Thursday, February 16, 2012

Layer 521 . . . Greek Tragedies, The Gods of Speculation, and the Markets

Oxzen has written previously about the world being run by "the markets" (meaning run by the people who control the vast majority of the wealth) and the fact that individual governments seem unable, playing by the current rules of capitalism and globalisation, to do anything except bow down to the power of "the markets". This is true even for massive entities such as the governments of the USA and the EU, which are afraid, very afraid, of "the markets".

This week "the markets" are back in the news, along with their Provisional wing, the credit rating agencies.

Moody's blues: George Osborne's wooing of the rating agencies turns sour
Osborne has been lavishing expensive gifts on the credit rating agencies. But now they have shown their capricious side
by Larry Elliott
Credit downgrade alert leaves George Osborne in a political fix
Inflation may be falling but the chancellor has only few options open to him after Moody's credit warning
by Larry Elliott

As Greece stares into the abyss, Europe must choose
The way out of the financial crisis faced by Greeks requires a choice about what kind of Europe we want
by Maria Margaronis
As I write, the Greek parliament is preparing to vote on the bond swap agreed with the country's private creditors and on the new deal with the EU and the IMF, which would lend the country €130bn in exchange for cuts that slice the last little bits of flesh from the economy – including a 22% reduction in the minimum wage and 150,000 public sector job losses by 2016. Without the deal, Greece will default by March; with it, the country will sink into a still deeper depression, with no end in sight. In a televised effort to rally the country behind yet more austerity, the finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, laid out a blunt choice between sacrifices and worse sacrifices, humiliation and still deeper humiliation, if Greece should default and leave the eurozone.
It's not clear, though, how many people were listening. Exhausted by interminable cliffhangers and last chances, many Greeks have turned off the terrorist soap opera of the TV news and are trying as best they can to get on with their lives. The misery to which Athenians have been reduced – the soup kitchens, the homelessness, the depression and suicides, the rising tide of poverty that's swallowing the middle class – is now a staple of the features pages. It's harder to describe the sense of pervasive breakdown that gets under the skin; the feeling of disorientation and lost identity that comes with the collapse of the assumptions people lived by and the stories they told themselves about the future and the past.
When you ask people on the street if they would rather Greece went bankrupt than submit to further measures, many now point out that it is already bankrupt, that public sector workers have gone unpaid for months, that hospitals have no supplies, that the poor are being wrung dry in order to pay the banks.
Why, then, have large sections of the Greek elite clung so hard to the fantasy that a new loan deal can "save" the country? The obvious answer is that default is a black hole and an enormous risk. No one can predict what suffering a default might bring. Another is that the current crop of politicians built their careers in the system that is now unravelling, based on oligarchies, clientelism and corruption; they've proved unwilling to make the reforms that might, in a different global climate, have revived both Greece's economy and its democracy.
The deeper reasons, though, may be cultural and political. The crisis has intensified old splits in Greek society. You can see it in the polls, which show support ebbing from the centre to the edges of the political spectrum, and especially to the fragmented left. You can see it, too, in the historical parallels people reach for in a vain attempt to name this unprecedented nightmare. Protesters chant slogans from the dictatorship of 1967 to 1974, comparing the deal's Greek enforcers with the CIA-backed junta. Both left and right talk about a new German occupation – an understandable reference given that Germany is calling the shots and that Greeks last queued at soup kitchens in the 1940s, but one that can edge into racism or crude exaggeration, as in a recent headline that read simply "Dachau". Both those tropes call up the silent ghosts of the Greek civil war, which launched the cold war in Europe and outlawed the Greek left for the next 30 years. In this story, the west plays the part of the repressive imperial interloper.
For the liberal centre, this is populist anathema. To them Europe is still Greece's heartland and its hope, the only guarantor of liberal capitalism, human rights and democracy.
The trouble with historical metaphors is that they can obscure the present: what's really at stake here is not Greece's identity but Europe's. All eyes are fixed on Athens, but the way out of the crisis requires a choice about what kind of Europe we want. The one we have now, with its deep structural inequalities and its rigid adherence to a failed economic ideology, protects neither democracy nor human rights. Stiff-necked and punitive, it prefers to eat its children.
Shame on Europe for betraying Greece
Capitalism is triumphant as EU states sacrifice the Greek people in a desperate attempt to appease the gods of speculation
by William Wall
The behaviour of the EU states towards Greece is inexplicable in the terms in which the EU defines itself. It is, first and foremost, a failure of solidarity.
The "austerity package", as the newspapers like to call it, seeks to impose on Greece terms that no people can accept. Even now the schools are running out of books. There were 40% cuts in the public health budget in 2010 – I can't find the present figure. Greece's EU "partners" are demanding a 32% cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22% cut for the over 25s. Already unemployment for 15-24-year-olds is 48% – it will have risen considerably since then. Overall unemployment has increased to over 20%. The sacking of public sector workers will add to it. The recession predicted to follow the imposition of the package will cause unbearable levels of unemployment at every level.
In addition the "package" demands cuts to pensions and public service pay, wholesale privatisation of state assets – a fire-sale, since the global market is close to rock bottom – and cuts to public services including health, social welfare and education. The whole to be supervised by people other than the Greeks. An entire disciplinary and punishment system.
When we casually use a term like "bailout", it is important to remember that it is not people who are being bailed out, or at least not the Greek people. The bailout will not save a single Greek life. The opposite is the case. What is being "bailed out" is the global financial system, including the banks, hedge funds and pension funds of the other EU member states, and it is the Greek people who are being ordered to pay – in money, time, physical pain, hopelessness and missed educational opportunities. The relatively neutral, even stoic, term "austerity", is a gross insult to the Greek people. This is not austerity; at best it is callousness.
On top of this callousness, we must remember that the strategy itself is nonsense. Every intelligent observer is agreed that cuts do not produce growth. The highest rate of growth in the EU at present is in Poland where massive public investment is driving the economy. GDP is declining or barely moving among the "austerity" nations, including the UK.
In essence, this crisis is a failure of the EU states to show solidarity in the face of an onslaught from the financial markets. At first glance this seems to be a very simple fight. In one corner you have nation states, which have the wellbeing of their citizens as their raison d'être; in the other you have global capitalism as represented by the financial markets, which has the wealth of a tiny few as its raison d'être. But the nation state has, for a considerable time, identified itself with those same markets. States have agreed to see themselves as economies rather than societies. More recently we have been led to believe that the market alone can provide everything the citizen needs and much more efficiently than the structures that the citizens normally rely on and which they have, over generations, erected as protections against the revenge of the market.
This is the triumph of capitalism, that it has persuaded the world that capitalism is the world.
It has led to the undoing of 200 years of struggle between ordinary people and the super-rich. Trade unions didn't appear overnight, they were a response to exploitation. Their defeat has led to the ubiquity of precarious, and now free, labour. Workers are not protected in their workplace by capitalists, they are protected by the laws won by struggle against the capitalist. A sweatshop in China is a direct assault not just on the rights of the Chinese worker but on those of workers in, for example, the UK. Socialist internationalism and solidarity were conceived as a way of defeating that ploy. Old people do not die in the streets not because charity has saved them but because 200 years of struggle has brought us the old age pension and public health. The privatisation of those services is a return to the 19th century. None of this public good would have been won if people had identified with the super-rich of 1812. Now that we have been brought to such an identification, we stand to lose them all over again.
Now we see capitalism at its most triumphant. Greek police beat Greek people in order to impose the will of the banks and hedge funds. The EU member states, including Ireland, are the middleman, the quislings of capital. Rather than reach out a hand of solidarity, we say, "better them than us". As if the global markets will choose to pass on Ireland once Greece has been destroyed. Solidarity is not just compassion for one's fellow man; it is also materialist self-interest. One for all and all for one. We stand or fall together. There is strength in unity.
Instead we have decided to sacrifice the Greek people to the market in the hope that our sacrifice will appease the gods of speculation. We condemn them to misery and poverty to keep Standard & Poor's off our backs. But we have miscalculated. Firstly, the communist left currently stands at 42% in the polls, Pasok at 8%. Pasok (the leading party in government) will vanish and a combination of real leftwing parties will win the next election. They will not bend the knee and put their necks on our block.
It seems to me now that Greece will withdraw from the euro and default on its debt. Who knows what will happen to it then, but it can hardly be much worse than what we want from them, and at least it will be something of their own choosing. The speculators will then take a little time to consider which of the other economies to bet on. Perhaps then the Irish government will regret its lack of solidarity. Whatever happens, our behaviour and that of our EU compatriots has been shameful.

