Saturday, October 06, 2007

The problem of Europe

Two weeks ago, Nicholas Sarkozy launched his most direct assault on the European Central Bank. In the view of the new French President, the ECB’s tight money policies threaten to undermine his efforts to open up the French economic system and stimulate economic growth and liberalization. The ECB policies, Sarkozy suggested, were biased toward Germany’s enduring fear of inflation and against his policies of stimulating growth and international competitiveness.

The rift between Sarkozy and the ECB has been exacerbated by the trading relationship between the Euro, the Dollar and the Chinese Yuan. As the value of the Dollar has collapsed under the weight of massive U.S. current account deficits, the Euro has risen to new heights, while the Chinese currency, which does not trade freely, has only risen modestly. The result has been that European goods have become less competitive in the U.S. market. The ECB can ameliorate this problem, as Sarkozy has suggested, by reducing interest rates––at least in concert with U.S. central bankers––which would stem the pace of the Euro’s rise. But this, the Gnomes of the ECB insist, is not their job. Their job is to fight inflation. They are independent. Go away.

Sensing their inability to move the ECB to act, some European finance ministers have responded to the Euro’s rise by beseeching Ben Bernanke to raise U.S. interest rates to support the Dollar. This, however, is not going to happen. The Federal Reserve just lowered interest rates in response to the sub-prime lending crisis, and any upward move would undermine U.S. markets. The Fed’s mandate is to fight inflation and to support economic growth, and whatever is going on with the Euro is simply not their job.

More to the point, the price of Mephisto shoes might be the symptom, but it is not the problem. The problem is more fundamental. It is the problem of Europe.

The European Union is a nice idea. Like the Iraq War, it is an idea that gained momentum among many constituencies that came to support the same policy, though for different reasons. For some, who saw the emergence of Asia and the United States as two great economic forces, the European Union would create a third trading block to protect the European economies. For others, the EU represented an opportunity to assert Europe as a political counterweight to the United States imperial power in the post-Cold War era. For yet others, the EU was necessary to bind France and Germany together so tightly that a third world war between the historic rivals would become an impossibility.

The reality of creating a European Union has been a tough go. The “domestic” economic strategy of the European Union has mirrored the industrial policy of the United States over the decades. While the United States implemented policies to stimulate economic growth in its poorer states––in the south and in the west––so has Europe invested in the economies of its southern and poorer members. Neo-classical trade theories have been realized, as countries with comparative advantages in labor costs or other attributes have benefited, while growth in the Franco-German heartland has stagnated. Imagine Ireland, Portugal and Spain as the sunbelt of Europe.

However, while the rustbelt gave way in economic and political clout to the sunbelt in the U.S., the rise of new economic powers in Europe threatened the cultural identity of the members, as well as the economies of the older powers. European Unionists have implemented the attributes of nationhood before the participants agreed to become a single nation. They have centralized regulation, asserted legal hegemony and created a single currency, even as the EU constitution has failed to win ratification. The Euro-centrists have said yes, even as the people continue to say no.

In the United States, political union came first, then came the struggle to determine the extent to which the center could impose its will on the member states and undermine local law and custom. As one observer noted, the issue finally came to a head in 1863, when the two sides convened at a small town in Pennsylvania to settle matters. After three days of debate, the supporters of a strong center won the day and the matter was settled.

Sarkozy is raising the central question of how a nation that cannot control their monetary policy can seek to control their future. His policies, his presidency and the ability of France to chart a new economic path––one in which fiscal policy will play a reduced role relative to market forces––depend on a parallel monetary policy that makes capital available to a growing entrepreneurial sector.

Alan Greenspan unwittingly underscored Sarkozy’s point of the important linkage between fiscal and monetary policy during his recent book tour, when he indicated the extent to which he directed monetary policy to support the fiscal policies of the federal administrations. Far from adopting the strict constructionist stance of the current ECB, Greenspan recognized the anti-inflationary impacts of technology and deregulation, and allowed an expansive monetary policy that led to sustained economic growth, even as the Dollar and federal current account deficits might have warranted the tighter monetary stance.

Europe, for anyone who has visited recently, is not what it used to be. The quaint villages are not quite as quaint. The local bakeries are disappearing. Local cultures are ceding to the forces of economic integration. Ironically, it is France’s Hungarian-born President that is raising the central question, not just about whether France can control its economic destiny, but whether, just two years after the French voters rejected the proposed European Constitution, France has already lost its ability, and right, to be La France.

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