Most days, I’m a big fan of Paul Krugman’s columns.
Unlike his economics, which makes a few too many curtsies to orthodoxy, his political interventions are righteous in tone, right-on in content, and what’s more, strategic — unlike many leftish intellectuals, he clearly cares about being useful — about saying things that are not only true, but that contribute to the concrete political struggle of the moment. He’s so much better than almost of his peers it’s not even funny.
But — well, you knew there had to be a but.
But this time, he’s gotten his economics in his politics. And the results are not pretty.
In today’s column, he rightly dismisses arguments that the root of the Euro crisis is that workers in Greece and the other peripheral countries are lazy, or unproductive, or that those countries have excessive regulation and bloated welfare states. “So how did Greece get into so much trouble?” he asks. His answer:
Blame the euro. Fifteen years ago Greece was no paradise, but it wasn’t in crisis either. Unemployment was high but not catastrophic, and the nation more or less paid its way on world markets, earning enough from exports, tourism, shipping and other sources to more or less pay for its imports. Then Greece joined the euro, and a terrible thing happened: people started believing that it was a safe place to invest. Foreign money poured into Greece, some but not all of it financing government deficits; the economy boomed; inflation rose; and Greece became increasingly uncompetitive.
I’m sorry, but the bolded sentence just is not true. The rest of it is debatable, but that sentence is flat-out false. And it matters.
The analysis behind the “earning enough” claim is found on Krugman’s blog. He writes,
One of the things you keep hearing about Greece is that if it exits the euro one way or another there will be no gains, because Greece basically can’t export — so structural reform is the only way forward. But here’s the thing: if that were true, how did Greece pay its way before the big capital flows starting coming? The truth is that before the euro and the capital flow bubble it created, Greece ran only small current account deficits (the broad definition of the trade balance, including services and factor income)…
And he offers this graph from Eurostat:
The numbers in the graph are fine, as far as they go. And there is the first problem: how far they go. Here’s the same graph, but going back to 1980.
Starting the graph ten years earlier gives a different picture — now it seems that the near-balance on current account in 1993 and 1994 wasn’t the normal state before the euro, but an exceptional occurrence in just those two years. And note that that while Greek deficits in the 1980s are small relative to those of the mid-2000s, they are still very far from anything you could reasonably describe as “the country more or less paid its way.” They are, for instance, significantly larger than the contemporaneous US current account deficits that were a central political concern in the 1980s here.
That’s the small problem; there’s a bigger one. Because, what are we looking at? The current account balance. Krugman glosses this as “the broadest measure of the trade balance,” but that’s not correct. (If he taught undergraduate macro, I’m sure he’d mark someone writing that wrong.) It’s broad, yes, but it’s a different concept, covering all international payments other than asset purchases, including some (transfers and income flows) that are not trade by any possible definition. The current account includes, for example, remittances by foreign workers to their home countries. So by Krugman’s logic here, the fact that there are lots of Mexican migrant workers in the US sending money home is a sign that Mexico is able to export successfully to the US, when in the real world it’s precisely a sign that it isn’t.
Most seriously, the current account includes transfer between governments. In the European context these are quite large. To call the subsidies that Greece received under the European Common Agricultural Policy export earnings is obviously absurd. Yet that’s what Krugman is doing.
The following graph shows how big a difference it makes when you call development assistance exports.
The blue line is the current account balance, same as in Krugman’s graph, again extended back to 1980. The red line is the current account balance not counting intergovernmental transfers. And the green line is the current account not counting any transfers. [*] It’s clear from this picture that, contra Krugman, Greece was not earning enough money to pay for its imports before the creation of the euro, or at any time in the past 30 years. If the problem Greece has to solve is getting its foreign exchange payments in line with with its foreign exchange earnings, then the bulk of the problem existed long before Greece joined the euro. The central claim of the column is simply false.
Again, it is true that Greece’s deficits got much bigger in the mid-2000s. I agree with Krugman that this must have ben connected with the large capital flows from northern to peripheral Europe that followed the creation of the euro. It remains an open question, though, how much this was due to an increase in relative costs, and how much due to more rapid income growth. By assuming it was entirely the former, Krugman is implicitly, but characteristically, assuming that except in special circumstances economies can be assumed to be operating at full capacity.
But the key point is that the historical evidence does not support the view that current account imbalances only arise when governments interfere in the natural adjustment of foreign exchange markets. Fixed rates or floating, in the absence of very large flows of intergovernmental aid Greece has never come close to current account balance. According to Krugman, Greece’s
famous lack of competitiveness is a recent development, caused by massive post-euro inflows of capital that raised costs and prices. And that’s the kind of thing that currency devaluations can cure.
The historical evidence is not consistent with this claim. Or if it is, it’s only after you go well beyond normal massaging of the data, to something you’d see on The Client List.
The basic issue is, does price adjustment solve everything? Krugman won’t quite come out and say Yes, but clearly it’s what he believes. Is he being deliberately dishonest? No, I’m sure he’s not. But this is how ideology works. He’s committed to the idea that relative costs are the fundamental story when it comes to trade, so when he finds a bit of data that seems to conform to that, he repeats it, without giving five minutes of critical reflection to what it actually means.
The basic issue, again, is the need for structural as opposed to price adjustment. Now if “structural adjustment” means lower wages, then of course Godspeed to Krugman here. I’m against structural whatever in that sense too. But I can’t help feeling that he’s pulling in the wrong direction. Because if external devaluation cures the problem then internal devaluation does too, at least in principle.
The fundamental question remains how important are relative costs. The way I see it, look at what Greece imports, most of it Greece doesn’t produce at all. The textbook expenditure-switching vision implicitly endorsed by Krugman ignores that there are different kinds of goods, or accepts what Paul Davidson calls the axiom of gross substitution, that every good is basically (convexly) interchangeable with every other. Hey Greeks will have fewer computers and no oil, but they’ll spend more time at the beach, and in terms of utility it’s all the same. Except, you know, it’s not.
From where I’m sitting, the only way for Greece to achieve current account balance with income growth comparable to Germany is for Greece to develop new industries. This, not low wages, is the structural problem. This is the same problem faced by any developing country. And it raises the same problem that Krugman, I’m afraid, has never dealt with: how to you convince or compel the stratum that controls the social surplus to commit to the development of new industries? In the textbook world — which Krugman I’m afraid still occupies — a generic financial system channels savings to the highest-return available investment projects. In the real world, not so much. Figuring out how to get savings to investment is, on the contrary, an immensely challenging institutional problem.
So, first step dealing with it, you should read Gerschenkron. We know, anyway that probably the rich prefer to hold their wealth in liquid form, or overseas, or both. And we know that even if — unlikely — they want to invest in domestic industries, they’ll choose those that are already cost-competitive, when, we know, the whole point of development is to do stuff where you don’t, right now, have comparative advantage. So, again, it’s a problem.
There are solutions to this problem. Banks, the developmental state, even industrial dynasties. But it is a problem, and it needs to be solved. Relative prices are second order. Or so it seems to me.