of Europe that I have colored below I have identified in a bright (Euro!) blue those nation-states that could probably cooperate in a strong Northern European currency union. This union could be “strong” in terms of its exclusivity and its willingness to exclude members that failed to maintain acceptable macro-economic targets. Membership would be a privilege, not a right; in the initial enthusiasm for the Euro, the sense of exclusivity was lost, which sentiment standing in for enforceable macro-economic standards. This Northern European currency union could be called, in deference to history, the Hansazone, and the currency could be called the “Hansa.” If the Swedes and the English could be persuaded to join too, all the better. This would work; the Eurozone as it is now constituted does not work.

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A “Hansazone” for a currency union in Northern Europe.

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Monday


OK. So the G-8 summit at Camp David has concluded with an official communique, a declaration laying out the agenda of member nation-states, with the top agenda item (nos. 2 through 9) being “The Global Economy.” There is scarcely a word in the document that is not hedged. Even in the title to this section we have an equivocation, since by “the global economy” the G-8 really means their concerns about the Eurozone — whether Greece will leave the currency union, what follow-on contagion effects such a Greek departure might have, whether there will be a run on European banks, how much the Eurozone economies will contract as a result of the financial crisis, and whether market pressures will also force Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and possibly even Italy out of the Eurozone.

The G-8 declaration talks the talk of growth. Indeed, it talks a lot about growth. The word “growth” appears ten times in sections 2 through 9. The G-8 has even seen fit to include such dispensably obvious nostrums as, “Our imperative is to promote growth and jobs.” If you have to say it, you’re probably already in trouble. And in fact we know that the Eurozone already is in trouble. The bill has come due for 67 years of welfare state largesse, which means that two or three generations of Europeans have been raised up in the belief that they are entitled to a cradle-to-grave social support network, regardless of consequences or conditions.

Here are some further unsurprising declarations from the G-8 declaration:

“…we commit to take all necessary steps to strengthen and reinvigorate our economies and combat financial stresses, recognizing that the right measures are not the same for each of us.”

“We welcome the ongoing discussion in Europe on how to generate growth, while maintaining a firm commitment to implement fiscal consolidation to be assessed on a structural basis.”

“We all have an interest in the success of specific measures to strengthen the resilience of the Eurozone and growth in Europe.”

There is a sense in which it is almost comical to engage in public rhetoric of growth while the Eurozone economies are shrinking because of the financial crisis and the greatest worry is stopping a run on the banks, but if it is comical it is black humor and no laughing matter.

What exactly does “growth” mean in this artfully vague declaration by the G-8? “Walking the walk” of growth might mean Keynesian-style financial stimulus, in which governments would undertake to spend money (perhaps on “shovel-ready” projects) in order to “kick-start” the economy by the influx of money, jobs, and economic activity. It might even mean the economically largest nation-states in the Eurozone — Germany and France — using their money for economic stimulus in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy. And how long would such a practice be expected to continue? Once you begin spending German money on Greek construction projects, where does it end? More likely, the talk of growth means Eurobonds mutually issued and mutually backed, with the proceeds ploughed into the ailing economies. These aren’t really “growth” measures; they are firewalls to contain a crisis, but they must be said to be about “growth” because the public does not want to hear about austerity.

Does anyone believe that this is really going to happen? The Eurobonds might happen, but the longer the crisis goes unresolved, the more those Eurozone nation-states with something to lose will hesitate to throw good money after bad. And since there is a tendency to kick the can down the road rather than to take decisive action, things can easily go from bad to worse, making it look like marginal Eurozone members are clearly not worth saving, and even more clearly not worth sacrifices on the part of another nation-states and their peoples.

So what is really going on here? Under pressure from vacuous protests from people who are angry but have no ideas that will move the debate forward, no constructive policy prescriptions, and no agenda beyond an economic cri de cœur, the heads of state of the largest and wealthiest nation-states in the world today have issued a vacuous declaration. This is, in short, a feel-good measure — tit-for-tat vacuity.

However, dangerous illusions are perpetrated by vacuous protests and vacuous declarations intended to mollify vacuous protests: the idea that government declarations can create jobs or grow the economy, the idea that government services can expand while tax revenues fall, the idea that no one need suffer in an economic downturn, the idea that someone or some institution is to blame for the business cycle, and that by punishing the malefactors that the body politic can be made whole again. This is not an exhaustive list.

The most obvious and most dangerous illusion is that talk can substitute for action. There is a very old phrase for those who will not be honest about their public pronouncements: crying wolf. What happens when you cry wolf too many times? No one pays attention when there really is a wolf at the door.

If you prefer a Biblical reference to a fairy tale, I can cite Jeremiah 6:14, where the prophet says, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” Our politicians today say growth, growth when there is no growth, and there is no prophet who is apparently willing to speak truth to power in this respect, despite the superficial currency of that slogan (i.e., “speaking truth to power”).

