Yves here. In an interview with Edward Geelhoed, Varoufakis gives an urgent, sobering picture of the conditions in Greece, which contrasts dramatically with the claims made by Eurozone politicians.
By Yanis Varoufakis, professor of economics at the University of Athens. Originally posted at his blog
Some positive sounds are audible from Greece these days. Mostly produced by the government itself, of course, but also by Merkel, by the OECD (along with some negative sounds), by some European officials (while others say they’re ‘impatient’ with Greece). Is Greece slowly recovering?
It takes a passionate disregard for the truth to suggest that Greece is recovering. Investment has fallen by 18% since the dismal levels of 2011/12, credit to non-financial institutions is 20% down from the asphyxiating depths of 2012, poverty has reached record heights, and is still growing, employment is at levels that are best narrated in the style of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, public debt is exceeding the worst expectations of the greatest pessimists, private debt is reaching for the sky at a time when the collateral posted (e.g. house prices) are sinking fast, the government’s tax take is trailing the worst forecasts. The list of woes is endless and the so-called ‘Greek Success Story’, or ‘Greek-covery’, reflects nothing except the determination to reverse the truth, Goebbels-like, by those who insisted on the policies which resulted in this debacle.
The positive sounds refer to the budget surplus, to a small growth (says the gov’t) or just a small recession (says the others) of the economy.
Europeans have a duty to themselves to see through this toxic propaganda. There is no such thing as a Greek budget surplus – not even a primary surplus (i.e. a surplus if we not count loan and interest repayments). If you look at the government’s own accounts, the January to October 2013 balance reveals a primary budget deficit of nearly €6 billion. As for the rumoured primary ‘surplus’ that is ‘around the corner’ this is a projection, a piece of wishful thinking that may, or may not eventuate, next year. As for growth, the Greek economy is still, by the government’s own accounts, shrinking at -4%. The projection of growth of… 0.4% is for 2014. Europeans need to look at this projection in the context of similar projections which, for example, had (at the time of ‘bailout Mk1’) Greece growing by 2012 at a dizzying rate of 2.3%! In truth, 2014 and 2015 will again see the Greek social economy shrink further.
Is some ‘positivity’ justified, or is Samaras’s so-called success story about ‘justifying austerity in the eurozone’, as The Guardian puts it?
Austerity is being, falsely, justified by the so-called Irish ‘escape’ from the clutches of the ESM. I have argued elsewhere that the justification for austerity in the Irish experience is fraudulent. Nevertheless, the Greece case is not even used by Brussels, Frankfurt or Berlin as a justification for austerity. The reason is simple: it takes only a perusal of the facts to recognise that Greece is in a sad, never-ending mess.
In an op-ed in the Financial Times, Mr. Spiegel recently stated that ‘Athens is gradually shedding the incentives for reforms’. Is that what we’re seeing with the Troika talks, now the gov’t is satisfied with the budget surplus?
What your readers must come to understand is that, the moment the ‘bailouts’ were forced upon Greece in 2010 and then again in 2012, all chance of meaningful, effective reform disappeared. Think about it for a moment: In 2010 the Greek private and public sectors became insolvent. So, what did Europe and the Greek government do? They piled on the weak shoulders of the bankrupt Greek social economy the largest loan in human history on condition that Greece’s GDP (from which old and new loans would have to be repaid) shrinks substantially (for this is what the stringent austerity meant)! Naturally, no one with any sense invested in this country and the insolvency both of the state and of the private sector deepened. Now, turning to reforms, ask any CEO of any decent company: “If you want to reform, to modernise, to re-structure your company, can you do it on the cheap? Without any investment?” The answer is negative. Similarly with Greece. The country was pushed into a never-ending negative spiral that rendered it un-reformable and un-governable all at once. For it is not ‘reform’ to cut wages, pensions and to push taxes through the roof at a time when GDP is collapsing and the banks have no capacity whatsoever to lend even to potentially successful enterprises. These so-called ‘reforms’ are nothing but acts of brutality. The homage propaganda pays to irrationality.
Is PASOK’s concern for overburdening society genuine and sincere, or does it fear for its weakened position only, for political reasons?
PASOK effectively ceased to exist in November 2011, with George Papandreou’s resignation. The party paid the price of being in government, though not in power, at the moment the nation hit the rocks. Papandreou had a golden opportunity in early 2010 to tell the truth (i.e. that Greece was bankrupt) and thus save his government, his party and what was left of the nation’s dignity. He failed spectacularly. After his resignation PASOK became a rump whose raison d’ etre is to provide a life raft for political wreckages like Venizelos. Sadly, a significant party of the Centre Left has now degenerated into a small gang of corrupt politicians struggling to stay out of prison.
Stournaras (Greece’s finance minister) and Samaras (Greece’s PM) say they don’t need a third loan. Is Greece ready to return to the markets, can it stand on its feet? Or do they try to gain confidence with psychological statements like these?
None of the deficit Eurozone member-states can refinance their debts autonomously. Not even Italy and Spain. Without Mr Mario Draghi’s OMT proclamation, in September 2012, which was a clear threat to bond dealers not to bet against the deficit nations’ government bonds, Italy and Spain would have joined Greece, Ireland and Portugal in the group of failed states. While the OMT threat is still managing to keep spreads down, some of the deficit countries can refinance their public debt. Even Greece might be able to do so if the ECB were to signal to markets that Athens would be placed under the OMT umbrella. But to say that they can stand on their own feet in the money markets is to mis-read totally the situation. In this sense, Stournaras and Samaras are not hoping to fool the markets – they cannot be that foolish. No, they are hoping against hope that Berlin will consent to Greece being let out of the ESM and placed under the OMT umbrella. Of course, none of this matters. Whether under the ESM or the OMT, the deficit Eurozone countries (Ireland just as Greece, Spain just as Portugal) are still in chains, caught up in a negative feedback dynamic between un-payable debts, insolvent banks, recessionary forces and mindless universal austerity.
