The Myth That Entitlements Ruin Countries, Busted in 1 Little Graph

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The welfare state is dead. Long live the welfare state!

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(Reuters)

It's getting hard to keep track of which countries aren't Greece anymore.

First, Ireland wasn't Greece. Then it kind of was. Then it was Portugal's turn to not be Greece. Then it was Portugal's turn to be Greece. Next, Spain wasn't Greece. But now it might be. At the very least it's Ireland. Although Uganda looks like it's in the clear. It's not Spain, which could be Greece. That's better than Cyprus can say. They're pretty much Greece. And, of course, Greece is almost certainly Greece. That goes without saying.

Got it? 

But there's one country that definitely isn't Greece. That's the United States.

Let's step back. What makes a country "Greece"? It's become shorthand for wild government overspending -- especially on entitlements. Paul Ryan says we don't have long to avoid the same fate. Neither does the terrifyingly successful investor Michael Burry. They think that absent drastic reform -- read: cuts -- to the social safety net, we'll end up in penury like the Greeks.

It's a scary story. But it's just a scare story. Yes, we have a long-term healthcare spending problem. But that doesn't make us Greece. Heck, Greece isn't even Greece. At least not the "Greece" that's become such a political football. The evidence -- or lack thereof -- is in the chart below. It compares each country's average social spending since 1999, via the OECD, against its current borrowing costs. See the pattern?

SocialSpendingBorrowingCosts.png

There is none. Europe's biggest social spenders don't have any problems. And Europe's biggest problem countries don't spend that much on social programs. The death knell of the welfare state this is not. 

Here's the dirty little secret of the euro debt crisis. There is no euro debt crisis. There is a euro crisis. The debt is a symptom of the crisis of the common currency.* Europe's bailed out countries all saw piles of capital pour in during the boom, only to pour out during the bust. They were left with inflated, uncompetitive wages -- and that's sent them into deep slumps. That's been despite lower social spending than their northern euro neighbors. Germany, Austria, Finland, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and -- at least for now -- France have all been able to sustain more generous safety nets thanks to the magic of competitive wages.

It's the same story for Europe's non-euro nations. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the Czech Republic are all lucky enough to not be passengers on the Titantic members of the common currency. (Denmark has pegged its krone to the euro, but they still have their own central bank). Most of them spend more on social programs than the so-called PIIGS, but all of them can borrow for almost nothing. Investors are actually paying the Swiss and Danish governments for the privilege of lending to them short-term. Think about that. What's going on? Well, if things ever get rough, they can just print money or devalue their currencies. In other words, they can never run out of money.

But Greece can. Being in the euro means never being able to print your own money. And that turns each euro country into a bank. Imagine a bank run. Fear becomes self-fulfilling. Depositors try to pull their money out before everyone else because they're worried the bank will collapse -- which, of course, causes the bank's collapse. Very Oedipal -- minus the parent love. It's the same with Greece. Investors worry that Greece will run out of euros. That's a very rational fear right now. So they try to sell-off their bonds, which pushes up Greece's borrowing costs -- and makes it more likely that Greece will run out of euros. This kind of panic is why Italy -- which has a primary surplus! -- is flirting with trouble too. Only the ECB can stop this.

Notice that I didn't talk about debt at all in the previous paragraph. The PIIGS have too-high wages, too little growth, and face crippling crises of confidence. Austerity won't cure any of that. It'll make things worse. It has. It kneecaps growth. And investors are more worried about growth right now than they are deficits.

Also notice that none of this applies to the United States. We never have to worry about self-fulfilling prophesies of bankruptcy because we can never run out of dollars. As the Boomers retire, we'll spend more on entitlements. That's not the end of the world. Unless you think Sweden is the end of the world. Yes, we need to rein in healthcare inflation, and, yes, we need to raise some more revenue. The former might already be happening. The latter is a political choice. Neither makes us Greece. 

So don't believe the rumors of the welfare state's death. They're greatly exaggerated.
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* Caveat: Greece is sui generis. They really did just spend too much money. They're not pictured here, because their 10-year bond yield is -- wait for it -- off the chart. Fitting their 27 percent borrowing costs onto this graph makes it too hard to see anything else. But Greece's average social spending is only 21.4 percent of GDP.
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Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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