Depression’s Advocates

BERKELEY – Back in the early days of the ongoing economic crisis, I had a line in my talks that sometimes got applause, usually got a laugh, and always gave people a reason for optimism. Given the experience of Europe and the United States in the 1930s, I would say, policymakers would not make the same mistakes as their predecessors did during the Great Depression. This time, we would make new, different, and, one hoped, lesser mistakes.

Unfortunately, that prediction turned out to be wrong. Not only have policymakers in the eurozone insisted on repeating the blunders of the 1930s; they are poised to repeat them in a more brutal, more exaggerated, and more extended fashion. I did not see that coming.

When the Greek debt crisis erupted in 2010, it seemed to me that the lessons of history were so obvious that the path to a resolution would be straightforward. The logic was clear. Had Greece not been a member of the eurozone, its best option would have been to default, restructure its debt, and depreciate its currency. But, because the European Union did not want Greece to exit the eurozone (which would have been a major setback for Europe as a political project), Greece would be offered enough aid, support, debt forgiveness, and assistance with payments to offset any advantages it might gain by exiting the monetary union.

Instead, Greece’s creditors chose to tighten the screws. As a result, Greece is likely much worse off today than it would have been had it abandoned the euro in 2010. Iceland, which was hit by a financial crisis in 2008, provides the counterfactual. Whereas Greece remains mired in depression, Iceland – which is not in the eurozone – has essentially recovered.