Saturday, 21 February 2015

Bad news for the Greeks may be bad news for all of us

So the Greeks blinked first. And it’s not good news.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis:
the guts to denounce austerity but holding few cards
This week started with a pastoral letter from Bishops of the Church of England calling on its followers to get involved in politics and the General Election in May. They spoke great sense, which was encouraging, but weren’t echoed by any of the mainstream parties, which was galling.

That’s not a call for politicians to be Christians. A great many of them already claim they are, a claim with as much validity, I feel, as the claim of ISIS in Syria to be true Muslims.

The Bishops wrote:

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10). A Christian approach to politics must be driven by this vision: enabling all people to live good lives, with the chance to realise their potential, as individuals and together as a people.

You need to be a Christian to want to quote St John, but men and women of any faith or none could subscribe to the notion that all of us should realise our potential and live good lives.

The Biblical tradition is not only “biased to the poor”, as often noted, but warns constantly against too much power falling into too few hands. When it does, human sympathies are strained to breaking point.

Again, many of us feel the oppression of power being exercised by too few people. And sadly far too few show much “bias to the poor,” even among parties of the Centre Left.

Why is this? Precisely because power has been allowed to be too concentrated.

This week gave an excellent example: the Daily Telegraph in England is one of the papers that prop up the Conservative claim to office; it seems it has been playing down the scandal around the behaviour of HSBC, the bank that was helping wealthy clients avoid tax; HSBC was the advertiser the Telegraph apparently couldn’t afford to offend; the Conservative Party is reticent to take action against the bank or its clients; and those clients include many substantial donors to the Conservative Party.

Money circulates in tiny circles, and money means power. The few inside the magic circle exert a terrible attraction on those outside, who look to them with admiration or awe at their success. The Centre Left, such as the British Labour Party, isn’t in the circle, but its leadership brushes shoulders with those who are, meeting them in the corridors of the Palace of Westminster. Rather than break with Conservative principles, it therefore simply proposes to apply them more gently.

So Labour doesn’t want to reverse cuts, only to cut less and more slowly. It has bought the prevailing tale that austerity is the answer to our financial woes, though austerity has manifestly failed over the last seven years, and has been known to be a policy condemned to failure for eighty: Keynes refuted the belief that economic good management requires government to spend less, and that to restart a broken economy, government in fact needs to spend more.

Not all parties of the Left have fallen for this delusion advanced by the moneyed, powerful few. And one of them, Syriza in Greece, has been elected to power. It has an explicitly anti-austerity platform, and has been pursuing it over the last few weeks since it took office.

Last night, days away from running out of funds altogether, the Greek government caved into the EU, IMF and European Central Bank – which basically means to Germany. in return for a four month extension of credit, it agreed to put its anti-austerity measures on hold.

The loans it will now receive will be used not to alleviate poverty, but to shore up the banks further. Money flowing to money once more.

This is a triumph for the Conservative views of the German government. Indeed, the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, could hardly contain his delight: “being in government,” he declared, “is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream,”

Wolfgang Schäuble, German Finance Minister
A Christian Democrat with little Christianity
And old fox playing a handful of trumps, with an ugly line in gloating...
Reality, you see, means austerity. Even though we know that all it has achieved in Greece is drive citizens to despair, literally, with the saddest comments from that country being complaints at the lack of any hope whatever for the future. Yesterday’s decision will put the hopes excited by Syriza’s election victory on hold for a few more months at least.

The Bishops wrote:

Christ’s incarnation confirms the fundamental truth that every human being is created in the image of God. Because of this, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. This is the starting point for all of the church’s engagement with society, politics and national life. This is the truth that lies behind everything we have to say here.

Shäuble is a member of the Christian Democratic Union, so clearly calling yourself a Christian doesn’t stop you rejecting such basic Christian thinking. He’s clearly less than inclined to love his neighbours as he loves himself.

That he’s won this first round of the battle is a setback for the Greeks. It’s a setback for the kind of values the Anglican Bishops were propounding. And I rather fear it’s a setback for all of us who concerned at “too much power falling into too few hands.”


Awoogamuffin said...

Austerity seems to be the most cowardly, miserly and unpleasant response to a crisis. Though with Drahgi's recent €1.1tn q.e. maybe Europe is finally coming round.

Though I disagree with austerity, I'm not sure how sympathetic I am to these populist movements in Greece and Spain. I meet a lot of "podemos" supporters here, and rather than the thoughtful, socially-minded discourse you might expect, it's just a mindless anti-business patriarchal vision of government as a provider for our every need, without a thought as to where the wealth is supposed to come from.

I think the solution is in the middle, and will probably become a reality, which is an environment that makes it easy for businesses to be set up and thrive, but where the super-wealthy contribute considerably more to society and we stamp down on loopholes and tax havens. And how a about a negative income tax for low-paying jobs? It seems to have worked in several states in America, and it's a great marriage of free-market and welfare policies working in tandem.

David Beeson said...

I'm not sure Syriza is entirely comparable with Podemos. My impression is that the Greek movement has more intellectual power and more coherence.

A negative income tax is a good idea (though it sounds like tax credits which the current British government inherited from Labour and then abolished) but I also like the idea of a graduated wealth tax as advanced by Piketty - so that mere wealth isn't enough to generate more wealth.

I also think anti-austerity isn't particularly radical, indeed very much a centrist view. It was after all Kyenes's, and he was no rabid leftie.