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Greed & the Pain in Spain

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Cross-posted from Dispatches From the Edge


Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz characterizes the Spanish bank bailout as "voodoo economics" that is certain "to fail." New York Times economic analyst Andrew Ross Sorkin agrees: "By now it should be apparent that the bailout has failed -- or at least on its way to failing." And columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman bemoans that Europe (and the U.S.) "are repeating ancient mistakes" and asks, "why does no one learn from them?"

Indeed, at first glance, the European Union's response to the economic chaos gripping the continent does seem a combination of profound delusion, and what British a reporter called "sado-monetarism" -- endless cutbacks, savage austerity, and widespread layoffs.

But whether something "works" or not depends on what you do for a living.

If you work at a regular job, you are in deep trouble. Spanish unemployment is at 25 percent -- much higher in the country's southern regions -- and 50 percent among young people. In one way or other, those figures -- albeit not quite as high -- are replicated across the Euro Zone, particularly in those countries that have sipped from Circe's bailout cup: Ireland, Portugal, and Greece.

But if you are Josef Ackermann heading up the Deutsche Bank, you earned an 8 million Euro bonus in 2012, because you successfully manipulated the past four years of economic meltdown to make the bank bigger and more powerful than it was before the 2008 crash. In 2009, when people were losing their jobs, their homes, and their pensions, Deutsche Bank's profits soared 67 percent, eventually raking in almost 8 billion Euros for 2011. The bank took a hit in 2012, but the Spanish bailout will help recoup Deutsche Bank's losses from its gambling spree in Spanish real estate.

And, just in case you thought irony was dead, it was the Spanish housing bubble that tanked that country's economy -- at the time Madrid's debt was among the lowest in the Euro Zone -- and German banks (as well as Dutch, French, British and Austrian) financed that bubble. German Banks also financed the real estate bubble that crashed Ireland's economy. Some 60 percent of Deutsche Bank's income is foreign based.

Consider this figure: in 1997 real estate loans in Ireland were 5 billion Euros. By 2007 they were 96.2 billion Euros, a jump of 1,730 percent. Real estate prices rose 500 percent, the same amount that Spanish housing prices increased. The banks didn't know they were pumping up a bubble? Of course they knew, but they were making money hand over fist.

When the American financial industry self-destructed in 2008, the Irish and Spanish bubbles popped, and who got the bill? Irish taxpayers shelled out $30 billion to bail out the Anglo-Irish Bank -- essentially the country's total tax revenues for 2009 -- and in return got a 15 percent unemployment rate, huge cuts in the minimum wage, pension reductions, and social service cutbacks. Spain is headed in the same direction.

As Spanish economist and London School of Economics professor Luis Garicano told the New York Times, "Unfortunately, Spain did not manage to reach one of its main goals in the negotiations [over the bailout], which was to have Europe bear part of the risk of rescuing the financial sector, without letting it fall instead directly onto the shoulders of the Spanish taxpayers."

Garicano went on to complain, "Those who lent to our financial system were the banks and the insurance companies of Northern Europe, which should bear the consequences of these decisions."

But of course they will not. Instead, the banks got to go to the casino, gamble other people's money, and get repaid for their losses. That's sweet work if you can get it.

However, the "sado-monetarism" strategy is about more than just bailing out the banks at the expense of the vast majority of European taxpayers. It cloaks its long-term designs in coded language: "rigid labor market," "internal devaluation," "pension reform," "common budgetary process," and "political union."

A quick translation.

"Rigid labor market" means getting rid of contracts that guarantee decent wages, working conditions and benefits, all won through a long process of negotiations and industrial action. As the New York Times put it, the current right-wing Spanish government is attempting to "loosen collective bargaining agreements."

The drive to scrap union contracts is coupled with "internal devaluation," which, as Krugman points out, "basically means cutting wages." If the working class can be forced to accept lower wages and slimmer benefits -- and there is no better disciplinarian in these regards than a high unemployment rate -- profits will go up. Sure, the vast majority will be poorer, but not the people who run Deutsche Bank.

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http://dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

Conn M. Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, "A Think Tank Without Walls, and an independent journalist. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw the (more...)
 
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