Neil Irwin Gets His Power Politics on Greece and the Euro Wrong

July 06, 2015

Neil Irwin generally has insightful economic analysis in his NYT Upshot pieces, however he strikes out in his turn to power politics today. He tells readers:

“German leaders genuinely believe that a new deal along those lines would be bad economic policy for Greece. Many economists at the International Monetary Fund and American officials would argue it is entirely sensible. The fact is that the time for those debates is over for now; we’re in a realm of power politics, not substantive economic policy debates.

“The choice for leaders of Germany, France and the rest of Europe will look something like this:

“If they tolerate the Greek government’s demands, they will be setting a bad example for every other country that might wish to challenge the strictures of the European Union, telling voters in Portugal and Spain and Italy that if they make enough fuss, and elect extremist parties, they too will get a much sweeter deal. It would send the signal that a country can borrow all it likes, walk away from those debts and make the rest of Europe pay the bill, as long as it is intransigent enough.”

Actually, the choice for leaders of France and the rest of Europe does not look like this.

It may be true that, “German leaders genuinely believe that a new deal along those lines would be bad economic policy for Greece.” German leaders do show considerable evidence of having no understanding of economics. This is why they are taking positions that put them at odds with economists at the I.M.F. and just about everywhere else. The evidence of the last five years contradicts their claims about the economy as completely as possible, but it appears that many people in top positions in Germany are genuinely flat-earthers who simply can’t accept that the world is round and that the euro zone economy is suffering from a shortfall of demand and need not worry about debt.

However, there is no reason to believe that leaders in France and the rest of Europe suffer from the same learning disability. Therefore, they may recognize that the main reason Greece has been forced to borrow large amounts of money over the last five years and run up its debt has not been its profligate spending, but rather the strangling of its economy.

Sharp cutbacks in government spending led to a huge reduction in demand. Since Greece is in the euro, there was little possibility for much increase net exports through a reduction in the value of its currency. Also, since the other euro zone countries were also pursuing austerity, they would not provide growing markets for Greek exports. In this context, it was virtually inevitable that Greece’s economy would contract sharply. This means bringing in less tax revenue. It also leads to more spending for things like pensions, as workers who are unable to find jobs opt to retire earlier than they would have otherwise and start collecting their pension.

The leaders of France and the rest of Europe may understand the basic economics here. This means that rather than blessing profligate spending, a turn to favor Greece means rejecting failed economic theories that have devastated the euro zone’s economy. This would mean pushing for higher spending in the core countries, especially Germany, and pursuing other mechanisms for increasing demand.


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