Would US progressives support EU-style free migration from Canada and Mexico?

Since the Brexit vote the other day, much of the mainstream media – and much of my Twitter and Facebook feeds – has been taken up by articles and posts by progressives asserting that the Leave victory was driven by xenophobia and even racism.  I don’t doubt that dark motives made some Britons vote Leave, and neither do I doubt that those with such motives have much in common with those who support Donald Trump and his radical anti-immigration plans.  The EU allows free migration among its member countries, and many chose Leave because they want to curtail migration into Britain, particularly from poorer EU states.  Is this xenophobia?  Perhaps, but regulating immigration, on its face, is hardly the same as hating foreigners and wanting to keep all of them out of one’s country.  And if this is the case, then do US progressives support the US allowing open immigration from, say, Canada and Mexico?  If so, I applaud them – I think this would be, on balance, a good idea, and a very good one from a humanitarian perspective.  And if US progressives support this view, where have they been the last seven years?  Under Barack Obama, the INS has deported more migrants than any other president.  In his second term, he’s proposed allowing the children of some of these migrants to remain – but this begs the question of why his INS is working overtime to deport their parents.  I haven’t hear anything about Obama’s harsh anti-immigration policies from any but a few progressives, either during his first term or his second.  Neither have I heard progressives demand the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders break with Obama on this score.  I’d love to see more progressives either pipe down on Brexit, or stand up for applying the EU migration model here at home, between the US and our closest neighbors.

Where are all the Bay Area ferries?


I live in the Bay Area and sometimes have to drive for work down to Silicon Valley from my home in Albany, which is north of Berkeley.  The trip is around 43 miles, if memory serves, which is a fairly long distance for a commute, but not a drive that you’d think would regularly take two to two-and-a-half hours. And there are plenty of people who make the brutal drive down 880 to the Valley every day, and plenty more who shlep back and forth between the Valley and San Francisco, which is equally time-consuming and mind-numbing.  There are some public bus and train options, and of course some companies have shuttles along these routes.  But plenty of people can’t, or can’t easily, take advantage of either.

880 goes along the Bay for much of my drive and I’m always surprised, as I sit in stopped traffic with time to look around, to see how empty the Bay is.  It’s quite large – Wikipedia tells me it’s around 12 miles wide by around 60 miles long – and most days there’s just not much going on out there.  Which is crazy, when you think about it, because there would be seem to be a potentially huge demand for ferry service going both up and down, and across the bay.

I’m thinking about this now because I’m in Stockholm with my family on vacation.  Walking along the city’s waterfront, I’m struck not just by its beauty – which is considerable – but also by the number of ferries, mostly small, running both from the center to other areas of the city, and out to the hundreds of islands that fan from the city out into the Baltic.  No doubt because Stockholm is so cut through with waterways, ferry service, both for leisure and commute travelers, seems much more extensive here than back home.

There is some Bay Area commuter ferry service now.  The main routes are between Marin County, on the north side of the bay, and SF, and into the city from Oakland on its east side.  There is also fairly new ferry service from Oakland and Alameda, west of Oakland, and South San Francisco, which is a growing tech hub.  But there’s nothing from Berkeley and the area around it, further north along the East Bay, where a couple of hundred thousand people live, including me.  And there’s nothing that goes to the South Bay, which is where all the job growth is.  That’s crazy.

Why is the Bay Area ferry network so limited?  I suspect the problem is that service is controlled by a government agency – the curiously named Water Emergency Transportation Authority – whose leadership seems aware of the problem but not at all keen to solve it.  The above-linked SF Chronicle article quotes Nina Rannells, the agency’s director, as saying the Bay’s potential as a transit route is sadly “untapped” – but she adds that WETA’s network expansion plans are “always going to be…  fairly modest.”  Incredibly, in an area that’s among the richest in the world, where people pay through the nose to get from home to work, in bridge tolls, and BART, Caltrain, and bus fares, she cites the main obstacle as what the article’s author calls “the region’s limited transit dollars.”  It seems incredible that WETA couldn’t cover the costs of even a major expansion, through a combination of fare revenue and either bonds or, ideally, private investment in new terminals and boats, in return for a share of revenue, along perhaps with some mix of other considerations – maybe the agency could sell terminal naming rights, for example, or give investors free in-terminal and on-board advertising for a time, or some such.  The possibilities seem endless, if WETA’s leadership could only take off its public-agency blinders, to finding funding sources beyond tax revenue.

