Teaching Mrs Merkel German
Nostalgia ruled for most of last week. While the British indulged in a House of Windsor love fest, the world delighted in snippets of the Queen over her sixty year reign. It was Prince Charles, the King-in-Waiting, who stated the obvious at the Buckingham Palace Doorstep Concert noting that for many people this was the third jubilee they were enjoying along with the Queen (who, frankly, did not by that stage look like she was enjoying anything very much).
My memory leapfrogged over the Golden Jubilee and sprinted straight for the 1977 Silver Jubilee. That was a very different occasion – the generation which, back then, we called middle-aged had lived through the Second World War and brought an old camaraderie to the festivities, as opposed to today’s middle-aged who brought Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones and Paul McCartney.
But, Silver Jubilees aside, I was reminded that 1977 was an annus horribilis (as, indeed, was much of the decade but my Latin does not stretch that far). Britain was governed by a minority Labour Government which, in turn, was governed by the Trade Unions who kept bringing the country to its knees. James Callaghan, the hapless Prime Minister being fattened for the slaughter by Mrs Thatcher, had swept into No 10 a year earlier with the slogan “Jim Won’t Fix It”. This was a play on the title of a popular TV show and branded him immediately as totally incompetent.
Meanwhile, across the pond the Americans put a Georgian peanut farmer into the White House who, apart from claiming to have been attacked by killer rabbits, let his team spread compost over US diplomacy. At one diplomatic function Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (another Georgian) was reported to have told the Egyptian Ambassador’s wife that he had always wanted to see the pyramids, while fixing his gaze somewhere well south of her eyes.
From the economic viewpoint the world was down the tubes. The collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system early in the decade followed by the Arab Oil Crisis had led to rampant inflation – or to be more specific – stagflation. This state of affairs was the nightmare of every adherent of the school of economic thought that had ruled since the 1930s – it broke the rules of Keynesianism. Inflation together with slow growth and steadily high unemployment was not to be found in Lord Keynes’s song book.
It was no wonder, therefore, that a radically different breed of economist managed to insinuate itself into the frontal lobes of the world’s politicians and the world was presented with Monetarism in the UK and Reaganomics in the US while the French elected the rabid socialist Francois Mitterand just to prove a point. That should have been the end of history, but it wasn’t. Things started going visibly pear-shaped towards the end of the century and neo-keynesianism ( a potpourri of everything that had come before) has been on the ascendant among economists, if not politicians, ever since.
Sadly, since the financial crisis hit in 2008 all we have heard from European leaders (until the French played their usual “driving the wrong way down a one way street card’ in electing a socialist president) is austerity, austerity, austerity. The Eurozone has to collectively tighten its financial belt, balance its budget (well, almost) and keep within very low inflation targets. Bung up taxation, slash public spending, pay off your loans. And, meanwhile, let the continent burn.
Leading this bloody crusade is none other than Europe’s Supreme Leader – Angela Merkel. Locked into a mindset of classical economics and simple housekeeping Frau Merkel, along with all the other European big chiefs other than M Hollande who has yet to prove that he is not a left wing nutjob, is missing something fundamental. And that something was observed by a German – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Frau Merkel should ask the Queen about Hegel’s “Zeitgeist” . She should ask her about her 60 years of regular meetings with her prime ministers from Winston Churchill to the current young boy. The Queen would doubtless tell her that the spirit of the times has changed. Beethoven could not have written the Ode to Joy in 1967 London and Paul McCartney would have had trouble with Yesterday in 1827 Vienna. So why is there an assumption among political leaders that, because something did not work in 1977 it will not work in 2012 OR that something that did work in 1982 will work in 2012?
Back in the 1970’s inflation had got out of control and – let’s make no mistake – reasonably stable prices are a sine qua non (Latin again) for a stable economy. Stagflation was a reality. Unions were at their most powerful. People’s expectations were at the bottom of the pit. It was critical to bring order to the money markets and bring the unions in line, at whatever the short-term cost, to facilitate a basis for nations to move on. It was left to Thatcher to tame the Coalminers and Reagan the air traffic controllers.
The European crisis of the last few years is against a very different historical backdrop. Inflation and the unions are not a major threat. The financial crisis is precisely that and not a crisis of economic fundamentals (with the exception of Greece which will soon be sent on its way to Hades). It is the handling of the crisis that threatens to upset the applecart.
Any fool can see that, by everyone getting their house in order at the same time demand just deflates (Paul Krugman has pointed out that you cannot use the analogy of a spendthrift household that needs to tighten its belt when referring to an entire country because the spendthrift household can rely on demand being created by responsible households as opposed to the entire country where demand just disappears).
Krugman, like Keynes, has no problem with balancing budgets when the economy is booming. However, when the economy is in recession it is time for increased government spending. It is clear that, whilst in the long-run governments may be highly inefficient participants in the economy, in the short run they will spend much more freely than private households concerned about the future. This supports the contention that taxes should not be reduced in a recession if that means less government spending. Alongside all this there should be quantitative easing (basically, central banks injecting cash into the economy) and increased targets for inflation. Balanced Budgets would still be sought but over a much longer period. Within the Eurozone they will need more banking unity and some form of joint eurobonds to protect weaker economies that cannot devalue their currency to increase competition.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the next few months are going to be critical for the future of the European Union. If Mrs Merkel prefers not to battle with the stark prose of her fellow German, Mr Hegel, she might prefer that nice Mr Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (not in Latin):
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.