Beat the Press is Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting. He is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). To never miss a post, subscribe to a weekly email roundup of Beat the Press.

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Larry Summers, who was Treasury Secretary under President Clinton and a top Obama economic advisor, apparently has forgotten the IMF's role in the world economy. In an oped column he told readers that:

"From the problems of Britain and Italy in the 1970s, through the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s and the Mexican, Asian and Russian financial crises of the 1990s, the IMF has operated by twinning the provision of liquidity with strong requirements that those involved do what is necessary to restore their financial positions to sustainability. There is ample room for debate about precise policy choices the fund has made. But the IMF has consistently stood for the proposition that the laws of economics do not and will not give way to political considerations."

This is arguably wrong as a general proposition, but it is certainly wrong in reference to the East Asian bailouts in 1990s that were largely engineered by Larry Summers and the U.S. Treasury Department, which controls the IMF. The conditions demanded in the East Asian bailouts required the countries in crisis in repay loans to western banks in full.

It allowed them to get the money needed to make the repayments by having the dollar rise in value against the currencies of the region (i.e. Robert Rubin's strong dollar policy).It was not only the East Asian countries that deliberately lowered the value of their currency against the dollar, developing countries throughout the world adopted a policy of accumulating massive amounts of reserves in order to avoid ever being in the same situation as the East Asian countries.

This led to the enormous trade deficits that the U.S. has incurred in subsequent years. This situation was not sustainable, contrary to Summers' assertion that the IMF puts countries on a sustainable course.

In fact, the trade deficit between the United States and the rest of the world was the major imbalance in the global economy in the last decade. It created the gap in demand that was filled by the stock bubble in the 90s and the housing bubble in the last decade. It is striking that the Post's opinion pages are only open to people who try to conceal this fact rather than economists who try to explain this history to readers. 

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The Republicans have substituted "job creator" for the word "rich" in discussions of tax policy. It is absolute standard practice for them to object to taxing people who have money by saying that this will reduce job creation.

Since this claim has become so central in policy debates, Morning Edition decided to do what any reasonable news organization might do: see if it is true. Morning Edition called the Republican party and asked to be put in contact with some tax burdened job creators. They were unable to provide anyone for NPR to interview. NPR then contacted several of the business lobbies who have been complaining that higher taxes would impede job growth. These organizations were also unable to find any job creators who would speak to NPR.

NPR then put in a request to talk to job creators on Facebook. It got several responses from small business owners. The ones featured on its segment said that the personal tax rate would affect their disposable income but would have no effect on their hiring. This is pretty much what economic theory would predict.

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Most observers now recognize that the continuing financial crisis facing the euro zone is being deliberately extended by the European Central Bank (ECB). This is being done to force heavily indebted countries to make cuts in social spending and to weaken the power of labor unions. (Italy was required to change its labor laws as a condition of continued support from the ECB.)

The Washington Post decided to cover up the nature of the ECB's strategy when it told readers that:

"By withholding ECB relief for weaker European governments, he is keeping pressure on political leaders to make difficult choices needed to stabilize the euro currency."

The Post effectively defined the measures demanded by the ECB as being necessary to "stabilize the euro currency." That would perhaps be an appropriate stance for the ECB's public relations department. A serious newspaper should not be blessing policy decisions this way and misrepresenting a choice by the ECB as a necessity dictated by the market.

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The Washington Post reported on the new agreement among euro zone countries on fiscal policy and noted the difficulty that many countries would face in reaching their debt targets. It would have been worth mentioning that the polices of the European Central Bank (ECB) are making it more difficult for these countries to reach debt targets.

The ECB has remained committed to keeping a very low inflation rate even in a context where the euro zone countries have a huge amount of excess capacity and unemployed workers. If the ECB adopted more expansionary policies it would both allow more growth and help to reduce the burden of the debt through inflation.

If a country can sustain 3.0 percent real growth for 5 years and there is 4.0 percent inflation, then a debt burden that is equal to 100 percent of GDP can be reduced to 84 percent of GDP even if the country runs annual deficits equal to 3 percent of GDP ($450 billion in the United States). After 10 years the debt to GDP would be down to 73 percent of GDP. More rapid growth will also make it easier to run lower deficits since it will increase tax revenues and reduce payments for unemployment benefits and other transfers.

