Should the Troika - the Eurogroup, ECB and IMF - be concerned about how bread is sold in Greece? You would think they had more important things to worry about, like getting Greece out of the huge recession caused by their own policies. But no, you would be wrong. The Troika decided that standards specifying the weights that loaves could be sold at were a restrictive regulation, and demanded change.
This is one of the examples Joe Stiglitz quotes in his new book on the Euro, which I review in the New Statesman here. Now you might agree that at the very least this represents a misdirection of the Troika’s energies, and more generally that it involves unwanted interference in national sovereignty. But in Joe Stiglitz you have one of the best economists in the world, so he also tells you that there is a long-standing economics literature on how regulations like these can increase competition because they facilitate comparison shopping.
Stiglitz is very critical of many other ‘structural reforms’ that were imposed on Greece by the Troika. The only structural reforms that it might have made sense for the Troika to suggest were measures that would have moved resources into exports, thereby helping an external demand led recovery (see Ireland or Spain). As I note, even here Troika meddling may have had undesirable consequences.
As I said in a recent post, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. But of the three parts of the Troika, the IMF ought to have the knowledge to do better. (The ECB has apparently just created a task force to consider economic reforms.) Over 1,500 economists work at the Fund. Whether that knowledge gets to the right people at the right time is another matter. But I suspect the main problem at the fund is politics rather than economics. I have written about this recently, in the context of an Independent Evaluation Office report on the IMF’s Troika role. Here is a more substantive piece by Edwin Truman at the Peterson Institute in a similar spirit.
Greece is currently trapped in a debtor's prison created by the Troika. The Troika insist that debts have to be repaid. The IMF knows the prisoner does not have the ability to do this, but does not have the political will to demand that as a result the prisoner should be released. Debt repayment requires yet more austerity, which kills the chance of the recovery, so even with austerity debts are not repaid. Some debt forgiveness is probably in the interests of everyone, including the creditors, because after a recovery Greece will be in a much better position to pay any remaining debts. But it is politically unattractive for the creditors, so it does not happen.
This is a disaster for Greece, but a bad omen for Brexit. Those who advocated Leave say it is in the Eurozone's interests to agree favorable trading terms with the UK. To do otherwise would be to sacrifice economic interests to make a political point. The obvious irony of course is that this is exactly what Brexit was: sacrificing economic interests to make a political point. But Brexiteers want to believe, in their topsy turvy way, that European leaders would not be as reckless as they are. Greece is an example of how Europe's political leaders can also discard economic logic if it is in their own political interest to do so.