Book Review: The Euro

The Euro is a book about the shortcomings of the eurozone currency project by American economist Joseph Stiglitz. The book makes a case against many of the policies pursued by European leaders thus far and recommends several alternatives, including further integration, a flexible euro, and the exit of one or more members. The book is divided into twelve chapters which explore different aspects of the problem and possible solutions.

A short preface details Stiglitz’s view of the economic problems of Europe as being largely attributable to the creation of a single currency zone without the creation of other institutions that are found in other such places elsewhere in the world. He compares the euro to the gold standard, repeating the flawed mainstream view that deflation is bad. His Keynesian approach to economics and thoroughly statist worldview is apparent from the beginning. That being said, Stiglitz appears to want to solve problems and correctly identifies some people and institutions as being uninterested in doing so.

The opening section begins with a chapter that expands upon the preface and outlines the rest of the book. There is little here that is not covered in greater detail later, so let us move on. In Chapter 2, Stiglitz argues that the poor results of the euro should have been expected because economic integration of this sort cannot come before political integration. Here, he contends that military might no longer shapes outcomes as it once did, but this is dubious because nothing short of a nuclear exchange that no one wants could have stopped the United States from conquering and colonizing Iraq if that had been the intention and American leadership had used its full power. So too for Russia in Ukraine and Crimea. His responses to other arguments for a single currency make more sense. He states the fallacious mainstream position on public goods, claiming without logic or evidence that it is impossible for markets to provide basic research and common utilities. This amounts to a confusion of collective action with state action. Even so, Stiglitz does recognize that localization is better than central planning from afar, though his disdain for German policies makes him inconsistent on this point. He then turns to economic integration, discussing the importance of German history with hyperinflation and its prominent role in modern Europe for understanding the European Central Bank. Next, Stiglitz writes about effect that a shared currency has on economic integration, which is mixed. Like many Keynesians, he accuses the market of failure when this is actually impossible; such events are actually failures of government, resources, or individual people. He also regards economics as scientific, even though the scientific method cannot be applied to subjects in which counterfactuals are so important but also unobservable. As usual, the word ‘neoliberal’ says more about the person using it than anything else. He concludes by arguing that there is a democratic deficit in Europe, even though he argues elsewhere in the book against incentive structures which are necessarily part of any democracy.

Europe’s lackluster economic performance since the 2008 crisis is the subject of the third chapter. Stiglitz begins by claiming that Keynesianism is a success because it has lengthened business cycles and shortened downturns, but it has also made the downturns that do occur so much worse that markets were better off before such interventionism. Much of the chapter consists of empirical data for Europe since 2007. When discussing unemployment, he seems not to recognize that unemployment benefits subsidize a negative behavior and will thus produce more of that behavior. Stiglitz relies upon the Gini coefficient when discussing inequality, which is a faulty metric because it measures pre-tax income rather than after-tax consumption. This causes it to exaggerate the amount of income inequality. His detailing of the long-term adverse effects of recession in terms of destroyed human capital is largely correct, but he again recommends interventionism that tends to worsen such problems. He also takes the position that the state should protect those at the economic bottom, though almost every economist would avoid social Darwinism on this front. Stiglitz then commits a fixed pie fallacy by arguing that trade surpluses necessarily cause trade deficits elsewhere, when the reality is quite different. He concludes by correctly noting that the counterfactuals help critics of the euro, and that there is no better explanation for many of Europe’s troubles than sharing a common currency across uncommon societies and economies.

The second section argues that the euro suffers from a flawed initial design. In Chapter 4, the requirements for a single currency region to be successful are considered. Here, Stiglitz uplifts full employment and market stability as goals while denouncing those who favor economic freedom as a “lunatic fringe.” This leads him to contemplate a false dilemma between national control of money and supranational control. He blames market fundamentalism (which he calls neoliberalism) for the crisis of 2008, despite the fact that markets were altered by central bankers in such a way as to cause the crash, which he all but says elsewhere. In explaining the differences between the United States and the eurozone, Stiglitz highlights the freer movement of Americans, the identity of Americans at the national level rather than the state level (at least in modern times), and the federal nature of monetary and fiscal stimulus. He is correct to say that there must either be “more Europe” or “less Europe,” but sides with the former. He describes the Keynesian theory of business cycles, but makes no mention of the Austrian theory. Stiglitz then repeats the tired fallacy that austerity caused the Great Depression and the current malaise, rather than central bank shenanigans and tariff policies. His blame for the gold standard is similarly misguided. He somewhat fixes an error from the previous chapter by clarifying that trade imbalances are not a problem if currency exchange rates can change to compensate for them. He straw-mans the laissez-faire position on unemployment by saying that it views unemployment due to market adjustments as good rather than as simply necessary. Stiglitz then gets a few points correct: low wages undermine worker morale and productivity, falling wages may not amount to falling prices if firms are worried about their solvency, and monetary stimulus has a breaking point at which interest rates cannot be lowered further. But he again blames the private sector for being excessive when it is only reacting to perverse incentives created by governments and central banks. There is little to fault in Stiglitz’s explanation of why currency areas are prone to crisis except for the preceding error, but it never occurs to him to simply not have such an area. The chapter ends by repeating many of the fallacious arguments from the previous chapter concerning trade surpluses and deficits.

