Feb 3rd 2015

A Greek Morality Tale

by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph E. Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University, and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, is co-author, with Linda Bilmes, of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict.
NEW YORK – When the euro crisis began a half-decade ago, Keynesian economists predicted that the austerity that was being imposed on Greece and the other crisis countries would fail. It would stifle growth and increase unemployment – and even fail to decrease the debt-to-GDP ratio. Others – in the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and a few universities – talked of expansionary contractions. But even the International Monetary Fund argued that contractions, such as cutbacks in government spending, were just that – contractionary.

We hardly needed another test. Austerity had failed repeatedly, from its early use under US President Herbert Hoover, which turned the stock-market crash into the Great Depression, to the IMF “programs” imposed on East Asia and Latin America in recent decades. And yet when Greece got into trouble, it was tried again.

Greece largely succeeded in following the dictate set by the “troika” (the European Commission the ECB, and the IMF): it converted a primary budget deficit into a primary surplus. But the contraction in government spending has been predictably devastating: 25% unemployment, a 22% fall in GDP since 2009, and a 35% increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio. And now, with the anti-austerity Syriza party’s overwhelming election victory, Greek voters have declared that they have had enough.

So, what is to be done? First, let us be clear: Greece could be blamed for its troubles if it were the only country where the troika’s medicine failed miserably. But Spain had a surplus and a low debt ratio before the crisis, and it, too, is in depression. What is needed is not structural reform within Greece and Spain so much as structural reform of the eurozone’s design and a fundamental rethinking of the policy frameworks that have resulted in the monetary union’s spectacularly bad performance.

Greece has also once again reminded us of how badly the world needs a debt-restructuring framework. Excessive debt caused not only the 2008 crisis, but also the East Asia crisis in the 1990s and the Latin American crisis in the 1980s. It continues to cause untold suffering in the US, where millions of homeowners have lost their homes, and is now threatening millions more in Poland and elsewhere who took out loans in Swiss francs.

Given the amount of distress brought about by excessive debt, one might well ask why individuals and countries have repeatedly put themselves into this situation. After all, such debts are contracts – that is, voluntary agreements – so creditors are just as responsible for them as debtors. In fact, creditors arguably are more responsible: typically, they are sophisticated financial institutions, whereas borrowers frequently are far less attuned to market vicissitudes and the risks associated with different contractual arrangements. Indeed, we know that US banks actually preyed on their borrowers, taking advantage of their lack of financial sophistication.

Every (advanced) country has realized that making capitalism work requires giving individuals a fresh start. The debtors’ prisons of the nineteenth century were a failure – inhumane and not exactly helping to ensure repayment. What did help was to provide better incentives for good lending, by making creditors more responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

At the international level, we have not yet created an orderly process for giving countries a fresh start. Since even before the 2008 crisis, the United Nations, with the support of almost all of the developing and emerging countries, has been seeking to create such a framework. But the US has been adamantly opposed; perhaps it wants to reinstitute debtor prisons for over indebted countries’ officials (if so, space may be opening up at Guantánamo Bay).

The idea of bringing back debtors’ prisons may seem far-fetched, but it resonates with current talk of moral hazard and accountability. There is a fear that if Greece is allowed to restructure its debt, it will simply get itself into trouble again, as will others.

This is sheer nonsense. Does anyone in their right mind think that any country would willingly put itself through what Greece has gone through, just to get a free ride from its creditors? If there is a moral hazard, it is on the part of the lenders – especially in the private sector – who have been bailed out repeatedly. If Europe has allowed these debts to move from the private sector to the public sector – a well-established pattern over the past half-century – it is Europe, not Greece, that should bear the consequences. Indeed, Greece’s current plight, including the massive run-up in the debt ratio, is largely the fault of the misguided troika programs foisted on it.

So it is not debt restructuring, but its absence, that is “immoral.” There is nothing particularly special about the dilemmas that Greece faces today; many countries have been in the same position. What makes Greece’s problems more difficult to address is the structure of the eurozone: monetary union implies that member states cannot devalue their way out of trouble, yet the modicum of European solidarity that must accompany this loss of policy flexibility simply is not there.

Seventy years ago, at the end of World II, the Allies recognized that Germany must be given a fresh start. They understood that Hitler’s rise had much to do with the unemployment (not the inflation) that resulted from imposing more debt on Germany at the end of World War I. The Allies did not take into account the foolishness with which the debts had been accumulated or talk about the costs that Germany had imposed on others. Instead, they not only forgave the debts; they actually provided aid, and the Allied troops stationed in Germany provided a further fiscal stimulus.

When companies go bankrupt, a debt-equity swap is a fair and efficient solution. The analogous approach for Greece is to convert its current bonds into GDP-linked bonds. If Greece does well, its creditors will receive more of their money; if it does not, they will get less. Both sides would then have a powerful incentive to pursue pro-growth policies.

Seldom do democratic elections give as clear a message as that in Greece. If Europe says no to Greek voters’ demand for a change of course, it is saying that democracy is of no importance, at least when it comes to economics. Why not just shut down democracy, as Newfoundland effectively did when it entered into receivership before World War II?

One hopes that those who understand the economics of debt and austerity, and who believe in democracy and humane values, will prevail. Whether they will remains to be seen.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "
Jan 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Under his [Suleimani's] leadership, Iran helped Hezbollah beef up its missile capabilities, led a decisive intervention to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported the Houthi rebels who have been waging a war against Saudi-led forces in Yemen, and backed a wave of resurgent Shia militias in Iraq. According to Gadi Eizenkot, who completed his term as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of general staff last year, Suleimani had plans to amass a proxy force of 100,000 fighters along Syria’s border with Israel."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: ".....stunning technological progress during the 2010s makes it possible to cut GHG emissions at a cost far lower than we dared hope a decade ago. The costs of solar and wind power have fallen more than 80% and 70%, respectively, while lithium-ion battery costs are down from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $160 per kWh today. These and other breakthroughs guarantee that energy systems which are as much as 85% dependent on variable renewables could produce zero-carbon electricity at costs that are fully competitive with those of fossil-fuel-based systems."
Dec 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "Predicting the next crisis – financial or economic – is a fool’s game. Yes, every crisis has its hero who correctly warned of what was about to come. And, by definition, the hero was ignored (hence the crisis). But the record of modern forecasting contains a note of caution: those who correctly predict a crisis rarely get it right again. The best that economists can do is to assess vulnerability. Looking at imbalances in the real economy or financial markets gives a sense of the potential consequences of a major shock. It doesn't take much to spark corrections in vulnerable economies and markets. But a garden-variety correction is far different from a crisis. The severity of the shock and the degree of vulnerability matter: big shocks to highly vulnerable systems are a recipe for crisis. In this vein, the source of vulnerability that I worry about the most is the overextended state of central-bank balance sheets. My concern stems from three reasons."
Dec 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Conspiracy theories about sinister Jewish power have a long history. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery published in 1903, popularized the notion that Jewish bankers and financiers were secretly pulling the strings to dominate the world. Henry Ford was one of the more prominent people who believed this nonsense."
Dec 13th 2019
EXTRACT: "In previous British elections, to say that trust was the main issue would have meant simply that trust is the trump card – whichever leader or party could secure most trust would win. Now, the emerging question about trust is whether it even matters anymore."
Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."