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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Anxiety is not cool, funny or fashionable

A charitable initative to encourage sufferers to knit a Christmas jumper signalling their condition is well-intentioned but way off the mark.

The other night, I had one of those teeth-falling-out dreams. I dreamt I was on a bus, and every time it stopped one of my teeth plunked effortlessly out of my skull. “Shit,” I said to myself, in the dream, “this is like one of those teeth-falling out dreams”. Because – without getting too Inception – even in its midst, I realised this style of anxiety dream is a huge cliché.

Were my subconscious a little more creative, maybe it would’ve concocted a situation where I was on a bus (sure, bus, why not?), feeling anxious (because I nearly always feel anxious) and I’m wearing a jumper with the word “ANXIOUS” scrawled across my tits, so I can no longer hyperventilate – in private — about having made a bad impression with the woman who just served me in Tesco. What if, in this jumper, those same men who tell women to “smile, love” start telling me to relax. What if I have to start explaining panic attacks, mid-panic attack? Thanks to mental health charity Anxiety UK, this more original take on the classic teeth-falling-out dream could become a reality. Last week, they introduced an awareness-raising Christmas “anxiety” jumper.

It’s difficult to slate anyone for doing something as objectively important as tackling the stigma around mental health problems. Then again, right now, I’m struggling to think of anything more anxiety-inducing than wearing any item of clothing that advertises my anxiety. Although I’m fully prepared to accept that I’m just not badass enough to wear such a thing. As someone whose personal style is “background lesbian”, the only words I want anywhere near my chest are “north” and “face”.  

It should probably be acknowledged that the anxiety jumper isn’t actually being sold ready to wear, but as a knitting pattern. The idea being that you make your own anxiety jumper, in whichever colours you find least/most stressful. I’m not going to go on about feeling “excluded” – as a non-knitter – from this campaign. At the same time, the “anxiety jumper” demographic is almost definitely twee middle class millennials who can/will knit.

Photo: Anxiety UK

Unintentionally, I’m sure, a jumper embellished with the word “anxious” touts an utterly debilitating condition as a trend. Much like, actually, the “anxiety club” jumper that was unanimously deemed awful earlier this year. Granted, the original anxiety jumper — we now live in a world with at least two anxiety jumpers — wasn’t charitable or ostensibly well intentioned. It had a rainbow on it. Which was either an astute, ironic comment on how un-rainbow-like  anxiety is or, more likely, a poorly judged non sequitur farted into existence by a bored designer. Maybe the same one who thought up the Urban Outfitters “depression” t-shirt of 2014.

From Zayn Malik to Oprah Winfrey, a growing number of celebrities are opening up about what may seem, to someone who has never struggled with anxiety, like the trendiest disorder of the decade. Anxiety, of course, isn’t trendy; it’s just incredibly common. As someone constantly reassured by the fact that, yes, millions of other people have (real life) panic meltdowns on public transport, I could hardly argue that we shouldn’t be discussing our personal experiences of anxiety. But you have to ask whether anyone would be comfortable wearing a jumper that said “schizophrenic” or “bulimic”. Anxiety, it has to be said, has a tendency – as one of the more “socially acceptable” mental illnesses — to steal the limelight.

But I hope we carry on talking anxiety. I’m not sure Movember actually gets us talking about prostates, but it puts them out there at least. If Christmas jumpers can do the same for the range of mental health issues under the “anxiety” umbrella, then move over, Rudolph.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.