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Jeffrey Sommers: Comparing Apples to Oranges: The Baltic States and Greece

By Jeffrey Sommers. Sommers is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His book with Charles Woolfson, The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model is available from Routledge.

It has become increasingly fashionable to compare the results of Greece and the Baltic States’ response to the financial crisis of 2008, most recently last month with the Financial Times’ column with John Dizard. This, however, is a classic textbook case of comparing apples to oranges. Greece’s crisis was chiefly a public debt crisis enabled by membership in the eurozone and the cheap loans extended to the state this enabled that amounted to 107.4 percent of GDP in 2007 in the run up to the crisis. By contrast, the Baltic states had paltry public debt to GDP ratios of only 4.4, 10.7, 18 percent respectively in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2007, before the financial shock. Their crisis was a private sector one as banking capital ran for the door after creating a property bubble that burst.

Greece and the Baltic states did share one common feature. Tax evasion has been the national sport in their respective countries. For the Baltics states (especially Latvia) and their offshore banks, this is big business which their economies depend on. The Syriza government in Greece is attempting to tackle this pernicious problem, albeit with unknowable results at present.

Additionally, there was a wide gap in wages between Greece and the Baltic states following the crisis. For example, in 2009 Latvia’s per capita purchasing power (PPP) was $14,307 (in 2013 adjusted dollars). By contrast that year in Greece it was $29,512. Thus, given the ultra-low wages paid in the Baltics, there was much incentive for investors to take advantage of wage arbitrage opportunities. The real wage gaps were larger still, given that Baltic inequality is more extreme than in Greece. Now that wages have increased in the Baltic states to levels close to Greece’s, economic growth is flatlining as the wage arbitrage between them and Greece is no longer significant.

Oil prices rebounded quickly after the 2008 shock and by 2009 CIS offshore cash was racing into the Baltics from the east. More still came in as problems emerged in Cyprus’ offshore banking industry in 2012 and 2013. Now that oil prices have declined offshore financial flows to the Baltics have declined and with that (and the EU sanctions against Russia) their economic growth has dramatically slowed. So the jury is still out on the longer-term economic consequences of the kind of brutal austerity that Greece and the Baltics share in common.

Furthermore, the Baltics did not cut taxes in response to the crisis. In fact, they introduced tax increases on the poorer sections of the population to repair their balance sheets. Immediately following the crisis, Latvia for example increased its VAT on many items (but not luxury goods). Some have praised the relatively flat tax rates of the Baltic states, but this doesn’t take into account the non-taxable minimum was cut dramatically in 2009, and represented the equivalent of a 7% tax increase on the bottom third of Latvians. In short, Baltic state taxes have been anything but flat, but have been regressive.

Meanwhile, the Baltic states have experienced new levels of mass poverty (40% of Latvia’s children were at risk of poverty in 2009). The results have been an exodus of the population with the highest levels of out-migration in the EU that threatens the longer-term sustainability of even the very partial recovery that has occurred. Also at risk given the magnitude of the emigration from Latvia and Lithuania, is their very demographic viability itself. Finally, many trumpet the virtues of ‘front-loading’ austerity cuts on the population, in line with the views of ‘shock-therapy architect’ Anders Aslund. Unlike Greece (at least until the Troika got to work), workplace rights and collective bargaining have all but disappeared in the Baltics. Up to 30 per cent of employees now exist within the informal economy in which workers have no rights whatsoever and if they are paid legal wages they are the legislated minimum, if not less. The Greek people are thus still in a more fortunate position compared to the Baltics and the push-back against austerity is growing. But here the comparison ends.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

6 comments

  1. DJG

    Because my grandfather came from a small town in Lithuania, land of bees and potatoes and tragic history, I am continuously appalled by the news from there. The Germans and the Russians were never able to get the Lithuanians under control. Yet 20 or so years of the Creative Destruction of capitalism, and here we are, witnessing the demographic collapse of a small and viable nation that didn’t realize that resisting late-stage pillaging capitalism is just as important as resisting the Soviets was. As for the Latvians, I’m suspecting that the demographic collapse has been induced to get rid of the Russian minority.

  2. /L

    Freed from soviet empire and then the local neo-liberal cabal immediately sold out to new masters. Suppose the huge economic success makes the baltic countries flooded with emigrants from everywhere and nativity going up when the economy is “booming”. The zionist story of a land without people was a gross lie but e.g. Latvia do what it can to make it self a land without people, using creative demographics to veil it.
    In an interview recently Sweden’s former finance minister said his most scary moment was when G20 almost refused to give Latvia more credit, decades of Swedish current account surpluses had been invested in the baltic real estate bubble. Swedish banks and finance had gone sour and of course the taxpayers have had to step in. Swedens Greece moment. But thanks to the pliant baltic people, neo-liberal infested politicians and institutional EU and IMF arm-wringing the Swedish people avoided that fate.

    Ill guess many people in former soviet states and eastern Europe believed that capitalism was the same as the liberal/social-democratic full employment politics of post war western Europe. They wanted capitalism and got the real deal.

  3. sam snead

    The number of people(mostly 20-30) that have left the Baltic countries is staggering.
    Its a crazy economic system where young people can do is flee their own country,

    1. /L

      And the “institutions” want it for all of EUrope, but if they succeed one wonder where young people shall flee. The dream of structural adjusted EUropeans, an export driven power house with China as model.
      And the only hope to make a wedge in this madness is Marine Le Pen, will God help europeans? We had the plague, the inquisition, a war ravaged 15 century, first and second word wars… is EU neo-liberal madness just natural evolution?

      When EU did it’s big eastern expansion the eastern countries did have referendums on joining EU. In most of the countries there was a meager turnout, close to non-valid elections. The greatest EU enthusiasts besides the politicians who wanted to be part of Brussels wining and dining was young people who did see it as an opportunity to flee their now neo-liberal capitalist countries ravaged with unemployment and poverty.

  4. dsdf

    The Balitcs will never return to their pre-independence living standards. The continuous cabal of right-wing libertarians, lap dogs to foreign capital, that continue to run these countries after two decades of mass-destruction is telling about the limits of monetized representative democracy. During the 1980s, there were three groups, of equal numbers: one, rabidly anti-Russian, one apathetic, and one, socialist.

  5. Demeter

    It’s hard to imagine any kind of prosperity for anyone as long as banks can do whatever they like, and be bailed out by the patsy governments. Even ending the Euro would not stop the banksters….that would take real guts, like Iceland has demonstrated in part.

    The Obscenely Wealthy are going to have to give up the option of robbing from the poor to create their hoards. They are going to have to actually produce wealth by building public goods and resources.

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