I have an image in my mind. Its a bus running downhill, and its brakes have failed. There are four men in the front cab. The two men in the middle are both trying to control the steering wheel to keep the bus on the road. The man to their right has control of the accelerator, and is pushing on the gas hoping this will crash the bus to the right. The fourth man to their left controls nothing, but as his pleas to stop pressing the accelerator fall on deaf ears, he begins to wonder whether it would be better for the passengers to grab the wheel and crash the bus to the left. The three other drivers do not agree on very much, except that it is all the fault of the guy on the left, and now appear to be thinking about throwing him off. As the bus hurtles downhill swerving from side to side, its passengers are battered, some injured, and a few are jumping off.
I do not need to explain the symbolism. I tried to change the image to explain why the man on the right refuses to stop pressing on the accelerator of growing primary surpluses, but gave up because the real reason is that he wants to crash the bus anyway. (The argument that the Eurozone’s rules do not allow debt write-offs is just nonsense.) Otherwise I think the image works well. The two men in the centre represent Tsipras and maybe Hollande. Hollande is saying that if only you would let me have the wheel (‘structural reform’) all would be well, but in truth the main reason the passengers are being injured (unemployment and welfare cuts) or are jumping (migration) is the speed of the bus.
The central question is whether the men in the middle are delusional. By keeping the Greek economy on the road that is the Eurozone are they only going to prolong the agony with the same inevitable crash which is Grexit?
There is only one reason for optimism that I can see, although it assumes yet further reductions in Greek living standards. The hill the bus is travelling along will begin to flatten out and the road might even start to rise as Greece becomes more competitive in terms of price. I outlined here why that has not yet boosted the Greek economy to the extent it has in Ireland, but if unemployment remains at or above 25% Greece should get even more competitive. Instability and unwise Troika interventions may delay the process, but eventually the tourists will come. The Eurozone does contain a natural correction mechanism: it is just slow and painful.
If this does eventually lead to sustained growth in Greece, it does not excuse what has gone before: recoveries do not justify recessions, and government profligacy does not have to imply a 25% fall in GDP! However this correction mechanism is not bound to succeed, if it is countered by another dynamic, which is one that has been and continues to be imposed by the Troika. That dynamic is austerity chasing primary surpluses when that austerity makes the economy shrink. Macromodels would probably tell us which dynamic will win out, but they will not factor in a deterioration in the financial position of banks (already not good as Frances Coppola points out) as the economy stagnates, and the deteriorating social and political situation that austerity brings.
So the eventual outcome still depends on the decisions of the Troika. It always has of course. The truth that their apologists find so uncomfortable is that the Troika has been in charge of the economy since 2010, and therefore is responsible for the mess we are now in. The idea that all would be well if only Greece had undertaken every item of structural reform they specified (and a lot was done) is just silly. Now it appears as if it is all the fault of the former Greek finance minister, because he dressed funny, or kept wanting to talk about economics, or did some contingency planning - it is so absurd you couldn’t make it up.
One ray of hope offered by Anatole Kaletsky is that now “ritual humiliation” has been achieved, the Troika will be more forgiving. I wish he was right, but this argument fails to account for the German finance minister who clearly believes that exit is the best option. He wants the bus to crash for the sake of the other cars on the road. An optimistic view would be that the shock of what was done to Greece a few weeks ago will bring others to their senses, and Schäuble’s influence on the Eurogroup (and strangely the IMF) will decrease. I fear the larger truth is that the non-German bloc in the Eurozone does not have an alternative economic vision to offer (although it clearly exists), and will never face Germany down.