Hate to criticize someone proposing a payroll tax holiday- darn that Lerner’s law!

A Big Bang for Greece

There is a way out of the debt trap for Athens.

By Stece H. Hanke

June 30 (WSJ) — How did Greece get into the death spiral that it’s in? Unfunded entitlements. In other words, promise somebody something, don’t come up with the financing for it, and pretty soon you find yourself in a fiscal/debt crisis.

Yes, happens to those who are not the issuer of their currency all the time, including those with fixed fx arrangements. EU members, US States, corporations, households, Russia when fixed to the dollar, Mexico when fixed to the dollar, etc.

But never with issuers of the currency. They can always make payments as desired.

This is where Greece ended up, and in February, the Greek government called in some outside advisers (Joseph Stiglitz for one), and the blame game began. Prime Minister Papandreou, who is also president of Socialist International, started blaming everyone. First, it was the speculators. Then he went on a tear against his own colleagues in the European Union. The Germans really got whacked­ according to Mr. Papandreou, they were a big cause of Greece’s troubles.

Never would have happened under the drachma. Just would have been the usual inflation and currency depreciation.

But Greece is a user of the euro, not the issuer like the ECB is.

Ironically, after blaming outsiders for all their problems, the Greeks have called in the foreign doctors. In this case it isn’t just the IMF, but also the EU politicians and bureaucrats who are involved. But this may ultimately be a case in which the doctors kill the patient.

The problem ended for Greece and the entire eu in general only after the ECB agreed to ‘write the check’ and started buying greek bonds.

There was no other way.

To address the moral hazard issue that comes with ECB support, the ECB insisted on the ‘terms and conditions’ to contain inflation possibilities

They haven’t started with what they should be doing, but with a standard IMF-type austerity program. The government has promised to cut public expenditures. It has also raised taxes. Unlike neighboring Bulgaria, which did exactly the right thing by refusing to increase its VAT, Greece has increased its VAT twice since the crisis.

What should Greece have done? It should have started with a Big Bang, doing a number of things simultaneously a la New Zealand. In 1984, New Zealand elected a Labor government after Robert Muldoon’s National Party governments had made a complete mess of the economy. The Muldoon governments introduced, over the course of almost a decade, a socialist-style system in New Zealand. Labor, under finance minister Roger Douglas, introduced structural reforms centered on deregulation and competitiveness. As a consequence, New Zealand had a massive economic revolution after the ’84 election. Greece should adopt a New Zealand-type Big Bang.

The NZ gov was the issuer of its own currency and therefore didn’t face the solvency problem Greece did. otherwise it would have been an entirely different story.

As part of its Big Bang, Greece should have begun by rescheduling its debt. But it also should have implemented a supply-side fiscal consolidation. That means cutting government expenditures, but also changing the tax regime.

Without the ECB writing the check, that would have resulted in a systemic collapse of the euro member national govts and the payments system in general.

With the ECB writing the check there are other options.

Right now, Greece has very onerous payroll taxes that are paid by employers and, ultimately, labor. As part of a Big Bang, Greece should eliminate the employer contribution to payroll taxes, which is currently 28% of wages (employees pay a further 16% rate directly).

With funding entirely dependent on the good will of the ECB, those decisions are up to the ECB, not Greece. If they cross the ECB they get cut off and again face default.

At the same time, Greece should make its VAT rates uniform. Right now, there are three VAT rates in Greece. This is typical in Europe. You have the regular VAT, a VAT that is reduced by 50% for other categories, and, finally, a super-reduced VAT. I would eliminate the reduced and super-reduced rates, and just have one, uniform rate for the VAT one set below the current top VAT rate of 23%.

If Greece did those two things, it would end up generating more revenue than it is generating right now. Even when based on a static, simple-minded analysis, that would put Greece ahead of the revenue game.

At the macro level for the EU it’s about the right fiscal balance needed to sustain growth and employment, which is probably a deficit higher than the growth rate. But at the micro level it’s about credit worthiness which means a deficit lower than the growth rate. So the members need to be tighter than the union needs to be. This requires a central govt/ECB that runs the needed deficits to make it all work efficiently. Much like the US states balance and the fed govt runs the deficits.

But more importantly, it would also substantially reduce its economy’s labor costs overnight. Employers’ social security contributions are about 7.8% of GDP. Eliminating the employer contribution would yield about a 22% reduction in the overall Greek wage bill as a percentage of GDP. This would make the Greek economy more competitive­ without the currency devaluation that some commentators claim is necessary. These changes would also, obviously, reduce consumption, increase savings, and reduce the level of debt in the country.

Allow me to make a comment about devaluation. There are some people who are wringing their hands and saying, “Well, the problem with Greece is that it put itself into a euro straitjacket and it can’t devalue the drachma anymore. So, Greece is in a trap. There’s nothing it can do!”

Yes, but note devaluing was never a policy tool. It was the consequence of policy. Today the consequence of the same policy is default rather than currency depreciation.

But there is something the Greeks can do. They can reduce the economy’s total labor cost by 22%, simply by eliminating the employer contribution to payroll taxes. To see what the size of a devaluation would have to be to generate a positive competitiveness shock of this magnitude, let’s assume that 50% of a devaluation would be passed through to the economy in the form of increased inflation­ reasonable assumption about a small, open economy like Greece’s.

In this case, Greece would have to have a 44% devaluation to be equivalent, in terms of competitiveness, to the positive shock that would accompany the elimination of the employer contribution to payroll taxes.

So, with the elimination of the employer contribution to the payroll tax, Greece would enhance its competitiveness. The enhancement would be equal to roughly a 44% devaluation. Moreover, the supply-side generated competitiveness would not be accompanied by the inflation and widespread private-sector bankruptcy that a devaluation would provoke.

Needless to say, neither Greece nor its international partners are contemplating a voluntary debt restructuring,

That would also require a restructuring of the banking system as the loss of capital would require some kind of adjustment as well.

let alone a supply-side Big Bang, which makes it more likely that Greece will remain stuck in a trap. But don’t let anyone tell you there’s nothing Greece could do. It’s not too late to change course. What’s more, other countries in Europe that are facing down a possible debt crisis could likewise try a similar approach­reschedule debt, cut taxes on labor to improve competitiveness and spur job creation, while raising some consumption taxes to keep the revenue coming in. There is a way out of the Greek trap.

Mr. Hanke is a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from remarks made at the Cato Institute’s Policy Forum, “Europe’s Economic Crisis and the Future of the Euro,” on May 11, 2010, Washington, D.C.

5 Responses

    1. Hong Kong is perhaps the best modern example of the successful implementation of a high LVT. The Hong Kong government generates more than 35% of its revenue from land taxes.[39] Because of this, they can keep their other taxes rates low or non-existent and still generate a budget surplus.

      If Hong Kong is an example to go by, LVT mainly generates tax revenue instead of curbing prices and speculation. The developers need to be taken on too.


  1. “Hate to criticize someone proposing a payroll tax holiday- darn that Lerner’s law!”

    But the detail was that he was suggesting a FICA tax holiday ONLY FOR THE EMPLOYER! That continues upward wealth transfer AND provides a convenient prelude for doubling up the FICA tax deducted from employees.

    Neverlerner’s Law: “No implications of a seemingly good proposal should go unscrutinized. Laws are too important to be left to Lerners.”

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