Monday, June 28, 2010

Europe’s Fiscal Dystopia: The “New Austerity” Road to Neoserfdom

Michael Hudson at

Somebody must take a loss on the economy's bad loans – and bankers want the economy to take the loss, to "save the financial system." From the financial sector's vantage point, the economy is to be managed to preserve bank liquidity, rather than the financial system run to serve the economy. Government social spending (on everything apart from bank bailouts and financial subsidies) and disposable personal income are to be cut back to keep the debt overhead from being written down. Corporate cash flow is to be used to pay creditors, not employ more labor and make long-term capital investment.

The economy is to be sacrificed to subsidize the fantasy that debts can be paid, if only banks can be "made whole" to begin lending again – that is, to resume loading the economy down with even more debt, causing yet more intrusive debt deflation.

This is not the familiar old 19th-century class war of industrial employers against labor, although that is part of what is happening. It is above all a war of the financial sector against the "real" economy: industry as well as labor.

The underlying reality is indeed that pensions cannot be paid – at least, not paid out of financial gains. For the past fifty years the Western economies have indulged the fantasy of paying retirees out of purely financial gains (M-M' as Marxists would put it), not out of an expanding economy (M-C-M', employing labor to produce more output). The myth was that finance would take the form of productive loans to increase capital formation and hiring. The reality is that finance takes the form of debt – and gambling. Its gains therefore were made from the economy at large. They were extractive, not productive. Wealth at the rentier top of the economic pyramid shrank the base below. So something has to give. The question is, what form will the "give" take? And who will do the giving – and be the recipients?

The Greek government has been unwilling to tax the rich. So labor must make up the fiscal gap, by permitting its socialist government to cut back pensions, health care, education and other social spending – all to bail out the financial sector from an exponential growth that is impossible to realize in practice. The economy is being sacrificed to an impossible dream. Yet instead of blaming the problem on the exponential growth in bank claims that cannot be paid, bank lobbyists – and the G-20 politicians dependent on their campaign funding – are promoting the myth that the problem is demographic: an aging population expecting Social Security and employer pensions. Instead of paying these, governments are being told to use their taxing and credit-creating power to bail out the financial sector's claims for payment.

Latvia has been held out as the poster child for what the EU is recommending for Greece and the other PIIGS: Slashing public spending on education and health has reduced public-sector wages by 30 percent, and they are still falling. Property prices have fallen by 70 percent – and homeowners and their extended family of co-signers are liable for the negative equity, plunging them into a life of debt peonage if they do not take the hint and emigrate.

The bizarre pretense for government budget cutbacks in the face of a post-bubble economic downturn is that it will help to rebuild "confidence." It is as if fiscal self-destruction can instill confidence rather than prompting investors to flee the euro. The logic seems to be the familiar old class war, rolling back the clock to the hard-line tax philosophy of a bygone era – rolling back Social Security and public pensions, rolling back public spending on education and other basic needs, and above all, increasing unemployment to drive down wage levels. This was made explicit by Latvia's central bank – which EU central bankers hold up as a "model" of economic shrinkage for other countries to follow.

It is a self-destructive logic. Exacerbating the economic downturn will reduce tax revenues, making budget deficits even worse in a declining spiral. Latvia's experience shows that the response to economic shrinkage is emigration of skilled labor and capital flight. Europe's policy of planned economic shrinkage in fact controverts the prime assumption of political and economic textbooks: the axiom that voters act in their self-interest, and that economies choose to grow, not to destroy themselves. Today, European democracies – and even the Social Democratic, Socialist and labour Parties – are running for office on a fiscal and financial policy platform that opposes the interests of most voters, and even industry.

The explanation, of course, is that today's economic planning is not being done by elected representatives. Planning authority has been relinquished to the hands of "independent" central banks, which in turn act as the lobbyists for commercial banks selling their product – debt. From the central bank's vantage point, the "economic problem" is how to keep commercial banks and other financial institutions solvent in a post-bubble economy. How can they get paid for debts that are beyond the ability of many people to pay, in an environment of rising defaults?

The answer is that creditors can get paid only at the economy's expense. The remaining economic surplus must go to them, not to capital investment, employment or social spending.

This is the problem with the financial view. It is short-term – and predatory. Given a choice between operating the banks to promote the economy, or running the economy to benefit the banks, bankers always will choose the latter alternative. And so will the politicians they support.

Governments need huge sums to bail out the banks from their bad loans. But they cannot borrow more, because of the debt squeeze. So the bad-debt loss must be passed onto labor and industry. The cover story is that government bailouts will permit the banks to start lending again, to reflate the Bubble Economy's Ponzi-borrowing. But there is already too much negative equity and there is no leeway left to restart the bubble. Economies are all "loaned up." Real estate rents, corporate cash flow and public taxing power cannot support further borrowing – no matter how much wealth the government gives to banks. Asset prices have plunged into negative equity territory. Debt deflation is shrinking markets, corporate profits and cash flow. The Miracle of Compound Interest dynamic has culminated in defaults, reflecting the inability of debtors to sustain the exponential rise in carrying charges that "financial solvency" requires.

If the financial sector can be rescued only by cutting back social spending on Social Security, health care and education, bolstered by more privatization sell-offs, is it worth the price? To sacrifice the economy in this way would violate most peoples' social values of equity and fairness rooted deep in Enlightenment philosophy.

That is the political problem: How can bankers persuade voters to approve this under a democratic system? It is necessary to orchestrate and manage their perceptions. Their poverty must be portrayed as desirable – as a step toward future prosperity.

A half-century of failed IMF austerity plans imposed on hapless Third World debtors should have dispelled forever the idea that the way to prosperity is via austerity. The ground has been paved for this attitude by a generation of purging the academic curriculum of knowledge that there ever was an alternative economic philosophy to that sponsored by the rentier Counter-Enlightenment. Classical value and price theory reflected John Locke's labor theory of property: A person's wealth should be what he or she creates with their own labor and enterprise, not by insider dealing or special privilege.

This is why I say that Europe is dying. If its trajectory is not changed, the EU must succumb to a financial coup d'êtat rolling back the past three centuries of Enlightenment social philosophy. The question is whether a break-up is now the only way to recover its social democratic ideals from the banks that have taken over its central planning organs.

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