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Capitalism and Government Debt at Odds in Greece (1/2)

Michael Hudson says unlike personal and corporate debt, there is no legal framework for writing off government debt, so there is deliberate anarchy in place – July 10, 2015

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Greece is in the situation they’re in, burdened with a huge debt that they cannot pay, because there’s no legal framework for writing down debt owed to the IMF, ECB, and intergovernmental bodies, writes Michael Hudson in an article he penned in Counterpunch. So where do we go from here?

To answer this question, I’m joined by Michael Hudson. He’s a former Wall Street economist and a distinguished research professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City. He’s the author of Bubble and Beyond: Finance Capitalism and its Discontents.

Michael, as usual, we love having you here.

MICHAEL HUDSON, UMKC: Good to be here, Sharmini.

PERIES: So Michael, give us a take on what you’re writing here in Counterpunch in terms of that there’s no mechanism in place to write down debt, which Greece has been asking for, for five and a half months, now.

HUDSON: The United States and Europe have a long body of law going back hundreds of years to deal with private sector bankruptcy. Individuals have bankruptcy laws to free themselves from debt. Corporations go broke all the time, they go to court, and debts are written down.

But government debts are something different. There is a deliberate anarchy that’s been imposed, especially since World War II, to prevent a discussion of governments writing down debt. The idea is that if the world’s bondholders – and basically, we’re talking about the 1 percent – if the 1 percent can stop any court form writing down this, then there’s anarchy if a government says it can’t pay.

It’s obvious that a lot of governments can’t pay, above all Greece. Normally, governments have been able to renegotiate debts with bondholders. There’s a market in government bonds. By 2010-12 the marketplace had priced down Greek government bonds to about 30 cents on the dollar. That means that the markets believed that maybe Greece could pay a third of its bonded debt, not more.

But central banks today have something else in mind besides writing down debts. It’s not really economic, and it’s not really financial. It’s political.

If you look at how the European Union has been organized, it doesn’t have any common governing organization. There’s no real parliament able to set European-wide tax rules, regulatory rules or anything else. There’s only one European organization that can set policy, and that’s the European Central Bank. And the European Central Bank, like central banks everywhere, are run by the commercial banks. And in Europe they’re run by the ultra-right wing. So we’re talking about a right-wing extremist policy, and they believe essentially in privatization giveaways.

So what’s at issue isn’t really whether or not Greece can pay the debts or not. Everybody knows that it can’t. Yesterday U.S. Treasury Secretary Lew came out and said that Greece needs a writedown, it can’t pay the debt. A week ago the International Monetary Fund said that it will not make any more loans with the European Central Bank to Greece, because it can’t pay. Everybody realizes it can’t pay.

But the European Central Bank has taken what is very nearly a fascist position. It also knows that Greece can’t earn the money to pay that debt. What it can do is sell off its islands, it can sell the Parthenon. It can sell its land. It can sell its gas rights in the Aegean. It can sell its radio stations and television stations. It can sell its roads to people the EU approves.

For comparison, imagine that all of a sudden there was a financial crisis in America, and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey or Mayor Rahm of Chicagowere put in charge of selling off the public domain. They’d sell to their cronies. They’d sell to their insiders. That’s basically what the European Central Bank has told Greece to do. Two years ago, the right-wing parties that ran Greece agreed to privatize their gas rights. Half of the privatization that was scheduled was supposed to be the gas pipeline. The largest bidder was Gazprom of Russia. But the ECB said no. Operating on behalf of NATO and the New Cold War, they told Greece to sell to their appointees at a lower price.

Greece said, wait a minute. You’re telling us to sell off the public domain, to privatize to people who are going to charge more to use the roads, charge more for public health, charge for the islands, and drain us. You want us to sell to the crooks that the Greek people have just thrown out?

