FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Greece and Those Wild & Crazy Guys at the ECB

by DEAN BAKER

I have been following the European sovereign debt crisis since it first developed more than two years ago. It was evident from the beginning that the conditions on the debtor nations being demanded by the “troika” of the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund were both onerous and counterproductive.

This view has been confirmed by the fact that the debtor countries have missed target after target and that growth has consistently come in far below projections. (Actually, the crises countries have been contracting for much of the last two years.)  This could leave analysts guessing as to what economic reasoning lies behind the troika’s conditions.

Last week I got the answer when I had occasion to meet with a high-level EU official. There is no economic reasoning behind the troika’s positions. For practical purposes, Greece and the other debt-burdened countries are dealing with crazy people. The pain being imposed is not a route to economic health; rather it is a gruesome bleeding process that will only leave the patient worse off. The economic doctors at the troika are clueless when it comes to understanding a modern economy.

The basic story of the crisis countries is simple. Their economies became uncompetitive with the rest of the eurozone in the last decade as inflation in these peripheral countries outpaced inflation in the core eurozone countries of northern Europe, most importantly Germany. This created a large gap in price levels that caused peripheral countries to run massive current account deficits.

In some countries, like Greece and to a lesser extent Portugal, the current account deficit corresponded to excessive public-sector borrowing. In Spain and Ireland the current account deficit was associated with a massive private-sector borrowing boom.

The remedy for this situation is obvious, even if getting from here to there may not be simple. The peripheral countries have to regain competitiveness by having their prices fall relative to prices in the core countries. If these countries still had their own currencies, this could be accomplished quickly through a devaluation of the currencies of the peripheral countries.

However, being part of the eurozone rules out this option. With a single currency the only route for the peripheral countries to regain competitiveness is to have a lower inflation rate than the core countries.

This would be a doable task if the core countries were prepared to run inflation rates in the range of 3-5 percent annually. If the peripheral countries kept their inflation rates in a range of 1-2 percent, they would soon be able to restore their competitiveness.

But the core countries have zero intention of allowing their inflation rate to increase from the current 1-3 percent range. As I learned from my conversations with this EU official, low inflation is viewed as the equivalent of a commandment from God. He could not even see the logic of deliberately allowing the inflation rate to rise.

He viewed the idea of 4-5 percent inflation as being like a dreaded disease, as though there was not a long history of countries experiencing robust growth with inflation rates in this range or even higher.

The alternative route suggested by this EU official was that Greece and other peripheral countries would bring about a restructuring of their economy. This would lead to lower costs and higher productivity, and thereby a return to competitiveness.

There is little doubt that there are many inefficiencies in the peripheral economies that should be eliminated or reduced. But the idea that this can be quickly done, in the context of economies that are rapidly contracting, is more than a little fanciful. There certainly is no precedent for a successful restructuring like this anywhere in the world.

The country that some proponents of this route hold up as a model is Latvia. Latvia has seen its economy contract by more than 20 percent, although it is now seeing respectable growth. Still, its unemployment rate is well into the double-digits. Furthermore, Latvia’s unemployment rate would undoubtedly be much higher if close to 10 percent of its workforce had not emigrated to other countries in search of work.

If people on the left proposed a set of economic policies that has so little theoretical or empirical support they would be laughed out of public debate. In this case, because the people pushing such policies hold the highest positions in government and the European economic establishment, they end up as official policy.

The people in Greece and peripheral countries must wake up to the fact that they are not dealing with reasonable people at the other side of the negotiating table. The notion of leaving the euro cannot be a pleasant one, but the troika is giving the peripheral countries little choice.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Obama’s Legacy
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Christopher Brauchli
Parallel Lives: Trump and Temer
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail