, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trying to cover the Greece crisis is the analytical equivalent of driving through a very small town. If you blink, you might miss the latest development. So rather than try to keep up with each new twist and turn, let’s look at the most important economic question raised by the country’s predicament: Is there any hope for a return to decent, healthy growth rates?

The textbook economics conventional wisdom seems to be Yes, albeit with great difficulty. I’m a lot less sure, for reasons that reveal many fundamental flaws with textbook economics – mainly its inability to eliminate political, social, and cultural differences.

That conventional wisdom was recently summed up by the University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee, who served as President Obama’s chief White House economist. As Goolsbee told the Washington Post, Greece’s main problem is a woeful lack of price competitiveness. Its costs to produce goods and provide services – and especially its labor costs – are way too high, and its productivity and quality levels are way too low to give its businesses much hope of outselling foreign rivals. In other words, unless you ignored economics completely, or there was simply no choice (as with many personal services), you’d have to be an idiot to Buy Greek in most cases.

Goolsbee proceeded to note that countries in this situation can generally at least hope to gain competitiveness by devaluing their currencies. This step makes the price of anything turned out by the devaluing country cheaper than foreign counterparts (all else, like productivity, equal). But since Greece is a member of the Eurozone, it lacks this option. Its price gap can only be closed if enough of its fellow Eurozone members stoke inflation in their own economies, or if it boosts its own productivity by slashing wages (and/or in principle other business costs, like excessive regulations).

But let’s say Greece takes one of these two basic roads. Does anyone honestly think it will start winning in global markets, or even its home market, even once a respectable stretch of time passes? If so, they shouldn’t. To begin understanding why, let’s recall that Greece got into its mess in the first place largely because a big macro-economic prediction failed. Specifically, Greece’s entry into the European Union (in 1981, long before the Eurozone currency area was born in 1999) didn’t bring nearly enough durable convergence with its more prosperous and better run neighbors.

As required, Greece brought its laws and standards in line with the new European norms. And it made non-trivial economic progress – particularly after it began receiving huge injections of foreign aid. But that’s about where convergence worthy of the name stopped. Bloomberg’s Marc Champion tells the story well. Unlike most of the rest of the European Union, Greece collectively took the money and ran, embarking on a huge spending and stealing (literally) spree rather than investing in productive activity. The Euro’s creation wound up simply giving Greece many more resources to waste, as it enabled Greeks to borrow at the kinds of low rates much more appropriate for a much better-run economy. And for good measure, Greek governments for years lied massively about the nation’s finances – with a helping hand from Wall Street.

That is, Greece squandered nearly all the economic opportunities that macro-economics had predicted from its membership in Europe because – like the rest of the currency union in particular – it was free to remain largely autonomous politically. In every way other than economic, Greece was free to remain Greece, and too much of that identity had become a formula for profligacy.

But just as macro-economics can’t come close to adequately explaining Greece’s descent into economic degeneracy, it struggles at best to illuminate a plausible path to real recovery. For Greece needs much more than competitive prices to return to some semblance of economic viability. It needs a reliable legal and regulatory environment, to persuade domestic capital to stay home for productive use and to persuade foreign capital to give it a chance. Even if it had noteworthy natural comparative advantages in any sectors other than some farm products that are hardly staples, it would need the kind of scale that few of its extractive and especially manufacturing industries boast.

And to achieve that end, it would need what Harvard Business School professors Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih and Samuel P. Pisano have called an industrial commons – the “R&D know-how, advanced process development and engineering skills, and manufacturing competencies” needed to produce the high value products and services upon which first world living standards ultimately depend. Countries without these capabilities are doomed to lengthy servitude in what’s called the low-value ghetto – simple, labor-intensive activity that pays very low wages, fosters very little learning or innovation, and, by the way, is an awfully crowded neighborhood in today’s global economy.

As numerous Asian countries have demonstrated, the low-value ghetto can be left behind by economic strategies that (to simplify a bit) successfully encourage very high rates of domestic saving and a laser-like focus on quality education that can create the wherewithal needed to advance up the value and skills ladder. In some cases, such progress has been able to start attracting – and effectively absorb – the foreign capital and knowhow that can provide a vital boost. Does that sound like spendaholic Greece today? Of course, as the Asian experience also demonstrates, it’s also essential to have a robustly growing global economy that can accommodate ever greater exports and indeed trade surpluses. Does that sound like the wheezing global economy today?

Greece does boast formidable human capital – just take a look at the math, science, and engineering faculties of any number of major American colleges and universities. That suggests potential in fields like software development, as well as lower value tech work like call centers (which are much likelier to create significant job opportunities). The country’s geography also suggests continuing possibilities in logistics (which is why shipping has always been strong).

But it’s precisely these kinds of changes that will have to begin and take hold for Greece to escape basket-case status. If they don’t, expect to keep hearing nonsense on the order of “If enough wealthy Germans and other Europeans would just take more vacations there, Greece’s problems would be solved.” That may make macro-economists feel good, but it represents a cruel hoax on Greece.