Robert Samuelson Celebrates Stagnation in Europe
|Monday, 08 October 2012 07:59|
Robert Samuelson is excited by the fact that Europe's economy faces stagnation. Unfortunately he gets almost everything in the piece wrong.
First, his central point, that the stagnation is due to overly generous welfare state, is 100 percent at odds with reality. The countries with the most generous welfare states are the Nordic countries and Germany, all of which are doing fine. The problem countries are Greece, Italy, Spain, and Ireland, all countries that rate near the bottom in the generosity of their welfare states.
The proximate cause of stagnation is quite evidently the decision by the European Central Bank to require austerity across the continent. In case anyone disputed this fact, the Conservative government in the U.K. agreed to prove the point by implementing an austerity plan in that country, which quickly threw it back into recession. In short, the immediate problem facing Europe is hardly overly generous welfare states; it is contractionary fiscal policies being pursued by European governments, in many cases against their will.
Other items that Samuelson gets wrong is his obsession with GDP growth. There is no obvious reason to be interested in growth per se, as opposed to per capita growth. China is not richer than Denmark even though its GDP is more than 80 times as high. The reason is that its population is more than 400 times as high. Economists focus on GDP per person, not absolute levels of GDP.
Furthermore, if GDP per capita grows less rapidly because people opt to take the benefits of productivity growth in leisure time or in quality of life improvements that may not be picked up in GDP (e.g. more park space), there is no economic basis for objecting to this decision. Samuelson is just expressing a personal preference for people working longer hours and getting rewarded with more consumption goods.
Samuelson urges the removal of constraints on growth. While this is a good idea, the top of the list would probably include things like patent protection for prescription drugs, which raises prices by around $270 billion a year and the removal of obstacles to trade in professional services. While Samuelson was no doubt thinking of cuts to Medicare and Social Security, my list would have a much more positive impact on growth.