Sunday, August 23, 2015

A New Approach to Eurozone Sovereign Debt

Yanis Varoufakis

ATHENS – Greece’s public debt has been put back on Europe’s agenda. Indeed, this was perhaps the Greek government’s main achievement during its agonizing five-month standoff with its creditors. After years of “extend and pretend,” today almost everyone agrees that debt restructuring is essential. Most important, this is true not just for Greece.

In February, I presented to the Eurogroup (which convenes the finance ministers of eurozone member states) a menu of options, including GDP-indexed bonds, which Charles Goodhart recently endorsed in the Financial Times, perpetual bonds to settle the legacy debt on the European Central Bank’s books, and so forth. One hopes that the ground is now better prepared for such proposals to take root, before Greece sinks further into the quicksand of insolvency.

But the more interesting question is what all of this means for the eurozone as a whole. The prescient calls from Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, and many others for a different approach to sovereign debt in general need to be modified to fit the particular characteristics of the eurozone’s crisis.

The eurozone is unique among currency areas: Its central bank lacks a state to support its decisions, while its member states lack a central bank to support them in difficult times. Europe’s leaders have tried to fill this institutional lacuna with complex, non-credible rules that often fail to bind, and that, despite this failure, end up suffocating member states in need.

One such rule is the Maastricht Treaty’s cap on member states’ public debt at 60% of GDP. Another is the treaty’s “no bailout” clause. Most member states, including Germany, have violated the first rule, surreptitiously or not, while for several the second rule has been overwhelmed by expensive financing packages.

The problem with debt restructuring in the eurozone is that it is essential and, at the same time, inconsistent with the implicit constitution underpinning the monetary union. When economics clashes with an institution’s rules, policymakers must either find creative ways to amend the rules or watch their creation collapse.

Here, then, is an idea (part of A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis, co-authored by Stuart Holland, and James K. Galbraith) aimed at re-calibrating the rules, enhancing their spirit, and addressing the underlying economic problem.

In brief, the ECB could announce tomorrow morning that, henceforth, it will undertake a debt-conversion program for any member state that wishes to participate. The ECB will service (as opposed to purchase) a portion of every maturing government bond corresponding to the percentage of the member state’s public debt that is allowed by the Maastricht rules. Thus, in the case of member states with debt-to-GDP ratios of, say, 120% and 90%, the ECB would service, respectively, 50% and 66.7% of every maturing government bond.

To fund these redemptions on behalf of some member states, the ECB would issue bonds in its own name, guaranteed solely by the ECB, but repaid, in full, by the member state. Upon the issue of such an ECB bond, the ECB would simultaneously open a debit account for the member state on whose behalf it issued the bond.

The member state would then be legally obliged to make deposits into that account to cover the ECB bonds’ coupons and principal. Moreover, the member state’s liability to the ECB would enjoy super-seniority status and be insured by the European Stability Mechanism against the risk of a hard default.

Such a debt-conversion program would offer five benefits. For starters, unlike the ECB’s current quantitative easing, it would involve no debt monetization. Thus, it would run no risk of inflating asset price bubbles.

Second, the program would cause a large drop in the eurozone’s aggregate interest payments. The Maastricht-compliant part of its members’ sovereign debt would be restructured with longer maturities (equal to the maturity of the ECB bonds) and at the ultra-low interest rates that only the ECB can fetch in international capital markets.

Third, Germany’s long-term interest rates would be unaffected, because Germany would neither be guaranteeing the debt-conversion scheme nor backing the ECB’s bond issues.

Fourth, the spirit of the Maastricht rule on public debt would be reinforced, and moral hazard would be reduced. After all, the program would boost significantly the interest-rate spread between Maastricht-compliant debt and the debt that remains in the member states’ hands (which they previously were not permitted to accumulate).

Finally, GDP-indexed bonds and other tools for dealing sensibly with unsustainable debt could be applied exclusively to member states’ debt not covered by the program and in line with international best practices for sovereign-debt management.

The obvious solution to the euro crisis would be a federal solution. But federation has been made less, not more, likely by a crisis that tragically set one proud nation against another.

Indeed, any political union that the Eurogroup would endorse today would be disciplinarian and ineffective. Meanwhile, the debt restructuring for which the eurozone – not just Greece – is crying out is unlikely to be politically acceptable in the current climate.

