Columns, Op-Eds & Interviews
Central Banking’s Brave New World
Project syndicate column, 22 February 2021
A Global Pandemic Alarm Bell
Project Syndicate column, 25 January 2021
The EU That Can’t Say No
Project Syndicate column, 29 December 2020
Interview Corriere della Sera sur le plan de relance européen, 30 novembre
Una cosa è certa: «È stato rotto il tabù dell’indebitamento dell’Unione e dei trasferimenti. Questo cambierà profondamente il sistema europeo ma a una condizione: che il sostegno europeo sia efficace, così da poter dire tra qualche che con questo piano è stata raddrizzata l’economia europea e di Paesi come l’Italia». Per Jean Pisani-Ferry, professore allo European University Institute e senior fellow al think tank Bruegel (ha anche coordinato il programma economico di Emmanuel Macron durante la campagna presidenziale), bisogna dare priorità alle riforme che permetteranno ai fondi Ue di trasformare in modo reale l’economia: «Non penso — ha aggiunto — che le Raccomandazioni Paese della Commissione Ue siano molto utili, bisogna ragionare sulle priorità di oggi».
Qual è ora il rischio più grande per la ripresa economica europea?
«La gestione molto delicata dell’emergenza sanitaria. Stiamo gestendo meglio la seconda ondata dal punto di vista economico, ma le imprese e le attività colpite sono le stesse già colpite durante la prima ondata e sono già indebolite. Bisogna trovare il buon equilibrio tra aperture e rischio sanitario. Poi evitare di prendere decisioni premature in materia di bilancio: bisogna continuare a portare avanti una politica espansiva in maniera forte fino all’assorbimento completo dello choc. Nel lungo termine c’è un rischio che aumenti la frammentazione europea».
In un paper per Bruegel ha scritto che l’Ue non dovrebbe cercare di imporre agli Stati membri, attraverso la condizionalità del Recovery Plan, il suo programma di riforme. Cosa intende?
«Stiamo parlando di un piano ingente, molto più grande del Piano Marshall. È chiaro che non si possono distribuire dei soldi senza condizioni. Ci sono due approcci possibili. Il primo dice: ecco l’elenco di riforme che dovete fare in base alle liste passate di priorità. Ma questa non è una buona idea perché le priorità di oggi non sono quelle di ieri. Poi c’è un approccio che parte dalle priorità della Commissione — la transizione ecologica e digitale — e da quelle degli Stati per raddrizzare l’economia. Bisogna ragionare su riforme che permettano ai fondi di raggiungere l’effetto massimo. Ad esempio se perseguo la trasformazione ecologica non posso continuare a sovvenzionare le fonti fossili. Questo vale per tanti settori: il mercato del lavoro, la digitalizzazione, il sistema educativo, la concorrenza. In breve, non si deve dire agli Stati “Prima riformate le pensioni”, bensì “fate settore per settore ciò che consentirà ai fondi di raggiungere gli obiettivi”».
Ungheria e Polonia contestano la condizionalità legata allo Stato di diritto. Il Parlamento Ue ha detto che non ha intenzione di indietreggiare. Quale può essere una exit strategy?
«Il compromesso raggiunto tra Consiglio e Parlamento Ue va già incontro a Polonia e Ungheria perché il meccanismo sullo Stato di diritto prevede sanzioni in caso si verifichino due condizioni: infrazioni limitate del principio dello Stato di diritto, che colpiscono direttamente gli interessi finanziari dell’Ue. Il meccanismo non potrà essere usato per obbligare ad applicare i valori generali dell’Ue, ad esempio la protezione delle minoranze o la libertà di stampa. Questo accordo è già una concessione importante, Ungheria e Polonia lo devono accettare».
Il regolamento sulla Recovery and Resilience Facility è ancora in fase d negoziato. Ci sono degli aspetti controversi che è necessario chiarire?
«Bisogna evitare che si crei un procedimento formale senza contenuto. Bisogna mettere l’accento su tre cose: la chiarezza delle priorità, la rapidità di esecuzione e la dimensione pan-europea, che è stata dimenticata nella trattativa di luglio. I progetti con una dimensione transfrontaliera vanno recuperati».
Il Recovery Fund come aiuterà l’Italia?
«L’Italia è beneficiaria netta, certo non come la Grecia o i Paesi dell’Europa Centrale. Questo piano offre l’occasione di investire nella trasformazione dell’economia, per la soluzione di problemi vecchi, come quello della scarsa produttività delle Pmi, che indebolisce il potenziale economico del Paese».
L’approccio top-down è il modo migliore per definire i piani nazionali?
«È indispensabile avere delle priorità definite a livello nazionale altrimenti si cade nella pura distribuzione. Gli investimenti devono avere degli effetti misurabili sul piano economico. È stato rotto il tabù dell’indebitamento dell’Unione e dei trasferimenti. Questo piano cambierà profondamente il sistema europeo se sarà efficace, se potremo dire tra qualche anno che con questo piano è stata raddrizzata l’economia europea e di Paesi come l’Italia. Allora si riuserà certamente il bilancio dell’Ue. Ma se non cambierà nulla la conclusione sarà che non vale la pensa usare questo bilancio».
Il sottosegretario alla presidenza del Consiglio, Riccardo Fraccaro, ha ipotizzato un’eventuale cancellazione del debito acquistato dalla Bce durante la pandemia. Il presidente del Parlamento Ue, David Sassoli, ha definito un’ «ipotesi di lavoro interessante» l’eventuale cancellazione dei debiti contratti dai governi per rispondere al Covid. Cosa ne pensa?
«L’idea che le banche centrali possano annullare il debito degli Stati contratto durante il Covid è giuridicamente impossibile, è escluso dai trattati. È un’illusione economica, perché gli utili della Banca d’Italia vanno allo Stato. Non è che impoverendo la Banca d’Italia si arricchirà lo Stato. Non è che impoverendola si arricchirà lo Stato. È un dibattito inappropriato che crea sfiducia in un momento in cui abbiamo bisogno che la Bce continui a sostenere l’azione degli Stati. Ora si è un po’ più ottimisti grazie ai vaccini. La prossima estate i problemi principali saranno superati e l’indebitamento supplementare dei Paesi sarà limitato. Ma intanto la politica espansiva deve continuare finché serve».
Grading the Big Pandemic Test
Project Syndicate column, 27 November 2020
PARIS – From the moment the COVID-19 emerged as a global threat, it was clear that it would test every society’s strength, resilience, and response capabilities. Almost one year on, it is time to assess who passed the test, and who failed.
From a public-health standpoint, the answer is clear: East Asia – including Australia and New Zealand – passed the test with flying colors. As for the rest, Europe performed unevenly, the United States stumbled badly, and developing countries have struggled.
To be sure, luck played more than its part in explaining initially uneven performance. In Europe, Italy and Spain were hit extremely hard by the first wave, because the then-unknown coronavirus took root, unnoticed, until it erupted in full force. By contrast, Germany and Poland saw it coming and could take effective measures in time.
But while governments can ascribe unequal death tolls during the first wave to luck, the argument does not hold for the second wave. Policymakers cannot eschew responsibility for the uncontrolled spread of the pandemic in the US or its resurgence in Europe.
Two trade-offs dominate discussions on the policy response. The first one, between disease control and individual rights, is hard to avoid. Contact tracing and mandatory isolation are effective in combating the spread of the virus, but infringe on civil liberties. China clearly stands apart for its disregard of individual freedom, but individualistic Western societies would also find it hard to accept the intrusive tracing measures taken in South Korea or Singapore. Like it or not, there is a price to pay for the freedom and privacy we cherish.
The second trade-off is not between saving lives and saving the economy. Rather, it involves a choice between being stringent today and being forced to be stringent tomorrow. European societies went for strict lockdown measures in the spring, and then all but ended social distancing over the summer. By October, the only option left was to tighten the screws again. Australia made a different choice and increased (moderately) the stringency of its disease-containment measures throughout its winter season. It was able to relax these controls just when European countries had to strengthen theirs.
In a recent commentary, the French economists Philippe Aghion and Patrick Artus lambasted European countries’ stop-and-go approach and argued that they would have been better off keeping enough containment measures in place throughout the summer. Indeed, despite being much less severe than the first one, the second lockdown is hitting already fragile firms and households, thereby darkening the economic horizon. In hindsight, Europe might have avoided it by keeping its gyms and bars closed this summer.
The bottom line is that, whether out of principle or inconsistency, Western societies made their choice, and East Asia made a different one. And that for the second time in little more than a decade – the other instance being the global financial crisis – the West is trapped in a maelstrom while Asia sails on.
Regarding the economic response, the interesting contrast is the transatlantic one. The US approach under President Donald Trump has been to let companies fire staff (possibly with a rehire promise) but to engineer massive fiscal support through tax cuts and additional unemployment benefits. European states have instead relied on generalized government-financed furlough schemes that preserve employees’ income and status, while (outside of the United Kingdom at least) providing less outright budget support. As a result, the International Monetary Fund reckons that the 2020 US fiscal deficit will reach a post-war high of 19% of GDP, almost twice the eurozone average.
On the whole, therefore, the US under Donald Trump has deliberately put the economy first, opting for less public-health protection and fewer worker safeguards but more fiscal support. European countries have put public health and social protection first, coupling initially harsh confinement measures and open-ended support to preserve employment relationships, with little additional budgetary stimulus.
The output decline in the spring was inevitably much sharper in Europe than in the US (with the exception of Germany, where the lockdown was less stringent). But the increase in European unemployment was far more limited. Jason Furman of Harvard University estimates that what he calls the realistic US unemployment rate jumped from 3.6% before the crisis to 20% in April. In Europe, by contrast, up to one-quarter of the labor force was furloughed, but only gig and temporary workers, as well as new labor-market entrants, ended up in unemployment. For the vast majority, the social safety net worked much better than it did in America.
Remarkably, European output rebounded sharply when governments lifted the lockdowns, despite the relatively less generous fiscal support. Third-quarter GDP in Germany and France was about 95% of pre-crisis levels, exactly like in the US (it was lower in Spain, largely because of the collapse in tourism; data for Italy are not yet available). Any scars these economies might have suffered in the lockdown period did not rob them of their resilience.
Thus far, at least, Europe does not seem to be paying a price for its decision to put health above economics. And the US apparently is not benefiting from its larger fiscal stimulus, because consumers reacted to unprecedented uncertainty by hoarding cash at record rates. Between January and April 2020, the US personal saving rate skyrocketed from 7% to 33%, and it remains well above normal. Money injected into the economy helped the poor, but on the whole, it ended up increasing bank deposits rather than consumption and output.
Admittedly, the jury is still out, awaiting results of the second European lockdown. But amid the fog of the war against the pandemic, one thing is clear already: while Europe may wonder whether it was right not to emulate Australia’s full pandemic-containment drive, it has no reason to regret having rejected America’s misguided strategy.
Globalisation needs rebuilding, not just repair
Project Syndicate column, 29 October 2020
A second term for US President Donald Trump would complete the demolition of the post-war international economic system. Trump’s aggressive unilateralism, chaotic trade initiatives, loathing of multilateral cooperation, and disregard for the very idea of a global commons would overpower the resilience of the web of rules and institutions that underpin globalization. But would a victory for Joe Biden lead to a repair of the global system – and, if so, of what kind? This is a much harder question to answer.
There will be no lack of eagerness to wipe out Trump’s legacy, either in the United States or internationally. But an attempt merely to restore the pre-Trump status quo would fail to address major challenges, some of which contributed to Trump’s election in 2016. As Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute has pointed out, the task ahead is one of rebuilding, rather than repair. It should start with a clear identification of the problems that the international system must tackle.
The first priority should be to move toward a commons-oriented system. The preservation of global public goods such as a stable climate or biodiversity was understandably ignored by the architects of the post-war international economic order, and (less understandably) was still a secondary priority in the system’s post-Cold War partial renewal. Policymakers focused on visible linkages through trade and capital flows, rather than on the invisible ties that bind us to a common destiny, which helps to explain why the rules and institutions governing the latter are still much weaker.
Biden’s intention to rejoin unconditionally the 2015 Paris climate agreement is to be welcomed, but it will not by itself turn the accord into an ambitious, enforceable program. The large number of players and the strong temptation to let others shoulder the burden make preserving the global commons notoriously hard. Even in the area of health, solutions to date do not measure up to the challenge.
Climate action is critical. Absent an elusive global consensus, efforts will have to rely on a coalition whose members converge on hard targets and on border-adjustment mechanisms applicable to trade with third countries. Implementation will be fraught with difficulties. Success will require agreeing on which trade measures are acceptable and which are just covert protectionism. That is a high bar to reach. Having already indicated its intention to introduce a border adjustment, the European Union is on the front line here. This is a major responsibility.
The second priority is to make the global economic system as rivalry-proof as possible. Regardless of who wins the US presidential election on November 3, great-power competition between the US and China will continue to dominate international relations. But the Cold War analogy is misleading, because today’s protagonists are major economic partners. Whereas the Soviet Union’s share of US imports never exceeded a fraction of a percentage point, China currently accounts for 18%. Die-hard US advocates of decoupling wrongly picture further Chinese development as a national security threat and want to end this interdependence in an attempt to stop China’s growth. As the Peterson Institute’s Nicholas Lardy has argued, however, a general decoupling from China would be a “high-cost, low-benefit policy.”
The question, then, is how to recognize the reality of geopolitical tensions while containing their impact on global economic relations. The relevant comparison is not with the Cold War, but with the pre-1914 rivalry between Britain and Germany in the context of the first major period of globalization. Contemporary claims that economic ties made war unthinkable were proved wrong. But as long as states refrain from fighting a real war, a strong multilateral regime can help repress their temptation to wage it through other means.
Europe is the biggest of all bystanders. It risks suffering collateral damage from the fight between the two global giants, both of which have started bullying it. But the EU is not toothless. It should stand up for the rules-based international economic order and lead the fight against its weaponization. As the European Council on Foreign Relations argued in a recent report, the bloc should start by equipping itself against economic coercion.
The third priority is to make the global economic system more protective of workers and citizens. Already prevailing doubts about globalization have grown as a result of the US-China trade conflict, rising inequality, and the realization that in a situation of acute stress such as the pandemic, advanced economies could struggle to procure simple equipment. Citizens and workers want an economic system that better protects them. Governments have taken note, and want to show that they care. The question is how.
The primary response should be domestic: from education and training to place-based revitalization and redistribution, there is much that governments can do, but neglected in the heyday of free-market globalization. Now is the time for new policies.
But experience has shown that few national governments can carve out a complete response without a supportive global environment. Individual countries cannot curb global corporate tax avoidance and aggressive regulatory competition by themselves. Policymakers globally should acknowledge that the sustainability of economic openness depends on whether its benefits are distributed in a fair way. And, as Harvard’s Dani Rodrik has long argued, the global system should both promote openness and allow room for national adaptation.
Each of the three goals – taking care of global public goods, containing the weaponization of economic relations, and making the system fairer – is challenging. Combining all of them will be daunting. Never in history were rival power centers compelled to cooperate in addressing common threats of a comparable magnitude. It is not hard to imagine how policymakers might use the commendable goals of avoiding carbon leakage or buttressing what Europe now calls “strategic autonomy” as pretexts for outright protectionism. Moreover, how will the world avoid a global economic breakup if China is simultaneously seen as a national-security threat, a reckless polluter, and a destroyer of social rights? Such challenges will severely test leaders in the years ahead.
Europe’s recovery gamble
Project Syndicate column, 25 September 2020
To help their pandemic-hit economies recover, European Union leaders agreed in July to borrow €750 billion ($880 billion) to finance €390 billion in grants and €360 billion in loans to the bloc’s member states. The program, called Next Generation EU, was rightly hailed as a major breakthrough: never before had the EU borrowed to finance expenditures, let alone transfers to member states.
But the program and its Recovery and Resilience Facility, which will disburse most of the funds, amount to a high-risk gamble. If the plan succeeds, it will surely pave the way to further initiatives, and perhaps ultimately to a fiscal union alongside the monetary union established two decades ago. But if the fails to deliver on stated goals, if political interests prevail over economic necessity, federal aspirations will be dashed for a generation.
The first question regards the size of the program. Although €390 billion in grants may look like a large sum of money, it actually amounts to less than 3% of EU GDP, to be spent over several years.
Jason Furman, a former chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, reckons that the US government’s fiscal response to the 2008 global financial crisis amounted to $1.6 trillion, or about 10% of GDP. That was 3-4 times more, in response to a much milder shock.
On the whole, therefore, individual countries remain in charge of warding off the pandemic blow.
Actually, the fiscal support already committed by leading EU member states represents 7-12% of national GDP – and significantly more is in the pipeline.
Nonetheless, the EU grants could make a big difference for some countries still reeling from the euro crisis. Transfers net of expected repayments should be worth 4% of GDP for Spain, 5% for Portugal, and 8% for Greece, according to ECB calculations. This is more than the 2.6% of GDP aid the US granted to Europe under the Marshall plan. If invested shrewdly, such amounts could change the recipient countries’ economic fate.
The next question concerns speed. In the spring of this year, EU economies entered free fall. They have now recovered from their troughs, but are still operating at about 5% below capacity. Given the new wave of infections, and rising unemployment, the immediate issue is whether these economies’ growth momentum will endure or weaken.
Should Europe’s recovery falter, a vicious circle of precautionary savings and worsening expectations could ensue, possibly leading to a double-dip recession. The appropriate strategy is therefore to make budgetary support contingent on the pace of the recovery. Money should be available now and disbursed quickly in case of need.
But make no mistake: the EU support package will come only later. Before its money can start to be spent, the bloc must agree on priorities, procedures, and conditions, which inevitably takes time. Less than 10% of the money expected be paid out in 2021, and 15% in 2022, according to the ECB. As matters stand, therefore, responsibility for sustaining the recovery remains with the EU’s member states. Even in 2022, it will be too early to pass the baton to the EU and wind down national stimulus packages. The temptation of early fiscal consolidation must be resisted.
Rather than seeking to engineer a Keynesian cyclical demand boost, the goal of Next Generation EU is in fact structural: to chart a new economic development path. The scheme aims to increase economic resilience, support the transition to a carbon-free economy, accelerate digitalization, and mitigate the social and regional fallout from the pandemic crisis. Which brings us to the third question: not how quickly EU money will reach southern Europe, but whether it will help tackle long-standing curses such as low productivity, structural unemployment, inequality, and reliance on carbon-intensive technologies.
The EU is clear on this point, and the European Commission recently set out the type of investment and reform plans member states are expected to devise in order to access the money. Although national governments will have the initiative of drawing up plans, they will have to return to the drawing board if the EU deems the projects too vague or soft to be effective. This could prove politically explosive in countries such as Italy, whose prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, fought for days and nights at the July summit against northern EU members’ efforts to condition financial support on pre-defined reforms.
The proposed compromise is sensible but fragile. Member states’ plans will be rated against their stated goals and overall objectives such as growth, job creation, and resilience, while disbursement will be conditional on recipient countries achieving agreed milestones and targets. This arrangement involves neither political conditionality (“first reform your pensions, then we can talk”) nor rubber-stamping (“here’s the money, please tell us what you do with it”). Rather, it is meant to be a contract whereby money is intended to serve certain goals, and the EU checks that the conditions to achieve them are in place.
But heated controversies are to be expected if the Commission does its job, rejects ineffective plans, and delays disbursements when milestones and targets are not met. The risk is that the process ends up in a bureaucratic squabble that the public cannot decipher but provides ammunition to populists.
