Tuesday, February 16, 2010

the making of a euromess

NYTimes | Lately, financial news has been dominated by reports from Greece and other nations on the European periphery. And rightly so.

But I’ve been troubled by reporting that focuses almost exclusively on European debts and deficits, conveying the impression that it’s all about government profligacy — and feeding into the narrative of our own deficit hawks, who want to slash spending even in the face of mass unemployment, and hold Greece up as an object lesson of what will happen if we don’t.

For the truth is that lack of fiscal discipline isn’t the whole, or even the main, source of Europe’s troubles — not even in Greece, whose government was indeed irresponsible (and hid its irresponsibility with creative accounting).

No, the real story behind the euromess lies not in the profligacy of politicians but in the arrogance of elites — specifically, the policy elites who pushed Europe into adopting a single currency well before the continent was ready for such an experiment.

Consider the case of Spain, which on the eve of the crisis appeared to be a model fiscal citizen. Its debts were low — 43 percent of G.D.P. in 2007, compared with 66 percent in Germany. It was running budget surpluses. And it had exemplary bank regulation.

But with its warm weather and beaches, Spain was also the Florida of Europe — and like Florida, it experienced a huge housing boom. The financing for this boom came largely from outside the country: there were giant inflows of capital from the rest of Europe, Germany in particular.