The financial folly of fairness

When I was a young and naive economics writer, I used to write about developing countries a fair amount. Time and again they would make these bizarre and pointless moves, like suddenly and for no apparent reason defaulting on a bunch of debt. They would engage in obviously, stupidly unsustainable fiscal practices that caused recurring crises. They would divert critical investment funds into social spending which was going to become unsustainable when underinvestment reduced government revenue. And the other journalists and I would cluck our tongues and say “Why can’t they do the right thing when it’s so . . . bleeding . . . obvious?”

Then we had our own financial crisis and it became suddenly, vividly clear: democratic governments cannot do even obvious right things if the public will not tolerate it. Even dictators have interest groups whose support they must buy.

This has come home to me forcefully several times over the last few years, but never more than now. The leaders of the eurozone have a dual mandate to keep the euro intact, and to not do the things which could keep the euro intact. They cannot fiscally integrate to the extent necessary because, as I wrote for the Daily the other day, the Greeks do not want to act like Germans, and the Germans do not want to share their credit rating with anyone who won’t.