Angela Merkel's fireside chat
The Washington Post, June 6, 2012
Can Angela Merkel give a good fireside chat? The fate of Europe may depend on it.
On one level it seems surreal that even an epic mistake involving an abstract concept like "money"—a tool, like the euro, meant to facilitate exchange and serve as a store of value—can now inflict immense suffering on millions. Life's savings lost, jobs scarce, firms shuttered, the prospects of a generation darkened. All through a storm not of their own making.
How can people in Greece and Spain make sense of what's happening? I certainly can't claim to have wrapped my mind around it all.
But one thing is clear: Europe's probable calamity—I hate to write those words, but that's what it looks like to me, even if the can has a few good kicks left in it—throws into relief the profound way elites have failed. The euro crisis is a reminder of how much depends, in the end, on the quality of a society's elites. This is an unfashionable sentiment in Western democracies, but it's true nonetheless.
Consider a partial catalogue of elite miscalculations or misbehavior here:
First, elites across Europe decided that giving up the power to run an independent monetary policy was a good idea for a nation—even though that meant there would no longer be a way for individual countries to fight economic downturns by cutting interest rates, or to cure a loss of competitiveness by devaluing the national currency.
Next, elites assumed that at some point ordinary Europeans would agree to hand control over much of national spending and taxes to some pan-European authority as well. Huh?
What's more, in a move that quietly helped fuel today's crisis, regulators decided banks didn't need to hold any capital in reserve against loans made to European governments. As a result, banks stocked up on sovereign debt that turned out not to be riskless but very risky indeed. Top bankers were happy to go along with this charade because running banks with even less capital and more leverage than the already reckless U.S. system turned out to be a way for bank executives to pay themselves more (since bonuses are often tied to a bank's return on equity, which, at any given level of profit, rises the more leverage you employ).
What kind of "leaders" pursue such an irresponsible, shortsighted course? To ask the question is to answer it.
Which brings us to Angela Merkel. The German chancellor should listen to Franklin D. Roosevelt's first fireside chat, delivered on March 12, 1933, eight days after Roosevelt took office. Banks had failed in droves, as citizens who'd lost confidence in the system withdrew their cash. Fear and panic were palpable. Some version of this psychology could afflict big chunks of Europe soon.
Even at a distance of eight decades, FDR's 13-minute address is a marvel. The new president explains in clear terms what's happened, and what the government is doing about it. He treats Americans like adults who can be trusted to back a plan that's reasonable. He's honest about the pain some will suffer but confident the country will come out the other side. Listening to the scratchy recording today, one can imagine the reassurance the talk gave a scared nation.
If it comes, Merkel's televised chat will face greater challenges. For one thing, she needs to address not just her countrymen but the broader citizenry of Europe. Merkel's talk will need translation, a jarring reminder to those outside Germany that a foreigner is shaping your fate. (Imagine Americans listening to a speech from a Mexican or Chinese leader on whose actions our well-being suddenly depended, and you see how alien the prospect seems.)
Merkel will need to explain how the European project came to this pass—a tale of good intentions gone awry. She'll have to honor and give voice to all the emotions roiling the continent. Of course Greeks are angry about being thrust into a depression and bullied by foreigners, she'd acknowledge; of course her fellow Germans resent rescuing spendthrift nations whose people seem to work less hard than they do.
In short, Merkel will need to summon an almost superhuman empathy with the entirety of Europe. And she'll need to marshal that understanding to sell a course of action so compelling that hundreds of millions of people over whom she has no jurisdiction will accept her authority to steer them through these trying days.
If ever the historical moment makes the man or the woman, we're about to find out.
The details would involve things such as Europe-wide deposit insurance and bank-rescue authority. Maybe it would mean emergency legislation that sunsets these temporary powers in five years, so that nations can decide in calmer times how much sovereignty (if any) they really wish to concede. They could amend (or end) the euro in an orderly way later. But now, to avert apocalypse, a German leader needs to act, and get everyone to follow.
There's a tragic logic to what's unfolding. And no good options. It's a matter of apportioning pain in hopes of rebuilding for a better day some years hence. There will be 11th-hour attempts to put patches on things, to buy time. But, absent a sudden flowering of the kind of leadership that would earn Mrs. Merkel a place in history's pantheon, it's hard not to have a terrible feeling about where this crisis is headed.