But there are ways in which debt could be sensibly restructured without any cost to taxpayers and in a manner that brings Europeans closer together. One such step is the debt-conversion program proposed here. Taking it would help to heal Europe’s wounds and clear the ground for the debate that the European Union needs about the kind of political union that Europeans deserve. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Debate on Mahler Seeking God

On the Desert of Post-Ideology | Master Class | Higher Learning

Thanks to the EU’s villainy, Greece is now under financial occupation

When my short essay on Greece after the referendum “The Courage of Hopelessness” was republished by In These Times, its title was changed into “How Alexis Tsipras and Syriza Outmaneuvered Angela Merkel and the Eurocrats”. Although I effectively think that accepting the EU terms was not a simple defeat, I am far from such an optimist view. The reversal of the NO of referendum to the YES to Brussels was a genuine devastating shock, a shattering painful catastrophe. More precisely, it was an apocalypse in both senses of the term, the usual one (catastrophe) and the original literal one (disclosure, revelation): the basic antagonism, deadlock, of the situation was clearly disclosed.

Many Leftist commentators (Habermas included) got it wrong when they read the conflict between the EU and Greece as the conflict between technocracy and politics: the EU treatment of Greece is not technocracy but politics at its purest, a politics which even runs against economic interests (as it was clearly stated by IMF, a true representative of cold economic rationality, which declared the bailout plan unworkable). If anything, it was Greece which stood for economic rationality and EU which stood for politico-ideological passion. After the Greek banks and stock exchange reopened, there was a tremendous flight of capital and fall of stocks which were not primarily a sign of the distrust of the Syriza government but of the distrust of the imposed EU measures – a clear brutal message that (as we are used to put it in today’s animistic terms) capital itself does not believe in the EU bailout plan. (And, incidentally, most of the money given to Greece goes to the Western private banks, which means that Germany and other EU superpowers are spending taxpayers’ money to save their own banks which made the mistake of giving bad loans. Not to mention the fact that Germany profited tremendously from the escape of the Greek capital from Greece to Germany.)

When Varoufakis justified his vote against the measures imposed by Bruxelles, he compared the deal to the Versailles treaty which was unjust and harboured a new war. Although his parallel is correct, I would prefer another one, with the Brest-Litovsk treaty between Soviet Russia and Germany at the beginning of 1918, in which, to the consternation of many of its partisans, the Bolshevik government ceded to Germany’s outrageous demands – true, they retreated, but this gave them a breathing space to fortify their power and wait. And the same goes for Greece today: we are not at the end, the Greek retreat is not the last word for the simple reason that the crisis will hit again, in a couple of years if not earlier, and not only in Greece. The task of the Syriza government is to get ready for that moment, to patiently occupy positions and plan options. Keeping political power in these impossible conditions nonetheless provides a minimal space for preparing the ground for future action and for political education.

Therein resides the paradox of the situation: although the bailout plan will not work, one should not lose nerves and step out but follow it till the next explosion – why? Because of the obvious non-preparedness of Greece for the Grexit – there was no Plan B for how to do this very difficult and complex operation. Till now, the Syriza government operated without really controlling the state apparatus with its 2 million employees: police and judiciary mostly belong to the political Right, administration is part and parcel of the corrupted clientelist machine, etc - and it is precisely this vast state machinery that one will have to rely on in the case of the immense work of Grexit. (We should also bear in mind that Grexit was the enemy’s plan (there are even rumours that Schauble offered €50bn to Greece if it leaves the Eurozone). What makes the Syriza government so troubling is precisely the fact that it is the government of a country inside the Eurozone: “the vehemence with which it has been opposed is due precisely to Greece’s existence within the Eurozone. Who would really care, come to power in a little country with drachma as its currency?”)

What manoeuvring space does the Syriza government have when it is reduced to enacting the politics of its enemy? Should it step down and call new elections rather than enact the policy that is directly opposed to one’s programme? Such a move is all too easy, it is ultimately a new version of what Hegel called the Beautiful Soul. As Etienne Balibar put it, Syriza needs most of all to gain time, and the EU powers are doing everything they can to deprive Syriza of time – they try to push Syriza into a corner, enforcing a fast decision: either total capitulation (stepdown) or Grexit. Time for what? Not only for preparing itself for the next crisis. We should always bear in mind that the basic task of the Syriza government is neither Euro nor the settling of accounts with the EU but, above all, the radical reorganisation of Greece’s long term corrupt social and political institutions: “Syriza’s extraordinary problem – which would not be faced by any other political party in government – was to alter internal institutional frameworks under conditions of external institutional assault” (like Germany itself did it in early 1800 under French occupation).

