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The Stakes Are High


“ … Imagine that in its worst year of our recent recession, the United States government had decided to reduce its federal budget deficit by more than $800bn – cutting spending and raising taxes to meet this goal. Imagine that, as a result of these measures, the economy had worsened and unemployment soared to more than 16%; and then the president pledged another $400bn in spending cuts and tax increases this year. What do you think would be the public reaction? It would probably be similar to what we are seeing in Greece today, including mass demonstrations and riots – because that is what the Greek government has done. The above numbers are simply adjusted for the relative size of the two economies. Of course, the US government would never dare to do what the Greek government has done: recall that the budget battle in April, which had House Republicans threatening to shut down the government, resulted in spending cuts of just $38bn. …”
-Mark Weisbrot

 

In mid-June Mark Weisbrot asked us, rhetorically, what US public reaction would be if the US government had been implementing the harsh policies that the Greek government is imposing on its people for the 'Troika' — IMF, European Central Bank (ECB), and EU — in a piece he wrote in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jun/17/greece-bailout-austerity). Since then, a lot has happened, and it's only been a continuation of those top-down, clearly un-democratic policies. The 'Aganaktismeni' (the Greek version of the made-in-Spain 'Indignados' movement) continue to occupy Syntagma Square, and other squares across Greece. The two-party elite of the Greek political system (PASOK and New Democracy) continue to side with the Euro elite and Wall Street, while both courageous and dangerous political forces continue to foment change and push their own narratives about the crisis.


Well, as to Weisbrot's question about how Americans — particularly young Americans — would react to such situation, marked by massive spending cuts AND massive tax increases, I have some empirical insight to share from the field. My two dozen students from the University of Pittsburgh completed their four week study abroad program, doing two intensive courses: Ideology & Social Change — focusing on the current global crisis and how it is affecting Greece; and Community & Tourism Analysis — where were are able to observe how the crisis is impacting people, both Greeks and guests, on the ground. In their work, their discussions, and in their final assessments my all-female American students -ranging from incoming Sophomores to just-graduating Seniors- had a lot to say.

As a backdrop, let me say that we exposed the students to a wide range of readings and analyses on the subject, and we arranged for presentations from the full spectrum of political views, give or take a few. We had a presentation from a mainstream think tank that more than adequately explained the official lines espoused by the Greek two-party elite, we heard from a representative of the Foreign Ministry, from a former US diplomat, party officials from smaller parties, a high school teacher/blogger and many, many people of all races and colors on the streets of Athens, the Peloponnese, Crete, and Karpathos. All of the speakers were informative from their respective perspectives. And the dialogue often ended up taking us to comparisons between Greece and the US.


The mainstream think tank speaker gave an excellent and honest presentation. He characterized the measures being placed on the Greek people as "unheard of,"  including cuts in salaries, wages, jobs, and public spending; opening up a wide swath of professions; and of course, the 'filleto' (filet): the privatization of public enterprises and property. Most noteworthy were his responses to questions from American students about the theoretical underpinnings and empirical history of such programs.


While the think tank speaker was clearly against any notion of Greece dropping out of the Eurozone he acknowledged the possibility of a "hair cut", wherein there could be a renegotiation of the terms of the loans to Greece. But he was quite clear and direct that, with no devaluation option outside of the Euro, the only option on the table is devaluing labor and the quality of life for average Greeks.


When asked about the track record of privatization of public services and properties as a positive economic development tool and in terms of reducing debt, the speaker was again quite clear: there is no such reliable record that privatization yields such results. He was also clear that there is no discussion about going after the banks or the wealthy at the policy level.

 

Ironically, the former US diplomat was one of the most adamant about the importance of politics and protest. He emphasized that they (the American students studying abroad) shouldn't be afraid of either, and that historically these actions are powerful.


The party representative from the Left was 'text book' in his anatomy of the current crisis, invoking the political and economic manipulation of the global capitalist system and the 'Shock Doctrine' thesis of Naomi Klein. Moreover, this speaker made connections between the crisis and the role of youth, the 'Arab Spring' (Egypt, etc.), and global climate change. His bottom-line emphasis was that 'there are alternatives.'

 

The teacher stole the hearts of the American students, however, with his direct and frank analysis and message. He quickly established one fundamental alternative approach: "We (Greeks) have to govern our own country!" How this contrasted to the layers of players and analyses and the Troika and Wall Street! In saying this, he conceded that Greeks neglected to keep their politicians and political system in check. But he added that the need for democracy is to be at the forefront of the solution — not any foreign or domestic bankers or Troika. As an example of the state of democratic process in Greece he referred to the clamour about offers of loans by China and Russia on better terms – offers that the Greek PM, and/or EU and IMF may* have blocked Greece from accepting. Naturally, questions arise: Is this democracy? Is this ‘the free market’? If not, whose market is it?


He closed his passionate presentation to my University of Pittsburgh students with a statement during the blitz Q/A, which many took home with them: "Revolution aims at creating things — not at destroying things!" The bottom-up approach resonated with these young women.

My American students, by and large, felt that the economic crisis in Greece was brought on by reckless bankers and unregulated (enough) financial markets. They really criticized the EU and Greek officials who allowed Greece into the Eurozone before Greece had actually met their own criteria. The students (like many of us too) also cannot seem to comprehend how a whole country can buy into austerity measures that the experts agree don't add up, and will not work. Further, they said that they are sure of one thing: Americans would never allow foreign powers — be they technocrats or policymakers — run roughshod over their country, making it a private-owned and managed colony of global financial capital!
In practical terms, these amateur students asked some profound, yet fundamental, questions: What are really the benefits for Greece and Greeks to be in the EU?; why should the working and middle classes of Greece be held accountable to pay off the bad loans dished out by the bankers and accepted by corrupt politicians?; why would anyone agree to the dismemberment and privatization of their own country?


The stakes are high. We have already seen how Barack Obama came almost out of nowhere to win an election based on 'Hope’. We have since seen the Tea Party influence a backlash mid-term election. Who will be the global leaders in the fight against the global bankers remains to be seen. From the experience, and example, of this small group of young American university students we can begin to answer Weisbrot's rhetorical question about how Americans would react to analogous measures being imposed on them in the US.

* While some Greek press pointed to this aspect of the handling of the crisis, and public figures like the renowned composer, Mikis Theodorakis, brought it up repeatedly, the question, "were there other loan offers made in late 2009/early 2010?" has not been asked in Parliament. It would be easy to do logistically, using the ‘Parliamentary Questions’ format. A reply by the Prime Minister would settle the matter; but no party in the Parliament has asked the question yet. My American students were surprised, “Why didn't anyone ask about it in Parliament?” Good question!

  

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