What should Greece do? Part 2

In my last post I looked at political problems of Greece’s national debt and the argument against Greece paying the debt. Now I will address the implications of Greece leaving the Euro.

From the interviews with many Syriza supporters in Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film #ThisIsACoup, I got the impression that this is what Syriza’s supporters want them to do. They feel that Greece has been humiliated by its creditors and they want Syriza to stand up for Greece. Whenever Syriza make a deal to with Greece’s creditors, Syriza supporters say they feel betrayed by the party they voted for.

The reason why Greece cannot default on its debt is because its economy would collapse. As has been said before, the majority of the Greek national debt is propping up Greek banks. If Greece defaults on its debt it would have to leave the Euro, and if it left the Euro then the EU would stop lending to Greek banks. This will cause them to collapse. In today’s finance based neo-liberal economy no country can survive the collapse of its banking sector, people would lose all their savings and their homes. So defaulting on its debts would mean economic armageddon for the Greek people. Understandably this is something Syriza want to avoid.

One of the points that Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film makes is that Syriza’s mistake was playing for time. They argue for an extension on Greece’s debt while they renegotiate their position. During this time Greek banks have become more dependent on EU lending. Syriza could have got out of the debt if they had defaulted earlier, perhaps as soon as they had taken power, but by the time the negotiations were concluded it was clear that defaulting on Greece’s debt was not an option.

Another reason for Greece to not default on its debt is that it would take around 12 months for Greece to set up a new national currency to replace the Euro. If Greece started to lay plans to leave the Euro in 12 months time, it would be discovered and would mean announcing that Greece planned to default on its debts. This would create a panic, all assets would be removed from Greece by investors and creditors and the economy would collapse sooner. Leaving the Euro and/or defaulting on its debt would ruin the Greek economy and is not an option.

If paying the debt, or defaulting, are not options then a compromise will have to be reached. A compromise where Greece pays some of its debt but not all of it. After watching the film I think this is the solution that Syriza want and is the most sensible.

The only problem with this approach is that the EU does not want to compromise. Throughout the film the EU refuse to allow any amount of Greece’s crippling debt to be written off. After Syriza’s first debt extension, the EU demands that Greece pass a law saying the EU could veto any future Greek laws, which only increases their power over Greece. Later Syriza wanted to give free food to the poor and the old, but the EU used their power veto this. Clearly the EU were only interested in putting as much pressure onto Greece as possible so that they would pay the debt back. However, as discussed above this debt was illegal and practically cannot be paid back.

In the absence of a compromise, and faced with two impossible options, the negotiations between Syriza and Greece’s creditors do not lead to a resolution. The film shows Greek Prime Minister and Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras looking increasingly tired as he tries to find a way out of this impossible bind, even resorting to calling a referendum and a snap election to give the Greek people as much say as possible in the future of their country.

The film ends after the second general election victory for Syriza in September 2015. Since then there has been no clear solution to the problem of Greece’s debt. The film ends with the gloomy implication that if Syriza fail to resolve the problem in a way that is satisfactory to the Greek people then we do not know where the anger that drove Syriza to power will go next. If it becomes support for neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, then the implications for the whole of Europe are terrifying.

From watching this film I initially thought that Greece should default on its debt because it was crippling its economy and the EU had no interest in compromising. After thinking about issues and listening to the Q&A with Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason, I realised that this was not possible. A compromise between the EU and Syriza is the only viable resolution to this situation, which has grown worse with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants and the possibility of a Nazi takeover in Greece. Surely the EU does not want to see a Nazi government in control of so many vulnerable immigrants, so they will have to compromise with Syriza. The Greek national debt is still a live issue and we need to remember the possibility of a fascist regime with a million non-White immigrants is a real possibility and should be avoided at all costs.

Syriza are up against forces much more powerful than themselves and they are hampered by the fact that their own supporters are not always in favour of what they do - although so far their electoral support remains strong. I have a lot of respect for Alexis Tsipras and the other leaders of Syriza who are faced with such a mammoth task. I believe they do have the best interests of the Greek people at heart and are trying to work towards a realistic and workable compromise. Hopefully they can succeed, because I am very frightened of the implications if they fail.

What should Greece do? Part 1

What should Greece do? It is a complicated question with a complicated answer. The ruling party, Syriza, has been in power since January 2015 and the pressure is on to solve the problem of the enormous amount of debt that Greece owes, which is 320 billions Euros or 177% of Greece’s GDP (figures as of 10 July 2015, source).

