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A lot of people have weighed in on the Greek Morality Play, better known as the collapse of Greece’s economy, and there is no shortfall of “wisdom” and advice. (For that matter, I made comments myself on the Greek situation during an interview on the RT network last March.)
Not surprisingly, Paul Krugman has weighed in again, and this time he not only claims that the problem is not enough inflation, but also deliberately ignores the real problem behind much of the Greek collapse: Greece’s notorious and “bloated” (to use a term from Krugman’s employer, the New York Times) bureaucracies led by its militant public employee unions. Instead, Krugman sets up other straw men and then claims that if only — If Only! — the Germans would crank up the monetary printing presses, Greece could be saved.
Before going into specifics, I would like to point out that Krugman is correct when he notes that a single currency union of many states indeed does impose certain fiscal restrictions. The examples he uses for the United States are dishonest, and even when explaining the European currency union, he does not tell the whole story, lapsing, instead, into his usual spate of accusations coupled with his demands for more inflation. (And, yes, I will explain my point later in this piece.)
So, about those Greek failings: Greece does indeed have a lot of corruption and a lot of tax evasion, and the Greek government has had a habit of living beyond its means. Beyond that, Greek labor productivity is low by European standards — about 25 percent below the European Union average. It's worth noting, however, that labor productivity in, say, Mississippi is similarly low by American standards — and by about the same margin.
On the other hand, many things you hear about Greece just aren't true. The Greeks aren't lazy — on the contrary, they work longer hours than almost anyone else in Europe, and much longer hours than the Germans in particular. Nor does Greece have a runaway welfare state, as conservatives like to claim; social expenditure as a percentage of G.D.P., the standard measure of the size of the welfare state, is substantially lower in Greece than in, say, Sweden or Germany, countries that have so far weathered the European crisis pretty well.
So how did Greece get into so much trouble? Blame the euro.
His statement is more significant for what he ignores, not claims, and he has left out the role of Greece’s legendary public employee unions. Interestingly, the paper for whom he writes, the NYT, has described the Greek government unions this way:
Stories of eye-popping waste and abuse of power among Greece's bureaucrats are legion, including officials who hire their wives, and managers who submit $38,000 bills for office curtains.
The work force in Greece's Parliament is so bloated, according to a local press investigation, that some employees do not even bother to come to work because there are not enough places for all of them to sit.
And there is more:
The government is in many ways an army of patronage appointments built up over decades. When election time rolls around, state workers become campaign workers, and their reach is enormous. There are so many of them that almost every family has one.
This puts the Socialist prime minister, George A. Papandreou, or any other Greek leader, in a tough spot: There can be little upside to cutting jobs precisely when the government most needs support for unpopular budget-cutting actions.
"There is a political cost to these reforms," said Nickolaos G. Travlos, an economist at the Alba Graduate Business School in Athens. "These workers are opinion leaders in their communities. And they are busy blaming the government, especially a Socialist government that is supposed to protect them.”
They are also well organized. This week's general strike follows weeks of smaller strikes, rallies, sit-ins and a blockade of the Athens landfill that has left piles of garbage rotting in the streets.
When auditors from the "troika" — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — arrived last month at the Finance Ministry, workers blocked their entry.
There obviously is a disconnect here, but one has to remember that Krugman considers government unions to be a source of wealth creation, and not something that destroys wealth. In fact, the more bloated and unproductive the Greek government unions become, the more wealth they create, because their non-productivity means that the government has to hire more people which means more jobs. This clearly is the proverbial “elephant in the living room” that Krugman refuses to acknowledge.
Most “conservative” and libertarian criticisms of Greece that I have read do not deal with Greece’s welfare state, contra Krugman. Instead, they have been critical of the very thing Krugman pointedly ignores: government employee unions, and there is enough evidence on the table to demonstrate that the picture of the hard-working Greek citizen toiling long hours is not a government worker, but rather someone in the private economy working to support the bureaucrats that have become a huge burden. (Notice how Krugman lumps all Greek workers together instead of separating those who financially support the unions and those who consume the wealth that others produce.)
Now, if Greece were on the drachma, then I suppose the government could print a lot of money to pay for these workers, and the result would be inflation, lots of inflation. By being on the euro, the Greek government has not had that option, which meant that whatever extra money came into the system outside the private economy would come in via borrowing, and the Greek crisis precisely has been about the government’s unmanageable debt service.
