What a Syriza Victory Would Mean

Michael Stephens | January 12, 2015

Greece is back in the headlines as upcoming elections look likely to produce a workable majority for the anti-austerity Syriza party. Some suggest this would represent the first step toward the country’s inevitable exit from the eurozone. Not so fast, says Dimitri Papadimitriou in an interview with Bloomberg Radio’s Kathleen Hays and Vonnie Quinn (segment begins around 13:40).

A Syriza victory would likely usher in significant changes — most notably the plan to write down Greece’s public debt and end austerity policies — but Papadimitriou emphasizes that pulling Greece from the eurozone is not part of Syriza’s platform. And he suggests that much of the “Grexit” talk being deployed by the current government in Greece and other European policymakers (particularly in the vicinity of Berlin) should be understood as a scare tactic directed at the Greek electorate. (In that vein, Peter Spiegel recently reported in the Financial Times that “privately, European officials acknowledge that 2015 is not 2012. Nobody really believes Grexit is imminent.” Spiegel’s article, which contains this particular gem, is worth reading in full: “At the core of Mr Tsipras’s economic platform is debt relief, an idea so unthinkable that nearly every mainstream economist has advocated it.”)

Contrary to those who now confidently claim the eurozone would be just fine if Greece were to leave or be forced out, Papadimitriou cautions that we do not really know what the contagion effects would be (how it would affect, for instance, depositors in various banks in Portugal and elsewhere). Eurozone policymakers who are (genuinely) sanguine about a breakup should be thinking about whether this could be their Lehman Brothers moment, he says.

But a new direction — moving beyond austerity and internal devaluation — is urgently needed. And Papadimitriou argues that, much as the Federal Reserve has been unable to gain much traction, Draghi’s version of QE won’t have a big impact on the real economy (though Papadimitriou does allow that it could help a bit in Greece because that country is “starving for liquidity”). It’s fiscal policy, he says, not monetary policy, that holds the key to recovery in Greece, and ending the austerity experiment would be the first step. (On that front, Papadimitriou suggests there are signs that may indicate a desire to relax the “German occupation” of Greek fiscal policy.)

However, ending austerity is not nearly sufficient. Papadimitriou points out that even if the Greek economy quickly returns to moderate rates of economic growth (by no means a given) it would take more than a decade-and-a-half to get back to the employment levels of 2009. Greece needs a “New Deal,” he says — perhaps funded by a moratorium on interest payments on Greek debt held by the public sector — and which should include an idea included in the original New Deal: the expansion of a direct job creation program.

For more on the latter proposal, this policy brief lays out the macroeconomic payoffs of implementing direct job creation programs of various sizes in Greece (notably, a one-year moratorium on interest payments could cover the net cost of a 440,000-job program for three years. Given the positive multiplier effects involved, a program that size could cut the number of unemployed in half).

Beyond that, he argues, there should be no more muddling through in the eurozone. Ultimately, the goal should be to fix the incomplete euro architecture. Papadimitriou has written that the key mistake in the eurozone setup was the designed divorce of fiscal policy from a sovereign currency: see, e.g., “Euroland’s Original Sin.”

(Here are a couple of possible avenues for approaching those more fundamental design issues: Jörg Bibow, “The Euro Treasury Plan“; Mario Tonveronachi, “The ECB and the Single European Financial Market.”)


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