Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Greek Debt Crisis and the psychology of post-modernization

As I write this post, the Greek government faces a deadline. It needs money from its European partners to counter capital flight from its banks, meet the demand of its creditors, and funds its activities.  The two sides disagree both on the terms of bailout, for example should the EU extend the maturity of Greek bonds, and on how Greece should restructure its economy and fiscal policy to regain its creditors’ and partners’ confidence. The Greek government, under the leadership of the left wing party, Syriza, raised the minimum wage, froze privatization and rehired public servants, all steps which contravened its partners’ demands for restructuring and austerity.  But Syriza was elected on a platform of resisting European imposed austerity and for good reason. Greek privation is significant. As of January 2015 the economy had shrunk by more than a quarter, incomes collapsed by nearly a third, and one in four Greeks — and one in two young people - were unemployed.
It is clear that an austerity program, even if successfully implemented will not help Greece significantly reduce a government debt of over 400 billion.  In 2013 Greece ran an export surplus of 1 billion. If it met its partners’ criteria of running a primary budget surplus equal to 4.5% of GDP, which is about 250 billion, its budget surplus would be about 11 billion. Adding the two numbers together, the export surplus and the government surplus, and assuming for simplicity that the value of the debt does not grow, it would take, 400/12, or 33 years at current levels of economic activity for Greece to pay off its debt. As Paul Krugman writes, “at this point Greek not a very meaningful number. After all, the great bulk of the debt is now officially held, the interest rate bears little relationship to market prices, and the interest payments come in part out of funds lent by the creditors. In a sense the debt is an accounting fiction; it’s whatever the governments trying to dictate terms to Greece decide to say it is.”
Moreover, as many economists have written, targeting the budget deficit as signal of the Greece’s fiscal discipline is misplaced, because when a government reduces spending, the economy contracts, taxes collected fall, unemployment benefits rise and the deficit may in fact grow, as happened from 2008 through 2010
                                                       Greece Government Budget

