Dorothea Lange Salvation Army, San Francisco, California. Unemployed young men 1939
There are many things going on in the Greece vs Institutions+Germany negotiations, and many more on the fringe of the talks, with opinions being vented left and right, not least of all in the media, often driven more by a particular agenda than by facts or know-how.
What most fail to acknowledge is to what extent the position of the creditor institutions is powered by economic religion, and that is a shame, because it makes it very difficult for the average reader and viewer to understand what happens, and why.
Greek FinMin Yanis Varoufakis has often complained that he can’t get the finance ministers and others to discuss economics. As our mutual friend Steve Keen put it:
Steve Keen said the finance minister was frustrated with the progress of Greece’s talks with the euro zone, adding Varoufakis had compared the talks to dealing with “divorce lawyers”. Keen said the finance ministers of Europe refused to discuss certain euro policies, according to Varoufakis. [..] When asked what [Varoufakis and he] mainly discuss at the moment, Keen said, “Mainly his frustration, the fact that the one thing that he can’t discuss with the finance ministers of Europe is economics..”
“He goes inside, he is expected to be discussing what the economic impact of the policies of the euro are and how to get a better set of policies, living within the confines of the euro and the entire European Union system, and he said they simply won’t discuss it. He said it is like walking into a bunch of divorce lawyers, it is not anything like what you think finance ministers should be talking about..”
They won’t discuss these things because they have found religion, in the sense that there is for them only one truth, to the exclusion of all others. They toe the preconceived line, because if they didn’t they would lose their positions.
They are undoubtedly also very hesitant to discuss economics with Varoufakis because they are aware of his prowess in the field. They are much less knowledgeable, which makes it tempting to hide behind numbers, behind Germany, and behind their faith that their views are the only right ones. Which is precisely what Varoufakis challenges.
You won’t see the Pope in a muslim prayer five times daily with his face to Mecca, or an imam celebrating Holy Mass. And that’s sort of alright, there’s nothing that says everyone should have the same religion. But when it comes to a field such as economics, and certainly when multi-trillion dollar decisions are being taken, and people in the streets are already going broke and hungry, that is definitely not alright.
The number one priority under such circumstances absolutely must be to find a solution, find it fast, and alleviate the suffering. Not to push through any particular policy or vision. Now, you can accuse Greece of not doing that, and the institutions and their pundits in the press do that on a 24/7 basis, but that view lacks substance.
The institutions demand more austerity measures for Greece, whereas it’s plain to see that austerity is what has led to the misery of the people. In particular, pensions cuts are apparently still a point neither side wants to give in on. But not only have Greek pensions already been cut by 40% or so, they are the last straw for many entire families.
Which means the entire pension system would need to be thoroughly reformed, not just pensions cut, or more, and more widespread, misery is in the offing. And there simply is no time to achieve that thorough reform before Greek repayment deadlines set in. Don’t forget, the entire Syriza government hasn’t been able (allowed) to do anything but negotiate. And is then accused of not doing enough.
This inflexible insistence on more austerity, and hence more misery, for the Greek people, is a good example of how religion driven the IMF, EU and ECB are. As I’ve written many times, it’s about power, not about money; it wouldn’t cost all that much, but could achieve a lot, to let Greeks off the austerity hook for a bit. All it takes is flexibility when entering the negotiations. But there ain’t much of that, if any, on the creditors’ side.
Which is why this Bloomberg piece on the IMF’s ‘enforcer’ for Greece Poul Thomsen should bring a smile to our faces.
A former IMF colleague of Thomsen’s, Ashoka Mody, last month in a Bloomberg View column called for the fund to “recognize its responsibility for the country’s predicament” and forgive much of Greece’s debt. There’s little sign that the IMF and Thomsen might bend the rules or cross their red lines now. While some issues such as short-term budget targets may be negotiable, the fund’s position is that any Greek agreement must bring debt down to sustainable levels and include concrete commitment to reforms, especially cuts to public pensions.
“We are open to new ideas and different ways to achieve a country’s economic goals. We are a pragmatic institution,” Thomsen said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “But we also need to be mindful of economic realities. At the end of the day it needs to add up. And we need to ensure that we treat our member states equally, that we apply our rules uniformly.”
For all we know that’s even the way he sees things. But the IMF is neither a flexible nor a beneficial institution. It’s a power tool for the wealthy. The philosophy behind the institutions’ view of the negotiations, and indeed their entire view of economics in general, is constructed to follow the preferences of the wealthy, who have a strong vested interest in centralized control over just about everything, because more centralization makes it easier for them to exert this control.
