As Goes Greece . . .

. . . so goes the United States? Well, maybe the dependents of our welfare state won’t riot. But, riots aside, the U.S. has much in common with Greece: a huge and rising burden of government (accompanied by a huge and rising burden of government debt), leading to economic stagnation.

As for how the burden of government stagnates an economy, I’ve said plenty. See especially this and this. For more evidence, I turn to statistics and projections available from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has 31 (mostly Western) member nations:

Derived from tables 1 and 32, available at OECD Economic Outlook No. 86 Annex Tables — Table of Contents. The debt-burden statistics represent gross government debt for 1995-2010. The changes in GDP are for 1996-2011.

How fares the debt burden of the United States? Not well:

Derived from OECD annex table 32. I use gross debt because net debt understates the debt burden. For example, it treats the federal government’s IOUs to the Social Security Trust Fund as if they were legitimate assets, which they are not.

All Euro zone countries are represented by the wide, gold line. Greece is a Euro zone country, but I have plotted its debt burden separately to highlight its plight. Japan, the most burdened OECD country, is infamous for its economic stagnation. And there’s the U.S. (wide, blue line) moving ahead of the Euro zone, and not far behind Greece. What’s worse is that the outlook for the U.S. beyond 2011 is deeper debt.

Here’s Robert J. Samuelson’s (correct) analysis of the situation:

What we’re seeing in Greece is the death spiral of the welfare state. This isn’t Greece’s problem alone, and that’s why its crisis has rattled global stock markets and threatens economic recovery. Virtually every advanced nation, including the United States, faces the same prospect. Aging populations have been promised huge health and retirement benefits, which countries haven’t fully covered with taxes. The reckoning has arrived in Greece, but it awaits most wealthy societies. . . .

The welfare state’s death spiral is this: Almost anything governments might do with their budgets threatens to make matters worse by slowing the economy or triggering a recession. By allowing deficits to balloon, they risk a financial crisis as investors one day — no one knows when — doubt governments’ ability to service their debts and, as with Greece, refuse to lend except at exorbitant rates. Cutting welfare benefits or raising taxes all would, at least temporarily, weaken the economy. Perversely, that would make paying the remaining benefits harder.

Greece illustrates the bind. To gain loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund, it embraced budget austerity. Average pension benefits will be cut 11 percent; wages for government workers will be cut 14 percent; the basic rate for the value added tax will rise from 21 percent to 23 percent. These measures will plunge Greece into a deep recession. In 2009, unemployment was about 9 percent; some economists expect it to peak near 19 percent.

If only a few countries faced these problems, the solution would be easy. Unlucky countries would trim budgets and resume growth by exporting to healthier nations. But developed countries represent about half the world economy; most have overcommitted welfare states. They might defuse the dangers by gradually trimming future benefits in a way that reassured financial markets. In practice, they haven’t done that; indeed, President Obama’s health program expands benefits. What happens if all these countries are thrust into Greece’s situation? One answer — another worldwide economic collapse — explains why dawdling is so risky.

Can Markets Force Fiscal Discipline?

Today’s market meltdown was triggered by the fear that Greece’s financial problems will spread to other European governments, and then to the United States. Greece’s problems can be described simply: The government cannot afford to pay the debts it owes because it has expanded the welfare state at the behest of its ignorant, greedy citizens. Moreover, the problems of Greece will spread to other Euro-zone nations if and as they incur debt in order to bail out Greece. (Recommended reading: “The Mother of All Bubbles.”)

Now, change “Greece” to the “United States” and you have a perfect description of what is likely to happen in this country if “our” government continues to drive us along the road to Europeanism.

The question of the day is whether the strongly negative response of financial markets to the situation in Europe will cause Europe’s “leaders” — and our own — to re-think their commitment to fiscal profligacy. Or, as seems more likely, will those “leaders” be so fearful of reneging on their irredeemable promises to their political constituents that they fall back on the time-honored “remedy” known as hyperinflation?

Hyperinflation — which is easy enough for central bankers to engineer — “solves” the problem of debt by smothering it under a mountain of new money. The problem with that “solution,” of course, is that it affects not just a government’s creditors but every economic actor. Real economic activity grinds to a near-standstill as vendors raise their prices to unaffordable levels in anticipation of facing even higher prices for their factors of production. Entrepreneurs give up on business formation for the same reason. In the end, a vibrant economy based on money and credit is reduced to a stagnant, near-subsistence economy based on personal relationships and barter.

Which way will Europe and the United States go? I have little confidence that our “leaders” will choose the path of fiscal discipline. They are especially unlikely to choose the path that encourages economic growth by shrinking the welfare state.