Most Western countries, including Greece and Australia, have a system of democratic-capitalism. It marries a democratic political system with a capitalist economic system and they are perceived as being well-matched because both are founded on philosophies about individual freedom. It is, however, not necessarily a happy marriage. In the current Greek situation, it is very clear that capitalism is abusing its spouse democracy, and capitalism is dominating the marriage. What does that mean for the future of democracy? Can the marriage be saved? Or should democracy move out and find a new partner?
In January 2015, the people of Greece expressed their democratic right and elected a leftist government — a reaction to austerity measures that had been imposed on the people by previous governments since 2010.
Admittedly, Greece had been living beyond its means, accumulating mounting deficits each year, but as part of the euro-zone had no control over its own currency. With such control it could have devalued its currency or, if floated as an individual currency, it is likely that it would have been sold down well before the situation became as bad as it did. Germany, however, is the heart of the euro and its economic performance tends to drive the relative value of the euro on the world’s currency markets: so Greece was always going to end up in trouble and did so when the GFC hit.
But austerity measures made the situation worse, not better. Unemployment rose, reaching 26.8% in January 2013 and by April that year youth unemployment was 60%. Overall unemployment continued to rise, to 28% in February 2014, no doubt helped by the sacking of 15,000 public servants during 2013. Three-quarters of the unemployed were then long-term unemployed (longer than 12 months). The latest figure I was able to find shows unemployment has fallen slightly but is still at 25.3%.
GDP has been in ‘negative growth’ (that is falling rather than growing) for most of the time since the GFC in 2008, dipping to ‒8.9% in 2011 and was still at ‒3.3% in 2013. By 2013 GDP per capita had fallen to 2004 levels (GDP per capita is often a proxy for standard of living). In all, Greece’s GDP has slumped by 25% since 2008. In 2010 the government’s revenue was €97.2 billion but had fallen to €78.1 billion in 2014 (this for a population of about 11 million). And yet it is the revenue side of the equation that has been Greece’s main problem: its historic spending levels, around 50% of GDP, are similar to many other European governments but its revenue (around 40% of GDP) has been lower. If revenue had not fallen so disastrously (largely a result of the austerity measures), it could have achieved a balanced budget in 2012 or 2013 with no further cuts to spending. It is little wonder that Greek people took to the streets in reaction to the waves of austerity that were introduced. Apparently, Greece now has a ‘primary surplus’, meaning revenue can meet government expenditure, but it is the interest on loans and repayment of loans that is causing the problem, as the total government debt is now 170% of GDP.
There was a glimmer of hope in 2014 when GDP grew marginally but as successive presidential elections late in the year failed to achieve a clear outcome, and then the election of the leftist Syriza government in January 2015, GDP began falling again as financiers and big business pulled money out of the country (I have read estimates ranging between €40 billion and €55 billion). With the uncertainty, including the prospect that Greece may withdraw from the EU, people also began withdrawing their money from the banks, threatening the stability of the banks. The banks had been able to support themselves by borrowing money from the European Central Bank (ECB) using Greek government debt (bonds) as collateral but in February this year the ECB said it would no longer accept Greek government bonds — leading to more money being withdrawn (€23 billion so far this year). Despite that announcement, the ECB has made a €1.9 billion profit from trading Greek government bonds: it has agreed to pay that to the Greek government but has not yet done so. Greek government bonds are now considered ‘junk’: the rate demanded on the financial markets has varied between 19% and 25% to cover ‘risk’ — that is the sort of rate charged by ‘loan sharks’ and means the value of an initial loan would double in 3‒4 years. Borrowing at such rates would create an impossible situation which is why the Greek government is now mainly reliant on loans from the ECB and the IMF. Many of the private financiers were paid off in earlier bail-outs in 2010 and 2012 when they also took a 20% ‘hair cut’ (in other words, they were paid 80 cents in the dollar on what they were owed).
The new government has been trying to renegotiate the loans from the IMF and the ECB. It wants an easing of the austerity conditions. It does not want to undertake any further labour market reform (at least in the short term); it wants to rehire 4,000 public servants; and is refusing to make any further cuts to pensions although it is open to reform of the pension system. The government recently said that if forced to choose between repaying loans and paying the pensions, then it would pay pensions — in other words it would default on its loans.
The people have spoken in the home of democracy but the bankers aren’t listening.
Mark Weisbrot from the US Centre for Economic and Policy Research said of the move by the ECB to refuse to accept Greek government bonds:
“They are trying to force the government to abandon its promises to the Greek electorate, and to follow the IMF program that its predecessors signed on to. … The ECB should be ashamed of its latest assault on Greek democracy. And they should not be able to get away with disguising it as anything less than that.”
And Joseph Stiglitz wrote:
Seldom do democratic elections give as clear a message as that in Greece. If Europe says no to Greek voters’ demand for a change of course, it is saying that democracy is of no importance, at least when it comes to economics.
It fits with a common criticism of our society since the 1980s: that the ‘economy’ has come to dominate political debate rather than debate about ‘society’; that we have become an economy, no longer a society; that dollars, not people, now rule and determine the actions of governments.
While money may be an essential part of our system, allowing exchange between people who do not know each other, for items that may be made by someone else, it appears to have also become a tradeable item (a commodity) in its own right. Capital markets do allow for borrowing for genuine purposes, like banking needs and productive activities, but they have also become, like stock markets, a source of speculation and profit making. In Australia we know that banks are amongst our most profitable institutions and, in Greece, banks are among the biggest private companies in the country. How have we allowed that? Money is meant to be a servant, a medium of exchange, but it has become so much more.
