'Call Me Maybe' Explains the Euro Crisis—Seriously

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Psst, Angela. It's time to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen on the euro crisis. She's a savant about it.

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(Reuters/Kasia Cieplak-von Baldegg)

Hey, she's a popstar, and this is crazy, but is Carly Rae Jepsen a euro crisis genius, maybe?

Definitely.

I know, I know. The only thing more maddening than "Call Me Maybe" is the euro crisis. One is a banal string of saccharine statements, punctuated by swift choruses of action. The other is a pop song. And neither will go away.

But the lyrical stylings of Carly Rae Jepsen just might be a Rosetta Stone for the euro crisis. And you don't even have to play the record backwards to get the secret message.

First, let's make sure we'll all on equal footing. I'm jealous of the lucky few still unfamiliar with the earworm that is "Call Me Maybe." But I'm also spiteful. So here's the music video. You're welcome.


What a euro crisis savant. If it's still not obvious what macroeconomic wisdom she's distilling in these sugary beats, here are the eight lines from "Call Me Maybe" that best explain the euro crisis. Why eight? Because Carly Rae Jespen works in mysterious ways.

"I threw a wish in the well, don't ask me I'll never tell."

Europe had a dream. That dream was itself. It was of an integrated continent, of a United States of Europe. How it would get there? Nobody was ready to tell the full story.

There was an underlying logic to integration -- a logic that George Soros has pointed out is now broken. That logic was that Europe would use any crisis of integration to push integration further. But that process went into reverse in the fall of 2008. German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that each euro zone country was on its own when it came to bailing out its banks -- driving a stake through the heart of the common currency.

Now Europe faces a catch-22. The only way to save the euro is for Germany to agree to some kind of joint debt. But Germany doesn't want to give southern Europe money without getting a say over how that money is spent. And southern Europe doesn't want to give Germany a say over how it spends money -- unless it's for a genuine fiscal union. So round and round we go.

"I trade my soul for a wish, pennies and dimes for a kiss."

Southern Europe has traded budget cuts and labor market reforms for money. Some of that money has come from Germany. Some of it has come from the ECB.

This makes less sense than you think. The ECB is only supposed to have one job. That's maintaining price stability, defined as 2 percent annual inflation. But the ECB has unofficially abandoned this single mandate. No, it doesn't care about jobs! It cares about politics. Specifically, whether countries are doing what Germany has demanded. This is crazy, definitely.

Countries that pass the ECB's test get lower borrowing costs. Countries that don't, well, don't. Actually, that's not always true. Even countries that play nice aren't always rewarded. Ask Spain. Meanwhile, the economy is screaming for the ECB to do something, anything more.

"I wasn't looking for this, but now you're in my way."

Both Carly Rae Jepsen and history have well-developed senses of irony. The second Ms. Jepsen stops looking for love, she finds it -- only to belatedly discover that her crush isn't interested in the ladies. Meanwhile, the one time Germany didn't try to take over Europe, the continent landed in its lap.

This historical twist hasn't escaped George Soros. He sees the euro zone turning into a German feudal state. Creditors make the rules in a debt crisis. But remember: Germany didn't want this. That's why they've been so reluctant to do what needs to be done. The danger is that they'll wait too long -- that a political backlash in southern Europe will develop before Germany is ready to accede to eurobonds. Then the euro would die a chaotic death.

"It's hard to look right at you, baby."

Is there any doubt Carly Rae Jepsen is really talking about Spanish bank balance sheets here? Spain was Europe's Florida. It had a huge housing bubble. Then it had a huge housing bust -- but not enough of one. They've been much slower to admit how far housing prices need to fall. That's allowed banks to keep holding assets at waaaay overinflated values -- until recently. Now the game of pretend is ending and the game of bailouts is beginning. Ugly stuff. Look away.

"You took your time with the call, I took no time with the fall, you gave me nothing at all."

You won't find a more plaintive lament for Europe's periphery than this. During the boom years, capital poured into southern Europe. But then Lehman failed, the money spigot turned off, and southern Europe fell. Germany hasn't exactly rushed to bail them out. 

Actually, it's a bit misleading to call them "bailouts". They're loans. Low-interest rate loans, but loans nonetheless. And loans that are often senior to other debt. That makes private investors wary about putting more capital on the line, because they're first in line for the inevitable losses. It's increased their debt, and made that debt riskier. In other words, they've basically gotten nothing at all.

"I beg and borrow and steal."

Sometimes even the cryptic Carly Rae Jepsen speaks plainly. This is one of those times. The line above is clearly about Greece.

For years, the government lied about the size of its budget deficits -- with some help from Goldman Sachs -- until reality finally intruded in 2009. That's when the begging and borrowing began in earnest.

Now Greece may find out if beggars really can't be choosers. The far-left Syriza party is neck-and-neck in the polls thanks to its platform to renegotiate Greece's bailout loans while remaining in the euro zone. Their calculus is that beggars with a trillion euros of leverage can indeed be choosers. It's a dangerous game of chicken, with the future of the euro potentially hanging in the balance.

"I didn't know I would feel it, but it's in my way."

Poor Italy. It's actually been responsible since the euro was introduced Italy has managed to stabilize its debt and move towards a primary surplus -- meaning that it's in the black minus interest payments -- despite its stagnating economy.  And Italy did all that with Silvio Berlusconi as its prime minister. That deserves some sort of prize. But instead of a prize, Italy has gotten euro contagion. With Spain on the ropes, Italy is next.

"Before you came into my life I missed you so bad."

Ms. Jepsen isn't quite as paradoxical as she sounds. It's easy to miss something before it comes into your life -- if it leaves and then returns. Like Spain's peseta. Or Italy's lira.

The euro should be a real four-letter word nowadays. It prevents troubled countries from printing or borrowing money at the most inopportune time. And it makes them solve their uncompetitiveness problems in the most painful way possible: with wage cuts. Instead of devaluing the peseta, Spain has to force workers to take pay cuts in euros. That's an economic disaster. It makes both debt problems and unemployment worse.

The peseta is sounding better and better.

***
See, "Call Me Maybe" is really a deep meditation on the nature and ironies of the euro crisis. So here's a modest proposal. Let's lock up Angela Merkel et. al. in a room playing "Call Me Maybe" on repeat. They can't leave until they absorb Ms. Jepsen's insight and reach some of kind of deal. Or go crazy.

This will work, definitely.
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Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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