Saturday, October 8, 2011

Greenspan meets Max Weber

So Alan Greenspan, perhaps the key architect of today's global economy (yes, that is not a compliment), has decided to weigh in on the Eurozone crisis and in particular on the North-South dimension of Europe's problems.

It's hard to know where to start, but here goes. The least interesting part of the nonsense Greenspan talks is that he rehearses the standard story about Mediterranean profligacy, of the Southern periphery living beyond its means as it hurtled to its inevitable reckoning with the harsh reality of the bond markets. This story is still popular, despite being debunked over and over, most recently by Mansori here. It is popular, of course, for the reason that it blames the victim, a common response on the part of the supporters of free market capitalism to the crises their prescriptions generate.

What more interesting is the apparently unselfconscious Orientalism of Greenspan's assessment of the Southern countries. Greenspan's analysis of the North-South divide in Europe goes as follows:

There remains the question of whether most, or all, of the south would ever voluntarily adopt northern prudence. The future of the euro beyond a select group of northern countries with a similar culture will depend on the ability of all eurozone nations to follow suit.

What would this 'similar culture', based on 'northern prudence', involve? Well, for a start it presumably doesn't involve the Anglo-Saxon recklessness exhibited by Northern European countries such as Britain, Ireland and Iceland. So we are talking about particular areas of the North whose prudence is expressed in  wage restraint and sound public finances: the countries generally referred to in the comparative political economy literature as 'social democracies'. So Alan comes out as an unexpected fan of large public sectors, high and progressive taxation, and strong trade unions. Who knew?

The counterpart of course is Southern fecklessness. Here we go back to a common refrain of blaming poor economic performance on climate. Greenspan cites approvingly the following words from Kieran Kelly:

if I lived in a country like this [Greece], I would find it hard to stir myself into a Germanic taxpaying life of capital accumulation and arduous labour. The surrounds just aren’t conducive.”

Never mind that the average yearly working hours of a Greek employee are the highest in Europe. It's just so hot, how can they ever do any work? A notion that nobody ever applies to Texas or Florida.

It's barely worth the effort of outlining all the ways in which Greenspan is wrong. But the fact that this kind of sub-racist nonsense can be given space in one of the best newspapers around is a sign of the times. The times are ugly, and what we thought was true wasn't. So why not just blame problems on those suffering them? It's a lot easier than trying to work out what went wrong, and admitting that powerful men like Greenspan didn't have the faintest clue what they were talking about.