The U.S. could learn a lot from Poland

| December 28 2012
Christopher Cook

Free marketeers, followers of Austrian economics, Ron Paul supporters, and those of us who know that easy money and a massive entitlement state are unsustainable all have at least one thing in common . . .

We love this guy!

As an economic crisis manager, Leszek Balcerowicz has few peers. When communism fell in Europe, he pioneered “shock therapy” to slay hyperinflation and build a free market. In the late 1990s, he jammed a debt ceiling into his country’s constitution, handcuffing future free spenders. When he was central-bank governor from 2001 to 2007, his hard-money policies avoided a credit boom and likely bust.

Poland was the only country in the European Union to avoid recession in 2009 and has been the fastest-growing EU economy since. Mr. Balcerowicz dwells little on this achievement. He sounds too busy in “battle”—his word—against bad policy.

“Most problems are the result of bad politics,” he says. “In a democracy, you have lots of pressure groups to expand the state for reasons of money, ideology, etc. Even if they are angels in the government, which is not the case, if there is not a counterbalance in the form of proponents of limited government, then there will be a shift toward more statism and ultimately into stagnation and crisis.”

“Poland was the only country in the European Union to avoid recession in 2009 . . . ” That is saying something. Does anyone in the zillion other countries that DID fall into recession have any interest in looking at what Poland did differently? What is it that Leszek Balcerowicz understands that they don’t?

As a former central banker, Mr. Balcerowicz struggles to find the appropriate word for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke‘s latest invention: “Unprecedented,” “a complete anathema,” “more uncharted waters.” He says such “unconventional” measures trap economies in an unvirtuous cycle. Bankers expect lower interest rates to spur growth. When that fails, as in Japan, they have no choice but to stick with easing.

“While the benefits of non-conventional [monetary] policies are short lived, the costs grow with time,” he says. “The longer you practice these sorts of policies, the more difficult it is to exit it. Japan is trapped.” Anemic Japan is the prime example, but now the U.S., Britain and potentially the European Central Bank are on the same road.

If he were in Mr. Bernanke’s shoes, Mr. Balcerowicz says he’d rethink the link between easy money and economic growth. Over time, he says, lower interest rates and money printing presses harm the economy—though not necessarily or primarily through higher inflation.

First, Bernanke-style policies “weaken incentives for politicians to pursue structural reforms, including fiscal reforms,” he says. “They can maintain large deficits at low current rates.” It indulges the preference of many Western politicians for stimulus spending. It means they don’t have to grapple as seriously with difficult choices, say, on Medicare.

Another unappreciated consequence of easy money, according to Mr. Balcerowicz, is the easing of pressure on the private economy to restructure. With low interest rates, large companies “can just refinance their loans,” he says. Banks are happy to go along. Adjustments are delayed, markets distorted.

Balcerowicz has certainly paid his dues:

Mr. Balcerowicz, who is 65, was raised in a state-planned Poland. He got a doctorate in economics, worked briefly at the Communist Party’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism, and advised the Solidarity trade union before the imposition of martial law in 1981. He came to prominence in 1989 as the father of the “Balcerowicz Plan.” Overnight, prices were freed, subsidies were slashed and the zloty currency was made convertible. It was harsh medicine, but the Polish economy recovered faster than more gradual reformers in the old Soviet bloc.

And now, he has success stories to point to to demonstrate the superiority of free-market principles over statist solutions.

Shock or no, Mr. Balcerowicz remains adamant that fixes are best implemented as quickly as possible. Europe’s PIGS—Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain—moved slowly. By contrast, Mr. Balcerowicz offers the BELLs: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

These EU countries went through a credit boom-bust after 2009. Their economies tanked, Latvia’s alone by nearly 20% that year. Denied EU bailouts, these governments were forced to adopt harsher measures than Greece. Public spending was slashed, including for government salaries. The adjustment hurt but recovery came by 2010. The BELL GDP growth curves are V-shaped. The PIGS decline was less steep, but prolonged and worse over time.

The systemic changes in the BELLs took a while to work, yet Mr. Balcerowicz says the radical approach has another, short-run benefit. He calls it the “confidence effect.” When markets saw governments implement the reforms, their borrowing costs dropped fast, while the yields for the PIGS kept rising.

He has the core understanding that so many—even among Republican power elites—fail to possess:

“There is a lot of intellectual confusion,” he says. “For example, the financial crisis has happened in the financial sector. Therefore the reason for the crisis must be something in the financial sector. Sounds logical, but it’s not. It’s like saying the reason you sneeze through your nose is your nose.”

The markets didn’t “fail” but were distorted by bad policies. He mentions “too big to fail,” the Fed’s easy money, Fannie MaeFNMA +0.78% and the housing boom. Those are the hard explanations. “Many people like cheap moralizing,” he says. “What a pleasant feeling to condemn greed. It’s popular.”

“Generally in the West, intellectuals like to blame the markets,” he says. “There is a widespread belief that crises occur in capitalism mostly. The word crisis is associated with the word capitalism. While if you look in a comparative way, you see that the largest economic and also human catastrophes happen in non-market systems, when there’s a heavy concentration of political power—Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge, many other cases.”

Going back to the 19th century, industrializing economies recovered best after a crisis with no or limited intervention. Yet Keynesians continue to insist that only the state can compensate for the flaws of the market, he says.

“This idea that markets tend to fall into self-perpetuating crises and only wise government can extract the country out of this crisis implicitly assumes that you have two kinds of people. Normal people who are operating in the markets, and better people who work for the state. They deny human nature.”

Gathering the essays for his new collection, “Discovering Freedom,” Mr. Balcerowicz realized that “you don’t need to read modern economists” to understand what’s happening today. Hume, Smith, Hayek and Tocqueville are all there. He loves Madison’s “angels” quote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

On a fundamental level, he gets it, AND his policies have been shown to work. Ben Bernanke, reality is calling on line one . . .

2 comments
Practical Pig
Practical Pig

True leaders in thought are often unpopular. Think Copernicus who heralded the Scientific Revolution. Maybe Leszek heralds an economic revolution. Great article. Thanks