In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.
According to the authors,
In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.
The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,
Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.
Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)
In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.
What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability. Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.
For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.