Business April 2012

Europe’s Real Crisis

The Continent’s problems are as much demographic as financial. They won’t go away soon.
Annie Griffiths Belt/Corbis

All of us can breathe easy now: policy makers and analysts finally agree on how to fix Europe’s problems.

“Europe Debt Crisis Plan Hinges on Economic Growth,” declared the Los Angeles Times in October, after finance ministers announced what felt like the hundredth plan to seriously, no-foolin’-this-time, really rescue the European Union’s illiquid and insolvent states.

“Countries have to undergo significant structural reforms that would revamp growth,” said Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, in a December interview with the Financial Times.

“Austerity is not enough, even for budgetary discipline, if economic activity does not pick up a decent rate of growth,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti told The Economist in January.

Their words have been echoed in a thousand or more op-eds, policy briefs, and TV spots, for good reason. Growth could fix so many dire fiscal and political problems—not just in Europe, but all over the developed world.

If only economic growth could be delivered on demand, like a pizza, just minutes after we realize we want it. Unfortunately, growth (or at least the sustainable variety) is typically a long time in the baking, and dependent on two main ingredients: more workers and higher worker productivity. And much of Europe is short on the former. That has big implications for Europe’s future.

Consider Italy. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Italy is the fate of the euro zone: if Italy can keep its debt under control and its banking system solvent, the euro zone will probably make it; if Italy defaults, the resulting panic will probably force Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain to follow suit.

This linchpin is under a great deal of strain. Italy’s public debt stands at $2.3 trillion, roughly 20 percent larger than the country’s GDP. If not for that debt, Italy would have run a slight budget surplus in 2011. But interest payments alone soaked up nearly 5 percent of the GDP, creating a deficit of about 3.6 percent of national income and increasing the debt even more.

This has left Italy incredibly vulnerable. For every percentage point that the interest rate on the debt increases, Italians have to divert another 1.2 percent of national income into debt payments. And because markets are worried about this problem, interest rates have been rising at a brisk clip, with only occasional pauses while the powers that be deploy yet another emergency rescue plan.

Sweating this debt down by austerity alone would take ages, cause immense suffering among people who depended on the cut services, and—as Greece has shown—draw fierce public opposition. Moreover, commentators like Paul Krugman argue that it would actually make the problem worse in the short term, because government austerity makes the economy contract. As they see it, trying to close Europe’s fiscal gaps with austerity alone is like trying to get out of a deep hole by digging harder.

Strong growth by Europe’s troubled debtor nations would of course offer a different, and less painful, way out. After all, if you make $30,000 a year, a $10,000 credit-card balance is crippling; but if you make $300,000 a year, it’s fairly trivial. The faster Italy’s economy expands, the more manageable Italy’s debt becomes.

But that’s where the dearth of workers comes into play. Everyone agrees that rapid growth would be much nicer than higher taxes and slashed pension payments. The hitch is that over the past five years, growth in the Italian economy hasn’t averaged even 1 percent a year. Soaring growth will be tough to achieve, because more and more Italians are getting too old to work—and fewer and fewer Italians have been having the babies needed to replace them.

Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. And then, one by one, the rest of Europe’s nations will follow. Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population. Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.

Since the invention of birth control and antibiotics, country after country has gone through a fairly standard shift. First, the mortality rate drops, especially among the young and the aging, and that quickly translates into a bigger workforce. Then, birthrates drop, as families realize that they no longer need to birth a basketball team to ensure that a couple members will survive to adulthood. A falling birthrate means that parents can invest more in each child; with fewer mouths to feed, more and better food can nourish each of them, and children can spend more years in school, causing worker productivity to rise from one generation to the next. As the burden of bearing and rearing children lightens, mothers can do more work outside the home, boosting both household resources and the national economy.

In 1984, when Ronald Reagan spoke of “morning in America,” he was at least demographically accurate. The youngest members of America’s vast Baby Boom were in college; the oldest were on the brink of their peak earning power. America was about to reap what the economists David Bloom and David Canning have dubbed the “demographic dividend” of rising labor supply and productivity. Bloom and Canning’s analysis of East Asia and Ireland attributes a substantial fraction of the recent economic booms in those places to this dividend.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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