They knew Greek politicians have accused the ECB of backing the most anti-democratic individuals. Quite frankly, they’re gangsters. From the beginning, Syriza’s Varoufakis and Tsipras saw that the European Central Bank was operating with its own agenda. Even the IMF said that the ECB had to write down the debt that Greece owed it. But instead, the European Central Bank said, “We’re in control. We insist that you do exactly what the previous parties were going to do” – the parties that were voted out of power in January. “You must sell off your land and privatize, and basically wipe out a big chunk of your pensions. You need 30 percent of your population to emigrate within two years. You have to create a permanent austerity crisis. If you don’t do this and agree to it, we’re going to wreck your banks and cause chaos.”

PERIES: Michael, the no vote, clearly the Greek people indicated that they don’t want to accept these terms. So as your article is titled, where do we go from here?

ORDER IT NOW

HUDSON: Well, where we go from here is, Number One, we need a new international organization to adjudicate how much can a country pay. This was done in the 1920s, when Germany couldn’t pay reparations without tearing itself and Europe apart. It is ironic that Germany was a beneficiary of this in the past. The world recognized that if it tried to bankrupt Germany any further, it would cause the kind of chaos that ended up bringing the Nazis to power. So they created the Bank for International Settlements under the Young Plan in 1929, to rule on how much the government could afford to pay. The Young Plan and Bank for International Settlements scaled back German reparations to what the country could pay.

The guiding principles of this measurement were put forth by John Maynard Keynes. He said if creditors have a claim on a government, it’s their job say, to tell Germany or other debtors, “Here are the exports we’re willing to take.” The creditor has an obligation to tell the debtor how it can pay without simply sacrificing the land and selling off assets. But all this theoretical background dealing with the capacity to pay has been stripped away from the economics curriculum. I give a summary of all of this in my book of lectures for my course on international economics: Trade, Development and Foreign Debt, which summarizes the 1920s debate.

At that time you had a legal mechanism to adjudicate debts. But after World War II, and especially today, you have a right wing ideology and group of inter-governmental institutions that leave no alternative but for a government to ask for a new honest broker.

One problem is that the IMF can’t be an honest broker, because it’s traditionally run by a Frenchman. The French have been major holders of Greek debt. So there’s an inherent conflict of interest in trying to settle the Greek debt. There needs to be a brand new organization to set rules for what debts are valid, and what debts are invalid.

Three weeks ago the Greek Parliament issued a report by its Debt Truth Commission. They found that most of these official debts are legally odious debts. The money that was ostensibly paid to Greece wasn’t really paid to Greece at all. Most was paid to French and German banks, along with other European bondholders. Greece didn’t get this money. It’s as if, suppose, you have a house and own it free and clear. But a bank comes to you and says, well, you have to pay us a mortgage, because somebody in the next block just took out a mortgage on your house, and so now you have to pay it.

You can say, “Wait a minute, I didn’t take out that mortgage. There was no basis for that. I never signed anything.” That’s what Greece is saying when Papandreou, the former prime minister, said he wanted a referendum four years ago about the loan to Greece. Angela Merkel and the French President Sarkozy said: “You can’t have a referendum, they’ll vote no.” So they knew that what they were doing was anti-democratic. That means it was odious, politically speaking.

So the Greeks now are going to the only courts they have, the European Court of Justice, and claim that this is an odious debt, so they don’t owe the ECB and IMF money. Of course, the case will take years and years to settle. Greece will say that it’s not treated as a country normally is treated, but is being singled out. The European Central Bank insists on a regime change, telling Syriza to follow the right-wing policy that its clients want, and the crooked insiders behind them. You could say that the European Union’s financial institutions have been captured by a group of financial gangsters.

PERIES: Michael, let’s take up this issue you’re raising about odious debt, what it means, and then what Greece can actually do in our second segment. Thank you so much for joining us.

HUDSON: Okay. Thank you very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Part 2

PERIES: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. And I’m in conversation with Michael Hudson about the Greek financial crisis and the debt that is owed to its lenders, ECB, the IMF, and other lenders that come under their auspices. And we’re talking about what Greece can do, what solutions and mechanisms should there be in order to address these kinds of situations that we are faced with, and Greece in particular.

Michael, thank you so much for joining us, again.

HUDSON: Good to be here.

