austerity, Big Brother, budget deficit, citizenship, Debt/GDP Ratio, default, Europe, European sovereign debt crisis, Greece, Occupy Wall Street, politicians, remittance economy, tragedy of the commons, US, venality
Two key (related) themes echo through recent articles about the Greek sovereign debt crisis. I’ve the distinct & nagging feeling something’s missing here? Hmmm… Anyway, the first theme is the expression of outrage at Greek politicians, their profligate ways and their general shiftiness. Sure, it’s always fun to criticize politicians, but why bother really? What exactly did you expect of them? I’m bemused by the air of superiority displayed in some articles – nah, nah, nah, my politicians are better than yours! Rubbish, there’s nothing unique about Greek politicians in a global context – they’re just a little further down the road to hell…
Let’s think about what makes them tick: Well, they say politics is an unpredictable business – true, you just can’t second-guess stupidity sometimes. But otherwise, you mostly just need to consider the actors’ motivations. Depressingly, this seems to boil down to Money, Power, or both! OK, Duty’s another possibility – reluctant leaders are often the best leaders. But how often, in the past decade or two, have you seen a politician consistently serve out of a clear sense of duty?
Money’s the more obvious corrupting force. Sometimes I think I’d prefer a society where cash ‘bungs’ to politicians were a fact of life… What?! Well, at least you know exactly what you’re dealing with – personal venality. In more advanced economies, most politicians wouldn’t dream of being so crass as to accept a cash bribe these days. But I’d argue their citizens, particularly in the US, actually suffer a far higher danger/cost. It’s not difficult to trace the financial crisis back to politicians pandering to the lobbying power of the banking, sub-prime, construction & real estate sectors. The global economy’s still paying for that f**king catastrophe… And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Political (in-)action is now an eternal Pavlovian quest for political support, votes and (most of all) contributions. Do you really think a politician who’ll trade anything to gain/retain office is somehow less venal than one who just accepts a cold hard cash bribe?
I used to think there was a neat solution: Politicians should be required to prove they were millionaires before running for office..! Actually, decamillionaires, a million ain’t what it used to be. Occupy Wall Street would love this bloody idea, haha! But there’s a twisted logic – if politicians were personally wealthy, would it eliminate or at least reduce corruption? Perhaps the usual attributes associated with this type of ‘success’ might even translate into better administration? The trouble is, power is just as addictive as money…
I see this lust for power expressed in two predictable ways. The first needs little comment, it’s just another expression of venality – power is influence, and influence is money... The second – well, that’s a lot more petty. Buried inside every playground bully, milk monitor (?!), charity/sports organizer and/or general neighbourhood busybody is a budding politician. Golf club official’s the ideal pinnacle for many of these little f**kers Hitlers corporals, but some actually manage to move on to bigger things… These characters would gladly take the job unpaid, simply for the ministerial briefcase and the chance to regulate your entire bloody life!
So, how on earth can we arrest, or even just slow, this political degradation?
Well, traditionally, the media were the guardians of society. Sigh, let’s have a moment’s silence here… The absorption of the vast majority of the media into large public conglomerates is now virtually complete. And for these conglomerates, tacit domestic political support (partisan, or otherwise) inevitably makes far more financial sense than genuine political criticism & investigation. What am I saying?! Damn reality shows and celebrity ‘news’ make far more financial sense, actually..!
This just leaves citizens as the first & last line of defence.
Which brings me to the second theme expressed in so many recent articles: A creeping sympathy for the wrenching austerity the Greek populace has to endure. This is ridiculous, Greece is a democracy! In a democracy, citizens ultimately get exactly the government & the politicians they voted for, and which they deserve. To suggest otherwise is simply ludicrous. To simply blame the politicians for the hole Greece is now in…well, that’s like blaming McDonalds for obesity. Sure, fast-food chains (& food companies!) engage in plenty of deceptive practices – but it’s your hand that paid for & shoved that burger into your pie-hole, fat boy..!
This is not a criticism of Greeks as individuals – every Greek I’ve met has been honest, affable and most of all hard-working. But back home they’ve completely failed in their duty as good citizens. Yes, citizenship’s a rather quaint notion these days, I know. Even in the US – citizenship now appears to have mutated into a patriotic duty to just go shopping..?! High time people hit the library, and revisit some of those dusty old books – take your pick: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Paine, de Tocqueville, Mill, Thoreau and a host of others.
Yes, citizenship is a responsibility. It begins with paying your fair share of taxes – but tax collection, and evasion, seem to be a running joke in Greece. As a result, Greeks pay about 33% of GDP in taxes, between 5-8% of GDP less in taxes than the rest of the EU. Perhaps they just wanted smaller government? Admirable…but nowhere near the truth! Greek government spending has consistently matched the EU average (and is over 50% of GDP in the past few years). Rather than question how this gap would ever be closed, Greeks preferred to grow fat & happy in this fantasy world of benefits/spending. This collective delusion became so entrenched over the years, Greeks appear to believe they’re still entitled to this obscene level of expenditure. Isn’t that why they’re out in the streets rioting?