To avoid falling into this trap, the EU will have to strike the right balance between intrusiveness and indulgence. It should select for each recipient a few targets and criteria that are specific, clear, and nearly indisputable; and it should be ready to fight for these yardsticks. It will also need to scrutinize the allocation of funds, and quickly raise a red flag in case of embezzlement. As Bruegel’s Guntram Wolff has pointed out, evidence of corruption would be lethal for Europe’s grand ambitions.
Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Inspiration was behind the July decision. Now, Europe should start sweating. For the good cause.
Trump's international economic legacy
Project Syndicate column, 27 August 2020
It would be foolish to start celebrating the end of US President Donald Trump’s administration, but it is not too soon to ponder the impact he will have left on the international economic system if his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, wins November’s election. In some areas, a one-term Trump presidency would most likely leave an insignificant mark, which Biden could easily erase. But in several others, the last four years may well come to be seen as a watershed. Moreover, the long shadow of Trump’s international behavior will weigh on his eventual successor.
On climate change, Trump’s dismal legacy would be quickly wiped out. Biden has pledged to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate agreement “on day one” of his administration, achieve climate neutrality by 2050, and lead a global coalition against the climate threat. If this happens, Trump’s noisy denial of scientific evidence will be remembered as a minor blip.
In a surprisingly large number of domains, Trump has done little or has behaved too erratically to leave an imprint. Global financial regulation has not changed fundamentally during his term, and his administration has flip-flopped regarding the fight against tax havens. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have carried on working more or less smoothly, and Trump’s furious tweeting did not prevent the US Federal Reserve from continuing to act responsibly, including by providing dollar liquidity to key international partners during the COVID-19 crisis. True, Trump has repeatedly spoiled international summits, leaving his fellow leaders flummoxed. But such behavior has been more embarrassing than consequential.
In contrast, Trump will be remembered for his trade initiatives. Although it has always been difficult to determine the real aims of an administration beset by infighting, three key goals now stand out: reshoring of manufacturing, an overhaul of the World Trade Organization, and economic decoupling from China. Each objective is likely to outlast Trump’s tenure, at least in part.
Reshoring looked like a costly fantasy four years ago, and it still is in many respects. As my Peterson Institute colleague Chad Bown has documented, Trump’s chaotic trade war with the world has often hurt US economic interests. But reshoring as a policy objective has gained new life after the pandemic exposed the vulnerability entailed by depending exclusively on global sourcing. Biden has endorsed the idea, and “economic sovereignty” – whatever that means – is now everywhere the new mantra.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer claims that a “reset” of the WTO has been a high priority for the administration. If so, it has made some headway. The other G7 countries now share the long-standing US dissatisfaction with the WTO’s leniency toward China’s government subsidies and weak intellectual-property protection. There is also a recognition that some US grievances against WTO dispute-settlement procedures (and in particular the so-called Appellate Body) are valid. But whether the battle ends with a reset or a decomposition of the multilateral trading system remains to be seen.
The major watershed is US-China relations. Although bilateral tensions were apparent before Trump’s election in 2016, nobody spoke of a “decoupling” of two countries that had become tightly integrated economically and financially. Four years later, decoupling has begun on several fronts, from technology to trade and investment. Nowadays, US Republicans and Democrats alike view bilateral economic ties through a geopolitical lens.
It is not clear whether Trump merely precipitated a rupture that was already in the making. He is not responsible for President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian assertiveness, and he did not devise the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s massive transnational infrastructure and credit program. But it was Trump who ditched Barack Obama’s carefully balanced China strategy in favor of a brutally adversarial stance that left no scope for events to take a different course. Whatever the cause of decoupling, there won’t be a return to the status quo.
A Biden administration would also not find it easy to reach the candidate’s aim of restoring ties with US allies, like-minded democracies, and partners around the world. Until Trump’s presidency, much of the world had become accustomed to regarding the US as the main architect of the international economic system. As Adam Posen, also of the Peterson Institute, has argued, the US was a sort of chair for life of a global club whose rules it had largely conceived but still had to abide by. The US could collect dues but was also bound by duties, and had to forge a consensus on amendments to the rules.
Trump’s trademark has been to reject this approach and treat all other countries as competitors, rivals or enemies, his overriding objective being to maximize the rent that the US can extract from its still-dominant economic position. “America First” epitomizes his explicit promotion of a narrow definition of the national interest.
Even if the US under Biden were willing to make again credible international commitments, its outlook may change lastingly. The former Trump adviser Nadia Schadlow recently argued that Trump’s tenure will be remembered as the moment when the world pivoted away from a unipolar paradigm to one of great-power competition.
It is by no means obvious that if Biden wins, he will be able to restore the trust of America’s international partners. For all its aberrations, Trump’s presidency may indicate a deeper US reaction to the shift in global economic power, and reflect the American public’s rejection of the foreign responsibilities their country endorsed for three-quarters of a century. The old belief among US allies and economic partners that Americans will “ultimately do the right thing,” as Winston Churchill reputedly said, may be gone.
Anyhow, Trump’s peculiar behavior has made it easy for America’s allies to postpone hard choices. That seems particularly true of Europe. A Biden-led US might seem like a familiar partner to most European leaders. But if it asked them to take sides in the confrontation with China, Europe would no longer be able to put off its own moment of decision.
The Challenges of the Post-Pandemic Agenda
Project Syndicate column, 27 July 2020
There is a growing possibility that the COVID-19 crisis will mark the end of the growth model born four decades ago with the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, China’s embrace of capitalism, and the demise of the Soviet Union. The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of human societies and fortified support for urgent climate action. And it has strengthened governments’ hand, eroded already-shaky support for globalization, and triggered a reappraisal of the social value of mundane tasks. The small government, free-market template suddenly looks terribly outdated.
History suggests that transitions between phases of capitalist development can be harsh and uncertain. The postwar growth model took shape only after the Marshall Plan catalyzed its emergence. And the transition from the stagflationary 1970s to the market-dominated growth model took a decade. The years ahead will most likely be tough ones.
The challenge is not only one of uncertainty. It is also that the emergence of a new coherence usually requires something or someone to give way. In the late 1940s, European rent-seekers gave way to the forces of modernization. And in the 1980s, organized labor gave way to financial capitalism. The same will be true this time, because the coherence among the emerging priorities are all but obvious.
Start with climate change. Although the transition to carbon neutrality is probably the only way to preserve our wellbeing, it is bound to unsettle the lifestyle of households accustomed to driving SUVs or reliant on outdated heating systems.
A stark reminder of the social consequences of carbon taxes was recently provided by the French Yellow Vests uprising. While these taxes were ill-designed and regressive, the problem runs deeper: as the green transition entails replacing “brown” capital with “green” capital, it will require additional investment – conservatively estimated to be 1% of GDP per year in the coming decades – in more efficient industrial systems, buildings, and vehicles. Keeping public consumption and net exports constant, this will translate into a decline in private consumption of 1% of GDP – or roughly a 2% decline in level.
Next comes less reliance on global markets for essential supplies. Although China’s participation in the global economy has been disruptive for workers, it has benefited consumers massively. As Robert Feenstra of the University of California, Davis and his colleagues have shown, China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 lowered US manufacturing prices by 1% per year – a 0.3% gain in purchasing power. Using a different methodology, Lionel Fontagné and Charlotte Emlinger of CEPII (Paris) have found that by 2010, imports from low-wage countries had made the median French household 8% richer. By now, the boon to consumers could have reached 10% in Europe and the US.
How much would higher economic autonomy cost? Let us assume that it would imply giving up one-fourth of an 8% gain from globalization. This would cut real consumption by another 2%.
But there is more: projections by the International Monetary Fund and the OECD indicate that by 2021, the GDP share of public debt in advanced economies will have increased by at least 20 percentage points. In a zero-interest-rate environment, most countries can afford this; but after the pandemic is over, governments will have to start reducing their debt ratios, in order to create the fiscal space they will need to confront the potential recurrence of disruptive shocks. Assume, conservatively again, that half of the increase is reversed over ten years through taxes on households. This would imply another 1%-of-GDP cut in income and, other things being equal, another 2% consumption drop. In total, this would lower annual consumption growth over the decade by 0.6%.
Real income, however, is not expected to increase by much more. As a comprehensive World Bank study recently emphasized, annual productivity gains – the engine of economic growth – have stalled globally since the 2008 financial crisis, with annual increases below 1% per year in advanced economies. Stagnant productivity, if it continues, will, along with demographic aging, leave no room for increasing individual household consumption over a ten-year period.
The public-health crisis, however, has triggered a renewed awareness of the importance of the mundane tasks many workers perform. In most advanced societies, it is believed – at least for now – that the income of these workers should better reflect their contribution to the common good. It would be odd to tell them that the best they can hope for in the coming decade is to keep their income constant.
So, who and what will give in? Implicitly or explicitly, this debate will probably dominate policy discussions in the years to come. For sure, the likes of US President Donald Trump will claim that sovereignty and consumption growth take precedence over climate preservation and the debt. Those who think differently will have to find a way out of what looks like an incoherent set of objectives.
To that end, efficiency will have to be given high priority. This implies fostering productivity, rather than dreaming of de-growth; emphasizing an economic approach to the green transition, rather than wasting resources in ill-chosen decarbonization investments; and defining precisely what economic security entails, rather than aiming at a reshoring of production for which developed countries have no comparative advantage.
By itself, however, efficiency will not suffice to overcome the challenges that have emerged. The new aims - the preservation of public goods, economic security, and inclusion – will need to take center stage, relegating shareholder value to the second rank. And instead of regarding growth as the ultimate solution to inequality, advanced economies will need to tackle distributional issues head on. It is to be hoped that they will be spared the convulsions that often accompany structural and policy changes of such magnitude.
The Pandemic Response, Act II
Project Syndicate column, 29 June 2020
Twelve years ago, governments in the world’s major economies responded swiftly and effectively to the financial crisis. Banks that were teetering were nationalized. Monetary policy went overdrive. Massive fiscal support was provided. Global coordination was intense.
But big mistakes were made, with consequences that emerged only gradually. Failure to punish those responsible for the financial meltdown paved the way to the populist surge of recent years. And Europe’s economy stumbled repeatedly, because banking woes were denied for too long and fiscal support was withdrawn too early. The results were deep socioeconomic and political scars that remained very visible when the pandemic arrived. Will the same pattern be avoided? As Act II of the pandemic crisis has begun, this is a key question.
Wide disparity in the pandemic’s effect on countries is already apparent. The differences are bewildering: the United Kingdom has recorded 650 deaths per million inhabitants, while South Korea’s death rate per million is just five. Likewise, death tolls within the EU are a hundred times larger in the worst affected countries than in the best sheltered ones.
These gaps partly reflect sheer luck: while the virus spread under the radar in Italy, northeastern European countries saw it coming and could prepare. But they also stem from the uneven effectiveness of public-health policies. In this regard, the eventual ranking will likely put East Asia far ahead of anyone else, Germany ahead of the rest of Europe, the United States at the bottom of the developed countries’ league, and Brazil and India well behind some less developed countries. Anger against states that failed to protect their people is bound to be a major factor shaping future political developments.
Strict lockdowns have proved effective but economically costly: the stringency of administrative measures turns out to be a very good predictor of output losses in the first half of the year. But nuances also matter. Because its response proved more decentralized and adaptable, Germany was able to minimize the economic cost of containing the virus. Its response strategy displayed the bright side of federalism (the US embodies the dark side).
Fiscal responses have been remarkably homogenous across Europe: governments implemented credit guarantee schemes that helped firms access liquidity, and job retention schemes whereby the state assumed the payroll cost of furloughed employees. This proved quick and effective: businesses survived, employment relationships were preserved, and household income was protected.
In the US, by contrast, employees were laid off en masse, and unemployment skyrocketed. Despite their generosity, the premium added to unemployment benefits, the tax breaks for households, and the grants for small firms that re-hire after the lockdown did not prevent hardship. Overall, comparison with France shows that the cost of mitigating the pandemic’s economic fallout was 50% higher, and the disruption far larger, in the US. Kudos therefore to the European welfare state.
Where the pandemic recedes, the focus is increasingly on the pace and strength of economic recovery. The OECD and the International Monetary Fund note that Italy, Spain, France and the UK have been hit particularly hard. Their economies are rebounding, but how much of the lost output will they recover? After the global financial crisis, it took Spain eight years to return to pre-crisis per capita GDP, and it has yet to happen in Italy and Greece. The risk now is a further weakening of southern Europe.
To avoid lasting damage, the first priority is to continue supporting the recovery for as long as necessary. The risk of excess public debt is very real but the risk of economic contraction is even more serious – also from a fiscal standpoint. Deficits nowadays are costless in the short run (though potentially costly in the long run, which is why public finances must be managed responsibly). There is still fiscal space. It must be used wisely, but it should be used. Governments should continue playing the role of buyers of last resort.
Demand-side policies alone won’t do the job, though. A second priority is to prevent a wave of bankruptcies. Many businesses have been hit severely. Even when discharged of their payroll costs, they still had fixed costs to shoulder. Liquidity provision has been a helpful treatment, but not a cure.
Solutions must therefore be found for viable but heavily indebted companies. So many of them will be in a dire situation that normal legal proceedings threaten to overwhelm court systems.
To avoid this scenario, governments should establish mechanisms for large-scale debt restructuring. Tax deferrals and guarantee schemes have made governments creditors to a large number of small businesses. In a paper with Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute and Thomas Philippon of New York University, we propose to let private creditors – primarily banks – know that governments will support decisions to restructure the debt of a viable company and that they will take part in the resulting rescheduling or forgiveness of existing claims. Because governments value the positive impact of businesses’ survival on all sorts of stakeholders, they should even let it be known that it will add a “continuation premium” to whatever private creditors do. This could save a lot of jobs.
Governments should also help address the consequences of productivity shortfalls. Health standards seriously affect the profitability of some sectors. A restaurant, for example, will now typically serve fewer customers with about the same number of employees; a gym nowadays must devote extra staff to cleaning and hygiene. This makes them temporarily less profitable, to the point that they may close or decide to lay off employees. To limit the impact of productivity shortfalls, Blanchard, Philippon and I propose temporary wage subsidies. Again, this may save jobs at a time when a major unemployment spike risks making job reallocation ineffective.
The worst of the pandemic is over, at least in Europe, and the news is likely to remain good in the coming weeks. By providing insurance to employees and firms, governments have done their job so far. But this was just the first step. It is imperative that they maintain economic support for as long as necessary and take new initiatives to contain lasting damages.
The Uncertain Pandemic Consensus
Project Syndicate column, 29 May 2020
What is the COVID-19 crisis teaching us about the role of the state? And what lasting lessons will our societies draw from it? It is still very early to be asking these questions, but they cannot be avoided. Postponing their discussion would simply leave the field open for those peddling old obsessions whose time has long gone (if it ever came).
The starting point should be that, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump notwithstanding, a new pandemic consensus has been forged on the battlefield. It can be summarized in four propositions.
First, the social value of professions, tasks, and behaviors – the price that should guide policy decisions and individual choices – often differs from their market value by a wide margin. Sometime around the end of March, much of the world realized that the work of a nurse or a care assistant was worth more – at least at that moment – than the pay they ordinarily receive.
This disconnect is nothing new, but it had been forgotten. By putting the spotlight on the sector where markets perform the worst – health care – the coronavirus pandemic inevitably prompted a welcome reassessment of the relative roles of markets and the state.
Second, only governments can insure against catastrophic risk. Again, it has been known for a long time that the state is the insurer of last resort. But what had previously remained relatively abstract suddenly looked became obvious to all. In a situation of generalized stress, only governments (with the help of central banks) can protect citizens, prevent bankruptcies, and limit social fragmentation. Markets are good at tackling mutually offsetting risks, but only the state can tackle tail risks.
Third, globalization fosters efficiency, but it is the state that must provide resilience. A strong belief until recently was that individual countries could always rely on deep and liquid global markets to access whichever goods they needed. But then came the shocking realization that these markets could be disrupted by a sudden surge in demand for face masks and respirators, and that China alone accounted for 60% of global exports of protective medical equipment. Little wonder, then, that “health sovereignty” was the first item in the recently announced Franco-German recovery plan for Europe.
Lastly, obstacles to state intervention can be overcome in the event of a once-in-a-century shock. As the crisis took hold in March, the European Union quickly decided to relax its rules limiting state aid to private companies and to activate an escape clause exempting member states from the fiscal strictures of the Stability and Growth Pact. These two decisions allowed EU member states to offer massive financial support for to workers and private businesses through job-retention schemes, as well as credit guarantees, loans, equity support, and grants.
The question now is which parts of this consensus will survive the acute phase of the crisis. After the 2008 global financial crisis, many argued that unfettered capitalism was doomed. As then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in Davos in 2010, “This crisis is a crisis of globalization. It is our vision of the world which, at a given moment in time, proved defective. So it is our vision of the world we must correct.” But although banking regulation was tightened following the financial meltdown, reforms of capitalism failed to live up to such grand ambitions
But the COVID-19 shock is much greater, and the pre-existing social tensions are deeper than they were in 2008. The current crisis should thus provide fertile ground for re-evaluating the role and unique responsibilities of the state.
This process should lead to a policy shift that puts markets in their proper place: as essential, rather than dominant, social institutions. To paraphrase the economic historian Karl Polanyi, markets ought to be embedded in social relations rather than vice versa. The current climate emergency and, more generally, the growing weight of non-market interactions – what economists call externalities – only add strength to this view.
By the same token, the COVID-19 trauma should serve as a reminder that governments must retain spare capacity so that they can play their full role in an emergency. It is no accident that deep-pockets Germany has responded to the current crisis so forcefully, whereas Italy and (even more so) Greece have more limited firepower. And although central-bank support can help to loosen the limits on government borrowing – especially in the current low-interest-rate environment – it does not remove them altogether.
But today’s traumatized polities, vulnerable to passions and prone to suspicion, may want to go further. True, governments are much less to blame for COVID-19 than they were for the financial crisis, which was a catastrophe of their own making. But grievances abound nonetheless, and will only grow as the pandemic’s dramatic economic and social consequences unfold.
In this context, angry citizens will be tempted to believe that there must have been hidden reasons for yesterday’s allegedly inescapable disciplines. And they may conclude that because everything that was previously deemed impossible suddenly became possible, governments should stop abiding by seemingly imaginary constraints.
Many now wonder, for example, why hospitals were subjected to tight budget restrictions, only to have these be lifted in response to the pandemic; Why did governments kept insist for so long that they had to reduce the public-debt ratio, only to start throwing money at every problem when the need arose; And many will also ask why policymakers touted economic openness as a vital national interest until sovereignty became the new mantra.
These are legitimate questions. The pandemic has shattered many policy taboos, so the answer can’t be “that There Is No Alternative.” (TINA is another casualty of this crisis and no one should mourn its passing). But the reality principle remains. What our societies need is an open, facts-based debate on the guiding principles and the options ahead. But it is uncertain that they are currently capable of having it. The battle between a new policy philosophy and a new guise of populism will define our future.
Karslruhe: The message in the ruling
English version of op-ed in El País, 10 May 2020
From its pretence to establish itself as a custodian of the custodians to the narrowness of its perspective on central bank policy and the parochial assessment of the distributional consequences of monetary decisions, there is much to criticize in the ruling by the German Constitutional Court on the asset purchase programme initiated by the ECB in 2015. But it can hardly be blamed for raising an important question.
Europe’s central bank was born with the precisely defined mandate of preserving price stability. Over the years, however, the ECB was given new missions, as for banking supervision, or it took on new roles, as when Mario Draghi famously said that it would do “whatever it takes” to prevent a break-up of the euro. Until the 5th of May everything suggested that the coronavirus crisis would end up having been a further reason for expanding its mission.
