Ann Mettler: Has the time finally come for Fiscal Sustainability?

The following opinion piece from Ann Mettler, Executive Director of the Brussels based think tank The Lisbon Council is kindly being republished from her blog.

I have had the pleasure of meeting Ann on a number of occassions and I can attest to her knowledge and commitment to seeing Europe become the economy that many of us hope it can be.

Ann writes:

Greek default and the risk of contagion: Has the time finally come for Fiscal Sustainability?

What can I say? There isn’t a person I know who didn’t see the impending Greek default coming. It’s a country that has had no strategy for generating growth, unfunded pension liabilities en masse, a bloated, inefficient state sector, poor educational institutions, and an abysmal demographic outlook. For years, these developments could be softened by borrowing ever more and running up an unsustainable deficit, currently standing at 120% of GDP.

The only real surprise with what’s happening now is the speed with which events are unfolding and how visibly unprepared Europe is, despite the fact that experts have been warning that this would happen for years. It infuriates me that up until now fiscal sustainability has been the exclusive preoccupation of a handful of economists. I have argued for years that just as we taught citizens the need for environmental sustainability, the same can be done for fiscal sustainability. People deserve to know what happens when governments go on spending binges, driving up public debt and shouldering young people and future generations with the expense of today’s excesses. Just like no individual can permanently live beyond his or her means, no state can do so either. And you believe Argentina can’t happen in Europe? You better think again.

What is a mystery to me is why this looming and well-known threat was never communicated to a broader public; why this was never made an issue on par with environmental sustainability; why it had to remain the exclusive domain of academic economists, when the repercussions were so clearly to be felt by society-at-large.

Back in 2006, the Lisbon Council tried to kick off a fiscal sustainability initiative, attempting to broaden the widely accepted concept of sustainability to public finances. There was mild interest and encouragement from the European Commission’s DG Economic and Financial Affairs. We even got to host then-Economic Commissioner Almunia for a keynote speech but it was impossible to sustain any kind of momentum in the ensuing months in the absence of political leadership. None of the subsequent EU Presidencies or the European Commission highlighted the issue of unsustainable public finances in a concerted and ambitious manner. I guess after making the Stability and Growth Pact more “flexible” in 2005, ruining public finances was officially condoned and member states thought they could just go on with their reckless behaviour.

Reading some of my editorials from 2006, I feel angry and ashamed about the path of fiscal ruin that we in Europe subsequently embarked on, and which I back then warned of:

The [Stability and Growth Pact] has utterly failed to explain to the average citizen the need for future-oriented budget priorities, fiscal discipline and long-term sustainability of public finances. The ultimate price for today’s lack of leadership will be borne by future generations, who – unless something is done now – will inherit a system so loaded with debt and so burdened by interest payments that political room to manoeuvre will be remembered as a luxury of the distant past.” (From ‘Europe must take an honest long-term fiscal view’, Financial Times, 6 November 2006)

If Europe wants to be a responsible and respected global citizen again, as we were when we embraced and advanced the concept of environmental sustainability, we must urgently take action and kick off a second sustainability movement, one that will prepare our public finances and social security systems for the cataclysmic demographic changes on the horizon. How can we expect the world to listen to our calls for environmental sustainability while we squander the precious fiscal resources of our children and future generations? The time has come to abide by the values and principles we claim to possess.” (From ‘ Now What About Fiscal Sustainability?”, BusinessWeek, 22 November 2006)

Rather than feeling vindication because I knew this crisis would happen one day, I frankly feel anger and frustration at our policy makers and the economists who advise them. It is their closed-shop mentality – either trying to keep bad news from the public in the case of the former or simply believing that it’s not their job to communicate more broadly in the case of the latter – that is coming to haunt us now. Imagine if we had kept the threats of climate change to a closed, secluded group of decision makers and experts. What kind of public action and acceptance could we have expected? The people of Europe will now pay a heavy price for years of denial and acquiescence. And perhaps, just perhaps, we will see broader public movement towards fiscal sustainability after all. It is a pity that we were unable to do this in the mature, pro-active way that advanced democracies should be capable of, and that we are now faced instead with top-down, harsh austerity programmes that will impact our lives for years and decades to come.

- Today (28th April 2010) the Lisbon Council has released an e-brief about the financial situation and the actions required to rescue the situation. The paper has been written by Alessandro Leipold, economic adviser to the Lisbon Council and a former acting director of the European Department at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and can be found here.

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