In Krugman’s world, however, things are turned upside down. Private savings are bad, government spending and debt are good. Public sector unions create wealth and private enterprise destroys it.
His comparison of this country’s state governments with Greece might have some bearing in the argument, but even there Krugman gets it backwards. Krugman’s support of the government unions in Wisconsin and California and his recent claim that state government spending — or the alleged lack, thereof — is causing the current downturn ignores the simple fact that state government unions mostly consume, not create, wealth. Steven Greenhut writes:
Over the past decade, California governments have dramatically increased the pay and especially the benefit packages of public-sector workers. We have firefighters earning average total compensation packages of $175,000 a year in many jurisdictions, and majorities of police officers in some agencies retiring on questionable disabilities. The standard retirement package for the ever-expanding class of "public safety" officials allows them to retire at age 50 with 90 percent of their final year's pay — and that's before all the add-ons and scams. Miscellaneous members — the rest of public employees — aren't far behind, and we've seen absurd enrichment schemes and salaries in one scandal after another.
I've watched a sea of proposals pass that give government employees special privileges that would never be allowed for mere private citizens, such as a recently passed California bill that allows many officials to shield their personal information from public property databases. These privileges encourage arrogance and misuses of power. Pensions are now consuming 16 percent of California's discretionary budget, and in cities such as San Jose, pension costs escalated an eye-opening 350 percent in a decade.
In Krugman’s world, all of this is justified not only under the guise of “democracy” and “fairness,” but also because such measures mean more “spending” by government employees, and such spending in Wonderland creates wealth. But a column by Paul Krugman, unfortunately, does not contain just bad economic analysis, but also encompasses some outright howlers, and we see them in his comparison of the Greek situation to this country:
Ask yourself, why does the dollar area — also known as the United States of America — more or less work, without the kind of severe regional crises now afflicting Europe? The answer is that we have a strong central government, and the activities of this government in effect provide automatic bailouts to states that get in trouble.
Consider, for example, what would be happening to Florida right now, in the aftermath of its huge housing bubble, if the state had to come up with the money for Social Security and Medicare out of its own suddenly reduced revenues. Luckily for Florida, Washington rather than Tallahassee is picking up the tab, which means that Florida is in effect receiving a bailout on a scale no European nation could dream of.
Or consider an older example, the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, which was largely a Texas affair. Taxpayers ended up paying a huge sum to clean up the mess — but the vast majority of those taxpayers were in states other than Texas. Again, the state received an automatic bailout on a scale inconceivable in modern Europe.
None of these situations involved state spending; in fact, the housing bubble and the S&L crisis involved federally-sponsored institutions which also had crises in other states. Furthermore, his examples of Social Security and Medicare fall into the non sequitur category, given that both are federal programs and paid not by state taxes and spending, but rather through a nation-wide taxation system. In other words, Krugman gives us a dishonest apples-and-oranges comparison.
However, if the states, such as California, were to have fiscal problems because government employee unions have plundered everyone else, that is a different matter altogether. Krugman has argued that the federal government should borrow in near-unlimited amounts in order to prop up the budget deficits in the states, and he essentially argues that Europe should do the same for Greece and other countries.
Yes, this will mean more inflation, but in Wonderland, more inflation means more spending and more spending means a better economy. And, yes, Krugman has argued many times that increased inflation is good for us, almost as good as an invasion of “space aliens.”
As Lew Rockwell has noted in this appearance on RT, many of the “austerity” measures imposed upon Greece have been done in the name of bailing out the European banks that were foolish and craven enough to go along with Greece’s spending schemes. Instead of bailouts, Rockwell has recommended that Greece simply default, which actually would better serve both Greece and Europe.
Why? Greece would be forced to put its own fiscal house in order by being realistic about government spending, and the European banks in the future would have to lend money for productive measures, not unsustainable government foolishness. Indeed, as he notes, Greek workers have been victimized by governments and banks, but his sympathies are aimed toward the real Greek taxpayer: the private sector worker who has to work long hours to support those who don’t have to work at all.
Paul Krugman, on the other hand, claims that the only way to have real economic recovery and growth is for governments to borrow, print money, and continue with excessive government employee union activities. This is not economics in any authentic sense; it is just more Keynesian misrepresentation of reality.
June 20, 2012