Monday, February 15, 2010

Global Hoovermania

The national debt crisis in Greece is an example of a case where a combination of Eurozone rules and financial market pressure will force huge cuts in public spending, damaging both living standards and delaying economic recovery.  On Sunday, the New York Times reported that some of Greece's hidden debt was concealed courtesy of instruments sold to it by Goldman Sachs in 2001.  In November 2009, Goldman Sachs tried to do it again. The Financial Times reported today that EU authorities have requested information about the swaps.

Greece's national debt is over 100% of its annual GDP.  But this is not so horribly out of line with other countries, as can be seen at left and here.

"High" debt is a matter of interpretation, and 40 years of attacks on the existence of government, the public sector, and public debt as a source of public investments has greatly reduced the markets' tolerance for debt levels that are still well below what seemed normal in times of crisis like World War II. Markets put up with high debt levels during war.  If we were serious about, say, decarbonization, we would run 200-300% deficits in gigantic crash programs in solar power, total transportation system reengineering, weatherproofing every building on the planet, you name it, so that there will be great-great grandchilren around to pay the debt we left them.

The interpretation of debt levels as too high is threatening the recovery, since it will force governments to cut spending when they should be increasing it.  This is the plan for Greece, the famous land of Generation 800 Euros (youth salaries per month) and meager economic development outside of coastal estates built on land removed from government protection by arson-set forest fires.

Government employment is a pillar of the middle class everywhere in the world.  It is also being squeezed everywhere: in Sacramento, California, a moron's consensus reigns on the virtues of cutting state employee salaries 5%.  In all countries, public service employment is the crucial gateway to the middle class -- as it was in the United States from the 1940s to the 1960s, for African Americans in particular who faced ongoing discrimination in the private sector. Countries like Argentina that were forced into IMF-style austerity programs that slashed the public sector have one common feature: an incredible shrinking middle class.

Most pundits seem to have learned nothing in all these years. Thomas Friedman recently contrasted two years in the Middle East. 1977 was good -- neoliberal policies implemented in Egypt by Sadat.  1979 was bad -- the Iranian revolution, Whahabi-reaction in Saudi Arabian Islam, etc.  But "liberalization" and "modernization" were themselves the source of the radicalization of mass Islam that Friedman deplores.  They impoverished the great majority in Egypt, ruined Cairo's public systems for starters (on my recent trip there an archictectural institute informed me that 60% of Cairo's housing is "informal" - built by occupants because the private and public sectors both refuse.) 

Krugman points out that the bigger debt problem in the Eurozone is Spain. But for some reason he spends his column attacking the very idea of a single currency in a variable region rather than attacking austerity politics, though he knows in the U.S. case that the focus on debt will kill the recovery.

Since the world needs both recovery and stable currency and debt arrangements across diverse national economies - both of which the financial system has not delivered - Krugman et al. need to figure out how to avoid screwing the populations of countries like Greece.  The world has to learn how Greece can have a modern, efficient, green infrastructure with its current economy, and then discover how to provide the same to about 130 other countries that are in even greater need.

If the EU can't fix Greece, it can't fix anything that needs fixing.

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