Greece and the return of the economic 'death spiral'
The lesson of 2008 was that stimulus prevented a new Great Depression. Without similar drastic help, Greece will now default
by David Blanchflower
During the latter part of 2008, central bankers around the world worried secretly that the death spiral was approaching. The concern was that it was too late to stop economies crashing. In the event, concerted international action on both monetary and fiscal policy prevented collapse – although they did get pretty darn close to the precipice.
In the UK, then Chancellor Alistair Darling had only a few hours notice that the Royal Bank of Scotland was about to fail. The fear was that cash machines around the world would close, banks would fold and stock markets would tank within hours. This was a once-in-100-year shock: in my view, without such unprecedented intervention, unemployment rates in the US and Europe could well have risen to over 24% – which is where they are already in Greece and Spain.
Stimulus worked, simple as that.
On 9 February, the Hellenic statistical authority, which is Greece's central statistical office, published data on the labor market and industrial production (pdf), which suggests the Greek economy is headed over the cliff. This is a Great Depression for Greece and its 11 million inhabitants.
Without reforms to its product and labor markets, alongside the introduction of a fully-functioning tax system with enforced compliance, Greece has no future and is headed to inevitable default.
The only issue is, how disorderly will it be? It's not so much that the Greeks won't pay, it's that they can't. Greece remains uncompetitive.
For all the deals being signed in Athens and Brussels, the Greek people have worked out that they have no hope; protest and social unrest now looks a rational option to the ordinary people who are bearing the cost to bail out European banks. Cuts in the minimum wage right now are probably not very smart politics.
Greece does still have a card to play – which is "one down, all down". An exit from the euro would result in a depreciated drachma, which would potentially give a much needed boost to tourism. And that sounds better than all other alternatives currently on offer. There is still time for Germany's Angela Merkel to get out her cheque book; but otherwise, it's all over – and quite possibly very quickly.
This really is what a death spiral looks like.

And talking of tragedies - I give you the Sun newspaper/rag.

The front page yesterday had to be seen to be believed:

It's worse than on the website.

"Whitney's Death Bath - the First Images."

The bath in the photograph is still filled with the actual water in which tragic Whitney died. The bath photo shares the page with a photo of Whitney looking . . . somewhat . . . drowned.

Just when you think the bottom of the barrel has been well and truly scraped already . . .

But wait!

Also on the website -

40-stone Brenda is Britain’s fattest woman

I have to end this blog with something good and decent and inspiring.

Robby Krieger: soundtrack of my life
The former Doors guitarist talks about discovering rock'n'roll, blues and jazz and his memories of recording with Jim Morrison
Interview by Hermione Hoby

Still love that Crawlin' King Snake by the wonderful John Lee Hooker.


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