In the recent days I've read a book by J. Beyen called: 'het spel en de knikkers'. It's a Dutch autobiography describing the life and career of a banker, central banker, former President of the BIS, Executive Director at the IMF, Minister of Foreign Affairs and so on. Beyen was for example one of the important Dutch delegates at the Bretton Woods conference. And his book - in particular the episode on the golden standard - is fascinating.
Golden Standard as the solution or the problem?
Until the First World War, the golden standard had become the de facto monetary norm for governments/countries. It consisted of a set of fixed exchange rates, which meant that local economies sometimes had to suffer, as devaluation was impossible. On the other hand, it allowed for a lot of international trade and stability and was thus praised and adopted. Until the First World War changed a lot and the golden standard was abandoned.
In his book, Beyen describes the major sentiment of policy makers after the First World War. And he calls it the desire to go 'back to normal'. A central theme in this desire was the re-establishment of the Golden Standard. Beyen also describes that monetary thinking at that time wasn't as advanced as in 1968 (when he wrote the book) He sketches that the system of fixed exchange rates in itself burdened the European economies, but policy makers weren't able to see this at the time: obsessed with getting back to normal.
Current flaws in Euroland thinking: still seeking a back to normal?
The musings and discussions all around Europe these days, in particular the new plans on a banking union, fascinate me enormously. The singlemindedness with which politicians now move forward into more Europe, more joint policy, more deposit guarantee may be variations on a similar desire: back to normal. Back to the Europe from before the crisis, using the same policy tools and concepts that we used before the financial and sovereign crisis broke out.
As a result, we are now witnessing policy makers, fully caught up in their goal to save Europe by designing futher institutions and policies. But, essentially, our politicians and civil servants fail to recognize that the
European car doesn't respond any more to twists of the steering wheel. The only thing that has helped (only temporarily) is throwing money at the problem.
Are we missing something here?
While our monetary thinking may evolved quite a bit since the 1930s, our knowledge of policy and strategy making is not as widely and heavily discussed and modeled. In theory we could all be aware of mechanisms such as groupthink, tunnel vision, decision complexity, resource complexity etcetera. But in practice we fail to properly recognize and address the fundamental errors in policy making.
Having read the autobiography of Beyen, I tend to believe that we are now learning new lessons in the Eurozone. And the lessons are not so much related to monetary theories but to international policy making under stress. I therefore hereby propose the concept of policy illusion to be better recognized in the future. It is the understandable tendency of policy makers to continue doing what you were doing all the time, even when the world fundamentally required a different way of looking.
And so we can now see our policy makers making policy by looking so intensely at the rear-view mirror that they will miss the fork in the road ahead.