July 17, 2015
That’s what millions of readers are asking after reading a NYT article on the fallout from Germany’s hardline in negotiations with Greece over its debt. The piece noted the lukewarm support given to Greece from France and Italy. It told readers:
“France and Italy struggle with some of the same problems as Greece: low growth, youth unemployment, rigid labor markets, bloated state bureaucracies and social welfare systems too generous now, when people live longer, to be supported by current revenue.”
It’s hard to see the basis for this assertion. According to the I.M.F., France has a structural budget deficit of 2.0 percent of GDP, Italy’s structural deficit is just 0.3 percent of GDP. Deficits of this size could be sustained indefinitely.
Both countries are running larger actual deficits at present because their economies are operating below full employment, even by the I.M.F.’s measure. (This measure is based on averaging recent output levels, so that a prolonged downturn will imply a lower level of potential output.) This suggests that the main source of budget problems for France and Italy is the contractionary fiscal policies being imposed on the euro zone by Germany and the European Central Bank, not excessive welfare state spending.