CHICAGO – On a recent visit to Europe, I found economists, journalists, and business people thoroughly frustrated with their politicians. Why, they ask, can’t politicians see the abyss that yawns before them, and come together to resolve the euro crisis once and for all?
Even if there is no consensus on what a solution might be, can’t they meet and thrash out a plan that goes beyond their repeated half-measures? It is only because of the European Central Bank’s bold decision to lend long term to banks that we have seen some respite recently, or so their argument goes. Politicians, in contrast, are failing Europe by being forever behind the curve. Why do they find it so hard to lead?
One answer that can be easily dismissed is that politicians simply don’t understand the gravity of the situation. Political leaders need not be economic geniuses to understand the advice that they hear, and many are both intelligent and well-read.
A second answer – that politicians have short time horizons, owing to electoral cycles – may contain a kernel of truth, but it is inadequate, because the adverse consequences of timid action often become apparent well before they are up for re-election.
The best answer that I have heard comes from Axel Weber, the former president of Germany’s Bundesbank and an astute political observer. In Weber’s view, policymakers simply do not have the public mandate to get ahead of problems, especially novel ones that seem small initially, but, if unresolved, imply potentially large costs.
If the problem has not been experienced before, the public is not convinced of the potential costs of inaction. And, if action prevents the problem, the public never experiences the averted calamity, and voters therefore penalize political leaders for the immediate costs that the action entails. Even if politicians have perfect foresight of the disaster that awaits if nothing is done, they may have little ability to persuade voters, or less insightful party members, that the short-term costs must be paid.
Talk is cheap, and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the status quo usually appears comfortable enough. So leaders’ ability to take corrective action increases only with time, as some of the costs of inaction are experienced.
Calamity can still be averted if the costs of inaction escalate steadily. The worst problems, however, are those with “inaction costs” that remain invisible for a long time, but increase suddenly and explosively. By the time the leader has the mandate to act, it may be too late.
A classic example was Winston Churchill’s warnings against Adolf Hitler’s ambitions. Hitler’s plans were outlined in Mein Kampf for all to read – and he did not disguise them in his speeches. Yet few in Britain wanted to give them credence, and many thought that communism was the greater threat, especially in the bleak years of the Great Depression.
The Nazis’ dismembering of Czechoslovakia in 1938 made the sincerity of Hitler’s ambitions all too clear. But it was only after the invasion of Poland the following year that Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, and he became Prime Minister only after the invasion of France in 1940, when Britain stood alone.
Britain might well have been better off had Churchill held power earlier, but that would have meant costly rearmament, which was unacceptable so long as there was a chance that Hitler proved to be a paper tiger. And, of course, it would also have meant entrusting Britain’s fate to a politician who, though now regarded as an indomitable leader, was widely distrusted at the time.
Non-linear costs of inaction are most obvious in the financial sector. At the same time, financial-sector problems may be particularly difficult to address: if politicians emphasize the need for action too strongly in order to get a mandate, they might precipitate the very turmoil that they seek to contain.
Between the Bear Stearns crisis and the failure of Lehman Brothers, the United States government could do little to get ahead of the growing problem (though, of course, the government-backed mortgage underwriters Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed under conservatorship in the interim). It took the post-Lehman panic for Congress to authorize the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which threw a financial lifeline to banks and the auto industry, among others. And only frenetic action by the Federal Reserve and Treasury (with authorities around the world joining) prevented a systemic meltdown. A subprime-mortgage problem that was initially estimated to imply losses of a few hundred billion dollars imposed far higher costs on the entire world.
Similarly, eurozone politicians have obtained a mandate to take bolder action only as the markets have made the costs of inaction more salient. Even setting aside Germany’s understandable attempt to limit how much it would have to pay, it is difficult to see how politicians could have gotten ahead of the problem.
While the ECB has bought the eurozone some time, the calming effect on markets may be a mixed blessing. Have Europeans seen enough of the abyss to tolerate stronger action by their leaders? If not, markets might have to deteriorate further to make possible a comprehensive resolution to the eurozone crisis.
Similarly, with government bond yields as low as they are in the US, the public has little sense of urgency about its fiscal problems, though some doomsayers, like Peter Peterson of the Blackstone Group, have been trying their best to awaken it. One hopes that the coming US presidential election will lead to a more enlightened public debate about tax and entitlement reform. Otherwise, a rapid escalation of yields in the bond market might be necessary for the public to accept that there is a problem, and for politicians to have the room to resolve it.
Don’t blame the leaders for appearing short-sighted and indecisive; the fault may lie with us, the public, for not listening to the worrywarts.