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Europe's not working.


Blackleaf

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Europe’s Not Working

By Olaf Gersemann

BERLIN — They call themselves “The Happy Unemployed,” and they fight “the dictatorship of wage dependency”—at a very leisurely pace.

This German group so far consists of a few amateur humorists, and seems unlikely to grow larger. For while there is persistent mass unemployment in many European countries— with jobless rates hovering near double-digit levels in Germany, France, and other parts of the continent for most of a decade now—it’s unlikely that many Europeans enjoy being unemployed. Like other people, most Europeans strive for the benefits that come with being a member of the work force: financial independence, a feeling of usefulness, self-confidence, and respect from fellow citizens.

Europeans who are unable to get work find the experience as stressful as Americans do. A German government report describes the personal afflictions that have sprung up amidst the country’s economic stagnation: “Depressive moods, general dissatisfaction with life, fear, helplessness and hopelessness, low self-esteem, resignation bordering on apathy, a low level of activity, social isolation, and loneliness.”

The inescapable reality is that the economies of the major countries on the European continent are basket cases: They produce the unemployed by the millions. Even more frightening, European economies are creating a new kind of stratified society, in which a substantial and growing minority is shut out from the labor market permanently through absurdly high minimum-wage requirements and overly strict regulations (like the employment protection laws that can make it almost impossible to fire people).

The syndrome has not blighted all European countries equally—parts of Eastern Europe, and some Western European countries, are healthier than the norm. But in the three countries with the largest economies—France, Germany, and Italy— stagnation, joblessness, and low or no growth are now facts of life. Together, these Big Three countries account for about three fifths of the Euro Zone’s economic output, and they are not healthy—and haven’t been for years.

Help on the way? Hold your cheers

Some help may be on its way. About the time this magazine reaches readers, it is likely that mid-September elections in Germany will have swept out Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats and brought in a more reform-minded government. Meanwhile, handicappers suggest that when France’s damaged Jacques Chirac leaves office (perhaps as early as the spring of 2007), the man most likely to succeed him is Nicolas Sarkozy—a man who is in at least some ways more supportive of free-market reform than any recent major French politician.

And across the Channel, recently re-elected British prime minister Tony Blair has made it his mission to open an economic debate across Europe. By adopting economic policies much closer to America’s than to those of France and Germany, Britain has thrived over the last decade. The U.K.’s unemployment rate is half the continent’s, its growth has been almost twice the level of the Euro Zone, poverty is declining in Britain, and business creativity is rising.

In a June speech to the European Parliament, before Britain took over the E.U. presidency for six months, Blair argued against French and German insistence that to trim Europe’s welfare state and unravel some of its socialist policies would be to ape an American economy that “tramples on the poor and disadvantaged.” He asked bitingly: “What type of social model is it that has 20 million unemployed in Europe? Productivity rates falling behind those of the USA? That, on any relative index of a modern economy—skills, R&D, patents, information technology, is going down, not up?”

“The issue,” Blair warned his fellow Europeans, is not ideology, but “modernization.” It is absurd, he suggested, for the European Union to spend 46 percent of its money on subsidies to farmers. He called on Europe’s political leaders to show enough nerve to “send back some of the unnecessary regulation, peel back some of the bureaucracy, and become a champion of a global, outward-looking, competitive Europe.”

For making these points, Blair was attacked by French president Jacques Chirac and other Europeans, and a June E.U. summit and budget meeting degenerated into a debacle. Similarly, a series of market-oriented reforms proposed by European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso was dashed earlier in 2005 by a group of European countries led by Chirac and Schroeder.

In reality, there is not much hope that continental Europe will catch up economically any time soon. There are three reasons for this sad judgment: First, the economic woes of large parts of Europe are so serious that no quick fix can cure them. Second, the real reasons for the problems (suffocated domestic markets) have not been understood fully even among reform-minded Europeans, despite a quarter century of never-ending debates. Third, even if reformers managed to agree on a comprehensive platform of economic changes and pushed hard for it, they would meet overwhelming resistance from a majority of Europeans. To put it bluntly: Most French, German, and Italian voters simply refuse to accept the necessity of a Thatcher/ Reagan-style economic revolution. Things will have to get even worse before many Europeans realize the depth of their countries’ stagnation.

