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“Greece’s Economy Is A Lesson For Republicans In The U.S.”: The Toxic Combination Of Austerity With Hard Money

Greece is a faraway country with an economy roughly the size of greater Miami, so America has very little direct stake in its ongoing disaster. To the extent that Greece matters to us, it’s mainly about geopolitics: By poisoning relations among Europe’s democracies, the Greek crisis risks depriving the United States of crucial allies.

But Greece has nonetheless played an outsized role in U.S. political debate, as a symbol of the terrible things that will supposedly happen — any day now — unless we stop helping the less fortunate and printing money to fight unemployment. And Greece does indeed offer important lessons to the rest of us. But they’re not the lessons you think, and the people most likely to deliver a Greek-style economic disaster here in America are the very people who love to use Greece as a boogeyman.

To understand the real lessons of Greece, you need to be aware of two crucial points.

The first is that the “We’re Greece!” crowd has a truly remarkable track record when it comes to economic forecasting: They’ve been wrong about everything, year after year, but refuse to learn from their mistakes. The people now saying that Greece offers an object lesson in the dangers of government debt, and that America is headed down the same road, are the same people who predicted soaring interest rates and runaway inflation in 2010; then, when it didn’t happen, they predicted soaring rates and runaway inflation in 2011; then, well, you get the picture.

The second is that the story you’ve heard about Greece — that it borrowed too much, and its excessive debt led to the current crisis — is seriously incomplete. Greece did indeed run up too much debt (with a lot of help from irresponsible lenders). But its debt, while high, wasn’t that high by historical standards. What turned Greek debt troubles into catastrophe was Greece’s inability, thanks to the euro, to do what countries with large debts usually do: impose fiscal austerity, yes, but offset it with easy money.

Consider Greece’s situation at the end of 2009, when its debt crisis burst into the open. At that point Greek government debt was near 130 percent of gross domestic product, which is definitely a big number. But it’s by no means unprecedented. As it happens, Greece’s debt ratio in 2009 was about the same as America’s in 1946, just after the war. And Britain’s debt ratio in 1946 was twice as high.

Today, however, Greek debt is over 170 percent of G.D.P. and still rising. Is that because Greece just kept on borrowing? Actually, no — Greek debt is up only 6 percent since 2009, although that’s partly because it received some debt relief in 2012. The main point, however, is that the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is up because G.D.P. is down by more than 20 percent. And why is GDP down? Largely because of the austerity measures Greece’s creditors forced it to impose.

Does this mean that austerity is always self-defeating? No, there are cases — for example, Canada in the 1990s — of countries that slashed their debt while maintaining growth and reducing unemployment. But if you look at how they managed this, it involved combining fiscal austerity with easy money: Canada in the ’90s drastically reduced interest rates, encouraging private spending, while allowing its currency to depreciate, encouraging exports.

Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment. The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse. Greece’s formula for disaster, in other words, didn’t just involve austerity; it involved the toxic combination of austerity with hard money.

So who wants to impose that kind of toxic policy mix on America? The answer is, most of the Republican Party.

On one side, just about everyone in the G.O.P. demands that we reduce government spending, especially aid to lower-income families. (They also, of course, want to reduce taxes on the rich — but that wouldn’t do much to boost demand for U.S. products.)

On the other side, leading Republicans like Representative Paul Ryan incessantly attack the Federal Reserve for its efforts to boost the economy, delivering solemn lectures on the evils of “debasing” the dollar — when the main difference between the effects of austerity in Canada and in Greece was precisely that Canada could “debase” its currency, while Greece couldn’t. Oh, and many Republicans hanker for a return to the gold standard, which would effectively put us into a euro-like straitjacket.

