Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Greece and the welfare state in ruins
...Every advanced society, including the United States, has a welfare state. Though details differ, their purposes are similar: to support the unemployed, poor, disabled and aged. All welfare states face similar problems: burgeoning costs as populations age; an over-reliance on debt financing; and pressures to reduce borrowing that create pressures to cut welfare spending. High debt and the welfare state are at odds. It's an open question whether the collision will cause social and economic turmoil.

Greece is the opening act in this drama; already, its budget problems have spawned street protests. By the numbers, Greece's plight is acute. In 2009, its government debt -- basically, the sum of past annual deficits -- was 113 percent of its economy (gross domestic product, or GDP). The budget deficit for 2009 was 12.7 percent of GDP. ...

...The threat to the euro bloc ultimately stems from an overcommitted welfare state. Greece's situation is so difficult because a low birth rate and rapidly graying population automatically increase old-age assistance even as the government tries to cut its spending. At issue is the viability of its present welfare state.

Almost every advanced country -- the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Belgium and others -- faces some combination of huge budget deficits, high debts, aging populations and political paralysis. It's an unstable mix. Present deficits may aid economic recovery, but the persistence of those deficits threatens long-term prosperity. The same unpleasant choices confronting Greece await most wealthy nations, even if they pretend otherwise.