It’s underperformance, stupid

Adjusted for differences in price levels, per capita income in the United States now exceeds France by close to 40 percent. Germany and Italy lag even further behind.

Princeton economist Paul Krugman, when recently comparing Europe and the U.S. in the New York Times, wrote that: “The big difference is in priorities, not performance.” Krugman’s assertion is basically this: The income gap is not the result of lower efficiency in Europe. It is the result of Europeans working less than Americans. Not because they can’t find work, but because they work fewer hours, preferring to spend more time with their families and on leisure activities.

True, measured simply as GDP per hour worked, productivity is not much higher in the United States than, say, France. But what Krugman doesn’t mention is that America is close to full employment, whereas in Europe millions of poorly educated people can’t find an employer willing to pay them the artificially high minimum wage or willing to take a chance on such hires because they may be impossible to fire in the future. In other words, Europe seems to be so productive only because a large portion of its people are simply left out of the productivity statistics (and working life).

If labor productivity in Germany and in the U.S. continues on the same path as from 1996 to 2003, per capita income in Germany will grow by only 44 percent by the time American incomes double in 2026. Put differently, within a generation, Americans will enjoy twice the economic status that Germans do.

Even more ignorant is Krugman’s claim that Europeans work less because they choose to. While Europeans do love their five or six weeks of vacation per year, that’s a sideshow. The real problem in continental Europe is the involuntary unemployment of millions, because of economies that do not grow. That, not love of family or beach time, is the reason for the lower output and smaller incomes in European societies. More specifically, the U.S. labor market is much better equipped to integrate workers who may be disadvantaged— high-school dropouts, the very young, the very old, women, immigrants. Consider this: In the U.S., the employment rates for citizens and immigrants are virtually the same. In Germany, the working-age immigrant population doubled over the last 25 years, yet the number of immigrants with jobs didn’t rise at all. That failure to provide economic opportunity is one of the factors that has let Germany and other European nations become fertile soil for militant Islam.

“Eurosclerosis” misunderstood

There’s no evading it: Europeans are falling behind Americans and Asians on the economic front. There has been a debate about “Eurosclerosis” since the early 1980s. With that term, prominent German economist Herbert Giersch expressed his concerns about the “institutional rigidities and structural constraints that are an inherent part of Rhineland capitalism.”

Despite the length of this debate, the real reasons for Europe’s economic malaise are still widely misunderstood on the continent. Many politicians and businesspeople point to an alleged lack of international competitiveness in Europe’s manufacturing sector. But manufacturing is yesteryear’s frontier and hardly Europe’s biggest problem: The much more serious differences in employment growth between the United States and competitors like France, Germany, and Italy stem entirely from Europe’s failure to develop a dynamic service sector—the primary job machine in today’s economy.

International competitiveness, on the other hand, is not Europe’s deepest problem. If it were, the Euro Zone wouldn’t run a persistent trade surplus, and Germany wouldn’t be the world’s biggest exporter. Much more serious is the lack of vibrancy in continental Europe’s own domestic markets— which, by definition, represent the bulk of any modern economy. Domestic markets in Europe suffer from a misallocation of resources that lowers consumption and standards of living, wastes human talents, and leaves many potential productivity gains unrealized. Structural reforms of everything from store hours to labor regulations are desperately needed.

Marx is smiling

It is quite clear by now that “Rhineland capitalism” serves its people badly. It deprives them of technology-enabled income gains that the American system generates routinely. It creates persistent mass unemployment and huge economic injustices.

Prominent German sociologist Ulrich Beck recently argued that, “The middle class realizes nothing is stable anymore. Suddenly, very quickly, you can lose everything: the job, the apartment, your life in dignity.” He described Germany as being in a “pre-revolutionary situation: I am sure that Marx is smiling right now.”

To be sure, Beck exaggerated. It is true, however, that Europeans sense that their economic systems are failing. They have noticed that their beloved welfare and regulatory systems no longer provide the economic security they used to.

Consider a poll conducted among 11,200 Europeans earlier this year. The German market-research company GfK asked people what they considered the most important challenge facing their respective home country. In each of the Big Three countries, the largest share of respondents spontaneously named unemployment as the most pressing problem: 38 percent in Italy, 58 percent in France, and a staggering 81 percent in Germany. (In the U.K., which is much closer to the laissez-faire economic model, the share choosing unemployment as the major national problem was a minuscule four percent.)

