Consider the often-made comparison between Greece and the state of California. Both are in deep fiscal trouble, both have a history of fiscal irresponsibility. And the political deadlock in California is, if anything, worse — after all, despite the demonstrations, Greece’s Parliament has, in fact, approved harsh austerity measures.Paul Krugman is a very smart guy. I would bet that he has the right analysis of this situation. That means there are rocky times ahead financially for the whole world.
But California’s fiscal woes just don’t matter as much, even to its own residents, as those of Greece. Why? Because much of the money spent in California comes from Washington, not Sacramento. State funding may be slashed, but Medicare reimbursements, Social Security checks, and payments to defense contractors will keep on coming.
What this means, among other things, is that California’s budget woes won’t keep the state from sharing in a broader U.S. economic recovery. Greece’s budget cuts, on the other hand, will have a strong depressing effect on an already depressed economy.
So is a debt restructuring — a polite term for partial default — the answer? It wouldn’t help nearly as much as many people imagine, because interest payments only account for part of Greece’s budget deficit. Even if it completely stopped servicing its debt, the Greek government wouldn’t free up enough money to avoid savage budget cuts.
The only thing that could seriously reduce Greek pain would be an economic recovery, which would both generate higher revenues, reducing the need for spending cuts, and create jobs. If Greece had its own currency, it could try to engineer such a recovery by devaluing that currency, increasing its export competitiveness. But Greece is on the euro.
So how does this end? Logically, I see three ways Greece could stay on the euro.
First, Greek workers could redeem themselves through suffering, accepting large wage cuts that make Greece competitive enough to add jobs again. Second, the European Central Bank could engage in much more expansionary policy, among other things buying lots of government debt, and accepting — indeed welcoming — the resulting inflation; this would make adjustment in Greece and other troubled euro-zone nations much easier. Or third, Berlin could become to Athens what Washington is to Sacramento — that is, fiscally stronger European governments could offer their weaker neighbors enough aid to make the crisis bearable.
The trouble, of course, is that none of these alternatives seem politically plausible.
What remains seems unthinkable: Greece leaving the euro. But when you’ve ruled out everything else, that’s what’s left.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Krugman on Greece
Here are some key bits from a NY Times op-ed by Paul Krugman on the crisis in Greece: