(This guest post originally appeared at the author’s blog)
Agreement has been reached in Europe on a “rescue” package for Greece. But it’s no cause for celebration. It’s the kind of “rescue” sensation one experiences after paying out what’s left in one’s wallet when confronted with a robber with a gun. The insanity of self-imposed budgetary constraints will be manifest to all soon enough. Economists and the EU bureaucrats who advocate a slavish adherence to arbitrary compliance numbers fail to comprehend the basis of government spending. In imposing these voluntary financial constraints on government activity, they deny essential government services and the opportunity for full employment to their citizenry.
Score another one, then, for the high priests of fiscal rectitude. Harsh cuts, tax increases — this is by no means a recovery policy. The capital markets have got their pound of flesh. But Greece is no more able to reduce its deficit under these circumstances than it is possible to get blood out of a stone. Politically, it means ceding control of EU macro policy to an external consortium dominated by France and Germany. Greece becomes a colony.
Nor will the policies work, as the ‘strict enough conditions’ imposed will further weaken demand in Greece and, consequently, the rest of the European Union. Furthermore, the rapidly expanding deficit of Greece has benefited the entire EU because it supported aggregated demand at the margin, and the sudden reversal contemplated by this package will reverse those forces.
The requirement that budget deficits should be zero on average and never exceed 3 per cent of GDP or gross national debt levels should not exceed 60 per cent of GDP not only restrict the fiscal powers that governments would ordinarily enjoy in fiat currency regimes, but also violates an understanding of the way fiscal outcomes are effectively endogenous, as Bill Mitchell has noted on several occasions.
Meanwhile, Greece and the rest of the Euro zone is being revealed as necessarily caught in a continual state of Ponzi style financing that demands institutional resolution of some sort to be sustainable. The separation of the monetary authorities from the fiscal authorities and the decentralization of the fiscal authorities have inevitably made any co-ordination of fiscal and monetary policy difficult. The ECB is effectively the only “federal” institution within the euro zone. This is particularly problematic during times of financial stress or in periods in which there is marked regional disparity in economic performance.
In the short term, a move by the ECB to distribute 1 trillion euro to the national governments on a per capita basis would alleviate the short term problems of the “PIIGS” nations (Portugal, Ireland,. Italy, Greece and Spain). Ultimately, though, the most logical solution is the creation of a supranational entity that can conduct fiscal policy in much the same way as the creation of the European Central Bank can do monetary policy on a supranational level (or the dissolution of the European Monetary Union altogether). Absent that, Greece, Portugal, Italy, yes, even Germany, functionally remain in the same position as American states, unable to create currency and therefore always subject to solvency risks which the markets may question at any time. It’s a recipe for built-in financial and political instability.
The Government of the European Union (in reality a bunch of heads of state as there is no “United States of Europe” to think of) has called the Greek government to implement all these measures in a rigorous and determined manner to effectively reduce the budgetary deficit by 4% in 2010, and “invited” the ECOFIN Council to adopt its recommendations at a meeting of the 16th of February.
It’s probably not the sort of invitation that any sovereign nation would normally accept, but Greece, like the rest of the Euro zone nations, has voluntarily chosen to enslave itself with a bunch of arbitrary rules which have no basis in economic theory. It is also being denied the use of an independent currency-issuing capacity.
This is no way for any country to achieve growth and financial stability. With no capacity to set monetary policy, fiscal policy bound by the Maastricht straitjacket, and its exchange rate fixed, the only way Greece or any of the euro zone nations can change their competitive position within the EMU is to harshly bash workers’ living conditions. That is a recipe for national suicide. And it will not reduce the deficit, because as we noted above deficits are largely determined endogenously, not by legislative fiat. The deficits reflect failing economic activity, particularly when a government is institutional constrained from implementing proactive policy to reduce output gaps left by falling private sector activity. That the measures will be imposed by an entity lacking total democratic legitimacy in Greece is only likely to exacerbate existing strains.
Why is a 4 per cent across-the-board cut being demanded of Greece? What’s the significance of that number? There is no particular budget deficit to GDP figure that is desirable or not independent of knowing about other macroeconomic settings. Just as there is no rationale provided for any of the “performance criteria” underlying the European Monetary Union’s Stability and Growth Pact. The treaty stipulated that countries seeking inclusion in the Euro zone had to fulfil amongst other things the following two requirements: (a) a debt to GDP ratio below 60 per cent, or converging towards it; and (b) a budget deficit below 3 per cent of GDP. Why 3%? Why it is 60 per cent rather than 30 or 54 or 71 or 89 or any other number that someone could write on a bit of paper? And yet we have these random numbers being used to gauge whether Greece is conducting its fiscal affairs in a proper and “responsible” manner.
This is the kind of thinking which has led to the relatively poor economic performance of many of the EU economies during the 1990s and most of the previous decade. All entrants to EMU strived to meet the stringent criteria embodied in the Stability Pact (whose principles, although largely formalized by the Maastricht Treaty in 1997, were essentially established at the beginning of the 1990s in preparation for monetary union). From 1992 to 1999, the growth of national income averaged 1.7 per cent per annum in the euro-zone countries, compared with the 2.5 per cent per annum averaged by the United Kingdom over the same time period. Moreover, the unemployment rate fell substantially in the United Kingdom (as well as in the United States and Canada), but tended to rise in the euro-zone countries, most notably in France and Germany.
A cavalier refusal by the EU’s technocrats to debate and address the concerns of those who feel threatened by a headlong rush into a more all-encompassing political and monetary union without adequate democratic safeguards has lent legitimacy to the views of populist politicians, such as France’s Jean Marie le Pen, and a corresponding rise of extremist parties all across the EU. This is a phenomenon that tends to arise when voters sense that their concerns are not even being considered by what they would characterise as a corrupt and cozy political class.
The EU must eliminate the underlying assumption that fiscal policy, since it can be influenced directly by the political process, should always be completely politically constrained. If anything, the performance of Euroland’s core economies over the past few years has demonstrated the total limitations of technocratic fiscal and monetary policy.
And yet this kind of deficit-bashing insanity is spreading like a cancer across the global economy. We all should know when the economy is in trouble. High unemployment; sluggish growth in output, productivity, wages; high inflation etc., these are all things which have meaning to us on an individual and collective basis. A budget deficit, by contrast, is just a number. It’s akin to blaming the thermometer when it registers that someone has a flu bug. Any doctor would legitimately be called a quack if he proposed a cure for influenza by sticking the thermometer in a bucket of ice until we got the right “reading” that was deemed to be acceptable to him.
Yet this is exactly what the poor Greeks have now been blackmailed into signing up for. Heaven help the US if it begins to move further down that road, as many are now suggesting.
Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and commentator.