Thursday, October 23, 2014

The ""transfer problem""

Larry Summers today wrote an interesting piece for Reuters. His first point - worth considering - is that the German obsession with wrapping the private sector's knuckles and enforcing discipline is overblown + dangerous. It is, indeed, what many thought before Lehman, and that one didn't end well. The second point he makes is about the chances of Greece actually paying up. Summers says "" country can be expected to generate huge primary surpluses for long periods for the benefit of foreign creditors."" Of course, if true, it also means that countries cannot credibly run up sizeable foreign debt positions. Pointing to Keynes' famous point in the Economic Consequences of the Peace, he argues that transferring so much money abroad is simply politically infeasible.

If I get my numbers right, Greece would have to produce primary surpluses of 5-10%, to be transferred to the rest of the EU (in the main) for the next 20 years or so. Of course, many regions in Europe transfer this much to other regions -- but not in exchange for past goods + services received, contrary to the Greek case. One example, close to home? Catalunya. One of the most productive regions in Spain, it is currently sending approximately 9% of its GDP to the rest of the country. Of course, Catalunya is not a separate country, but part of Spain, and all the taxes for which its citizens get precious little payback were not exactly embraced enthusiastically. But pay they do, regardless. This simply shows that open revolt need not follow on the heels of high transfers of a region's riches elsewhere; it depends on the way this is sold to the population. Catalans, while grumbling, are on the whole remarkably placid on the issue. What surprises me is that, in contrast to the rest of the Europe, where regions with their own culture + language are normally ""bribed"" to stay, Catalans end up paying for being part of a larger entity they do not much care about. Perhaps they should take some lessons from Southern Sudan, and sign up George Clooney to push their case internationally...