Greek Debt Crisis, Social Democracy, Welfare State, Keynesians, Inflation, Tax Evasion, Common Currency and the Eurozone

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 19th, 2012

History 101

Higher Debt Balances accrue Higher Interest Costs that Reduce Income

The Greek debt crisis has been in the news for a long time.  Which has contributed to the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis.  Most people understand that it’s bad.  But they may not understand how bad.  Or understand what exactly happened.  What caused it.  And why they can’t fix it.  For it’s been a crisis since 2009.  And all we hear is that it’ll be apocalyptic if we don’t bail out Greece and save the Euro.  Which would be bad.  As most apocalypses tend to be.

To get a general understanding we’ll use an analogy.  Let’s say you just got a new job and are now earning $80,000 annually.  Your future is bright.  And you’re very happy.  You buy a big house.  And you run up your credit cards furnishing it with lots of nice stuff.  Because you’re earning $80,000 a year and can easily afford it.  Well, perhaps not easily.  But you can still put food on the table.  And take a nice vacation with your better half.  But then a recession sets in.  They cut your bonus.  And some of your benefits (taking a large health care deduction out of your check).  But that house payment remains the same.  As do your credit card bills.  So you cut out the vacation.  And eat more hamburger and less steak.  To adjust to the lost income.  Then worse comes. 

You lose your job.  Go on unemployment.  Which doesn’t pay your bills.  So you desperately look for a new job.  In the bad economy the best job you can get pays only $50,000.  Which is a lot more than unemployment.  But a far cry from $80,000.  You can keep making your house payment.  But you have to slash nonessential spending.  And cut up your credit cards.  Because those high credit card balances require a payment that’s almost as big as your house payment.  Almost your entire paycheck goes to your creditors.  All because you started spending money you didn’t have because you thought that $80,000 job would never go away.  In fact you spent based on what your income would grow to.  Beyond that $80,000.  This is the Greek debt crisis.  Only without the spending cuts.

A Policy of Constant Inflation Monetizes Old Debt and Bumps People up into Higher Tax Brackets

Like the rest of Europe Greece became a social democracy.  Which is socialism-light.  The people learned they had the keys to the treasury.  All they had to do was to vote for people who liked using that key.  And they did.  Government spending soared beginning in the Seventies.  The public sector grew.  Creating a lot of government jobs.  With some generous pay and benefits.  But the country was also a welfare state.  Which meant everyone got a state pension.  State health care.  And other state social benefits.  You didn’t have to work for the government to enjoy the generosity of the state.  And the state was generous.

And the generous government spending just grew more generous.  Strong economic growth allowed more spending.  And more borrowing.  (From 2000 to 2007 Greece led the Eurozone in economic growth.  Which probably sealed their fate.  Because the increased spending during boom times they could never sustain during bad economic times.  And bad economic times were coming.)  Budget deficits became a part of the Greek government.  For they were also Keynesians.  Who believed in the value of running deficits.  And accruing debt.  They devalued their currency.  Which helped make their exports cheaper.  And it monetized their debt.  A policy of constant ‘but manageable’ inflation made old debt worth less.  And easier to pay off.  Just as inflation made people’s savings accounts worth less over time.  But running budget deficits year after year increased their outstanding debt.  Starting slowly at first.  Then growing greater.   Prior to 1984 Greek debt as a percentage of GDP was below 40%.  By 1998 it was above 60%.  By 1990 it was above 80%.  By 1994 it was above 100%.  By 2010 it was above 140%.  By 2011 it was above 160%. 

The Keynesians don’t see a problem with this.  Because they believe if you keep depreciating the currency the older debt just goes away.  It’s like redeeming a $100 savings bond from 1875.  Back then $100 was a lot of money to the government.  Today it’s the loose change they drop from their pockets that isn’t worth bending down to pick up.  Metaphorically, of course.  In time with steady inflation those old debts simply become chump change.  And there’s something else Keynesians love about inflation.  It’s a hidden tax.  Sometime it’s not possible politically to raise taxes.  So they can use inflation to bump people into higher tax brackets.  Making them pay a higher percentage of their income to the government.  Which brings us to another Greek problem.

