Thursday, September 8, 2011

Forget Washington. Watch Europe.

The President's $447 billion proposed jobs program is largely irrelevant. Congress will pass it in some form. The Republicans can't afford, 14 months before the next election, to entirely block the proposal. They need to demonstrate that they are part of the solution. Their obstructivism on the debt ceiling legislation hurt them more than it hurt the President. Their obstinacy now would let the President set them up to take the fall next year for high unemployment levels. So we can expect a jobs bill soon, probably in the range of $300 billion to $450 billion. It will help create some jobs, but not enough to dramatically reduce unemployment levels. Net impact: not much for the economy, plenty of grist for the political blame game.

The big stakes are over in Europe. The betting now is pretty much for the entire ranch. Proposals for a United States of Europe, on the one hand, compete with proposals for booting Greece (and perhaps other profligate EU members) out of the European Union. Europeans are facing up to the fact that muddling around with bond exchanges and other kicks of the can down the road won't fend off the swarming bond and derivatives vigilantes.

Neither option is attractive. A United States of Europe would appear to foster stability. But stabilizing its debt problems would soak up a lot of the wealth of the northern EU, leaving less capital available to finance future growth. The unexpectedly large burdens of sovereign and bank debt in Europe could cripple growth for years in a region that already suffers from low growth. Europe's per capita income is on average about a third lower than America's. The costs of unifying may widen that gap (a scary thought for Europeans, considering how stagnant America's economy has become). With the rest of the world's economy slowing, there's no powerful economic engine anywhere for the Europeans to latch onto. (China's economy is only one-third the size of America's, and everyone in the entire world wants a piece of it, so Europe can't count on China.)

Besides, it's unclear that unity would last. It didn't for the Soviet Union. Hell, it didn't for Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Why would it last for the entirety of continental Europe (plus, maybe, the U.K.)? Certainly, unity would last as long as Germany and a few other well-off nations wrote checks to poorer member nations. But that's a gravy train that will run dry, perhaps sooner rather than later. Then what? Singing Kumbaya lasts only for a few minutes.

Splitting up the EU could trigger a financial crisis. Europe's banks have been financing the EU's growth, by making many loans to countries that turn out to be dodgy debtors. The bonds of as many as a third of the EU's members are now suspect. Booting Greece and other libertine nations would likely trigger domino defaults. Banks across the Continent might blow up one after the other, like a string of firecrackers on the Fourth. The well-off countries of Europe would have to commit their national wealth to propping the European banking system. The U.S. financial system would falter as well. But then the big American banks would line up at the Fed to receive their bailouts, which would be forthcoming in nanoseconds with an extra large helping of fries.

Whichever way they go, EU nations may well be damned if they do and damned if they don't. But that won't stop them from doing something, because the status quo is untenable. Whatever they do, the impact in America will likely be big. So read those impenetrable news stories about the EU in the middle of the third section of the newspaper. They're important.

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