Americans are clucking righteously over the financial mess in Europe, acting alarmed but privately finding pleasure in the other guy’s misfortunes. Poor, poor, pitiful Europeans. Why can’t they be more like us? American punditry assures us the end is nigh for the euro, with the slow-motion breakup of the European Union bound to follow. Now American politicians have someone to blame if the US economy goes off the rails. U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A.
My advice to Americans: hold the Schadenfreude. Yes, an epic drama is unfolding in Europe’s financial crisis—fraught with great risk and painful choices—but it is not the story we are being told by triumphalist American media and policy elites. Instead of sneering comparisons, people should see the similarities between our situation and theirs. Europe is not busted.
Europeans may in fact be on the brink of achieving great change—a deep turn in history that is politically explosive but profoundly progressive. They may not get there, not yet. But don’t count them out.
Events are compelling the nations of Europe to consider whether they must at last decide to become the “United States of Europe.” That is the subtext for current events. It was the old dream born after the bloody turmoil of World War II. It has been patiently nurtured step by step by two generations of postwar Europeans. Led by Germany and France in grand détente, the high-minded vision was that bitter rivals could eventually evolve into the USE—a viable economic rival to the USA.
There are lots of reasons to be skeptical. Completing the unification would require existing nations to give up a crucial measure of their sovereign power to decide taxation and spending. The peoples of Europe would have to accept a new identity for themselves, superseding ancient ethnic rivalries. The political systems of nation-states would have to organize a new unified structure of centralized governance, more or less like the United States of America. Irony of ironies, the once-defeated and disgraced nation—Germany—is now the economic powerhouse shaping the future, pushing for a centralized government and politics, to the queasy discomfort of its neighbors. Can they trust the Germans? Do they have a choice?
Despite the obvious difficulties, I see two main reasons why Europeans will push forward toward fulfilling the original expectation. First, the present system doesn’t work. The euro provides a unified currency that can be destabilized so long as individual governments are free to set conflicting fiscal policies—borrowing and spending their way into deep holes. Politicians are blameworthy, but the true culprits in this arrangement are the globalized banks that game the system country by country, piling up impossible debt burdens for nations, then demanding bank bailouts when those nations go broke. That is not really so different from the debt crisis that the deregulated banking system created for the United States.
Second, the imperative for unification is deeply grounded in European history and social reality. Across many centuries, these countries have fought repetitive wars with one another, striving for imperial power or religious supremacy or control of economic resources. After Hitler’s slaughtering reign, the Germans and the French and others came together and agreed: Never again. They must now create a different future. The alternative would be too disastrous to bear. The process is messy and studded with perilous moments, but the series of new agreements accepting shared responsibility for member nations’ debts are de facto steps toward writing a new constitution for the USE.
The greater political challenge is convincing the peoples of Europe, who are rightly skeptical about giving up national sovereignty. They suspect that it will simply create a remote new power center that favors austerity over the general public welfare. Still, the step-by-step deal-making is teaching a powerful lesson to European politicians who take care of the bankers and ignore the popular pain. They can look forward to losing their jobs at the next election. American politicians, as it happens, need to learn the same lesson.
Some ill-informed commentators are disparaging Europe’s dilemma by mistakenly contrasting it with the formative experience in early American history. After the revolution, Alexander Hamilton took charge at the Treasury Department and paid off the debts accumulated by the original thirteen states. He created a central bank to issue US currency. The founding fathers drafted a constitution that gave lasting definition to the national-local divisions of power. This is bogus history. Do not believe it.
The truth is, the United States has struggled bitterly with very similar questions of political power for generations. Some remain bitterly unresolved. From the start, the United States was pinned down and retarded in its development by the issue known as “states’ rights.” It was really about human rights—the system of slavery the founders had consecrated in the original Constitution. After repeated rounds of so-called compromises, the dispute was finally resolved by a bloody civil war. Yet retrograde battles over states’ rights are again in vogue.
Likewise for the money issues. States and regions and popular opinion persistently resisted the consolidation of banking and finance decisions at the national level. Andrew Jackson shut down Hamilton’s central bank. Popular distrust of bankers prevented a new one until the Federal Reserve was created in 1913. Yet banking and finance are back on top, despite generations of reform.
If Americans understood the real subtext of Europe’s crisis, they might be more sympathetic. If Americans were taught their own real history, there would be less gloating.