At the Heart of the Greek Debt Crisis is the Welfare State

Greece is a welfare state.  Like other welfare states they have to fund that welfare with taxes.  So they have high tax rates.  Because it’s what the people want.  That welfare state.  Which requires those high tax rates.  But they have a problem.  People don’t like paying taxes.  Especially the Greeks.  Who have taken avoiding paying taxes to an art.  Which plays a big problem in the Greek debt crisis.  People demanding all of that government spending.  Yet refusing to pay the taxes to pay for it.  Causing great problems.  Especially when they joined the common currency.  The Euro.

The common currency changed things.  They could no longer depreciate their currency.  Because it wasn’t their currency anymore.  It was the Eurozone’s currency.  Joining the Euro was like giving a bunch of people credit cards and telling them they had to restrict their purchases so that their annual deficit and total debt fell below certain percentages of their income.  And those numbers to join the Euro were as follows.  Their deficit had to be below 3% of GDP.  And their debt had to be below 60% of GDP.  If all the members kept within these limits they would maintain their good credit rating.  And be able to use their ‘credit cards’ responsibly.  And not shock the European Central Bank when they opened the credit card statement at the end of the accounting period.

It appears that Greece massaged their numbers with some creative bookkeeping to meet the requirements to join the Euro.  And to stay within the currency union they may have misreported their economic numbers.  (When the crisis began the Greeks officially reported that their deficit was 5% of GDP.  Which exceeded the allowable 3% but was salvageable.  After some outside audits they revised their 2009 deficit up to 15.6% of GDP.  Making the crisis more of an apocalypse).  Why did they do this?  Because they wanted to keep spending.  But they couldn’t depreciate their currency anymore.  The economy was in recession which higher tax rates wouldn’t help.  Not to mention all of the tax evasion.  So that left borrowing as their only avenue to sustain that excessive government spending.  Sort of like trying to solve the problem of having your credit cards cancelled for nonpayment by getting new credit cards to use to accumulate even more debt that you can’t repay.  They’ve gotten one bailout package already.  And a second one is theirs if they commit to some austerity.  Which the people have rejected.  At least those rioting in the streets.  And considering how generous those benefits had been it’s hard to blame these people.  For life as they knew it is over for them.  Thanks to irresponsible government spending that made them dependent on the government.

So there are a lot of factors that caused the Greek debt crisis.  But at its heart is one thing.  The welfare state.  For if there was no excessive government spending they wouldn’t have had those large deficits.  Debt.  Or debt crisis.

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Some say the Germans should Remember that Austerity gave them Hitler and should therefore Forgive some Greek Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 19th, 2012

Week in Review

There are more Nazi comparisons in the continuing saga of the Greek debt crisis as people keep picking on Germany.  The strongest Eurozone state.  And the only one who can bail out the weaker ones (see Germany has forgotten the lessons of war reparations by Jeremy Warner posted 2/17/2012 on The Telegraph).

While on the subject of historical parallels, there’s another which has not yet been given sufficient an airing. This was the vexing question of German war reparations after the slaughter of the First World War, brilliantly identified by John Maynard Keynes at the time in his polemic, “Economic Consequences of the Peace”, as fundamentally unfair on the Germans. Keynes branded the Treaty of Versailles a “Carthaginian Peace”.

True.  The Treaty of Versailles did treat the Germans unfairly.  A word commonly bandied about at the time in Germany was humiliated.  And betrayed.  Even stabbed in the back.  Because the Germans didn’t start that war.  Everyone was eager to go to war.  And nearly everyone did thanks to those entangling alliances that George Washington warned us about.  And another thing.  The Germans didn’t lose the war.  No one did.  And no one won the war.  It ended in an armistice.  Much like the Korean War.  And yet during the treaty process they identified Germany as the sole culprit that caused the war.  And the allies all tried to recoup their losses and rebuild their empires by bleeding Germany dry.