The insecurity that Germans feel these days can also be seen in their lack of willingness to commit themselves financially. Germans have been shying away from buying houses, for instance. That is why real estate prices in Germany have been falling in recent years, while in nearly all other major industrialized countries they were booming. Germans are even reluctant to buy cars. The number of new automobile registrations fell for four years in a row before growing less than one percent last year. New car registrations are still 14 percent below the level in 1999. This is a sign of diminished economic confidence.

Compare this to Europe’s political rhetoric

Nearly every top politician in Germany is on record giving a grave, smug warning about the danger of letting “American conditions” seep into the German economy. In Germany’s economic debate, “American conditions” is code for stiff economic competition, low taxes, minimal state intrusion, and limitedduration welfare payments. Ireland and Britain have adopted many of these policies themselves, rocketing past Germany and France in living standards in the process. But for political opportunists in continental Europe, the quickest way to dismiss any talk of market freedom or reduction in the size of government is to ooze concern about American economic brutalism.

Even Kajo Neukirchen, widely considered to be Germany’s toughest business executive, has said that he does “not want American conditions, with hiring and firing being the order of the day.” And during British attempts to talk France and Germany into some economic reforms this summer, even Blair cabinet member Jack Straw made it a point to insist that his country does not have “a far-right economy” like the U.S.

While condemning American-style capitalism, Europe’s politicians continue to present their own continent as an economic beacon. During the national convention of his socialist party in 2003, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder insisted that “a Europe formed by Social Democrats is more necessary today than ever before. Such a Europe is needed because we Europeans, based upon our unique European model of social participation and our embrace of the welfare state, have something to offer to the whole world, something in opposition to the dangerous tendency toward confrontation and unilateralism, an alternative of just development and shared wealth.”

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s minister for economic cooperation and development, was even more direct when she said on national television in April 2005 that, “It is necessary that we fight for the survival of our model in the face of American turbo-capitalism. When the fight is won right here in Germany, then the verdict has been passed worldwide. That is why I am in favor of an international victory of our system over the American one.”

Sadly, remarks like these aren’t aberrations; politicians, union leaders, and businessmen across Europe speak this way. These blustery claims, so divorced from comparative economic realities, reflect widespread attitudes among Europe’s people.

Dancebands on the Titanic

When a majority of French voters rejected the proposed European constitution this summer, they could have been acting for any number of good reasons. Start with the fact that at over 60,000 words—touching everything from the “right to good administration” to the “right to be heard” to the promise of “a free placement service” for every worker—this is a bureaucratic monster rather than a constitution. Yet when the French said “non,” polls showed it was not out of any qualms over the megalomaniacal document itself. It was because the average Frenchman wanted to punish the European Union for its role in opening up Europe’s economies somewhat. The typical French voter was not upset because her economy is too centralized and manipulated; she said she wanted France’s economy to be more statist than even Brussels allowed.

Likewise, the backlash against Gerhard Schroeder solidified not when his socialist nostrums ran the German economy further into the ground over six years, but when he finally put forth some timid reforms—such as cautiously cutting unemployment benefits—to try to slip out of his economic mess. A majority of Germans pronounced these reform steps as going in the “wrong direction”—as if Germany could possibly survive going any further in the social democratic direction.

The attitude still most widely held in Europe is that it is the job of politicians to distribute and redistribute society’s goods—be it jobs, income, or wealth. There is a deep zero-sum mentality in Europe which starts from the idea that politics, not competition, should govern economics. Asked in April 2005 whether competition is good for economic growth and employment, only 45 percent of Germans strongly agreed. In both France and Italy, the share was only 29 percent.

Do not be surprised, then, if Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, and likely successor of Gerhard Schroeder as German chancellor, behaves little better in the economic realm. Consider government finances. Germany’s federal government currently taxes away about 44 percent of the nation’s output, and the Schroeder government has long insisted this is not enough. When introducing its draft for next year’s budget during this summer, the Schroeder administration complained that “with the current financial endowment, an adequate public infrastructure, a good public education systemÉ can’t be guaranteed any more.”

