Tag: Greece

Italy Slowly Recognizes that the Substance of ‘Austerity’ Matters

Apologists for big government have regularly warned that Europe’s austerity measures would push the European economy into a recession. To some extent they’ve been correct, but not for the reasons they claim. So far austerity in countries like Greece and Italy have been austerity for the private sector, not the public. They’ve attempted to close budget gaps by tax increases rather than spending cuts. Witness Mario Monti’s implementation of a tax on first home purchases (sure to do wonders for your housing and construction labor markets).

Fortunately there is some small ray of hope that Italy has come to recognize the error of its ways. As reported in today’s Financial Times, instead of pushing for an increase in the value-added tax, Italy will focus its next austerity measures on cutting government.  As the Financial Times goes on to explain:

The new government’s €30bn austerity package, passed in December, was heavily oriented towards tax increases rather than spending cuts, an emphasis that is now widely recognised by ministers as having driven Italy deeper into recession.

When even the Financial Times recognizes that tax increases are contractionary, then perhaps there is some hope for Italy (and Europe) after all. Now if we can actually get spending costs of real significance (€30 billion is a rounding error for the Italian government’s budget).

Cutting the Government—Greek Style

After much wrangling and consternation, the Greek government has agreed to the latest round of “drastic austerity measures,” the most significant of which is the promise to cut 15,000 government jobs. In return, the Greeks will receive 130 billion euros ($170 billion) of European bailout money to keep the Greek state afloat and, crucially, in the eurozone. That, anyway, is the plan.

The leaders of the political parties that “support” the Greek technocratic (i.e. unelected) government still have to approve the cuts, which they might not do because the unions threaten a general strike. But, there are additional problems as well. First, many of those 15,000 government workers will likely come from the ranks of those who are close to retirement. While the number of government workers will thus shrink, the government’s unsustainable social security burden will worsen. Second, the government workforce (i.e. public servants and employees of the Greek parastatals) account for over 22 percent of the Greek labor force of 4.4 million. That means that the number of people working for the government will decline from 968,000 to 953,000—a reduction of 1.6 percent. And that is what amounts to a “drastic austerity measure” in Greece!

The Euro Crisis in Prose and Poetry

The European debt crisis is inspiring public radio to literary analysis. Last week NPR’s Planet Money put the French-German relationship into a “threepenny opera”:

All

Everyone is counting on you
You’ve got the money
We’ve got the debt (Oh yes, we’ve got a lot of debt!)
And do we need a bailout—you bet

Germany

Zat’s it, I’ve had enough
Looks like it’s time now for me to leave…

France

Oh?

Germany

Vhy is ze door locked? You must let me out.

France

Dear when the times are tough
It’s better to give zan to receive

Then Monday Marketplace Radio turned to classics professor Emily Allen Hornblower and economist Bill Lastrapes to discuss Greek debt as classical tragedy—Oedipus? The ant and the grasshopper?

Loyal Cato readers will recognize Bill Lastrapes as the coauthor of the much-discussed Cato Working Paper “Has the Fed Been a Failure?

And then, if you prefer prose and sober analysis to literary analogies, let me recommend Holman Jenkins’s perceptive column on why Europe hasn’t solved its crisis yet, which unfortunately appeared in the less-read Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal. (OK, not less read than Cato-at-Liberty, but probably less read than the weekday Journal.)

Neither leader has an incentive to sacrifice what have become vital and divergent interests to produce a credible bailout plan for Europe. To simplify, German voters don’t want to bail out French banks, and the French government can’t afford to bail out French banks, when and if the long-awaited Greek default is allowed to happen….

There is another savior in the wings, of course, the European Central Bank. But the ECB has no incentive to betray in advance its willingness to get France and Germany off the hook by printing money to keep Europe’s heavily indebted governments afloat. Yet all know this is the outcome politicians are stalling for. This is the outcome markets are relying on, and why they haven’t crashed.

All are waiting for some market ruction hairy enough that the central bank will cast aside every political and legal restraint in order to save the euro….

And then the crisis will be over? Not by a long shot.

All these “solvent” countries and their banks will be dependent on the ECB to keep them “solvent,” a reality that can only lead to entrenched inflation across the European economy. That is, unless these governments undertake heroic reforms quickly to restore themselves to the good graces of the global bond market so they can stand up again without the ECB’s visible help.

It’s just conceivable that this might happen—that countries on the ECB life-support might put their nose to the grindstone to make good on their debts, held by ECB and others. Or they might just resume the game of chicken with German taxpayers, albeit in a new form, implicitly demanding that Germany bail out the ECB before the bank is forced thoroughly to debauch the continent’s common currency, the euro.

Why Slovakia May Not Support Europe’s Bailout Plan

Slovakia is set to vote today on the European bailout plan and may well become a holdout. As my colleague David Boaz noted yesterday, this is due to Slovakia’s libertarian speaker of the house, Richard Sulik, who spoke at a Cato Institute conference in Bratislava last year, and who opposes bailouts of Greece and other EU countries based on sound ethical, political, and economic reasoning. Greece is already bankrupt and a bailout will only add to the country’s debt; an EU “rescue” will continue to create moral hazard, thus encouraging bad policies by reckless governments; relatively poorer and better behaved Slovakia should not be forced to support the irresponsible governments of richer European countries; the EU’s response to the Greek debt crisis has led to blatant violations of EU and European Central Bank rules, thus undermining democratic principles and the EU itself; the scare stories of not approving the bailout should not be believed; the best solution is for Greece is to declare bankruptcy once and for all.

In this document by his Freedom and Solidarity Party, Richard Sulik lays out his party’s opposition to the bailout fund. It is consistent with the views of other leading scholars including that of John Cochrane of the University of Chicago (and a Cato adjunct scholar) as expressed in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed on how to save the Euro.

