Thursday, November 27, 2008

EU Economic Orthodoxy Stumbles On

In the same survey of stimulus planning, the NY Times reported on the latest EU fiscal initiative, which calls for contributions of 1.2% GDP on the part of most member countries. This infusion, which is much too small relative to the impending output gap, will still bump up against the Maastricht criteria. What to do?

The monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, said that countries that breached the deficit ceiling of 3 percent of G.D.P. would face official reprimands, but would be given longer than usual to bring their budgets back into line because of the exceptional circumstances.

In other words: we know the criteria are absurd under the current conditions, but we will pretend that they still apply.

The EU has been built on a grand compromise, a broadly progressive stance in social and environmental policy and rigid orthodoxy in economic affairs. As in the academic version, the left got the sociology department and the right was given economics, finance and business. It was a bad deal, since misguided economics can do damage faster than the social workers can clean it up. So now Europe has a central bank with hardly any lender of last resort tools and fiscal guidelines that all but rule out serious countercyclical measures.

The current economic crisis should be put to positive political use. You can’t have a “Social Europe” with double-digit unemployment. (You also can’t have a sustainable Europe without getting the economic part of sustainability in place.) There needs to be a shift within the economic regime, and not just in the balance between “economic” and “social” interests. As for fiscal guidelines, they need to be flexible enough to permit rational economic management, and they also have to be responsive to regional trade imbalances. In fact, to constrain fiscal deficits without managing trade aggregates is to put all the recycling burden on private debt, and we are still in the process of finding out where that leads.

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