Part of Germany’s purpose during interminable attempts to renegotiate these debts on less oppressive terms was to demonstrate that the German economy was in no position to pay – ergo, the creditor was at some stage going to have to take an almighty hit. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that the Weimar hyperinflation was deliberately engineered in order to demonstrate this fact beyond doubt. There can be no other explanation for the bizarrely ruinous policies of deficit financing pursued by the Bundesbank at that time. No sane central banker could possibly have sanctioned such a strategy…

Given its history, it is quite strange that Germany has such difficulty in grasping this reality. It is sometimes said that German attitudes to the economy and the current crisis are instructed by experience of Weimar inflation and its catastrophic consequences. Yet it wasn’t hyperinflation that brought Hitler to power, but rather the depression of the early 1930s, which in Germany’s case was greatly exaggerated by the pro-cyclical austerity the government of the time insisted on applying to the problem. Those who who [sic] don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

The Weimar hyperinflation played a part.  But what really motivated Hitler was the Versailles Treaty.  Hitler was a veteran of WWI.  He served bravely.  Was promoted to corporal.  Suffered temporary blindness from a gas attack.  And he knew the Germans weren’t beaten.  Exhausted?  Yes.  War weary?  Yes.  But militarily defeated?  No.  It was the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty that drove Hitler.  So much so that when his panzer armies conquered France he met the French in a special rail car to sign the instrument of surrender.  The same rail car the Germans signed the humiliating Versailles Treaty.

Many Germans rallied around Hitler because they felt the same way.  Germany had grown to be the dominating European power.  And that treaty did what Germany’s enemies couldn’t do.   Change the balance of power in Europe.  To reverse the German successes of the last century or so.  This is what brought Hitler to power.  Vengeance.  To right the wrongs done to Germany.  Had they not been so wronged it is unlikely that a gifted orator would have risen to inflame the masses.  For there may have been no hyperinflation without those punishing reparations in the first place.  And without that economic crisis the world wouldn’t even know the name Adolf Hitler.  (Probably.  Unless a prosperous Weimar Germany liked and bought his art.  Then instead of remembering him as a crazed mass murderer we would remember him as an artist.)

In contrast nobody wronged Greece.  They got into this mess on their own.  By irresponsible government spending.  And the cure for irresponsible spending is responsible spending.  Not forgiving debt so they can keep spending irresponsibly.  German hyperinflation resulted from unjust war reparations that destroyed the German economy.  The Greek crisis resulted from irresponsible spending that destroyed the Greek economy.  Spending is the problem.  It needs to be cut.  So they stop running deficits.  And stop growing their debt.  But cutting government spending is easier said than done.  For once the government makes the people dependent on government benefits the people tend to not want to give them up.  But they must.  It’s the only way to fix the underlying problem.  Irresponsible spending.  And forgiving debt not only misses this central point.  It encourages more of the same.

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The Greeks give their Answer to the Latest Bailout Package – Violent Protest

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 12th, 2012

Week in Review

And the saga continues.  The ever elusive solution to the Greek debt crisis grows ever more elusive (see Greece reels after leaders agree to harsh spending cuts by Michael Birnbaum posted 2/10/2012 on The Washington Post).

Greeks clashed on the streets of Athens and in the halls of government Friday, as protesters grew violent and one after another cabinet minister resigned, a day after the nation’s leaders accepted foreign lenders’ demands for tough austerity cuts to try to stave off bankruptcy.

By late evening, six cabinet members had resigned and Prime Minister Lucas Papademos went on state television to threaten members of his shaky coalition government with expulsion if they opposed making sweeping spending cuts in exchange for a bailout that would keep Greece from defaulting on its debts by mid-March. A Greek bankruptcy could shake the euro zone and potentially wreak havoc throughout the global financial system…

But protests over the austerity plans were already paralyzing the capital, as thousands marched during a demonstration led by the country’s two largest unions. The new mandates will reduce the minimum wage to $780 a month from $1,000 a month, slash social entitlements, freeze salaries for years and cut 150,000 workers from government payrolls by the end of 2015. Greek unemployment already stands at 20.9 percent.