So what is the meaning of the political and economic pressure the EU has imposed on Greece? One conventional narrative is that the pressure reflects the unfair demands of a German government, ready to punish the Greeks for their profligate spending between 2000 and the Great Recession. In that period, Greek households borrowed money to import goods and services from the rest of Europe. Living standards rose but so did household debt. Moreover, in that same period, investment was limited and imports were greater than exports. In effect, as happened in the United States during the run-up to the sub-prime housing crisis, growth was fueled by debt.
But, so the story continues, consumer spending grew because cheap German loans financed Greek borrowing. The Euro's creation as a common currency in 1999 meant that lenders to Greek banks no longer faced a currency risk; the risk that at one time the Greek Drachma would depreciate as Greek consumers imported goods and services from the rest of Europe. Moreover, at the turn of this century, Germany itself went through its own difficult economic period. Called at the time the “sick man of Europe,” it experienced a recession, partly in response to the IT bubble of the late 90’s. Instead of spending, German companies and households focused on rebuilding their balance sheets, becoming net savers. German lenders therefore looked for new borrowers and Greek households were ready to take on new debt. So Germany, in this narrative, is responsible for Greek profligacy!
There is some truth to this story but I think it is too one-sided, creating a stereotype of the German as an oppressor without a moral claim, a familiar cultural trope, to match the stereotype of the Mediterranean Greek as lazy and profligate.
So, what in fact is at stake, and what accounts for the difficulty, severity and at times intractable conflict between Greece and its partners? As I write this post, the New York Times reports that, “Far from giving Greece a break, the Governing Council (of the European Central Bank) is expected to tighten the screws next Wednesday by placing further restrictions on emergency cash the central bank provides to keep the Greek banking system from collapsing.” I propose that we need to symbolize the situation as a Russian doll, where one level of reality gains its salience from the context that subsumes it.  We cannot understand the debt crisis without considering its widest meaning.
Consider for example that one simple solution to the Greek crisis is to allow Greece to implicitly default on its bonds, for example, by extending their maturity, reducing the interest rate, asking private creditors to take a “haircut,” linking principal payment to Greece’s GDP growth, and enabling the Greek banks to borrow money from the European Central bank (ECB) using devalued Greek government bonds as collateral. This would be a default in all but name. In fact, private creditors have already taken a substantial cut, and the ECB had accepted Greek government debt as collateral for Greek bank loans until this past February.  
But calling it a default, as opposed to a restructuring, suggests that the European Central Bank (ECB) has become a “lender of last resort” to all banks and private creditors who hold devalued sovereign bonds. This was the role the U.S. Federal Reserve bank played as a lender to those U.S. banks and financial institutions whose assets evaporated in the subprime crisis.  But if the ECB keeps public and private creditors whole, this means each European country becomes in effect “too big to fail.” The anxiety is that countries and their creditors will then experience few constraints to lending and borrowing in the future. This is why on Monday, May 11 the ECB stated explicitly that the, “Bank cannot act as a lender of last resort to countries in the Eurozone.”
This anxiety helps explain why in fact the “Troika”—the European Central Bank (ECB), the International Monetary fund (IMF), and the European financial stability facility (EFSF), insists that Greece restructure its economy before it gets its next tranche of aid, some €7.2 billion, even though, as one analyst notes, “Compared to what has already been disbursed, the 7.2 billion euros are a small amount.” In other words, the financial stakes are not high. Moreover, as he points out, the value of Greek’s maturing debt spikes this year, 2015, and then stabilizes through 2033. “It is thus surprising,” he notes, “that the Euro zone governments and the ECB put the whole exposure of their citizens to Greece at risk just for this issue.”
Moreover, the Eurozone governments, particularly Germany and France, have taken steps to reduce their own banks’ exposure to Greek public debt. As the French Finance Minister noted, “We have learned to build walls to protect ourselves, to protect the banking system to protect other countries which could become fragile. So Europe is much stronger. Europe has sheltered itself from turbulence. The danger is for Greece.”
In this sense the overhang of Greek debt has become a symbol, rather than the measure of a substantial financial risk.  But a symbol of what? One hypothesis is that should the European Central Bank become officially and explicitly a lender of last resort, supporting deficit spending countries, the prime minister of Germany, Angela Merkel, worries that the German people’s commitment to the grand European experiment of a single currency will weaken. One survey showed that Germans’ support of economic integration across Germany fell five percentage points between 2012 and 2013. Support in France fell fourteen percentage points!  I believe that Merkel’s personal commitment to the European project of integration is inviolate, and not for economic reasons alone. It has been a vehicle for strengthening the democratic practices of the post-Soviet Eastern European countries. It is also a symbol of a democratic capitalism at a time when China and Russia are developing the practices of an authoritarian version. 
But the economic difficulties facing Greece, Portugal and Spain are undermining Germans’ belief in the viability of an integrated Europe.  Indeed, should Greece’s debt be forgiven, or should it in fact exit from the Eurozone, “The German people," one analyst writes, would discover instantly that a large sum of money committed without their knowledge and without a vote in the Bundestag had vanished. Events would confirm what citizens already suspect, that they have been lied to by their political class about the true implications of ECB support for southern Europe, and they would strongly suspect that Greece is not the end of it. This would happen at a time when the anti-euro party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), is bursting on to the political scene, breaking into four regional assemblies, a sort of German UKIP nipping at the heels of Angela Merkel.”
But should Greece default, would the Germans incur substantial losses on both private and public debt? Are their anxieties based on the prospect of material losses?  I suggest again that the threat to Germany is more symbolic than real.  During the normal course of business the Bundesbank is exposed to claims on Greek banks, as all the central banks of Europe net out their claims on each other every day. Like the Federal Reserve Bank, the ECB is the clearing and settlement house for all central banks. Writing in December of 2014, one writer notes, that Bundesbank claims on the ECB system as a whole, “Have jumped from €443bn in July to €515bn (though down from €750 in 2012-LH). He writes, “Most of this is due to capital outflows from Greek banks into German banks, either through direct transfers or indirectly through Switzerland, Cyprus and Britain.” To be sure, this represents 14% of Germany’s GDP, through in the event of the collapse of the Eurozone, Germany would be liable for only 27% of the debt, or 3% of its GDP. But should the Eurozone remain intact, as is most likely, these claims, as The Economist notes, “are merely bookkeeping entries.”  The ECB can effectively print Euros through Quantitative Easing, buying soverign debt to cover its central banks’ liabilities. Strikingly, while yields on short term Greek Government debt are very high, the yield on its ten-year bond has fallen over the past month, while the yields on other sovereign debt within the Eurozone have risen only slightly. The bond market is not panicked about the long run. 
Let me propose the following hypothesis. The sense of the Euro’s fragility is linked to fears that the European project of integration and modernization, writ large and beyond finance, is losing its legitimacy.  Indeed, from 1974 to 2004 belief  among Europeans in the European Union as a “good thing” declined. 

