Monday, July 9, 2012

How Greek tax evasion helped sink the global economy

by Brad Plumer

Washington Post

July 9, 2012

The euro crisis first started roaring in late 2009, when auditors inside the newly elected Greek government discovered that the country had a much—much—bigger deficit than anyone realized. That, in turn, inflamed fears that Greece couldn’t wiggle its way out of its debt trap so long as it was tethered to the euro. It also exposed structural problems within Europe’s currency union. Worries soon spread to Ireland, Portugal, and eventually Italy and Spain. Now the entire global economy is on edge.

But why did Greece have such a massive budget deficit in the first place? One factor (among many) was rampant tax evasion, which had starved the Greek government of funds. As it turns out, this was a very big deal indeed. The Wall Street Journal’s Justin Lahart points to a new paper by three economists who estimate that the size of Greek tax evasion accounted for roughly half the country’s budget shortfall in 2008 and one-third in 2009.

How is it even possible to estimate taxes that aren’t ever paid? The economists, Nikolaos Artavanis, Adair Morse and Margarita Tsoutsoura, cleverly exploit a discrepancy. Few people in Greece want to report their real income to the government, since that would mean paying more taxes. But Greek banks have very solid estimates for how much income people are actually raking in — the banks need this info to make loans or to issue mortgages.


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