The fifth chapter considers the economic divergence of the eurozone countries. Stiglitz argues in favor of institutional frameworks to prevent the need for bailouts, as well as funds to make depositors whole and provide bailouts. This ignores the moral hazard created by such a regime that causes bankers to take excessive risks, as well as the powerful incentives that an absence of protection would have on depositors to act responsibly and hold bankers accountable. His view of regulation is starry-eyed, missing the entire concept of regulatory capture. This is especially striking, given his focus on institutional capture in the following chapter. Stiglitz rightly complains of capitalized gains and socialized losses among bankers. In his consideration of other sources of divergence, he again fails to consider the possibility of turning over infrastructure to private development, instead proposing expansion of the European Investment Bank, which is certain to become another statist boondoggle. His view of knowledge markets is flawed in the same manner as his view of economies; it fails to account for the distortions that statism necessarily causes which lead to various types of failure. He concludes the chapter by showing how policies in the eurozone have caused greater instability, but cannot seem to avoid blaming the private sector for responding to the incentives imposed upon it.

In Chapter 6, Stiglitz examines the European Central Bank. He begins by saying that open markets and free competition can efficiently allocate resources only in the presence of adequate government regulation. This is a contradiction because an absence of government regulation defines an open market with free competition. His arguments concerning the inflation-only mandate of the ECB and the problems it causes would be much stronger if the Austrian business cycle theory were anywhere to be found in the book. His description of events in Chile under Pinochet does not agree with the long-term result of economic prosperity relative to the rest of South America and neglects how much worse conditions would have been under Salvador Allende. His claim that markets are supposed to be efficient and stable are a straw man; instability in the form of creative destruction and inefficiency by some metrics rather than others are inherent in a market economy. Stiglitz correctly writes that monetary policy is always a political question, pitting creditors against debtors for control of the central bank. But he leaves unclear how democracy is supposed to hold central bankers accountable. He also must not know any libertarians, or he would know that some people have proposed taking away spending power from governments to ensure that they do not misbehave. The chapter ends with a history of fashionable central bank policies over time and what was wrong with them from a Keynesian perspective.

The next two chapters delve into the Greek situation in particular, as Greece has suffered a more severe economic crisis than any other eurozone country. The seventh chapter explores the effect that the Troika’s policies had on countries in crisis. Stiglitz accuses some European leaders of acting in bad faith by purposefully attempting to punish governments with different political views from their own, which may be accurate. He continues his misguided attack on austerity, though it has more merit against what Europeans have actually done than against real austerity. He correctly explains the problem with primary surpluses, but then commits the broken window fallacy by embracing Keynesian multipliers. Stiglitz accurately diagnoses the problems of increasing taxes, but seeks to aid governments in collecting them rather than encourage economic freedom and stronger property rights. He describes his ideal system of property taxation in the same tone that a proud and unrepentant thief might use to boast of his crimes. Although he is correct to say that particular moves toward privatization and economic freedom may produce adverse results in particular contexts, this is a justification not for state intervention, but for undoing even more statism so as to remove the problematic context. Stiglitz notes that the hegemony of American military power has put Europe into a Pax Romana problem in which it cannot fend for itself against a real threat, but advises that this problem be worsened in the name of fiscal restraint. He compares reductions in pensions to wage theft when the two are clearly different. It is the responsibility of workers to figure out that they are being offered terms which may be impossible for the employer to meet in the future and practice caveat emptor. As for bank bailouts and debt restructuring, Stiglitz describes the situation well except for his faulty view of austerity.

Chapter 8 delves into structural reforms in Greece that made matters worse. Again, Stiglitz’s views of austerity and democracy corrupt an otherwise sound analysis of trivial and counterproductive actions taken by the Troika. He claims without proof that industrial policies are required to advance countries that are lagging behind in technological development, neglecting that markets are not doing this because they are either disallowed from doing so or are assuming that the state will do this for them. He criticizes intergenerational transmission of advantage and seeks to use the state against it, when it should be championed as both eugenic and important for maintaining a natural aristocracy. Stiglitz argues for a price on carbon emissions and claims that the private sector will not address climate change, when again the state has kept this from happening. He finishes by discussing counterfactuals, which is interesting given his empiricist thinking on economics.

