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A Beautiful Mess

John Nash, the "Beautiful Mind" in the film based on Sylvia Nasar's biography, was a far less pleasant fellow than the character played by Russell Crowe, and the "Nash Equilibrium" a far less pleasant vision of the world than the book or film allowed. Nash demonstrated that it is quite possible for competitors to choose mutual annihilation as a matter of rational self-interest. Let's say you belong to a neolithic tribe that hunts mammoths. If the tribe next door kills more mammoths than you do, they eat more, get stronger, and kill you (and possibly eat you, too). So you kill as many mammoths as possible, both to eat more and deny sustenance to the competition. So does everyone else. Mammoths become extinct, and you all die out. A simple way to put it is that people only accept a solution as long as it includes them.

Europe is locked in something of a  Nash Equilibrium: the political class will commit collective suicide and take what remains of the European economy down with it, rather than accede to terms that would save the economy, but eliminate the political class. The political class draws on a vast number of actual and prospective wards of the state who stand to live miserably if governments really were to cut spending enough to allay the fiscal crisis.

From the standpoint of many Italian voters, it makes no sense to accept budget cuts, because the proportion of elderly dependents will rise from 30% of the population today, to an impossible 65% around 2050. Italy's present generation, which had about 1.25 children per female, will age into a world in which the tax base cannot possibly support them for the simple reason that too few taxpayers will exist. Fiscal austerity is not a question of comfort but of survival, and Italians have no rational reason to accept the sort of terms that the European Central Bank would like, because under austerity, their lives would change beyond recognition. This is an existential crisis, as the consequences of Italy's gradual demographic death peak over the horizon.

Italians want to postpone the reckoning by extracting more subsidies from Germany, but German voters vehemently oppose this, and expressed their anger at their government by crushing the ruling party in six state elections in succession. By 2040, Germany's old-age dependency ratio will rise to 58%, almost as bad as Italy's. Because Germany has succeeded in dominating key niches in the world market for capital goods, Germany has more flexibility. But Germany's problem is almost as severe as Italy's, and Germans do not believe they should subsidize their feckless southern neighbors.

On the face of it, the stock market's fixation with southern Europe seems unwarranted; as I argued in this morning's Spengler column at Asia Times Online, national bankruptcy is the best thing that could happen to Italian manufacturing. FIAT, to be sure, probably will go bankrupt (and deserves to for the offense of pitching the poor  man's car of the Italian 1960s, the Cinquecento, to downwardly-mobile American consumers). The real Italian economy exists off the books, in pockets of technical talent preserved in thousands of family-owned firms. Without the predatory incompetence of the Italian state, these talented companies could find Asian partners and extend their reach to the world market.

On paper, there's no crisis at all, only a negotiation. Italy, Greece, and other failing companies put their assets up for sale, and allow the Chinese and other Asians to take over the corporate monopolies on which the system of state corruption is founded. Bondholders take a loss, some of the European banks go bankrupt, and they in turn are sold off to foreigners. It took a few months to arrange all of this in Thailand in 1997.

The trouble is that the whole of the southern European political structure lives off corruption, and a large part of the population has been corrupted as well. Without control of the assets that otherwise should be auctioned off to foreigners, the politicians and their hangers-on will be fleas on a dead dog. That is to say that the sort of solution that looks good on paper is one that would not include a role for most of the people who currently wield power in Greece and Italy.

Germany is just as paralyzed as Italy or Greece. Most Germans know perfectly well that the countries where they vacation are corrupt to the hilt, because they pay for their summer home by wiring money to a bank account in Liechtenstein. No-one actually pays full price above board for a home in Umbria or Mykonos. In that case, the seller would have to pay taxes.

Although the German public is resigned to southern European bankruptcy, the German government is not; the entire political class of Germany is dedicated to European solidarity as an antidote to German nationalism and cannot imagine throwing the Greeks under the bus (that is, pushing them out of the Euro). So the Eurocrats spin one unworkable, unacceptable bailout scheme after another. And each time the Greeks display their empty pockets and grin. Both sides are existentially incapable of doing what is required. Neither Eurocrats nor Greek (or Italian) politicians would find employment in the post-crisis world.

That is what keeps the market in a state of near-panic. There is no way to align the players for a solution except by pushing the situation to, and perhaps over, the brink. To put the Italian (let alone the Greek) political class into receivership, it may require actual, national receivership: banks shut their doors, pension checks aren't mailed, oil refiners close, tankers are turned back at the ports for lack of cash. I do not think any such thing will occur. Nor do I think that an Italian national bankruptcy will mean much for the world economy.

Remember that two thirds of the world's population (China, India, peripheral Asia, Latin America) is still enjoying strong economic growth. The U.S. economy is weak but not crashing. Europe is a big chunk of the world's GDP, and it is crashing, but its importance is diminishing by the year. It's not the end of the world; it's just the end of the Europeans.

 

(Also, catch Spengler on CNBC's "Kudlow Report" at 7:30 pm Eastern)