What is the basis for these feelings? One scholar suggests that Europeans increasingly resist the union because it has developed undemocratic practices of governance, that there is a "democracy deficit."  She writes, “In democracies public policy requires the ability to generate and sustain consent among the ones who are affected by a generally binding decision. Without such consent the European project will remain fragile. Besides, growing skeptical views on the European union will reduce the willingness of citizens to support the European integration process and to show solidarity throughout Europe” (p. 115). It is important to note in this regard, as two authors write, “Few nations sought popular support to create the euro. The German leadership avoided a referendum, and in France, the Maastricht treaty was passed with a thin majority of 51 percent.” Denmark voted against the Euro and Sweden chose not to joing the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)
It is also striking in this regard that just as Pan-European institutions have offered their citizens the prospect of an integrated polity extending from Portugal to Romania, there has been a countermovement of devolution and fragmentation, for example in Catalonia, Scotland and among the Walloons of Belgium. These are not movements against Europe per se but rather movements in the search of conditions of more local governance. As a Wikipedia entry on the 2014 elections to the European parliament notes, “These elections saw a big anti-Establishment vote in favor of eurosceptic parties taking around 25% of the seats available. Those who won their national elections include: UKIP in the UK (the first time since 1906 that a party other than Labor or the Conservatives had won a national vote), National Front in France, The Peoples Party in Denmark, Syriza in Greece, and second places taken by Sinn Fein in Ireland. Following the election, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy agreed to re-evaluate the economic area's agenda and to launch consultations on future policy areas with the 28 member states.” Moroever, David Cameron, the winner in the recent British elections for Parliament has pledged to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the EU. In this sense, we can say that Greece has become a symbol of a much wider process that is undermining the European Union’s political and psychological legitimacy.
This development is striking because the original European Common Market was a triumph. It was an instrument for rebuilding Europe after World War Two, for modernizing the continent’s economies, for securing the peace between Germany and France, for resisting prospective Soviet incursions and-- by sustaining welfare state policies -- for reducing the political appeal of indigenous communist parties, particularly in France and Italy. To be sure, it originally consisted of only six countries. But its success demonstrated that countries could modernize by integrating their economies. This conception was based partly on the United States as an example of a country that developed economically by expanding from "sea to sea." The question is why would this modernizing and integrating thrust be jeopardized today? What delegitimizing process is at work?
It is interesting to look at the Greek economy and society here. There is a general consensus both among Greek and non-Greek economists and sociologists that Greece harbors an only partially developed economy. Compared to the other advanced economies in Europe, Greek wages are low, but not as low as it prices, so that production costs are high while the profit share of national income is relatively low. As the following table from a Mckinsey report shows, Greeks work more hours, earn less income and are strikingly less productive than their European counterparts.  This is partly due to the fact that Greek workers support a proportionately larger number of people who do not participate in the workforce, one result of its generous pension system. As one analyst writes, “The average age of retirement age in Greece was 61; in Germany it was 67.”



