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The Welfare State's Death Spiral

By Robert Samuelson

WASHINGTON -- 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.

Americans dislike the term "welfare state" and substitute the bland word "entitlements." The vocabulary doesn't alter the reality. Countries cannot overspend and overborrow forever. By delaying hard decisions about spending and taxes, governments maneuver themselves into a cul de sac. To be sure, Greece's plight is usually described as a European crisis -- especially for the euro, the common money used by 16 countries -- and this is true. But only up to a point.

Euro coins and notes were introduced in 2002. The currency clearly hasn't lived up to its promises. It was supposed to lubricate faster economic growth by eliminating the cost and confusion of constantly converting between national currencies. More important, it would promote political unity. With a common currency, people would feel "European." Their identities as Germans, Italians and Spaniards would gradually blend into a continental identity.

None of this has happened. Economic growth in the "euro area" (the countries using the currency) averaged 2.1 percent from 1992 to 2001 and 1.7 percent from 2002 to 2008. Multiple currencies were never a big obstacle to growth; high taxes, pervasive regulations and generous subsidies were. As for political unity, the euro is now dividing Europeans. The Greeks are rioting. The countries making $145 billion of loans to Greece -- particularly the Germans -- resent the costs of the rescue. A single currency could no more subsume national identities than drinking Coke could make people American. If other euro countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy) suffer Greece's fate -- lose market confidence and can't borrow at plausible rates -- there would be a wider crisis.

But the central cause is not the euro, even if it has meant Greece can't depreciate its own currency to ease the economic pain. Budget deficits and debt are the real problems; and these stem from all the welfare benefits (unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, health insurance) provided by modern governments.

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