Why Greek debt is a problem

Daniel wrote a post some months ago which has a useful point about Greek debt.

Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have if they are going to be fiscally responsible for the bills.

If this is right – and I think it is – it suggests that Greek debt is a different kind of problem than most people argue, but that it is arguably a worse one. Pretty well everybody, including most Greek people on both the left and right, agree that the Greek state is a mess (read Stathis Kalyvas’s book for history on how it got there, and on the relationship between Greece and the West). This creates problems in a common economic area, exactly to the extent that the euro area needs some rough congruence of state capacity across countries to administer all the things (taxes; fiscal policy) that the area needs to function properly as a backstop to monetary union. The story of the eurozone’s relationship with Greece post-crisis is a story of external powers trying to restructure an entire political system from outside, using the crude tools of control that are available to them. The situation is somewhere between the kinds of Washington Consensus restructuring and conditionality that the IMF used to impose as a quid-pro-quo for emergency loans to countries in crisis, and the massive efforts to restructure the political systems of Afghanistan and Iraq post invasion.

Obviously these past efforts have mostly turned out pretty badly (perhaps you can argue some of the IMF cases – but you’d have an uphill battle if you really wanted to make a general defense). There are instances of successful political-restructuring-from-outside in Germany and Japan, but both of those involved (a) military occupation over a long period of time, and (b) relatively strong pre-existing state structures. There isn’t any warrant to believe that this effort will turn out better, or that the Troika-or-whatever-they-call-themselves-these-days have the local knowledge and public legitimacy to bring real changes through. The more plausible scenario is the one we have – locals vacillating between (a) resentfully going through the bare minimum of the motions of reform that they think they need to go through to get the money, and (b) resisting outright. This is not a recipe for long term success at anything apart from fostering grudges on both sides.

However, it gets worse. If I understand Daniel’s arguments over the last few years rightly, he thinks that the Greeks should just shut up and get on with it, since (a) the alternative is worse, and (b) given the unsustainability of the debt burden, the richer eurozone countries are going to quietly disappear it at some unstated point in the future when everything becomes less politicized. This is not, contra some commenters, a stupid or evil argument – but I don’t know that it’s right either. The Greek state is not the only one that is underdeveloped – the EU/Eurozone one is too, meaning that there isn’t any single actor that can strike deals, whether informal or formal, on the part of the collectivity. It’s not at all clear that anyone can quietly make a credible commitment to Greece to knuckle under in the expectation of better things in the long run, because it’s not clear that anyone on the other side of that bargain can push through a long term restructuring of debt given how toxic the politics have become. Even if the Greeks started behaving exactly as the rich eurozone countries want them to, it’s not clear that the latter countries’ publics will be willing to forgive what appears to them as vast amounts of taxpayers’ money – and under the current system as I understand it (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, since much of the devil is in the detail), all that it takes is one member state with a cranky right wing coalition partner to refuse a deal.

To be clear – none of this conducts towards any specific recommendations for what Greece or the eurozone countries ought to do. It’s a lot more modest than that. If we treat Greek debt as a political instrument of control rather than a quantity that is going to be demanded from the Greek people over the shorter run, we should be arguing about the project for which that instrument is being deployed, and asking whether (a) it is fit for purpose, and (b) whether the kind of project that it’s being used for is one that’s going to work over the longer term. We should also be wondering (c ) about the endogenous ways in which the instrument of debt as a form of political control affects the actors on both sides of the relationship, and whether it makes some successful and mutually acceptable long term modus vivendi more or less likely. Obviously, I’m skeptical on all of these (and given past track record, I’d have expected Daniel to be more skeptical on (a) and (b) than he appears to be), but willing to hear counter-arguments.

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