Some protesters threw gasoline bombs and stones at riot police, who responded with tear gas, the Associated Press reported. Police said that eight officers and two protesters were injured. The unions called for a 48-hour general strike, the second this week, and much of Athens was shut down…

“Of course we do not want to be outside the E.U., but we can get by without being under the German jackboot,” Karatzaferis [head of a junior partner in Greece’s coalition government] said at a news conference. “I would rather starve.”

This is the problem with the Eurozone.  There’s a currency union.  But no political union.  While the Germans were being responsible (for they have a history of hyperinflation they don’t want to repeat seeing that it gave the world Adolf Hitler) the Greeks were spending beyond their means.  And may have fudged their numbers to join the monetary union.  And now the Greeks are broke.  And they need someone to bail them out.  And guess who is the richest in the Eurozone?  That’s right.  Those responsible Germans.  And what do some Greeks call the only people who can bail them out?  Jackboots.  A not so veiled Nazi slur.  With love like that they’ll never be a political union in the Eurozone.  And perhaps no Eurozone when countries start going bankrupt.  Starting with Greece this March.

The Greeks are well on their way on the Road to Serfdom.  The public sector has grown so large that those left in the private sector can no longer pay for them.  Which gives them a very unfortunate choice.  Either shrink the public sector by slashing costs.  Or kill the private sector entirely.  And make all Greeks serfs in a new state economy of subsistence.  Where everyone will be equal in their suffering.  Except, of course, those in the ruling class.  Who will be more equal than others.  And will be able to enjoy their lives.  Much like in North Korea.  Where Kim Jong il carried a few extra pounds while his people suffered famines.  Of course, before that happens there will be a great exodus as Greeks flee their country.  Which will inundate other countries with refugees.  And cheap labor.  As refugees typically are.  Throwing their economies into turmoil.  Spreading the Greek contagion throughout Europe.

There is no easy way out for Greece.  And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.  This should be a lesson in the growth of state spending.  But will anyone learn?  Let’s hope so.  Because if Germany or the United Kingdom or the United States goes down this Road to Serfdom the Greek problem will pale in comparison.

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Learning nothing from Europe’s Financial Crises, Obama pushes hard to increase the Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 11th, 2011

No Economy is too Big to Fail

Having too much debt is a bad thing.  For one thing, you have to pay it back eventually.  And until you do, you have to service it.  Make interest payments.  Which can become very large if you have a lot of debt.

Greece has a lot of debt.  So much that they can’t sell any more.  And they can no longer service that debt.  Which is a big problem for the European Union (EU), in particular the Eurozone and its common currency the Euro.  Greece is small.  But the EU is big.  And Greece’s problem is now their problem because of that common currency (see Eurozone moves to stop Greek debt crisis by Gabriele Steinhauser, Associated Press, posted 7/11/2011 on USA Today).

Investors are concerned that the debt crisis, which has so far been contained to the small economies of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, could soon drag down bigger countries like highly indebted Italy and unemployment-ridden Spain. The mere size of their economies could easily overwhelm the rescue capacity of the rest of the eurozone…

“The fact that contagion is spreading marks the failure of politicians to draw a line under the Euro-crisis to date,” Rabobank analyst Jane Foley said. “As yields rise and debt financing costs become even more exaggerated the difficulties of containing the crisis become even bigger.”

The Europeans crated the EU and the Eurozone to counter the economic prowess of the United States.  And it has.  Their economies run shoulder to shoulder.  Which is why the U.S. should be worried about what is happening in Greece.  And how scared the EU is that their contagion may spread.  For no economy is too big to fail from an overload of debt.

Excessive Government Debt making Investors Nervous

If you’re looking for confirmation on the size and reach of the Greek debt crisis, look no further than the world’s financial markets (see Markets Tumble on Debt Crisis by The Associated Press posted 7/11/2011 on The New York Times).

