The New Left and Europe’s Future

Only a couple of days after the European Central Bank raised white flag and finally gave up its attempts at defending the euro as a strong, global currency, Greek voters drove their own dagger through the heart of the euro. Reports The Telegraph:

Greece set itself on a collision course with the rest of Europe on Sunday night after handing a stunning general election victory to a far-Left party that has pledged to reject austerity and cancel the country’s billions of pounds in debt. In a resounding rebuff to the country’s loss of financial sovereignty, With 92 per cent of the vote counted, Greeks gave Syriza 36.3 percent of the vote – 8.5 points more than conservative New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

That is about six percent more than most polls predicted. But even worse than their voter share is how the parliamentary system distributes mandates. The Telegraph again:

It means they will be able to send between 149 and 151 MPs to the 300-seat parliament, putting them tantalisingly close to an outright majority. The final result was too close to call – if they win 150 seats or fewer, they will have to form a coalition with one of several minor parties. … Syriza is now likely to become the first anti-austerity party in Europe to form a government. … The election victory threatens renewed turmoil in global markets and throws Greece’s continued membership of the euro zone into question. All eyes will be on the opening of world financial markets on Monday, although fears of a “Grexit” – Greece having to leave the euro – and a potential collapse of the currency has been less fraught than during Greece’s last general election in 2012.

It does not quite work that way. The euro is under compounded pressure from many different elements, one being the Greek economic crisis. The actions by the ECB themselves have done at least as much to undermine the euro: its pledge last year to buy all treasury bonds from euro-zone governments that the market wanted to sell was a de facto promise to monetize euro-denominated government debt. The EU constitution, in particular its Stability and Growth Pact, explicitly forbids debt and deficit monetization. By so blatantly violating the constitution, the ECB undermined its own credibility.

Now the ECB has announced that in addition to debt monetization, it will monetize new deficit. That was the essence of the message this past Thursday. The anti-constitutionality of its own policies was thereby solidified; when the Federal Reserve ran its multi-year Quantitative Easing program it never violated anything other than sound economic principles. If the ECB so readily violates the Stability and Growth Pact, then who is to say it won’t violate any other of its firmly declared policy goals? When euro-zone inflation eventually climbs back to two percent – the ECB’s target value – how can global investors trust the ECB to then turn on anti-inflationary policies?

Part of the reason for the Stability and Growth Pact was that the architects of the European Union wanted to avoid runaway monetary policy, a phenomenon Europeans were all too familiar with from the 1960s and ’70s. Debt and deficit monetization is a safe way to such runaway money printing. What reasons do we have, now, to believe that the ECB will stick to its anti-inflationary pledge when the two-percent inflation day comes?

This long-winded explanation is needed as a background to the effects that the Syriza victory may have on the euro. I am the first to conclude that those effects will be clearly and unequivocally negative, but as a stand-alone problem for the ECB the Greek hard-left turn is not enough. In a manner of speaking, the ECB is jeopardizing the future of the euro by having weakened the currency with reckless monetary expansionism to the point where a single member-state election can throw the future of the entire currency union into doubt.

Exactly how the end of the euro will play out remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is that Thursday’s deficit-monetization announcement and the Greek election victory together put the euro under lethal pressure. The deficit-monetization pledge is effectively a blank check to countries like Greece to go back to the spend-to-the-end heydays. Since the ECB now believes that more deficit spending is good for the economy, it has handed Syriza an outstanding argument for abandoning the so-deeply hated austerity policies that the ECB, the EU and the IMF have imposed on the country. The Telegraph again:

[Syriza], a motley collection of communists, Maoists and socialists, wants to roll back five years of austerity policies and cancel a large part of Greece’s 320 billion euro debt, which at more than 175 per cent of GDP is the world’s second highest proportional to the size of the economy after Japan. … If they fulfil the threats, Greece’s membership of the euro zone could be in peril. Mr Tsipras has toned down the anti-euro rhetoric he used during Greece’s last election in 2012 and now insists he wants Greece to stay in the euro zone. Austerity policies imposed by the EU and International Monetary Fund have produced deep suffering, with the economy contracting by a quarter, youth unemployment rising to 50 per cent and 200,000 Greeks leaving the country.