The problem Greece is confronting now is the one of the “Left governmentability”: the hard reality of what it means for the radical Left to govern in the world of global capital. What options has the government? The obvious candidates – simple social-democratization, state-socialism, withdrawal from state and reliance on social movements – are obviously not enough. The true novelty of the Syriza government is that it is a governmental event – the first time that a western radical Left (not the old style Communist one) took state power. The entire rhetorics, so beloved by the New Left, of acting at a distance from state, has to be abandoned: one has to heroically assume full responsibility for the welfare of the entire people and leave behind the basic Leftist “critical” attitude of finding a perverse satisfaction in providing sophisticated explanations of why things had to take a wrong turn.

The choice the Syriza government was facing is an actual difficult choice which should be dealt with in brutal pragmatic terms, it is not a big principled choice between the true act and opportunistic betrayal. The accusations of the Syriza government’s “betrayal” are made to avoid the true big question: how to confront capital in its today’s shape? How to govern, how to run a state, “with people”? It is all too easy to say that Syriza is not just a government party but has its roots in popular mobilisation and social movements: Syriza “is a loose, self-contradictory, and internally antagonistic coalition of leftist thought and practice, very much dependent on the capacity of social movements of all kinds, thoroughly decentralised and driven by the activism of solidarity networks in a broad sphere of action across class lines of conflict, gender and sexuality activism, immigration issues, anti-globalisation movements, civil and human rights advocacy, etc”. However, the question remains: how does or should this reliance on popular self-organisation affect running a government?

In his “Greece Has Been Betrayed”, Tariq Ali wrote: “At the beginning of the month they were celebrating the ‘No’ vote. They were prepared to make more sacrifices, to risk life outside the Eurozone. Syriza turned its back on them. The date 12 July 2015, when Tsipras agreed to the EU’s terms, will become as infamous as 21 April 1967. The tanks have been replaced by banks, as Varoufakis put it after he was made finance minister.” I consider this parallel between 2015 and 1967 convincing but simultaneously profoundly deceiving. Yes, tanks does rhyme with banks, which means: Greece is now de facto under financial occupation, with strongly reduced sovereignty, all government proposals have to be approved by “troika” before they are submitted to parliament, not only financial decisions but even data are under foreign control (Varoufakis didn’t have access to the data of his own ministry – he is now accused of treason for trying to do it), and, to add insult to injury, insofar as the democratically elected government obeys these rules, it voluntarily provides a democratic mask to this financial dictate. (As to the recent charges against Varoufakis for treason, they display obscenity it its purest: while billions disappeared in the last decades, and the state manufactured fabricated financial reports, the only person charged was the journalist who rendered public the names of the owners of illegal foreign bank accounts – but Varoufakis was now instantly charged on ridiculous pretext. If there is an authentic hero in the entire Greek crisis story, it is Varoufakis.)

Should then Grexit be risked? We are confronting here la tentation evenementielle, the evental temptation – the temptation, in a difficult situation, to accomplish the crazy act, to do the impossible, to take the risk and step out whatever the costs, with the underlying logic is that “things cannot be worse than they are now.” The catch is that they certainly can get much worse, up to exploding into a full social and humanitarian crisis. The key question is: was there really an objective possibility of a proper emancipatory act of drawing all politico-economic consequences from the NO of referendum? When Badiou talks about an emancipatory Event, he always emphasises that an occurrence is not an Event in itself – it only becomes one retroactively, through its consequences, through the hard and patient “work of love” of those who fight for it, who practice fidelity to it. One should thus abandon (“deconstruct”, even) the topic of the opposition between “normal” run of things and the “state of exception” characterised by the fidelity to an Event which disrupts the “normal” run of things. In a “normal” run of things life just goes on, following its inertia, we are immersed in our daily cares and rituals, and then something happens, and evental Awakening, a secular version of a miracle (social emancipatory explosion, traumatic love encounter…); if we opt for the fidelity to this event, our entire life changes, we are engaged in the “work of love” and endeavor to inscribe the Event into our reality; at some point, then, the evental sequence is exhausted and we return to the normal« flow of things… But what if the true power of an Event should be measured precisely by its disappearance, when the Event is erased in its result, in the change in “normal” life? Let's take a socio-political Event: what remains of it in its aftermath when its ecstatic energy is exhausted and things return to “normality” - how is this “normality” different from the pre-evental one?