WETA’s website does run down some fairly ambitious expansion plans, including adding new terminals in Berkeley and Redwood City, at the eastern edge of the Valley.  On the Port of Redwood City site, there’s a more detailed rundown of terminal and service plans there, including a brief mention of what, to my mind, would be a key component of successful service – intermodal connections with local transit.  But again, the approach outlined in these plans is myopic, and destined for failure, or success only over a very long term.  WETA is clearly more interested in begging for public funding than in finding investment wherever it can be found.

Also problematic is WETA’s big-project bias.  Its plans focus on building new, big terminals to handle big boats, rather than using existing infrastructure and accommodating smaller craft – which could extend all the way down in size, I’d imagine, to water taxis transporting, say, ten or twelve passengers.  I realize big plans excite the imagination of politicians, and help sell bond issues and line up support from the public, as well as the contractors and unions who’ll benefit from expansion work and ongoing service.  But new service could be launched right now, using terminals that sit idle or barely used – in Redwood City, for example – using small boats or even big ones, such as the 150-passenger catamarans Google used, in its pilot employee shuttle-ferry project of earlier this year.

Perhaps the answer is new leadership at WETA.  Or perhaps WETA needs to work more actively with private companies that want to launch either employee-shuttle or public ferry service to supplement existing offerings.  Either way, WETA’s approach needs to change, or someone needs to get WETA out of the way.  Its current approach is leaving millions of us sitting in cars, taking far too long to get to and from work, wasting time and energy we could all better spend doing something more productive, and winding up far more beaten down, at the end of the day, than if we’d zipped to work on a ferry.

Bad monetary policy and the renaissance of European national socialism

Reading today’s FT on the upcoming European Parliament elections, I’m all the more convinced that Europe is in for a period of politics dominated by a renascent national socialism.  As I’ve written before, this will be far kinder and gentler than anything from the 30s and early 40s, and on its face, might not seem to have anything in common with the fascism of that era.  But again we see the rise of parties and politicians who promise to take far more active control over all manner of economic activity – especially the movement of money and people across borders – in order, in turn, to redistribute wealth and power to members of in-groups defined along explicitly national and in some cases ethnic lines.  This movement – and at this point, I think, it’s indisputably a movement – profits from the frustrations of voters all across Europe, who feel they’ve lost control over their local affairs, to the EU, to foreigners, to big business, and in the bargain they’ve gotten little.

I think that contrary to what one reads in the mainstream press, this development is not all negative.  The EU is a fundamentally un-democratic institution.  Under pressure from MEPs and national-level leaders demanding more of a say in how it divvies up resources and wields its enormous administrative power, it can only become both less powerful and more democratic, and that’s all to the good.  The bad, however, is indeed bad.  Particularly worrisome is the anti-immigrant sentiment common to the various neo-right parties.  Also a problem: many of these groups, notably the French FN and the left of the French Socialist Party, are explicitly dirigiste in their economic views.  They may well want more power returned from Brussels to national-level leaders.  But they also want the latter to make active use of bad-old-days practices such as nationalization and radically restricting the right of foreigners to buy “native” assets.

What’s to be done about this?  I don’t think mainstream parties can fight this trend without a radical change in an area that seems, to most, to be only tangentially related to the problems that have so pissed off so many European voters.  The change that needs to happen is in European monetary policy.  As Scott Sumner and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard have written, the real problem in Europe, the one that underlies so many of Europe’s other problems, is exceptionally tight money.  That is, the far too slow growth, for some years now, in the supply of Euros issued by the ECB.  Too few Euros on the market radically limits both available credit and investment options.  Moreover, investors believe – and are right to believe – that this will continue indefinitely.  So investment is meager, with too much money sitting in banks or sent elsewhere.  The result is stagnation and in some countries, active contraction.  In a few countries, notably Germany, the economy is so efficiently run that there are still investment options, and the local pie is still growing, a bit.  The result is an electorate that’s not as pessimistic and angry.  And in turn, the German neo-right is still relatively small and its views more mainstream, if only just.  But in so many other places – including the other two of Europe’s big three, the UK and especially France  – the neo-right parties are both more popular and more worrisome.

