There are three kinds of countries that have been hurt by the euro: ones that did everything wrong, ones that did everything right and all the rest in between.
That first group has gotten the most attention because they've done the worst economically and have been the best at confirming our moral intuitions. It makes a certain amount of sense that a country that borrowed a lot of money overseas so its government could go on an unsustainable spending spree, like Greece's did, or its banks could inflate a massive housing bubble, like Spain's did, would get into trouble. What's a little harder to understand, though, when it comes to this idea of just deserts, is why a country like Italy has fared so poorly. Sure, it has too much red tape, but is it really so much that its economy shouldn't have grown at all (in per capita terms) since it joined the euro nearly 20 years ago?
That's a dangerous question, but it's even more so when you ask it about Finland. That's a country, after all, that has followed every rule and checked every box. Its schools are among the best in the world, its government is among the least corrupt, its public debt is relatively low, and its businesses are free from having to engage in the kind of bureaucratic hoop-jumping that can slow down even the strongest economy. Despite all that, it has fallen behind where it should be in recent years, and, if recent International Monetary Fund projections are correct, might never make that up.
To get an idea of where it should be, all you have to do is look at Sweden. It's similar in every respect, except it doesn't use the euro. Indeed, as Paul Krugman points out, the two countries grew almost identical amounts between 1989 and 2011 in per capita terms, before the euro turned what should have been a few bad quarters for Finland into a few bad years. The result, as you can see below, is that, even though it's recovering now, it's still 11 percent behind Sweden, and it isn't expected to catch up much more than that over the next five years.
That's a high price to pay for not having to change your money when you visit Germany.
The important thing to understand here is that Finland was the Microsoft of countries. Which is to say that it was a onetime tech leader that got decimated by Apple in the early 2000s. The iPhone turned Nokia, which, at its peak accounted for 4 percent of Finland's economy, into a cautionary tale for MBAs, and the iPad put the country's paper products, another big export, under similar pressure.
These kind of shocks were always going to hurt, but they were more painful than they needed to be because Finland couldn't do what it normally would: devalue its currency. That, of course, wouldn't have resurrected Nokia's flip phones from the ash heap of economic history that is a VH1 “I Love the 2000s” episode, but it would have made it easier for Finland to reorient its economy by making its costs more competitive overnight. Instead, it had to do so by cutting wages (which it has). That not only takes longer, since people resist taking pay cuts for the very good reason that their debts won't be shrinking, but also causes more economic damage because companies have to fire people to get others to do so. Eventually this will “work” — Finland's economy is growing pretty well right now — but you'll fall behind so much in the meantime that it almost won't matter. You'll still end up worse off.
The euro, in other words, wasn't Finland's only problem, but it was the problem that made solving the other ones harder.
None of this should be a surprise. Economists always knew that countries would have a harder time dealing with the ups-and-downs of the business cycle when they couldn't use their own monetary policies to do so. This meant that responsible and irresponsible countries alike could get stuck in what seemed like never-ending recessions. All it took was for their needs to be different enough from everyone else's who used the euro that they never got the interest rate cuts they were desperate for. And as Finland shows us, this can cause lasting damage.
The lesson is that it really is better to be lucky than good, at least when it comes to the euro. That's because the important thing you can do isn't following all of the economic rules to try to stay out of trouble, but rather hoping that everyone else gets in trouble at the same time you do. That's the only way you'll get help.
The only thing less fair than life is the euro.