PERIES: So Michael, earlier you were calling the debt that Greece has an odious debt. Describe what that is, and explain the mechanism that you have derived that could possibly deal with the debt crisis.

HUDSON: The term odious debt is a legal term. It was invented earlier in the century, almost 100 years ago, for debts that are basically wrong, or ones that are taken on by a non-democratic government in the name of the people, but paid to themselves and their backers. Then they try to shift this debt onto a country’s taxpayers. Under international law such debts don’t have to be paid.

That’s what happened in Greece. The loans made to Greece by the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank were not really made to Greece. Greece was only a vehicle for them to pay bondholders, who made a killing. Many bondholders had bought Greek bonds for 30 cents on the dollar, and ended up getting paid 100 cents on the dollar. This made tens of billions of dollars for speculators and insiders. Then the European Central Bank said, “Just like we made Ireland’s government and Irish taxpayers pay for the crooked debts by the Irish banks to bondholders, we’re going to make you, the Greek taxpayers pay.”

ORDER IT NOW

One of the principles of odious debt is similar to what’s called fraudulent conveyance in the United States. Under U.S. law if somebody makes a loan to another person, or a company (especially) but knows that the company can’t pay, it’s a fraudulent loan. Suppose that you see somebody who owns a home – a widow who has inherited a house, but doesn’t have much money. Suppose the home is worth, say, a few hundred thousand dollars. Suppose you lend her maybe $1000 to help her buy groceries. And then all of a sudden you say, well, it’s collateralized by the house. And then, before she gets her next welfare check to pay it back, you demand payment. She can’t pay. So then you try to grab the house.

That’s considered a fraudulent debt, because the lender had no idea how the creditor could repay in the normal course of business. During the 1980s, a lot of corporations in America were taken over by high-interest junk bonds. People would borrow a lot of money, take over the company, and empty out the pension funds. They’d sell off the parts and break them up. And the companies tried to protect themselves by suing under the law of fraudulent conveyance.

This is much what has been done to Greece. The European Central Bank says, “We will lend you more money. We know that you can’t pay, and we’re not even going to discuss whether you pay or not. We’re going to lend you money, and if you don’t do as we say, we’re going to smash all your banks. We’re going to stop the bank internet payment. We’re going to stop supplying you with currency, and we’re going to drive you bankrupt if you don’t agree to sell off your public domain.” That’s what we’ve just discussed in the previous segment.

This is illegal under the odious debt law. So finally the Greek ruling party, Syriza, is preparing a legal case to go to the European court of justice and claim that this is an odious debt. We’re not going to go to the IMF, because that’s a kangaroo court. The IMF people are tunnel-visioned doctrinaire people who are trained simply to calculate how much a country has to pay. If it can’t pay, they come in and smash and grab.

PERIES: Michael, is there a precedent set for an odious debt case involving a nation?

HUDSON:. The closest precedent was in the 1920s for German reparations debt, and for Inter-Allied arms debts stemming from World War I. The Young Plan created an international forum that decided the Versailles Treaty debts couldn’t be paid as scheduled. There was a moratorium in 1931 and then again in 1934. So in practice, people have followed the principle without ever creating a formal court, a legal body to rule on what an odious debt is and where to draw the line to say if Greece can only earn so much, how much does it have to pay. There’s no vehicle to do that.

What Greece has to do, in effect, is reinvent the wheel. It has to say, “Look, there has to say some body of law as an alternative to anarchy.” Because under anarchy, the central bankers can come in and grab whatever they want, or try to bankrupt Greece and drive it out of the Eurozone, and create a disaster.

There should be a principle that if a country is a sovereign country, it has the right to say “Here] are the terms on which we can repay the debt.” That’s part of international law since 1648. That was the year when the 30 Years’ War ended and the definition of a state came into being. A state is defined as having the ability to issue its own money, levy its own taxes, and set its own laws, as well as the ability to go to war.

Greece has that right, but the Eurozone is saying, “Wait a minute, you’re part of the Eurozone now. Even though the Eurozone doesn’t have a parliament, even though in the absence of the Eurozone being a political entity, you have to do what the bankers say. And we bankers work for a bunch of very, very wealthy Europeans and foreign investors. We want your land.”