The European parliament, after tomorrow’s vote, will likely be dominated by these parties.  Will it find a way to take direct control over the ECB, and force the bank’s leadership to change course in monetary policy?  I doubt it.  The problem is that if anything, these parties and their leaders are more dirigiste, as a whole, in their economic views than are most mainstream parties.  They want more control for politicians and government institutions, not a state or a supra-state that, by looser money or other means, puts more economic might in the hands of private investors and ordinary citizens.  And for most of them, control over immigration and EU regulation are the key issues, with monetary policy an afterthought.

So while we may well see some real power devolve to the national level, the ECB won’t likely be pressured to do much different, anytime soon.  It will continue to fumble along, making “rookie mistakes” such as treating low interest rates as a sign of easy money, and focusing on making weak economies push through harsh austerity plans.  Just as the US Federal Reserve did, in the 30s.  In politics, the nationalist neo-right will likely continue to boom, as its moves to close immigration and re-distribute power and resources win it, at least at the beginning, even more popularity.  Just as fascist parties did, in the 30s.  Throughout Europe, many more may well come to see that these parties have the answer to help Europe escape a period of stagnation and ennui that seems to have gone on forever.  Neo-fascism will in turn become at once more powerful, and more virulent.  Just as in the 30s.  How far this goes is up to the ECB.  And that’s what worries me.

Why can’t country divorce be easier?

In the US in the 70s, divorce suddenly became o.k.. That is, it became acceptable for married couples to say that things hadn’t worked out, and then split up. Divorced people not only began to fill Updike novels, but were, in the course of time, accepted by and large everywhere as perfectly normal, and went about their lives, often remarrying and even having new families, and no one had to wear a big letter D on his or her chest. The legal changes boiled down to one person being enough to initiate a divorce, but of course this wasn’t so much a cause as an effect of a broader social change: women increasingly gaining respect as equals to men, and thus capable of making the decision to end a marriage on their own. Because in most cases, certainly early on in the divorce boom, it was the women who wanted to get out.

Why can’t country divorce be like this? I wonder if what we’re seeing now, in Scotland, Catalonia, and perhaps also – with serious qualifications – Ukraine, is the beginnings of a change in attitudes about what it means for countries to break up. Or rather, for one group of people, living in a contiguous area, to break up with their neighbors, leaving the nation-state they’ve shared and either forming their own or joining another. It seems to me that the 21st century could be the century of country divorce. There may well be an evolution of attitudes ongoing, one that will bring the coalescence of a new set of broadly accepted rules and procedures for these breakups. The key being not the consent of both parties – as in the Czechoslovakia breakup – but rather the breakers-away deciding themselves, by democratic vote, and by some generally taken-to-be-decisive supermajority – perhaps two-thirds “ayes” – to leave.

Not everyone shares the new attitudes, and perhaps some of the folks espousing them are cranks. Separatism of all sorts has traditionally been confined to the margins of politics. But Artur Mas and Alex Salmond are perfectly normal politicians, and in setting up independence referenda and advocating for them, they’ve used perfectly legal means, if pushing, particularly in Mas’s case, into grey areas of the law of Spain. They’ve made arguments that, if perhaps too much colored by the romantic for most contemporary taste, aren’t the stuff of nut-jobs. I would argue they’re something like the divorce advocates of the early 70s, who pushed for others to adopt attitudes that theretofore had been acceptable only among urban libertines, mostly of the larger coastal cities, who were certainly marginal to American society as a whole.

I can’t say anything about anyone down in Crimea, and anyway, given different attitudes about the nation and the state, and the shaky hold of meaningful democracy in that part of the world, this is clearly a very different case from the other two. Also, it must be said, Putin’s methods of breaking Crimea away from Ukraine are repulsive. Hillary Clinton is quite right, I think, to compare him to Hitler and this to the case of the Sudetenland. That said, from what I heard during several years of living in Russia, and from talking to my Russian friends now, I would gather that a truly free vote were held in Crimea – perhaps in a couple of decades, using procedures worked out in Scotland and Catalonia – independence or unification with Russia would win easily.

