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The economists’ warning

The economists’ warning
          Financial Times, September 23 2013

The European crisis continues to destroy jobs. By the end of 2013 there will be 19 million unemployed in the eurozone alone, over 7 million more than in 2008, an increase unprecedented since the end of World War II and one that will stretch on into 2014. The employment crisis strikes above all the peripheral member countries of the European Monetary Union, where an exceptional rise in bankruptcy is also under way, whereas Germany and the other central countries of the eurozone have instead witnessed growth on the job front. This asymmetry is one of the causes of Europe’s present-day political paralysis and the embarrassing succession of summit meetings that result in measures glaringly incapable of halting the processes of divergence under way. While this sluggishness of political response may appear justified in the less severe phases of the cycle and moments of respite on the financial market, it could have the most serious consequences in the long run.
As foreseen by part of the academic community, the crisis is revealing a number of contradictions in the institutions and policies of the European Monetary Union. The European authorities have taken a series of decisions that have in actual fact, contrary to announcements, helped to worsen the recession and widen the gaps between the member countries. In June 2010, when the first signs of the eurozone crisis became apparent, a letter signed by three hundred economists pointed out the inherent dangers of austerity policies, which would further depress the demand for goods and services as well as employment and incomes, thus making the payment of debts, both public and private, still more difficult. This alarm was, however, unheeded. The European authorities preferred to adopt the fanciful doctrine of “expansive austerity”, according to which budget cuts would restore the markets’ confidence in the solvency of the EU countries and thus lead to a drop in interest rates and economic recovery. As the International Monetary Fund itself recognises, we know today that the policies of austerity have actually deepened the crisis, causing a collapse of incomes in excess of the most widely-held expectations. Even the champions of “expansive austerity” now acknowledge their errors, but the damage is now largely done.
The European authorities are, however, now making a new mistake. They appear to be convinced that the peripheral member countries can solve their problems by implementing “structural reforms”, which will supposedly reduce costs and prices, boost competitiveness, and hence foster export-driven recovery and a reduction of foreign debt. While this view does highlight some real problems, the belief that the solution put forward can safeguard European unity is an illusion. The deflationary policies applied in Germany and elsewhere to build up trade surpluses have worked for years, togeteher with other factors, to create huge imbalances in debt and credit between the eurozone countries. The correction of these imbalances would require concerted action on the part of all the member countries. Expecting the peripheral countries of Union to solve the problem unaided means requiring them to undergo a drop in wages and prices on such a scale as to cause a still more accentuated collapse of incomes and violent debt deflation with the concrete risk of causing new banking crises and crippling production in entire regions of Europe.
John Maynard Keynes opposed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 with these far-sighted words: “If we take the view that Germany must be kept impoverished and her children starved and crippled […] If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.” Even though the positions are now reversed, with the peripheral countries in dire straits and Germany in a comparatively advantageous position, the current crisis presents more than one similarity with that terrible historical phase, which created the conditions for the rise of Nazism and World War II. All memory of those dreadful years appears to have been lost, however, as the German authorities and the other European governments are repeating the same mistakes as were made then. This short-sightedness is ultimately the primary reason for the waves of irrationalism currently sweeping over Europe, from the naive championing of flexible exchange rates as a cure for all ills to the more disturbing instances of ultra-nationalistic and xenophobic propaganda.
It is essential to realise that if the European authorities continue with policies of austerity and rely on structural reforms alone to restore balance, the fate of the euro will be sealed. The experience of the single currency will come to an end with repercussions on the continued existence of the European single market. In the absence of conditions for a reform of the financial system and a monetary and fiscal policy making it possible to develop a plan to revitalise public and private investment, counter the inequalities of income and between areas, and increase employment in the peripheral countries of the Union, the political decision makers will be left with nothing other than a crucial choice of alternative ways out of the euro.

Emiliano Brancaccio and Riccardo Realfonzo (Sannio University, promoters of “the economists’ warning”), Philip Arestis (University of Cambridge), Wendy Carlin (University College of London), Giuseppe Fontana (Leeds and Sannio Universities), James Galbraith (University of Texas), Mauro Gallegati (Università Politecnica delle Marche), Eckhard Hein (Berlin School of Economics and Law), Alan Kirman (University of Aix-Marseille III), Jan Kregel (University of Tallin), Heinz Kurz (Graz University), Alfonso Palacio-Vera (Universidad Complutense Madrid), Dimitri Papadimitriou (Levy Economics Institute), Pascal Petit (Université de Paris Nord), Dani Rodrik (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton), Willi Semmler (New School University, New York), Engelbert Stockhammer (Kingston University), Tony Thirlwall (University of Kent).
  1. September 24, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    “Exceptionalism” will be the USA showing these track records to its citizens.
    The Public Be Suckered, here:

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    September 28, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Again my apology for the tardiness of this response due to my being out of the country and actually taking a vacation.

    Current economic austerity actions by governments, central banks, and international economic agencies come down to three justifications. First is moral and economic combined! Countries and peoples have spent recklessly, not saved for a rainy day, and thus must be taught the hard lesson by suffering as a result of these actions. It is simply an object lesson. There is some justification here as countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal have recklessly overspent and failed to take the steps to be prudent. But then you have to remember that even with these examples there is plenty of blame to spread around such as to the IMF, European Bank, and rating agencies that not only often did not oppose such actions but actually aided and abetted them. Second, there is the “technical” justifications made by such researchers as Reinhart and Rogoff, which it seems were always technically mistaken. Whether the “mistake” was deliberate or not is now in controversy. Third, someone must pay the bill to save the euro. Just as Germany was to pay the bill to rebuild France, Great Britain, etc. after WWI, so today the poorer countries that create problems for the euro must put up the cash to fix those problems. Even if that means these poorer countries are essentially pauperized. So take your pick. Which of these actually justifies economic austerity and explains how putting it in place does more good than harm. Economists obviously are just as ignorant about the answer to this question as are the Central Banker, the IMF, rating agencies, and the gurus of hedging in London and New York. We need to bring in a new team to deal with austerity and what it does and does not do. Maybe the Vatican and the European Trade Union Confederation would make a good team!

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