Too many people, including many in the Troika, see the Greek struggle as just about transfers from one debtor nation to lots of creditor nations. That is why they perhaps saw the Greek referendum as an unhelpful move, as just inflaming nationalist sentiment. As Dani Rodrik puts it “What the Greeks call democracy comes across in many other – equally democratic – countries as irresponsible unilateralism.”
It is, however, not just about transfers, or what economists call a zero sum game. It is also fundamentally about austerity, as Dani Rodrik, Thomas Picketty, Heiner Flassbeck, Jeffrey Sachs and I say in this letter jointly published in the Guardian, Le Monde, The Nation and Der Tagesspiegel (and thanks to Avaaz for making this happen).
I think many people believe that a debtor country must somehow inevitably suffer large scale unemployment as a result of having to pay back at least some of its debts. But this comes more from a moralistic view than thinking about the macroeconomics. In an open economy, the real exchange rate (competitiveness) will adjust to ensure ‘full employment’ is preserved, whatever primary surplus (taxes less non-interest spending) a government needs to service and pay back its debt.
Under flexible exchange rates this competitiveness adjustment could happen immediately. Things are not quite so simple in a monetary union: competitiveness cannot immediately adjust because of wage and price rigidities. A period of ‘excess unemployment’ will be required to push wages and prices down if the country is uncompetitive in relation to required primary surpluses. However the excess unemployment can be relatively modest. In fact, because of the structure of the standard Phillips curve, it is much more efficient to achieve gains in competitiveness gradually through a measured increase in unemployment than quickly through a rapid rise in unemployment, for reasons I outlined here when talking about Latvia.
To achieve this efficient outcome may well require the government to reduce its primary deficits gradually, because without this fiscal support while competitiveness adjusts output could fall rapidly. This in turn will require more government borrowing, and if the government cannot do this from the markets, the IMF or other governments should step in to ensure this efficient adjustment can take place and avoid the waste and suffering of unnecessary unemployment.
This is what failed to happen in the case of Greece. Whether this was just the result of poor Troika calculations, or a consequence of feeling that creditor bankers were more of a priority (see, for example, Mark Blyth), need not concern us here. Once the mistake became clear, perhaps creditor voter fatigue meant additional loans were not politically possible. But to demand primary surpluses (i.e. to take money out of the country) while unemployment remains so high - as the Troika continues to do - is unforgivable in my view. It clearly makes the unemployment problem worse - see here, footnote . At best it indicates an impatient creditor with no concern for the welfare of the debtor, but given the responsibility the creditor has for the debtor’s current position it is far worse than that.
That is not the only reason Greece’s story is about austerity. Its problems were made worse by the austerity across the Eurozone as a whole, and the deflation which that has brought. Deflation increases the real value of nominal debts. It also makes competitiveness adjustment more difficult because of a well known non-linearity.
Even those that have a great dislike or distrust of Syriza should recognise that Syriza is also a product of acute austerity, a point which the referendum reaffirmed. As economists might say, Syriza is endogenous.
That the Greek economy now lies broken is not the inevitable result of imprudent borrowing a decade ago, or structural weaknesses, or a left wing government elected just a few months ago. It is also the result of the actions of those who effectively ran the economy from 2010 to 2014, and their imposition of draconian austerity. Greece long ago recognised the folly of its borrowing, and has made a start on addressing its structural weaknesses. The Troika has yet to acknowledge its own part in making this tragedy.