For European leaders unable to agree to create a budget or a meaningful solidarity fund for the euro area, it was expedient to let the ECB contain interest rate spreads and mutualise risk through its balance sheet. Having relaxed quantitative benchmarks, the central bank was able to expand its government bonds portfolio and change its composition. It thereby created fiscal space for Italy at a time when Rome desperately needed it to fight off the health crisis and its economic consequences. Until the bombshell came.
It has been a longstanding view of German constitutional judges that whilst monetary policy decisions are delegated to an independent institution, actions that have a fiscal character must remain the exclusive prerogative of elected parliaments.
The distinction is a subtle but an important one when assessing bond purchases by the ECB: when it uses them to lower interest rates across the board, it fulfils its monetary policy mission; same also when it prevents nervous markets from triggering self-fulfilling debt crises; but things would be different if it were to pile up bonds issued by specific governments to contain the rise in bond spreads triggered by heightened solvency fears.
This is an old controversy. It erupted already in 2010 when the ECB started buying Greek debt. It was given a temporary solution with the launch of the (never activated) OMT programme in 2012. And it came back after Christine Lagarde said on 12 March that the ECB was “not here to close spreads” – before retracting precipitously in the following hours.
There are very good arguments to support the relaxation of ECB self-imposed limits to asset purchases decided on 18 March. These limits were largely arbitrary. But the Karlsruhe ruling has made the ECB lose some of its magic. What the German judges are telling European leaders in their lopsided way is that decisions for which they ought to take ownership should not be delegated to an unelected body.
This is an uncomfortable truth. But time has come for EU and its member states to face it.
Building a Post-Pandemic World Will Not Be Easy
Project Syndicate column, 30 April 2020
Die-hard green militants regard it as obvious: the COVID-19 crisis only strengthens the urgent need for climate action. But die-hard industrialists are equally convinced: there should be no higher priority than to repair a ravaged economy, postponing stricter environmental regulations if necessary. The battle has started. Its outcome will define the post-pandemic world.
Both the public-health crisis and the climate crisis highlight the limits of humanity’s power over nature. Both remind us that the Anthropocene epoch may end up badly. And both teach us that benign everyday behavior can result in catastrophic outcomes.
Defying linear reasoning, the pandemic and climate change both force us to adapt to situations where a little more leeway results in a lot more damage. As the climate economist Gernot Wagner has noted, the pandemic in a sense replicates climate change at warp speed. This may explain why public opinion overwhelmingly considers global warming as serious a threat as COVID-19 and wants governments to emphasize climate action in the recovery.
The pandemic has also provided a crash course on the collective implications of individual behavior. Each of us has been compelled to recognize that our responsibilities vis-à-vis the community are more profound cannot be fulfilled merely by paying taxes and making a few donations. This “pay and forget” attitude is clearly inappropriate in a public-health crisis – and in a climate crisis.
Moreover, the last few weeks have highlighted the narrowness of the state-versus-markets perspective on the challenge we face. As the economists Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin have argued, the solution will not come from some combination of government decrees and market incentives. Communities whose members behave responsibly and gratefully toward one another are an indispensable part of the response. Even though the fundamental contribution of social capital and norms is not recorded in national accounts, we acknowledge it every time we applaud health-care and other essential workers. And, again, this applies to climate change as well.
But while we must recognize these strong commonalities, we must also not overlook the obstacles to a transformation of our economic model created by the COVID-19 crisis. If anything, impediments to climate action are going to be even more formidable in the times ahead than they were a few weeks back.
For starters, climate action is inherently global, whereas the fight against a pandemic has a much more local character. To burn a ton of carbon has exactly the same effect on Earth’s temperature wherever it is burned – which is why fighting climate change requires global agreements.
The same does not apply to the pandemic. Prudent individual behavior benefits relatives more than neighbors, neighbors more than residents of the same city, and compatriots more than foreigners.
Climate protection and public-health protection thus tap fundamentally different impulses. One leads us to regard ourselves as responsible citizens of the world, the other takes us back to our local roots and the (often imaginary) shelter provided by national borders
For example, some 84% of French citizens nowadays support keeping the country’s borders closed to foreigners. It is by no means certain that after the COVID-19 trauma, people will display more readiness to change their behavior for the benefit of mankind and future generations. This is a first source of tension.
The second, acute tension will emerge on the economic front. As the lockdown ends, policymakers will increasingly emphasize reviving economic growth and employment. The overriding priority of all governments will understandably be to minimize the socioeconomic scars left by the crisis by ensuring that every business that can restart will restart.
To the great dismay of those who would wish to rebuild rather than repair, this is an undisputable priority. In an emergency, credit guarantees and income support for furloughed workers can be provided only across the board, rather than conditioned on commitments regarding future behavior. As planes are stranded and passengers have vanished, no government is willing to condition financial support for airlines on fundamental changes by them. Today is for firefighters, not architects.
The right moment to influence the course of economic development will come later, when investment resumes and the horizon lengthens. Companies will presumably be willing to listen to the voice of those who helped them survive.
But a third tension will arise when people realize how much poorer the crisis has made them. Many firms will have failed and many workers will have lost their jobs. More resources will need to be devoted to strengthening health systems and industries, at the expense of current consumption. And public debt – also known as future taxes (or, alternatively, future inflation) – will have increased by 20-30 percentage points of GDP.
Poorer citizens will likely be more reluctant to bear the cost of replacing obsolete “brown” capital embedded in heating systems, cars, and machines with greener but costly capital, because this would destroy even more of the old jobs and leave even less income available for short-term consumption. If anything, the division between those who care about the end of the world and those who care about the end of the month will widen.
The green advocates are right: Once the immediate crisis repair is complete, the opportunity to build on heightened collective awareness to transform our economies and change our way of life should not be missed. But they should neither hide the magnitude of the obstacles on the way nor pretend that some new school of voodoo economics will circumvent trade-offs. It is only by recognizing the significance of the challenge that we will bolster our chances to succeed.
Will The Economic Strategy Work?
Project Syndicate column, 31 March
With the COVID-19 crisis sending France into a halt, Insee, the French statistical institute, puts the drop in economic activity relative to normal at 35%. It reckons that the fall in household consumption is of a similar magnitude.
These numbers imply that each additional month of lockdown reduces annual GDP by three percentage points. And sectoral situations are obviously worse: business output is down 40%, manufacturing output down 50%, and some services sectors have come to a complete standstill. Ex-ante estimates for Germany and the United Kingdom are similar, and, if anything, corresponding numbers may be larger in economies with a smaller public sector.
Because even thriving companies can be killed in a matter of weeks by a shock of this magnitude, governments have reacted in a remarkably similar fashion. To prevent bankruptcies, they are extending liquidity lifelines to private businesses in the form of massive credit guarantees and the deferral of tax payments (many of which will never be collected). Germany, for example is rolling out €400 billion in public guarantees to make sure that its banks will roll over outstanding loans to businesses. Overall, eurozone fiscal liquidity schemes for business and employees amount to 13% of GDP.
European countries are, moreover, making extensive use of mechanisms that temporarily transfer to the government the largest part of the wage bill of companies forced to stop or cut production. Workers retain their employment contract and, one way or another, most of their wage, but the company receives state support that covers nearly all of the costs. Unlike layoffs, which sever ties between a company and its workforce, such schemes make it possible to keep workers financially afloat until the company reopens for business. Such arrangements, where they already existed, were generally used to address sector-specific crises. Now, they have been massively extended.
Absent an extensive social insurance system to build on, the US stimulus package, adopted on March 26, has similar aims, but a different structure. The federal government will send checks to low- and middle-income taxpayers, extend grants to small businesses conditional on them keeping their workers, increase the duration of unemployment insurance and broaden eligibility, and pay $600 per week to laid-off and furloughed workers. This is, in spirit, a very European package. But stark differences remain: from March 14 to March 21, U.S. weekly jobless claims soared by an unprecedented amount, 280,000 to 3.2 million. No European country has experienced such an abrupt business response to the shock.
Whether the strategy will be effective is hard to assess. Whatever the size of the shield that is being extended to protect businesses and workers, devastation is certain. Many companies were caught off guard by the crisis, loaded with debt and now devoid of prospects. Liquidity helps them but it won’t save them from the threat of insolvency. The collapsing stock markets have reduced the value of collateral, leaving borrowers more fragile and putting leveraged investors in great danger. Banks are piling up bad debt once again.
Moreover, many gig workers, temporary employees, and new entrants on the labor market, have been left without an income, while the bureaucratic plumbing of the new unemployment insurance schemes is an operational nightmare. So there will be many, many casualties. But overall, the approach being taken is probably the best possible.
Is it a sustainable strategy? It is easy to do the fiscal numbers. Assuming that the business sector accounts for 80% of the economy, that its output is down by 40%, and that government action aims at covering 80% of the corresponding income loss, budgetary support should amount to 0.8 x 0.4 x 0.8 = 25% of pre-crisis output, or a bit more than 2% of annual GDP per month. Three months of complete or partial lockdown, followed by only a gradual recovery, could add some ten percentage points of GDP to the budget deficit.
That is a very big number, but in current conditions, governments can afford to go deeply into debt. Interest rates were at historically low levels before the crisis hit, for reasons that were mostly structural and will therefore remain. Moreover, central banks are everywhere backstopping their governments and will avoid self-fulfilling debt crises. In these conditions, large deficits can be tolerated, at least in the short run.
The economic sustainability of the strategy is more in question. It is worth keeping a business on life support for a few weeks, because to let it go bust would be a loss not only to its shareholders and workers, but to society at large. Firm-specific skills, know-how, and intangible capital would be lost for good. So governments have been right not to hesitate. But will that still be true after six months? Or nine? A firm that has remained idle for too long is likely to become riddled with debt, and it may have lost its economic value. It must be admitted that the conservation strategy is predicated on a relatively short crisis. It is right for the time being, but it may have to be adapted in the light of events.
The hardest issue may be how to manage the exit from the lockdown after the public-health threat has been contained and economic policy takes center stage again. Some have started speaking of a stimulus plan, but supply may well remain constrained for some months, while pent-up household demand for goods and services could be considerable.
As after a war, shortages are likely to arise, in some sectors at least. And it is very hard to predict whether aggregate demand will be excessive, owing to accumulated savings and repressed consumption, or depressed, because of fear, financial losses, debt, and the collapse of international trade. Managing the economy will be a very hard balancing act. As the Chinese saying puts it, policymakers will need to cross the river by feeling the stones.
A radical way out of the EU budget maze
Project Syndicate column, 25 February 2020
In 2003, I co-authored a report on the future of the European Union – the Sapir report – in which we observed that the expenditures, revenues, and procedures of the EU budget were all inconsistent with the Union’s objectives. We therefore advocated a radical restructuring of what had become a “historical relic.” Seventeen years later, little has changed.
Two years ago, when negotiations on the budget for 2021-2027 started, I pointed out that the outcome would reveal what the EU is really up to, but that after high-drama bluffing, bullying, blackmail, and betrayal, such negotiations usually result in minimal changes. And here we are: we have had bluffing, bullying, blackmail, and betrayal, not least on the occasion of the inconclusive EU summit of February 20-21, and Europe appears to be headed for minimal changes.
Such an outcome would be dreadful. True, the EU’s budget is not what usually defines it. Europe’s integration has proceeded by establishing a legal system, common institutions, a single market and currency, and joint policies for competition, trade, and climate, rather than through joint spending programs. The lion’s share of its budget goes to transfers to poorer regions and farmers, which may or may not be useful but do not characterize what today’s Europe is about. It is therefore tempting to treat the EU’s budgetary discussion as a fairly inconsequential distributional game: Europe’s pork barrel.
But that would be wrong. Europe’s defining issue is no longer integration through trade and mobility, or even the strengthening of the euro. As I argued in a recent report with Clemens Fuest of CESifo Munich, the EU’s role is increasingly the provision of public goods at European rather than national level, in accordance with its values and priorities. Concretely, the defining issue for the EU is whether to act forcefully in fields like climate-change mitigation, digital sovereignty, research and development in transformative projects, development cooperation, migration policy, foreign policy and defense. In such fields, the question is not whether Spain will gain more than Poland, or whether Dutch citizens will end up paying more the French, but whether there is added value in joint policies.
As matters stand, however, the EU is starting from an absurdly distorted approach to public goods. Some member states are interested only in what is in it for them, while others consider only what it may cost them, and still others care only about collateral damage to their cherished policies. What Europe loses in the process is an opportunity to get serious about its stated priorities and to confront the urgency of joint action.
A fundamental principle of public economics is that efficiency and distribution issues should be separated to the extent possible. Whether a policy delivers value and how its benefits are distributed are both important issues, but they must be distinguished. Separation can never be absolute, because the provision of public goods has distributional consequences: an increase in defense spending, for example, benefits weapons-producing regions. But this only reinforces the point: no one wants security policy to be decided by the arms lobby.
The EU budget negotiation mechanism should be designed to give member states an incentive to aim both at collective efficiency and cross-country equity, but not to make one the hostage of the other. At present however, Poland fights for the regional development funds and France for the Common Agricultural Policy, regardless of these programs’ intrinsic value, because they benefit from them. By the same token, the frugal four (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden) have committed to resisting any meaningful increase in the budget, irrespective of what is done with the money. The result is deadlock.
The way out of the impasse is to choose a negotiation procedure that addresses efficiency and distribution separately. To the great dismay of devoted federalists, who (rightly) claim that the very notion of net budgetary balance is economic nonsense, negotiations nonetheless end up deciding how much each member state will pay and receive over the seven-year period covered by the budget. If contributions are too high or benefits too low, a “rebate” is agreed on, which ensures that the net balance is at the desired level. But since no one is very proud of this sort of murky horse-trading, it is left for the last, late-night or early morning discussion. As shown by Zsolt Darvas of Bruegel, the result is muddled and its complexity defies imagination.
To break the deadlock, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, should propose to turn the table and start afresh with the setting of each country’s net balance. It would be agreed that Poland, because it is poorer, would receive €X billion more each year than what it is paying into the budget; Germany, because it is richer, would pay Y billion more; and so on. With properly defined net balances set in stone, no state would have an interest to fight for a policy whose only value is that it benefits from it, because any additional net benefit (or cost) would be automatically offset through a lump-sum transfer. This would shift attention to the policies’ intrinsic value rather than their distributional effects.
True, the debate over the overall size of the EU budget would remain. There would still be a row between partisans of higher spending and advocates of frugality. But this is a necessary debate that should not be eschewed. Those who think that there is value in European public goods would have to convince their partners – and also pay their fair share. The difference, not a minor one, is that they would argue on the basis of added value and efficiency, not direct pecuniary interests.
After another failed negotiation, Michel tweeted on February 21 that, “as my grandmother used to say, in order to succeed you have to try.” European leaders would be wise to follow his grandmother’s advice.
Explaining the triumph of Trump's economic recklessness
Project Syndicate column, 28 January 2020
Since he was elected US president, Donald Trump has done almost everything standard economic wisdom regards as heresy. He has erected trade barriers and stoked uncertainty with threats of further tariffs. He has blackmailed private businesses. He has eased prudential standards for banks. He has time and again attacked the Federal Reserve for policy not to his liking. He increased the budget deficit even as the economy was nearing full capacity. On a policymaker’s Don’t Do list, Trump ticks many more boxes than any other post-war US president.
And yet the US economy’s longest expansion on record continues. Inflation is low and stable. Unemployment is at a 50-year trough. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is the lowest ever recorded. People who had left the labor market are returning and finding jobs. And wages at the bottom of the distribution are now rising at 4% per year, notably faster than average. On a voter’s economic wish list, Trump ticks more boxes than most of his predecessors.
The political question everybody is speculating about is whether this economic performance will win Trump a second term. But the equally important (and related) economic question is whether it will teach governments worldwide that reckless initiatives beat analysis-based economic policies. If it does, expertise will be ridiculed and international policy institutions will lose whatever credibility they still have. Independent central banks may well become chapels of a forgotten cult. Populists of all guises will feel emboldened.
Some, like Joseph Stiglitz, regard Trump’s achievements as an illusion. It is true that the picture is not entirely rosy. If anything, the trade deficit has increased. Distressed areas have not recovered. Inequality is still appalling. But this is no reason to overlook the positives. Assessment, rather than denial, is needed to shed light on what is happening.
The Trump administration’s economic policy is a strange cocktail: one part populist trade protectionism and industrial interventionism; one part classic Republican tax cuts skewed to the rich and industry-friendly deregulation; and one part Keynesian fiscal and monetary stimulus. The question that must be addressed is what in the economic outcomes can be attributed to each of these ingredients.
Trump’s populist agenda is very much geared toward America’s industrial heartland. Trade protection is supposed to make US manufacturing competitive again, at least on the domestic market, while companies are being instructed to invest at home rather than abroad. Yet the share of manufacturing in GDP is still two percentage points below its level prior to the 2008 financial crisis, and 900,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost.
True, Trump continues pushing. The US-China “phase one” trade agreement commits the Chinese to a near-doubling of imports of US manufactured goods by 2021. But as Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics has pointed out, the target is unrealistic. And there is no evidence of a Trump-engineered industrial revival.
The main aim of this administration’s tax policy is to spur growth by cutting the statutory corporate rate from 35% to 21%, while broadening the tax base. It is complemented by what Trump describes as the most ambitious deregulation campaign in history but, by his own admission, anti-red tape measures started kicking in only recently, so they cannot account for the economic results.
In a careful collaborative analysis, Harvard’s Robert Barro, a Republican-inclined economist, and Jason Furman, also of Harvard and a chair of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, provide a numerical assessment of the impact of the corporate tax reform. Their conclusion is that lowering the cost of capital is a long-run positive, but that its immediate impact on GDP growth is less than 0.15 percentage point per year: a minor contribution to current economic performance. At any rate, relatively weak investment growth suggests that lower corporate taxes are not driving the expansion.
What we are left with, then, is the Keynesian explanation: fiscal and monetary support are the main factors behind the length and the strength of the expansion. On the fiscal side, the combination of tax cuts and spending increases may have boosted GDP some 2% since 2017. On the monetary side, the Federal Reserve changed course in 2019 and reversed some of the interest-rate hikes it had put in place earlier to stem inflationary risks. Finally, multiple increases in state and local minimum wages have brought the effective minimum wage to some $12 per hour (66 per cent higher than the federal minimum, unchanged under Trump), lifting low incomes and making the late expansion more inclusive.
So, the main reason for persistent growth and record employment in the United States is neither trade policy and industrial interventions, nor corporate tax cuts and deregulation. They have been driven by the demand stimulus. There was nothing certain about this result. In its summer 2017 assessment of the US, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the economy was close to full employment, supported monetary tightening and warned against rising public debt.
Whatever the motivation, to stimulate an economy in which unemployment was already below 5% was an experiment. It needed trust in the benefits of a “high-pressure economy” where tight labor markets attract people left behind and help create new capacity. It supposed a certain indifference to fiscal deficits. And it required risk-taking on the part of the Fed, which was accused of bowing to political pressure but actually fulfilled its mandate by testing the limits of the expansion. The experiment has worked – at least so far.
Overall, the lesson from Trump’s apparent economic success is not that recklessness and economic nationalism should guide policies. It is that in a low-inflation, low-interest-rate environment, the room for expansionary policies is larger than usually thought; that such an environment calls for bold policymaking, rather than the usual coyness; and that policy can spur economic inclusiveness.
Of course, however, voters’ ability to assign causes to outcomes is limited. So, unfortunately, this may not be the lesson they will learn.