Consider who benefits from bail-outs to countries. A country may borrow funds to meet the normal activities of government, particularly for public infrastructure, but if the government cannot repay the loan when it falls due it may be bailed-out. That bail-out is not to help the government directly but to allow it to pay the original financiers. It is done because a ‘default’ is considered a threat to the international financial structure — why? One reason is that if one or two countries are allowed to get away with defaults, then others may follow suit, lenders would no longer feel confident about lending if they weren’t going to get their money back and lending could dry up. With no capacity to borrow, governments would have to print their own fiat currency — which they can do anyway — and there would be no need for international financiers! (And, of course, they can’t allow that to happen.)
We also saw during the GFC that the Wall Street banks were bailed out — they were ‘too big to fail’ — while ordinary people lost their homes. Why couldn’t people have been paid that money to pay out their mortgage and thus save their home? — the money would have gone back to the banks in payment of the mortgage. The government could make the payment as a loan, even at concessional rates (though given that US interest rates are so low it wouldn’t matter too much). As I understand it, the housing bubble burst, house values fell, so people owed more than their house was then worth and many just walked away. The government could have paid people to buy their houses at the lower price, saving the government money, and the banks would take a ‘hair cut’: they would get some money back but not the full value of the original loan. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that just allowing normal operation of the market?
The banks had created the problem by buying and selling debt as a means to make a profit. They had mixed risky debt with a small amount of ‘safe’ debt and sold the entire package: they were making a ‘killing’ until it unwound. But still they were bailed out with taxpayers’ money.
Whatever regard they [the banks] may claim to pay to the wider concerns of the nation, their policies are dictated in the last resort by the desire to make profits and to secure the value of their own assets.
That was said by Ben Chifley in 1947 and nothing has changed.
Yes, we need a financial system but it has gone way beyond its original purpose, which was to support the operation of the market, and has become a market in its own right. Traders buy and sell currencies, not just to make necessary international transactions, but to speculate on a currency’s rise and fall and make a profit. Such speculation may even impact the value of a currency. Is that a valid use of the financial system? — I think not, but that’s only me.
I do not propose that we should go to a socialist system as that certainly didn’t work, as least as it was pursued in the Soviet Union, but governments should, at the least, be playing the role of arbiter between the market and society and not simply supporting the big end of town because of its economic power. Governments in a democracy are elected by the people and are meant to represent the people but too many seem bent on putting the economy, and the companies allegedly contributing to the economy, first.
As Eva Cox wrote in a piece for The Conversation:
… mainstream centrist parties’ economic emphases are struggling to engage voters as their policies are failing to respond effectively and acceptably to GFC-damaged market models.
The emphasis on the ‘free’ market that arose from the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s may have contributed to increased overall wealth but at the cost of greater inequality. Even the IMF has raised concerns that increasing inequality is leading to public distrust in the political process and greater social instability. In essence, the system is failing to support democracy and the people are realising it.
A consistent trend is voter concern about public spending cuts and economic priorities that promote markets as the means to cut “excessive” public costs.
Questions need to be asked about why there is little or no serious discussion on the relative roles of government, markets and communities in delivering goods and services for the nation. [emphasis added]
Is China the modern example we should be following? — a form of guided capitalism. We may not adopt its political system but a system where the government exercises greater control of the economy. There would be an outcry that that is against individual freedom as embodied in the free market but capitalism, in practice, already undermines the individual freedom of the majority as rising inequality makes clear (and according to Piketty that is inherent in the capitalist system).
I found it passing strange that Catherine Livingstone, President of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), told the National Press Club:
As it stands in Australia ... the gap between the digital literacy of our young people and that of our competitor nations is increasing.
I didn’t think we were allowed to mention 5 and 10 year plans: aren’t they something associated with socialist systems? But perhaps now that those systems no longer exist we can talk of such plans without the Cold War political implications. If even the BCA can be talking about 10 year government plans, then there is a case that business recognises that the market cannot provide everything that makes the market work. Governments still have a key role and should be fulfilling that role, not simply dreaming (as our current government does) that the market is capable of doing everything ‘better’ and more efficiently. Without that ‘10 Year Plan’, the BCA is well aware that efficiency and productivity may become historical constructs that we can only recall with fond memory. (It is also of more than passing interest that Bill Shorten’s emphasis on science, technology and maths education in his Budget Reply speech is exactly what the BCA asked for.)
If we want increased productivity and participation, we need urgently to embark on a ten year plan to close that gap. [emphasis added]
The Greek situation has, in my mind, brought this tension between capitalism and democracy into sharper focus. But governments are in thrall to the big capitalists and the financial institutions and are yet to acknowledge it. They will not recognise it while they remain blinded by the ‘free market’ philosophy of neo-liberalism, and refuse to see that it is not only the market but also governments and communities (as Eva Cox said) that have a role in ensuring a country gets the goods and services it needs and wants.
Is it time that ‘democracy’ sought a divorce from this domineering and aggressive ‘capitalism’ so that governments again understand that the ‘demos’ in democracy means ‘the people’, not markets and money?
What do you think?
Who is really running the nation? The government or the bankers and capitalists? And where do we, ‘the people’, fit in that? While Syriza in Greece is trying to redefine and reassert the government’s role in the economy, and a similar party, Podemos, is gaining popularity in Spain, should the people of Australia, as Ken suggests, also be demanding a change? Or are most Australians too apathetic to care? Is Labor offering an alternative or not? Ken’s piece raises many questions and we will be pleased to share your views on those questions.
Next week we return to budget issues when 2353 discusses ‘The $19,990 special’.