In July, 2008, on the eve of the biggest financial crisis in memory, the European Central Bank did something both predictable and stupid: it raised interest rates. The move was predictable because the E.C.B.’s president, Jean-Claude Trichet, was an inflation hawk; he worried about rising oil and food prices and saw a rate hike as a way of tamping them down. But the move was also remarkably ill timed. The crisis was already under way, European economic growth had slowed to a crawl, and within a couple of months the global economy had collapsed, inflation had disappeared, and the E.C.B. was forced to slash interest rates, in an attempt to avert economic disaster. That July rate hike was like kicking the economy when it was down.I think the Peter Principle is alive and well and explains the heads of all big institutions. How else could the IMF end up with a rapist as their chief?
One might have thought that the E.C.B. would learn from the experience. No such luck. This year, Europe has been wrestling with high unemployment, slow growth, and a continuing debt crisis, with the economies of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain (the so-called PIIGS) struggling to avoid default. Given the situation, Trichet could have decided to keep interest rates where they were, as both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have done. Instead, the E.C.B. raised interest rates in April and, once more, in July. Again, as if on cue, European economic growth stalled and the continent’s debt crisis deepened, which has created problems for markets around the world.
To be fair, the E.C.B. isn’t alone in its paranoia about inflation. That bias reflects the preferences of many voters, whose hatred of inflation tends to be disproportionate to its real costs. (Cue Rick Perry saying that looser monetary policy would be “almost treasonous.”) Most studies of moderate inflation find that its costs are quite small, but a study of elections in thirteen European countries from the nineteen-sixties to the nineties found that voters were far more likely to toss out politicians when inflation rose than when unemployment did. Inflation hits everyone, after all, even those who have jobs, and it’s easier to get angry about expensive gasoline than about that raise you might have got if the economy were stronger.
I think Obama is a good example of the Peter Principle in action. He was diligent, polite, caution so he won the big prize. People simply expected that if he were running for president he realized that required leadership skills and probably had them. We are all shocked to discover that Obama hasn't a clue about what it takes to be a real leader. In his own mind he is doing great things, but if you look around, the US is in a mess and like a car stuck in the mud, the engine is being pumped and wheels are spinning and a great roaring noise arises from time to time, but that car is going nowhere.