FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The US and the Euro Crisis

by MARK WEISBROT

The eurozone recession is now the longest on record for the single currency area, according to official statistics released last week, as the economy shrank again in the first quarter of this year. A comparison with the U.S. economy may shed some light on how such a profound economic failure can occur in high-income, highly-educated countries in the 21st century.

While the U.S. economy is still weak and vulnerable, the record 12.1 percent unemployment in the eurozone is still a lot worse than our 7.5 percent here. The most victimized countries like Spain and Greece have unemployment of about 27 percent.

The contrast between the U.S. and Europe is all the more striking because Europe has much stronger labor unions, social democratic parties, and a more developed welfare state. Yet the eurozone has implemented policies far to the right of the U.S. government, causing needless suffering for millions more people. How does this happen? The answers have little to do with a “debt crisis” but everything to do with macroeconomic policy, ideology, and – perhaps most importantly – democracy. As such these questions are relevant not only to the populations of both of these economic superpowers, but to most of the world.

Let’s start with democracy: most of the eurozone countries have little to no control over the most important policies that the government can use to increase employment and income, includingmonetary, exchange rate, and increasingly, fiscal policy. They have ceded this control to the eurozone authorities – most importantly the European Central Bank (ECB). The decision makers for the more victimized countries – including Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy – are now “the Troika”: the ECB, European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They have their own agenda, and their priority is not restoring employment or even bringing about a speedy economic recovery.

Before returning to that agenda, let’s contrast the economic decision makers of the eurozone with those of the United States. Our central bank, the Federal Reserve, is officially independent of the government. Like the ECB, it has often acted against the interests of the majority, favoring powerful financial interests – most recently in its enabling of the $8 trillion housing bubble that caused the Great Recession. But the Fed is still accountable in some ways. Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has to report regularly to Congress, and the Fed has some fear that Congress might reduce its autonomy if it were to ignore the public interest too flagrantly. (They were not pleased about legislation approved by the U.S. House last year that required, for the first time, an audit of the Fed’s books; it remains blocked in the Senate.)

The ECB, by contrast, has no such constraints. In fact, for most of the last three years, the Troika has actually used the recurrent financial crises in the eurozone to pursue a political agenda: rolling back, as much as possible in a European context, the welfare state. The ECB could have avoided most and possibly all of these crises by simply stabilizing the interest rates on Spanish and Italian government bonds. But as was evident in numerous press reports, the ECB and its allies feared that to end the threat of a full-blown financial crisis would “remove the pressure” on governments to make the reforms that they wanted: cutting pensions and unemployment insurance, weakening unions’ collective bargaining rights (as in Spain), and shrinking government generally.

Finally in the fall of last year, ECB President Mario Draghi made some statements indicating that the ECB would stabilize Spanish and Italian bonds. He got tired of near-death experiences, apparently; and after more than a dozen European governments (including Sarkozy’s in France) had fallen, the ECB and its allies were running up against some political limits. This change in policy, which put an end to the most severe, recurring financial crises in Europe, can be partly attributed to the very slow impact of a severely limited form of democratic input. That included of course massive street protests and electoral events such as the surge of the Greek left party Syriza.

But this “democracy” is far too restricted and slow moving to save the millions of unemployed whose lives are being wasted; and most importantly, it only ended the acute crises and not the continuing recession caused by the austerity measures enforced by the Troika. This has an important lesson for any country: don’t give away your economic sovereignty, on the most important macroeconomic policies that most of your nation’s livelihood depends upon – unless it is transferred to a set of institutions that you can really trust. Which of course is the opposite of what was created with the eurozone, with its built-in bias towards austerity in recession, and a central bank that was religiously committed to not caring about employment.

Again, the contrast with the U.S. is worth noting. Even if Mitt Romney had been elected, he would not have dared to implement the kind of austerity that would push the U.S. back into recession. He would want to get re-elected. That is not to say that eurozone officials have a monopoly on macroeconomic stupidity: the sequester in the U.S. is currently slowing the U.S. economy and causing unnecessary harm. But it was not as easy to get this result here; it is not as severe; and it will be easier to reverse than in Europe.

What then is the hope for Europe? Another political lesson, which most union leaders know, is that it’s difficult to win any concessions without bargaining power. So far, almost none of the political leaders in the most victimized countries, including Spain and Greece, are willing to simply refuse the Troika’s conditions, for fear that it would lead to their exit from the euro. So the Troika doesn’t see much reason to let up on the austerity. In that sense the most promising recent development has been the meteoric rise of the populist Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy. He has been willing to talk about a referendum on leaving the euro, and his movement got the largest number of parliamentary seats of any single political party in the February Italian elections.

The case needs to be made, and explained to the public – as economist Paul Krugman recently did for Cyprus – that years of mass unemployment are too high a price to pay for keeping the euro. Politicians do not need to propose leaving the euro, as that remains taboo. But a refusal to accept recessionary conditions would shift the burden to the European authorities as to whether they want to kick any country out of the currency union. Most likely they would not. But without a willingness to simply refuse the Troika’s recessionary conditions, it’s going to be a long, slow slog to reverse the continued infliction of needless suffering in what used to be one of the most democratic regions of the world.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally appeared in Al Jazeera.

More articles by:

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
The Fordist Academic
Frank Scott
Weapons of Mass Distraction Get More Destructive
Missy Comley Beattie
Big Dick Diplomacy
Michael Doliner
Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies
Dan Bacher
Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’
Winslow Myers
The Madness of Deterrence
Cesar Chelala
A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
Jimmy Centeno
Garcia Meets Guayasamin: A De-Colonial Experience
Stephen Martin
When Boot Becomes Bot: Surplus Population and The Human Face.
Martin Billheimer
Homer’s Iliad, la primera nota roja
Louis Proyect
Once There Were Strong Men
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones
David Yearsley
Academics Take Flight
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail