A week ago, Dr. Samuel Gregg addressed an audience here at Acton’s Grand Rapids, Michigan office on the topic of “Europe: A Continent in Economic and Cultural Crisis.” If you weren’t able to attend, we’re pleased to present the video of Dr. Gregg’s presentation below.
At National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “much of Europe’s political class seems willing to go to almost any lengths to save the euro — including, it seems, beyond the bounds permitted by EU treaty law and national constitutions.” Excerpt:
“We must re-establish the primacy of politics over the market.” That sentence, spoken a little while ago by Germany’s Angela Merkel, sums up the startlingly unoriginal character of the approach adopted by most EU politicians as they seek to save the common currency from what even Paul Krugman seems to concede is its current trajectory towards immolation.
As every good European career politician (is there any other type?) knows, the euro project was never primarily about good economics, let alone a devious “neoliberal” conspiracy to let loose the dreaded market to wreck havoc upon unsuspecting Europeans. The euro was always essentially about the use of an economic tool to realize a political grand design: European unification. Major backers of the common currency back in the 1990s, such as Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl, never hid the fact that this was their ultimate ambition. Nor did they trouble to hide their disdain of those who thought the whole enterprise would end in tears.
Read “Eurocracy Run Amuck” on NRO.
On the blog of The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at how Europe refuses to address the root causes of its unending crisis:
Most of us have now lost count of how many times Europe’s political leaders have announced they’ve arrived at a “fundamental” agreement which “decisively” resolves the eurozone’s almost three-year old financial crisis. As recently as late October, we were told the EU had forged an agreement that would contain Greece’s debt problems — only to see the deal suddenly thrown into question by internal Greek political turmoil, which was itself quickly overshadowed by Italy’s sudden descent into high financial farce.
No doubt many of these dramas reflect commonplace problems such as governments having difficulty reconciling promises made in international settings with domestic political demands. The apparently unending character of Europe’s crisis, however, is also being driven by another element: the unwillingness of most of Europe’s political establishment to acknowledge the root causes of Europe’s present mess.
One such mega-reality is the unsustainability of the pattern of low-growth, big public sectors, heavy regulation, large welfare states, aging populations, and below-replacement birthrates that characterizes much of the eurozone. Even now, it’s difficult to find mainstream EU politicians who openly concede the high economic price of these arrangements.
Read “Can’t Face Economic Reality” on The American Spectator.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.
According to the authors,
In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.
The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,
Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.
Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)
In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.
What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability. Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.
For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.
Acton’s Kishore Jayabalan on Vatican Radio today. Summary:
The spectre of a hard Greek default and euro exit hung over a meeting of G20 leaders beginning in Cannes on Thursday. U.S. President Barack Obama said after talks with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy that Europe had made some important steps towards a comprehensive solution to its sovereign debt crisis but needed to put more flesh on the bones and implement the plan. The world is counting on the G20 to find a way out of the crisis, before it begins spreading to other parts of the globe.
“A lot of what is happening…at the G20 summit in France over the next couple days is really the inevitable consequences of a three or four year unwillingness of European politicians, and I would say American politicians as well, to deal with what’s obvious to most people is paying attention to this debt crisis,” said Kishore Jayabalan, the Director of the Rome office of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
“At some point government leaders are going to have to be frank and tell people they can’t rely on government benefits indefinitely,” he told Vatican Radio. “The entire scheme was based promises that can’t be kept.”
Jayabalan said in the future, people are going to be forced to be more self-reliant, and create their own opportunities.
Click on the player below to listen in:
It is very easy to forget what is happening in other parts of the world especially when we are in the midst of our own financial crisis in the United States. Considering the economic challenges we are faced with, this may be a mistake as we can learn from other’s problems. Europe is experiencing economic woes that continue to worsen. In the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg explains:
As Europe’s financial crisis worsens, it’s increasingly apparent that the economic woes of countries like Portugal, Spain, and Greece have resulted from more than just bad policy. With each passing day, evidence mounts that one dynamic driving the crisis is that of untruth: a disturbing European pattern of fabrication about levels of public spending and debt.
The latest proof for this thesis is the discovery by newly-elected Spanish regional and local governments of concealed debts run up by their predecessors. This contradicts claims by Spain’s Socialist Finance Minister, Elena Salgado, that Spain’s regions had no “hidden deficits” on their accounts. Spain’s business community, however, has long complained about local governments pressuring private companies to do business with them “off the books.”
One reason for such behavior is that Spain’s government knows that the greater Spain’s real overall-public debt, the higher will be the interest-rates demanded by financial markets and the more stringent will be the conditions attached to any “financial assistance package” (i.e., bailout) that Spain might, like Portugal and Greece, eventually need.
As Gregg says, the financial problems in Europe are not just current but have been festering since the beginning of the Eurozone when strict standards were to be implemented:
In the 1990s, European governments agreed the single currency’s success would depend upon countries entering the eurozone on a solid financial basis and then remaining on a firm footing. To that end, both the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) established strict criteria concerning public spending for countries admitted to the single currency.
One such standard concerned the ratio of an applicant country’ gross government debt to GDP. It was not to exceed 60 percent at the end of the preceding fiscal year. Maastricht’s convergence criteria also specified that the ratio of the annual government deficit to GDP should not exceed 3 percent of the same fiscal period.
Such standards were supposed to prevent a “free rider” program from occurring so countries with an irresponsible fiscal reputation, such as Greece, didn’t use their membership to over-indulge and rely on the rest of the members to bail them out. However, this policy wasn’t strictly adhered too. Gregg states that “…many euro applicants were allowed to get away with ‘creative accounting’ to meet the conditions of Maastricht.”
Europe continued to financially falter and wasn’t showing signs of recovery. This could be seen from many actions such as the encouragement of “fudging” numbers through new rules that “added many exceptions for types of spending that would not be included when determining debt and deficit figures.”
Is there a solution to Europe’s financial crisis? Gregg responds with a resounding yes:
Few “core values” would have a more bracing effect upon Europe’s current economic problems than their governments embracing honesty, transparency, and accountability. No doubt many a European political-career would be terminated as a result. The alternative, however, is for Europe’s governments to continue the charade about the real state of their finances.
Morally and financially, that’s not an option at all.
Click here to read the full article in the American Spectator.
Christians in a Post-Welfare State World
By Samuel Gregg
As the debt-crisis continues to shake America’s and Europe’s
economies, Christians of all confessions find themselves in the
unaccustomed position of debating the morality and economics of
deficits and how to overcome them.
At present, these are important discussions. But frankly
they’re nothing compared to the debate that has yet to come. And
the question is this: How should Christians realize their
obligations to the poor in a post-welfare state
However the debt-crisis unfolds, the Social
Democratic/progressive dream of a welfare state that would
substantially resolve questions of poverty has clearly run its
course. It will end in a fiscal Armageddon when the bills can’t be
paid, or (and miracles have been known to happen) when political
leaders begin dismantling the Leviathans of state-welfare to avert
Either way, the welfare state’s impending demise is going
to force Christians to seriously rethink how they help the least
Why? Because for the past 80 years, many Christians have
simply assumed they should support large welfare states. In Europe,
Christian Democrats played a significant role in designing the
social security systems that have helped bankrupt countries like
Portugal and Greece. Some Christians have also proved remarkably
unwilling to acknowledge welfarism’s well-documented social and
As America’s welfare programs are slowly wound back, those
Christian charities who have been heavily reliant upon government
contracts will need to look more to the generosity of churchgoers
— many of whom are disturbed by the very secular character assumed
by many religious charities so as to enhance their chances of
landing government contracts. (more…)
Deficit Denial, American-Style
By Samuel Gregg
Until recently it was thought the primary message of the 2010 Congressional election was that Americans were fed up with successive governments’ willingness to run up deficit-after-deficit and their associated refusal to seriously restrain public spending.