Europe’s New Green Identity
Project Syndicate column, 30 December 2019
PARIS – Most countries’ flags are multicolor. Together with red-flagged China, the blue-flagged European Union is one of the few monochrome entities. Not anymore, apparently: the EU’s new defining project colors it green. At a meeting in mid-December, the leaders of all EU countries except one (Poland, not the United Kingdom) officially endorsed the goal of achieving climate neutrality – zero net emissions of greenhouse gases – by 2050.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants to go further. Next March, she plans to introduce a “climate law” to ensure that all European policies are geared toward the climate neutrality objective. She wants member states to agree next summer to cut emissions by about 40% between 2017 and 2030. She also proposes to allocate half of the European Investment Bank’s funding and a quarter of the EU budget to climate-related objectives, and to devote €100 billion ($111 billion) to supporting regions and sectors most affected by decarbonization. If non-EU countries drag their feet, she intends to propose a carbon tariff.
Grand plans for a distant future rightly elicit skepticism. For leaders facing reelection every four or five years, a 2050 objective is hardly binding. A battle is to be expected: opposition by fossil fuel-producing member states, energy-intensive sectors, trade-sensitive industries, and car-dependent households will be fierce. The EU has already invested so much of its political capital into the green transition, however, that a failure to deliver would severely damage its legitimacy. The Green Deal is not just one of many EU projects. It is its new defining mission.
Let us therefore assume that the EU commits to von der Leyen’s plan. Will it work?
Relative to what other big emitters have agreed to do, the proposed EU target is commendably ambitious. Yet it falls short of what would is needed to safeguard the world’s climate. To prevent the rise in temperature from exceeding the safe threshold of 1.5º Celsius, global future cumulative emissions must be limited to about seven times the current level. At prevailing emission levels (which are still rising), humanity’s total carbon budget will be exhausted in seven years.
The additional carbon budget the EU is setting itself with its super-ambitious plan amounts to roughly 15 years of current-level emissions (somewhat less if efforts are front-loaded). Given that developing countries should be allocated a proportionally larger budget than advanced economies, global emissions would remain far too high even if all countries suddenly emulated the EU. The sad truth is that the 1.5º target is already out of reach, and the EU’s laudable plan is a bare minimum.
Is the plan real? That is hard to say at this early stage, but it is already clear that the full range of required policy tools cannot be mobilized at the EU level alone. The Union decides on allowances for energy-intensive industries and car-emission standards, but as regards the member states’ energy mix, housing standards, taxes, and public investment, it cannot rule directly. Much will depend on national ownership of the common targets, which currently is unequal, to say the least: CO2 emissions are taxed at €112 per ton in Sweden and €45 in France, but they are tax-exempt in Germany and Italy. Designing and enforcing a common EU strategy will be a difficult fight.
Frustrated climate advocates often put their faith in financial instruments. Having lost the battle for tough regulation and dissuasive taxation, their hope is that green finance will do the job. It is true that an increasing number of investors shy away from “brown” assets, either by choice or because of regulators’ warning that oil fields and coal plants may lose much of their value and end up as “stranded” assets. And it is true that favorable regulatory treatment of climate-friendly investment, de-risking through financial engineering, and credit subsidies can spur green capital formation. Even central bankers are actively debating what to do to for the climate.
But such techniques are rather inefficient. Financial dissuasion may help curb dirty investments, and a panoply of incentives may help promote clean ones, but at a high economic cost. As long as the climate policy is not fully credible, each ton of greenhouse gas saved will entail more output losses than if tomorrow’s carbon price were predictable. And as purchase subsidies for cleaner vehicles have shown, support for green technologies, if not coupled with carbon taxation, may well end up prompting higher energy consumption. To be sure, decarbonization cannot rely on first-best policies alone. But experience has shown that it is fairly easy to burn through lots of money with little to show for it. And public support for mitigating climate change is not such that price is not an issue.
At the end of the day, success will largely depend on whether the greening of the economy helps create jobs and prosperity. The European Commission claims that the Green Deal is Europe’s “new growth strategy.” This will enrage supporters of “de-growth.” But the Commission is right to emphasize that decarbonization and growth must go hand in hand. The transition to carbon neutrality will destroy wealth, cause job losses in energy-intensive sectors, and require lifestyle changes. It will elicit sufficient support to overcome opposition only if it generates economic dynamism.
The Commission claims that its plan will spur €260 billion of additional investment annually. The details can be discussed, but as a rough estimate of what is needed, the figure seems reasonable. But this investment will only materialize on the basis of a sustained, all-encompassing, and credible implementation of what is still a blueprint.
Five-hundred years ago, conquistador Hernán Cortes landed in Veracruz, Mexico. To make sure that his meagre troops understood that victory was the only option, he immediately ordered them to burn their ships. This is exactly what the European Union has done by announcing in great fanfare its new Green Deal.
Europe can take a bigger role in providing public goods
Financial Times Op-ed, 3 December 2019
Now that the EU has a newly elected Parliament and a new Commission, what should be its agenda for the future?
Traditionally, its focus has been on economic integration, for example through the single market, the euro or banking union. There are a series of common policies but overall the EU budget is small and still mostly spent on agricultural subsidies and transfers to poorer regions.
Nearly 70 years after the creation of the Coal and Steel Community, however, this emphasis is odd. European integration delivers benefits, but it is not a sufficient answer to the kind of challenges Europe faces today.
Times are changing: the race for new technologies intensifies; Europe can no longer rely on the US for its defence; rivalry between the US and China is reshaping international relations; national migration policies fail to cope with pressure; there is need to change gear on decarbonisation. Such challenges require a new division of labour between European and national levels.
The response should be not “more Europe”, but to select fields where there is a potential to provide European public goods. The EU should take a bigger role in policy areas where it delivers more value than member states acting individually can. This is the case where economies of scale are important or where the outcomes of policies in one country strongly affect others.
One area where the EU already has key competences but should do more is international economic relations. It is time to end official indifference to the use of the euro beyond our borders, and to make it attractive globally through the granting of swap lines to partner central banks and the introduction of a common safe asset. In investment policy, when security is at stake, the EU should have the power to block foreign investment by qualified majority.
To mitigate climate change, there is great potential for joint action. Without waiting for a European carbon tax system, the EU should be able to set, by qualified majority voting, binding limits for carbon prices. This would allow it to comply with its international obligations at the lowest possible cost.
Cyberattacks ignore national borders. The EU needs to pool its resources to protect and preserve its digital infrastructure. A high-level group should be mandated to propose a strategy for safeguarding Europe’s digital sovereignty.
Technological leadership requires investment in research. A European Darpa should focus exclusively on pathbreaking projects, and be able to terminate unsuccessful projects abruptly.
Refugees come to Europe, not to a particular member state. A solution to the migration crisis should include a common border protection system, a common legal framework for asylum, common principles for allocating people granted asylum, and policies for resettling those to whom immigration has been denied. Eventually, the Schengen area and the common migration policy area should coincide.
Development co-operation and financial assistance to third countries is another policy area with strong spillovers and size advantages. Chinese inroads into Europe have made the case for a united stance and a European development bank stronger. Europe should also get its act together on foreign policy and external representation as well as military procurement and defence.
The case for a European foreign policy is strong, but there are deep policy divergences between members. Efforts to strengthen European soft power, savings-oriented back-office cooperation, and regular European foreign policy “white books” would be practical steps. On defence, efforts should be made towards common procurement, shared infrastructure, common arms export policies and joint initiatives.
Achieving all this will not be easy. First, it requires funding. A new focus on European public goods should not result in an increase of the overall tax burden for EU citizens, but shift resources to the European level.
There is an ongoing debate about new financing instruments for the EU budget. But the provision of these public goods would be delayed if it were to be linked to a reform of EU finances. For the time being, new public goods should be funded through higher gross national income-based resources.
Second, acting at the EU level is only possible if the preferences of the member states are not too different. In areas where they differ significantly, some countries will move first and others may or may not follow. Germany and France should take bilateral initiatives where necessary, always inviting other countries to join in.
Third, critics will complain that more European public goods provision will undermine national sovereignty. But this view is often just complacency in disguise. In the policy areas discussed, the choice is not between national and European sovereignty. It is between European sovereignty and none at all.
The writer is a senior fellow at Bruegel and a professor at Sciences Po. This piece is based on a report to ministers Le Maire and Scholz prepared jointly with Clemens Fuest, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research.
The UK and the EU Should Prevent Mutual Assured Damage
Project Syndicate column, 1 December 2019
PARIS – Nothing can be taken for granted in the United Kingdom these days, but it is now very likely that 2020 will be the year when Brexit finally happens. A majority of UK citizens will probably be relieved to bring this seemingly endless agony to a close, while most European leaders will likely be glad not to have to argue over another postponement. But questions will remain.
To the question of “Who lost Britain?”, the answer must be, first and foremost, Britain itself. Whatever mistakes the European Union’s other 27 members may have made, they cannot be held responsible for the extraordinary behavior of the UK’s three equally amateurish governments of the last five years.
Yet, there are deeper lessons to be drawn from what happened in Britain. The first, as Wolfgang Münchau pointed out in the Financial Times, is that the battle in the UK over EU membership was lost long before it was fought. Since the 1990s, leading pundits and media outlets have routinely portrayed the EU as a stifling bureaucracy obsessed with expanding its own power; few senior politicians have dared to confront such prejudices.
Unfortunately, similar trends are currently visible in other core EU countries. In France, 56% of citizens – as many as in the UK – tend “not to trust” the EU. Working-class voters are especially negative. Confidence in the EU is stronger in Germany, but the European Central Bank’s policies are under attack. For years, opinion was bombarded with horror stories about hidden transfers to the South. Germany’s best-selling tabloid Bild now claims that German savers lost €120 billion ($132 billion) during the tenure of former ECB President Mario Draghi (or “Count Draghila,” as the editors called him). Many politicians, like their British counterparts before them, find it easier to pander to such perceptions than to oppose them. This is paving the way for future backlashes.
At the same time, the EU should not exonerate itself from a bit of soul-searching. When the UK’s then-prime minister, David Cameron, sought a temporary limit on immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, it might have been advisable to work out a solution with him. And after the EU started Brexit negotiations with Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, it might have been wise to respond to her calls for a “bespoke” arrangement for the UK. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, the EU-27 have been surprisingly united, remarkably consistent, and astoundingly bereft of a strategy. Their stance has been motivated not so much by a desire to limit mutual damage, but rather by the fear that any softening in negotiations with London could lead to further fragmentation. Their apparent strength concealed internal weakness.
Bygones are bygones. The EU’s priorities now should be to keep mutually beneficial cooperation alive and to avert the danger of the UK pursuing an aggressive regulatory competition strategy.
Joint defense initiatives involving the UK and continental partners will most likely survive, cooperation within the multilateral system will almost certainly continue, and ad hoc projects will probably flourish. But the big casualty of Brexit risks being economic integration with the European single market.
A screw is a screw, and a bolt is a bolt. But the UK no longer produces screws and bolts. It is a major exporter of banking, insurance, accounting, communication, and professional services, half of which go to the EU. Moreover, most of these services are regulated.
If the Brexiteers’ “take back control” slogan means anything, it implies substituting UK laws for EU legislation. On the day after Brexit, Britain’s regulatory regime will be identical to that of its EU trading partners, because the UK’s 2018 Repeal Bill copy-pasted all EU laws into domestic legislation. But as the UK Parliament gradually amends these laws, and the EU introduces new laws of its own, the two legal systems will start diverging. The question is: how far can they diverge without endangering economic linkages and destroying prosperity.
There are two possibilities. One is that the UK adopts laws that differ from those in the EU but are based on the same core principles. For example, there can be different ways to guarantee that insurance contracts offer the same degree of consumer protection, or to uphold bioethics standards. In that case, UK national laws would embody different approaches to regulation, and yet create only limited obstacles to trade in services.
The second possibility, however, is that the UK attempts to undercut EU legislation. In this scenario – often dubbed “Singapore-upon-Thames” – Britain would impose less stringent standards for financial stability, be softer on data protection and, or perhaps relax its labor laws, in the hope of attracting more investors and selling cheaper services. Such a move would rightly be regarded as uncooperative by the UK’s European partners, and would result in the EU cutting off market access for British services exporters (most of which currently supply their continental clients directly from their UK base).
Which route will Britain follow? Ideally, it would agree with the EU on common principles and credibly commit to sticking to them. But because some of the most adamant Brexit supporters openly dream of completing the Thatcher revolution and turning the UK into a low-regulation paradise, the EU is understandably wary. There is a serious risk of a negative spiral of aggressive British deregulation and forceful EU tightening, with damaging consequences for services trade.
The EU should not ask the UK to copy slavishly its legislation. But it should be clear that aggressive regulatory competition is unacceptable and present the UK government with a black-and-white choice: either it agrees to commit to common principles and exercise regulatory self-restraint in order to maintain good access to the European market, or it refuses – and exposes British firms to a severe, across-the-board curb on their ability to export to Europe.
Assuming Brexit happens, future historians will probably remember 2020 as the year when an enfeebled and vulnerable Europe chose to make itself feebler and more vulnerable. The task for its leaders now is to avoid making matters even worse.
The Great Wealth Tax Debate
Project Syndicate column, 31 October 2019
WASHINGTON, DC – In 1990, 12 advanced economies had a tax on household wealth. Now only four do, after French President Emmanuel Macron scrapped his country’s version in 2017. Yet, a fierce debate has erupted in the United States over the proposal by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, to introduce a tax of 2% on the wealth of “ultra-millionaires” (and 3% on that of billionaires).
In a new book, economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley, who have advised Warren, claim that her tax would tackle growing wealth concentration in the US and yield some $250 billion per year, or 1.2% of GDP. But critics such as Larry Summers, a former US Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, and Greg Mankiw, who served as chief economist to President George W. Bush, argue that a wealth tax would yield little revenue, distort investor behavior, and fail to curb the billionaires’ power. The ongoing furious controversy over the wealth tax is bound to be a defining one for the Democrats.
The starting point for this debate is fairly clear. As Lucas Chancel of the Paris School of Economics noted at a recent conference on combating inequality organized by the Peterson Institute, the increase in wealth concentration is unmistakable, at least in the US. According to Saez and Zucman, the top 1% of US households now own 40% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 90% hold only one-quarter. Since 1980, the 1% and the 90% have traded places.
Economists are generally reluctant to make normative judgments about wealth inequality, because theory does not provide them with a proper yardstick for doing so. If innovators become immensely rich, it is presumably because their innovation was immensely valuable – in which case their wealth is deserved – or because they have managed to turn their idea into a monopoly rent, which should be addressed via competition policy, not taxation. Although many economists advocate curbing Amazon’s growing monopoly power, for example, most do not propose taxing away the value of Jeff Bezos’s innovation.
Furthermore, wealth taxation itself gives rise to disputes. As Greg Mankiw suggests, consider two high-flying professionals with comparable incomes but different lifestyles. Why should the one who saves and invests be taxed more than the one who uses a private jet to go skiing? Surely, the saver contributes more to collective wellbeing; if anything, the tax burden should fall on the skier.
For that reason, many economists advocate a combination of a progressive income tax and an inheritance tax, rather than a tax on wealth. But there are two problems with this idea. The first is that many of the super-rich have little income. As Saez and Zucman point out, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg earn little more than they spend. Their wealth increases as a result of capital gains, not saved income. And because such gains are taxable only when the corresponding assets are sold, their annual increase in wealth essentially escapes taxation.
The second obstacle is that inheritance tax is politically toxic. Opinion polls consistently show that while economists love the idea, most voters hate it. Politicians understandably tend to steer clear of what most voters reject.
But if the income tax does not apply to capital gains and the estate tax does not redistribute wealth when someone dies, wealth inequality is bound to increase further. Some will say there is nothing wrong with that, provided capital is put to productive or collectively beneficial use. In Germany, for example, private companies are exempt from inheritance tax so that family-owned Mittelstand firms – which are essential to the country’s prosperity – can be transferred to the next generation.
However, a society of heirs in which a person’s lifetime labor income matters less than the capital they inherit from their parents is morally indefensible, unlikely to be politically sustainable, and may not be economically efficient. Heirs are often poor managers and poor investors.
True, a wealth tax does not come without difficulties. How, for example, should a start-up founder be taxed when their firm has a market value but is yet to generate any income? Should he or she pay the government in shares? And in Europe, which lacks a harmonized tax regime, how can national authorities cope when rich people can simply move to another country? Designing a fair and efficient wealth tax is bound to be more complicated than its proponents typically claim.
At least one thing is clear: the European wealth taxes of the past are not examples to follow. They kicked in at far too low a threshold – less than €1 million ($1.1 million) in the case of France’s impôt de solidarité sur la fortune – and were riddled with loopholes as a consequence. In the French case, a business owner was exempt as long as he or she did not sell the company. That led to successful serial start-up founders being taxed while sleepy entrepreneurs were not. And whereas a moderately wealthy French household’s financial portfolio could easily generate a negative after-tax return, the effective tax rate on the wealth of the country’s 100 richest individuals was a ridiculously low 0.02%.
As Saez and Zucman argue, a wealth tax should treat all assets equally and have a high enough threshold. Warren is proposing a 2% tax on wealth above $50 million. The equivalent threshold in Europe would probably be lower, but certainly not low enough to satisfy Thomas Piketty, who proposes in his latest book a 5% annual tax on wealth of $2 million. Whereas Warren wants to reform capitalism, Piketty would like to end it and eradicate private property as we know it.
Inequality is back at the forefront of economic policy debates, for good reason. A wealth tax is no panacea, not even an ideal response to growing inequality at the top. But absent a better alternative, it can serve as a reasonable second-best policy. At the very least, the idea does not deserve to be banished as a heresy.
How to Ward Off the Next Recession
Project Syndicate column, 30 September 2019
Despite confident official pronouncements, the deteriorating state of the global economy is now high on the international policy agenda. The OECD recently revised down its forecasts to 1.5% growth in the advanced G20 economies in 2020, compared to almost 2.5% in 2017. And its chief economist Laurence Boone warned of the risk of further deterioration – a coded way of indicating a growing threat of recession.
Structural shifts in the automobile industry, miserable productivity gains in advanced economies, shrinking spare capacity, and the build-up of financial fragilities would be sufficient causes for concern even in normal times. But there is more: a combination of cracks in the global trading system and an unprecedented shortage of policy ammunition are adding to the worries.
As the OECD emphasized, a good part of the slowdown can be attributed to the ongoing Sino-American trade dispute. Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute reckons that on the basis of announcements made, the average US tariff on imports from China will increase from 3% two years ago to 27% by the end of this year, while Chinese tariffs on US goods will rise from 8% to 25% over the same period. These are sharp enough increases to disrupt supply chains. Anxieties over a further escalation inevitably dent investment.
Moreover, President Trump’s erratic tariff policy is symptomatic of a broader reassessment of global production networks. Even if Trump is not re-elected in 2020, there are hardly any free traders left in America. The damage to the global trade regime from rising nationalism is likely to outlast him. Climate-related grievances against the unfettered search for lower production costs are bound to grow further.
The other big concern is the lack of policy tools to counter a slowdown. In a normal recession, central banks cut interest rates aggressively to prop up demand. The US Federal Reserve, for example, lowered rates by five percentage points in each of the last three recessions.
Today, however, the Fed only has about half its normal room to cut rates, while the European Central Bank has very little. Risk-free rates in the eurozone are already negative, even on 30-year bonds. And after the ECB recently loosened policy under outgoing President Mario Draghi, his successor Christine Lagarde will inherit a largely empty toolbox.
As Lagarde has said, “central banks are not the only game in town.” Both she and Draghi have called on eurozone governments to provide more fiscal stimulus. On paper, this looks feasible: whereas the US cyclically-adjusted budget deficit exceeds 6% of GDP, the average deficit in the eurozone remains below 1%. And the debt-to-GDP ratio in the eurozone, though high, is lower than in the US. Furthermore, as former International Monetary Fund chief economist Olivier Blanchard has emphasized, temporary deficits do not imply a lasting increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio when the interest rate is well below the growth rate, as it is now.