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Suppose you go out to sea in your beautiful new sailboat. (Don't worry folks, I don't have a boat and I don't think I even know anyone who has a boat.) A couple hundred miles offshore, your boat gets attacked by a gang of pirates. They tear up your sails, smash your engine, and run off with your lifeboat. When your body is found 2 weeks later, NPR surveys the damage and says "that's the power of the sea." 

That was the tone of a Morning Edition story (sorry, no link yet) which discussed the new euro zone agreement and whether the markets would be satisfied. This is not a question of governments being forced by the market to make changes any more than the victim of the pirate attack can be said to have been killed by the sea.

The European Central Bank (ECB) created the conditions in which countries are facing bankruptcy, first by failing to notice the largest asset bubbles in the history of the world. Its inadequate response to the downturn and continued obsession with inflation has deepened the downturn. And, its repeated assertions that it will not act as a lender of last resort and stand behind euro zone sovereign debt, has ensured that member nations would be vulnerable to speculative attacks that could make otherwise solvent governments face bankruptcy. 

It is wrong to confuse the deliberate policy of the ECB with random outcomes of the market. Reporters should be highlighting the distinction, not concealing it.

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If the Washington Post managed the development of computers the way it reported on the administration's efforts to promote green cars, I would be writing this piece on a typewriter. President Obama has been in office less than 3 years. It would be absolutely astounding if his administration's efforts to promote cleaner cars had already produced marketable results. 

The effort to get affordable electric cars will inevitably be a long process involving many cost-saving and efficiency-enhancing innovations. People who know technology understand this fact. People who don't should not be writing on this issue for major news outlets.

It is also worth noting that in a period in which the economy has widespread unemployment, as is the case now, there is very little opportunity cost to this sort of spending. In other words, if the government did not spend this money we simply would have had more people unemployed. This may make deficit hawks happy, since it would mean a somewhat lower deficit/debt, but there is no obvious advantage to the country from this situation. 

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In an article about the impact of the euro crisis on the U.S. economy the NYT told readers:

"the American economy has shown signs of life recently, with talk of a double-dip recession fading and job growth picking up."

People who were knowledgeable about the economy did not talk of a double-dip recession. There was a growth slowdown in the first half of the year due to one-time factors. This was the period in which most of the federal stimulus was withdrawn, imposing a substantial drag. There was a large rise in oil prices, which was partially reversed in the third quarter (although prices have risen part of the way back to their prior peaks in recent weeks). And, the Japanese earth quake and tsunami disrupted some supply chains, most notably in the auto industry.

With these factors having passed, it was predictable that the economy would again grow at near its trend rate of 2.5 percent. This growth rate will do nothing to reduce the huge gap between the economy's potential output and its actual output, leaving tens of millions of people unemployed or under-employed. Unfortunately, because baseless comments about a double-dip recession were given such prominence in the media, this sort of growth is viewed as being acceptable.

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Harold Meyerson confuses them today in an otherwise useful column on how democratic governments are being forced aside due to economic pressures. He approvingly quotes Wall Street investment banker Roger Altman:

"financial markets have become 'a global supra-government. They oust entrenched regimes where normal political processes could not do so. They force austerity, banking bail-outs and other major policy changes. . . . [L]eaving aside unusable nuclear weapons, they have become the most powerful force on earth.'"

This is not quite right. The circumstances under which the financial markets brought about a run first on the debt of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and more recently on the debt of Italy and Spain were created by the policies pursued by the European Central Bank (ECB) and Mario Draghi and his predecessor Jean Claude Trichet.

The ECB has run a policy that is focused on containing inflation and forcing governments to reduce their deficits. It could have instead run a policy that placed its primary emphasis on promoting growth. It also could have played the role of lender of last resort. It was a quite deliberate policy decision by the ECB to impose a fiscal straightjacket on the heavily indebted countries of Europe. (Its policies have made this debt burden much worse.)