So of course outsiders can screw everything up, as in Ukraine now. Let’s say, though, that the outsider isn’t a horrid jerk who’s moved into your house without asking and is sleeping downstairs on the couch with your wife, threatening your kids if they complain to the neighbors about the setup. O.k., perhaps he’s a jerk, and yes, he’s had a fling with your wife. But he hasn’t moved in, and if, perhaps, he and your wife have slept together, those things do happen – we accept that now, as an unpleasantness of life for some, as part of a transition to an aloneness or being-in-a-new-coupleness for others. Even leaving one country not to be another, but to join another, might well be, one day, just one of those things that happen. With everyone at least being civil to one another afterward, when they run into each other in the grocery store.

The change in attitudes about such things hasn’t taken hold widely, of course. We can see that in the huffiness, for example, of not only most British and nearly all Spanish politicians outside Catalonia, but also in the pronouncements of various EU officials, who shouldn’t really have any stake in either instance but have made clear they as one hold traditional anti-secessionist views, in their every pronouncement on the forthcoming Scottish and Catalonian referenda. The sanctity of marriage, before meaningful self-determination, for all of them, it seems. Moreover, there isn’t yet anything like an accepted set of procedures to guide the process of secession. But this is always the case with new political ideals, and the procedures for making them real. Think of the popular vote, before the standard procedures for that came to be broadly accepted as such worldwide, in the long aftermath of the Second World War. (These were even honored in the breech, by the fake elections held throughout the socialist world, with the de-democratization largely confined to the stage of choosing candidates, not by having secret policemen follow anyone into the voting booth.) Or think of the system of parties using primary elections to choose their candidates. This is used in only a few countries even now. But the system is spreading elsewhere, if slowly, and I’m sure it will be commonly accepted as necessary to democracy everywhere, within a few decades.

And why shouldn’t secession be available too to states and provinces, counties and district, and cities, within countries – that is, to those who’d form new ones, by breaking off from the ones they occupy now? It seems to me this will be the logical next step. If we all hold as valid the notion that political entities are formed by the active choice of those who inhabit them, how could it be otherwise? Really this is only what follows Locke, at least in my reading. Absent this active choice – which, it seems to me, should certainly be able to be re-made, not made only once – how can any political entity be legitimate? And how can we be that far, I think, from this notion becoming widely accepted, as part of the received canon of ideas, about how people can and should decide how best to rule themselves?

Renaissance of European national socialism, France update

A while back I suggested that national socialism might return to Europe.  Not the virulent nationalism socialism of the 30s and 40s, but a kinder, gentler version, without wars but plenty of statism, anti-capitalist and anti-foreigner rhetoric, and, perhaps, the end of the free movement of capital and people across European borders.  Plus an even deeper, more prolonged economic than the one Europe’s now going through.  How would this happen?  The key would be the rise to power, in any of a number of states, of populist socialist governments, blaming the internationalist elite, and the neo-liberal policies for which that elite seems to stand, for their countries’ problems.

How’s that going?  France is an interesting case, what with the recent election of a left-wing government, including a president who’s said international finance is his enemy, and several populist-nationalist ministers:

Well, we’ve seen nationalist rhetoric…

Arnaud de Montebourg, the Minister of Productive Redress, said the Indian owner of a financially troubled French steelmaker was “unwelcome in France”

…leading to nationalist, socialist action:

…and, backed up the the president, threatens said owner with expropriation, coercing him to make a large, economically unjustified investment in facility, to preserve French jobs

There was an old-school socialist demarche…

Fulfilling a campaign promise of a president who’d said “I don’t like the rich,” the Ayrault government tries to introduce a 75% marginal tax rate on the highest earners

…that came to nothing, but did product this petty nationalist spat:

some of whom flee the country, with one then called out as “pathetic” by Ayrault, and responding by emigrating to Russia (!).

This truly old-school – as in Russian Civil War old-school – socialist rhetoric…

The housing minister calls for the expropriation of private apartments

…inspired this spontaneous, if unofficial, socialist demarche:

…causing a leftist non-profit to do seize several properties, promising them to the homeless, then demand that said minister make the practice a matter of policy.