So, back to Greece, it is easy to count on the heroic gesture of promising blood, sweat, and tears, to repeat the mantra that authentic politics means one should not remain within the confines of the possible but to risk the impossible – but what would this imply in the case of Grexit? First, let's not forget that the referendum was neither about Euro (75 per cent of Greeks prefer to stay in Euro) nor about staying in the EU or not. The question was: “Do you want this situation to continue or not?” Which means that the result also cannot be read as a sign that the Greek people are ready to endure sacrifices and more suffering in order to assert their sovereignty. The NO was a NO to their continuing situation, which was the situation of austerity, poverty, etc. It was a demand for better life, not a readiness for more suffering and sacrifice. (Generally, the motif of “readiness for immense suffering” is extremely problematic.) Second, in the case of Grexit, would the Greek state not be compelled to enforce a series of measures (nationalisation of banks, higher taxes, etc.) which are simply a revival of the old national-sovereignty-state-socialist economic politics? Nothing against such politics, but would it work in the specific conditions of today’s Greece, with its inefficient state apparatus and as a part of global economy? Here are the three main points of the Left Platform anti-austerity plan, listing a series of “absolutely manageable” measures:

1.   The radical reorganisation of the banking system, its nationalisation under social control, and its reorientation towards growth.
2.   The complete rejection of fiscal austerity (primary surpluses and balanced budgets) in order to effectively address the humanitarian crisis, cover social needs, reconstruct the social state, and take the economy out of the vicious circle of recession.
3.   The implementation of the beginning procedures leading to exit from the euro and to the cancellation of the major part of the debt. There are absolutely manageable choices that can lead to a new economic model oriented towards production, growth, and the change in the social balance of forces to the benefit of the working class and the people.

Plus two additional specifications:

The elaboration of a development plan based on public investment, which will however also allow in parallel private investment. Greece needs a new and productive relationship between the public and private sectors to enter a path to sustainable development. The realisation of this project will become possible once liquidity is reestablished, combined with national saving.

Regaining control of the domestic market from imported products will revitalise and enhance the role of small and medium-sized enterprises, which remain the backbone of the Greek economy. At the same time exports will be stimulated by the introduction of a national currency.”

It is difficult to see in all this anything more than the usual set of state-interventionist measures: return to national currency, printing money, financing big public works, supporting domestic industry… Such measures, if properly calibrated, may work – but would they work in today’s Greece, with an enormous foreign debt of private individuals and companies (which cannot be cancelled), with an economy fully integrated into and dependent on Western Europe, relying on food, industrial and medical imports? In other words, where, in what outside, would Greece find itself? In an outside of Belarus and Cuba? As Paul Krugman recently wrote, one has to admit that nobody really knows what the consequences of the Grexit would be – it’s an uncharted territory. But one thing is nonetheless clear: “Grexit is a name for none other than a politics of national independence”, so no wonder that some partisans of the Left Platform even resort to the extremely problematic and (for me) totally inacceptable self-characterisation “national populism”. (Incidentally, one has to reject both optimist myths, the Left Platform myth that there is a clear rational way to do Grexit and bring new prosperity, as well as the obverse myth (advocated by, among others, Jeffrey Frankel) that, by faithfully enforcing the bailout plan, Tsipras can become a new Lula.)

So the choice now is not simply “Grexit or capitulation”: the Syriza government finds itself in a unique situation, obliged to do what it is opposed to. To persist in such a difficult situation and not to leave the field is true courage. The enemy of the Syriza government is now not primarily the Left Platform but those who take “sincerely” the defeat and really want to play the EU card. The true miracle of the situation, and one of the few sources of modest hope, is that, in spite of the capitulation to Bruxelles, it seems that around 70 per cent of Greek voters still support the Syriza government – the explanation is that the majority perceives the Syriza government as doing the right think in an impossible situation.

There is no clear a priori answer here, any decision can only be retroactively justified by its consequences. There is a risk that the Syriza capitulation will turn out to be just that and nothing more, enabling the full reintegration of Greece into EU as a humble bankrupt member, in the same way that there is a risk of Grexit turning into a large scale catastrophe. What one should fear is not only the prospect of the further suffering of the Greek people, but also the prospect of another fiasco which will discredit the Left for years to come, while the surviving Leftists will argue how their defeat proves yet again the perfidiousness of the capitalist system…