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Stephen Kinsella: All we need is a nutter in a balloon to give perspective

Sometimes, all you need is a nutter in a balloon to change your perspective. And perspective is everything.

In the early 1900s, physicists couldn't understand where the background radiation came from, which messed up their experiments. Two candidates for the source of the radiation were proposed. One in the surface layers of the earth due to radium and thorium, the other in the atmosphere due to what we would today call radon.

In April 1912, Dr Victor Hess, an Austrian experimental physicist and keen balloonist, took his instruments up with him in his balloon. He made it to 4,800 feet and his precision electroscopes picked up the fact that the radiation levels were three times higher than on the ground. The radiation was coming from space. Hess had discovered cosmic rays, and won the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery in 1936.

Note that nothing changed for Victor Hess: he didn't invent a new electroscope; he didn't discover a new way to ask the question on radiation; he just changed the altitude of the electroscope. His change of perspective uncovered something totally new, a low probability, high impact event that couldn't be foreseen ahead of time, even by experts in the area.

The lesson Victor Hess teaches those looking intently at the European crisis is that alternative perspectives yield insight. So let's do that now.

At 10 feet above the ground, we have Europe's banks, some of which are insolvent, meaning the value of their liabilities is greater than the value of their assets. These banks, large and small, are connected together because they hold each other's debt, and because they share the same economies.

Everyone is currently worried about the balance sheets of Europe's banks. The European Central Bank is flooding the banks with liquidity to keep them from collapsing and busily regulating what it perceives are the riskier parts of Europe's banking system.

The balance sheets of private banks, firms, and households depend on this liquidity, and without it the system as a whole would grind to a halt. No one wants this. Without growth or inflation, the debts of the banking system threaten to collapse the European economy.

At 100 feet we have the sovereign nations, vying with each other to control the political agenda. The private debts of citizens and their banks have been transferred to public debt, resulting in fiscal imbalances and costly borrowing.

Germany is pushing through a series of policies designed to limit its exposure to budgetary mismanagement on the part of other sovereigns.

Countries like Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece are beholden in every sense to the leadership in Europe, but countries like Italy and Belgium are heading for trouble as well, with Belgium's debt to national output ratio well above 100pc for some time now.

All attention is on Greece at the moment, but other problems lie in wait once the Greek situation is eventually resolved.

At 1,000 feet we have the EU itself. Remember the EU is a supra-national organisation, a network of interacting institutions designed as the economic solution to a political problem: how to stop Europe's nations from fighting costly wars with one another.

The EU itself suffers from a democratic deficit, as many observers, including philosopher Jurgen Habermas, have pointed out. Without political legitimacy and without economic growth, the project will eventually falter.

It is becoming obvious that Europe needs a government. The fact that meetings at prime ministerial level are almost monthly occurrences now is a testament to the need for more permanent representative government.

The other issue at this level is the under-development of the institutions. Europe is working, in practice, a bit like Germany's lander system of quasi-independent sub-states with autonomous budgets.

In fact, Europe needs to be working more like the United States of America. The clear strategy of Europe's visionary class since the 1940s has been one of graduated integration, where each phase of integration takes place slowly, and steadily. That process is now stalling in some respects, and marching forward in others.

It is not obvious that we will see a directly elected president of the EU with a foreign minister, finance minister, harmonised tax policy, and aligned political and social goals and programmes. However, there is now a pan-European financial regulator, as a response to the crisis, and Europe's banking system is more integrated than ever.

At 10,000 feet we have the global stage. The empire of the United States is losing its 50-year grip on its status as the leader of the global economy. The rise of the European super state, and the Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian economies all threaten to unseat the US.

But not yet. It is here, in this rarified atmosphere, that we find a different answer to our fundamental question.

We have been consumed in Europe by the attempt to find a solution to overweening debt. Two hypotheses have been put forward. Either we cut our way to growth, or we use more debt to induce more growth and hope we grow enough to pay down our debts.

A third answer is that Europe looks carefully at its trade flows, and ask what is required to boost this trade with developing economies, with economies that will, without doubt, eclipse us in 20 years' time.

The low probability, high impact event here is the collapse of the Chinese economy under the strain of double-digit growth for decades. Bubbles have formed like balloons, and when they burst, the entire edifice of the world economy may come down.

Irish Independent