There are plenty of other examples.  But while the Ayrault government talks a big socialist game, it doesn’t really follow through.  Montebourg was rebuked by Ayrault for his attack on Lakshmi Mittal, and Ayrault has been similarly cold to Duflot’s demand that she be allowed to start seizing apartments.  There’s as yet no sign the government will actually expropriate anything from anyone.  This is nothing like the early Mitterrand years. Indeed, Hollande’s France is neither as socialist, or as nationalist, as any major Western European state of most of the first few decades after the war. That, after all, was a time when both confiscatory tax rates and tax exile were the norm, and when currency controls and visa served to bind Europeans much more closely to their states, and thus to the power of a particular set of governing politicians.

What could move France back to that past?  Unfortunately, what could prove most dangerous would be a step that arguably, the country needs – national-level control over its own money supply, which requires the reintroduction of the franc. The question is how a socialist government would handle such a step.  The Ayrault government seems unlikely to do anything that would truly alienate conservatives and moderates, and is also clearly committed to the pan-European managerialist ideal.

But what would happen after a few more years of economic malaise, and the closing of who knows how many more French factories, made uncompetitive by an over-strong Euro and crushingly high taxes?  Then somewhat like Montebourg might well replace Ayrault.  In this case, popular desperation – and clamoring for a truly “strong leader” – could give a socialist government broad support for using the move to the franc as an excuse for widespread expropriation, and vastly expanding state control of  the economy and the movement of money, and possibly also people, across the French border.  Unfortunately the European Central Bank continues to keep the Euro far higher than makes sense, for anyone but Germany. Which makes continued French economic malaise a certainty for the time being.  Yet the French elite, confident in the pan-European managerialist ideal – that is, blind to the political dangers of saddling itself to a harsh monetary policy dictated by unelected bureaucrats  remains committed to the Euro.  We may yet have a chance to see just how national-socialist a Montebourg government would be.

Orca and the myth of the plan

I’m still trying to process the news that the Romney get-out-the-vote machine was actually a machine… and one that didn’t work, in spectacular fashion.  I’m probably the one person who didn’t follow the campaign that closely, so I just learned about Orca, aka the ill-named and ill-starred web app for volunteers to record, over the course of election day, which likely Romney voters had voted and which hadn’t, so it could alert volunteers in areas where there were a lot of the latter, so they could in turn get those people to the polls. A simple-enough system, in its outlines, though one that, to deliver value, would have had to work perfectly.  Apparently also, according to one Romney volunteer, a web dev named John Ekdahl, this sort of thing has been done manually and effectively, with paper lists and pencils and phones, since time immemorial.  When I read this, I thought of any number of projects I’ve been in on or observed, in the course of many years working in tech, when some executive orders someone to, in effect, build the software equivalent of a bazooka to kill a fly.  Indeed the Sean Gallagher Ars Technica piece says Orca was indeed the product of executive whim – specifically, that of Romney’s Director of Voter Contact Dan Centinello and the campaign’s Political Director, Rich Beeson.

I’m even more struck by the ways in which the Orca plan seems to have been conceived, to have gotten traction, and then failed, all in the manner of a ’30s Soviet economic plan.  I am hardly saying that Romney is Stalin.  But from what I can tease out of the press accounts, the Orca idea seems to have appealed to his operatives, and indeed become a central pillar of their strategy precisely because of those features that make it similar to one of the great Five Year Plans.  It showed the way toward using a technological silver bullet – industrialization then, a web app now – to “catch up” to a bitter rival (the capitalist West;  Obama) who had the advantage of a head start (the Industrial Revolution;  no primary challenge) and a resulting position of dominance (an established advanced economic base;  incumbency).  It promised to leverage technology developed and honed in the private sector, to ensure the success of a political endeavor.  Moreover – and critically – its seemingly sure success promised to validate the genius of both top-down central control of local execution of a centrally defined plan, and the genius of those who had both set the plan and shepherded the creation of the means by which it would be executed.  Like Soviet economic plans, this one ended up being more enabling myth than guide to reshaping reality.