GDP per capita
Dollars per hours worked
Hours worked per capita
Hours per employee
Participation rate in labor force
There is a sense in which Greece retains some of its pre-modern cultural characteristics.  Both Greek and Non-Greek critics refer to what they call the culture’s “clientistic” sense of government and its services, which enables interests groups to exploit government programs to increase their own standing and well being, for example through patronage, bribes, special favors, tax evasion or avoiding license requirements. Lacking is a sense of the government as an impartial arbitrator, setting standards for efficiency and supporting economic development. As one Greek critic notes, “Greece is ranked 69th in the world on the Corruption Perceptions Index 
alongside Bulgaria, Italy and Romania. Greece also has the EU's lowest Index of Economic Freedom and Global Competitiveness Index, ranking 130th and 81st in the world respectively. Citing a Transparency International study, he notes that, “In 2009 alone, the Greeks paid an average of €1,355 in bribes for such services as speeding up the process of obtaining a driver’s license or building permits, getting admitted to public hospitals, or manipulating tax returns.” Greece also has the largest informal or shadow economy in Western Europe, and as a result a very poor record of tax collection.  This is one reason for its persistently high budget deficits.

Similarly, a 1995 study of Greek family life, suggests that, “although affluence has been increasing in recent years, the traditional extended family has not decomposed into isolated nuclear families, but has changed its configuration. Its morphological equivalent is the extended family system in the urban setting with a continuation of contacts with its network of kin. Indeed, in comparing the frequency of these contacts with other cultures, Greece has one of the highest rates of visits and telephone contacts with relatives.” The scholar goes on to note, “This explains why such a large proportion of Athenian families live in the same apartment building.” To be sure, this study is two decades old, but it does suggest that when Greece households began to run up their debt at the turn of this century, Greek family life had some of these pre-modern characteristics, with overtones of attachment to kin displacing attachment to the polity. This is why they could exploit government services. [1]

There is little doubt that Greece must modernize its economy, but let me propose the following hypothesis.  Greek resistance to modernization, for example reducing pensions, privatizing industry and increasing productivity, has stimulated some wider anxieties about what we can call post-modernization or what some critics call, “Neo-liberalism.” This trends and its vicissitudes are germane to all advanced capitalist countries. In this sense Europeans, as well as observers in the United States, are projecting onto Greece, feelings and anxieties stimulated by their own emerging difficulties.

Consider for example, the experience of Germany when, at the turn of this century, it was characterized as, “The sick man of Europe.” As one German journalist wrote in June 1999, five months after the Euro was introduced, “The social-market economy devised in Germany after the Second World War, with its careful blend of market capitalism, strong labor protection and a generous welfare state, served the country well for several decades. But it is now coming under pressure as never before. As economic growth stalls yet again, the country is being branded the sick man (or even the Japan) of Europe. ”
The journalist goes on to catalogue a host of obstacles to efficient market functioning, such as, “a byzantine and inefficient tax system, a bloated welfare system, excessive labor costs” and the disincentive to hiring workers because the cost of firing them is too high. “Getting rid of workers is costly too. Severance pay is typically a month's salary per year worked, plus generous retirement pay-offs for older workers. ‘The jobs market doesn't really deserve to be called a market,’ says one disgruntled company manager.’” Moreover, he writes, “Germany is still smothered in regulations that crimp markets. Many prices are still regulated, and consumers remain “protected” in bizarre ways: shops can be fined for discounting or making three-for-the-price-of-two offers if these are deemed to send confusing signals to consumers.” Shades of Greece!
One response to this economic crisis was that labor, business and government together agreed to progressively dismantle the system of centralized wage bargaining by industry, so that wages would be set according to local conditions, in others words, to further “marketize” the labor market.  As two authors write,The fiscal burden of German reunification, coupled with an immediately more competitive global environment, made it increasingly costly for German firms to pay high union wages. The new opportunities to move production abroad, while remaining still nearby, changed the power equilibrium between trade unions and employer federations, and forced unions and/or works councils to accept deviations from industry-wide agreements which often resulted in lower wages for workers.” One result was that from 2003 to 2007 unit labor costs in Germany fell (the green-lowest- line) while they rose in the rest of the Eurozone. 