Youth unemployment was up to 60 percent at the very depth of the depression. Just a detail. The Telegraph concludes by noting that:

Mr Tsipras has pledged to reverse many of the reforms that the hated “troika” of the EU, IMF and European Central Bank have imposed, including privatisations of state assets, cuts to pensions and a reduction of the minimum wage. But the creditors have insisted they will hold Greece to account and expect it to stick to its austerity programmes, heralding a potentially explosive showdown.

Again, with the ECB’s own Quantitative Easing program it becomes politically and logically impossible for the Bank and its two “troika” partners to maintain that Greece should continue with austerity. You cannot laud government deficit spending with one side of your mouth while criticizing it with the other.

As a strictly macroeconomic event, the ECB’s capitulation on austerity is not bad for Greece. The policies were not designed to lift the economy out of the ditch. They were designed to make big government more affordable to a shrinking private-sector economy. However, a return to government spending on credit is probably the only policy strategy that could possibly have even worse long-term effects than statist austerity.

Unfortunately, it looks like that is exactly where Greece is heading. Syriza’s “vision” of reversing years of welfare-state spending cuts is getting a lot of support from various corners of Europe’s punditry scene. For example, in an opinion piece at Euractiv.com, Marianna Fotaki, professor of business ethics at University of Warwick, England, claims that the Syriza victory gives Europe a chance to “rediscover its social responsibility”:

Greece’s entire economy accounts for three per cent of the eurozone’s output, but its national debt totals 360 billion or 175 per cent of the country’s GDP and poses a continuous threat to its survival. While the crippling debt cannot realistically be paid back in full, the troika of the EU, European Central Bank, and IMF insist that the drastic cuts in public spending must continue. But if Syriza is successful – as the polls suggest – it promises to renegotiate the terms of the bailout and ask for substantial debt forgiveness, which could change the terms of the debate about the future of the European project.

As I explained recently, so called “debt forgiveness” means that private-sector investors lose the same amount of money. The banks that received such generous bailouts earlier in the Great Recession had made substantial investments in Greek government debt. Would Professor Fotaki like to see those same banks lose even more money? With the new bank-rescue feature introduced as the Cyprus Bank Heist, such losses would lead to confiscation of the savings that regular families have deposited in their savings accounts.

Would professor Fotaki consider that that to be an ethically acceptable consequence of her desired Greek debt “forgiveness”?

Professor Fotaki then goes on a long tirade to make the case for more income redistribution within the euro zone:

The immense social cost of the austerity policies demanded by the troika has put in question the political and social objectives of an ‘ever closer union’ proclaimed in the EU founding documents. … Since the economic crisis of 2007 … GDP per capita and gross disposable household incomes have declined across the EU and have not yet returned to their pre-crisis levels in many countries. Unemployment is at record high levels, with Greece and Spain topping the numbers of long-term unemployed youth. There are also deep inequalities within the eurozone. Strong economies that are major exporters have benefitted from free trade, and the fixed exchange rate mechanism protecting their goods from price fluctuations. But the euro has hurt the least competitive economies by depriving them of a currency flexibility that could have been used to respond to the crisis. Without substantial transfers between weaker and stronger economies, which accounts for only 1.13 per cent of the EU’s budget at present, there is no effective mechanism for risk sharing among the member states and for addressing the consequences of the crisis in the eurozone.

In other words, Europe’s welfare statists will continue to blame the common currency for the consequences of statist austerity. But while professor Fotaki does have a point that the euro zone is not nearly an optimal currency area, the problems that she blames on the euro zone are not the fault of the common currency. Big government is a problem wherever it exists; in the case of the euro zone, big government has caused substantial deficits that, in turn, the European political leadership did not want to accept – and the European constitution did not allow. To battle those deficits the EU, the ECB and the IMF imposed harsh austerity policies on Greece among several other countries. But countries can subject themselves to those policies without being part of a currency union: Denmark in the 1980s is one example, Sweden in the ’90s another. (I have an entire chapter on the Swedish ’90s crisis in my book Industrial Poverty.) The problem is the structurally unaffordable welfare state, not the currency union.

