Saturday, 14 July 2012

Grecian 2000 (and 12)

Despite his being that peculiar thing, a Scottish Tory, listening to Professor Niall Ferguson’s last Reith lecture, I was taken aback at how gifted and charismatic a communicator he truly is. And he’s got good hair.

The arguments he made about the current situation? Meh. Actually, delete Meh and replace with “pandering to the preservation of elite self-interest despite that being at the destructive expense of society and the economy as a whole”.

Professor Ferguson, of Harvard Business School no less, is of course a very talented Scotsman on the make who has established himself as a (very) well paid ornament of the aforementioned elite. His claim that government borrowing and sovereign debt is a betrayal of future generations is a dangerous one because it provides something that sounds like an intellectual basis that the elite might not otherwise have(or not be able to communicate so articulately) for hacking back government spending. It’s also pants with Greece providing a good starting point as to why.

Greece’s problems stem from two interlinked failures. One, successive governments racked up wodges of sovereign debt to waste on deeply inefficient public sector spending. In this respect Greece seemingly exemplifies the kind of arguments Professor Ferguson made better than any other country. However, there was and is a second Greek failure; successive governments allowed the Greek people and Greek business to dodge taxes on an industrial scale - Greeks love dodging taxes even more than they do sodomy and plate smashing.

The thing is the two failures are deeply, unavoidably and fundamentally entwined, which is why Greece actually lends little support to Professor Ferguson’s argument; a government unwilling to raise revenues i.e. taxes, has to find the money from somewhere to prop up inefficient dreck like Olympic Airlines. Hence, the Greek sovereign debt crisis is as much about tax dodging as it is wasteful government spending because debt financed both.

And as the people with the most benefit the most from tax dodging, Greece’s tragedy is as much about the wealthy camouflaging their swimming pools to avoid flying tax inspectors as it is civil servants receiving bonuses every time they wiped their arses (there is one difference between the two groups of course; Greece’s elite has been busily buying up luxury London property, off-shoring as many Euros as possible in a wonderful statement of national pride and unity. By contrast the civil servants are getting humped).

So even if you accept the notion government debt robs a nation’s children of their future at some point in the, well, future, right now Greece actually exemplifies how debt was and is being used to maximise the incomes and wealth of today’s elite.

But, Professor Ferguson is a historian and historians like facts, so lets have some. In fact lets approach this like say a Sir Lewis Namier, a dead historian who emphasised the importance of self-interest, something Professor Ferguson is profoundly enamoured with; hence, a recent study found doctors and engineers are the worst (or is that most effective?) professions in Greece for tax dodging. Now guess which two professions are heavily represented in the Greek parliament? Yup, failed vets and grease monkeys.

This is interesting. This suggests an alternative model for understanding how shit got to where it is, one where in the West economic and political elites used both public and private debt to mask the incredible growth seen in economic inequality, finance tax dodging (or tax cuts in the US/tax “efficiency” here) and, by seemingly boosting the incomes of us plebs, distract from the profound failure of “wealth” or “job” creators to create wealth for anyone other than themselves.

And sticking with Sir Lewis a mo longer, if I was a rich man, right now (or a rich man’s ornament), in between the yubby dibby dibby and the biddy biddy bum, I’d be going on at great length about how public spending needs to be cut back, how sovereign debt is a terribly bad thing, balanced budgets, couldn’t run a business/ household like that, yadda, yadda, yadda (biddy bum) i.e. doing everything I could to draw attention away from how higher taxes on capital and profits could also sort out sovereign debt (a practical policy suggestion here being howzabout next time there’s an “amnesty” for tax dodgers hiding their money off shore, the threat is pay everything or go to jail).

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