Greece & Germany: Things tend to get worse before they get more worse

Cutting your nose off to incentivise your face to implement much needed structural reforms.

The young man stood up.
“Mrs. Bylaxis came in this morning,” he said. “She said the proverb you did for her last week has stopped working.”
Didactylos scratched his head.
“Which one was that?” he said.
“You gave her ‘It's always darkest before dawn.’ ”
“Nothing wrong with that. Damn good philosophy.”
“She said she didn’t feel any better. Anyway, she said she'd stayed up all night because of her bad leg and it was actually quite light just before dawn, so it wasn’t true. And her leg still dropped off. So I gave her part exchange on ‘Still, it does you good to laugh.’ ”

Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Noah Smith points out that there’s an oft overlooked argument in favour of austerity. It’s a stupid one, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. The claim is that stimulus will work, but that is bad because it will delay “necessary” reform. This idea has a long heritage and it’s always been a good idea to mock it. I’ll try to provide some constructive examples against it.

First of all, let me say, I am a dedicated can kicker. Karl Smith is right: do you realise that everyone you know someday will die? The future is uncertain, so simply making a bad thing happen later is valuable because we might not be here. Problems sometimes solve themselves, and erstwhile solutions sometimes become problems. Pretending to have the foresight necessary to know when to say “you now must suffer now so that they then do not” is insulting.

I also think the idea is bad on its own terms. Crap policy begets crap policy for a number of reasons: most mundanely, I’d posit a correlation between following good short-term and good long-term policy. If a government is adopting crippling austerity now, it is more likely, not less, that they’ll be adopting bad long term policies.

But most importantly, this “butter tomorrow, sawdust today” policy has been tried before and sown disaster. Here are a few examples:

  • Hayek thought the depression would force down wages by brute force and trigger the end of unionised workers. He thus resisted efforts to end it. The result? Starvation! Smoot-Hawley! Nazis! Bet he felt pretty silly about that one.
  • He's in good company. Lenin in the 1900s argued that mitigation of the worker’s condition would delay the inevitable revolution and that nothing should be done to mitigate it. He actually got that one right. This time it was the Tsarist industrialists who must have felt silly (as much as dead people feel silly).
  • The little depression seriously derailed efforts to tackle climate change. Short-term suffering crowds out the long-term thinking needed to make policy effectively. Extending austerity makes it harder to talk about long-term sensible sacrifices because you’ve less to sacrifice.
  • As Ben Friedman argues “History suggests that, in the past, a rising standard of living has promoted tolerance for others, commitment to economic opportunity, and democracy. But stagnating incomes due to inequality can lead to the opposite outcomes.” Suffering makes people worse human beings and worse human beings make worse long-term policy.

To underline the point: the worst case scenario is Nazis. It is such a bad idea you can legitimately say “no because Nazi.” I can think of at least one positive counterexample too, also from Germany. As Scott Sumner points out, their labour market reforms of the mid-2000s took place against the most benign global and domestic macroeconomic circumstances imaginable. They were so successful that German unemployment continued to sink lower even as Europe was mired in depression.

Coincidentally, just as Noah Smith laid out the argument hypothetically, Steven Pearlstein comes along and positively endorses it. Only austerity and suffering can save Greece apparently. By embracing  short term suffering interest-groups can be defeated and illogical and burdensome regulations can be removed. Only brave short-term sacrifice can engender long term growth.

So how is Steven’s strategy paying off? Yep, same as last time, fucking Nazis again.

Even so, Greece is one of the few countries which spent the late 20th century moving from a middle-income to a high-income country. A round of applause please before you lecture them. Their politics and economy are dysfunctional and that will make them poorer, but it doesn’t need them to be in a depression. Being poor is bad, but being unemployed is evil.

Of course if unemployment is an evil, using unemployment as a punishment for being poorer than optimal is really evil. If the Greek economy is dysfunctional they should have higher inflation and lower real incomes, not suffer a manufactured unemployment crisis. It’s not just stupid and evil, it’s perverse.

It is a bad idea that policy should be actively destructive in the short-term to act as a bargaining tool or cudgel to implement a certain pet project. Suffering is bad, it makes us worse people and worse people make worse policy. If your leg does fall off, laughing isn’t the worst thing you could do; you could listen to these bozos.

This piece was originally posted on Left Outside, and is republished here with permission.

Members of Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn sing the country's national anthem. Photograph: Getty Images
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation