Economic governance is in the eye of the beholder. The French want discretion, flexibility, and effective crisis management; the Germans want rules, discipline, and effective crisis avoidance. The euro as a single currency reflects both tendencies. There are aspects of Europe’s macroeconomic framework that are flexible and responsive (like the European Central Bank) and aspects that are more rigid and formulaic (like the ‘six pack’ and ‘two pack’ of policy coordination procedures that strengthen the ‘Stability and Growth Pact’). The challenge for Europeans is to find a sustainable balance. Too much of either tendency is not only unacceptable to one side or the other in the Franco-German partnership, it is also unlikely to work in stabilizing either the euro as a single currency or the European Union as a political project.
The United States is not the only country where the consensus on central bank independence is in trouble; central bankers across the formerly communist world are facing sustained political challenge as well. The difference in the formerly communist world is that central bank norms, practices and policies never fit as well in the institutional context of regimes in transition and the consensus spread only weakly outward from the central banks themselves. This is the argument Juliet Johnson makes in her brilliant book on the role that central bankers played in the transformation of the post-communist world.
Central bank independence is under attack. This is true particularly in the United States. When the dust began to settle on the presidential primaries in spring 2016, three of the four leading candidates – one Democrat and two Republicans – supported legislation to audit the Federal Reserve (or Fed) and to compel it to follow a rigid and transparent rule for changing policy in response to changes in a limited range of macroeconomic variables. The reason has a lot to do with the same populist resentment that swirls around global trade. And while the Fed has not received the attention given to the trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for example, it is arguably just as important.
Italy is a country where the past, present and future are all jumbled together. Moreover, the juxtaposition is intentional. When they redid the main street in Bologna, for example, the workers lifted out an old fragment of a tramline from the last century. The trams have long since been replaced by busses and the metal rails were peeking through, only poorly covered by tarmac. The city decided to replace the tarmac with new stone paving slabs and so it was necessary to remove the old tram track. Once the stone was in place, the workers cut two groves and fit the pieces of rail back into place. This way, the new road does not completely cover the city’s past.
The referendum campaign on whether Great Britain should remain a member state of the European Union (EU) or leave is in full swing. Campaigners for Britain to ‘remain’, including Prime Minister David Cameron, insist that the British government has successfully renegotiated its relationship with the EU. Those who want Britain to ‘leave’ insist that the opt-outs Cameron won are insignificant and untrustworthy; whatever the British government may say, the bureaucrats in Brussels are plotting a ‘super state’ that will usurp British sovereignty.
Some countries fall from greatness. For them, decline is absolute. Others face increasing competition from rising powers. Their decline is relative. However there is a third kind of decline that has more to do with degeneration than with failure, and less to do with competition than diminishing potential. This is a kind of morbid decline. It echoes the ‘decadence’ of the late 19th Century but without the implied culture of excess. The countries of the West might be accused of falling prey to this morbidity, so Benjamin Rowland and his contributors argue. Hence it is worth asking why that should be happening and what is to be done about it.
Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt. By Martin Sandbu. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 313 pp. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-691-16830-2 (cloth).
The euro did not cause Europe’s economic crisis; policymakers did. By focusing too much attention on debt, by demanding that existing obligations be met in full (and creditors made whole), and by doing so against a backdrop of coordinated macroeconomic tightening, Europe’s policymakers ensured that the downturn in European macroeconomic performance would be deep, long, and destructive. These same policymakers only narrowly avoided disaster when they began to loosen monetary policy and to accept the need for some debt restructuring. Nevertheless, these efforts did not come soon enough, they were no comprehensive enough, and they were not applied consistently enough to prevent Europe from coming to the edge of disaster as elite macroeconomic ideology finally collided with the requirements for democratic legitimacy in Greece (and Germany) during the summer of 2015. This is the diagnosis Martin Sandbu offers to explain what went wrong.