Sunday, July 26, 2015

Stiglitz on bad macroeconomics and Troika policy of Greek corruption and tax collection

Joe Stiglitz has yet another piece explaining what a disaster the Troika's latest agreement forced on Greece really is. And how astonishing the stubborn ignoring of basic macroeconomics in the euro crisis really is: Greece, the Sacrificial Lamb New York Times 07/25/2015

He also refers to the lessons of other crises, including that of Argentina in 2001-3:

Back in 1998 in Indonesia, I saw how the I.M.F. ruined that country’s banking system. I recall the picture of Michel Camdessus, the managing director of the I.M.F. at the time, standing over President Suharto as Indonesia surrendered its economic sovereignty. At a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December 1997, I warned that there would be bloodshed in the streets within six months; the riots broke out five months later in Jakarta and elsewhere in Indonesia. Both before and after the crisis in East Asia, and those in Africa and in Latin America (most recently, in Argentina), these programs failed, turning downturns into recessions, recessions into depressions. I had thought that the lesson from these failures had been well learned, so it came as a surprise that Europe, beginning a half-decade ago, would impose this same stiff and ineffective program on one of its own.

Whether or not the program is well implemented, it will lead to unsustainable levels of debt, just as a similar approach did in Argentina: The macro-policies demanded by the troika will lead to a deeper Greek depression. That’s why the I.M.F.’s current managing director, Christine Lagarde, said that there needs to be what is euphemistically called “debt restructuring” — that is, in one way or another, a write-off of a significant portion of the debt. The troika program is thus incoherent: The Germans say there is to be no debt write-off and that the I.M.F. must be part of the program. But the I.M.F. cannot participate in a program in which debt levels are unsustainable, and Greece’s debts are unsustainable.
He also discusses what the Troika's actual position is on two items that are on the Troika's standard catalogue of neoliberal "reforms," fighting corruption and better tax collection:

One underlying problem in Greece, in both its economy and its politics, is the role of a group of wealthy people who control key sectors, including banks and the media, collectively referred to as the Greek oligarchs. They are the ones who resisted the changes that George Papandreou, the former prime minister, tried to introduce to increase transparency and to force greater compliance with a more progressive tax structure. The important reforms that would curb the Greek oligarchs are largely left off the agenda — not a surprise since the troika has at times in the past seemed to have been on their side.

As it became clear early on in the crisis that the Greek banks would have to be recapitalized, it made sense to demand voting shares for the Greek government. This was necessary to ensure that politically influenced lending, including to the oligarchic media, be stopped. When such connected lending resumed — even to media companies that on strictly commercial terms should not have gotten loans — the troika turned a blind eye. It has also been quiescent as proposals were put forward to roll back the important initiatives of the Papandreou government on transparency and e-government, which dramatically lowered drug prices and put a damper on nepotism. [my emphasis]

Christos Koulovatianos and John Tsoukalas (Why debt sustains corruption in Greece and vice versa Vox 20 July 2015) give some background on how excessive debt in Greece actually reinforces the corruption that the Troika claims it wants to combat:

The high cost of servicing the enormous outstanding debt in Greece simply makes non-cooperation more profitable for parties. If parties cooperate, they face a high cost of servicing the debt, especially due to the tight fiscal-surplus requirements. This fiscal burden makes party members think that a partial default and a gang war for rents is more profitable for them, even in a state of economic chaos. This strategic speculation keeps Greece in a trap, because non-cooperating rent-seeking groups engage into a tragedy-of-the-commons equilibrium of excessive rent seeking. Markets pre-calculate the implied fiscal profligacy, Grexit scenarios return with positive probability, investment becomes discouraged, and the debt-to-GDP ratio increases due to a shrinking economy(Greece has lost 26% of its 2008 GDP until year 2014).
And this from Stiglitz on tax collection is mind-boggling:

Normally, the I.M.F. warns of the dangers of high taxation. Yet in Greece, the troika has insisted on high effective tax rates even at very low income levels. All recent Greek governments have recognized the importance of increasing tax revenues, but mistaken tax policy can help destroy an economy. In an economy where the financial system is not functioning well, where small- and medium-size enterprises can’t get access to credit, the troika is demanding that Greek firms, including mom and pop stores, pay all of their taxes ahead of time, at the beginning of the year, before they have earned it, before they even know what their income is going to be. The requirement is intended to reduce tax evasion, but in the circumstances in which Greece finds itself, it destroys small business and increases resentment of both the government and the troika. [my emphasis]
As Joe Stiglitz puts it, "None of this makes sense even from the perspective of the creditors. It’s like a 19th-century debtors’ prison. Just as imprisoned debtors could not make the income to repay, the deepening depression in Greece will make it less and less able to repay."

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