The point is that if you really worry that the U.S. might turn into Greece, you should focus your concern on America’s right. Because if the right gets its way on economic policy — slashing spending while blocking any offsetting monetary easing — it will, in effect, bring the policies behind the Greek disaster to America.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 10, 2015

July 11, 2015 Posted by | Austerity, Greece, Republicans | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ending Greece’s Bleeding”: Europe’s Self-Styled Technocrats Are Like Medieval Doctors Who Insisted On Bleeding Their Patients

Europe dodged a bullet on Sunday. Confounding many predictions, Greek voters strongly supported their government’s rejection of creditor demands. And even the most ardent supporters of European union should be breathing a sigh of relief.

Of course, that’s not the way the creditors would have you see it. Their story, echoed by many in the business press, is that the failure of their attempt to bully Greece into acquiescence was a triumph of irrationality and irresponsibility over sound technocratic advice.

But the campaign of bullying — the attempt to terrify Greeks by cutting off bank financing and threatening general chaos, all with the almost open goal of pushing the current leftist government out of office — was a shameful moment in a Europe that claims to believe in democratic principles. It would have set a terrible precedent if that campaign had succeeded, even if the creditors were making sense.

What’s more, they weren’t. The truth is that Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding. A “yes” vote in Greece would have condemned the country to years more of suffering under policies that haven’t worked and in fact, given the arithmetic, can’t work: austerity probably shrinks the economy faster than it reduces debt, so that all the suffering serves no purpose. The landslide victory of the “no” side offers at least a chance for an escape from this trap.

But how can such an escape be managed? Is there any way for Greece to remain in the euro? And is this desirable in any case?

The most immediate question involves Greek banks. In advance of the referendum, the European Central Bank cut off their access to additional funds, helping to precipitate panic and force the government to impose a bank holiday and capital controls. The central bank now faces an awkward choice: if it resumes normal financing it will as much as admit that the previous freeze was political, but if it doesn’t it will effectively force Greece into introducing a new currency.

Specifically, if the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt (the headquarters of the central bank), Greece will have no choice but to start paying wages and pensions with i.o.u.s, which will de facto be a parallel currency — and which might soon turn into the new drachma.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the central bank does resume normal lending, and the banking crisis eases. That still leaves the question of how to restore economic growth.

In the failed negotiations that led up to Sunday’s referendum, the central sticking point was Greece’s demand for permanent debt relief, to remove the cloud hanging over its economy. The troika — the institutions representing creditor interests — refused, even though we now know that one member of the troika, the International Monetary Fund, had concluded independently that Greece’s debt cannot be paid. But will they reconsider now that the attempt to drive the governing leftist coalition from office has failed?

I have no idea — and in any case there is now a strong argument that Greek exit from the euro is the best of bad options.

Austerity hasn’t worked. Five years is enough! It’s time to try something new. The financial elites resist with an obduracy that defies…

Imagine, for a moment, that Greece had never adopted the euro, that it had merely fixed the value of the drachma in terms of euros. What would basic economic analysis say it should do now? The answer, overwhelmingly, would be that it should devalue — let the drachma’s value drop, both to encourage exports and to break out of the cycle of deflation.

Of course, Greece no longer has its own currency, and many analysts used to claim that adopting the euro was an irreversible move — after all, any hint of euro exit would set off devastating bank runs and a financial crisis. But at this point that financial crisis has already happened, so that the biggest costs of euro exit have been paid. Why, then, not go for the benefits?

Would Greek exit from the euro work as well as Iceland’s highly successful devaluation in 2008-09, or Argentina’s abandonment of its one-peso-one-dollar policy in 2001-02? Maybe not — but consider the alternatives. Unless Greece receives really major debt relief, and possibly even then, leaving the euro offers the only plausible escape route from its endless economic nightmare.

And let’s be clear: if Greece ends up leaving the euro, it won’t mean that the Greeks are bad Europeans. Greece’s debt problem reflected irresponsible lending as well as irresponsible borrowing, and in any case the Greeks have paid for their government’s sins many times over. If they can’t make a go of Europe’s common currency, it’s because that common currency offers no respite for countries in trouble. The important thing now is to do whatever it takes to end the bleeding.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 5, 2015

July 7, 2015 Posted by | Austerity, European Union, Greece | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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