Douthat and Feldstein on Euro

In case you missed it, this Sunday featured a creditable effort by the NY Times to look out of the groundhog hole. You have likely followed the explosion resulting from Bret Stephens' first column. Likewise, Ross Douthat tried to explain the attraction of Marine LePen.  I'm not a LePen fan, but appreciated his honest effort to explain how the other side say things.

I was interested in Douthat's views on the euro:
But on the other hand, our era’s “enlightened” governance has produced an out-of-touch eurozone elite lashed to a destructive common currency,..
There is no American equivalent to the epic disaster of the euro, a form of German imperialism with the struggling parts of Europe as its subjects... 
And while many of her economic prescriptions are half-baked, her overarching critique of the euro is correct: Her country and her continent would be better off without it.
Douthat does not pretend to be an economist, and I have no beef with his expressing such views. Because such views are commonplace conventional wisdom from our policy elite. And if the euro falls apart, they will bear a lot of blame for its passing. Be careful what you write, people might be listening.  No, when Germany sends Porsches to Greece in return for worthless pieces of paper, it is not Germany who got the better of the deal. And while you're at it, get rid of that silly common meter, and restore proper nationalism of weights and measures too. (Of course perhaps my admiration for the euro is wrong. Then they will deserve credit for the wave of prosperity that flows over Europe once it unleashes the shackles of the common currency dragging it down. )

As a concrete example, consider  Martin Feldstein writing in the Il Sole series on the Euro, (I don't mean to pick on Feldstein. He has been a consistent anti-euro voice, arguing the great benefits for Italy and Greece of periodic inflation and devaluation. But he is just a good sober example of the common view in Cambridge-centered economic policy circles.)

Topic sentences:
Although Italy was an enthusiastic adopter of the euro when the single currency began, the Italian experience of the past decade suggests that was a mistake. seems plausible that Italy’s economy would be in better condition today if Italy, like Britain, had decided to keep its own currency and therefore to be able to manage its own monetary policy and its own exchange rate.
Advocates of adopting the euro argued at the time that members of the Eurozone would be forced by market pressures to converge to a high common level of productivity and a corresponding level of real wages. That never happened. Instead, Germany powered ahead with rising productivity that has resulted in real per capita income 30% higher than Italy’s, an unemployment rate that is less than half Italy's and a trade surplus that is 8 % of its GDP.
Huh? It is a new proposition in monetary economics to me that adopting a common currency forces countries to move to common productivity, any more than adopting the meter forces countries to do so.  Alabama and California share a currency and not productivity. Fresno and Palo Alto share a currency and not productivity.   A common market in products with free movement of capital and labor might force out economic, legal, and regulatory inefficiency, but that would happen regardless of the units of measurement.

The most basic proposition in monetary economics: The choice of monetary unit has no effect on long-run productivity or any other aspect of the long-run real economy. Using the euro vs. the lira has no effect on long-run productivity, any more than using the meter forces Italian tailors to cut Norwegian-sized suits, or that using the Kilo forces Italian restaurants to serve bratwurst and beer rather than pizza and wine.
The countries that adopted the euro never satisfied the three conditions for a successful currency union: labor mobility, flexibility of real wages, and a common fiscal policy that transfers funds to areas that experience temporary increases in unemployment.
This is another repeated truism. In my view the main condition for a currency union was present in the euro and the problem was forgetting about it when the time came. In a currency union without fiscal union, bankrupt governments default just like bankrupt companies. Neither labor mobility (which exists in Europe), flexibility of real wages (doubtful in the US) or common fiscal policy (also limited in the US) are necessary. Europe lived under a common currency -- the gold standard -- for hundreds of years. Sovereigns defaulted.

I suspect Feldstein means by "common currency" far more than I do. I mean, we agree to use a common currency. I suspect Feldstein means far more than that, including that no government debt may ever default and that the ECB must print money to ensure that fact. Like all disagreements perhaps this one simply reflects a difference in meaning of the words. If so, it would be good to say so. Objections to "the euro" are not objections to a common currency per se, but objections to the rest of the legal, regulatory, banking, fiscal, and policy framework that accompanies the euro.

To be fair, there is also a different underlying world view here. In Feldstein's world, national governments and central banks can be relied on to diagnose "shocks," and artfully devalue currencies just enough to "offset shocks" when and only when needed; in the european case likely imposing "capital controls" as well, but to do this rarely enough that investors will still buy government bonds, invest in their countries, and avoid the slide to banana republic inflation, repression, and trade and investment closure. In my world, as I think in the real world of Italy and Greece before the euro, national currencies are not such a happy tool of benevolent dirigisme. The commitment not to devalue, inflate, and grab capital after the fact is good for growth and investment before the fact. A government sober enough to use Feldstein's tools wisely is also sober enough to borrow wisely when offered low rates. A government not sober enough to borrow wisely when offered low rates is not sober enough to artfully devalue, inflate, grab capital "just this once" in response to shocks.

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