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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era