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The End of the End of Austerity

We’re All Greeks Now

by ROB URIE

One of the joys of being American is that every new day is a clean slate—no history, no memories, no experiences, a complete blank. This may help explain why our national conversations serve their intended purposes while being entirely content-free. Newsflash to self-described liberal economists: austerity works! If your goal is loot nations while putting their populations into permanent debt servitude, austerity is a real winner.

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) has been implementing “structural adjustment” programs, AKA austerity, for decades. It has usually “worked” for their bank clients in the sense that wealth extraction from victim nations to international banks took place. And given that victim nations tended to have both culpable leaders and “developing” nation status, the economic outcomes were rarely news in New York or Washington. Needless to say, outcomes were better for bankers than for their structurally adjusted victims.

When the ECB (European Central Bank) began discussing structural adjustment policies for Greece in 2009 there was little pretense that they would benefit the Greeks. European banks had loaded themselves to the gills with peripheral sovereign debt, in some measure to game the regulatory capital requirements in much the same way that Wall Street banks did with “AAA” rated garbage in the lead-up to the most recent financial disaster. And like their American counterparts, European banks had cynically lent money under fraudulent terms to people who could not pay it back. And European banks, like their American counterparts, require ongoing bailouts for the current economic order to stand.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, leader of Germany’s center-right party and de facto head of the EU, faced rebellion by the German electorate over the proposed bailout of Greece before it became openly punitive. The line that austerity was the economic prescription needed to get Greece back on its feet was cynical apologia put forward by the dullard class of EU propaganda hacks. That American economists (Paul Krugman) debated the issue like it was a serious analytical dispute begs the question of where they have been for the last fifty years?

With only six decades of IMF history to draw from, the template being used in Europe (and in America) is (1) install or corrupt a political elite who will support extractive economic policies for the benefit of bankers, (2) indebt, or cause to become indebted, a naïve, oblivious or otherwise captive population who will accept, grudgingly or otherwise, the institutional convention that the debt is legitimate and must be repaid, (3) under a patina of intellectual legitimacy, implement openly extractive economic policies against entire populations for the benefit of said banks, (4) while the culpable elites retire to large houses behind high walls with their portions of the loot.

In the 1980s major New York banks (Wall Street) made loans to South American and African nations using this template. In some fair proportion the proceeds of these loans were promptly re-deposited into these same banks in the names of specific government officials. When the victim populations rebelled, arguing either that the debt was not legitimate and didn’t need to be repaid, or realized that the debt was a de facto form of slavery and couldn’t be repaid, these New York banks were bailed out by the U.S. government under the veil of “Brady Bonds” and the government took over as creditor to collect the debts.

This is the game now playing out in Europe and, in a less visible sense; the U.S. Wall Street bankers (including European banks) are conspiring with corrupt, naïve, duplicitous or powerless peripheral leaders to implement austerity policies on indebted populations. These populations are indebted because of banker duplicity and/or because of the financial bubbles and their aftermath that Wall Street created. These austerity programs are for the sole benefit of the banks. In the U.S. the Wall Street banks were bailed out without being made to write off the bad loans that never should have been made.  This creates a similar dynamic where some fair proportion of Americans will now live out their remaining days in debt slavery to the banks.

In addition to multi-trillion dollar unconditional and ongoing bailouts the Obama administration recently also gave the banks retroactive and future immunity for straightforwardly criminal behavior through the mortgage “settlement” and has expanded the corrupt and usurious student loan business for the benefit of the banks. Add the looting of state, municipal and private pensions, the corporate takeover of the legislative process and full implementation of neo-liberal austerity economics at the state and local levels and the battle lines in the U.S. are clearly drawn. We are all Greeks now.

The difference between current experience and prior history is that the banks have now effectively eliminated the national borders that previously delineated the core-periphery class struggle. What we are experiencing has a long history and known outcomes. The intellectual masturbation behind the Keynesian- Austerian “debate” hides the class conflict that is driving this process. The Keynesians believe that renewed recession in Europe proves their case. But as the saying goes, tell it to someone who gives a shit. The turmoil in Europe is power politics (class struggle) hiding behind a thin veil of ideological difference.  The bankers and their Austerian apologists know what they are doing. Too bad the same can’t be said for liberal economists.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.