Wall Street and global stocks slid further Monday because of renewed concerns about the euro zone’s debt crisis and after a dismal jobs report in the United States last week rekindled concerns about the recovery in the world’s largest economy…

The downbeat sentiment in markets was worsened by indications that Europe’s debt crisis might be spreading beyond the three countries that have already received rescue packages. There have been mounting concerns that after Greece, Ireland and Portugal, much-larger Italy and Spain could need bailouts to manage its tremendous debt load.

Investors are nervous.  Both about Greece and the EU.  And the United States.  They’re worried about excessive government spending.  And excessive government debt.  Because the higher the debt the higher the interest paid on the debt.  And interest paid on the debt is money spent that results in nothing beneficial.  It’s just a drag on the economy (i.e., higher taxes are required to pay it).  Or worse.  As in borrowing money to service the debt.  Which makes a bad problem (too much debt) worse (more debt).  Which is a further drag on the economy.

The Children refuse to Eat their Peas

And speaking of debt, there was no progress on the budget debate to increase the debt limit.  As if anyone was surprised by this (see WRAPUP 9-Obama, lawmakers fall short on US debt deal by Steve Holland and Thomas Ferraro posted 7/11/2011 on Reuters).

U.S. President Barack Obama and top U.S. lawmakers fell short on Monday of finding enough spending cuts for a deal to avoid an Aug. 2 debt default and Republicans came under fresh pressure to agree to tax hikes.

The two sides achieved no breakthrough in a roughly 90-minute meeting and scheduled a third straight day of talks for Tuesday. This came after Obama, at a news conference, declared it is time for both Republicans and Democrats to “pull off the Band-aid, eat our peas” and make sacrifices.

I’m a grownup.  And I like peas.  I think a lot of grownups like peas.  That’s probably why I see a lot of peas in grocery stores.  But one thing I don’t see is kids begging their mother to buy more peas.  No.  Mothers have to tell them to eat their peas even though kids don’t want to.  Because kids just don’t know what’s good for them.  And mothers, being mothers and not diplomats, don’t discuss this.  They just dictate terms to their children.  Which is what Obama appears to be doing.  Trying to dictate terms to the children on the other side of the aisle.  To get them to accept what’s best for them.  Because he knows best.  Like Mother.

The Treasury Department has warned it will run out of money to cover the country’s bills if Congress does not increase its borrowing authority by Aug. 2. Failure to act could push the United States back into recession, send shock waves through global markets and threaten the dollar’s reserve status.

This ‘running out of money’ line is very strange.  The government is currently collecting some $2 trillion plus in cash a year.  Which comes out to about $180 billion a month.  And as long as your employer is withholding taxes from your paycheck, there’s money flowing into Washington.  So how exactly are they running out of money?

Back into recession?  Didn’t know we ever came out of recession.

Boehner also took issue with Democrats’ suggestion that most of the spending cuts should be concentrated out into future years, rather than beginning right away.

Smart man that Boehner.  He knows Democrats lie.  “Raise taxes now and we’ll make spending cuts later.  Promise.  $3 in cuts tomorrow for every new dollar in taxes today.”  Ronald Reagan fell for it.  George H. W. Bush, too.  But tomorrow never came.  And neither did those spending cuts.  The Democrats had their new taxes.  So they said, “Screw you, Republicans.  Suckers.”

Obama used the latest in a series of White House news conferences to urge lawmakers on both sides to stop putting off the inevitable and agree to tax increases and cuts in popular entitlement programs, trying to persuade Americans he is the grownup in a bitter summer battle over spending and taxes…

Obama is seeking to cast himself as a centrist in the bitter debate. His 2012 re-election hopes hinge not only on reducing America’s 9.2 percent unemployment but on his appeal to independent voters who are increasingly turned off by partisan rancor in Washington and want tougher action to get the country’s fiscal house in order.

