The Myth of Greek Profligacy

Historically, Greeks are very good at constructing myths.  The rest of the world?  Not so much.  Reading the press, one gets the impression of a bunch of lazy Mediterranean scroungers, enjoying one of the highest standards of living in Europe while making the frugal Germans pick up the tab. This is  nonsensical propaganda, designing to justify the continued collective execution being inflicted on Athens for the sins of its fathers and grandfathers.  As if Greece is the only country ever to cook its books in the European Union!  The heart of the problem is in the antiquated revenue system that supports that state, which results in a budget shortfall consistently about 10  per cent of GDP. The top 20 per cent of the income distribution in Greece pay virtually no taxes at all, the product of a corrupt bargain reached during the days of the junta between the military and Greece’s wealthiest plutocrats. No wonder there is a fiscal crisis.

So it’s not a problem of Greek profligates, or an overly generous welfare state, both of which suggest that the standard IMF style remedies being proposed here are bound to fail, as they are doing right now. In fact, given the non-stop austerity being imposed on Athens (which simply has the effect of deflating the economy further and thereby exacerbating the very problem the Greeks are trying to eliminate), the Greeks really are getting close to the point where they should just default and shift the problem back to those imposing the austerity. It can’t be worse than the slow execution they are facing today.

In reality, the Greeks have one of the lowest per capita incomes in Europe (€21,100), much lower than the Eurozone 12 (€27,600) or the German level (€29,400). Further, the Greek social safety nets might seem very generous by US standards but are truly modest compared to the rest of the Europe. On average, for 1998-2007 Greece spent only €3530.47 per capita on social protection benefits–slightly less than Spain’s spending and about €700 more than Portugal’s, which has one of the lowest levels in all of the Eurozone. By contrast, Germany and France spent more than double the Greek level, while the original Eurozone 12 level averaged €6251.78. Even Ireland, which has one of the most neoliberal economies in the euro area, spent more on social protection than the supposedly profligate Greeks.

One would think that if the Greek welfare system was as generous and inefficient as it is usually described, then administrative costs would be higher than that of more disciplined governments such as the German and French. But this is obviously not the case, according to Eurostat.  Even spending on pensions, which is the main target of the neoliberals, is lower than in other European countries.

Furthermore, if one looks at total social spending of select Eurozone countries as a per cent of GDP through 2005 (based on OECD statistics), Greece’s spending lagged behind that of all euro countries except for Ireland, and was below the OECD average. Note also that in spite of all the commentary on early retirement in Greece, its spending on old age programs was in line with the spending in Germany and France.

In fact, Greece has one of the most unequal distributions of income in Europe, and a very high level of poverty, as the following table shows. Again, the evidence is not consistent with the picture presented in the media of an overly generous welfare state—unless the comparison is made against the situation in the US.

Of course, these facts don’t matter.  The prevailing myth is that Greece is in the words of the FT’s John Authers, “a country that was truly profligate”, with little in the way of data to support that assertion.  The country, however, is truly stuck:  they can’t devalue, they can’t pay their way, at current prices, and nobody will voluntarily finance them. So they must exit and devalue or drop their domestic prices. The massive default, though inevitable, is just a step along the way.

To make the problem worse, export earnings also seem to face their own structural cap that is consistently exceeded by import spending, which means that the debt that finances the government shortfall is increasingly held abroad. The debt is issued under Greek law, but now it is payable in Euros which Greece is powerless to print. In this sense, ironically, the fiscal crisis is a consequence of Greece’s success, after a long preparation, in joining the European Union, and hence giving up its own currency.

The point is that, if this analysis of the source of the problem is correct, then standard IMF austerity policy is unlikely to do much to help. If the problem is not the level of wages, or the size of the welfare state, then pushing wages down and shrinking the welfare state is not going to do much.  Greece, after all, is still a democracy and if one is to judge from the intensifying riots in the country, it is far from clear whether Greece (or any other euro zone member for that matter) is really willing to cut spending and raise taxes rates enough to make a difference. This much is implicitly being conceded by the “Troika” – European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB), which was submitted to the EU Summit yesterday, and will no doubt be a part of the deliberations in the Greek debt restructuring proposals to be hammered out by Oct. 26th.

On the first page of the document is not only a pretty open and blatant admission that expansionary fiscal consolidation (EFC) has proven to be a contradiction in terms, at least in Greece, but there is also a serious policy incompatibility problem, at least over the intermediate term horizon, with efforts at internal devaluation (ID) – that is, attempting nominal domestic private income deflation in order to improve trade prospects when one has a fixed exchange rate constraint.

