July 11, 2011

Different Default Situations: US vs. EU

After the American Century

Both the EU and the US are struggling with massive public indebtedness, and in each case the problems emerge from bad decisions made during the last decade. The problems are quite different, however.

First, consider The United States. It seems hard to believe now but the US had balanced its budget and was rapidly paying off its national debt in 2000. The current fiscal woes are due to an excessive tax cut that overstimulated the economy, combined with massive military expenditures and a failure to regulate the banks. These problems all came from the White House, which dismally failed to protect the strong economy created in the 1990s. Bush overspent, undertaxed, and virtually abandoned regulation. The country needs years to get out of the mess he created, during which it needs to raise taxes back to where they were in 2000, particularly on wealthy people. But the Republicans, once a party of fiscal rsponsibility, have no intelligible economic program and they seem willing to let the nation go into default rather than compromise with the White House. In short, the American problem is firmly lodged in Washington, rooted in the failures of the Bush years. The problem is not impossible to solve from an economic point of view, but it is hard to resolve politically. The stupidity is, if you will, ideological.

Second, consider Europe. Here the problem is much different. The problem has emerged at the regional level - Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, all have weak economies and huge deficits. In contrast, some other members of the EU, notably Germany and Sweden, have strongly rebounding economies and do not have unbalanced national budgets. The problem here is that no single banking policy is appropriate for both the strong nations and those tottering on the brink of default. The stupidity in the EU is, if you will, a regional matter.

The US has a problem that could be easily solved by reverting to the tax code of the Clinton years. Possibly, something approaching this will occur, probably at the last minute. As Winston Churchill once said, the Americans always do the right thing in the end, but not before they exhaust all the other possibilities.

In contrast, it is much harder to see what the EU can do to solve its fiscal problems. The failure of Greece to pay its debts could set off a financial tsunami. Even the controlled default now being contemplated (or rather orchestrated in Brussels)  could have dire effects. The unity of the EU will be sorely tested if the fiscally responsible economies have to bail out those, like Italy, that are rife with tax cheating and black market labor. Why should Germans or French tax payers have to endure higher taxes when many wealthy in Greece continue to lie about their assets and pay less than they should?

History is not logical, of course, and it might be that the US will stumble into a completely unnecessary default, while the Europeans stumble through to a somewhat undeserved equilibrium. But the fascinating thing is to see how these wealthy countries have made such a mess of fiscal policy.  In a worse case scenario, default on either side of the Atlantic could trigger a larger world crisis, from which Asia would almost certainly emerge the stronger.

We are in for a perilous three months.