The patient, E.Z., is in failing health, and the European surgeons are arguing bitterly at the operating table. The Greek doctors call for a feeding tube, oxygen, antibiotics, the works. Nonsense, say the Germans. Get the patient up on his feet and slap him around a little. What he really needs is to lose some weight.
Never mind that each is acting in accordance with his own self-interest. It’s the profligate Greeks, whose screw-ups helped drag Europe into its deepest crisis since World War II, who are mostly right in this argument—and the disciplined, hard-working Germans who are mostly wrong. Europe’s economy is already so weak that Teutonic belt-tightening, however meritorious in ordinary times, threatens to push the Continent into a deep and long-lasting recession.
The European stimulus-vs.-austerity debate that raged throughout 2011 is a replay of the one from the Great Depression. Then it was a Briton, John Maynard Keynes, arguing the case for boosting demand and an Austrian, Friedrich Hayek, wanting to purge the rottenness from the system. It’s a measure of the discipline’s meager progress that economists and policymakers haven’t managed to settle this dispute in the intervening 80 years.
The very human tendency to mix up economics and morality is what makes the Keynesian case for expansionary government policy hard for politicians to defend. From the standpoint of righteousness and clean living, the Germans are way ahead of the Greeks, the Portuguese, the Spaniards, and the Italians. Saving and investing are virtuous for families; it’s hard for people to imagine that on the scale of nations, too much frugality can cause problems.
Frugality can backfire, however—and in 2011, it did. Keynes had put his finger on the problem, calling it the “paradox of thrift.” One person’s spending is another’s income, he observed. So when everyone spends less in a recession, incomes fall. The more people try to save, the more the economy slows, and the harder it gets to put money aside.
There’s even a related “paradox of toil.” It says that when an economy is stuck in a rut, with interest rates at or near zero, cutting wages can backfire. Wage cuts lead to expectations of deflation and cause employment to fall rather than rise, says the person who coined the new paradox, Gauti Eggertsson, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s a scary thought for the Greeks, who are hoping they can keep the euro but effect an internal devaluation based on lower wages, and in the process make their economy competitive again.
Austerity got a fair shot in Europe in 2011, and it’s failing. Countries on the periphery are attempting to close budget deficits through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. The hope is that evidence of financial probity will impress the financial markets, lower interest rates, and give the private sector the confidence to spend and invest, revving up growth.
Instead, nearly the complete opposite is taking place. Government retrenchment sucked demand out of the economy, depressing tax revenue and making balance even harder to achieve. Private forecasts of European growth sank throughout the past year as this dynamic played out. A 2012 recession is highly possible, although as of late November the European Central Bank staff economists were still predicting growth of 0.4 percent to 1 percent in the coming year.
There’s no doubt that Southern Europe needs to earn its way out of debt by running trade surpluses instead of chronic deficits. In other words, it needs to act more Germanic. But it’s impossible for every country to run a trade surplus, just as it’s impossible for every person to be a better-than-average driver. Italy and the others can manage to run trade surpluses only if Germany agrees to do the opposite, importing more than it exports. If we’re going to expect the Greeks to act like Germans, the reverse needs to happen as well. Germany needs to live a little, spend more, relax in Mykonos—in other words, be more Mediterranean. That’s a lot to expect, since the German people have been convinced by the current crisis that laxity is the road to ruin.
As 2012 beckons, it seems increasingly likely that the euro zone is headed for a crackup. Stephen A. King, the chief global economist of HSBC, believes that the only solution for Europe is for creditors and debtors to focus on their mutual interest in healthy economic growth. A pro-growth consensus would break down the inhibitions against aggressive fiscal and monetary stimulus. Yet nothing of the sort will happen, King says, until it’s blatantly obvious that only dramatic action will prevent a breakup of the common currency. “The world has to go crazy before you can do crazy things,” he concludes. “That’s what the Fed waited for, and that’s what the ECB will have to wait for.” Stand back from the operating table—here comes the defibrillator.