Merkel speaks of ‘impressive facts’, but these numbers are there due to heavy burdening the society. Increased competitiveness, an erased budget deficit, but it caused enormous despair. Samaras calls it ‘the sacrifices of the people’. Is it worth it? Isn’t there a huge difference in realities on paper and in the outside world, on the streets? Didn’t it not only cause despair, but also ruined the economy in the long run?
You are making a significant error: The situation is not just awful on the ground. The situation is unbearable also on paper; in terms of official statistics. Our leaders are disgracing themselves with ‘happy go lucky’ pronouncements that clash with their own statisticians’ numbers. Never before has such energy be expended by political leaders to mislead Parliaments and electorates regarding the economic situation on paper and on the ground. Worse still, our leaders are doing this cynically and knowingly, the result being the greatest democratic deficit in Europe’s post-war history.
Martin Schulz said that the Troika has done ‘more bad than good’. Do you expect a different policy to be executed?
No. I just expect that Mr Schultz is expecting to gather a few more Peripheral votes in his sad quest for the top position in Brussels.
Should bond investors share the costs of bailouts with taxpayers, as the IMF suggests? Should European governments write down the Greek loans? A former IMF economist said recently: ‘There’s no trade-off between austerity and debt restructuring – you have to do both.’
You are asking someone who warned, in January 2010, that any bailout for Greece would be a terrible blow against the Eurozone if it were not preceded by massive debt restructuring. The IMF, behind the scene, agreed with me. But in public they lent their voices to the Berlin-Frankfurt-Brussels cacophonous choir that proclaimed a debt haircut as both unnecessary and undesirable. To have these same officials lecture us on the importance of debt restructuring is a little like listening to the Titanic’s captain lecture us on iceberg avoidance.
What is the path to growth? Or is growth overrated?
It depends on what is growing. At the moment we have growing debts, non-performing loans, poverty, suicides, and… Nazi parties. These are our ‘growth’ areas. What we need, before we can talk about growth credibly, is stabilisation. To stabilise the Eurozone we need to Europeanise, without any federal moves, four realms: public debt management, banking sectors, aggregate investment policies and attempts to quell the humanitarian crisis.
George Pagoulatos says that structural reforms are clearly happening, for example; at the pension system, all possible structural changes have been made, he says, not so much horizontal measures. Others disagree. The Troika agreed not to execute horizontal measures anymore. Are true reforms happing, in your eyes? Where is it needed most?
To compress pensions to unlivable levels is not to carry out structural reforms. As I already argued (see above), genuine reforms cost money and cannot be effected in an environment of fear, collapse and political illegitimacy.
Is there a real, radical alternative to all of this? Are proposals by Syriza possibilities? (If so, which ones mostly?) You seem to have sympathy for the party’s ideas, isn’t it?
No solution can be effected at the national level. It is as if in the 1930s the state of Kansas could have reversed, on its own, the effects of the Great Depression through Kansas-centred policies. The Eurozone is experiencing a systemic crisis that needs to be dealt with systematically. How? What we need is to escape the false dilemma between the current, dead end, policies and the (false) alternative of moving in a federal direction (that Europe is not ready for). This false dilemma must be escaped through a rational redeployment of existing institutions in a manner that does not ask of the surplus nations (like Germany and the Netherlands) to pay the bills of the deficit nations while, at the same time, not pushing the burdens of adjustment onto the weakened shoulders of the deficit countries. Together with my colleagues J.K. Galbraith and S. Holland, we have presented what we call a Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis. Michel Rocard, the former French PM, as well as a number of former EU heads of state, have endorsed its basic tenets.
As for Syriza, my reasons for supporting Alexis Tsipras, both in his bid to win government in Athens and also in the context of European politics, is simple: Europe needs a major jolt from a government that is at once committed to the European-Eurozonal project and to the truth. I do not really care where it comes from as long as someone in the EU Council, in the Eurogroup, in Ecofin breaks the code of silence about basic truths that no one dares speak. At long last, Europe must have a debate on basic prerequisites for stabilising the Eurozone. To do so, someone must refuse to continue the lie of the past five years that, supposedly, Europe is on the right track. Tsipras is prepared to veto this lie while doing his utmost to keep Greece in the Eurozone. For this reason he has my support.
How can (youth) unemployment be conquered best?
It is absurd and, indeed, indecent, to imagine that youth unemployment can be tackled when adult unemployment is skyrocketing. Youth unemployment will fall when unemployment falls. Of course, there are clever and innovative methods of combining education with vocation training, as it is done with some success in Germany. But none of this is possible in a crashing economy.
Can you call Greece still a welfare state? To what sort of society will these policies lead to, eventually?
Greece is being used as if it were an experimental laboratory in which the welfare state is dismantled and the experimenters keenly observe the effects of its dismantling. If so, it is time to end this misanthropic experiment. For we can now see that the result is untold pain, economic collapse (even of potentially profitable enterprises), and the rise and rise of a Nazi party in the one country of the European Union that fought most heroically against the original Nazis.