Poverty of Political Imagination

August 17, 2012 at 11:48 am | Posted in Capitalism, democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, Production, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Though it should not have caused any surprise, the news that Eurozone economies had contracted by 0.2 percent in the second quarter of 2012 underscored the deepening economic crisis faced by the 17-state bloc. Though the German economy may have grown by 0.3 percent, France recorded a third straight quarter of no growth, and the Finnish, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish economies all fell sharply. Greece, of course, suffered the steepest fall: 6.2 percent in the second quarter–and was 18 percent below its GDP level in the April-June quarter of 2008.

There is little doubt that the declines have been aggravated by a failure of political imagination. Confronted by budget deficits brought about by high levels of government borrowing and by the collapses of housing bubbles, the creation of a common currency has meant that indebted Eurozone economies have not been able to resort to a currency devaluation to gain a competitive edge. Consequently, the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund sought to impose an “internal devaluation” on these economies by forcing budget cuts to lower government deficits and wage cuts.

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It follows as the night the day that if budgets and wages are cut, the economy will shrink. Lower government spending due to budget cuts means welfare and pension benefits fall, the cost of health care rises, and educational opportunities vaporize. These impact far more adversely on the elderly and the young. With wage cuts, people have less money to spend and this will depress all sectors of the economy–as sales reduce because of lower spending, companies will slash their work forces leading to greater declines in sales and to further cuts in employment. In the most severely affected of the southern European economies, unemployment rates for the youth are already at 50 percent or more. By May 2012, unemployment in the euro zone had already reached 11.1 percent or 17.5 million people and the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that it would rise to almost 22 million in the next four years. And if the euro zone were to break up, the ILO estimates unemployment in the 17-state bloc could reach 17 percent.

The adverse conditions created by the stringent cuts mandated by the troika are aggravated by the greater interest rates imposed on the weaker economies by international financial markets–thus for instance, while Austrian banks and other financial institutions can borrow at 2 percent, Italian banks have to pay 6 percent. As these higher interest costs are passed on by the banks to their borrowers, the cost of doing business in Italy, Spain, Portugal, or Greece increases correspondingly and could even negate the wage cuts imposed by the troika!

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The effects of economic contraction will spread to the better performing economies. After all, Germany has been able to have a strong industrial sector because cheaper credit to other eurozone members had allowed them to buy German products while the German small-scale sector–which employs 60 percent of the country’s labor force–did not have to worry about currency movements in other European countries or fear that a strong German mark will price them out of the market in other countries.

As Susan Watkins has written, German lessons on debt repayment are especially galling to the Greeks.

Under the Nazi occupation, a hefty monthly payment was extracted from the Greek central bank to cover the Wehrmacht’s expenses; in March 1942 an additional forced loan of 476 million Reichsmarks was levied by the Axis powers. Greek partisans put up some of the toughest military resistance to the Nazis in Europe; the damage wreaked by the occupiers’ revenge was commensurate. Reprisals were exacted on the civilian population at a rate of fifty Greeks for every German killed. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed; forced exports and economic collapse helped bring about one of the worst famines in modern European history.

German occupation (strictly a tripartite occupation since the Italians and the Bulgarians also participated) of Greece also led to hyperinflation–Richard Clogg says it was

five thousand times more severe than the Weimar inflation of the early 1920s. Price levels in January 1946 were more than five trillion times those of May 1941. The exchange rate for the gold sovereign in the autumn of 1944, shortly after the liberation, stood at 170 trillion drachmas.

After the war, the question of German reparations were deferred till German reunification and in the so-called 2+4 (Bonn and Berlin with the US, the USSR, the UK and France) agreement of 1990, Greek claims were excluded. Though several Greek politicians including the current prime minister, Antonis Samaras when he was the foreign affairs minister in 1991, had raised the issue of 476 million marks with the Germans, their demands were summarily dismissed. If this money had, in fact, been paid as the Germans are legally obliged to do, with interest for more than half a century, Greece would no longer be a problem economy.

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It is galling too because while ancient historical myths as Greece being the ‘birthplace of democracy’ are routinely trotted out in discussions of the contemporary situation, recent history that people over 70 remember are carefully hidden from view! Be that as it may.

What is crucial is that the crisis demonstrates that capital and finance markets need to be regulated more stringently. It was irresponsible lending that led to high government deficits in Greece and to the housing bubbles in Spain and Ireland, to the subprime crisis in the US, and to the meltdown of the Icelandic economy to mention just the most obvious cases. Financial markets are continuing to demand punitive rates of interest from the weaker economies. The unchecked power of finance must be corralled–or we will enter another great depression just as the obsession with the gold standard led to the depression as Karl Polanyi showed in his Great Transformation.

What is required is a new political imagination not the shrill advocacy of measures that have already aggravated the situation!

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