Recently I went to see a film by Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason called #ThisIsACoup, which covers the period between Syriza’s first and second electoral victory. I highly recommend this film, made as events unfolded, as I felt much more informed about the Greek debt crisis after watching now it. Based on this film, a Q&A with its makers and my wider reading around the topic, I am going to see if I can answer the question of what Greece should do.

The simplest answer that has been put forward is that Greece should just pay off its national debt. This is the argument favoured by middle class British columnists, writing from the comfort of their cottages in Surrey. This is the argument favoured by people who believes that politics begins and ends with personal responsibility. This is the argument that assumes that the Greek debt is exactly the same as the credit card debt of a student who partied a bit too hard during freshers week. Cut back on the craft larger and pulled pork. Show some self-control.

As you can tell I do not have much for time argument, but I will give it a fair hearing. The argument for Greece paying its debts, is that Greece is spending too much on welfare, pensions, its military (which is massive) and propping up stated owned enterprises. The solution is for Greece to embrace austerity as well as reforming its economy to make to make it more competitive; the process that Britain went through during the 1980s. This will allow the Greek economy to reduce its debt and return to growth.

The main flaw with this argument is that it is clearly not what the Greek people want and democracy means that people get what they want, for better or worse. Greece's main creditors are other EU nations and the people of these countries do want Greece to pay the debt, which is a thorny issue. Whose democracy is more important, the debtor or the creditor? EU law does say that Greece should pay the debt. However, I find it strange that people in Britain argue that Greece should be subject to EU law no matter what its people want, but the cries the British people to be liberated from crushing yoke of EU technocrats must be answer.

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason’s film makes the point that only 11% of Greek it went directly to the Greek people, i.e. for spending on Greece's apparently lavish welfare state and overstuffed state owned enterprises. The majority of the money went into propping up Greek banks hit by the global financial crisis, which certainly was not caused by Greece (or the Labour Party) spending too much on welfare or pensions or public health.

If the Greek government does embrace austerity, then the debt will be repaid over the next 50 years. Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason raise the question of whether the Euro, the EU or the current global financial system still be here in 50 years? The odds are stacked against it. The wider EU financial crisis and refugee crisis mean that it is very unlikely that the EU and the Euro in its current form will be around in 50 years. Perhaps a plan based on Euro longevity is a bad idea.

Austerity is not simply a case of make do with less; even when less is healthcare, support for the poorest in society and pensions. Austerity has other effects, as well as closing Sure Start Centres and raising child poverty. It creates Financial Melancholia, which is a sense that the future is only about paying for the past. This saps the creativity from the present because it is consumed by one thing: passing for decisions taken in the past.

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason said that young people are leaving Greece in huge numbers because they believe there is no future. The youth unemployment rate is at 50%, which is encouraging them to leave. This will have long term economic consequences. Who will look after the old people? Who will do all the low level work? Who will start new businesses? Austerity does not create economic dynamism; it stifles it through Financial Melancholia.

The main problem with the Greece paying its debts is the question of how the economy returns to growth after going through an austerity regime that is more severe than anything else that has been seen in Europe. The debt repayment ideas requires that economic liberalisation also take place at the same time. Greece is different to most other European countries in that large global brands (McDonald's and Superdrug where the two examples that Paul Mason cited during the Q&A after the film) are not present in Greece. Greece is not a socialist utopia, they have their own large brands owned by ultra-wealthy oligarchs just like every other capitalist country, and these oligarchs have enormous political and social power. They also stand to lose the most if the Greek economy is opened up to international competition.

It is because of this that the liberalisation phase of the pay your debts plan will never happen. What will happen is heavy austerity (which punishes the poor for being poor) and the liberalisation will never actually occurs. This will continue until either the debt is repaid (which will not happen because growth will not return and tax revenue will not grow) or the Euro collapses for some other reason. This means that even if Greece tries to pay its debt, it will eventually be forced to take its other option: default and leave the Euro.

In my next post I will look at the problems with Greece leaving the Euro.

The migrant crisis requires leadership not pragmatism

"The voters are wrong, and what is required is a louder exposition of their wrongness." These were the sarcastic words written by Rafael Behr in his Guardian column and were meant to mock the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and their desire for Labour to challenge the prevailing Tory wisdom on the economy, welfare and immigration. The success of Corbyn has uncovered a divide in politics, especially left wing politics, between those who believe that we should give the voters what they want and those who want to change what voters want.