It is understandable that Draghi and the ECB would like to pretend that the problems facing Greece, Italy and other countries in the euro zone are simply the result of the market imposing its discipline. However, this is not true. They are responsible for the difficulties facing these countries.

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Bloomberg has done some outstanding reporting over the last few years on the Federal Reserve Board's bailout of the financial sector. Much more money went through the Fed's special lending facilities than went through the TARP program that was approved by Congress.

Bloomberg's reporters have taken the lead both in pressing the Fed to release data on its bailout programs and also in publicizing the numbers when they were released. They even sued the Fed (successfully) to force it to release data on the beneficiaries of lending through the discount window. The Fed has resisted the release of information about its programs, claiming that it would make it more difficult for it carry through bailout programs and monetary policy.

Yesterday Fed chairman Ben Bernanke attacked Bloomberg claiming that its reporting was misleading. It looks like the Fed missed the mark on just about every issue.

Perhaps the most important issue is the Fed's claim that it did not lend at a below-market rate to banks, thereby effectively giving them a subsidy. In fact, it is almost definitional that the rate did provide a subsidy.

No one forced the banks to borrow from the Fed. If they had better options, they would have borrowed elsewhere. Instead the Fed made large amounts of money available to banks at a time when liquidity carried an enormous premium. This meant that the banks could relend the government's money to others and earn a substantial profit.

This lending may have been justified to stem the financial crisis, but in principle the government could have imposed conditions (e.g. real caps on executive pay, downsizing the too-big-to-fail banks, modifying mortgages) on the banks as the price of getting access to credit at below-market rates. Bernanke and Congress did not seek to impose such conditions.

Given Bernanke's strenuous opposition to the release of data on the bailout programs it would be interesting to know if he now feels that it is more difficult for the Fed to conduct monetary policy.

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The media regularly gives us stories about the impending demographic disaster in Japan because of its low birth rate and declining population. Today, in the context of an article about the clean-up from the accidents at its nuclear reactors last spring, the NYT told us Japan's problems are even worse than we thought:

"The Soviet Union did not attempt such a cleanup after the Chernobyl accident of 1986, the only nuclear disaster larger than that at Fukushima Daiichi. The government instead relocated about 300,000 people, abandoning vast tracts of farmland.

Many Japanese officials believe that they do not have that luxury; the evacuation zone covers more than 3 percent of the landmass of this densely populated nation."

So we now learn that Japan is not only suffering because it has a declining population, but also because it is a densely populated country. Can things get much worse?

In reality, the demographic story is silly. The alleged problem is a decline in the ratio of workers to retirees. (The correct measure is the ratio of workers to non-workers, the latter would include children.) In a healthy economy, the rise in productivity growth swamps the impact of even very negative demographic trends.

For example, going from 3 workers to retiree to 2 workers per retiree over a 20 year period (an extremely fast rate of decline) would imply that the share of workers' wages going to support retirees would have to increase by 0.6 percentage points annually, assuming a 70 percent replacement rate for retirees. This is 40 percent of the 1.5 percent annual productivity growth in the years of the productivity slowdown (1973-1995) and 24 percent of the 2.5 percent annual productivity growth in the years since 1995.

This means that in a healthy economy workers can continue to enjoy substantial increases in living standards even during years in which the demographic trend leads to a sharp increase in dependency ratios. Insofar as this is associated with a declining population, there are many gains associated with less crowding and less pollution that will not show up in GDP statistics.

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The boys and girls at Fox on 15th Street are really getting excited over their hopes that the European welfare state might be dismantled. The third paragraph of the lead front page article told readers:

"If adopted by other nations in the union, the deal would mean drastic cuts in European budgets. It would also spell the end of three decades of overspending that helped finance a cozy social protection system envied by much of the world."

Of course the most generous welfare states who have the most "cozy" social protection systems are not facing fiscal crises. These are countries like Sweden and Denmark and even Germany, all of whom have relatively solid finances. Paul Krugman put up a nice graph on his blog yesterday showing the non-relationship between the share of government spending in GDP and the current interest rates paid by government.

