Michael Hudson

Whither Greece

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The way to lower costs is to lower “bad” taxes that add to the price of production, headed by taxes on labor and capital, sales taxes and value-added taxes. By contrast, rent taxes collect the economy’s “free lunch,” and thus leave less available to be pledged to banks to capitalize into debt service on higher loans. Shifting the Greek tax burden off labor onto property would reduce the supply price of labor, and also reduce the price of housing that is being bid up by bank credit.

A land tax shift was the primary reform proposal from the 18th and 19th century, from the Physiocrats and Adam Smith down through John Stuart Mill and America’s Progressive Era reformers. The aim was to free markets from the landed aristocracy’s hereditary rents stemming from the medieval Viking conquest. This would free economies from feudalism, bringing prices in line with socially necessary costs of production.

Every government has the right to levy taxes, as long as they do it uniformly to domestic property owners as well as to foreign owners. Short of re-nationalizing the land and infrastructure, fully taxing its economic rent (access payments for sites whose value is created by nature or by public improvements) would take back for the Greek authorities what creditors are trying to grab.

This classical threat of 19th century reformers is the response that the Greeks can make to the European Central Bank. They can remind the rest of the world that it was, after all, the ideal of free markets as expressed from Adam Smith through John Stuart Mill in England, and which underlay (I still prefer underlaid) U.S. public spending, regulatory agencies and tax policy during its period of take-off.

How strange (and sad) that Greece’s own ruling Socialist Party, whose leader heads the Second International, has rejected this centuries-old reform program. It is not Communism. It is not even inherently revolutionary, or at least was not at the time it was formulated. It is socialism of the reformist type that was the culmination of two centuries of classical political economy culminated in.

But it is the kind of free markets against which the ECB is fighting —backed by Treasury Secretary Geithner’s shrill exhortations from the United States. Mr. Obama says nothing, leaving it all to Wall Street bureaucrats to set national economic policy. Is this evil? Or is it just passive and indifferent? Does it make much of a difference as far as the end result is concerned?

To sum up, the aims of foreign financial aggression are the same as military conquest: land and the public domain. But nations have the right to tax their rental yield of these resources over and above a return to capital investment. Contrary to EU demands for “internal devaluation” (wage cuts) as a means of lowering the price of Greek labor to make it more competitive, reducing living standards is not the way to go. That reduces labor productivity while eroding the internal market, leading to a deteriorating spiral of economic shrinkage.

The need for a popular referendum

Every government has the right and indeed the political obligation to protect its prosperity and livelihood so as to keep its population at home rather than drive them abroad or drive them into a position of financial dependency on rentiers. At the heart of economic democracy is the principle that no sovereign nation is committed to relinquish its public domain or its right to tax whatever form of income it specifies. It does not have to sacrifice its economic prosperity and future livelihood, to foreigners or for that matter to a domestic financial class. This is why Iceland voted “No” in the debt referendum. Its economy is recovering.

Ireland voted “Yes” and now faces a new Great Emigration to rival that which followed the potato famine of the mid-19th century. If Greece does not draw a line here, it will be a victory for financial and fiscal aggression imposing debt peonage.

Finance has become the 21st century’s preferred mode of warfare. It’s aim is to appropriate the land and public infrastructure for its own? power elites. Achieving this end financially, by imposing debt peonage on subject populations, avoids the sacrifice of life by the aggressor power —but only as long as subject debtor countries accept their burden voluntarily. If there is no referendum, the national economy cannot be held liable to pay the debts owed even to “senior” creditors: the IMF and ECB. Assets that are privatized at foreign bank insistence can be renationalized. And just as nations under military attack can sue, so Greece can sue for the devastation caused by austerity —the lost employment, lost output, lost population, capital flight.

The Greek economy will not end up with the proceeds of any ECB “bailout.” The banks will get the money. They would like to turn around and lend it out afresh to the buyers of the land, monopolies and other properties that Greece is being told to privatize. The user fees they collect (no doubt raising charges in the process, to cover the interest and pay themselves the usual salary jumps on privatized property) will be paid out as interest. Is this not like military tribute?

Margret Thatcher used to say “There is no alternative” (TINA). But of course there is. Greece can simply opt out of this giveaway of assets and economic privilege to creditors.

What do Mr. Papandreou’s Socialist International colleagues have to say about current events in Greece? I suppose it is clear that the old Socialist International is dead, given the fact that Mr. Papandreou is its head, after all. What passes for socialism today is the diametric opposite of the reforms promoted under its name a century ago, in the era prior to World War I. Europe’s Social Democratic and Labour parties have led the way in privatization, financializing their economies under conditions that have blocked the growth in living standards. The result promises to be an international political realignment.

Economic austerity cannot secure creditor claims in the end

On Thursday afternoon the DJIA, having been down 230 points, leapt up at the close to lose “only” 60 points, on rumors that Greece had agreed to the IMF’s austerity plan. But what is “Greece”? Is it the cabinet alone? Certainly not yet the entire Parliament. Will there be a Parliamentary vote in opposition to the public interest, accepting austerity and privatization?

Only a referendum can commit the Greek government to repay new debts imposed under austerity. Only a referendum can prevent property that is privatized from being re-nationalized. Such a transfer is not legitimate under commonly accepted ideas of political and economic democracy. And in any event, a rent-tax can recapture for the Greek economy what the financial aggressors are trying to seize.

History is rife with instructive examples. Local oligarchies in the region invited Rome to attack Sparta, and it overthrew the kings and their successor Nabis (who may himself have been royal). The sequel is that Rome headed an oligarchic empire, using violence at home to murder democratic reformers such as the Gracchi brothers after 133 BC, plunging the republic into a century of civil war. The creditor interests ended up fully in control, and their own banal self-seeking plunged the Western half of the Roman Empire into an economic and social Dark Age.

Let’s hope the outcome is better this time around. There will indeed be fighting, but more in the financial and fiscal sphere than the overtly military one. The fight ultimately can be won only by understanding the corrosive dynamics of the “magic of compound interest” and the social need to subordinate creditor interests to those of the overall “real” economy. But to achieve this, economic theory itself needs to be brought out of its current post-classical “neoliberal” banality.

Footnote:

[1] Louise Story, “Derivatives Cloud the Possible Fallout From a Greek Default,” The New York Times, June 23, 2011, quotes Christopher Whalen, editor of The Institutional Risk Analyst, as saying: “This is why the Europeans came up with this ridiculous deal, because they don’t know what’s out there. They are afraid of a default. The industry is still refusing to provide the disclosure needed to understand this. They’re holding us hostage. The Street doesn’t want you to see what they’ve written.”

Published by kind permission of Michael Hudson.

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