Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Greece is in ‘Hotel California’: Checked out but it can never leave

by Theodore Pelagidis

Brookings Institution

August 22, 2018

After eight years of painful bailout programs, this week Greece is leaving behind, at least technically, the era of bailout programs dictated by creditors. However, despite optimistic views expressed both by the Greek government—Prime Minister Alex Tsipras included—and some Eurozone officials, many believe that the country has, to paraphrase the Eagles’ “Hotel California” song, checked out but it can never leave.

From CNBC to Reuters to Politico EU to CNN Money, recent international news coverage on Greece cites the usual culprits and causes for pessimism, emphasizing weaknesses in the economy that were not tackled as part of three consecutive bail-out programs. These include: inefficient public administration, the black market economy, corruption and tax evasion, slow and inefficient justice, and numerous administrative obstacles to exports and investments. Other shortcomings of the three bailout programs include a heavy propensity toward implementing austerity measures. These are all, at least to an extent, valid flaws.

Yet rarely does the international press cite my top pick—overtaxation—a phenomenon with disastrous repercussions for Greece’s future. Let me explain why by presenting a few graphs.

Figure 1 depicts higher taxes plus higher social security contributions (SSCs). Both are higher than the OECD average and become highly progressive as wages become higher. But even low-income employees pay the high and non-rewarding SSCs. In sum, such a social welfare tax makes it extremely costly for a company or an employer to hire and so they avoid doing so. When an employer does hire, the “disposable wage” should be low to compensate for sky-high taxation and SSCs. As a consequence, domestic demand will be weak, which in turn dampens growth and employment prospects.


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