Zbig does not understand what the fuss over austerity in Europe is all about. He fails to comprehend the fall of the Dutch government, the elevation of a socialist to the presidency of France, the inconclusive election in Greece, bailouts and quantitative easing. All he can say, with his utterly limited command of at least 10 European languages, is that the European Union is “good”.
Whenever he finds himself a bit short of work Zbig chucks his monkey wrench into his volumnous bag of tricks and heads for the next member state and fortune. An optimistic chap, his education evidently did not include Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Grapes of Wrath” about the hardships of American migration during the Great Depression or, for that matter, AA Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner”. Noticing that children’s classic in the bathroom of one of his clients, he casually asked the lady of the house if it was the only book they had on plumbing.
The media is currently obsessed with the woes of the Euro. Faced with the inability of some countries to service sovereign debt 25 of the 27 members of the EU entered into a pact, under the extremely persuasive eye of Angela Merkel of Germany, to slash deficits. Meanwhile rescue packages were put together where required and the European Central Bank eased credit. The austerity resulting from the contractionary fiscal policy has been roundly condemned by much of the economics profession and is being clearly rejected by the electorates of countries with the chance to choose.
With only an undergraduate degree in monetary economics, when the Euro was first mooted my inital reaction to the plan was “This is mental but I am sure that better men than I know what they are doing”. IT WAS MENTAL.
Now our economic gurus are telling anyone willing to listen (which is just about everyone except Angela Merkel who is the only person who needs to listen) that prudent northern Europe needs to expand demand and encourage inflation to compensate for the inability of countries like Greece to devalue their Euro against everybody else’s Euro. A few days ago the Germans gave the first indication that they might be prepared to budge on this.
At the same time they place faith in the ability of workers to migrate freely between states thus solving the chronic unemployment problem in distressed countries. While Zbig, working with his hands in a pretty homogenous Europe-wide market for pipes and washers, can get by with a few necessary words in whatever language he happens to be being paid in – for most people migration is hardly an option. Language barriers, recognition of qualifications, home ownership and pension rights are just some of the factors that put paid to serious mobility.
As it appears to be silly season for macroeconomics, I thought I might throw in an idea of my own. I am aware that it is full of holes – indeed, when I briefly spoke to the editor of a respected financial newspaper last summer, he gently advised me that, although I was clearly a young man, economics had moved on a bit since my student days.
If they want to save the Euro, it is time to employ some highly unorthodox tax policies “for a limited period only” that go against everything the EU and OECD believe in (which is probably as good a reason as any to employ them). The following idea might provide a short-term solution to the mobility problem.
Countries with official unemployment above a certain level should be allowed to ring fence job-enhancing investment from low unemployment EU countries from taxation. Thus, for example, a German company could invest in a factory in Greece starting 2012 or 2013 employing 800 workers and would get a tax holiday in Greece for, say, 10 years. At the same time, to ensure that the tax is not simply shifted, Germany would apply tax sparing (a credit for notional tax paid in Greece). Investing companies would have to prove that their existing employment numbers in other EU countries did not drop as a result of the new investment. What the Germans should like is that it does not involve them directly dipping their hands in their pockets and, as long as the OECD can imagine the EU as one country – there is no issue of unfair tax competition.
As a result of investment and increased employment in distressed countries demand should be enhanced, leading to optimism and recovery. In the meantime economists can keep pushing for the European Central Bank to continue printing Euros (quantitative easing) and German expansion while citizens sporadically revolt against draconian deficit reductions.
With the spread of English as the international language across the globe (even the French, Russians, Japanese and Chinese have learnt to play the game) when all is said and done mobility may one day work in the EU. But there is one country that still seems to insist it hasn’t lost the language war – and that country is quite important.
A few weeks ago I had to join a conference call with a foreign colleague and his client in Germany. When I called the conference number the taped instructions were entirely in German which, I confess, I did not understand. Mildly frustrated by the experience of getting nowhere and surrounded by my bemused team I started jokingly shouting at the phone. Exasperated and beyond hope, I eventually hit the hash button and, to my utter surprise, was connected to the call. At that point, the prerecorded call identifications started – first my German colleague, then his client and then……..a bellowing “Speak English!” I don’t think they understood.