Joseph Stiglitz: “Deep-Seatedly Wrong” Economic Thinking Is Killing Greece

by Lynn Parramore – August 21, 2015

The Huffington Post

On August 18th, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz joined Harper’s Magazine deputy editor Christopher Beha at Book Culture in New York to discuss the Greek financial crisis. In Stiglitz’s view, the latest bailout not only ensures that the country’s depression will worsen, but undermines the entire European project.

Bad economic ideas inflict untold human suffering. When they come cloaked in a fog of Orwellian obfuscation, their poison and effects can spread with little hindrance. The public is misled. Power plays are hidden from view.

In Greece, where suicide rates have risen sharply in the wake of austerity measures, people lose hope.

Joseph Stiglitz, who has been following the Greek crisis closely and is recently returned from Athens, sets himself to the task of cutting through the fog. His plain English and fearless use of moral language to expose the ugliness behind economic and political abstractions lend clarity to a situation that is not just bringing a nation to its knees, but threatening to destroy the European project and bring on a future of conflict and hardship.

In discussing Greece’s Third Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and its draconian terms, Stiglitz observes that the MoU is really a “surrender document” that eclipses the country’s economic sovereignty and ensures that Greece’s depression — already deeper than America’s Great Depression — will get worse. An economy that is seeing youth unemployment reaching up to 60 percent is likely to lose another 5 percent in GDP. That is over and beyond the 25 percent plunge in GDP the country has suffered since the imposition of austerity measures.

Socially conservative Germans, Stiglitz warns, are doubling down on the discredited notion that austerity policies help economies recover in times of crisis. In reality, the insistence on keeping wages down, stripping away bargaining power from workers, forcing small business owners to pay taxes a year in advance, and cutting pensions will only hamper demand and lead to a deepening spiral of debt. (Stiglitz emphasizes that hardly any of the money loaned to Greece has actually gone to help the Greeks themselves, but rather private-sector creditors – namely German and French banks).

Reflecting on a recent panel at Columbia University with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble followed by a dinner, Stiglitz said, “My heart goes out to Greece, even more so after meeting Schäuble.”

Among the puzzling aspects of the MoU are demands for reforms on things seemingly trivial as milk. While pensioners are eating out of garbage cans, the troika has been haggling over how old a carton of milk can be if it is to be labeled “fresh.” Stiglitz observes that if you look closely you see that special interests — in this case the big dairy companies of Holland — appear to be behind the reforms. Dutch milk sellers would prefer that their milk, which travels long distances to reach Greece, be allowed to call itself fresh — a move that will only hurt local dairies. By discouraging local production, the MoU paves the way for even more Greek unemployment and less demand for goods and services — hardly a recipe for economic health. (The chairman of the Eurogroup, it may be worth noting, is Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Finance minister).

In Stiglitz’s view, what’s behind the ill-advised economic schemes is a power struggle in which Germany and its supporters seek to undermine the Greek economy in order to push out a government (Syriza) they do not like. In doing so they are tearing apart families, snuffing out the hopes of young people, and delivering a kind of humiliation and suffering to a country that history shows does not turn out well for anyone.

Stiglitz reminded the audience that John Maynard Keynes once issued warnings about the Treaty of Versailles, the peace settlement signed at the end of World War I, which ordered Germany to pay massive reparations. Inflicting more pain on a weakened economy would send an already-battered nation into depression. Keynes turned out to be correct: resentment of the harsh terms and the resulting high unemployment led to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Far from restoring stability in Europe, the Treaty set the stage for an unprecedented disaster and unspeakable human misery.

Stiglitz warned that Germany, a major beneficiary of debt write-offs following WWII, had not learned the lesson of its own history. Officials are blind to the reality that debt forgiveness is necessary for Greece at a time when nearly everyone, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recognizes that the country simply can’t pay back what it owes. Instead of remembering the terrible consequences of mass unemployment following WWI, many Germans insist that it was hyperinflation that led to Hitler, and so they tend to support central bank policies that guard against that problem rather than the far more worrisome specter of joblessness.

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