In the recent elections in Greece and France, voters voted loudly for politicians who argue that with record levels of unemployment, poverty and despair, only a growth plan will prevent Europe disintegrating politically, economically and socially.
The new emphasis on “growth” is due to the failure of austerity, in all countries, to kickstart a post-crisis recovery (or even reduce debt levels), and the failure of quantitative easing in achieving much but bailing out the banks that are now rich enough to start speculating again. Healthy banks in a sick economy: a bad mix. Yet this new emphasis on growth is hardly a consensus.
Economists, since the time of Adam Smith’s 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations, have debated what causes growth. Indeed, some economists have long insisted that growth occurs precisely through thrift — that is, austerity. In recent weeks, we have heard many economists argue that growth in the eurozone will come from “structural reforms” that will make it easier to collect taxes, reduce red tape and hire and fire workers.
However, growth requires investment. Companies invest to make profits and grow. Evidence shows those which invest more in new technology, human capital and research and development, and are located in countries where public spending in these areas is high, are able to produce more competitive and better value products.
Italy has not grown for the last 10 years, mainly because its public and private sector did not make key investments in factors that increase productivity. Its debt-to-GDP ratio rose because its growth rate was so much lower than the interest it paid on its debt. Greece grew in the 1990s not because it was making smart investments, but because badly directed European structural funds allowed it to get away with not making them. Once those funds expired, so did the false growth.
Structural reforms without investment do not produce growth. When Telecom Italia was privatized in 1997 it cut its research spending, and is now much less innovative and competitive than France Telecom, which remained partly public and continued to invest. Scandinavia, with its large welfare states and stringent labor laws, has been one of the most crisis-resilient regions because it invests in innovation.
Yet through its moralistic and deflationary stance of “do what the Germans did,” pressure from Germany is not allowing the weaker eurozone countries to do just that. German competitiveness is not due only to its lower unit labor costs (which are not low when welfare benefits are included), but to its strategic investments in research and development, vocational training, state investment banks that create “patient” finance and its recent emphasis on greening the economy.
Similarly, the engineering group Siemens did not win a UK contract for fast green trains because of low wages, but because of its innovation investments, which have made it one of the most competitive companies in the world.
The eurozone will grow only once weaker countries are allowed to make the strategic investments that Germany has. There is much talk about the need for internal rebalancing, to increase the competitiveness of the deficit-burdened south relative to the surplus-blessed north, but this is a limited view. What is required is not that wages fall in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, but that they make investments that increase their productivity — an impossibility with austerity-driven policies.