Syriza getting its way on reforms doesn’t fit in that picture; before you know more parties want some say in their futures too. Most of all, though, different ideas on economics in general cannot be accepted. Everybody has to follow the IMF line of ‘reforms’, asset sales, privatizations, labor protection and austerity. Certainly everyone who owes the Fund money. That’s its ultimate power tool.
That the EU follows that line merely means it’s and immoral and amoral institution, and a union only in name. The ECB follows the IMF line on economics, which means there’s no room for aberrant views, no matter how well founded and thought through. There’s no place in there for people like Varoufakis, or Steve Keen.
It’s not about knowledge or brilliance, it’s about keeping the faith, because that keeps the power where it’s at. Yeah, there’s a hint of Galileo in there somewhere. The ‘philosophy’ is neo-liberal mixed with let’s say, Keynes-for-the-rich, aka QE.
A nice example of how the IMF operates, and how far its power tentacles reach, came in a Guardian piece on Chapter 11 bankruptcy for countries, and why Argentina took its case to the UN, not the IMF:
When Argentina tabled a motion calling for the UN to examine the issue of sovereign debt restructuring last autumn, 124 countries voted for it; 11, including the UK and the US, with their powerful financial lobbies, voted against; and there were 41 abstentions. Llorenti, who is chairing the UN “ad hoc committee” set up as a result of that vote, says the 11 countries that objected hold 45% of the voting power at the IMF. He believes they would prefer the matter to be tackled there, where they can shape the arguments: “It’s a matter of control, really.”
Another thing I‘ve said before is that the IMF is a prime example of why we should steer away from supra-national organizations. We can’t make them run for our own benefit, they invariably end up being run for the benefit of the few, because their inherent lack of transparency and democracy makes them an irresistible target for sociopathic individuals, who seek control, not democracy, and for the elites whose interests they invariably end up representing.
There’s the World Bank, NATO, the IMF, the EU. The UN is somewhat more democratic, but only somewhat. Behind the veil it’s not at all.
Amongst the European finance minsters there should still be a few who may have doubts about what’s happening to Greece, what’s being demanded of it. And who realize that the purely political decision to bail out the banks that had lent to Greece, and shove their debts into the lap of all Europeans, who in turn pushed it right back into Greece’s lap, is at best highly questionable.
If these Europeans want to save their union, they need to be told that what they’re doing right now is the exact wrong way to go about that, 180º wrong. What happens today is not holding or pulling the member states together, it’s driving them apart.
Perhaps it is indeed ultimately a choice between the banks and the people. And perhaps it scares them stiff not to choose the banks. With their limited knowledge of how economies function, they must believe the story of how everything will fall to pieces if the banks fail. Besides, if they question it, they’re out.
But economics cannot be a religion, it cannot have this inflexibility and resistance to change. And neither can politics, not if we want our unions, our countries and our societies to survive, if we want to survive, and our children. Economics is not a science, though it very much longs for that status. It shouldn’t be a religion either, however.
There is nothing that says, or proves, that bailing out banks and forcing austerity on people (note the combination) is the best, or only, way to rescue an economy in trouble. That austerity is the way to rebuild an economy. These are mere ideas, conceived by people who studied textbooks.
What Greece is asking for is a simple bottom beneath its society, lest it completely falls to bits, lest all it’s left with is some right wing movement or another. But instead, the institutions’ approach to economics, to democracy and to power look to make a true solution for the Greek problem impossible.
That in turn would seem to make a Grexit, in some shape or another, the only way left to go. Why would anyone want to live in a world dominated by religious fanatics and their henchmen?
Finally, as for what the euro, and hence the eurozone, were intended to do, here’s Greg Palast from 2012, talking about father of the euro, Robert Mundell:
“It’s very hard to fire workers in Europe,” he complained. His answer: the euro. The euro would really do its work when crises hit, Mundell explained. Removing a government’s control over currency would prevent nasty little elected officials from using Keynesian monetary and fiscal juice to pull a nation out of recession.
“It puts monetary policy out of the reach of politicians,” he said. “[And] without fiscal policy, the only way nations can keep jobs is by the competitive reduction of rules on business.” He cited labor laws, environmental regulations and, of course, taxes. All would be flushed away by the euro. Democracy would not be allowed to interfere with the marketplace – or the plumbing. [..]
The supply-side economics pioneered by Mundell became the theoretical template for Reaganomics – or as George Bush the Elder called it, “voodoo economics”: the magical belief in free-market nostrums that also inspired the policies of Mrs Thatcher.
Mundell explained to me that, in fact, the euro is of a piece with Reaganomics: “Monetary discipline forces fiscal discipline on the politicians as well.” And when crises arise, economically disarmed nations have little to do but wipe away government regulations wholesale, privatize state industries en masse, slash taxes and send the European welfare state down the drain.