The Euro Debate and the Abuse of Language

Defenders of the Eurozone’s initial design, subsequent management and purported reform invariably refer to the system as a ‘monetary union’. So do academic commentators including the authors of the recent Vox piece on the origins of the crisis. Whether intended or unconscious, this is an abuse of language.

Monetary unions do not experience selective bank closures, the re-introduction of exchange controls or the numerous other manifestations of financial fragmentation that have occurred before and after the Eurozone ‘reforms’. Germany is a monetary union. In 1974 the Herstatt Bank collapsed in Cologne and several banks based in Dusseldorf went down in the recent crisis. Both cities are in Nordrhein Westfalen, but there was no closure of bank branches in the state nor were exchange controls introduced by the state authorities on either occasion. Interest rates in Nordrhein Westfalen did not detach from rates elsewhere in Germany nor did bank deposits flee the state.

When the Continental Illinois Bank went under in 1984, at the time the largest-ever US bank failure, the state of Illinois was not expected to handle the fall-out. In the recent crisis the state of Delaware, home to lehmans, and the state of North Carolina, home to Wachovia, were similarly spared. The USA is also a monetary union and there is federal responsibility for bank supervision, bank resolution and the protection of bank creditors.

The Eurozone in contrast was established in 1999 as no more than a common currency area, with a ‘central bank’ responsible only for monetary policy in the aggregate, in pursuit of an inflation target. To describe it as a ‘monetary union’ is to deny that there is any distinction between a common currency area and a monetary union. If the Eurozone really was a monetary union in 2008 the history of the crisis would have been very different.

Language matters. In his 1946 essay (Politics and the English Language) George Orwell put it like this:

‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

The danger is that relentless description of the Eurozone as a monetary union deflects attention from the awkward truth that it is not, and from the political unwillingness to make it so.

It has finally happened

It was way back in April 2009 that Barry Eichengreen and I first compared the world industrial output collapses of 1929 and 2008. The situation looked pretty alarming at that stage, but it turned out that we were a good leading indicator of recovery: the world economy started turning around almost immediately afterwards, thanks to a coordinated reflationary macroeconomic policy response. Then 2010 happened, reflation turned to austerity in Europe, and the global recovery slowed, to the point where at times it seemed to be petering out almost altogether.

And in August of this year, the inevitable happened: measured in terms of industrial output, our current recovery was overtaken by that of the interwar period. Pretty dismal stuff. Let’s hope that we can at least avoid the famous 1937-38 double dip, visible at the end of the interwar series.

 

 

Exchange rates

Paul Krugman suggests that exchange rates might matter for economic performance here.

On Ireland and exchange rates, one could add that, because of our large trade exposure to non-Eurozone markets, we  benefitted from an unusually large nominal depreciation in 2014-15 (which translated into a substantial real depreciation) (slides 8 and 9 here). I doubt this is unrelated to the employment boom we have enjoyed since then.

Review of budget oversight by parliament: Ireland

Worth a read by readers of this blog (.pdf).

Key lessons:

Budget oversight by the Irish parliamentary chambers is under-developed by international standards.

Reforms mooted include:

  • Ex ante parliamentary input to medium-term fiscal planning;
  • Ex ante parliamentary input on budget priorities;
  • Early publication of full budgetary information and legislative proposals;
  • Timely consideration of the Estimates of Expenditure;
  • Performance Dialogue with joint committees in early year;
  • Re-introduce “Pre-Budget Estimates” showing “no policy change” expenditure baselines;
  • Establish an Irish Parliamentary Budget Office to support parliamentary engagement and budget scrutiny;
  • Continuing Professional Development of parliamentarians and officials;
  • “Performance hearings” with joint committees in early part of the year (February-March);
  • Power for joint committees to recommend changes to performance information;
  • Systematic review of existing performance metrics;
  • Estimates Performance Reports;
  • Promotion of IrelandStat as an authoritative portal for public performance;
  • Linkages to higher level strategies and articulation of a “National Performance Framework”;
  • Establishment of a “National Performance Quality Panel”;
  • Role for Irish Parliamentary Budget Office in supporting performance scrutiny;
  • Selective Audit of Performance Information by the Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General in reports to the Public Accounts Committee and other committees.

Well worth going through this, it is a wealth of constructive suggestions.