For those who are economically minded, Paul Krugman has a great article in the upcoming Times Sunday Magazine (Jan. 16) on the creation of the euro and the benefits and difficulties involved in this process.
At its heart, his comparison of Ireland and Nevada highlights the issues very clearly,
Climate, scenery and history aside, the nation of Ireland and the state of Nevada have much in common. Both are small economies of a few million people highly dependent on selling goods and services to their neighbors. (Nevada’s neighbors are other U.S. states, Ireland’s other European nations, but the economic implications are much the same.) Both were boom economies for most of the past decade. Both had huge housing bubbles, which burst painfully. Both are now suffering roughly 14 percent unemployment. And both are members of larger currency unions: Ireland is part of the euro zone, Nevada part of the dollar zone, otherwise known as the United States of America.
But Nevada’s situation is much less desperate than Ireland’s.
First of all, the fiscal side of the crisis is less serious in Nevada. It’s true that budgets in both Ireland and Nevada have been hit extremely hard by the slump. But much of the spending Nevada residents depend on comes from federal, not state, programs. In particular, retirees who moved to Nevada for the sunshine don’t have to worry that the state’s reduced tax take will endanger their Social Security checks or their Medicare coverage. In Ireland, by contrast, both pensions and health spending are on the cutting block.
Also, Nevada, unlike Ireland, doesn’t have to worry about the cost of bank bailouts, not because the state has avoided large loan losses but because those losses, for the most part, aren’t Nevada’s problem. Thus Nevada accounts for a disproportionate share of the losses incurred by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage companies — losses that, like Social Security and Medicare payments, will be covered by Washington, not Carson City.
And there’s one more advantage to being a U.S. state: it’s likely that Nevada’s unemployment problem will be greatly alleviated over the next few years by out-migration, so that even if the lost jobs don’t come back, there will be fewer workers chasing the jobs that remain. Ireland will, to some extent, avail itself of the same safety valve, as Irish citizens leave in search of work elsewhere and workers who came to Ireland during the boom years depart. But Americans are extremely mobile; if historical patterns are any guide, emigration will bring Nevada’s unemployment rate back in line with the U.S. average within a few years, even if job growth in Nevada continues to lag behind growth in the nation as a whole.
Over all, then, even as both Ireland and Nevada have been especially hard-luck cases within their respective currency zones, Nevada’s medium-term prospects look much better.
What does this have to do with the case for or against the euro? Well, when the single European currency was first proposed, an obvious question was whether it would work as well as the dollar does here in America. And the answer, clearly, was no — for exactly the reasons the Ireland-Nevada comparison illustrates. Europe isn’t fiscally integrated: German taxpayers don’t automatically pick up part of the tab for Greek pensions or Irish bank bailouts. And while Europeans have the legal right to move freely in search of jobs, in practice imperfect cultural integration — above all, the lack of a common language — makes workers less geographically mobile than their American counterparts.
The issue here is that the difficulty of creating a monetary union without a corresponding political fiscal union creates huge problems for the member states and their citizens.