While they stop short of recognizing that their demands and the actions they have imposed on Greek policymakers are setting off a debt deflation implosion of the Greek economy (never mind rupturing any semblance of a social contract, and ripping the social fabric to shreds as well – this is, after all, the jackboot version of neoliberal “reform” designed to stamp out any last vestige of social democracy and organized labor in the eurozone) this is  a very large concession for the Troika to have taken.

To admit that EFC is not working, and that pursuing ID will aggravate matters further, including the ability of Greece to hit fiscal targets, is a fairly large step in the recognition of the reality of the situation. This is not something the faith based neoliberal economists in the Troika organizations are often prone to do. It is not what their incentive structures, formal and informal, tend to encourage them to do.

So why pursue it?  Well, let’s face it:  this has far less at this stage to do with Greece (even as the prevailing mainstream myth continues to perpetuate the picture of a lazy, unproductive country full of profligates and scroungers), than punishing other potential fiscal recalcitrants.  They are scapegoating the Greeks – in order to make sure that should Greece take the rumored “hair cut” on its debt and restructure, the other peripheral countries – especially Italy – won’t get any ideas and be tempted down the same path. This is the strategy to prevent what is euphemistically called the “contagion impact”.  In reality, it is also called the principle of collective guilt, destroying the livelihoods of thirteen million people for political reasons.  Given their own history, the Germans above all other nations, should understand this phenomenon.

If the prevailing mix of fiscal austerity policies continue, there will be spill-over effects to nations that export to Greece. To be sure, Greece is a tiny market in Euroland, but its fiscal problems are by no means unique. As the bigger economies like Spain and Italy also adopt austerity measures, the entire continent can find government revenue collapsing – even Germany, where economic deceleration has become markedly more noticeable in the past few months. Worse, exports to neighbors will be hurt by reduction of demand. Finally, if austerity succeeds in lowering wages and prices in one nation it can lead to competitive deflation, only compounding the problem as each country tries to gain advantage in order to promote growth through exports. What is most remarkable to us is that the largest net exporter, Germany, does not appear to recognize that its insistence on fiscal austerity for all of its neighbors will cook its own golden egg-laying goose.

Angela Merkel likes to say that no real economic union is possible if one party to the union (Greece) works shorter hours and takes longer holidays than another (Germany). What she should say is that no real economic union is possible if the governing plutocrats of ALL nations (not just the billionaire Greek shipowners who probably have already moved their money offshore, but also wealthy bankers who have suffered no consequence of their own fraudulent and willfully destructive lending practices) consistently evade their fair share of the cost of that party’s own state expenditure, expecting the union either to pay the bill itself, or to force the bottom 80 per cent to pay it.

Greece is not a special case, but rather a case in point of what happens when you impose fiscal consolidation on countries with high private debt to GDP ratios, high desired private net saving rates, and large, stubborn current account deficits.  What is needed is a way to redistribute demand toward the trade deficit nations—for example, by having the trade surplus nations spending euros on direct investment in the trade deficit nations. Germany did this with East Germany. Such a mechanism could be set up under the aegis of the European Investment Bank very quickly. Effective incentives to “recycle” current account surpluses in this manner via foreign direct investment, equity flows, foreign aid, or purchases of imports could be easily crafted. If it could be accomplished, it will be a way Greece and the others could become competitive enough to secure their future through higher exports.

Failure to embrace this kind of growth option will ultimately give the Greeks little alternative but to default, leaving the euro zone’s policy makers with an even bigger and costlier mess on their hands.   Admittedly, this will not fully solve Greece’s problems as they would like have to leave the euro zone as well and reintroduce the drachma.  This would entail capital controls, which will cause people to head for the exits (this is, after all, a country with lots of boats).  If they default, it would be more akin to a “Samson moment” for the entire euro zone.  Like Samson in his last days, blinded and beaten by the Philistines, Greece is weakened, blind and bound.  Default would represent one last defiant burst of strength with which it “pulls down the temple” (in this case the euro zone) via default and takes down everybody.  Myth-making at the expense of the Greeks does not serve anybody’s interests, as there will be a cascade of defaults everywhere, and a Soviet style collapse in incomes, hardly an enticing prospect for the global economy.  Not an attractive ending, but this is the kind of outcome which the troika’s self-surviving, immoral and cruel policies could lead to.  The Greeks, and the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, deserve  better.

MARSHALL AUERBACK is a market analyst and commentator. He is a brainstruster for the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Intitute. He can be reached at MAuer1959@aol.com

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Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and a research associate at the Levy Institute for Economics at Bard College (www.levy.org).  His Twitter hashtag is @Mauerback

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