Both Europe’s short-term and long-term economic futures do not look bright. The need to bail out Greece, and possibly also Spain, Portugal, and Italy is the immediate problem, but the fundamental problems go much deeper. Relatively rapid economic growth will cure many budgetary imbalances since the challenge is not the size of government debt per se, but its size relative to GDP. A faster growing economy can tolerate sizable growth in government spending as long as the growth rate of its debt is no faster than the rate of growth of GDP.
Unfortunately, large government spending and rigid economies, the European approach, tend to both increase the growth rate of government debt, and at the same time lower the growth rate of GDP. As a result, the prospects for rapid growth in most European economies, and for getting government debt under control, are dim unless major reforms are introduced into their welfare state, labor markets, regulatory framework, and other government policies.
Europe needs high income and other tax rates in order to finance its system of early retirements and generous pension benefits, especially among its large numbers of government employees, its liberal unemployment benefits, easy access to welfare payments to support unmarried mothers, the care of children, and many other government subsidies. Edward Prescott has shown (see e.g., his “Why do Americans Work so Much More than Europeans”, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Quarterly Review, 28, July 2004) that higher marginal tax rates account for a significant part of the difference in employment, earnings, and hours worked between the US and the main European countries. High tax rates reduce both the level of income at any moment and the rate of growth of income over time.