Europe’s Last Best Chance

STANFORD – The resignations of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have highlighted how Greece, Italy, and many other countries obscured for too long their bloated public sectors’ long-standing problems with unsustainable social-welfare benefits. Indeed, for many of these countries, meaningful reform has now become unavoidable.

The social-insurance systems in Europe, as in the United States, Japan, and elsewhere, were designed under vastly different economic and demographic circumstances – more rapid economic growth, rising populations, and lower life expectancy – from those prevailing today. Governments (the focus is on Greece and Italy at the moment, but they are not alone) have promised too much, to too many, for too long. My 1986 book Too Many Promises pointed to the same problem with America’s social-welfare system.

This fundamental problem has now manifested itself in these countries’ unsustainable debt dynamics. Euro membership, which temporarily enabled massive borrowing at low interest rates, merely aggravated it.

Reforming social-welfare benefits is the only permanent solution to Europe’s crisis. One hopes that, with the help of national governments, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Financial Stability Facility, the holes in the sovereign-debt-funding dike will be temporarily plugged, and that European banks will be recapitalized. But this will work only if structural reforms make these economies far more competitive. They must both lower the tax burden and reduce bloated transfer payments. Too many people are collecting benefits relative to those working and paying taxes.