The Greek people have already paid highly for their own governments’ mistakes. Photo: Getty
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The Greek people have paid for their governments’ mistakes – and for the errors of the Troika

The meltdown in Athens and the mistakes of the IMF.

To make sense of the confrontation between the Syriza government in Greece and the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund), it is vital to understand the one big mistake that each side made. The mistake on the Greek side is well known. In the years following the formation of the eurozone, the Greek government borrowed far more than it should, sometimes secretly. When the full extent of that fiscal profligacy became known, the financial markets realised that default was a distinct possibility, and the government was no longer able to borrow from them.

Over the next few years the Troika provided large sums of money to “bail out Greece”. The minor share of that provided new loans to the Greek government so that it could gradually balance its books. When Greece complains about the austerity imposed on it by the Troika, it is important to understand that without Troika assistance it would have had to endure something even worse and far more immediate. The government was spending much more than it received in taxes, and from the moment it stopped being able to borrow from the markets it would have had to end this. Almost certainly the banking system would have collapsed, and the government would not have had the resources to support its banks.

The Troika’s big mistake was what it did with the larger part of its rescue package. If it had done nothing, the Greek government would have been forced to default on its debt, and those who owned that debt (Greece’s creditors) would have received very little or nothing. Instead, the Troika partly bailed out these creditors, who included many of their own leading banks, in Germany and France in particular. In effect, what the Troika did was to buy much of the Greek government debt owned by these private-sector institutions, at discounted prices. From the Greek government’s point of view, this replaced private-sector debt with debt owned by the Troika.

Why was this partial bailout of Greece’s private-sector creditors a mistake? It meant that the remainder of the rescue package, designed to ease the Greek government’s transition to balance, was far too small. The Troika thought that the Greek government could quickly cut spending and raise taxes with little consequence for the rest of the Greek economy. It was completely and predictably wrong. Sharp and intense austerity played a great part in reducing GDP by 25 per cent and creating mass unemployment.

Imposing less austerity on Greece, producing a more modest decline in Greek output, would have required additional loans from European governments. If this had been available in addition to the existing package, it would have saddled Greece with a debt it surely could not have repaid, and may have been unacceptable to European voters. This is why the partial bailout of Greece’s original creditors was such an error. If it had not been done, and some of that money had been used to allow less austerity to be imposed on the Greek people, we would not be at the present impasse.

Over the past year the Greek government has managed to achieve approximate primary budget balance: its taxes cover all its spending, excluding interest payments. It is no longer asking for more money to cover spending, but simply additional loans to pay back interest and maturing loans. In short, it needs money from the Troika to repay the Troika. As the price of these loans, the Troika is demanding yet more austerity. The Syriza government wants to avoid this to give the economy a chance to recover.

From a macroeconomic viewpoint, this is reasonable, because it would probably be in the long-term interests of the Troika. The OECD estimates that Greece has unused resources worth at least 10 per cent of GDP. A pause in austerity would allow demand to increase, reducing unemployment and generating more taxes. The Greek government could use some of the additional revenue to start repaying its loans.

So why does the Troika insist on continuing with austerity? The Troika contains many different views and interests. Some may still not believe, despite all the evidence, that austerity hurts growth. Perhaps others are happy to see a left-wing government fail, because it does not accept the received wisdom from Brussels and Frankfurt on what good economic policy involves.

Another explanation is that eurozone governments have become victims of their media’s rhetoric. The impression the media conveys is that all of the Troika’s loans have gone to cover Greek government spending. In fact, most went to bail out Greece’s previous creditors and any further loans will just repay existing loans. But to people in the eurozone it seems as if the Troika is transferring more of their money to Greek citizens. In these circumstances, the politicians need to appear to be tough on Greece. They fear that to change policy now would lead their electorates to ask why previous policies have failed, which would expose the Troika’s big mistake.

The Greek people have already paid highly for their own governments’ mistakes before 2010. Now it seems they must suffer as a result of the Troika’s errors. That the governments of the eurozone continue to display a macroeconomic understanding of fiscal policy equivalent to that of Angela Merkel’s imagined Swabian housewife is perhaps not surprising – it has been a consistent pattern since the eurozone began. More surprising is the behaviour of the IMF, established to represent the international community and full of hundreds of economists. That it had the means to stop this happening but chose not to do so is equally tragic.

Simon Wren-Lewis is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era