The economic clash between Greece and Germany is invariably portrayed as a clash of cultures. The majority of Germans resent what they see, and are assured by those who should know better, as a bailing out, at their expense, of those in the southern peripheral European countries who appear to be unable to manage their economic affairs as well as they can.
That seems a perfectly commonsensical point of view but raw ‘common sense’, as always, in economics cannot be relied upon to be the best guide. Our common sense is invariably derived from our own micro-economic experience. The principle that it is better to be in surplus than deficit, for example, works fine for us as individuals in the micro world, but taking a wider view, that commonsensical notion is inconsistent with the basic accounting principle that for every asset there has to be a debt. For every surplus there has to be a deficit. Not everyone can be in surplus and not everyone can be in deficit.
So we need to correct our ‘commonsense’. Physicists, like Angela Merkel who therefore can have no excuse, are used to doing exactly that. They know that their commonsense viewpoints of the world will only take them so far. It fails completely after that. Anyone who has studied Maxwell’s equations, Quantum Mechanics or Einstein’s Relativity knows that these subjects can make your brain hurt! After a while, we have to come to the conclusion that it is better to try to understand via the mathematics of it all rather than understand completely.
It is nowhere near as bad in economics, but still just a little lateral thought is required. The easiest way to understand what needs to happen in the single currency eurozone, is to make a comparison with what already does happen in a successful currency union.
Let’s take a look at how it all works in the USA. The United States has, as we all know, a common currency but also a Federal Government to conduct macroeconomic policy, and transfer surpluses from the wealthy parts of the US to the poorer parts. It transfers surpluses. It does not arrange loans, except perhaps for special projects. If it did, the wealthier parts of the USA would end up as massive creditors. The poorer parts would end up as massive debtors. There would be clashes between New Jersey, the wealthiest state, and Mississippi the poorest. I had to look this up , by the way. I suspected that Mississippi might be the poorest but I had no idea which was the wealthiest. I had thought maybe California. That’s as it should be. It should not be like it is in the Eurozone where the wealthy states never tire of letting everyone else know who is paying the bills.
So, imagine New Jersey providing big loans to an impoverished Mississippi, dictating that it implement privatisation of public assets at knock down prices and drastic cuts to state spending, pensions, its education service etc to be able to repay those loans. The Mississipians and the New Jerseyites would be saying exactly the same things about each other as the Germans and Greeks are saying now!
So, just as any transfer of funds between New Jersey and Mississippi has to be just that, ie a transfer and not a loan, so too it needs to be between Germany and Greece in the Eurozone.
The German taxpayers may well not like that idea. It certainly would not have been properly explained to them just what they were letting themselves in for when the Euro was created. No politician in any of the Eurozone countries would have dared make that explanation! It would have been career suicide. There were economists around who did their best to explain it all but they weren’t listened too.
It is too late for that now, but the reality of what has been created, in their name now needs to be recognised and understood by all. Some rethinking is in order. That has to start with the Germans, then the Dutch and then everyone else too. The sooner the better.