Also, as people familiar with current events know, this crisis did not stem from "three decades of overspending," it came about because of a collapse of housing bubbles in the United States and across Europe. This is the opposite of a problem of an excessive welfare state. It was a problem of a private financial sector gone wild making the reckless loans that fueled the bubble. Apparently the Post has not heard about this.

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The NYT had a good piece on Ireland's effort to get back on a solid growth path. At one point it refers to a 5.4 percent rise in exports as an encouraging sign:

"driven by gains from Pfizer, Intel, SAP and other multinational companies that were drawn to Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s by its low taxes, well-educated English-speaking work force and access to the European market."

Actually, this picture is less clear. Many of the exports associated with these companies are likely to be associated with increased imports as well. For example, if Intel is exporting more microprocessors assembled in Ireland it is also importing more components. The net gain to Ireland's economy might be very small since most of the value added may take place elsewhere.

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Some people try to teach by providing step by step instructions. This can be very tedious. David Brooks instead teaches by example. In his column today, David Brooks commits two of the great sins that would not appear in any serious discussion of regulation. 

First he discusses the cost of the regulations put in place by different presidents:

"George W. Bush issued regulations over eight years that cost about $60 billion. During its first two years, the Obama regulations cost between $8 billion and $16.5 billion, according to estimates by the administration itself, and $40 billion, according to data collected, more broadly, by the Heritage Foundation."

So regulation under the last president Bush cost $60 billion. Is this $60 billion a year (@0.4 percent of GDP)? Is it the accumulated cost over ten years (@0.04 percent of GDP)? Or, is it over a one-time cost of $60 billion? David Brooks doesn't tell us. The differences are of course enormous, but we have not a clue based on the information given in the article.

The second major sin is that we have no idea how Brooks is measuring costs. Suppose that my neighbor has the disturbing habit of dumping his sewage on my lawn. If this is a common problem, then I and others similarly afflicted may unite to put a socialist in the White House who will prohibit people from dumping sewage on their neighbors' lawn.

Most regulation does in fact have this character. It prohibits businesses from doing harm to the life and property of others. The question is, does Brooks' measure of the cost of regulation simply count the cost to my neighbor of dealing with his own sewage, or is it supposed to be some net measure that subtracts the savings that accrue to me and other current recipients of our neighbors' sewage?

Brooks doesn't tell us, but since analyses of most regulations show the benefits far exceed the cost (in the case of the Clean Air Act, the net benefits were estimated as $2 trillion over the next few decades), it is likely that Brooks is simply counting the cost to my neighbor of cleaning up his own sewage. It's not clear what this tells us exactly about the burden of regulation, but hey, this is David Brooks, what did you expect?

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A newspaper that doesn't fact check its news articles can hardly be expected to fact check its opinion pieces. This mean that Robert Samuelson can get away with just about anything he wants in his column.

Today it is a diatribe against the welfare state. He tells readers that the euro crisis is the grand reckoning of the welfare state. Now that the euro zone economies are growing slowly and have aging population, the welfare state is no longer sustainable.

If the Post had fact checkers, they would ask Samuelson why, if the problem is an excessive welfare state, the countries with the most generous welfare states appear to be doing just fine. If we just take the measure of spending relative to GDP, the leaders would be countries like Sweden, France and Denmark, all of which are surviving the crisis reasonably well. None of the crisis countries rate near the top of the list and Spain is an outlier in Europe for having a much lower than average share of government spending in GDP.

A fact checker would have reminded Samuelson that the crisis came about because out of control lending by bankers who somehow could not recognize the huge housing bubbles in the United States and much of Europe that created the largest asset bubble in the history of the world. This is a story of a broken private sector and/or too little government regulation.

The immediate problem facing the euro zone countries is too little demand, the exact opposite of the problem that Samuelson is blaming, which is too much demand and too few resources. (Lesson for reporters: the bloated welfare state story is too much demand chasing too few resources. The problem today is too little demand chasing too many resources, hence the mass unemployment. Remember this one and you are head of 99 percent of your peers.)