The execution was similar too.  The focus of lower-downs seems to have been on proving their political bona-fides, rather than sweating the details – witness Ekdahl’s reference to the “marketing-style” presentations on Orca, wasting time that could have been spent getting feedback that could in turn lead to building a better product.  And in the end, the energy and intelligence, and local savvy, of thousands of volunteers, was wasted – not least on election day, when they sat helpless as Orca failed – because the campaign, at least in this one key area, had been set up to ignore and disempower them.  Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign paid keen attention to Hayekian – or perhaps Scott-ian – insights about the value of not only listening to, but indeed reshaping strategy and tactics in line with information and suggestions sent to central operatives from those working on the local level.

Of course there were other problems with Orca, and no doubt there’s blame to be put on consultants and those who managed the app’s development and testing, or failed to manage the former and skipped the latter.  But as someone with a lot of web design and development experience, I can say definitively that this was not that complicated a project.  The fault was in the planning – and, it would seem, in the Romney campaign becoming so enamored with its plan, and its own genius in concocting that plan, that it didn’t bother with the details.  Including, critically, listening to Ekdahl and the local-level folks whose expertise it needed.  That’s a top-management failure, and it’s also quite possibly why Romney won’t be president – and a sign that had he been elected, he would likely have been an ineffective one.

The missing story of the presidential election?

Last week the NYT Sunday Magazine ran an interesting piece on Obama’s campaign, saying it had been less successful than it might have, because Obama and his advisors had failed to craft a compelling central narrative and identify him with it. Perhaps this is true in the sense of a narrative making his policy positions cohere, though I think his record has done that for him. Voters knew what he would do with four more years.

The “defining” story of an event is often discovered in its aftermath.  Consider the way that many, perhaps even most Americans think the Civil War was primarily a struggle to free the slaves. A narrative like that one gains acceptance because it jibes with the other interests and beliefs of those who accept it.  In the aftermath of this presidential election, no doubt we’ll come to see that Obama’s victory was one for his aggressively statist, progressive vision. And while he may not be able to do much more to put this vision into practice, given the Republican House, he’ll no doubt do his best to push this story, if only to protect what he did during the first two years of his first term.

The NYT piece focused on what the author saw as Obama’s missed opportunity.  I think it was Romney who missed the big chance here.  He could have made this race a real choice, and thus define its central “story,” by making it about issues.  I read a piece the other day arguing that he’d refused to take specific positions because he wanted to make the election a referendum on Obama’s policies.  This was a mistake, I think, because I don’t think most people care nearly as much about Obama’s policies as they do about him.  Yes, his deep commitment to progressivism is important to them, but not because they share it.  They admire his commitment because that jibes with their opinion that he has integrity, and thus is admirable.  The fact that he’s changed his positions, often radically, on many issues – that doesn’t matter to them.  That was true for Reagan, too, the great tax-cutter who, as Walter Mondale reminded us, signed off on what was then the biggest tax hike in American history.  Nobody cared.  Reagan was likeable, and he was re-elected.  Ditto for Romney.

Romney made this mistake because he took Obama for a politician.  Obama is primarily a celebrity, and he’s really good at it.  I’m not questioning his seriousness or his intellect, neither of which I doubt.  I’m talking about the way voters see him, what they focus on, and how they interpret what he says and does.  He’s a good celebrity because he’s obviously a good father and husband, and, most importantly, because his personal story is appealing.  People justifiably respect his efforts to turn himself into what he’s become, and it helps too that he seems at once an honest person and genuinely likeable. He’s someone so many other both want to spend time with, and be like – and as a result, as with Reagan, many look past not only his policy 180s, but also the fact that they disagree with him, sometimes to a significant degree, on many issues. Like Reagan in ’84, all he had to do these last months was keep his picture in the paper, and not play too much against type, so his fans could continue to project their affection and hopes onto him, and, of course, vote for him – so they could be part of his story for four more years.