Finally, if you prefer classical antiquity to fairy tales or Bible prophets, I can cite the famous passage from Thucydides about corruption of language that came from radicalization during the Peloponnesian War:

“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.”

Though we face no war like the Peloponnesian War, we see that under the political pressure of the economic crisis in Europe that words are forced to change their ordinary meanings. Dishonesty and the degradation of language have follow-on effects every bit as severe as austerity measures: it becomes impossible to discuss the economy honestly, impossible to tell people what they need to hear, and difficult if not impossible to act decisively when decisive action might make a decisive difference.

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Monday


The eurozone currently consists of Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

There is no question that it is unwise to engage in speculation at a time when events are poised at a moment of decision, but is there any moment that is truly free of historical consequence, when speculation might be a safer and more certain undertaking? I think not. Another time I will attempt to explain why not, which involves a careful consideration of several points in the philosophy of history, but I will leave that particular justification for another time and boldly press forward on the prospects of the Euro and the Eurozone, even as the Greeks continue to have difficulties forming a government after their recent elections, and even as the new president-elect of France, Francois Hollande, has not yet revealed the precise policies that will be implemented in the attempt to make good on his campaign promises assuring growth instead of austerity.

I have several times discussed the nature and difficulties of the Eurozone, first in a trio of posts about the crisis in Greece as it first become evident — The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone and Will the Eurozone Enact a Greek tragedy? and Can punitive fiscal policy work? — and then in further posts about the Eurozone periphery more generally, beyond Greece — A Return to the Good Old Days, Can collective economic security work? and Poor Cousins. My most frequently read post on the Euro, Shorting the Euro, while still accurate is no longer timely. Since then I wrote What would a rump Eurozone look like?.

The Eurozone is a great economic experiment in the way that the US is a great political experience: both have represented a revolutionary new order while building on past experience. This, if nothing else, makes the Eurozone fascinating. In the categories of my own thought the Eurozone is not quite an intelligent institution since it was constituted with mechanisms for nation-states to enter the Eurozone but no mechanisms for a nation-state to exit the Eurozone. Most culpably of all, the Eurozone was designed without a mechanism for either 1) forcing compliance of member states with its standards, or 2) forcing member states to collectively come to the aid of a failing member state (or, I could also observe, some combination of the two).

If the Eurozone had had either of these two mechanisms — compulsory and enforceable standards, or compulsory wealth transfer from richer to poorer states — the acute problem in Greece at the moment, and the possibly chronic problems in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, would present definite options. Without a formal mechanism for resolving the crisis, the financial crisis becomes a political crisis that it did not have to become.

The consensus in the financial press at the present time is that the Franco-German core of the Euro will remain intact, and that Francois Hollande will not set out to enact any radically socialist policies (cf. President Hollande and the IMF) that would doom either France or the Euro to the kind of perpetual economic twilight experienced by the nationalizing likes of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, or Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Hollande knows well enough on which side France’s bread is buttered, and his campaign rhetoric must be understood as something entirely parallel to the “red meat” speeches given in the US by both Republicans and Democrats during the primary season, only to be dialed back drastically when it comes to the general election.

But matters are altogether different outside the Franco-German core of the Eurozone, as what was once merely whispered is now on the front pages of the newspapers: the likelihood that Greece will leave the Eurozone. (cf. Greece, France and the future of the euro and EU central bankers ponder Greece euro exit) Indeed, today’s Financial Times had Greece on the front page (Fear grows of Greece leaving euro) and the inside pages (Greek exit from eurozone ‘possible’) as well as a new week-long series, “If Greece goes…”

What will the Greeks do if they leave the Eurozone? Will they take to the printing presses and start printing Drachmas until everyone has a satisfying pocketful of money and the economy is driven into hyperinflation and the Greeks impose on themselves the austerity that they were unwilling to accept from the Germans? Since it seems to be universally believed that a bloated public sector and no expectation of paying taxes is a good thing, maybe they will suspend taxes altogether in Greece, and add anyone who likes to the public payroll dole. Not surprisingly, such steps aren’t going to revitalize the Greek economy, promote prosperity, or stoke economic growth.

What Greece does have to offer is an enormous tourist industry, whose beaches and islands and quaint hotels with tavernas around the corner will suddenly become attractive to northern Europeans when they once again because an inexpensive playground, which will happen if Greece exits that Euro and allows a fully floating Drachma that can be bid down on the international currency markets. Of course, tourists hate riots, and they would prefer not to see news stories about pensioners committing suicide in the capital as a protest. A single negative newspaper story can ruin an entire tourist season, and the hotels and restaurants wait and hope that next year will be better.

