Germany’s Right (but Responsibility not) to Refuse

David Brooks’ opinion-editorial in The New York Times of December 1 criticized those who would berate Germany for its reluctance to bail out the moribound economies of its more imprudent European neighbors, and rightly.

When American banks failed in 2008 and had to be rescued through federal intervention (a necessary evil), there was national talk of “moral hazard”: the concept that, once financial houses were made aware they would not be allowed to fail because of certainly catastrophic repurcussions, there was no reason to alter dangerous patterns of behavior.

Yet, when organizations much larger than any bank – whole nations – go belly-up because of greed, laziness, and cosmic mismanagement, some folks are aghast at the idea a more wealthy nation might refuse step in to right her neighbor’s foundering ship of state. The same outspeakers who were so harsh with their own government for rescuing banks with federal funds are unbelieving that Germany might not plug holes drilled by Spain and Greece in their own financial hulls.

As Mr. Brooks points out, why should Germany help? It achieved its current prosperity through efficiency and austerity. As the editorialist puts it, “Over the past few decades, several European nations, like Germany and the Netherlands, have played by the rules and practiced good governance. They have lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values. Now they are being brutally browbeaten for not wanting to bail out nations like Greece, Italy and Spain, which did not do these things, which instead borrowed huge amounts of money that they are choosing not to repay.”

The difference in attitudes may owe to what’s being bailed out: a bank, which exists to turn profits, or a country, which exists – theoretically – to provide for the welfare of its citizenry. People are more acceptably bailed out than banks. Still, the question inherent in the concept of moral hazard applies: these states have been systematically and galactically mismanaged, to the point of looming national bankruptcy, and if they’re rescued at the eleventh hour, what’s to keep them from reverting to their old ways with their new money?

In short: their voters. The management of countries is much more changeable than that of banks. The leaders of countries are more easily held to account than are heads of industry. Case-in-point: Silvio Berluschoni, formerly the Prime Minister of Italy who presided over the massive botching of that nation’s economic affairs, was recently given the boot by Italian voters, who replaced him with a career economist and a platform of cost-cutting. Greek and Spaniard electors might soon follow suit.

So, Germany, bail out Greece. Bail out Italy. Bail out Spain, too, if they need it. But use the leverage your money will purchase to exact commitments to new, stricter financial regulations, stringent oversight, a managing stake in central and policy-making banks, and the placement of more prudent (and Teutonic?) regulators of finance in strategic posts.

Americans were critical of bank bail-outs because banks take care of themselves and their officers, and banks ran themselves into trouble. But the citizens of Eurozone countries like Italy and Greece and Spain didn’t run themselveves into trouble; their governments ran them there. Governments which are often divorced from the needs and influence of their people. And governments which, if Italy is any bellweather, may soon be divorced by their people. As Mr. Brooks concludes:

“The real lesson from financial crises is that, at the pit of the crisis, you do what you have to do. You bail out the banks. You bail out the weak European governments. But, at the same time, you lock in policies that reinforce the fundamental link between effort and reward. And, as soon as the crisis passes, you move to repair the legitimacy of the system.”


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