Greece is a faraway country with an economy roughly the size of greater Miami, so the United States has very little direct stake in its ongoing disaster. To the extent that Greece matters to us, it’s mainly about geopolitics: By poisoning relations among Europe’s democracies, the Greek crisis risks depriving the U.S. of crucial allies.
But Greece has nonetheless played an outsized role in U.S. political debate, as a symbol of the terrible things that will supposedly happen – any day now – unless we stop helping the less fortunate and printing money to fight unemployment. And Greece does indeed offer important lessons to the rest of us. But they’re not the lessons you think, and the people most likely to deliver a Greek-style economic disaster here in America are the very people who love to use Greece as a boogeyman.
To understand the real lessons of Greece, you need to be aware of two crucial points.
The first is that the “We’re Greece!” crowd has a truly remarkable track record when it comes to economic forecasting: They’ve been wrong about everything, year after year, but refuse to learn from their mistakes. The people now saying that Greece offers an object lesson in the dangers of government debt, and that America is headed down the same road, are the same people who predicted soaring interest rates and runaway inflation in 2010; then, when it didn’t happen, they predicted soaring rates and runaway inflation in 2011; then, well, you get the picture.
The second is that the story you’ve heard about Greece – that it borrowed too much, and its excessive debt led to the current crisis – is seriously incomplete. Greece did indeed run up too much debt (with a lot of help from irresponsible lenders). But its debt, while high, wasn’t that high by historical standards. What turned Greek debt troubles into catastrophe was Greece’s inability, thanks to the euro, to do what countries with large debts usually do: impose fiscal austerity, yes, but offset it with easy money.
Consider Greece’s situation at the end of 2009, when its debt crisis burst into the open. At that point Greek government debt was near 130 percent of gross domestic product, which is definitely a big number. But it’s by no means unprecedented. As it happens, Greece’s debt ratio in 2009 was about the same as the United States’ in 1946, just after the war. And Britain’s debt ratio in 1946 was twice as high.
Today, however, Greek debt is over 170 percent of GDP and still rising. Is that because Greece just kept on borrowing? Actually, no – Greek debt is up only 6 percent since 2009, although that’s partly because it received some debt relief in 2012. The main point, however, is that the ratio of debt to GDP is up because GDP is down more than 20 percent. And why is GDP down? Largely because of the austerity measures Greece’s creditors forced it to impose.
Does this mean that austerity is always self-defeating? No, there are cases – for example, Canada in the 1990s – of countries that slashed their debt while maintaining growth and reducing unemployment. But if you look at how they managed this, it involved combining fiscal austerity with easy money: Canada in the ‘90s drastically reduced interest rates, encouraging private spending, while allowing its currency to depreciate, encouraging exports.
Greece, unfortunately, no longer had its own currency when it was forced into drastic fiscal retrenchment. The result was an economic implosion that ended up making the debt problem even worse. Greece’s formula for disaster, in other words, didn’t just involve austerity; it involved the toxic combination of austerity with hard money.
So who wants to impose that kind of toxic policy mix on America? The answer is, most of the Republican Party.
On one side, just about everyone in the GOP demands that we reduce government spending, especially aid to lower-income families. (They also, of course, want to reduce taxes on the rich - but that wouldn’t do much to boost demand for U.S. products.)
On the other side, leading Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan incessantly attack the Federal Reserve for its efforts to boost the economy, delivering solemn lectures on the evils of “debasing” the dollar - when the main difference between the effects of austerity in Canada and in Greece was precisely that Canada could “debase” its currency, while Greece couldn’t. Oh, and many Republicans hanker for a return to the gold standard, which would effectively put us into a euro-like straitjacket.
The point is that if you really worry that the U.S. might turn into Greece, you should focus your concern on America’s right. Because if the right gets its way on economic policy – slashing spending while blocking any offsetting monetary easing – it will, in effect, bring the policies behind the Greek disaster to America.