This was also the period in which the German government “loosened” the labor market by lowering unemployment benefits, reducing welfare payments and, when the jobless fail to follow through on their commitments to look for work, cutting benefits. In other words, the Germans went through their own period of privation, of what the authors call “painful reforms.” Income inequality rose in this period as well.
John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, published a book in 1967 titled The New Industrial State.” It proposed that Big Labor, Big Capital and Big Government, particularly in its instantiation as the Welfare State, oversaw national economic and social development. This was also the time when in Europe, central economic planning still appeared as a viable strategy for building economic wealth. [1] 
We could call this the “corporatist” form of capitalism. One way to interpret the German experience, and indeed the North American experience, is that countries today are dismantling corporatism. Today, Big Labor is losing its clout throughout the western world, and Big Capital, in the form of the global corporation is less vested in the interests of any particular locale or even country. Moreover, in facing the global competition for jobs and investment, states have less discretion over their welfare programs. The tripartite system of power sharing, which once characterized modern or advanced capitalism, has unraveled. I want to call this unraveling process, post-modernization, and suggest that the Germans have connected this new process and the social pain it stimulates, to the more classical challenge Greece faces in modernizing its own somewhat pre-modern economy and society. Indeed, facing post-modern conditions, Greece itself can hardly modernize by simply lowering unit labor costs or reducing wages. Its challenge instead is linked to the technical sophistication of its products and services. As two economists note, “German exports are concentrated in the most-complex products of the complexity scale while Greece and Portugal’s exports are concentrated in the least complex." The potential trauma facing Greece is that its economy is in fact outmoded.
 My critical reader may ask why I reference a process of “post modernization” rather than “neoliberalism.” The latter term is customary and proposes to describe a new phase in the developmental of capitalism, hence the term, “neo.”  It also carries with it a critical edge, suggesting that this new phase is perhaps not really new, that it simply represents a new form of classic liberalism based on our continued and even more pervasive subordination to market processes. In this way of thinking, by dismantling the welfare state, neo-liberalism returns us to the market of the 19th century. And today, all job-holders, facing uncertain prospects in the labor market, become the new proletarians.
I use the term “post-modernism” because the term “neoliberalism” does not express the broader cultural changes, the changes in sensibility that are reshaping Western countries everywhere. The rebellion of the Scots, the decline of big labor, Europeans’ resistance to the EU’s undemocratic practices, weakened state power and the marketization of society, are all cut from the same cloth. They reflect I propose, profound trends of decentralization and devolution at every level of society, and contests for authority in every institution. This is one reason for example that some economists focus increasingly on the city rather than the nation as the new locus of economic development. The city has become the hothouse for innovation producing dense networks of association among technologists, crafts people, service professionals, investors, and financiers. These networks are intensely local in character. That is one reason why it is so hard to “reproduce” a Silicon Valley anywhere else. It must emerge spontaneously or not at all. Density replaces scale.  
Nonetheless the term “neoliberalism” highlights the dark side of post-modernity and helps account for the resistance to an integrated Europe, often expressed by the right rather than left.  Should every person become a cipher in a network of market exchange, investing in his or her individual “human capital,” to hopefully survive the obsolescence of not simply jobs, but entire industries and professions?
Edmund Phelps, the economist, examines the decline of corporatism in advanced capitalism. He associates corporatism with “traditionalism.” Linking surveys of traditionalism with job satisfaction he finds that people in more traditionalist countries such as Portugal, Spain and France have less job satisfaction than people in less traditionalist countries such as the U.S., Denmark and Finland. 
                                                                Mean job Satisfaction

