Not quite. It’s not the heavy weight of debt (as Krugman has posted about at length the past week, most notably in this column) that’s causing European nations to struggle. What’s causing those nations to struggle is their inability (until recently) to finance that debt at any sort of tenable rate (7% or under). The reason those governments couldn’t finance their debt is that investors don’t want to purchase debt that might not be paid back. The reason the debt might not be paid back is that, unlike the case of the United States, Great Britain, Finland, and various developing nations, European countries like Spain, Italy, and yes, Greece, can’t print their own money (their own money being Euros). Therefore, they’re at risk of not being able to pay back their Euro-denominated debt. The United States, on the other hand, will never be unable to print dollars, and will always be able to pay back its dollar-denominated debt.
Greece and Italy used substantial amounts of debt to sustain their welfare states, and while their economies are doing reasonably well, there’s no problem—they can roll over their debt before it comes due at similar interest rates and everything works out fine. The problem they now face is their economies are not doing well at all, tax revenue has decreased, and thus their deficits have shot up as they continue to fund their expensive government programs.
As their deficits have continued to grow, and their debt has continued to grow as a percentage of GDP, investors became afraid that they would not be able to pay their debt. Which is why, as Tim says, investors would not purchase their new debt at a sustainable rate: because their debt burden is too high.
Tim argues that this is only a problem because Greece and Italy are on the euro—rather than their own currency—they cannot “print” more money, that is, devalue their currency so the past debts are worth less now than they were then and are thus more affordable to pay.1 Tim further argues that the U.S. will never have this problem, because since we do control our own currency, and our debt is denominated in our currency, we can inflate our currency to reduce the magnitude of our debts.
That’s perfectly accurate, but that does not happen in a vacuum. Everything else is not held equal. Investors will factor the risk of intentional inflation into their investments, and expect higher interest rates for future debts, too. Perhaps Greece and Italy (and the U.S., if we don’t right our ship in the interim) will leave the euro, re-denominate their debt, and pay their existing debt of a smaller magnitude. But what happens when Greece and Italy go back to those same investors, who just received substantially less than they were supposed to from their debt, and ask them to purchase their new debt? It’s going to be expensive, and unless Greece’s and Italy’s economies begin growing strongly, they’ll have the same problem all over again.
I never intended “…the heavy weight of their debt” to be a conclusive summation of Italy and Greece’s problems. Their problem is a confluence of a very poor economy, low tax revenues as a result, and debt used to finance an expensive welfare state. It’s but a piece. A very large, very heavy, piece.