Professor Fotaki again:

The member states that benefitted from the common currency should lead in offering meaningful support, rather than decimating their weaker members in a time of crisis by forcing austerity measures upon them. This is not denying the responsibility for reckless borrowing resting with the successive Greek governments and their supporters. However, the logic of a collective punishment of the most vulnerable groups of the population, must be rejected.

What seems to be so difficult to understand here is that austerity, as designed for Greece, was not aimed at terminating the programs that those vulnerable groups life off. It was designed to make those programs fit a smaller tax base. If Europe’s political leaders had wanted to terminate those programs and leave the poor out to dry, they would simply have terminated the programs. But their goal was instead to make the welfare state more affordable.

It is an undeniable fact that the politicians and economists who imposed statist austerity on Greece did so without being aware of the vastly negative consequences that those policies would have for the Greek economy. For example, the IMF grossly miscalculated the contractionary effects of austerity on the Greek economy, a miscalculation their chief economist Olivier Blanchard – the honorable man and scholar he is – has since explained and taken responsibility for.

Nevertheless, the macroeconomic miscalculations and misunderstandings that have surrounded statist austerity since 2010 (when it was first imposed on Greece) do not change the fact that the goal of said austerity policies was to reduce the size of government to fit a smaller economy. That was a disastrous intention, as shown by experience from the Great Recession – but it was nevertheless their goal. However, as professor Fotaki demonstrates with her own rhetoric, this point is lost on the welfare statists whose only intention now is to restore the welfare state to its pre-crisis glory:

The old poor and the rapidly growing new poor comprise significant sections of Greek society: 20 per cent of children live in poverty, while Greece’s unemployment rate has topped 20 per cent for four consecutive years now and reached almost 27 per cent in 2013. With youth unemployment above 50 per cent, many well-educated people have left the country. There is no access to free health care and the weak social safety net from before the crisis has all but disappeared. The dramatic welfare retrenchment combined with unemployment has led to austerity induced suicides and people searching for food in garbage cans in cities.

There is nothing wrong factually in this. The Greek people have suffered enormously under the heavy hand of austerity, simply because the policies that aim to save the welfare state for them also move the goal post: higher taxes and spending cuts drain the private sector of money, shrinking the very tax base that statist austerity tries to match the welfare state with.

The problem is in what the welfare statists want to do about the present situation. What will be accomplished by increasing entitlement spending again? Greek taxpayers certainly cannot afford it. Is Greece going to get back to deficit-funded spending again? Professor Fotaki gives us a clue to her answer in the opening of her article: debt forgiveness. She wants Greece to unilaterally write down its debt and for creditors to accept the write-down without protest.

The meaning of this is clear. Greece should be able to restore its welfare state to even more unaffordable levels without the constraints and restrictions imposed by economic reality. This is a passioned plea for a new debt crisis: who will lend money to a government that will unilaterally write down its debt whenever it feels it cannot pay back what it owes?

This kind of rhetoric from the emboldened European left rings of the same contempt for free-market Capitalism that once led to the creation of the modern welfare state. The welfare state, in turn, brought about debt crises in many European countries during the 1980s and ’90s, in response to which the EU created its Stability and Growth Pact. But the welfare states remained and gradually eroded the solidity of the Pact. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the European economy would have absorbed it and shrugged it off as yet another recession – just as it did in the early ’90s – had not the welfare state been there. Welfare-state created debt and deficits had already stretched the euro-zone economy thin; all it took to sink Europe into industrial poverty and permanent stagnation was a quickly unfolding recession.

Ironically, the state of stagnation has been reinforced by austerity policies that were designed in compliance with the Stability and Growth Pact; by complying with the Pact, those policies, it was said, would secure the macroeconomic future of the euro zone and keep the euro strong. Now those policies have led the ECB to a point where it has destroyed the future of its own currency.