 

 

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In an article on the pay of presidents at private colleges and university, the NYT implied that an Occupy group was wrong to complain about the $1.3 million annual pay for Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, because her salary "is less than 1 percent of the institutional budget." It would have been helpful to give a comparison to the salaries of professors and other university employees and also to report how it increased in the last decade. This is done for other institutions mentioned in the piece. Add a comment

NYT columnist Roger Cohen told readers that ideas like a:

"tax on global financial transactions, have been around for years but they’re almost impossible to apply."

He wouldn't say this if he was familiar with the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has been taxing trades of stock for centuries. It raises between 0.2-0.3 percent annually ($30-$40 billion in the United States). There are many other financial transactions taxes in place in other financial markets.

It is not clear what makes Mr. Cohen think that a tax that raises tens of billions of dollars each year is "almost impossible to apply."

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That must be the case, since if the Post actually knew the history of European debt it would not begin its lead front page story with a sentence like:

"The head of the European Central Bank signaled Thursday that the institution might be willing to take more-aggressive steps to stem the region’s debt crisis, but only if the 17 nations that share the euro unite behind a plan that could tame years of runaway spending."

Those who have access to data on government debt know that the debt-burdened countries (except Greece) actually had modest budget deficits or even surpluses prior to the collapse of housing bubbles across Europe and in the United States. So there was no pattern of runaway spending that needs to be tamed. There is a severe recession from which Europe needs to recover. If the European Central Bank was more aggressive in promoting growth, with lower interest rates and quantitative easing, it would go far toward addressing the real cause of the deficits in Europe.

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David Brooks tells us that he is very concerned about the demands that value-less technocrats are imposing on the people of Germany to bail out the heavily indebted countries of southern Europe. He is worried that the bailout will be very costly and also that it will remove the link between effort and reward.

Both sides of this picture need a little further examination. First, let's take a look at that big cost story. What is needed first and foremost in this bailout is a guarantee of debt from a deep-pocketed entity that can make this guarantee credible. That would be the European Central Bank (ECB).

Guarantees can in principle be costless to the guarantor. Our political establishment and their followers in the media have been anxious to tell us how the government and the Fed made money on the TARP and related Fed bank bailouts. This is true. Of course we still gave enormously valuable subsidies to the beneficiaries of the bailouts.

The way this works is that the money lent to the banks had very little cost to the government. The guarantees have no cost to the government, if they are not actually drawn upon. This means that if we get even nominal interest payments, the government comes out ahead.

This is largely the case with the ECB right now. If it guarantees the debt of the troubled countries then the runs on these countries' bonds will stop and their debt burdens will be sustainable. This means that the net cost to the ECB is likely to be close to zero and it could even led to a profit. Furthermore, the ECB can print as many euros as it wants, just as the Fed can print as many dollars as it wants.

All of this means that the tax burden on those hard-working Germans should at the end of the day be a mind blowing -- hold your horses -- ZERO!

Okay, there is a small issue here. The ECB will have to abandon its worship of the number 2, as in 2 percent inflation. If the ECB is prepared to provide the support necessary to get southern Europe back on a healthy growth path then it will be necessary to have a somewhat higher inflation rate in Germany, perhaps 3-4 percent. Is that too troubling for the German people? Maybe we can have inflation adjustment therapy sessions to allow Brooks' hard-working Germans to cope with this situation. (We should send the bill to the profligate southern Europeans.)

Now that we have explained to Brooks that there will be no crushing tax burden on the Germans let's turn to the "effort-reward" story. There is a logical counterpart to every reckless borrower known as a reckless lender. Lenders are supposed to know the creditworthiness of their borrowers. That is what is supposed to distinguish a successful bank from an unsuccessful bank.

To some extent the lenders can perhaps be excused in the case of Greece, since the country did outright lie about its budget situation. (Some people more familiar with the world of high finance than me insist that the lenders knew that Greece was lying.) However, the trillions of dollars of loans that fueled housing bubbles in Spain, Ireland, and elsewhere were freely made by very well compensated bankers who were supposed to have some clue as to what they were doing.

In the world where effort is linked to reward, all of these reckless lenders should be out on the street, sent to the bottom rungs of society for their incredibly destructive greed and incompetence. That has not happened, nor is Brooks calling for it to happen.