The final four chapters deal with various proposals going forward. In the ninth chapter, Stiglitz offers his advice for fixing the eurozone. As before, he embraces what Henry Hazlitt called “the fetish of full employment” as the goal of his policy proposals. Much of the content of the chapter rehashes proposals from previous chapters. He seeks to create common deposit insurance and common resolution while abolishing place-based debt within the EU. This will create moral hazards and work against people who wish to escape debt slavery inflicted upon them by their ancestors. He calls for wages to be raised in countries with surpluses, which will lead to unemployment in those countries as workers whose labor is not worth higher wages are laid off. He fundamentally misunderstands precious metals, failing to understand their role as a store of value and medium of exchange, even if no longer officially used in such capacities. Stiglitz seeks to make the financial sector and other corporations serve society, but fails to recognize that the organs of a statist social order inherently and irrevocably serve themselves at the expense of the society. The shortsightedness of markets of which he complains is actually caused by the institutions that he seeks to use to solve the problem. One of the few sound recommendations made in this chapter is the creation of a super-Chapter 11 bankruptcy procedure to quickly restructure debt. He goes on to propose that EU taxes be based on citizenship, and that some of the proceeds be used for foreign aid or resettlement of migrants, further impoverishing and culturally endangering Europeans.

Chapter 10 examines the possibility of what Stiglitz calls “an amicable divorce,” in which countries exit the eurozone. He considers the example of Grexit, or Greece returning to its own currency that he calls the Greek-euro but would probably be called the drachma, as it was before the euro. He proposes that Greece create a new electronic currency to ease concerns over producing coins and banknotes, stop tax avoidance, bring everyone into the financial system, and facilitate the ability of central banks to create credit. Stiglitz fails to consider that people are likely to reject such a system in favor of cryptocurrencies, which have all of the benefits of such a system without most of the drawbacks, and that such a system could offer states tyrannical control over their citizens. His view of credit indicates magical thinking, although this is quite common in modern financial circles. He again blames the private sector for problems caused by politicians and central bankers, while ignoring peer-to-peer lending as a substitute for modern credit systems. Stiglitz describes a potential system of credit auctions which could be abused with much the same ease as the current system. He admits and supports what should be abhorrent to any decent person: that fiat currencies are ultimately given value by extortion in the form of taxation. Stiglitz correctly says that a new Greek currency would enable them to devalue it to correct trade imbalances, but his proposed system of trade tokens for the same purpose would be redundant. He equates deflation with a deficiency of aggregate demand, neglecting the possibilities of an abundance of supply or improvements in efficiency and/or quality. His description of currency change as a debt restructuring is insightful. To end the chapter, Stiglitz considers the alternative of Germany leaving the eurozone, though it is unlikely that they would give up their current position of power so willingly. This segues into the topic of the next chapter, which is a flexible euro consisting of several subdivisions.

Stiglitz uses Finland as a counterexample against those who claim that profligacy in southern Europe is to blame, rather than the structure of the eurozone. Most of his argument here is correct, except for his view of austerity. His proposal in this chapter is to have several eurozones with fluctuating exchange rates, which could be brought closer together over time as political integration occurs, eventually resulting in economic integration. The details are borrowed from the previous two chapters. Though more likely to succeed than the proposals in those chapters, it is also the least likely to be adopted. Stiglitz correctly recognizes that having a single currency area is an interference in the market in and of itself, monopolizing exchange and interest rates in the area, but cannot seem to fathom that his flexible euro proposal also does this on a smaller scale. He claims that it can be better not to simply rely on prices for the allocation of resources, but does not explain how to solve the local knowledge problem or the economic calculation problem in a superior manner. He also says that history shows free banking to be a disaster, when the truth is quite the opposite.

The final chapter sees Stiglitz review many themes from previous chapters, but he also covers topics which are barely mentioned elsewhere. He denounces anti-immigrant groups in Europe, which are only trying to resist demographic replacement by a ruling class that they did not ask to replace them. So much for the “democratic accountability” that Stiglitz extols in the same breath. He blames right-wing economic ideology for rising inequality in the United States beginning with the Reagan administration, but incomes really began to diverge ten years earlier, when Nixon ended the gold standard. Stiglitz expresses a desire to preserve the Enlightenment values of Europe, but cannot comprehend how letting in migrants with distinctly anti-Enlightenment values will jeopardize that mission. On the issue of trade policy, he understands that free trade is not always best for all parties involved, as it can destroy important societal arrangements that prevent conflict. But then Stiglitz incredulously asks how one could have expected that Europe’s leaders would create such economic dysfunction, with massive unemployment and lack of economic security. The answer is that a proper amount of cynicism would require such an expectation.

Overall, the best thing that can be said for the book is that it is not an effort made in bad faith. Stiglitz correctly identifies many of the problems with the current state of affairs in Europe and seems to want to help, but his proposed solutions are thoroughly misguided. Despite his palpable disdain for Milton Friedman and other Chicago School monetarists, he suffers from one of the worst of their faults: a desire to solve the immediate problems set before him combined with a lack of broader perspective. This leads him to propose a banking system which could be used to terrible effect against political dissidents, tax collection schemes that would indicate criminal intent in any non-statist context, and forced political integration by means of stealth and subterfuge. He also seems to believe that everything would be fine if only state power were used by the right people to implement the right policies. It never occurs to him that the power itself might be the problem. The Euro is an interesting case study in leftist economic thought, but those looking for real solutions to Europe’s economic woes should keep looking.

Rating: 2.5/5

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