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Will We Learn From Greece?

by Matt Mitchell on June 25, 2010

in Stimulus, Tax and Budget

A few weeks ago Thomas Hoenig, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, warned, “Greece is a lesson for us…. We shouldn’t be so arrogant to think that that couldn’t happen to us.” Mr. Hoenig was talking about our “very, very significant deficit” at the federal level.

Mr. Hoenig is right to worry about the Federal Government’s financial footing, but as a growing number of commentators have argued, the comparison between Greece and the U.S. states may be more apt than that between Greece and the U.S. Federal Government.

Like Greece, nearly every state in the union faces a major budget gap. The National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers estimate that these gaps total $127.4 billion for the remainder of 2010, 2011 and 2012. Like Greece, these gaps manifested themselves during the recession but their underlying cause is unsustainable levels of government spending. Like Greece, the states have made unrealistic promises to their public employees in the form of unfunded pensions and health benefits. Like Greece, these promises loom as the single largest threat to fiscal solvency in the coming years. And like Greece, the states have a limited number of ways to deal with the situation: they may not declare bankruptcy and they may not inflate their way out of the mess.

In both situations, however, the governments can appeal to the next level of government for aid. In the US, the states received some $135 billion from the Federal Government in the stimulus package passed last spring. And in Europe, the EU has promised to bail out Greece to the tune of $146 billion. These actions send the signal that the US and the EU apparently think that some governments are too big to fail. They also establish a strong incentive for US state and EU member nations to live beyond their means.

The Economist recently noted another similarity between Greece and the US states: as in Greece, many leaders at the state government level are reluctant to make the tough choices necessary to deal with the problem.

This last comparison, however, may prove false. That is because the Greeks may finally be on the verge of addressing their problem. This week, the ruling Socialist Party, PASOK, unveiled their reform proposals and on Friday, the government agreed to the bill. According to Reuters, “The reform cuts benefits, curbs widespread early retirement, increases the number of contribution years from 35-37 to 40 and raises women’s retirement age from 60 to match men on 65.”

My colleague Eileen Norcross has just written a paper with AEI’s Andrew Biggs which reveals the scope of the pension problem in the state of New Jersey. They found that the pension system there is underfunded by as much as $170 billion. Note that this one state’s pension problem dwarfs the $127.4 billion sum total of all state budget gaps over the next two and a half years.

Worse, these unfunded liabilities will come due soon. A series of studies by Joshua Rauh (Northwestern) and Robert Novy-Marx (University of Chicago) find that seven states will run out of pension money by 2020. And when they do, the costs will be enormous. When Illinois’s pension system goes broke in 2018, for example, the state’s pensions costs will be nearly half the size of the entire 2008 state budget.

If Mr. Hoenig is right and Greece is a lesson, let’s hope that policy makers in the US learn it before the pension crisis hits.

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