Welfare State’s Death Spiral
Robert Samuelson sees what is going on with Greece and the PIIGS as the beginning of the end for the welfare state:
What we’re seeing in Greece is the death spiral of the welfare state. This isn’t Greece’s problem alone, and that’s why its crisis has rattled global stock markets and threatens economic recovery. Virtually every advanced nation, including the United States, faces the same prospect. Aging populations have been promised huge health and retirement benefits, which countries haven’t fully covered with taxes. The reckoning has arrived in Greece, but it awaits most wealthy societies.
In fact, it is more basic than that.
The welfare state’s death spiral is this: Almost anything governments might do with their budgets threatens to make matters worse by slowing the economy or triggering a recession. By allowing deficits to balloon, they risk a financial crisis as investors one day — no one knows when — doubt governments’ ability to service their debts and, as with Greece, refuse to lend except at exorbitant rates. Cutting welfare benefits or raising taxes all would, at least temporarily, weaken the economy. Perversely, that would make paying the remaining benefits harder.
Catch 22 – Countries that will, regardless of what they do, adversely effect their economy. They must pick their poison if they want to remain afloat. All Greece demonstrates is a country further down the road toward this death spiral than others. Samuelson points to this in some debt figures as a percent of GDP:
Countries everywhere already have high budget deficits, aggravated by the recession. Greece is exceptional only by degree. In 2009, its budget deficit was 13.6 percent of its gross domestic product (a measure of its economy); its debt, the accumulation of past deficits, was 115 percent of GDP. Spain’s deficit was 11.2 percent of GDP, its debt 56.2 percent; Portugal’s figures were 9.4 percent and 76.8 percent. Comparable figures for the United States — calculated slightly differently — were 9.9 percent and 53 percent.
I think you can see the trend.
Dean Baker disagrees with Samuelson, claiming Samuelson seems to have forgotten there’s a recession going on and parroting the old and increasingly discredited line that this is a time governments must spend more:
During recessions budget deficits always expand as tax collections fall and spending on items like unemployment insurance and other benefits rise.
Contrary to what Samuelson claims in this column. Most European countries have been willing to pay the taxes needed to support their welfare states. And this has not prevented them from maintaining rates of productivity growth (the long-term determininat of living standards) comparable to the United States.
But a quick check of some OECD numbers don’t seem to bear Dean’s claim that they’ve maintained productivity growth has rivaled those of the US (who, btw, is also in trouble and headed down this road):
Take a look at the PIIGS. Other than Ireland, those are not productivity numbers to brag about. In fact, look at the Euro 15. Those are not numbers to sustain the type of welfare system Europe has laid on and they certainly don’t signal healthy economies. They instead point to economies which are quite fragile and susceptible to downturns at any moment.
Samuelson is right – this is the biggest and best warning welfare states are going to receive. We can’t afford what governments have been doing for decades. Greece is the canary in the coal mine. We ignore it at our peril.