It’s basically as if the mafia has taken over Europe. Greece is trying to save Europe from these crooks.

PERIES: Michael, you have a specific proposal how to address these kinds of odious debts, and how to provide a, as they say, a haircut or a debt reduction plan. Describe what that looks like.

HUDSON: Well, for the last few weeks I was in Greece, and also in Brussels talking to politicians mainly on the left to outline the principles of an international organization that we insist be created. We don’t have a name for it yet, but it’s not going to be the IMF, it’s not going to be the European Central Bank, and it’s not going to be a bank where the U.S. or Wall Street has veto power. They’ve talked to the BRICS bank, they’ve talked to Russia and China, talked to other countries. It may very well be that they will work with the BRICS bank to help create and sponsor an international agencythat will do what almost all the economists from the left to the right agree that has to be done: write down the debts.

The European Central Bank and the IMF are not run by economists, but by lawyers. Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, was an anti-labor lawyer. She worked for firms to smash up labor. That’s the job of the IMF. It’s not there to help countries to balance their payments deficit. It’s job is to strip away their pensions, cut their wages, and make them more “competitive” under the pretense that any country can pay its debt if it only will reduce its wages and living standards by enough.

That’s an odious concept. That’s the right-wing concept, and it’s effect is downright evil. That’s what finally the Greeks are coming out and saying. The way the financial system is structured now is anti-human, against human rights, against national sovereignty. It’s pretty much what in the vernacular is called evil.

PERIES: Michael Hudson, thank you so much for joining us today.

HUDSON: It’s really good to be here. Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

(Republished from Michael-Hudson.com by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Eurozone, Greece, IMF 
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  1. I may get back to this but I stopped reading and made it low priority when I got to his fatuous tabloid comment “and basically that’s the 1 per cent”. This 1 per cent are the big government bond holders who screw poorly governed countries. Is that meant to say something factual about say 30 million adults worldwide? Doesn’t make much sense does it? As Michael Hudson would be well within the 1 per cent if he did even a half decent job as a Wall Street economist I presume he isn’t really thinking of well paid professionals and executives either. Switch your brain and rewrite young man before you bring thar essay back to your tutor for consideration and discussion.

  2. Wally [AKA "BobbyBeGood"] says: • Website

    Hudson is making things up as he goes, in grand leftist fashion.

    He’s basically saying that regular Greeks really didn’t get any of the money. So how does that explain the increased government jobs & payments to unproductive government workers, the continuance of lavish vacations, retirement at fifty. Greek government spending actually increased as % of GDP when these loans were taken

    Austerity? Don’t make me laugh.

    And this gives away his game:
    “Well, for the last few weeks I was in Greece, and also in Brussels talking to politicians mainly on the left to outline the principles of an international organization that we insist be created.”

    Lazy, has-been Greece refuses to stand on their own two feet, they will not leave the EU, just watch, they will not drop the euro and re-establish their laughable drachma, Greece will not carry it’s own weight. They will continue to scam the system as long as possible.

    That’s the Marxist way.

    • Replies: @Andrew E. Mathis
  3. peterike says:

    And the European Central Bank, like central banks everywhere, are run by the commercial banks. And in Europe they’re run by the ultra-right wing.

    Hilarious. These 1930s notions of Left and Right are meaningless in today’s world. Right-wing means nationalistic, if it means anything at all. To say that the commercial banks are “nationalistic” — that is, acting in the best interests of their host nations — is ludicrous. To say nothing of their rabid support for things like gay rights and multiculturalism. Is that right-wing?

    The new global oligarch world has shredded the convenient old Left/Right notions. It’s basically them vs. us now. Defining things as Left/Right or Liberal/Conservative is precisely how the oligarchs divide and conquer.

    • Replies: @guest
  4. @Wally

    It’s hard to isolate exactly how many things in your post are incorrect, but I’ll try.

    He’s basically saying that regular Greeks really didn’t get any of the money.

    He’s saying that regular Greeks specifically didn’t get any of the IMF and ECB money, i.e., that this money paid off bondholders. That’s a really important distinction.

