Struggling with a great contraction

Martin Wolf has a sobering column in today’s FT. This is how it begins:

Many ask whether high-income countries are at risk of a “double dip” recession. My answer is: no, because the first one did not end. The question is, rather, how much deeper and longer this recession or “contraction” might become. The point is that, by the second quarter of 2011, none of the six largest high-income economies had surpassed output levels reached before the crisis hit, in 2008. The US and Germany are close to their starting points, with France a little way behind. The UK, Italy and Japan are languishing far behind.

Further down, he has some pretty harsh things to say about Obama and Merkel. Thus:

The depth of the contraction and the weakness of the recovery are both result and cause of the ongoing economic fragility. They are a result, because excessive private sector debt interacts with weak asset prices, particularly of housing, to depress demand. They are a cause, because the weaker is the expected growth in demand, the smaller is the desire of companies to invest and the more subdued is the impulse to lend. This, then, is an economy that fails to achieve “escape velocity” and so is in danger of falling back to earth.

Now consider, against this background of continuing fragility, how people view the political scene. In neither the US nor the eurozone, does the politician supposedly in charge – Barack Obama, the US president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor – appear to be much more than a bystander of unfolding events, as my colleague, Philip Stephens, recently noted. Both are – and, to a degree, operate as – outsiders. Mr Obama wishes to be president of a country that does not exist. In his fantasy US, politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony. In fact, he faces an opposition that would prefer their country to fail than their president to succeed. Ms Merkel, similarly, seeks a non-existent middle way between the German desire for its partners to abide by its disciplines and their inability to do any such thing. The realisation that neither the US nor the eurozone can create conditions for a speedy restoration of growth – indeed the paralysing disagreements over what those conditions might be – is scary.