"Since 1800, 22 former Spanish colonies have become independent," said Mr. Sala-i-Martin, a Columbia University professor who co-wrote an economics textbook and helped develop the Global Competitiveness Report for this past week’s World Economic Forum in Davos. "None of them regrets it."
Mr. Sala-i-Martin is one of six respected Catalan academics who have stepped from the ivory tower into a political battle with high stakes for Spain and the rest of the European Union—including its common currency.
They are high-profile protagonists in a long-running public debate over what Catalonia, the so-called factory of Spain, could gain or lose from breaking away.
On blogs, in interviews and in meetings with business and citizen groups, the six academics argue that Spain’s system of sharing tax revenues among the 17 regions shortchanges Catalonia by about €16 billion ($22 billion) annually. That amounts to more than €2,000 per inhabitant, or around 8% of Catalonia’s output, based on public tax and investment data, the academics say.
They argue that the northeastern region of 7.5 million people could become not only a viable country, but quite possibly an economic juggernaut.
The scholars—five economists and a political scientist from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, the London School of Economics and prominent institutions—call themselves the Wilson Initiative, after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a champion of national self-determination.
While acknowledging their influence, some other economists say the big-name professors overstate the potential benefits of independence while understating the transition costs and the risk that Spain could splinter further.
The critics note that while sales of goods from Catalan companies to the rest of the world—€58 billion in 2012—surpassed their €49 billion in sales to the rest of Spain that year, Spain still accounts for a massive chunk.
Activists for Catalan independence say he lends intellectual legitimacy to their cause. “Spain is trying to frighten Catalans about the economic consequences of independence, but Sala-i-Martin is able to rebut those arguments with numbers and the authority of his position,” said Eduardo Reyes, head of a pro-independence group called Sumate.
The Wilson Initiative has drawn the attention of economists elsewhere, though few publicly embrace its arguments.
"If you were to ask in which ways economists today are having the most influence on the world, this movement would be close to the top of the list," George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen wrote in his widely read "Marginal Revolution" blog.
But he added: “I am still waiting to hear why Catalonian independence wouldn’t bring the fiscal death knell of current Spain, and thus also the collapse of current euro-zone arrangements and perhaps also a euro-zone-wide depression.”
Top EU officials have stated repeatedly that any part of any member state that becomes independent would be automatically outside the EU. If it wanted to join, its application would have to be ratified by the rest. — (WSJ)