    So how does that explain the increased government jobs & payments to unproductive government workers

    In fact, Greece has reduced the number of government employees by 250,000 since the economic collapse. See, e.g.:

    http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21565216-public-sector-employment-shrinking-many-countries-greece-included-parsing

    I’m happy to provide additional sources demonstrating how silly this allegation is.

    the continuance of lavish vacations, retirement at fifty. Greek government spending actually increased as % of GDP when these loans were taken

    That’s hardly unusual. When a country is in recession, it’s common for the economic sector to be stimulated by increased government spending to compensate from growth lost due to unemployment. If you want the best example of this in American history, think Reagan. Google “military Keynesianism.”

    However, the imputation that this spending was on social security benefits is a bit dishonest.

    • Replies: @guest
  5. Wally [AKA "BobbyBeGood"] says: • Website

    Typical double talk as Andrew Mathis contradicts himself.

    Mathis says:
    ” When a country is in recession, it’s common for the economic sector to be stimulated by increased government spending to compensate from growth lost due to unemployment. ”

    Oops.

    Now insert other foot, Andrew Mathis.

    That was easy.

    • Replies: @Andrew E. Mathis
  6. This author really doesn’t get anything. Owners of those bonds are pension funds and insurance companies not some Rothschild conspiracy. His resistance to a sell off of state assets is completely counter to other countries experience of privatisation. British Rail for example now carries twice as many passengers as it did 20 years ago. The whole article is a plea for Greece to continue without change.

    The Russian Government recently protected its banks from Ukrainian debt by buying it from them. I bet Hudson won’t find the same air of malevolence in this move.

    His IMF is entirely a straw man of his own creation. Basically the man is a wally.

    • Replies: @Art
  7. Art says:
    @Philip Owen

    Owners of those bonds are pension funds and insurance companies not some Rothschild conspiracy.

    I believe that the Euro central bank owners hold the Greek debt – not the bond holders. That means the 1% of the 1% are making a killing.

    The owners of the central banks will receive the 50 billions of Greek property.

    When you lone people money you take the risk of losing it – not the central bankers.

    Loaning people money that you know that they can not pay back is a con – is a crime.

    Just who owns the central banks – we must find that out.

  8. FWIW says:

    The idea that Greece can’t restructure its debt is silly. It has already been done once.

    “This paper studies a central episode of the European debt crisis: the restructuring and near-elimination of Greece’s sovereign bonds held by private investors, comprising a face value of more than 100 per cent of Greek GDP. After a €200 billion debt exchange in March/April 2012 and a buyback of a large portion of the newly exchanged sovereign bonds in December, the amount of Greek bonds in the hands of private creditors was down to just €35 billion – just 13 per cent of where it had stood in April 2010, when Greece lost access to capital markets.”

    http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5343&context=faculty_scholarship

    Greece wants to retain the Euro as its currency. It wants its banks and financial system to remain intact. And mostly, it wants to borrow more money to do it.

    It could easily walk away from its debt. And establish its own currency. And start, ground up, to rebuild things.

    But people are already getting the message that that would be a disaster to stake holders in the current Greek economy. Like pensioners. Like people who have bank deposits. Like people who want to get paid in Euro that buy things instead of their own, new currency which will quickly become worthless.

    Whatever … Maybe Greece is ship shape and just needs to lose the debt.

    But the idea that there is *no way* to restructure sovereign debt is silly. It has happened in the past and will continue to happen.

    However, whatever solution … default and Grexit or more loans with austerity… both are bad. And whenever a deal seems to be close, the other option seems more appealing. Grexit sounds good until the banks close and the financial system collapses and the ATM’s are empty. Then another loan, including tough terms seems like an even better idea.

  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Why is Greek debt illegal? Because Greek dindu nuffin.

  10. The Greek plan, obvious to nearly everyone and that most certainly includes Mr Hudson, is to load up on debt as much as possible before defaulting. Whether or not they stay in the Eurozone (where, it’s amply clear, they had no business in the first place). The shocking thing is how this small, essentially trivial country of 11 million petty criminals and layabouts has run up the bill (which we know they won’t pay) to $300 Billion and still continues to swindle nearly the whole of Europe.