European finance ministers, however, did not even consider contingent fiscal plans at their most recent meeting in September. And Germany, which has room to act, still opposes relaxing its “black zero” requirement, according to which parliament must approve a balanced budget (and deficits are permissible only if growth undershoots expectations). While calls to lift this self-imposed constraint are growing louder, the separate “debt brake” enshrined in Germany’s constitution limits the cyclically adjusted federal deficit to 0.35% of GDP.
Eurozone governments thus have only limited room for fiscal maneuver, and may lack the political courage to enlarge it. Most likely, therefore, Europe will muddle through with some recession-induced fiscal easing but no aggressive response.
Yet, a decade after the Great Recession, Europe’s economy is still convalescing, and another period of prolonged hardship would cause serious, potentially dangerous economic and political damage. Policymakers should therefore explore alternative options.
That brings us to the outlandish idea of equipping the ECB with new tools. In the late 1960s, Milton Friedman, the father of monetarism, imagined that a central bank could drop banknotes by helicopter – a metaphor that former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke later used to explain how it could always do more to counter deflation.
To turn this thought experiment into a real policy option, the Eurosystem could extend perpetual, interest-free loans to banks in member countries, on the condition that they pass the money on to consumers under the same terms. Concretely, households would receive a €1,000 ($1,094) credit that they would never pay back – in effect, a transfer that would finance more consumption. Each member country’s central bank would either keep a fictional asset on its balance sheet or, more realistically, recoup the corresponding losses over time by reducing the annual dividend paid to its public shareholder.
Such an initiative would face considerable obstacles, however. The first is legal: would the ECB be acting within its mandate? Arguably, it would, provided such an operation were used to help achieve the ECB’s price stability objective. Eurozone inflation is currently too low, and a recession would aggravate this. The second problem is operational: some eurozone households have no bank account, while others have several; and should the same amount be extended households in Luxembourg and in Latvia, where income per head is four times lower? This may not matter from a macroeconomic standpoint, but it does in terms of equity. The final hurdle is political: the ECB would be accused of breaching the Chinese wall separating monetary and fiscal policy, because the operation would be equivalent to a state-administered transfer financed by money creation. Given the current acrimony over its monetary strategy, that might be one controversy too far.
Time will tell if a deteriorating economic situation and the lack of alternative options justify entering unexplored territories. It is unlikely that Europe will have the guts for it. If it does, the path ahead will be perilously narrow and littered with obstacles. But the risk of acting might be ultimately safer than the risk of kicking the can down the road.
Dousing the sovereignty wildfire
Project Syndicate column, 2 September 2019
On the eve of the recent G7 summit in Biarritz, French President Emmanuel Macron described the Amazon rainforest as “the lungs of our planet.” And because the rainforest’s preservation matters for the whole world, Macron added, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cannot be allowed “to destroy everything.” In reply, Bolsonaro accused Macron of instrumentalizing “an internal Brazilian issue,” and said that for the G7 to discuss the matter without the countries of the Amazon region present was evidence of a “misplaced colonialist mindset.”
The row has since escalated further, with Macron now threatening to block the recently concluded trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, unless Brazil – the largest member of the Latin American trade bloc – does more to protect the forest.
The Macron-Bolsonaro dispute highlights the tension between two big recent trends: the increasing need for global collective action and the growing demand for national sovereignty. Further clashes between these two forces are inevitable, and whether or not they can be reconciled will determine the fate of our world.
Global commons are nothing new. International cooperation to fight contagious diseases and protect public health dates back to the early nineteenth century. But global collective action did not gain worldwide prominence until the turn of the millennium. The concept of “global public goods,” popularized by World Bank economists, was then applied to a broad range of issues, from climate preservation and biodiversity to financial stability and internet security.
In the post-Cold War context, internationalists believed that global solutions could be agreed upon and implemented to tackle global challenges. Binding global agreements, or international law, would be implemented and enforced with the help of strong international institutions. The future, it seemed, belonged to global governance.
This proved to be an illusion. The institutional architecture of globalization failed to develop as advocates of global governance had hoped. Although the World Trade Organization was established in 1995, no other significant global body has seen the light since then (and the WTO itself does not have much power beyond arbitrating disputes). Plans for global institutions to oversee investment, competition, or the environment were shelved. And even before US President Donald Trump started questioning multilateralism, regional arrangements started restructuring international trade and global financial safety nets.
Instead of the advent of global governance, the world is witnessing the rise of economic nationalism. As Monica de Bolle and Jeromin Zettelmeyer of the Peterson Institute found out in a systematic analysis of the platforms of 55 major political parties from G20 countries, emphasis on national sovereignty and rejection of multilateralism are widespread. When John Bolton, the current US national security adviser, wrote in 2000 that global governance was a threat to “Americanism”, many regarded the idea as a joke. But few are laughing now.
True, nationalism hasn’t won the war. Despite Brexit and the rise of far-right parties in Italy and other countries, the European Parliament election in May did not produce the feared populist landslide. Growing segments of public opinion simply want policymakers to address problems in the most effective way, including at European or global level if needed.
Nowadays, however, international collective action cannot be based on further universal treaty-based obligations. The question, then, is which alternative mechanisms can address global challenges effectively while minimizing encroachments on national sovereignty.
Some models are already at work internationally. On trade, for example, burgeoning “variable-geometry” groupings are tackling new issues related to “behind-the-border” regulations such as technical standards, and the blurring of the distinction between goods and services. Corporate giants’ global abuse of market power is being confronted by the extraterritorial rulings of national competition authorities. Likewise, the effective strengthening of bank capital ratios resulted not from any international law, but from the voluntary adoption of common, non-binding standards. And although the world is lagging on climate-change mitigation, the 2015 Paris climate agreement has prompted several countries to act, including by mobilizing regional and city governments, and triggering private investment in clean technologies.
But because not all global problems are alike, such mechanisms will provide a suitable template for collective action only in certain cases. When the various players are willing to act, a modicum of transparency and trust-building is sufficient to ensure cooperation. In other cases, however, the temptation to free-ride or abstain can be countered only by powerful incentives or even sanctions.
That brings us back to the Amazon fires. The interests of Brazil and the international community are not aligned. For Brazil’s small farmers and big agri-food corporations, the economic value of the land matters considerably. But the rest of the world is mainly concerned with the rainforest’s ecological and biodiversity value. Time horizons also differ: unsurprisingly, the wealthy in the global North value the future more than the poor in the South do. Even if large segments of Brazilian society value the preservation of the rainforest, it is wishful thinking to believe that moral suasion and nudges alone will resolve differences between Brazil and its external partners.
In the case of the Amazon, the only hard instruments available are money and sanctions. Through transferring more than $1bn to the Amazon Fund since 2008, Norway already subsidizes the preservation of the environmental service that the rainforest provides to the world (it interrupted transfers in August in protest against Bolsonaro’s policies). Macron’s alternative is to coerce Brazil into valuing the environment by making trade deals and other international agreements conditional upon the country managing its natural resources in a sustainable way.
Both options are problematic. Payments open an enormous Pandora’s box and reaching a significant scale requires an agreement on who will actually bear the burden: the annual social value of carbon capture by the Amazon rainforest is hundreds of time bigger than the Norwegian transfers. Coercion also is tricky, because there is only an oblique logical relationship between deforestation and trade. But because there are no other options, solutions will probably have to involve some combination of the two.
In time, the Macron-Bolsonaro spat may become a mere footnote. But other rows pitting global concerns against national sovereignty are sure to erupt, and the world needs to find the way to manage them.
The coming clash between climate and trade
Project Syndicate Column, 31 July 2019
The incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has laid out a highly ambitious climate agenda. In her first 100 days in office, she intends to propose a European Green Deal, as well as legislation that would commit the European Union to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Her immediate priority will be to step up efforts to reduce the EU’s greenhouse-gas emissions, with the new, aggressive goal of halving them (relative to 1990 levels) by 2030. The issue now is how to make this huge transition politically and economically sustainable.
Von der Leyen’s program reflects growing concern over climate change among European citizens. Even before the continent’s recent heat wave, protests by high-school students and the surge in support for Green parties in the European Parliament election had been a wake-up call for politicians. Many now regard climate action not only as a responsibility to future generations, but also as a duty to today’s youth. And political parties fear that dithering could lose them support among huge numbers of voters under 40.
In truth, however, the EU (including the United Kingdom) is a minor contributor to climate change these days. Member states’ combined share of global CO2 emissions has declined from 99% two centuries ago to less than 10% today (in annual, not cumulative terms). And this figure could fall to 5% by 2030 if the EU meets von der Leyen’s emissions target by that date.
While the EU will undertake the painful task of cutting its annual emissions by 1.5 billion tons, in 2030 the rest of the world will likely have increased them by 8.5 billion tons. Average global temperatures will therefore continue to rise, possibly by 3°C or more by 2100. Whatever Europe does will not save the planet.
How Europe deals with this frontrunner’s curse will be critical. The von der Leyen plan will inevitably cost jobs, curtail wealth, reduce incomes, and restrict economic opportunities, at least initially. Without an EU strategy for turning the moral imperative of climate action into a trump card, it won’t be tenable. A backlash will come, with ugly political consequences.
So what strategy might Europe adopt? One option is to bet on leading by example. By building an environmentally friendly development model, Europe and other climate pioneers would establish a path for others to take. And non-binding international agreements such as the 2015 Paris climate accord would help to monitor progress, thereby pushing laggard governments to act.But because climate preservation is a classic public good, climate coalitions are inherently unstable – and larger ones create even more incentive for members to defect and free-ride on others’ efforts. Leadership by example is thus unlikely to suffice.
Alternatively, Europe could build on its first-mover advantage to develop a competitive edge in new green technologies, products, and services. As Philippe Aghion and colleagues have argued, innovation can help tap the potential of such technologies and start changing the direction of economic development.
There are encouraging signs: the cost of solar panels has fallen faster than anticipated, and renewables are now more competitive than had been expected even ten years ago. Unfortunately, however, Europe has failed to convert climate action into industrial leadership. Most solar panels and electric batteries are produced in China, and the United States is its only serious competitor.
Europe’s remaining card is the size of its market, which still accounts for some 25% of world consumption. Because no global firm can afford to ignore it, the EU is a major regulatory power in areas such as consumer safety and privacy. Moreover, European standards often gain wider currency, because manufacturers and service providers that have adapted to demanding EU requirements tend to adhere to them in other markets, too.
The EU’s bet is that the combination of its own strong commitment to decarbonization and the much softer, but global, Paris climate agreement will lead firms to redirect research and investment toward green technologies. Even if other countries do not set ambitious targets, the argument goes, enough investment may be redirected to make green development more affordable for all countries.
Yet current progress in this regard is clearly insufficient to curb global emissions and keep the global increase in temperature this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, as the Paris agreement stipulates. For example, global coal-powered capacity is still growing, because China and India are building plants faster than the US and Europe are dismantling them.
Europe is therefore short of tools that could make its transition to carbon neutrality economically and politically sustainable. In her first speech to the European Parliament, von der Leyen dropped a bomb: she promised to introduce a border tax aimed at preventing “carbon leakage,” or the relocation of carbon-intensive production to countries outside the EU.
Such a tax will win applause from environmentalists, who (often wrongly) believe that trade is bad for the world’s climate. More important, the measure would both correct competitive distortions and deter those tempted to abstain from taking part in the global climate coalition. As long as there is no binding climate agreement, it does make economic sense.
Yet a carbon border tax won’t fly easily. Committed free traders (or what remains of them) will cry foul. Importers will protest. Developing countries and the US (unless it changes course) will portray the measure as protectionist aggression. And an already crumbling global trade system will suffer a new shock.
It is ironic that the new leaders of the EU, which has relentlessly championed open markets, will likely trigger a conflict between climate preservation and free trade. But this clash is unavoidable. How it is managed will determine both the fate of globalization and that of the climate.
Farewell, Flat World
Project Syndicate column, 1st July 2019
Fifty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that rich countries dominated poor countries, and it was widely assumed that the former would continue to get richer and the latter poorer, at least in relative terms. Economists like Gunnar Myrdal in Sweden, Andre Gunder Frank in the United States, and François Perroux in France warned of rising inequality among countries, the development of underdevelopment, and economic domination. Trade and foreign investment were regarded with suspicion.
History proved the conventional wisdom wrong. The single most important economic development of the last 50 years has been the catch-up in income of a significant group of poor countries. As Richard Baldwin of the Geneva Graduate Institute discusses explains in his illuminating book The Great Convergence, the main engines of catch-up growth have been international trade and the dramatic fall in the cost of moving ideas – what he calls the “second unbundling” (of technology and production). It was Tom Friedman of the New York Times who best summarized the essence of this new phase. The playing field, he claimed in 2005, is being leveled: The World is Flat.
This rather egalitarian picture of international economic relations did not apply only to knowledge, trade, and investment flows. Twenty years ago, most academics regarded floating exchange rates as another flattener: each country, big or small, could go its own monetary way, provided its domestic policy institutions were sound. The characteristic asymmetry of fixed exchange-rate systems was gone. Even capital flows were considered – if briefly – to be potential equalizers. The International Monetary Fund in 1997 envisaged making their liberalization a goal for all.
In this world, the US could be viewed merely as a more advanced, bigger country. This was an exaggeration, to be sure. But US leaders themselves often tended to play down their country’s centrality and its correspondingly outsize responsibilities.
Things, however, have changed again: from intangible investments to digital networks to finance and exchange rates, there is a growing realization that transformations in the global economy have re-established centrality. The world that emerges from them does no longer looks flat anymore. It looks spiky.
One reason for this is that in an increasingly digitalized economy, where a growing part of services are provided at zero marginal cost, value creation and value appropriation concentrate in the innovation centers and where intangible investments are made. This leaves less and less for the production facilities where tangible goods are made.
Digital networks also contribute to asymmetry. A few years ago, it was often assumed that the Internet would become a global point-to-point network without a center. In fact, it has evolved into a much more hierarchical hub-and-spoke system, largely for technical reasons: the hub-and-spoke structure is simply more efficient. But as the political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman pointed out in a fascinating recent paper, a network structure provides considerable leverage to whoever controls its nodes.
The same hub-and-spoke structure can be found in many fields. Finance is perhaps the clearest case. The global financial crisis revealed the centrality of Wall Street: defaults in a remote corner of the US credit market could contaminate the entire European banking system. It also highlighted the international banks’ addiction to the dollar, and the degree to which they had grown dependent on access to dollar liquidity. The swap lines extended by the Federal Reserve to selected partner central banks to help them cope with the corresponding demand for dollars were a vividly illustrated the hierarchical nature of the international monetary system.
This new reading of international interdependence has two major consequences. The first is that scholars have begun reassessing international economics in the light of growing asymmetry. Hélène Rey of the London Business School has debunked the prevailing view that floating exchange rates provided insulation from the consequences of the US monetary cycle. She claims that countries can protect themselves from destabilizing capital inflows and outflows only by monitoring credit very closely or resorting to capital controls.
In a similar vein, Gita Gopinath, now the IMF’s chief economist, has emphasized how dependent most countries were on the US dollar exchange rate. Whereas the standard approach would make, say, the won-real exchange rate a prime determinant of trade between South Korea and Brazil, the reality is that because this trade is largely invoiced in dollars, the dollar exchange rate of the two countries’ currencies matters more than their bilateral exchange rate. Again, this result highlights the centrality of US monetary policy for all countries, big and small.
In this context, the distribution of gains from openness and participation in the global economy is increasingly skewed. More countries wonder what’s in it for them in a game that results in uneven distributive outcomes and a loss of macroeconomic and financial autonomy. True, protectionism remains a dangerous lunacy. But the case for openness has become harder to make.
The second major consequence of an un-flattened world is geopolitical: a more asymmetric global economic system undermines multilateralism and leads to a battle for control of the nodes of international networks. Farrell and Newman tellingly speak of “weaponized interdependence”: the mutation of efficient economic structures into power-enhancing ones.
US President Donald Trump’s ruthless use of the centrality of his country’s financial system and the dollar to force economic partners to abide by his unilateral sanctions on Iran has forced the world to recognize the political price of asymmetric economic interdependence. In response, China (and perhaps Europe) will fight to establish their own networks and secure control of their nodes. Again, multilateralism could be the victim of this battle.
A new world is emerging, in which it will be much harder to separate economics from geopolitics. It’s not the world according to Myrdal, Frank, and Perroux, and it’s Tom Friedman’s flat world, either. It’s the world according to Game of Thrones.
Europe's citizens say they want a more political EU
Project Syndicate column, 30 May 2019
The most significant result of the recent European Parliament election is neither that conservatives and social democrats lost seats to Liberals and Greens, nor that far-right nationalists gained less than anticipated. It is that citizens voted in much larger numbers than anyone expected.
From the first popular election of the European Parliament, in 1979, to the last one, in 2014, turnout inexorably declined, gradually falling from 63% to 43%. Five years ago, less than half of the eligible electorate turned out to vote in 20 out of the European Union’s 28 member states, thereby denting the parliament’s democratic legitimacy. Observers openly questioned the value of elections that did not elicit voters’ interest. The EU, it was said, belongs to diplomats and technocrats, not to citizens.
The 2019 election was a spectacular reversal of this trend. Turnout increased in 20 countries, reaching 51% on average, or eight percentage points higher than last time. True, in some countries, the election was held simultaneously with national polls, or it was used as a vehicle for domestic political messaging. But the break with the past was too sharp and too broad for such coincidences to add up to a convincing explanation.
Granular analysis of the election results will tell us which categories of voters turned up in larger numbers, and why. In the meantime, the best explanation is that many citizens decided that enough was at stake this time to cast their ballots. As Emmanuel Rivière of Kantar, a research consultancy, has shown, motivations certainly varied: for some, it was climate change; for others, it was migration, terrorism, or Europe’s ability to remain relevant in a world of Great Power rivalry. Because they regarded the EU as a real player in these matters, voters chose to express their preferences and to send to parliament representatives who could defend their views and interests.
Something important was also at stake when the previous elections were held, in 2014. The eurozone had hardly exited its longest recession in decades, and it was still mired in austerity. But policy choices back then were largely in the hands of national governments. Whether reforms were needed, and whether bailouts were appropriate, largely split the electorate along national lines. It was a matter for negotiation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her counterparts, not a transnational matter that citizens would want to decide upon according to political preferences.
Climate change is different. Young people’s Fridays for Future movement has spread across borders, demanding radical change in policy and lifestyle. The same holds for migration. Those who oppose it may want to retreat behind national borders, but they know perfectly well that as far as immigration is concerned, the members of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area are in fact deeply interdependent.
If turnout followed interest in the election, the question now is what the new European Parliament can deliver. In a standard democracy, an election typically leads to the formation of a new majority and to corresponding policy changes. In the EU, however, parliament is only one player in the determination of policy, alongside the European Commission (appointed by member states) and the European Council (composed of national heads of state or government). This setup implies that there is only a weak link between elections results and policy priorities.
Furthermore, parliamentary coalitions are also characterized by inertia. By usual standards, the shift away from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the two hitherto dominant parties, would be significant enough to trigger a change of majority: they lost 11 percentage points and 80 seats combined, to the benefit of the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE, which is in the process of merging with the Renaissance list sponsored by Emmanuel Macron), the Greens, and the right-wing nationalists (whose affiliation is still in flux). As no feasible alternative coalition commands a majority, however, it will merely imply a broadening of the current alliance, to include ALDE or both it and the Greens. The EPP and the S&D will remain the dominant players, ensuring political continuity.