Romney comes off as intelligent but stiff and distant, and as having little in common with most voters. Did I mention he was born rich and went on to get richer, and that story interests no one? These are hardly original observations, but that’s exactly why Romney was foolish not to focus on policy.  He fell back on “I’m agin’ it” and a laundry list of right-wing shibboleths on abortion, gay marriage, etc., all of which were the sillier because no one thinks he believes them.  Of course it would have been difficult for him to distinguish himself from Obama on policy.  He couldn’t have drawn a sharp ideological contrast, the way Reagan did with Carter.  They’re both technocrats who are comfortable with growing, more intrusive government, as long as they’re in charge of it.  I think people understand this full well, just as they understand that Obamacare is Romneycare, and that both would offer essentially a continuation of Bush’s foreign policy, and that after that, everything is details that don’t much matter.

Still, by failing to distinguish himself clearly on policy – the area in which he had an chance to best Obama – Romney made the election into a competition between their personal stories.  His holds little interest for most people, so they ignored it.  That left Obama’s fascinating, broadly appealing life story as the implicit focus of the race.   And that was a race Romney couldn’t win.

Tyler Cowen is wrong – Europe’s problem is a democracy vacuum

The future of Europe

Tyler Cowen argues today that Europe’s current economic problems could be solved with the filling of a “power vacuum,” presumably by the EU getting even more authority over the political and economic affairs of its member states.  He even laments that “for historical reasons, Germany isn’t up to” being Europe’s “hegemon” – that is, that the German government can’t do more to force other the rest of Europe to implement policies of his choosing.

He’s wrong.  Europe’s economic problems are an effect of not a power vacuum at the pan-European level, but a democracy vacuum.  The EU got its authority via a series of treaties among national leaders, along with occasional plebiscites.  Real democracy requires direct electoral control of European institutions.  It’s possible that even if the EU’s leadership were directly elected, and the European parliament had real power, they would have adopted the Euro and the various fiscal and other economic-policy agreements that underpin the Euro zone, even though, as JP Morgan analyst Michael Cembalest points out, the countries as a set have less in common than almost any imaginable other set of countries, even one of countries with names that happen to start with “M.”

EU-level democracy might not have made a difference then.  But it would certainly make a difference now.  It would mean that whatever solution is found to the current crisis, even if it’s just muddling through, that solution would a compromise between populist elected officials from the periphery, and austerity-minded elected officials from the core, and so would have legitimacy throughout Europe.  Even better would be if a democratically elected European government had direct control over the ECB, and could replace its leadership with one more amenable to allowing the Euro money supply to grow at a reasonable, steady rate, thus, at minimum, making it easier both for creditors to pay their debts.

Anyway, what does Cowen think a more powerful Eurocracy would do? Would it do more to force peripheral countries to cut their welfare states and raise taxes?  Good ideas, or at least one good idea (the first) and one that’s debatable.  But anything the EU does now in this vein, those actions will only hasten peripheral states’ withdrawal from the Euro and perhaps even the EU, and the coming to power, in any number of those states, of virulently anti-Europeanist, populist, nationalist, socialist parties.

More generally, does Cowen realize how his call to “fill the power vacuum” echoes a dominant strain of European political discourse of the 20s and 30s?  Fretting about the inadequacy of institutions, and the need for more, and more centralized administrative power, to solve the deep economic problems those institutions seemed incapable of solving, led, most notably in Germany and Italy, to the rise of a number of anti-democratic parties led by charismatic politicians who promised, if given unprecedented power, to solve those problems.  They got the power, and with it, created even worse problems.

Can the EU democratize?  Not now, I think, if only because the Europeanist project is so fundamentally un-democratic.  That could change, with enough pressure from below, but that’s a project for a later date.

In the meantime, the EU should make a Euro zone exit as smooth as possible for any country whose elected leaders decide leaving is the way to go.  Cowen has ideas about, for example, the EU subsidizing food and fuel for Greece if it leaves.  Fine.  The Eurocracy should focus on preserving the free movement of goods, people, and investment, which is its true achievement.  Sure, the periphery countries’ governments have squandered enormous amounts of money.  And much of that money is due in bond and loan payments to investors in the core, which controls the EU, and those payments will never be made.  This is not good.  But let the market deal with that.  If the EU tries to arrogate to itself even more power, to fill some supposed “power vacuum,” that endeavor isn’t just doomed to fail.  It will both hasten and harshen the coming anti-Europeanist nationalist, socialist reaction.  And no one needs that.