The survey used to construct the index of traditionalism includes such questions as,  Do you feel that service to others is important in life?” “Do you think that children should have respect and love for their parents?” “Do you think that parents have responsibilities to their children?” “Do you agree that unselfishness is an important quality for your children to have?”  As this set of questions suggests, we have to ask what price we are willing to pay for job satisfaction in particular, or for marketization in general.
My sense is that we carry within us a profound ambivalence about these developments. Job satisfaction may very well be a marker of an institutional world in which our skills and interests are acknowledged and respected, and we have a voice in the development of our settings. In fact, I believe this is true. This is perhaps the promise of devolution, localization and decentralization. But for the moment, this transition is very painful, nor is it entirely certain. After all, signposts of devolution are matched by indicators of the further concentration of power, for example by national security agencies, and by global financial institutions, for example the European Central Bank.
I suggest that we are projecting our ambivalence about post-modernization onto the Greek debt crisis. It has taken on a meaning that transcends the facts undergirding it. There is therefore a risk that decision makers and leaders will not take pragmatic steps to resolve it, falling prey instead to their roles in a symbolized conflict.
Observers have been puzzled by the provocative stance that the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis has taken in the ongoing negotiations. For example, he accused the head of the ECB Mario Draghi of being afraid of Germany’s hard liners. Draghi’s “soul” he said, “was filled with fear.” The day before I posted this blog he said that he wished that Greece, “still had the drachma.” Naturally, he has offended many of his counterparts, so much so that the Greece’s prime minister and his close collaborator, Alex Tsipras, has sidelined him in the negotiations. One conception of group dynamics is that participants are anointed to play symbolic roles in the wider drama that carries the cultural meaning of particular events. Of course they have to have a valence for such roles. As a self -described “erratic Marxist,” he may relish leading the fight against world neo-liberalism. But this is not really his battle, nor does he have the standing and resources to lead it. And the Germans, pressed by the stresses of their own post-modernizing situation may willingly take up the role of taskmaster for others. Where is the pragmatism?

[1] Indeed one reason, that Greece today has many state owned enterprises, is that under the direction of Prime Minister Karamanlis, the first post-junta prime minister and the founder of the Conservative New Democracy party, Greece pursued a policy nationalizing private enterprise as a vehicle for accelerating Greek economic development. While 35 years later, such an approach seems outmoded, at that time it was considered part of the normal practice of statecraft.

[1] This reading of the situation however is a partial one and in some sense unfair. One cannot separate the current Greek experience of government from its dark history. A military junta ruled the Greek people from 1968 to 1974. As one scholar recounts,The worst and most visible act of brutality came in November 1973 when students occupied Athens Polytechnic and university buildings in Salonika and Patras. Coup leader and post-coup Prime Minister (and eventually President) Georgios Papadopoulos sent in troops and tanks to crush the students; this was apparently carried out with extreme brutality and at least 34 students and others were killed, hundreds of others were wounded and almost a thousand arrested. The treatment of the students in Athens and other locations was met with extreme revulsion, and although not on the scale of the brutality carried out in the early Franco regime, this, along with the lengthy period of repression after the civil
war—Greece was ruled by repressive regimes for more than twenty-five years—may have been enough to convince citizens and civilian opposition from all political leanings
that an authoritarian government was to be avoided at all costs in the future.” In other words the image in Greek mind of central authority was one of toxicity. Moreover, when in 1980 the Socialist party, PASOK came to power it expanded welfare state benefits partly as compensation for the suffering and trauma that Greeks on the left had endured since the defeat of the communists in the aftermath of World War Two.