America Could Do Worse than Be Like Europe
What is worse — going over the fiscal cliff or emulating Europe’s economic policymakers?
- Suddenly, it's Europe that is making headway on its debt problems. By contrast, the United States risks being as frozen as a deer in the headlights.
- Right or wrong, those much-criticized austerity measures have had an impact. For the eurozone as a whole, deficits are heading down.
- In the past four years, Republicans have doubled down on their prescription for even bigger tax cuts, higher defense spending and obstructionism.
During the U.S. election campaign, Republicans loudly warned that President Obama would transform America into “Europe.” You know: socialism, economic stagnation and a debt crisis. Greece! Spain!
It was jingoistic, arrogant and generally fact-free. And judging from Obama’s victory, it didn’t have much traction with American voters.
Largely unnoticed, though, is that the United States and Europe may be in a role-reversal. Suddenly, it’s Europe that is making headway on both debt problems and economic restructuring. By contrast, the United States risks being as frozen as a deer in the headlights.
Obviously, the eurozone is still in a world of hurt. Europe as a whole is in a modest recession, and it will take at least several more years before the likes of Greece and Spain get close to solid economic footing. Meanwhile, political leaders continue to dawdle over crucial unfinished business — such as some kind of fiscal union that will prevent future crises in the eurozone.
That said, real change is afoot. Right or wrong, those much-criticized austerity measures have had an impact. Budget deficits have declined sharply as a share of GDP in all of the crisis countries.
The Greek budget deficit has narrowed from a sky-high 15% of GDP in 2009 to about 8% in 2012, and may fall to less than 5% in 2013. Spain is on track to shrink its deficit by half from almost 12% of GDP to less than 6%. For the eurozone as a whole, deficits are heading down.
That’s not all. Trade deficits are declining sharply and export competitiveness is climbing in the crisis countries. Greece, Portugal and Spain each had current account deficits higher than 10% of GDP in 2007, but the Greek imbalance is now below 6% and the other crisis countries are well below 3%.
Perhaps more striking is the decline in unit-labor costs — a key measure of productivity. Except for Italy, unit-labor costs have declined in all of the crisis countries since 2009. Meanwhile, labor costs have been climbing in Germany.
In other words, the competitiveness gap within Europe has narrowed sharply in just a few years. On one level, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. When workers are desperate, they will work longer and harder for less.
On another level, however, this is a big achievement. These are, after all, highly unionized countries where it is hard to extract wage concessions.
And remember, governments couldn’t boost competitiveness the old-fashioned way — by devaluing their currencies.
They were all locked into the euro, and effectively into German exchange rates. That was a big reason for the euro crisis in the first place. Yet the gap is narrowing anyway.
“It’s very important for American audiences to realize that very important adjustments taking place,” Philipp Hildebrand, a former chairman of the Swiss National Bank, told a recent forum on Europe at Stanford University.
Many will argue that EU austerity policies were misguided. They pushed countries into acute recessions, which inflicted misery on millions and aggravated short-term budget problems. What you can’t argue, however, is that Europe hasn’t taken painful action to fix its problems.
How does the United States compare? President Obama’s forceful victory may improve prospects for a serious deficit-reduction deal — cuts in domestic discretionary spending, cuts in defense, changes to Medicare and other entitlements, and higher tax revenues.
Republicans are still shell-shocked from their recent electoral setback, but some of them are mumbling about a revenue-raising tax reform.
We’ll see. In the past four years, Republicans have doubled down on their prescription for even bigger tax cuts, higher defense spending and obstructionism.
President Obama let them get away with it, and both parties now face a “fiscal cliff” — the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts and the remaining stimulus measures (such as the reduction in the payroll tax), as well as across-the-board spending cuts required under failed budget deal of 2011.
The U.S. economy is growing, but slowly. Productivity isn’t anything to brag about — unit labor costs are up about 1% over the past year. Tax revenues, measured as a share of GDP, are still at or near record lows. And the long-term fiscal outlook, weighed down by soaring health care costs, is still unsustainable.
All in all, the United States could do worse than become “more like Europe.”