    And before any of you apologists pounce, I’ve spent way too much time in that trivial country and grew very tired at every single ‘merchant’ demanding to be paid in cash, under the table and off the books. For more fun, look up “Athens swimming pool camouflage”.

    • Replies: @MarkinLA
  11. MarkinLA says:
    @Kyle McKenna

    obvious to nearly everyone and that most certainly includes Mr Hudson, is to load up on debt as much as possible before defaulting.

    Is Mitt Romney their finance minister?

  12. guest says:
    @peterike

    Banksters may indeed be right-wing in the sense of to the right of him, depending on where he stands, though not by any stretch is the adjective “ultra” appropriate. There’s always further to the left to go.

  13. guest says:
    @Andrew E. Mathis

    “this money paid off bondholders”

    How do you pinpoint this or that money? If a buddy lends me a hundred bucks to meet rent I might go on paying my cellphone bill per usual, but in the event I didn’t have the extra money I’d have had to choose between a cellphone and rent, perhaps. That’s opportunity cost. Bankster loans get rid of such costs, at least until it’s time to pay up. But then that’s what Greece gets in the deal: time. Time to go on paying for whatever it’s been paying for, a lot of which happens to go to Greeks.

    This isn’t rocket science. Something’s being subsidized from the outside.

  14. Stogumber says:

    The problem is that Greece (and in particular Syriza) wants to stay in the Euro-Zone, at all costs. That’s why they are open to extortion. Now I agree that some of this extortion is really evil (selling the public domain). But there’s something else that I don’t understand: Why should the Greeks stay in the Euro-Zone, at all costs? Greece has existed for centuries without Euro-zone. Can the Greeks of today survive only by the favours of European institutions? Or is it more like a psychological addiction?

  15. Real News Network with another “expert”…NOT…. You talk about debt…a REAL news network would mention Fractional reserve banking and the ponzi monetary system it has spawned…. For all the nitwits that are spouting that it is the “greeks” fault…. go ahead ..put the boot into them…but remember it is only a matter of time before YOUR country is in the same boat

    • Replies: @guest
  16. guest says:
    @UN Observer

    “For all the nitwits that are spouting that it is the ‘greeks’ fault…. go ahead ..put the boot into them…but remember it is only a matter of time before YOUR country is in the same boat”

    Yes, and it’ll be our fault then, just like it’s Greece’s fault now.

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Mr. Unz runs an eclectic website, which runs from the brilliant (Sailer, Razib) to the provocatively crazy (Giraldi, etc.) to the deeply, and often tediously, stupid (ahem). I am puzzled why those authors in the first category permit their work to be associated with the others. Can we assume they are sufficiently compensated for the dilution of their brand equity? Perhaps Mr. Unz could at some point explain what, in his mind, provides the unifying thread in his website. Apart from the fact that Razib and the author of this apology of the Greeks are not given a voice by the “mainstream media,” what do they have in common? My 7-year-old daughter has many interesting things to say about the world, some of them even accurate, but the NY Times has not offered to publish them. Can she find an outlet at the Unz Review?

  18. Ron Unz says:

    Mr. Unz runs an eclectic website, which runs from the brilliant (Sailer, Razib) to the provocatively crazy (Giraldi, etc.) to the deeply, and often tediously, stupid (ahem). I am puzzled why those authors in the first category permit their work to be associated with the others.

    Well, as near as I can tell, almost all the readers and commenters on this website endorse your judgment that although some of our bloggers and columnists are “brilliant,” all the rest are “crazy” or “stupid” or “tedious.”

    But the problem is that nobody agrees which are which…

  19. Greece can obviously pay its willfully incurred debts.

    Greece can sell Greek real estate.

    Greek real estate is worth trillions of Euros.

    Greece has hundreds of islands it could sell.

  20. @Andrew E. Mathis

    I do not either. One can argue that this kind of thing is bad, but it is common.

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