This may sound cynical, but it is realistic, and as close to true as I cam capable of getting. In actual fact, the reintroduction of the Drachma will necessarily be partial. The very wealthy already hold their assets in financial instruments not directly linked to Greece. Those not truly wealthy, but who have enough assets that they know to protect themselves, will already have their assets (other than real estate) moved out of Greece to the extent that this is possible. For the lower income bracket, the lower prices that will likely come (barring hyperinflation) from Greece re-adjusting its internal price mechanisms will make life slightly more affordable, but any assets held in Greece will essentially be ruined.

In practice, Greece will use both the Drachma and the Euro, because the Euro isn’t going away; the Euro will continue to be used in the rest of Europe, and will continue to be used as a secondary reserve currency around the world. The Euro will continued to be used in Greece, but Greece will no longer have any rights in determining administration of the Euro. I suggested once that the adoption of the Euro in peripheral European countries could be understood as a pre-emptive Euroization of the European periphery, with “Euroization” understood analogously to “Dollarization.” Greece will be related to the Euro as Ecuador is related to the US dollar. In fact, Greece will come close to approximating what I have called currency pluralism.

Under these conditions, the Greek economy will slowly and gradually improve its position, but no one will mistake the Greek economy as a peer competitor to the core states of the Eurozone. The Greeks will learn that if they riot, they will damage the one source of revenue that they can count on — tourism — and those who can accept this deal will reconcile themselves to life in the slow lane. The ambitious will leave for other parts of Europe or to America.

What will the rest of Europe do upon the exit of Greece from the Eurozone?

The Eurozone is a paradigmatically technocratic institution that presumes to organize and administrate the ordinary business of life without imposing any kind of ideological constraints on member states. Critics of the free market model of western capitalism linked to liberal democracy never tire of pointing out the ideological presuppositions of trans-national institutions like the Eurozone, the World Bank, and the IMF. I imagine that many of the Greek leftists now aspiring to form a government probably buy into much of this critique. But as they rail against the center and consciously enact policies intended to prove that they were right all along, they will only be guaranteeing the economic marginalization of Greece.

The implicit ideology of the Eurozone, however, is not that of the “Washington Consensus” with its deregulation and privatization, low tax rates and minimal government (otherwise known as Yanqui imperialism). Rather, the ideology of the Eurozone is that of the post-modern welfare state, with its cradle-to-grave social support system and a social consensus in which (in the words of the oft-disparaged Malthus), “each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample.” You can call this the “Brussels Consensus” if you like.

In very small nation-states with ethnically homogeneous populations and a strong Protestant work ethic, the Brussels consensus works marvelously — in fact, it works better in such places than it works in Brussels itself. And that is why the Scandinavian nation-states regularly top all lists of the world’s stable democracies with the highest standards of living. But the rest of Europe, much less the rest of the world, cannot make itself over as Sweden or Norway, Denmark or Finland. However, those regions of Europe and the Eurozone that already approximate this social milieu, will continue to thrive in the economic context of the Eurozone.

As the Eurozone moves northward and begins to add stable and growing economies from the former Soviet periphery — chiefly Poland, but also the Baltic states — the geographical area of the Eurozone will come more and more to resemble that of the Hanseatic League, the great medieval trading network of Northern Europe (a trans-national corporation from before the age of nations and corporations). If you are unfamiliar with the Hanseatic Leagues, I urge you to watch Jonathan Meades’ wonderful documentary, Magnetic North, which offers a sketch of the trading bloc that is both erudite and amusing.

The Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome may soon be severed from the industry and commerce that is Northern Europe, and Europe will continual to evolve regionally in ways that are consistent with regional economic cultures. Balkan Greece will have its own Orthodox tradition in the Balkans. Catholic Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Mediterranean islands) will eventually realize its own slower track version of the Eurozone, closer to the Eurozone than Greece, but not quite the same as the Franco-German core. Protestant Northern Europe will continue to optimize the currency union for those nation-states that are capable of maintaining the economic standards of the Eurozone.

If the Eurozone treaty can grow and evolve and change with the times, the Eurozone that will result will be more efficient and effective than the Eurozone as it is known today. If only those nation-states that are peer competitors can enter the currency union on terms of being true economic equals, this bond will grow and strengthen over time. The “Euroized” periphery will benefit from the trickle-down from a vibrantly economically competitive Northern European economic zone, but life will be different for them. It is silly to pretend otherwise.

There will be both opportunities and dangers in this changed and changing Europe. As has been the case from time out of mind, the clever and the ambitious will exploit the opportunities and will live well; the slow and the timid will will accept their lot.

Thus Europe will come to exemplify the maxim that Thucydides attributed to Athens at the height of Athenian hubris, though displaced from the political into the economic realm: the strong will do as they will, while the weak will suffer what they must.

Is this kind of economic hubris unsustainable? Not in the least. It was the model for Europe in antiquity, as we have seen in the case of Athens, and which was no less true of Rome, and it was the model for Europe again throughout the Middle Ages. This is the European way, however much they seek to deny it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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