Sulik has tapped into popular sentiment among Europeans about the “democracy deficit,” or huge gap between the designs of Europe’s ruling elites and the desires of the region’s citizens. The widespread (and accurate) perception of Eurocrats imposing their agenda on Europe to the benefit of their cronies (e.g., big business, labor unions, and politicians in power) and at the expense of the majority is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The Slovak government, which supports the bailout, may well fall on account of this vote, but the prime minister has already indicated that the vote on the bailout fund will be held repeatedly until it is approved. (No doubt there will be little possibility of a repeat vote repealing the bill.)

On a related note, a new Finnish think tank, Libera, provides more evidence that Europeans are rethinking big government. It published a study today which reassesses the record of the Swedish welfare state and praises the numerous market reforms that country has introduced out of necessity since the 1990s.

The Lives of Others 2.0

Tattoo it on your forearm—or better, that of your favorite legislator—for easy reference in the next debate over wiretapping: government surveillance is a security breach—by definition and by design. The latest evidence of this comes from Germany, where there’s growing furor over a hacker group’s allegations that government-designed Trojan Horse spyware is not only insecure, but packed with functions that exceed the limits of German law:

On Saturday, the CCC (the hacker group) announced that it had been given hard drives containing “state spying software,” which had allegedly been used by German investigators to carry out surveillance of Internet communication. The organization had analyzed the software and found it to be full of defects. They also found that it transmitted information via a server located in the United States. As well as its surveillance functions, it could be used to plant files on an individual’s computer. It was also not sufficiently protected, so that third parties with the necessary technical skills could hijack the Trojan horse’s functions for their own ends. The software possibly violated German law, the organization said.

Back in 2004–2005, software designed to facilitate police wiretaps was exploited by unknown parties to intercept the communications of dozens of top political officials in Greece. And just last year, we saw an attack on Google’s e-mail system targeting Chinese dissidents, which some sources have claimed was carried out by compromising a backend interface designed for law enforcement.

Any communications architecture that is designed to facilitate outsider access to communications—for all the most noble reasons—is necessarily more vulnerable to malicious interception as a result. That’s why technologists have looked with justified skepticism on periodic calls from intelligence agencies to redesign data networks for their convenience. At least in this case, the vulnerability is limited to specific target computers on which the malware has been installed. Increasingly, governments want their spyware installed at the switches—making for a more attractive target, and more catastrophic harm in the event of a successful attack.

Two Pictures that Perfectly Capture the Rise and Fall of the Welfare State

In my speeches, especially when talking about the fiscal crisis in Europe (or the future fiscal crisis in America), I often warn that the welfare state reaches a point of no return when the people riding in the welfare wagon begins to outnumber the people pulling the wagon.

To be more specific, if more than 50 percent of the population is dependent on government (employed in the bureaucracy, living off welfare, receiving public pensions, etc.), it becomes difficult for taxpayers to form a majority coalition to fix the mess. This may explain why Greek politicians have resisted significant reforms, even though the nation faces a fiscal death spiral.

But you don’t need me to explain this relationship. One of our Cato interns, Silvia Morandotti, used her artistic skills to create two images (click pictures for better resolution) that show what a welfare state looks like when it first begins and what it eventually becomes.

The welfare state starts with small programs targeted at a handful of genuinely needy people. But as  politicians figure out the electoral benefits of expanding programs and people figure out that they can let others work on their behalf, the ratio of producers to consumers begins to worsen.

Eventually, even though the questionable beneficiaries should realize that it’s not in their interest to over-burden the people pulling the wagon, the entire system breaks down.

Then things get really interesting. Small nations like Greece can rely on bailouts from bigger countries and the IMF, but sooner or later, as larger nations begin to go bankrupt, that approach won’t be feasible.

I often conclude my speeches by joking with the audience that it’s time to stock up on canned goods and bottled water. Many people, I’m finding, don’t think that line is very funny.

Beware of Greeks Demanding Gifts

Our friend Alberto Mingardi of the Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy writes about the Greek crisis:

In a way, the most surprising element of the Greek disaster is that taxpayers in other European countries aren’t outraged at being called to rescue an economy that has been marching towards disaster for so long.

The legitimate fear of contagion affecting other European countries is now being used to persuade the electorates outside Greece that: first, Greece has not manufactured its own fate, but is rather the victim of “locust-like” speculators and, second, a Greek bailout would be an indictment of the European social model, that is, the welfare state.

Where European public opinion is collapsing under its contradictions is in the attempt to reconcile the idea of the EU as the ultimate policeman of public finance with the ideological need to save the “European social model” no matter what. If the European Union has long been a major catalyst for reform in member states, it seems inappropriate that it now aims to artificially remove the ultimate incentive for fiscal wisdom: the possibility of a sovereign default. The problem of “moral hazard” should not be considered the exclusive preserve of too-big-to-fail banks; countries can suffer from it, too.

At two Cato forums last year Simeon Djankov, Steve Hanke, and Takis Michas discussed the background of the Greek crisis. Partial transcript here. Video here and here. Michas blamed the problems on “clientelism,” which he described as “a system in which political support is provided in exchange for benefits…. The largest part of public expenditure was directed, not to public works or infrastructure, but to the wages of public service workers and civil servants…. What makes the case of Greece interesting is that Greece can be said, in a certain sense, to provide the perfect realization of the left’s vision of putting people above markets. Greek politicians have always placed people (their clients) above markets, with results we can all see today.”

Dan Mitchell said “I told you so” about the failure of the previous Greek bailout. My thoughts on the Greek “anarchists” demanding a continuation of government subsidies here. And here’s a comparison between the Greek and U.S. debt problems.