You might expect that Ms. Merkel, as the head of Germany’s supposed conservative party, would want to change course. Yet her fiscal platform is remarkable mainly for two things: She has proposed a reduction of payroll taxes—but only in exchange for an increase of the Value Added Tax from 16 to 18 percent on purchases. Furthermore, this year Merkel abandoned a whole host of tax-cutting proposals that her party had demanded previously in its status as the opposition. With the announcement of the special national elections on September 18, and the chance to regain power, the Christian Democrats abandoned many of the economic principles that had served to separate them from the Social Democrats. Prominent, allegedly pro-capitalist German pundits applauded, with one of them explaining that “there is simply no room for a lasting tax relief.”

Germans, in other words, are behaving like people on the sinking Titanic who insist their drinks be shaken, not stirred.

“Things are bad enough already!”

When following the economic policy debates in France or Germany, it is tempting to give up all hope that Europe will get back on track any time soon. But one can’t count out the sick men of Europe completely. For one thing, all the economic woes from which we Europeans suffer are clearly self-made. They are there because of political decisions, not because Europeans have been hit by some uncontrollable external economic shock. These errors are reversible. Once there are majorities for real, comprehensive change, the European economies can improve.

When economic performance got bad enough in a number of European countries in the recent past, majorities decided they were ready to change course. A good example is Great Britain and its “Winter of Discontent” in 1979, which swept Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street. Another is Ireland, not too long ago one of the poorest countries in Europe. After decades of struggling under socialist-influenced economic nostrums, it made a sweeping move toward the American model— cutting taxes and regulations, and inviting many U.S. corporations to set up bases under business-friendly conditions. Ireland exploded in prosperity, and today enjoys a per capita income about 20 percent higher than in France or Germany.

On the European continent, the Netherlands has made some sensible policy changes. So has Denmark. The government there has maintained fairly high unemployment benefits, but it has made it easier for employers to fire employees; and gotten tough on people who receive welfare benefits yet don’t actively look for jobs. The result is a labor market that is more Americanized than any other in continental Europe, and an unemployment rate at or below U.S. levels.

So, not all Europeans are terminally resistant to sensible economic reforms. There is no insurmountable reason why France, Germany, and Italy couldn’t move toward new policies as well.

Unfortunately, economic results on the continent may have to get even uglier before a majority of citizens recognizes the foolishness of the path they are now on. For the time being, most Europeans still display the same mindset that Lord Palmerston summed up when he is to have said to Queen Victoria: “Change? Change? Why do we need change? Things are quite bad enough already!”

-Olaf Gersemann is international news editor of the Financial Times Deutschland, and author of Cowboy Capitalism.

Published in Red America, Blue Europe October-December 2005

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God that was boring, I actually found myself working rather than reading that as it was more interesting...

...and I'm an accountant for gods sake w00t.gif

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Some help may be on its way. About the time this magazine reaches readers, it is likely that mid-September elections in Germany will have swept out Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats and brought in a more reform-minded government.

Old article.

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It's pretty much guaranteed that if you see a thread with a title highlighting problems with Europe or the economy, then open it up to find that it has a mind-numbingly long and boring first post... then Blackleaf is responsible for it.

It seems like an obsession to me... it's almost all he ever posts about... huh.gif

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Perhaps with your new super-duper powers you can do us all a favour and do something about it thumbsup.gif

Edit:

It would appear that you have laugh.gif a little more drastic than I thought but hey, harsh but fair tongue.gif

Edited by thebarman
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Im amazed that this guy 'blackleaf' still hasnt got any warnings about this kinda posts. As soon as I readed the title I knew it was him happy.gif

Also Thats so wrong, the reason why EU is going downhill is cuz they are all saving money, its a 10 year plan, so Im guessing by 2008 it will go good again. They put billions of euro's aside in case of an emergency or some other plan, not sure what hte purpose is.

Edited by Baku
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He had been warned...one or two times i think...but he keep on whit these kind of post.

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He's been warned hundreds of times unfortunately, and never seemed to take any notice.

As such, action has been taken, and Blackleaf will no longer contribute here.

As such, i don't think his topic is necessary to remain open, since this will only be a discussion on this members removal.

Closed. thumbsup.gif

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