Because it is not a federation, the EU cannot be run by a purely political government. But the rise of pan-European debates and the emergence of pan-European preferences that cut across national lines imply that it cannot be run by a politically deaf institution, either. Shortly after his appointment as president of the Commission in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker famously claimed that he wanted it to be a “strong and political team” that would work on the basis of a “political contract” with the parliament. Juncker was much criticized for what was regarded as a departure from neutrality vis-à-vis national governments of various colors, but he had a point: if voters regard European policy issues as a matter for political choice, the Commission cannot be a purely technocratic body.
What this election suggests is that a growing share of European voters sees things differently from national governments. Whereas citizens clearly used their votes to express policy preferences, very few governments are ready for a more political EU leadership. Divided as they are on the end goal of European integration and confronted with nationalist pressures at home, they remain hostile to giving the EU more authority or permitting the Commission to exercise its prerogatives in a more political way. In essence, most governments nowadays stand for the status quo.
In five years however, either the EU will have delivered on what citizens rightly regard as European common goods, or it will have lost relevance and legitimacy. How to respond to this demand while satisfying governments’ preference for stability and compromises between sovereign states is the contradiction the EU is confronted to. Whether it can resolve it will, in turn, determine whether citizens remain interested in European elections, or eventually give up and stay home.
When facts change, change the Pact
Project Syndicate column, 28 April 2019
The European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact, which sets fiscal rules for its member states, is like the emperor with no clothes. Almost everyone sees it has lost its attire, yet few recognise it openly. This disingenuous silence is bad economics and bad politics.
For starters, the pact’s rules are so hopelessly complex that almost no government minister, let alone member of parliament, can decipher them. There are now various reform proposals that aim to simplify things, including by a group of French and German economists to which I belong.
Most of these proposals would place less emphasis on estimating member states’ cyclically-adjusted budget deficits – a notoriously difficult calculation – and focus instead on monitoring growth in public spending. Concretely, each government would commit to expenditures consistent with the country’s economic growth outlook and expected tax receipts, and in line with a medium-term debt target. There would be less micromanagement by EU institutions, more room for national decision-making, and more responsibility for individual governments.
Ministers have so far shown no appetite for such radical reform. But there is now a second reason to overhaul the EU’s fiscal framework: today’s economic conditions are very different from those when the pact was designed over two decades ago. “When facts change, I change my mind,” John Maynard Keynes famously said. And the facts have certainly changed.
The pact entered into force in 1997. At the time, the median public debt among the 11 EU countries that would initially adopt the euro was 60% of GDP, while the outlook was 3% for growth and 2% for inflation (numbers are rounded for the sake of simplicity). The risk-free long-term interest rate – at which most eurozone countries would soon borrow – was 5%. Stabilizing the debt ratio at its prevailing 60% level therefore required governments to keep their budget deficits below 3% of GDP – or, put another way, to maintain a primary budget balance (revenues minus spending excluding interest payments) of zero.
Such guidelines made sense. If growth faltered, revenue shrank, or markets started pricing in a default, there would be a real risk of debt spiraling out of control – as Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis of 2010-2012 later showed. The 3%-of-GDP deficit threshold that triggers the activation of a strengthened policy monitoring procedure was thus a rough but reasonably calibrated benchmark. Moreover, it was wise to aim for significantly lower deficits, in order to maintain a safety margin.
In 2019, the median debt for the same 11 countries is 70% of GDP, while the International Monetary Fund currently forecasts 1.5% growth and 2% inflation (debt is a bit lower and growth a bit higher if all eurozone members are included). True, projected growth is half the level it was in 1997. Nonetheless, stabilizing the debt ratio requires keeping budget deficits below 2.5% of GDP, which is remains close to the pact’s 3% limit.
The big change from two decades ago, however, is the collapse in interest rates. Investors were recently willing to buy ten-year German government bonds yielding essentially nothing. Taking inflation into account, the real cost of German debt is significantly negative – as it is, to a lesser degree, for France, Spain, and most other eurozone members. Even Italy, with debt exceeding 130% of GDP and dismal growth, was able to borrow at 2.6%, or 2.4 percentage points less than Germany in 1997.
Under such conditions, a budget-deficit limit of 3% of GDP is in fact fairly lax. If long-term interest rates remain near zero for a few more years, governments will be able to run primary deficits greater than 2% of GDP without exceeding that limit. Many EU countries are likely to use this opportunity to finance current spending on the cheap. But should financial conditions change abruptly, they will be forced to adjust precipitately.
The European Commission insists that the 3% threshold is only an upper limit. Reforms to the pact in 2010 have tightened the screws. Eurozone countries are expected to keep their structural budget deficit (corrected for cyclical effects) close to zero, and those with a debt ratio exceeding 60% of GDP are mandated to reduce it.
However, the resulting constraints are too tight. The zero target for the structural deficit prevents governments from borrowing at today’s negative real interest rates to finance investments and reforms. And, as Olivier Blanchard of the Peterson Institute has forcefully argued, there is no compelling economic reason to cut debt when borrowing is costless.
The EU sits between a rock and a hard place. It should not let member states make a habit of financing recurring current expenditures with debt. But nor should it prevent them from taking advantage of persistently low interest rates to finance economically sound investments that will benefit future generations.
Europe should therefore reform its fiscal framework. Deficit hawks (especially in Germany) will no doubt protest, but prohibition without a rationale is unsustainable politically. Why would EU citizens accept to shun debt-financed public investments into environmental research, renewable energy, clean transportation systems, and other efforts to contain climate change, when financial conditions would make such investments collectively profitable?
The pact has for long been criticized for neglecting the distinction between investment and current spending. This is valid criticism, but to the extent investment is defined economically rather than in accounting terms. The EU should therefore agree on a set of goals – such as the transition to a low-carbon economy, broader access to employment, and output-enhancing economic reforms – that justify public spending temporarily in excess of the fiscal rule (unless, of course, the country is in a financially precarious state). Such an exemption should be conditional on long-term interest rates remaining exceptionally low. If rates were to rise, governments would have to trim and eventually discontinue these investments.
The need to revise the EU’s fiscal rules is strong. The main political parties competing in May’s European Parliament elections should recognize it and make the case openly. At a time when the EU’s very purpose is being questioned, taboo economics are the last thing Europe needs.
"America will wake up",
Interview for Die Zeit on globalisation and international collective action in the age of Trump and Xi, 17 April 2019
DIE ZEIT: Mr. Pisani-Ferry, representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and the finance ministers of the G20 nations met in Washington in mid-April. They want to take steps against the economic downturn and other global problems. But international cooperation has become unfashionable, the organizations are under pressure.
Jean Pisani-Ferry: They are under attack by powerful politicians. A certain type of politician is on the rise right now - Donald Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Xi Jinping in his own way, in China. These politicians have little appetite for international collective action and they do not trust the international institutions. They see them as instruments of some global elite and as constraints on their own power.
ZEIT: And yet you declare yourself an optimist. You of all people - a Frenchman, a one-time adviser to Macron, a European economist. You believe the global order can be saved.
Pisani-Ferry: We Europeans tend to react very defensively to this issue. It’s like we’re always acting with the same paradigm in mind: Let's preserve what we’ve got. We won't get very far with that. But in this new world, we will still need to organize collective action in some other way.
ZEIT: Do you share the view that there is something wrong with the organizations as they are?
Pisani-Ferry: Twenty years ago, I was still convinced you could tame globalization by creating institutions to this end. I was interested in finding ways to liberalize international trade while respecting workers' rights and the environment. We Europeans always believed the world only had to do things the way we did them. After all, we like to give ourselves common rules, laws, and institutions.
ZEIT: But there were doubts about this even then, they didn’t just start with Donald Trump.
Pisani-Ferry: Yes, the idea began to fail at the end of the nineties already. Plans for an international investment agreement and global competition watchdog came undone. We weren’t able to establish a global environmental organization, even the more modest Kyoto climate agreement failed. Mass demonstrations against the global order filled the streets...
ZEIT: …demonstrations that weren’t being organized by right-wing nationalists at that time.
Pisani-Ferry: Indeed. But these ideas failed above all because of the skepticism of emerging and developing countries. In their view, the superpower USA and the other Western nations had built a system that served their own interests. And they had forced the developing countries to open up every conceivable market without offering adequate quid pro quos.
ZEIT: There's a lot to be said for that, even if it entails a paradox. Many politicians in emerging countries see the IMF, World Bank, and WTO as instruments of US imperialism. And President Trump wants to weaken these institutions, as he, of all people, reckons they limit his power.
Pisani-Ferry: And both sides are not completely wrong. The USA founded these institutions in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War – in part also as instruments of US power. At the same time, the USA agreed to play by the rules of these institutions. Even a country like Bangladesh could successfully sue the all-powerful USA before the WTO’s arbitration court.
ZEIT: And Trump and many other nationalists around the world won’t accept that anymore.
Pisani-Ferry: And if they succeed, we'll have a more brutal world with even greater imbalances of power. Because experience shows that when everyone sticks to the same rules, the weakest benefit the most - even if these rules were dictated by the most powerful players.
ZEIT: You are grappling with how common rules might come about despite all the pushback.
Pisani-Ferry: We have to do that! We have huge problems, which we can only solve by acting together. Climate change, above all, but think also about the threats to biodiversity. There are threats to financial stability, there is new trade protectionism, ongoing tensions relating to migration, and cyber-security risks. All of these problems have vast numbers of global interconnections. Nation states cannot do much about them when acting on their own.
ZEIT: But how can we act jointly in a world without global treaties and institutions?
Pisani-Ferry: I suggest we pose this question anew for each problem, for each policy area.
ZEIT: Could you give an example?
Pisani-Ferry: Though challenges still remain, we have been able to successfully take joint action against the threat of a renewed financial crisis. The crucial question is how carefully countries supervise their banks. Governments have agreed standards for this – but they’re not really binding, something we would have wanted in the past!
ZEIT: What if someone doesn't stick to what has been agreed?
Pisani-Ferry: Then there’ll be no penalties. But we do have a quite transparent monitoring system. Everyone can see which countries are in compliance and which ones aren’t. And lo and behold, other than you might think, the standards are not simply being ignored.
ZEIT: Why not?
Pisani-Ferry: Primarily out of self-interest. Each country is looking out for its own financial system, and the rules help to create stability. In parallel there is also the problem of trust. Every country wants to be sure that no other country is giving its banks unfair advantages, for example, through lax rules. That’s why transparency can have an effect all by itself - it creates trust. Another reason standards aren’t being ignored is that the financial sector has been heavily involved in formulating them. Bankers now see them as their own rules.
ZEIT: Transparency instead of coercion - that sounds interesting. But how many problems will we be able to deal with like this? Just think of the challenges posed by climate change.
Pisani-Ferry: This is the most difficult task of all. We tried to tackle climate change through a binding international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, and we failed with that. The Paris Agreement, which was ratified in 2016, now follows a different paradigm. Each country now sets its own targets for how much it wants to contribute to climate protection.
ZEIT: But that will simply tempt countries to do as little as possible.
Pisani-Ferry: The results are really bad at the moment, worldwide CO₂ output is still rising. But the idea is one for the longer-term. The Paris Agreement also has this transparent monitoring system built into it. Everyone knows who is doing how much for climate protection. Over time, it will become more and more obvious that much more needs to be done. The pressure will grow for countries to increase their commitments to protect the climate.
ZEIT: You’re sure about that?
Pisani-Ferry: The first countries will soon begin to really feel the effects climate change. I expect the breakthrough will come when the US changes its position about protecting the climate. America will wake up because it will be badly hit by climate change. And knowing the US, it will probably impose a tax-penalty on all imports from countries not doing enough to limit CO₂ emissions. Other countries will follow suit. There will be a "Climate Club,” like the one Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus is already promoting. Whether these steps will be big and fast enough to limit the temperature rise to below two degrees is another question.
ZEIT: You mean the global crises will intensify and there will be renewed calls for joint action?
Pisani-Ferry: Yes, although I don't see us setting up new global institutions in the near future. That would be difficult. But we still have all those existing organizations! Depending on the problem, I imagine we’ll turn to the institution that seems most suited to providing a solution.
ZEIT: Could you give an example?
Pisani-Ferry: Take the OECD ...
ZEIT: ... a club of 36 rich countries, based in Paris.
Pisani-Ferry: The OECD was founded in 1948 to manage international co-operation during the reconstruction of Europe. But today it does completely different things. It assesses the quality of national education systems, it is developing a new measure of national economic strength as an alternative to GDP, and it is an important player in the fight against tax avoidance.
ZEIT: Did it usurp these powers?
Pisani-Ferry: Not all by itself. The EU initially wanted to tackle the problem of tax avoidance by private individuals itself, but it was stuck. EU decisions in this area have to be taken unanimously, and representatives of tax havens had blocking minorities on the responsible committees. The US set things in motion and got governments participating in a G20 summit to ask the OECD to find a solution. The result was an agreement to abolish banking secrecy.
ZEIT: Do you have other examples?
Pisani-Ferry: Yes. A few years ago, the OECD was given a new task - the so-called BEPS initiative, which is supposed to find ways to curb tax avoidance by multinational companies. This will be a tough battle against powerful interests, including those German and French companies that shift their profits to tax havens. But the public is in favor of reform. People are fed up with having to pay taxes while some large corporations pay nothing.
ZEIT: So you have already given up on that old post-war ideal of an ordered global system with numerous institutions that regulate the coexistence of the countries of the world?
Pisani-Ferry: I’m worried about it, to be quite honest. The idea is illusory that we just have to endure Donald Trump to return to the old ways when he’s gone. But we won’t help ourselves now if we invoke a lament along the lines: We no longer have a global order, so there can be no systematic solutions and we can't do anything! The latter is simply not true.
Thomas Fischermann conducted the interview.
Europe and the New Imperialism
Project Syndicate column, 1st April 2019
Imperialism, Lenin wrote a century ago, is defined by five key features: the concentration of production; the merging of financial and industrial capital; exports of capital; transnational cartels; and the territorial division of the world among capitalist powers. Until recently, only dyed-in-the-wool Bolsheviks still found that definition relevant. Not anymore: Lenin’s characterization looks increasingly accurate.
A few years back, globalization was assumed to dilute market power and stimulate competition. And it was hoped that greater economic interdependence would prevent international conflict. If there were early 20th century authors to refer to, they were Joseph Schumpeter, the economist who identified “creative destruction” as a driving force of progress, and the British statesman Norman Angell who argued that economic interdependence had made militarism obsolete. Yet we have entered a world of economic monopolies and geopolitical rivalry.
The first problem is epitomized by the US tech giants, but it is in fact widespread. According to the OECD, market concentration has increased across a range of sectors, in the US as well as in Europe; and China is creating ever-larger state-backed national champions. As for geopolitics, the US seems to have abandoned the hope that China’s integration into the global economy would lead to its political convergence with the established liberal Western order. As US Vice President Mike Pence crudely put it in an October 2018 speech, America now regards China as a strategic rival in a new age of “great power competition.”
Economic concentration and geopolitical rivalry are in fact not separable. Whereas the internet was once seen as an open, universal, and competitive domain, it is now being broken up into an archipelago of separate sub-systems, some of which are administered by governments. There are growing fears that the Chinese tech giant Huawei’s dominance in 5G hardware could be used for geopolitical gain. And the German industry association BDI is now warning that China has entered into “systemic competition with liberal market economies,” and “is pooling capacities for political and economic goals with high efficiency.”
But the US, too, is repositioning, particularly in the realm of trade and investment. Recently enacted legislation has authorized the Department of the Treasury to target “strategically motivated” (read: Chinese) foreign investment that could “pose a threat to US technological superiority and national security,” suggesting that the Trump administration intends to use investment screening to protect the US’s technological edge.
China is widely accused of mixing economics with politics, but this is equally true of the US. Consider the Trump administration’s use of the dollar – what many used to consider a global public good – and of its central role in global finance to impose secondary sanctions on foreign companies doing business with Iran. As a result, SWIFT, the EU-based financial messaging service, was forced to deny access to Iranian banks or risk losing its own access to the US financial system. Likewise, under pressure from Washington, the Bundesbank last year blocked a large cash transfer to Tehran from an Iranian deposit at an Iranian-owned bank in Hamburg. Clearly, the US no longer feels any need for self-restraint in its use of monetary and financial might.
For Europe, these developments amount to a major shock. Economically, the European Union is a bellwether of the post-war liberal order: as a champion of competitive markets, it has repeatedly forced powerful foreign companies to abide by its laws. But geopolitically, the EU has always tried to keep economics and international relations separate – and thus felt at home in a multilateral, rules-based system, where the sheer exercise of state power is necessarily restrained. Nationalism and imperialism are its worst nightmares.
Europe’s challenge now is to position itself in a new landscape where power matters more than rules and consumer welfare. The EU faces three big questions: whether to reorient its competition policy; how to combine economic and security objectives; and how to avoid becoming an economic hostage of US foreign-policy priorities. Answering these will require a redefinition of economic sovereignty.
Competition policy is a matter of fierce debate. Some want to amend EU antitrust rules to enable the emergence of European “champions.” But such proposals are questionable. True, Europe needs more industrial-policy initiatives in fields like artificial intelligence and electric batteries, where it is at risk of falling behind other global powers. True, regulators issuing judgments on mergers and state aid should consider the increasingly global scope of competition. And true, static assessments of market power should be supplemented with more dynamic approaches that value innovation. But none of this changes the fact that in a world of corporate giants, we will need even stronger competition policies to protect consumers.
Economic logic and security concerns are easily conflated. A decision to reject a merger or authorize an investment that benefits a politically motivated foreign competitor might make economic sense while raising eyebrows in foreign-policy circles. The solution is not to meddle with competition rules, but to give those in charge of security some say in the decision-making process,. To that end, in a forthcoming paper that I co-authored with foreign-policy experts and other economists, we propose that the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security be given the right to object on security grounds to the European Commission’s proposed mergers or investment decisions. EU member states already have such procedures in place, and so should the EU.
Finally, the EU must do more to develop its financial toolkit and promote international use of the euro. There should be no illusion that the euro will displace the dollar. But with the US signaling that it will use Wall Street and the greenback as foreign-policy instruments, Europe can no longer be a passive, neutral bystander. Through swap lines with partner central banks and other mechanisms, tit can make the euro more attractive to foreigners while also bolstering its own economic sovereignty.
The Case for Green Realism
Project Syndicate column, 27 February 2019
The Green New Deal promoted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fast-rising star in the US Congress, and others among her fellow Democrats, may trigger a welcome reset of the discussion on climate-change mitigation in the United States and beyond. Though not really new – European Greens have been pushing for such a “new deal” for a decade – her plan is ambitious and wide-ranging.
It may be too ambitious and wide-ranging. But, unlike economists’ favorite approach to climate change – set the right price for carbon and leave the rest to private decisions – the Green New Deal rightly encompasses the many dimensions of what must be a fundamental transformation of our economies and our societies if the climate challenge is to be met successfully.
The transition to a carbon-neutral economy is bound to be as revolutionary as the transition to the industrial age. Given the comprehensive nature of this transition, it cannot be summarized in one price. It must be a collective endeavor in which governments invest and every citizen finds his or her role. The optimistic, participatory ethos of the Green New Deal should be commended.
But let’s be clear: the green transition will not be a free lunch. There is no doubt that life and work will be far better if we succeed in containing climate change than if we fail, which is the rationale for undertaking the corresponding efforts. Yet that is not the question many citizens are asking. Their baseline expectation – unrealistic, but understandable – is a business-as-usual scenario in which they continue to consume and travel according to their current habits. They may accept eating a little less meat and using more efficient cars, provided their purchasing power does not change. And they may wish to change jobs, if the new one is better paid and less stressful. But there is little evidence that most citizens are ready for more.
