Thursday, September 3, 2015

How Greece Can Help Itself

By James Surowiecki

Credit Illustration by Christoph Niemann

If there’s one message that Greece should take away from its recent confrontation with the euro zone, it’s that it will never get the help it really needs. Assuming that the deal goes through, Greece should be able to reopen the banks and keep the economy from total collapse. But, with that economy having shrunk by a quarter in five years and an unemployment rate over twenty-five per cent, it needs real stimulus spending and a much looser monetary policy. Neither is on offer. Even if Greece gets the debt relief that the I.M.F. is recommending, the next few years will be grim. As James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, who assisted the former Greek finance minister during this year’s negotiations, told me, “What’s going to happen in Greece is going to be very sad.”

So what can Greece do? It really has only one option—to make the economy more productive and, above all, to export more. It’s easy to focus on Greece’s huge pile of debt, but, according to Yannis Ioannides, an economist at Tufts University, “debt is ultimately the lesser problem. Productivity and the lack of competitive exports are the much more important ones.”

There are structural issues that make this challenging. Greece is never going to be a manufacturing powerhouse: almost half of all Greek manufacturers have fewer than fifty employees, which limits productivity and efficiency, since they don’t enjoy economies of scale. Greece also has a legal and business environment that discourages investment, particularly from abroad. Contractual disputes take more than twice as long to resolve as in the average E.U. country. Greece has been among the most difficult European countries in which to start and run a business, and it has myriad regulations designed to protect existing players from competition. All countries have rules like this, but Greece is an extreme case. Bakeries, for instance, can sell bread only in a few standardized weights. Recently, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, had to promise that he would “liberalize the market for gyms.”

The scale of these problems makes Greece’s task sound hopeless, but simple reforms could have a big impact. Contrary to its image in Europe, Greece has already made moves in this direction: between 2013 and 2014, it jumped a hundred and eleven places in the World Bank’s “ease of starting a business” index. And reform doesn’t mean Greece needs to abandon the things that make it distinctive. In fact, in the case of exports, the country has important assets that it hasn’t taken full advantage of. Greek olive oil is often described as the best in the world. Yet sixty per cent of Greek oil is sold in bulk to Italy, which then resells it at a hefty mark-up. Greece should be processing and selling that oil itself, and similar stories could be told about feta cheese and yogurt; a 2012 McKinsey study suggested that food products could add billions to Greece’s G.D.P. Similarly, tourism, though it already accounts for eighteen per cent of G.D.P., has a lot more potential. Most tourists in Greece are Greek themselves, a sign that the country could do a much better job of tapping the booming global tourism market. Doing so would require major investments in improving ports and airports, and in marketing. But the upside could be huge. Greece also needs to stem its current brain drain. It produces a large number of scientists and engineers, but it spends little on research and development, so talent migrates abroad. And there are other ways that Greece could capitalize on its climate and its educated workforce; as Galbraith suggests, it’s an ideal location for research centres and branches of foreign universities.

To implement such changes, Greece will have to overcome other problems. Reforms work best when the level of trust in political institutions is high. But the Greek state has a poor reputation among citizens, who see it as a pawn of special interests. (This distrust of the government is one reason for the country’s notoriously high rate of tax evasion.) On top of this, the chief advocate of structural reform to date has been the much hated troika, whose obsession with austerity has made the mere notion of reform anathema. Opening up the Greek economy would benefit ordinary citizens, since the economy’s myriad rules and regulations serve mainly to protect the wealthy and those lucky enough to have won a sinecure. But that’s a hard sale to make at a time when people are worried about holding on to what they have.

Nonetheless, it’s a sale that Alexis Tsipras should try to make. As Ioannides told me, “We know from looking at other countries that, for reform to work, the government and the public really need to own it.” Right now, no one in Greece really owns reform. Still, Tsipras has considerable political capital. He could use that capital to spend the rest of his time in office inveighing against austerity. But Germany has made it painfully clear that that will have no effect. Instead, Tsipras should forget about what Europe isn’t going to do, and focus on what Greece can do for itself. He should make the case for why Greece needs to focus on exports; make it easier for young people to find jobs and start businesses; and even allow loaves of various weights and liberalized gyms. This isn’t the platform that Tsipras ran on. But it’s the platform that Greece needs him to govern on. ♦

How Greece Can Help Itself - The New Yorker