Paul Krugman has a number of posts on Spain, Greece, et al, and specifically how being part of EMU means they won't be able to depreciate to avoid crushing recessions. The point he is making is of course perfectly valid, and he is - as usual - ahead of the pack in correctly perceiving the real problem as being loss of competitiveness in the PIIGS and the need for substantial deflation, potentially crippling growth for years.
His conclusion is also the correct one:
Am I calling, then, for breakup of the euro. No: the costs of undoing the thing would be immense and hugely disruptive. I think Europe is now stuck with this creation, and needs to move as quickly as possible toward the kind of fiscal and labor market integration that would make it more workable.
First of all, I was, and still am, a strong supporter of the Euro. The common currency is more than anything else a step towards the dream of political integration, a sceptical Europe of nation states moving towards a post-nationalistic era of many cultures but common political goals and aspirations, based on respect for human rights and the rule of law, a belief in the power of free trade and the absurdity of borders, and a desire to for ever leave behind the madness of the past and other petty differences. No-one in their right mind can possibly argue that the demons haunting Spain and Greece today are scarier than the demons that political union can forever banish.
A common currency brings with it not only disadvantages but also advantages, but whichever way you cut it it was never meant to be a brilliant economic idea, even if reasonable people can claim it is a good one. It was meant to be a trojan horse leading us to closer and closer union: not a superstate, but an unbreakable union of culturally diverse nations living together in peace - and if this political experiment is to succeed in Europe, why not the world?
This crisis may yet bring people to their senses - what was everyone thinking when they picked Van Rompuy? - and remind them what the Euroland is all about; if this happens, the current mess may well lead to a better Europe and a better world.
So, the first thing bothering me about Krugman's analysis (and the debate more generally) is a lack of perspective. It is the same thing I talked about when I posted on the misguided economics of Scottish independence.
The second thing that bothers me is Krugman's style. Krugman is always right; and I really mean that. On top of that, he is incredibly good at homing in the most important aspects of every issue, as he did in this case by focusing on the prospect of deflation in the PIGGS rather than the state of public finances. But not being wrong is a good thing, right? It would be if he then didn't push his case to the extent that he paints a misleading picture. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, Krugman deals in doughnut truths: only the truth, and the whole truth, with a hole in the truth.
First of all, he posts this graph to support his thesis:
The divergence in price appreciation between Greece and the EMU average is about 10%, which could go away with only moderately lower inflation in Greece compared to the rest of the Euroland over the next, say, 10 years. [Addendum: to his credit, Krugman also posted this after I'd written this post, which paints a more balanced picture, if only by including France. And yes, he is absolutely right again in calling for higher inflation for EMU as a whole.]
Even more importantly, by posting this graph he is strongly implying (although not quite saying- that same irritating 'he's never actually wrong' thing again) that these discrepancies need to go away. But it is not so: between 2000 and 2008 Germany's real GDP grew by about 13%, Spain's by 33% and Greece's by a whopping 40%. Yes, some of this is illusory, 'debt-driven bubble growth'; but the biggest part is probably pure Solow coupled with a speedier institutional reform in the poorer, more backward PIIGS compared to Germany. And guess what: even after this decade of strong gains, employment as a percentage of the working age population is 70% in Germany (from 65% in 1998), in Spain it is 65% (from 52%), and in Greece 62% (from 56%). Hourly wages in the latter two countries remain a fraction of German levels, and I'm sure there is a similar picture when it comes to unit labour costs (sorry, can't find the relevant data).
A large part of this capital inflow and price appreciation is here to stay: As Spain and Greece have become richer, with the potential to grow even more in the future, you would also expect the price level to go up. If country A has half the nominal GDP of country B, you would expect the price level in country A to also be lower; if country A grows to have the same level of GDP as country B, you would expect price levels to be the same. Things are expensive in France and cheap in Algeria.
So, would Spain and Greece benefit from being able to depreciate? Yes. Should EMU move towards more fiscal integration? Hell yes. Would EMU benefit from more inflation? Yes indeed.
Does the price level in Greece need to fall by 30% so that Greece can be competitive and grow again? Most definitely no. The imbalances are simply not as great as Krugman presents them to be, and he is being disingenuous, if not outright mistaken, by presenting growth in GDP deflators since the formation of EMU to support his (basically valid) main points. Growth in GDP deflators in itself is irrelevant to the point he is making.
Addendum: Why are poor countries cheaper than richer countries? The answer lies in the existence of non-tradable goods: things like haircuts and doctor visits. The price of tradeables (grain, plasma TVs, cars, etc) is common across the EU since there are no barriers to trade, but it costs much more to get a haircut in Germany than in does in Portugal. If Portugal becomes richer and Germany stays where it was, the price of TVs will still be the same in both countries, but the price of haircuts in Portugal will no longer be as low relative to Germany as it used to be. With Germany and Portugal sharing a common currency, higher real GDP growth in Portugal means the price level in Portugal will increase relatively to Germany - and there's nothing weird about that. Simply pointing to divergence in GDP deflators between countries with no reference to real GDP growth (or growth prospects for that matter, as this is also about current account deficits) is silly.