Understandably, Green New Deal supporters tend to pander to these feelings. The Ocasio-Cortez proposal is vague enough to evade precise criticisms, but what is evident is that it does not put a finger on anything that may hurt. The same applies to many plans that promise a nicer life together with more and better jobs
The truth is unfortunately quite different. The transition to a carbon-neutral economy is bound to make us worse off before it makes us better off, and the most vulnerable segments of society will be hit especially hard. Unless we acknowledge and address this reality, support for greening the economy will remain shallow and it may eventually wane.
The reason brings us back to the economists’ favorite instrument: prices. One way or another, we must start paying for something – carbon – that we have been consuming for free. And putting a price on carbon is bound to reduce overall consumption.
The cause is not the tax, the proceeds of which can be redistributed to taxpayers, for example, on a per capita basis, as an impressive group of US economists has proposed. It is rather that putting a price on carbon inevitably will result in what economists call a negative supply shock. Some equipment will become unusable, and some technologies will no longer be profitable. Maximum production (what economists call potential GDP) will drop on impact. If the price hike is abrupt, a slump will follow, as occurred in 1974, when oil producers suddenly hiked prices. A corollary is that wealth drops as the value of fuel-inefficient houses, gluttonous cars, and oil companies’ shares declines.
The problem does not come from the use of a price instrument. It would be the same in a planned economy: carbon efficiency would also require old, inefficient equipment to be discarded and additional investment so that GDP becomes less carbon-intensive. With recent estimates putting the required additional investment at some 2% of GDP annually in 2040, a correspondingly smaller share of output will be available for household consumption.
Furthermore, the distributional effects of the green transition are unfortunately adverse. The poor and the suburban middle class spend more of their income on energy than the rich and the urban professionals do, and often lack the means to buy a new, efficient heating system or to insulate their house. And, because working-class jobs tend to be more carbon-intensive, factory workers and truck drivers will be hurt more than designers and bankers.
The problem our societies are facing is massive. It should not be hidden. The French government had to backtrack after the Yellow Vests revolted against a €55 ($63) per ton fuel tax, but a recent estimate of what its needed to decarbonize put the rate at €250 per ton in 2030. European countries, already agonizing over increasing their defense spending to 2% of GDP, as US President Donald Trump has demanded, now face the prospect of paying another 2% for the transition to a carbon-free economy. For decades, people have been given incentives to move from city centers to the suburbs, and now they are being told that their lifestyle has no future.
Fortunately, these effects can be softened. The full redistribution of carbon tax proceeds can alleviate the burden on the most vulnerable. In an environment of ultra-low interest rates, debt finance is a rational way to accelerate economic transformation while spreading the corresponding cost across generations. As the astonishing drop in the cost of solar panels suggests, the fostering of innovation and competition will help accelerate the emergence of clean, efficient technologies. And the earlier action is taken, and the more predictable the long-term outlook, the easier it will be to adapt, and the less adverse the impact on production and wealth will be. Abrupt changes devalue existing assets, while a smooth transition enables the right investments at the right time.
That said, realism compels us to recognize that nothing can fully eliminate the hardship involved in the transition. To win, Green New Deal enthusiasts must be honest with citizens about what the coming transformation will entail, how its costs will be minimized and equitably shared, and what role they can play in it. Rather than to picture their scenario as rosy, they should show that it is feasible.
Interview El Mundo, 2 September 2018
PREGUNTA. El año 2017 fue un momento muy tenso. Hubo elecciones muy tensas en Francia, Holanda, Alemania, el inicio de Brexit. Como no acabó tan mal, llegó la Euforia. ¿Dónde estamos realmente?
RESPUESTA. Lo que estamos viviendo es algo que no se va a arreglar con una o dos elecciones. Estamos ante una redefinición fundamental sobre Europa y el futuro de la economía libre y las sociedades abiertas. Se ve por todas partes, no sólo en Europa, aunque aquí es muy acuciado. No hablamos de un mero ciclo electoral, por eso hace falta claridad al definir las posiciones. Esto va a seguir durante un tiempo, posiblemente un largo tiempo, con nosotros. La dimensión que más nos afecta es la de la discusión de qué es Europa y qué queremos que sea. Como economista diría que es un debate sobre los bienes públicos. En la UE todo empezó con la noción de paz y prosperidad como piedras angulares.
P. Pero eso ya no basta.
R. No, ya no basta. Con la paz ya no vamos a convencer no le digo a las nuevas jóvenes generaciones, sino tampoco a las actuales. No es suficiente decir que el objetivo de Europa es evitar la guerra entre Francia y Alemania. Porque gente dirá que muy bien, pero no es un tema de hoy. Sobre la idea de prosperidad, el resultado de estas décadas es aún más agridulce.
P. Ahora se escuchan muchas otras preguntas.
R. Exactamente, hay nuevas preguntas emergiendo. Una es el cambio en el contexto globalizado, algo que se ve muy bien con la actitud de Trump, con la asertividad china, y lo que llamamos the raise of the rest, el auge del resto del mundo, que hace 25 años representaban el 40% del PIB mundial y hoy son el 60%. La UE nació bajo la protección del paraguas estadounidense y fue forjada en un mundo donde el liderazgo norteamericano no era discutido. Las cosas han cambiado y el mensaje de Trump es que EEUU es cada vez más reacia a comportarse como el ancla del orden económico, político y de seguridad mundial. Está diciéndolo alto y claro, de una manera chocante, pero el mensaje estaba ahí ya con Obama. Por tanto, no deberíamos asumir que las cosas volverán a la normalidad. Tenemos que cuidar de nuestros propios intereses y luchar por los valores en los que creemos.
P. El migratorio e identitario va a ser el gran debate durante al menos una generación.
R. Mire, no va a ser suficiente, sin duda algunos otros asuntos tienen importancia capital. Pero se proporcionaría la base, es algo con lo que empezar y debemos asegurarnos de que funcionan. No nos podemos permitir otra eurocrisis teniendo un sistema tan poco sólido. Necesitamos mecanismos de defensa más fuertes, a prueba de terremotos, de muchos tipos de terremotos. Un Fondo de Garantía de Depósitos, la reforma del Mede, una función de estabilización, todos elementos que no tenemos aún. Ha habido progresos, pero el mayor riesgo de la próxima crisis será el político.
P.Hace unos años, Obama le dijo a Europa que despertara, que «los mejores carecen de convicciones y los peores están cargados de apasionada intensidad». Las pasiones iliberales están sin duda al alza.
R. No deberíamos llamarlos iliberales porque suena demasiado bien en algunas partes de Europa. Democracia iliberal es un oxímoron, porque la soberanía popular sin el Estado de Derecho y el imperio de la ley no es democrática. Me gusta más la definición de autócratas electos o autócratas votados, que es algo muy diferente de democracias iliberales. Lo prefiero porque estos líderes no parecen muy democráticos. No debe haber confusión: la democracia iliberal no es una democracia sin liberalismo económico, es soberanismo populista sin liberalismo político.
P. En 2015, con la crisis griega, los grandes líderes se tomaban la cuestión del dinero muy a pecho. Eso no pasa frente a la retórica antiinmigración o antiislámica de esos autócratas de los que habla. No hay contundencia de sus colegas, sino lo contrario.
R. Estoy de acuerdo. Cuando veo que el Partido Popular Europeo felicita y apoya a Orban por sus éxitos veo que hay algo roto en el funcionamiento del sistema de partidos europeo. Así son los realineamientos políticos de hoy y veremos más. Los partidos se han definido históricamente por una serie de líneas divisorias claras, pero eso es algo del pasado. Lo que no se ha fijado aún, pero quizás en las próximas elecciones se haga, es cuáles son las verdaderas líneas divisorias del presente.
P. Los líderes europeos han mantenido un discurso proeuropeo, pero bastante calculado, utilitario. Macron o Mattarella inciden más en los valores, la unidad, los símbolos.
R. Puedo responder pensando en Francia. Durante mucho tiempo estuvo claro que tanto la derecha como la izquierda estaban divididas sobre europea, con visiones no antieuropeas pero al menos escépticas. No querían crearse problemas y por eso no hablaban abiertamente de Europa, no a favor. Cuando Macron fue elegido lo hizo. Sin complejos. Sus votantes agradecieron que después de tanta timidez alguien hablara directamente de las cosas en las que ellos creen y se enfrentara a los críticos, que son mucho más claros. Europa no es perfecta, nadie dice que no haya cosas que criticar, cambiar, suprimir. Pero durante demasiado tiempo se han callado antes quienes decían que hay que terminar con la UE, volver al sistema de sólo nacionesestado y que sólo ellos nos pueden proteger. Igualmente, Europa ha sido demasiado indiferente a las consecuencias de algunas de las políticas por las que ha apostado o que ha impulsado.
P. Vemos movimientos de protesta o descontento en países ricos o algunas de las regiones más ricas, como Cataluña o Lombardía.
R. En cierto modo, el contexto en el que vivimos, la globalización, nos fuerza a repensar el papel de cada nivel de gobierno. Local, regional, nacional y supranacional. Las estructuras existentes son cada vez más frágiles y hay sudas sobre las relaciones entre los niveles. En cada país hay dimensiones históricas. La gente quiere más proximidad, pero al mismo tiempo quiere ser presentada, escuchada y activa.
P. Eso, en sí, no es muy nuevo
R.No, pero era algo que antes surgía de dentro y ahora está surgiendo, se ve impulsado, desde fuera. Las últimas décadas hemos estado en un entorno exterior muy tranquilo. Con EEUU protegiendo, incluso en la Guerra Fría con todos sus matices. Tuvimos una ampliación al Este que fue un éxito, a pesar de los problemas. Compare lo que pasa ahora en Polonia y Hungría con Ucrania o la ex Yugoslavia. La transición fue magnifica. Pero ahora el entorno es muy diferente.
P. ¿Cómo ve el futuro? ¿Una UE más pequeña? ¿Más larga? ¿Que no haya UE?
R. Tenemos un problema de entorno, hay que buscar nueva forma de lidiar con los vecinos. No vamos a expandirnos significativamente en los próximos años, así que hace falta nueva una relación con los vecinos, incluyendo Reino Unido.
P. ¿Está preocupado, asustado, afectado por Europa?
R. Estoy preocupado. Estamos ante una de esas instancias en las que o eres capaz de redefinirte o puedes perder su importancia, tu relevancia en el mundo. Si la UE no es capaz de responder a las preguntas clave en seguridad, en economía, en la protección de los datos de los ciudadanos, en el clima, asuntos de relevancia...
P.No le gustan los plazos, pero, ¿qué margen hay para actuar?
R.Tiene que ser antes de las elecciones europea de 2019. Si no logramos nada importante antes, será un revés terrible.
Europe could miss its opportunity for political realignment
Project Syndicate column, September 2018
“There are two sides at the moment in Europe. One is led by Macron, who is supporting migration. The other one is supported by countries who want to protect their borders”. This is how Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, described the European political landscape on the occasion of his end-August meeting with the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, the strong man in the Italian government. “If they want to see me as their main opponent, they are right” instantly replied the French president.
Both Orbán and Macron seem to think that the European Parliament election in 2019 will bring about a political realignment. But will it happen? Will the continent’s voters be presented with a choice between the closed and the open society? Or will the traditional divide between left and right obfuscate it? The answer to this question – which is central to the future of Europe and its citizens’ trust in democracy – is far from certain.
Europe’s political landscape offers a peculiar combination of idiosyncrasy and commonality. On one hand, it illustrates the maxim that “all politics is local”: parties are deeply rooted in national traditions and pan-European groupings are only loose, non-influential federations. On the other hand, political spillovers are strong, and waves of change regularly cross borders, reaching the entire continent.
European politics has long been structured by the left-right divide. From the first popular election to the European parliament, in 1979, until the latest one, in 2014, the Party of European Socialists (PES) on the left and the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) on the right jointly received between one-half and two-third of the vote (with the rest going to centrists, the Greens, the radical left, and, increasingly, a new breed of Euroskeptic parties). For 40 years, the two dominant players have governed Europe through a grand coalition of sorts.
In more than a handful of countries, however, this divide no longer structures the political scene. In Poland, Hungary, and most of Central Europe, the key confrontation is between illiberal nationalists and pro-European liberals. In France, the choice in 2017 was not between left and right, but between Emmanuel Macron, the champion of openness (whose campaign I advised), and Marine Le Pen, his exact opposite. And in Italy, both center-right and center-left forces have been marginalized by two new anti-system parties with roots in the far right and the far left.
Indeed, today’s most divisive issues – economic openness, Europe, and immigration – do not pit the center left and the center right against each other. Both camps have embraced globalization, although they may have different views about how to manage its consequences. Both have also been active, if reluctant, participants in European integration. And while their attitudes toward immigration differ, in Western Europe both have accepted it as a fact. Choosing between left and right does not enable citizens to uphold or reject the open economy and the open society. Both actually seem clueless when it comes to empowering disenfranchised working-class citizens, whereas the proponents of identity politics offer at least the guise of a response.
True, the left-right cleavage remains salient in many countries. It also structures the debate on domestic issues such as income distribution and the role of the state, as well as on some of tomorrow’s major challenges, such as global taxation or the future of work. But as British politics vividly illustrates, this does not apply to currently dominant issues: the Tories and Labour are the only protagonists, yet both agonize over the choice that really matters – how to manage Brexit.
For next year’s European Parliament election to bring greater clarity on the issues that matter for Europe, new camps would need to be formed. Despite cracks on both sides, they most likely won’t.
The left has largely split between a (much weakened) moderate wing and a radical, partly anti-European tendency. The question now is if the dikes that separate the latter from the nationalist right will be breached. The Italian governing coalition hints at such a scenario, while the increasingly anti-immigration stance of Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke (the Left) and fiercely anti-European diatribes by Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) suggest that some radical leftists would rather lose their souls than the working class. But the if the dikes are being undermined, they haven’t been breached.
On the right the EPP, the party of Angela Merkel, has refused to draw a red line and tell an increasingly nationalist, illiberal, anti-Muslim, and even anti-Semitic Viktor Orbán that he has crossed it. Unapologetically, Orbán now claims that he is the true heir of Helmut Kohl and represents the core of the EPP. In a speech in June, he set himself the task of renewing the party by taking it back to its Christian roots. As a result, the EPP will go to the election as an odd coalition comprising advocates of Europe and nationalists, liberals and illiberals, or supporters of diversity and proponents of Christian identity.
For the old structures to unravel, a strong voice for Europe and openness should emerge. There has been much speculation that Macron would play this role. But obstacles have appeared. Reforms at home and the strengthening of a domestic political base are more than enough to occupy a man who gained power without the support of a party. His efforts to secure a reform of the eurozone have been frustrated by the delayed formation of the German coalition and the loss of Italian as a partner. Moreover, the asylum battle that Merkel has courageously fought is being lost: two years after claiming that Germany was strong enough to open its borders, she suffered a severe electoral setback, followed by tensions within her coalition and retreat on the European front. This prevents the would-be champions of openness from speaking up with enough clarity on a defining issue. The key question now is whether Macron can still hope to disrupt European politics, or must acknowledge the dominance of the powers that be and settle on an alliance.
As things stand, the chances seem high that the May 2019 election end up in a series of obscure, highly tactical fights. This would be bad for democracy because at such a critical juncture, citizens deserve to be offered clear options on the issues that matter; and it would be bad for Europe, because this would further undermine its legitimacy at the very moment when it needs to redefine itself. The next nine months will decide if this grim scenario can still be prevented.
Is Europe America's Friend or Foe?
Project Syndicate Column, August 2018
Since Donald Trump became US president in January 2017, his conduct has been astonishingly erratic, but his policies have been more consistent than foreseen by most observers. Trump’s volatility has been disconcerting, but on the whole he has acted in accordance with promises made on the campaign trail and with views held long before anyone considered his election possible. Accordingly, a new cottage industry in rational theories of Trump’s seemingly irrational behavior has developed.
The latest challenge for this industry is to make sense of his stance towards Europe. At a rally on June 28, he said: “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States. And you know what, we can’t let that happen.” During his recent trip on the continent, he called the EU “a foe” and said it was “possibly as bad as China”. On Brexit, he declared that PM May should have “sued” the EU. Then came the truce, on 25 July: President Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, agreed to work jointly on an agenda of free trade and World Trade Organization reform.
So it seems we are friends again. Or perhaps just resting before the dispute resumes. But the deeper question remains: Why has Trump repeatedly attacked America’s oldest and most reliable ally? Why is it that he seems to despise the EU so strongly? Why should the US try to undermine Europe, rather than seeking closer cooperation to protect its strategic economic and geopolitical interests?
This is particularly striking given that China’s rapid emergence as a strategic rival is America’s main national security issue. Contrary to earlier hopes, China is converging with the West neither politically nor economically, because the role of the state and the ruling party in coordinating activities remains far greater. Geopolitically, China has been actively building clienteles, most visibly through its Belt and Road Initiative, and it intends to “foster a new type of international relations” that departs from the model promoted by the US in the twentieth century. Militarily, it has embarked on a significant build-up. It does not take a master strategist to realize that China, not Europe, is the number one challenge to US world supremacy.
Former President Barack Obama’s China strategy combined dialogue and pressure. He started building two mega-economic alliances that excluded China and Russia: the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other Pacific Rim countries, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. But Trump withdrew the US from the TPP and killed the TTIP before it was born. Then he opened a trade rift with the EU. And he has attacked both the EU and its member states, especially Germany.
Forget the negotiation style. On substance, there are three possible explanations to this stance. One is that it reflects Trump’s peculiar obsession with bilateral trade balances. According to this view, Trump regards Germany and Europe as equally threatening competitors as China. Nobody but him thinks this makes economic sense. And the only result he can expect from this strategy is to hurt and weaken the long-standing Atlantic partnership. But he has been complaining about Mercedes cars in the streets of New York City at least since the 1990s.
A second explanation is that Trump wants to prevent the EU from positioning itself as the third player in a trilateral game. If the US intends to turn the relationship with China into a bilateral power fight, there are good reasons for it to regard the EU as an obstacle. Because it is itself governed by law, the EU is bound to oppose a purely transactional approach to international relations. And a united Europe that commands access to the world’s largest market is not a trivial player. But after the EU has been undermined, if not disbanded, weak and divided European countries would have no choice but to rally behind the US.
Finally, a more political reading of Trump’s behavior is that he is seeking regime change in Europe. In fact, he has not disguised his belief that Europe is “losing its culture” because it has let immigration “change its fabric.” And Stephen Bannon, his former chief strategist, has announced that he will spend half of his time in Europe to help build an alliance of nationalist parties and win a majority in next May’s European Parliament elections.
A few weeks ago, only the first reading looked plausible. The other two could be dismissed as fantasies inspired by conspiracy theories. No US president ever presented the EU as a plot to weaken the US. Indeed, all of Trump’s postwar predecessors would have recoiled in horror at the idea of the EU’s dissolution. But the US president has gone too far for Europe to brush off the more dismal scenarios and settle for the comforting explanation.
For the EU, this is a pivotal moment. In the 1950s, it was launched beneath the US security umbrella and with America’s blessing. Since then, it has been built as a geopolitical experiment conducted under US protection and in the context of a US-led international system. For this reason, its external dimensions – economically, diplomatically, or regarding security – have always come second to its internal development.
What the recent crisis signifies is that this is no longer true. Europe must now define its strategic stance vis-à-vis a more distant, and possibly hostile US, and vis-à-vis rising powers that have no reason to be kind to it. It must stand for its values. And it must urgently decide what it intends to do for its security and defense, its neighborhood policy, and its border protection. This is an acid test.