Look, I’m all for civilian disobedience, it’s a v healthy sign of true democracy (except when it’s the incoherent & spoiled Occupy Wall St movement). But when it comes to Greece, I’m forced to conclude the rioters are actually protesting…against themselves!? I mean, for every benefit & entitlement they fight to keep, who will suffer for it in the end? Yes, pretty much the v same Greek people! Hmm, maybe they’re just really ticked off at the evil bastard capitalists who lent all that money that was simply pissed away?
This is not how it’s supposed to be. Each individual’s responsible for their own finances – similarly, every citizen is charged with having a basic understanding of their nation’s finances. If you believe the politician who promises you whatever your greedy little heart desires, and who lies/promises you deficits & debt don’t matter, more fool you! I suppose you believe fat free ice-cream has zero calories too? We all know a politician’s job is to lie & pander, as a citizen it’s your job to disbelieve him…
When they come ’round to kiss your baby, and promise the same f**king moonshine all over again, how about asking a few tough questions? How about getting some real answers (& some actual facts) for a change? How about calling them to account, or even (permanently) voting out politicians who don’t deliver, or who simply lie? How about finding, fielding and/or supporting some responsible political candidates as some kind of goddamned alternative? How about some baby steps even – just turn off ‘Big Brother‘ and (try) find a real news programme to watch?
But maybe a swing away from the mainstream parties would be far easier? Left or right – go on, I dare you, see how that works out for you…
The other harsh reality is that Greece truly appears to be a failed nation. Even after the debt default(s), where’s the path to any kind of sustainable prosperity? A return to a new drachma & competitive devaluation? To what purpose? How many Greek exports did you come across & buy in the last year? The only obvious ‘export’ is tourism. God, there’ll be bargains galore – the punters will be pouring in, maybe even the Germans! Except… Greece is now in its 4th year of negative GDP growth, but prices still rose almost 3% a year during that time.
What kind of f**ked up economy manages that kind of economic feat?! It certainly suggests any debt or devaluation advantage for Greece will be quickly pissed away. The best I think Greece can ultimately hope for here – like all failed states – is to be a remittance economy. The best & brightest will leave the country, and send money home as they make a success of it elsewhere. Perhaps after 10-20 years they’ll return with thoughts of creating a new Greece?
But maybe I’m just completely missing the point in all of the above – perhaps there’s always been a nationwide Greek conspiracy to just stiff the creditors, and pay for it all that way? Shame on you..! What do I care, though, I wasn’t stupid enough to lend the money, or buy the debt. But what happens now? The day of reckoning’s arrived, and still Greece doesn’t want to face it. This isn’t about the politics of left or right, it’s just about simple math. The decade-long party was completely unaffordable, now it’s well & truly over and it’s time for the hangover – just suck it up, hair of the dog’s no longer the answer.
Shiver…I think a goose just walked over my grave. Was I really talking about Greece throughout this whole post? Or is this all just a foresight of things to come in Europe, or even the US (take a look at my posts on US Government Finance & Debt)? Greece seems like the roadmap & inevitable destination for too many advanced nations. But US & European politicians still pitch growth & fantasy, while citizens still clamour for lower taxes and insist on preserving all the benefits & entitlements they’ve been promised. Europe dithers while Rome (& Madrid) burns, despite possible lower-risk solution(s), and more & more EU nations pass that worrying 90-100% Debt-to-GDP threshold. And the US now seems to be running a semi-permanent annual 10% of GDP budget deficit, while its entitlement obligations loom ever larger & closer…
And as government grows ever more pervasive, our sense of responsibility as citizens, or even as individuals, seems to become ever more stunted. Look at US healthcare: When government, employers & insurance companies take over, citizens happily pig out at the trough. And I do mean literally – yeah, why not skip that exercise, and substitute another bucket of chicken instead? After all, there’s v little financial penalty for being (deliberately) unhealthy. And there’s always a pill or surgical palliative available for any resulting health problems anyway. Find it hard to believe people would be this (personally) irresponsible? Let’s go for a smoke, and talk about that some more…
More generally, this is all a tragedy of the commons run amok. Sit down with a citizen anywhere, one-on-one, and I’m sure you’ll hear some sense & solutions. But let them loose within society, and suddenly it’s every man for himself. Everybody oh so rationally wants to pay that little bit less, and just take that little bit more… What difference could it possibly make?! The net impact is so teeny-tiny! Yeah sure, until you multiply it a million-fold across the nation… Too many people can’t/won’t even think past next month – let alone plan for their future. That’s the bloody government’s job, isn’t it..?!
Well, no – as a citizen, it’s just as much your job too: Now what do you plan to do about it?