I missed this when it first came out, but apparently a modified Matrix plan to solve the European financial crisis has been bouncing around for a couple of years (h/t Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution). The plan is take both the red and the blue pills. Well almost: It is to issue both red and blue bonds.
Under the plan, "the senior 'Blue' tranche of up to 60% of GDP would be pooled among participating countries and jointly and severally guaranteed." In contrast, "the junior 'Red' tranche, would keep debt in excess of 60% of GDP as a purely national responsibility."
Blue Bonds are essentially Eurobonds, which would mutualize/socialize European government spending, thereby perpetuating the illusion of fiscal bliss. The Red Bonds are traditional sovereign debt, that require governments to face up to painful fiscal realities.
I seriously wonder if the plan's authors, Jacques Delpla and Jakob von Weiszsacker had the Matrix in mind when they came up with these labels.
Europe is split into Red Pill and Blue Pill camps. All the basket case countries are definitely clamoring to take only the blue pill: They want Eurobonds in the worst way. The French, under newly elected president and alleged babe magnet Francois Hollande (h/t R), are also shouting "BLEU!" (no sacre). The Germans, Austrians, Finns and Dutch, conversely, are definitely putting it all on red.
Germany in particular has said repeatedly in recent weeks that it will not countenance blue bonds. Instead, it is pushing a "Six Point Plan" that focuses on structural reforms:
But Merkel is an experienced opponent. She knows that she is now on the defensive in Europe, and she is planning her counter-attack. She believes that euro bonds would enable the crisis-ridden countries to lower their borrowing costs, and that the necessary structural reforms would be postponed. This is why she now wants to counter Hollande's proposals with a principle familiar to judo fighters: using your opponent's momentum for your own attack.
. . . .
After Hollande's statements on Wednesday, Merkel is now presenting her opposing concept. In a six-point plan, she calls for deep-seated structural reforms for Europe. Under the plan, government-owned businesses are to be sold off, protections against wrongful dismissal relaxed and obstructive regulations for companies removed. There is also talk of special economic zones and privatization agencies based on the model of Germany's Treuhand trust, created at the time of reunification to sell off most of former East Germany's state-owned enterprises. In short, the Mediterranean region is to become more like Germany, but with better weather.
Jans Weidmann, head of the Bundesbank, is also flashing red. His interview with Le Monde is refreshing, not least because he calls bull on the repeated invocation of the Growth Faeries by Hollande and others:
Growth is always a good thing. But to favor growth is like supporting world peace. The real debate is which path to sustainable growth? Growth has always been a pillar of European and adjustment programs through structural reforms. Cyclical wildfire into debt does not lead to the desired growth. In fact, I wonder about that behind these discussions. Do we want to deviate from what was decided? In this case, it is dangerous. [Emphasis added.]
Hear damn hear.
Weidmann damns the blue pill:
A belief that the Eurobonds will solve the current crisis is an illusion. This can only be the culmination of a long process which requires, among other things change the constitution in several states, changse the treaties, to implement a more unified budgett … You do not trust you credit card to someone if you do not have the ability to control his spending.Mutualized debt is can be one face of a coin whose other side is federalism. Governments who support federalism lose elections. Even in countries where governments are demanding Eurobonds, as in France , I see no public debate or public support for the transfer of sovereignty to the support . But it is precisely this debate that we must have.
Weidmann also argues forcefully that growth requires substantive structural reforms, not more leftover Keynesian crack:
But is Keynesian stimulus is an adequate response? Apart from a lack of competitiveness in some countries, the main problem of European countries remains the debt of states and should not be run in a new round of spending. Countries must first regain market confidence, regain credibility: he must set out the announced reforms and not delay the time.
If growth is the true objective, I am foursquare behind the Germans. Long-term growth requires thorough structural reforms that permit resources to flow to their highest value uses; encourage competition; reduce rent seeking; and permit creative destruction. I understand that big cuts in government spending in the short run (cuts which have not occurred for the most part in Europe, despite all the howling about austerity, as former colleague Russell Roberts has pointed out) are counterproductive. This suggests that the appropriate policy would be to combine structural reforms that encourage real growth with longer term strategies to reduce government spending to restore fiscal balance.
But that is exactly the problem. It's like the old joke: I know where you're going, but you can't get there from here. There is no credible way in democratic countries to commit to these policies.
And this brings us back to the fundamental point, which I've made several times previously: Europe's problems are fundamentally political ones, not economic. I am a Europessimist precisely because I see no path to addressing these political problems, either at the level of individual nations or at the level of Europe as a whole.
The political clamor in Europe is clearly in favor of taking the blue pill. Germany and Merkel are under tremendous pressure to submit to these demands. Germany is currently struggling with intense internal conflicts, between the desire to be Good Europeans who will not do anything to destroy Europe for the third time (a desire manipulated by France and others playing guilt trips on Germany), and the understanding (well expressed by Weidmann) that socializing European fiscal problems will not solve anything, and eventually make things worse.
How will this turn out? I have no idea how it will play out in the short run: That hinges on this internal struggle in Germany, and I have no idea which of the conflicting impulses will prevail. Eventually, however, I think that the whole thing will fall apart. Whether Europe takes the red pill or the blue pill in 2012 or 2013 will only affect when the collapse occurs, and the distribution of the damage.