Economically, the EU still has the potential to be a global player. The size of its market, the strength of its major companies, a unified trade policy, a common regulatory policy, a single competition authority, and a currency that is second only to the dollar only are major assets. It could – and should – use them to push for a revamping of international relations that addresses legitimate US grievances vis-à-vis China and legitimate Chinese concerns over its international role. Europe has played a leading role in fighting climate change; it could do the same for trade, investment, or finance.
Europe’s main problem is political, not economic. The challenge it is facing comes at a moment when it is divided between island and continent, North and South, and East and West. And the questions posed are fundamental ones: What defines a nation? Who is in charge of borders? Who guarantees security? Is the EU based on shared values or on the pure calculus of national interests?
If the EU fails to define itself for a world that is fundamentally different from that of ten years ago, it probably will not survive as a meaningful institution. If it does, however, it may regain the sense purpose and legitimacy in the eyes of citizens that years of economic and political setbacks have eroded.
Europe should avoid a no-deal Brexit
Joint op-ed with Norbert Röttgen, André Sapir, Paul Tucker and Guntram Wolff, 23 July 2018 (The Times, FAZ, Figaro, NRC Handelsblatt, Corriere della Sera, El Mundo)
In June 2016, British citizens voted to exit from the EU. During two years, negotiation on the terms of the divorce made progress, but not the equally important design of the future relationship. Over the same period, the shifts underway in the global geopolitical landscape have intensified, taking us towards a world in which regional relationships might matter more than ever.
Earlier this month, the UK government finally tabled a serious proposal for the country’s future relationship with the European Union.
The substance of the UK government White Paper is worth considering constructively. First, it sets out what the UK wants and what it does not want. Second, it aims to take into account political and legal constraints on both sides. Third, it is detailed enough to allow precise discussions. Finally, it recognises that both parties share a common interest in preserving strong economic and security ties.
On goods, the UK proposal can be thought of as a 21st century Free Trade Agreement where rules of origin are replaced by a new and sophisticated customs cooperation regime and common regulation for specific products. It is an idea worth exploring, though there are devilishly complex issues to negotiate. In particular, it must work well enough to avoid the reemergence of tensions in Ireland. Also, any innovative customs agreement will require strictness in implementation: the latest report by the EU anti-fraud office provides embarrassing evidence of UK-based fraud.
On services things are less clear. The White Paper is unequivocal that the UK won’t enjoy full access to the European single market but it aims at a "deep" relationship. What this means is up for discussion and the quid pro quos are not always clear. The White Paper includes principled but vague and non-committal statements about future regulation in the UK. Difficult negotiations lie ahead.
On labour mobility, the EU must decide whether to stick to the line that access to the single market, even for a limited set of products, is unacceptable in the absence of full labour mobility. The doctrine known as the inseparability of the four freedoms (for goods, services, capital and labour) is not based on solid legal or economic foundations but it has served as a basis for political agreement between the 27 and is embedded in treaties with third countries like Norway or Switzerland. Admittedly, any change to this doctrine would likely have implications for the EU’s relation with these two countries as well.
On governance, the White Paper is making some significant concessions. The proposed arrangement would involve political dialogue and technical comitology, without the UK having a formal vote, as well as recognition that UK courts would have to pay due regard to the case law of the European Court of Justice. Both will be hard to swallow for some in the UK, but something like them is inevitable if the UK is to have access to some elements of the single market: market integration requires regulatory consistency and the unavoidable truth is that the EU is, and will remain, a significantly more powerful regulator than the UK due to its relative size.
Because it is structured around goals rather than red lines, and because it is detailed and sophisticated, the White Paper puts the ball in the EU court. Until now, the EU has not produced anything similar. So far, the Commission has, understandably, kept a tough line. It did not want to start discussing the future relationship before the basic terms of the divorce had been settled, and it did not want to show its cards before the UK had said what it was ready to commit to. Indeed, it would have been foolish for the 27 to start making concessions when the possibility of a regulatory race to the bottom could not be ruled out and the UK was still discussing with itself.
The UK White Paper could be a game changer. But for this to happen, the UK will have to be able to bring its current internal dispute to a conclusion and pass a deal that commands the necessary parliamentary support. The EU, in turn, will need to take a long-term view and say what kind of relationship it wants to establish with its neighbour.
Europe (of which the UK will obviously remain part) is at crossroads. It faces much bigger economic, diplomatic and security challenges than most imagined even two years ago. Neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Trump nor Mr. Xi have sympathy or benevolence towards us. Nor does Mr. Erdogan. So it’s no time for Europe to inflict wounds on itself.
What should the 27 stance be? We think that they should neither stick to rigid positions nor hide behind red lines. They should not pretend that only off-the-shelves solutions are available for building a relationship with Britain. Instead, they should seek and obtain:
Serious guarantees on the implementation and the enforcement of the proposed customs arrangement for goods;
Serious guarantees on a lasting overall regulatory approximation and convergence;
Clarity about the way ECJ judgments would be applied in matters pertaining to the functioning of integrated markets;
Safeguard clauses - including a say 10-year probation period that would make the future agreement reversible if the UK were to opt for regulatory competition.
A financial contribution to the EU budget commensurate with the depth of the relationship.
Negotiating such a deal is likely to be a difficult process that might well be impossible to achieve over the next few months. But agreeing on a direction should be possible by the autumn. And a two-year transition period until the end of 2020, during which the UK would stay in the single market and the customs union, would allow for negotiating a sensible relationship for the future that is in the geostrategic interests of everyone in this part of the world.
All authors write in a personal capacity. Jean Pisani-Ferry is Professor at European University Institute and Mercator senior fellow at Bruegel, Norbert Röttgen is Member of German Parliament, André Sapir is Professor at Université libre de Bruxelles and senior fellow at Bruegel, Paul Tucker is fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, Guntram Wolff is Director of Bruegel.
Can Multilateralism Adapt?
Project Syndicate Column, July 2018
Rewind to the late 1990s. After an eight-decade-long hiatus, the global economy was being reunified. Economic openness was the order of the day. Finance was being liberalized. The nascent Internet would soon give everyone on the planet equal access to information. To manage ever-growing interdependence, new international institutions were developed. The World Trade Organization was brought to life. A binding climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, had just been finalized.
The message was clear: globalization was not just about liberalizing flows of goods, services and capital but about establishing the rules and institutions required to steer markets, foster cooperation, and deliver global public goods.
Now fast-forward to 2018. Despite a decade of talks, the global trade negotiations launched in 2001 have gotten nowhere. The Internet has become fragmented and could break up further. Financial regionalism is on the rise. The global effort to combat climate change rests on a collection of non-binding agreements, from which the United States has withdrawn.
Yes, the WTO is still there, but it is increasingly ineffective. US President Donald Trump, who does not hide his contempt for multilateral rules, is attempting to block its dispute settlement system. The United States pretends against all evidence that imports of BMWs are a threat to national security. China is brutally ordered – outside any multilateral framework – to import more, export less, cut subsidies, refrain from purchasing US tech companies, and respect intellectual property rights. The very principles of multilateralism, a key pillar of global governance, seem to have become a relic from a distant past.
What happened? Trump, for sure. The 45th US president campaigned for the job like a bull in a China shop, vowing to destroy the edifice of international order built and maintained by all of his predecessors since Franklin Roosevelt. Since taking office, he has been true to his word, withdrawing from one international agreement after another and imposing import tariffs on friends and adversaries alike.
Still, let’s face it: today’s problems did not start with Trump. It was not Trump who, in 2009, killed the Copenhagen negotiation on a climate agreement. It was not Trump who is to blame for the failure of the Doha trade round. It was not Trump who told Asia to secede from the global financial safety net managed by the International Monetary Fund. Before Trump, problems were dealt with more politely. But they were there.
There is no shortage of explanations. An important one is that many participants in the international system are having second thoughts about globalization. A widespread perception in advanced countries is that the rents from technological innovation are being eroded precipitously. The US factory worker of yesterday owed his standard of living to these rents. But as the economist Richard Baldwin brilliantly shows in The Great Convergence, technology has become more accessible, production processes have been segmented, and many of the rents have gone.
A second explanation is that the US strategy toward Russia and China has failed. In the 1990s, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton thought that the international order would help transform Russia and China into “market democracies.” But neither Russia nor China have converged politically. As far as the economy is concerned, China is converging in terms of GDP and sophistication but its economic system remains apart. As Mark Wu of Harvard argued in a 2016 paper, although market forces play a strong role in its economy, coordination by the state (and control by the Communist Party) remains pervasive. China has invented its own economic rules.
Third, the US is unsure that a rules-based system offers the best framework to manage its rivalry with China. True, a multilateral system may help the incumbent hegemon and the rising power avoid falling into the so-called “Thucydides’ trap” of military confrontation. But the growing perception in the US is that multilateralism puts more constraints on its own behavior than on China’s.
Finally, global rules look increasingly outdated. Whereas some of their underlying principles – starting with the simple idea that issues are addressed multilaterally rather than bilaterally – are as strong as ever, others were conceived for a world that no longer exists. Established trade negotiation practices make little sense in a world of global value chains and sophisticated services. And categorizing countries by their development level is less and less helpful, given that some of them combine first-class global companies and pockets of economic backwardness. But inertia is considerable, if only because consensus is required to change the rules.
So what should be done? One option is to preserve the existing order to the extent possible. This was the approach adopted after Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement: the other signatories continue to abide by it. The advantages of this approach are that it contains the damages from one country’s peculiar behavior. But, to the extent that the US attitude is a symptom, the conservationist approach does not address the disease.
A second option is to use the crisis as an opportunity for reform. Initiative should come from the EU, China, and a few others – including, one hopes, the US at some point. It would require to salvage those aspects of the old multilateralism which remain useful but fuse them into new arrangements that are more flexible, more appropriate for a new world with different problems – and fair. This strategy would have the advantage of identifying and absorbing the lessons offered by the exhaustion of traditional arrangements and the burgeoning of new ones. But is there enough leadership and enough political will to go beyond empty, face-saving compromises? The downside risk is that failed reform could lead to a complete unraveling of the global system.
In the end, the solution is neither to cultivate the nostalgia of yesterday’s order nor to place hope in loose, ineffective forms of international cooperation. International collective action requires rules, because flexibility and goodwill alone cannot tackle hard problems. The narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions. For those who believe that such a path exists, there is no time to lose in finding it.
Mattarella's Line in the Sand Project Syndicate Column, June 2018
A deep political crisis has erupted in Italy since President Sergio Mattarella’s refusal to appoint Paolo Savona, a declared Euroskeptic, as minister of economy and finance in the coalition government proposed by the leaders of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League, the two anti-system parties that emerged as winners of the March general election. Savona had openly advocated preparing a “plan B” for euro exit, and Mattarella argued that his appointment could have provoked precisely that outcome.
Mattarella’s decision immediately provoked a furor. M5S leader Luigi di Maio called for the president to be impeached (he later withdrew this request). The League’s Matteo Salvini called for new elections, which he said would be a referendum on the freedom or slavery of Italy. And in France, Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader who campaigned for the French presidency last year on a promise to leave the euro, denounced what she called a “coup d’État.”
This is not the first time that continued euro membership has become a major political issue. In Greece in 2015, it was implicitly at least part of the debate over the acceptance of the conditions for financial assistance. In France in 2017, Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron explicitly debated it during the presidential campaign. But this is the first time that the euro has been the direct source of a legal dispute over the appointment of a government.
Financial markets have responded with anxiety, triggering a sudden rise in government bond rates. But, first and foremost, the crisis raises an issue of interpretation. Does Mattarella’s decision mean that voters cannot call into question euro membership? What is the resulting scope for democratic choice? These are fundamental issues of far-reaching consequence for all European citizens.
Mattarella was explicit about his motivations. He did not object to Italians’ right to question euro membership, but he argued that this required an open debate, based on serious, in-depth analysis, whereas the issue had not been brought up in the electoral campaign. As Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte and the party leaders behind him refused to propose any other candidate for the post, the president concluded that his constitutional duty was to refuse to endorse the appointment.
In doing so, Mattarella drew a line separating constitutional choices from political choices. His logic was that political choices can be made freely by a government that commands a parliamentary majority, and that the president has no right to question such choices. Constitutional choices, by contrast, require a different type of decision-making procedure – one that ensures that voters are adequately informed about the potential consequences of their decision. Absent such a debate, Mattarella reasoned, the president’s duty is to preserve the status quo and to prevent a consequential choice from being driven by self-fulfilling market expectations.
As a matter of principle, this distinction makes considerable sense. In virtually all democracies, constitutions protect fundamental human rights, define the nature of the political regime, and assign responsibilities to the various levels of government. These provisions cannot – fortunately – be changed by a simple majority vote in parliament. Constitutions can be amended, of course, but often only slowly, and always only by a super-majority or, in some countries, a referendum. This inertia guarantees citizens that their deep preferences will be upheld.
This raises two questions. First, which are the truly constitutional matters? In Europe, membership in the EU is part of many countries’ fundamental law. Exit cannot be decided by parliament through ordinary procedure. But the constitutional scope is broader: legally speaking, all provisions of the EU treaties fall within it. And this is where the trouble starts. It would obviously be absurd to object to a political debate over EU treaty provisions regarding, say, fisheries or telecoms. Or, even, the fiscal framework. Such provisions should belong to ordinary legislation (to define this distinction more clearly was one of the goals of the failed constitutional treaty of 2005). But instead of providing a precise delineation, the legal frontier between constitutional and ordinary provisions creates political confusion. Citizens can be forgiven for not having a clear idea of what belongs to which category.
Second, what type of decision procedure should apply to truly constitutional choices? Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, as we have seen, enables the EU to decide how to manage the United Kingdom’s decision to leave. But most countries do not have an article in their own constitution that defines how to decide whether to terminate EU or euro membership. The UK’s reliance on a simple majority referendum to end a 55 years-old partnership was dubbed by Harvard’s Ken Rogoff “Russian roulette for republics,” because the bar was low and because the procedure did not include the checks and balances that such a consequential decision should have required.
As long as membership in the EU and the euro commanded wide consensus, these distinctions were a matter of interest only for legal experts. This is no longer the case, and the debate about them is unlikely to end soon. It is therefore the time to make the distinction between genuinely constitutional and non-constitutional European commitments an explicit part of the political order of our countries.
The Italian president’s dividing line is correct in principle: because the common currency is a fundamental social institution, because of the bonds with partner countries that it involves, and because of the major financial, economic, and geopolitical consequences of a potential exit, euro membership must belong to the constitutional realm. But Mattarella’s stance would have been more easily accepted had it been made explicit early on. The fact that his decision was announced on the occasion of a conflict between the presidency and the leaders of the parliamentary majority has given rise to a perilous conflict over legitimacy and has offered his opponents an opportunity to claim the moral high ground.
The vital task confronting Europe is to reconcile citizens’ right to make radical choices with the need to ensure that decisions leading to constitutional upheaval are subject to sufficient, and sufficiently informed public deliberation resulting in an unambiguous, and time-consistent expression of the people’s will. The EU and the euro must not be constitutional prisons; nor should they be subject to ill-considered decisions. Finding this balance requires procedures that command the required legitimacy.
The Upheaval Italy Needs
Project Syndicate column, May 2018
Two months after the Italian general election on March 4, amid continuing uncertainty about what kind of government will emerge, a strange complacency seems to have set in. Yet it would be foolish to believe that a country where anti-system parties won 55% of the popular vote will continue to behave as if nothing had happened. Those who were – and still are – regarded as Barbarians are not at the gate anymore. They are inside.
The populist Five Star Movement, which won a landslide in Southern Italy, has promised to increase spending on public investment and social transfers, while reversing the pension reform enacted a few years ago. The League party, which captured the North, also promises to dismantle the pension reform, as well to cut taxes, and has openly mooted the idea of leaving the euro. Both parties want to relax the European fiscal straightjacket, though in different ways. One of them at least is bound to be part of the governing coalition.
The economic consequences could be profound. With a 132% debt-to-GDP ratio, Italy’s public finances are precarious. Should markets start questioning their sustainability, the situation would quickly spiral out of control. Italy is far too big for the European Stability Mechanism to tackle a debt crisis there in the same way it did in Greece or Portugal. The European Central Bank would need to come to the rescue. The debt might even end up being restructured.
There is little doubt, therefore, that the European Union will insist on fiscal discipline. But the question is, what strategy should Italy adopt to tackle its fiscal problem? Contrary to conventional wisdom, Italy’s high public debt is not the result of runaway budget deficits – at least not of recent ones. With the exception of 2009, the primary balance (which excludes interest payments) has been in surplus for the last 20 years. No other eurozone country matches this performance.
The root of Italy’s public-finance problem is that it inherited excessively high debt from the 1980s and has not recorded significant economic growth for two decades. Real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in 2017 was at the same level as in 2003, and real GDP per capita was at the level of 1999. With a stagnant denominator, it is hard to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio: the legacy of the past continues to weigh excessively on the present.
A thought experiment helps in understanding Italy’s problem. Had France followed the same policy as its southern neighbor since the launch of the euro in 1999 – that is, had it recorded, year after year, the same primary balances – its public debt today would be 45% of GDP, instead of 97%. The difference between the two countries is not that France has been wise and Italy profligate. Quite the contrary. The reason why France has a significantly lower debt today is that it inherited a better fiscal position and has been growing faster.
The lesson, therefore, is that Italy’s key priority should be to revive growth. But this cannot be accomplished by relaxing the brake on public spending. The bulk of Italy’s growth problem comes from the supply side, not the demand side. As documented in a recent paper produced by the Bank of Italy, the country’s productivity performance is truly dismal: over the last two decades, output per employee has decreased by 0.1% per year, compared to 0.6% growth in Spain, 0.7% in Germany, and 0.8% in France. Furthermore, the demographic outlook is frightening: the working-age population, currently at the same level as in the late 1980s, is set to decline by 0.5-1% annually in the years to come. The burden of repaying the debt will fall on a smaller labor force – even more so if the retirement age is lowered.
Boosting productivity is therefore imperative. On paper, the recipe for success looks straightforward: economic policy should aim at reducing the gap between larger companies, whose performance matches those of their German or French counterparts, and smaller firms, where productivity is half as high. Small companies everywhere are less productive than large firms – after all, growth is a selection process – but Italy’s peculiarity is that such companies are both much less efficient and much more numerous. For each innovative champion that sells cutting-edge products on the global market, there are many poorly managed companies with fewer than ten employees that produce only for the local market. It is this high degree of fragmentation that explains Italy’s poor aggregate performance.
Two Italian economists who teach in the United States, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales, have investigated what explains this peculiar situation. Their conclusion is that neither sectoral developments nor credit constraints nor labor-market regulation can account for the observed productivity developments. Instead, they emphasize family management of the smaller firms and a tendency to select and reward people on the basis or loyalty rather than merit. As they put it, familyism and cronyism are the ultimate causes of the Italian disease.
These observations have direct implications for future discussions between the next Italian government and its European partners. The latter would be well advised to put the need for a growth and productivity policy, rather than simple adherence to fiscal targets, at the top of the agenda. And they should focus on the most critical reforms, rather than on a long wish list of standard recipes.
It is hard to gauge whether the Italian government that will emerge from the ongoing negotiations will be ready to respond. All political parties have clienteles to take care of, and the insurgents are no exception. They might well be reluctant to swallow the harsh medicine that Italy needs. But political ruptures sometime provide a unique opportunity for addressing seemingly intractable problems. The chance of such an outcome may be slim, but it should not be ignored. After its political upheaval, Italy now needs an economic one.