Friday, April 30, 2010

Krugman: Greece Could "Solve" Its Problems if it Could Print More Money

In his best-seller, The Return of Depression Economics (which I am having my MBA students read this spring), Paul Krugman declared that most economic problems can be "solved" rather easily: the government prints more money. I am not making up that declaration, nor am I embellishing it or putting it out of context. That is what he said, and, like Sgt. Friday, just the facts, ma'am.

Today, he looks once again at the crisis in Greece, which has spread to Spain and where Austrians see fiscal folly and wages and work policies that are totally out of line with the structures of production in those country, a situation that must be put back into balance to end the crisis, Krugman sees the lack of inflation being at fault. Don't take my word for it. Read on:
The fact is that three years ago none of the countries now in or near crisis seemed to be in deep fiscal trouble. Even Greece’s 2007 budget deficit was no higher, as a share of G.D.P., than the deficits the United States ran in the mid-1980s (morning in America!), while Spain actually ran a surplus. And all of the countries were attracting large inflows of foreign capital, largely because markets believed that membership in the euro zone made Greek, Portuguese and Spanish bonds safe investments.

Then came the global financial crisis. Those inflows of capital dried up; revenues plunged and deficits soared; and membership in the euro, which had encouraged markets to love the crisis countries not wisely but too well, turned into a trap.

What’s the nature of the trap? During the years of easy money, wages and prices in the crisis countries rose much faster than in the rest of Europe. Now that the money is no longer rolling in, those countries need to get costs back in line.

But that’s a much harder thing to do now than it was when each European nation had its own currency. Back then, costs could be brought in line by adjusting exchange rates — e.g., Greece could cut its wages relative to German wages simply by reducing the value of the drachma in terms of Deutsche marks. Now that Greece and Germany share the same currency, however, the only way to reduce Greek relative costs is through some combination of German inflation and Greek deflation. And since Germany won’t accept inflation, deflation it is.
Krugman, of course, supports Germany having a round of inflation. We have been down this road before, people, and it ends in disaster. In the late 1920s, Great Britain did not want to devalue the Pound, which at that time should have been trading at about $3.50 instead of the $4.86 "official" rate.

To keep the $4.86 rate intact, Benjamin Strong, who then was the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, cut a deal with Montagu Norman, Britain's equivalent of the Secretary of the Treasury, to inflate the U.S. Dollar. This led to the infamous stock market bubble that burst in October, 1929, and President Hoover's response to that crash (to try to prop up failing firms, as well as prop up high prices and wages) led to the Great Depression.

The Germans have their own history with inflation (1923 anyone?) and are not about to go the Benjamin Strong route, as to do so would create a series of troubles down the road. Unfortunately, inflation ultimately distorts an economy's structure of production, leads to unsustainable booms, and then to disaster. However, Keynesians like Krugman hold that the Very Worst Thing that can happen to an economy is deflation, and that prosperity is possible only through inflation.

Here is the problem with Krugman's prescription (Germany inflate, Greece continue as is): It does nothing to get the Greek fundamentals back into order and it distorts the economic fundamentals in Germany. In other words, it does nothing to solve the real, underlying problems in Greece, but it lays the foundation for a future crisis in Germany, as inflation will create its own problems.

If you wish to see an important difference between Austrians and Keynesians, here it is. Keynesians really don't see economic fundamentals, nor do they see any issues with factors of production. Instead, in their view, the economy is a homogeneous mix that works when government throws lots of money into the recipe. If there are imbalances (and the theory does not allow for that to happen, although Krugman himself recognizes that imbalances could be an issue), then inflation can solve everything. Unfortunately, what happens when governments engage in policies of inflation is that the seeming good effects come first, but then when the factor prices get out of balance with what is being produced, the economy moves toward an inevitable bust, and any attempts to "fix" things through another round of inflation only make things worse.

Austrians, on the other hand, look first at the factors of production for the distortions in the entire structure of the economy. Deflation, far from being the enemy of the economy, allows those factors to get back into balance with the overall structure of production, and direct production to consumer desires. It is the opposite of inflation: the bad effects come first (unemployment and initial dislocation), but the "good" effects come later (a recovery).

There is no way to bridge the gap between Keynesians and Austrians. Today, it is the Keynesians that rule, and it is economy that ultimately will suffer because their "theories" ultimately lead to disaster.

No, Greece cannot "solve" anything by going back to the Drachma and printing out the wazoo. Instead, it is up to that country to get its house back in order by letting the factors, including labor, get back into balance. That means, in the initial stages, that Greeks will find their wages being cut and their standard of living will fall. Yet, that initial stage is absolutely necessary if, in the long run, Greeks want to enjoy a higher standard of living in the future with an economy that is sustainable.

[Note]: It is good to be posting here again. I have been following the Tonya Craft trial in Ringgold, Georgia, and it is a fiasco. The prosecutors are running the show, and they are acting like typical high school bullies. It is a tragedy and a train wreck in progress.


Richie said...

According to Krugman's logic, my debt could be eliminated. All I need is for the Treasury Department to install a printing press in my home.

SirThinkALot said...


Unfortunitly the government(and partisian stooges like Krugman) have an enormous double standard:

When an indvidual(or less often a private business) prints money to spend, thats counterfitting and is illigal.

When the government prints money to spend....well thats just good policy.

Paul Glover said...

Whether or not Greece stays in the eurozone, they'll need a national system of regional currencies backed by local directories of goods and services. These will jump start new businesses and new markets. "Hometown Money" explains how: