Friday, May 14, 2010

From Antibes to Athens
he Cannes Film Festival--happening right now--has long served as one of our gaudiest exemplars of excess. Quaffing kirs at 100 Euros a pop on the terrace of the Hotel du Cap. Zillion dollar yachts bobbing at anchor in Golfe Juan. Wheeling flocks of swifts that, on second glance, turn out to be fleets of Citations, Gulfstreams and Dassaults heading into Nice-Cote d’Azur.
Indecent indulgence? Not so much. This year our pols and media have stamped the stigmata of sybaritism on a hitherto unremarked cohort. Hedge fund managers? Nah. Bond traders? Guess again. Michelle Obama’s couturier? Not hardly. Lindsay Lohan’s bail bondsman? You’re getting close.
The real out-of-control spendthrifts, we are told, are Greek civil servants. Mail carriers redolent of Midas. Trash collectors a la Trump. Buffet-like bureaucrats. The land that first gave us democracy has brought itself into debtocracy. Instead of piling on an Acropolis of arrears to benefit the rich, which is perfectly acceptable business as usual, the Greeks committed the unpardonable capitalist contravention: letting the poor and middle classes share in their ill-advised cornucopia of credit.
For this they must be punished, severely and ceaselessly. The penalty is penury. Greece’s government workers and ordinary citizens must be made bereft of their bennies. The national standard of living has to become more Cote d’Ivoire and less Cote d’Azur. Greeks must learn that before babies are fed, let alone jet skis fueled, the banks and bond houses must be made whole.
The universe has not fallen into hock because Joe Six Pack or Alex Ouzo decided one day to spend beyond their means. It happened because the the richest people on earth, with powers that make Zeus look like a mere conjurer, decided that the manipulation of money stood to be more profitable than the manufacture of goods.
Debt is not incurred; it’s sold just like junk food. If you are the treasurer of a sizable organization, be it public or private, you will be chauffeur-driven to distraction, not to mention free lunch, by battalions of bond peddlers. Each will ply you with pithy Power Points on how your outfit (and, wink, wink, even you) will profit by purchasing yet a newer and more exotic form of debt. If you’re honest, you will shoo them away like flies. If you are flexible, a Porsche would be a fun weekend car.
By the same token, if you are a feckless freshman settling in at Frobisher State, the credit card vultures will alight on you shoulder, gifting you free tees and power juices in exchange for your financial thralldom. Now multiply those solicitations by the millions and scatter them over the earth.
Both debt and junk food deliver instant gratification at the cost of long term misery. And, after enticing you into destitution, distension or disease, both damn you as a knave for falling for their scams.
Our media is currently reveling in the Greek tragedy. They limn it as an object lesson that welfare states go broke and that the lesser classes must learn to live with less, lest, in the words of today’s NY Times, they find themselves in “investors’ line of fire.”
It’s hardly a secret that the big hedge funds have gone from shorting companies to shorting countries. This is the new piracy that has replaced the rapine and pillage of yore. And though there are still rich pickings in Europe, we Americans remain the fattest target in more ways than one. Even after a couple of years of stealing our jobs, looting our pensions, and making a yoke of our nest eggs, Wall Street still sees some meat on our bones. Social Security, of course, is the big jackpot. Bush couldn’t privatize it; it’s more likely that Obama can. We’ll be told we have no choice unless we want to end up in the souvlaki with the Greeks. Don't believe it.
To me, the best thing about the Greek example is the combative spirit of their workers. They know enough economics to understand that they don’t have to take the hit, at least not alone. They can alter the terms of their retrenchment. They can join the Latin Americans in telling the IMF to piss off. In short, they can fight back.
So can we. But not with tea bags.