Instead, Brooks wants to see the people of Spain, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere suffer, because their leaders were no more competent than the people at the ECB or the banks making loans in Germany, France and elsewhere. He thinks that they should endure long periods of high unemployment, see big cuts in the pensions for which they worked decades, and have education spending for their children reduced.  

I'm looking really hard, but I don't see any connection  between effort and reward in Brooks' vision. Maybe he can clarify the link in a future column.  

 

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Steven Beard apparently does not have access to data on budget deficits. He wrongly told Market Place listeners that the euro zone crisis is due to the fact that euro zone countries spent more money than they took in. This is wrong, wrong, and wrong!

The euro zone crisis is due to the fact the European Central Bank was managed by incompetent people who either did not see the housing bubbles across the continent and the world or did not understand their implications for the euro zone economies. It was the collapse of these bubbles that threw the euro zone countries into a severe downturn.

With the exception of Greece, it is this downturn that is the origin of chronic deficit problems. The other heavily indebted countries had sustainable deficits or even surpluses prior to the collapse.

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Spain had a budget surplus before the economic collapse. Spain had a budget surplus before the economic collapse. Spain had a budget surplus before the economic collapse.

Perhaps repeating this line three times will help the type of people who have columns in the Washington Post on the euro zone crisis get some understanding of the issue. Today we get a lecture on southern country profligacy from Daniel M. Price. Yesterday, Post columnist Matt Miller told us how he misleads his daughter about the nature of the euro zone crisis and suggested that the rest of us be equally misleading with our own children.

The reality is that most of the countries currently facing debt troubles were not profligate prior to the crisis. While it may be reasonable to describe Greece as being profligate, the only euro zone country that looks much like Greece is Greece. The other euro zone crisis countries had hugely better finances in the years leading up to the crisis.

Italy, the closest Greece competitor among euro zone crisis countries, had relatively small budget deficits in the years before the crisis. Its debt to GDP ratio fell from 93.7 percent of GDP in 2001 to 87.3 percent of GDP in 2007. In other words, the deficits of these years were completely sustainable.

Spain ran budget surpluses in the years from 2005-2007. Its debt to GDP ratio fell from 50.3 percent in 2000 to 26.5 percent of GDP in 2007. There is no remotely plausibly story of government profligacy here.

In short, people who describe the euro zone crisis as a story of excessive government deficits are pushing an ideological agenda that has nothing to do with reality. The story of the current deficits of the non-Greece countries is the story of the collapse of housing bubbles that threw the euro zone economies into a severe downturn. The European Central Bank (ECB) has magnified the problem by maintaining relatively tight monetary policy in order to maintain very low inflation and also explicitly asserting that it would not act as a lender of last resort to the heavily indebted countries.

Blaming government profligacy may be useful to those who want to see cuts in social spending, but it is not a story that is based in reality. It conceals the incompetence/greed of the private sector bankers who fueled the bubble. It also ignores the recklessness of the ECB of clinging to its inflation obsession even in the midst of a crisis that threatens the survival of the euro and could cause millions of additional workers to lose their job.

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The NYT Magazine had a useful piece outlining some of the key issues on the future of the euro. It would been helpful to mention the issue of euro zone inflation as one of the key factors affecting the ability of euro zone countries to get through the crisis. The southern euro zone economies are currently uncompetitive with Germany and other northern euro zone economies. They can regain competitiveness either by having their nominal wages fall (the path suggested in the piece) or by having their wages and prices rise less rapidly than in the northern European economies.

The former path is extremely painful. It would require many years of high unemployment. Even then, success is far from assured. One effect of falling prices is that the debt burdens of these countries would increase in real terms. (If wages and prices fall by 10 percent, then Italy's 2 trillion euro debt is 10 percent larger relative to the size of its economy.) Falling wages and prices are also likely to discourage investment, since businesses will know that the products that they will be selling in 5 or 10 years will get lower prices than they would today.

The alternative route to regaining competitiveness would have a somewhat higher euro zone rate of inflation, which would allow the southern euro zone countries to regain competitiveness by having a lower, but still positive rate of inflation. However, going this route would require the European Central Bank to loosen its commitment to maintaining a 2 percent rate of inflation.

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