And that’s what this debate is all about.  The 2012 election.  If he comes out of this smelling like a centrist he wins.  Even if he loses the debate.  Because he can campaign as a centrist.  Even though he’s the biggest leftist to have ever entered the Whitehouse.  Who tripled the deficit.  And put the U.S. on the road to national health care.

So how much exactly are they looking to raise the debt limit by to save the country?

They said Obama’s view was that without tax increases, the package would at best be little more than $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, far short of the estimated $2 trillion needed to extend the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling through the end of 2012.

Hmmm, $2 trillion dollars.  Where can we find $2 trillion dollars?

You Repeal Obamacare and we’ll raise the Debt Limit by $2 Trillion

Here’s a thought.  How about repealing Obamacare?  If we need to live within our means and can’t muster the guts to reform entitlements, then Obamacare is a no-brainer.  It’s not an entitlement yet.  No one would miss it if they repeal it.  Because how can you miss something you don’t even have yet?  So how much money would this save?  Let’s take a look at some facts and figures from an interesting article (see Obamacare Tragedy Primed To Further Explode the Deficit by Peter Ferrara posted 7/6/2011 on The American Spectator)?

…close analysis of the CBO score and additional new data indicates that, quite to the contrary, Obamacare will likely add $4 to $6 trillion to the deficit over its first 20 years, and possibly more…

Of course, the deficit is not the biggest problem.  Even bigger is that regardless of the deficit, Obamacare involves trillions of increased government spending and taxes…

In the Wall Street Journal on June 8, Grace-Marie Turner, President of the Galen Institute, estimated based on the numbers in the McKinsey report that as many as 78 million Americans would lose their employer provided coverage.  If those workers ended up receiving the new Obamacare exchange handouts, the estimated costs for those subsidies in the first 6 years alone would soar by 4 times, adding nearly $2 trillion to the costs and deficits of Obamacare during that time…

Such draconian cuts in Medicare payments would create havoc and chaos in health care for seniors.  Doctors, hospitals, surgeons and specialists providing critical care to the elderly such as surgery for hip and knee replacements, sophisticated diagnostics through MRIs and CT scans, and even treatment for cancer and heart disease would shut down and disappear in much of the country, and others would stop serving Medicare patients.  If the government is not going to pay, then seniors are not going to get the health services, treatment and care they expect.

Yet, reversing these unworkable Medicare cuts would add $15 trillion to the future deficits caused by Obamacare.

So Obamacare isn’t going to reduce the deficit after all.  How about that?  You see, Boehner is right not to trust Democrats.  Because they lie.  And while they’re bitching and moaning about trying to raise the debt limit by $2 trillion Obamacare will add another $4 to $6 trillion, or more, to the deficit over its first twenty years.  And there’s a whole bunch of unpleasantness in addition to that.  78 million people losing their private insurance coverage.  And the gutting of Medicare that will destroy that program.  Which will add another $15 trillion to future deficits. 

This should be the Republican position.  This is the deal they should offer.  Raise the debt limit by $2 trillion.  And repeal Obamacare.  Final offer.  Take it or leave it.  Either eat your peas.  Or you, President Obama, can default on America’s debt obligations.  For it is your Obamacare that has put us in this position in the first place.

Too much Debt is a bad Thing

Having too much debt is a bad thing.  We see it in Europe.  The EU is worried about what’s happening in Greece spreading to larger countries in the Eurozone.  Markets are jittery about Europe’s financial crises.  Even on Wall Street.  Because too much debt is a bad thing.  And no economy is too big to fail from an overload of debt.

The whole world understands this.  That too much debt is a bad thing.  And yet what is the Obama administration doing?  Piling on to their debt.  And not in a little way.  They’re collecting some $2 trillion in cash each year but it’s not enough.  They need to borrow an additional $2 trillion this year to pay their bills.  I don’t know what’s going on in Washington but one thing for sure – it ain’t good governing.

Repeal Obamacare.  Solve a bunch of problems with one act of legislation.  And demonstrate some good governing for a change.

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