The former has been the dominant approach to politics from the mid-80s onwards. It took over when we abandoned grand narratives of changing society and settled for governments which make minor adjustments. The established economic doctrines have not been challenged since Thatcher and a cynical following of the established narrative has been embraced in order for left wing politicians to be "electable". The fact that other than Blair, all of these electable Labour platforms have failed to win elections is usually overlooked when arguing that Labour should give the voters what they want.

This cynical acceptance of right wing arguments is nothing short of tacit support for the establishment, but it is often packaged as being realistic or pragmatic. The pragmatists' argument usually goes thusly: "It's not that I am cynically pro-establishment or have a complete lack of will to change the status quo I am invested in, I am just being realistic about what we can achieve with politics being the way they are". This is the attitude which has allowed neo-liberalism to go unchallenged for over 30 years.

This acceptance of a timidly pragmatic approach to politics has dramatically reduced our belief in what politics can accomplish. The majority of the fault for this needs to be laid at the feet of spineless politicians who are more concerned by what spin doctors have to say than what people need. We now think that politics cannot change society or achieve great things, however we are still faced with enormous challenges that require radical solutions and not timidity. Climate change, growing inequality and decreasing social mobility are long term trends which need a radical solution. In the short term, a situation which right now needs a radical solution is the European migration crisis.

Tackling the crisis requires politicians to have vision and leadership, and at times it will mean telling the voters when they are wrong. Most people in the last election voted for a party which offered some form of controls on immigration; a pragmatist would say this shows there is no electoral will for helping migrants despite any obligations we may feel to those in need. The migrant crisis is an issue where we need politicians to tell the voters and the public what they may not want to hear want to hear. Right now the photographs from Turkey may have increased sympathy for the migrants, but helping these people in dire need will mean leadership from politicians in the long run, when the issue fades from the headlines and when it is not politically advantageous to appear sympathetic to migrants.

We need our leaders to show courage and fly in the face of public opinion if that opinion is against helping people who are suffering. We need politicians to give an exposition of voters wrongness. Little has been done to challenge the anti-immigration rhetoric and the public perception of immigrants is at an all time low. This has led to a humanitarian crisis across Europe from Greece to Italy, from Hungary to Calais. There is a lot of suffering by people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and even their families. No one can deny the plight of these poor people the victims of war, failed states and totalitarian regimes. Political will is against helping these people because of this pragmatic acceptance that helping migrants is a vote loser.

We have a duty to help these poor people as we are able to help them. They are not asking for much, food, shelter, a place to work that is free from war and tyranny. This is not a lot and involves us giving up so little of our vast wealth to help some of the world's most unfortunate people. We also have a duty to help them as we caused their suffering. Through attacking Iraq and Libya we created the chaos which groups like ISIS have exploited to seize power, groups which many of these people are fleeing.

We are also responsible through our inability to help in the people who live under totalitarian regimes or in war zones like Eritrea and Syria. Our governments show huge ability to influence poorer nations when we want something from them (usually natural resources) but when it comes to helping the world's least fortunate people we shake our heads and say there is nothing to be done. Our inability to solve these problems has brought the victims of war and tyranny to our doorstep and we are obliged to help them here if we cannot help them in their country of origin.

It may be unpopular with small minded little Englanders, who thinks our duty of care extends as far as providing a fertile ground for business to prosper but goes no further - conveniently these people are often business owners and live in prosperous communities - but we need to stand up to these voters and give an exposition of their wrongness. The pragmatists will dislike this but because it requires challenging people's opinions (including opinions they are sympathetic to) but we need to stand up to the pragmatists as well. The migration crisis is a case when the voters are wrong and giving the voters what they want will lead to more suffering.

The pragmatists' arguments collapses when confronted with any situation where taking the easiest route out is not an opinion. On the issue of welfare these pragmatists get what they want a lot, because it is easier to cut benefits (or to allow the Tories to cut benefits if you support Labour) than to challenge the prevailing opinion on welfare. In regards to the migrant crisis, the pragmatists do not have a solution because there is no solution that involves giving the voters what they already want. The pragmatists' solution is to ignore the problem so that it goes away. This will clearly not work.

The reason why the pragmatists do not have a solution is because the solution is leadership and challenging the prevailing opinion. The time and the case for radical leadership has never been greater as we are faced with great challenges. Not just international problems like the migrant crisis or climate change, but the problems of the UK require radical leadership to tackle them. How do we rebalance our economy away from London? How do we provide a reasonable standard living for people across the entire country when even middle class jobs are threatened by automation? How do we care for the growing percentage of old people? How do we share the benefits of technological advancement? These are not problems with easy or pragmatic solutions. To face these challenges we need radical leadership, the challenges are great but I am confident that together we can rise to them.