If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.
While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.
Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.
According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.
During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.
These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.
And yet despite all the passionate rhetoric from Americans about the need to diminish government-spending, the Wall St Journal-NBC News poll suggests that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare as deficit-reduction measures. As the Wall St Journal’s own commentators noted: “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’
Unacceptable? Think about that word. Do large numbers of Americans really believe there is something morally evil about significant reductions to welfare-spending under any circumstances? Since when – apart from Greece and other models of fiscal rectitude – have welfare payments assumed the status of an absolute right subject to no qualification? Have we really gone so far down the path of economic-Europeanization?
Granted, the same poll suggests much larger numbers of Americans are willing to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But is that the best Americans are willing to do?
Spain’s unreconstructed-1960s-lefty Socialist government has just lifted Spain’s retirement-age to 67. Unsurprisingly, that won’t fully kick-in until 2027, long after Spain’s political class and their tame voting constituencies have met their Maker and no longer need to live off their children’s futures. But can Americans who proclaim their attachment to free enterprise and personal responsibility really do no better than left-wing Western Europeans?
Back in 2007, the journalist Robert J. Samuelson summarized the situation perfectly. “Most Americans,” he wrote, “don’t want to admit that they are current or prospective welfare recipients. They prefer to think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made. Americans do not want to pose the basic questions, and their political leaders mirror that reluctance. This makes the welfare state immovable and the budget situation intractable.”
Presidential campaigns are invariably accompanied by a great deal of posturing. It would be helpful, however, if some serious candidates for the nation’s highest office in 2012 – Republican or Democrat – would use their moment in the spotlight to educate Americans about what’s at stake.
One former American vice-president once reportedly insisted, “Deficits don’t matter.” Unfortunately, there is mounting proof he was wrong. After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.
That’s worrying because while deficit-cutting matters, wealth-creation matters even more if we are to dig ourselves out of our fiscal hole. America now seriously risks seeing its burgeoning welfare costs suffocating the productive sector of the economy that makes social welfare possible in the first place.
Incidentally, it won’t be the rich who suffer. It will be the poor. In their laudable concern for the weakest among us, Americans ought to remember that and start matching political rhetoric with consistent fiscal action.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.
Despite a promise of “complete and fair coverage of health care for everyone for free,” the Greek state-controlled system is broken and corrupt, the Athens daily ekathimerini.com reports. Predictably, Greeks have taken it upon themselves to build a private health care sector:
Despite hikes in Greece’s health spending between 2000 to 2008 being among the highest of all OECD countries, this has not been matched by growing life expectancy rates, the report added. Turning to the hospital system, corruption has grown due to poorly run operations and an improper organisation structure with about one in five Greeks admitting to having paid a bribe in order to receive medical treatment at a state hospital. These problems have contributed to growth in the private healthcare industry which provides crucial services but also enjoys the benefit of not having any competition, the report added.
In the UK, the National Health Service has been using hospital beds as housing for senior care, to the detriment of people who actually need hospital beds. From the Telegraph:
If current trends continue, almost 100,000 of 170,000 NHS beds will end up being filled by elderly people who are well enough to be in residential care. This will cost the health service millions of pounds and throw its day-to-day operations into chaos, says the report by Bupa, the health insurance and care provider. It blames the looming crisis on a “17-year legacy of under-funding in the care home sector”. The next few years will see the problem getting progressively worse, the report’s authors predict, despite a Coalition pledge that local authorities will have an extra £2 billion to spend on adult social care over the next four years.
For more on this issue, see Acton’s Health Care resource page.
With the country insolvent, and streets filled with violent protests, the Church of Greece is now pointing fingers at the country’s political leadership and international “creditors” (who have just ponied up another 2.5 billion euros for the bailout). Yet Greece, the Holy Synod says, is “under occupation” by lenders, who have moved in because the politicians “undermined the real interests of the country and its people.”