March 25, 2023

Off the Charts: Seen From Greece, Great Depression Data Looks Good

The Greeks can only wish they had it so good.

The Greek government this week released its estimate of economic output in the fourth quarter of last year, and also published its unemployment report.

For the year as a whole, the Greek economy, measured in 2005 euros, fell to 168.5 billion euros, down 6.4 percent from the previous year. That was a little better than the 7.1 percent decline in 2011. The last time the Greek economy was smaller than in 2012 was in 2001. The cumulative decline since 2007 was 20.1 percent.

In December, the unemployment rate was 26.4 percent, and that figure actually looked a little encouraging because it was lower than the 26.6 percent reported for November. Not since May 2008, when the rate fell half a percentage point to 7.3 percent, had there been a single month when the unemployment rate was reported to have fallen.

The accompanying charts compare the changes in gross domestic product and unemployment in the United States during the five years after 1929 with the changes in Greece during the five years after 2007.

There is reason to take all the numbers with a grain of salt. The American figures were estimated after the fact, by the government for G.D.P. and by the National Bureau of Economic Research for unemployment. For G.D.P., only annual changes were estimated.

The Hellenic Statistics Authority, Greece’s compiler of official numbers, has a history of deception — the country lied to get into the euro zone — and it now cannot apply seasonal adjustments to its quarterly G.D.P. estimates. As a result, the figures shown in the charts are calculated by adding up the four quarters of each year. But European officials now vouch for the quality of Greek figures.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the course of the two economies comes in government consumption spending — basically spending that is not for investment, as in building roads or bombers. In the United States, that spending was growing even under President Herbert Hoover and helped to cushion the economy’s fall. In Greece, required by Europe to follow a course of harsh austerity, that spending has fallen rapidly, even if it has not declined as rapidly as some Europeans want.

By the fifth year of the Depression, personal consumption spending had begun to recover in the United States. In Greece last year, it fell 9.1 percent, more than in any other year of the downturn.

Greece publishes monthly overall unemployment figures, but provides details only on a quarterly basis. The charts show the trends of joblessness by sex and age group through the third quarter of last year, the most recent available. Women are more likely to be unemployed in every age group shown, and older workers are far less likely to be jobless than younger ones. Even the groups that look good by comparison are doing poorly. Among men age 45 to 64, nearly one in six is out of work. Among men 30 to 44, the figure is one in five.

Rates for teenagers and people over 65 are not shown, since few of them are in the labor force. The picture is glum for those teenagers who do want jobs. The male unemployment rate is 52 percent, and the rate for women is 81.5 percent. Most of those over 65 who say they want to work do have jobs, but the proportion of such people in the labor force has been falling in recent years.

Floyd Norris comments on finance and the economy at

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