Daily Archives: October 26, 2011

Being stuck in traffic is more bearable if the other lanes are moving. If all lanes are jammed for a long time, tempers flare. And if the police eventually arrive and let a few selected cars get out of their lanes and move through a special path, a riot is likely to ensue. This in short is the sentiment that propels the Occupy Wall St protests, and we should take note.

The traffic jam metaphor for the political consequences of economic mobility was originally proposed by Albert Hirschman, the noted economist, to explain changes in tolerance for income in equality in poor countries. The idea is simple: even a modicum of social mobility – sparked by economic growth – buys patience and political stability in developing countries. As people see their neighbours improve their lot they are willing to wait for their turn.

This idea is now in theory applicable to some of the world’s wealthiest nations – except that the Occupy Wall Street crowds, the protesters in the City of London, or the Italian and Greek protesters are getting out of their “cars”, and clashing with the police not just because they see their “traffic lane” horribly jammed. It’s also because they are moving backwards. As they watch wealthy elite gets richer, they are getting increasingly angry. Read more

Days and nights, Europe’s leaders have discussed the minutiae of private-sector involvement in the Greek debt restructuring. They have immersed themselves in financial engineering with the aim of leveraging the European financial stability facility. This is all necessary, but it’s the job of finance ministers or Treasury officials. What citizens and markets alike expect from the heads of state and government is that they do the job for which they are indispensable, and map out the political choices Europe is now screaming for.

A key reason why the eurozone is under challenge is that markets have become conscious of a fundamental weaknesses in its design. It relies on three hardly-compatible principles: national banking systems, which both finance the sovereign and rely on it as a potential backstop; states that are supposed to be solely responsible for their own debt, so that they cannot rely on partners when in trouble; and a central bank that has not been given the mandate to be a lender of last resort.

There are several, partially compatible ways out of this. Provided it is implemented consistently, any of these responses would be recognised by markets as a watershed. Each has advantages and drawbacks. Each has broader implications for Europe. Each involves risks. But a way has to be chosen. As the Pierre Mendès-France, the late French prime minister, used to say, “gouverner, c’est choisir”. Read more