Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Post: Film Review and Reflections on History

The Post is a well crafted film. The actors, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks turn in excellent performances as does the cast of supporting actors. The story line centers around the decision by the NYT and the Washington Post to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. Meryl, portraying Katherine Graham, manages a dramatic transformation from a reserved housewife over her head in corporate and newsroom politics into a decisive, courageous executive with a responsible, historic perspective on current events.

So, my quick critique of the film is a definite thumbs up. It is indeed well worth seeing. But, my 
reflections following focused much much more on the historical events, the evolution of government policy and the nuances implicit in such reflections. 

The Vietnam War was a painful and contentious period in recent American history. It remains a divisive issue still today. Yet I find myself asking why? Surely the release of the Pentagon Papers and the closure of the war (albeit in defeat) should have lead to an acceptance of some measure of collective guilt. Yet it hasn't. The 'progressives' talk about the war in terms of a mistake. The conservatives still insist that we failed to use our military capability decisively in order to achieve victory. The fact though, as Tom Hanks says in the film, is that a series of governments from the Eisenhower Presidency through Nixon's, were "lying to the American people." 

Personally I have no doubt about the consensus historical perspective which will emerge in the future. Historians will conclude that successive US administrations following WWII, while facing down a perceived communist threat, fell into the trap of continuing the interventionist policies of the English and the French during the colonial era. The French attempted to return to Indochina after the war. The US supported them and provided military assistance. Ho Chi Minh decisively defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The negotiated settlement following their defeat resulted in their withdrawal. The settlement temporarily divided Vietnam into northern and southern regions. Elections were to be held to unify the country under one government. The US then stepped in and refused to allow elections, because it was evident that Uncle Ho would win them in a landslide victory. During the following two decades US governments concealed information from the American electorate, while progressively escalating the level of military violence. Terming this history a 'mistake' is tragically euphemistic.

There are additional subtleties that the film brings to light. The successive administrations that pursued these policies were both Republican and Democratic. Furthermore, Katherine Graham  and Ben Bradlee (the owner and the editor of the newspaper) were decidedly partisan in their politics. They had close personal relationships with President Kennedy and Secretary MacNamara. They had to come to terms with those personal conflicts when they took the decision to publish top secret government documents. But I am left with a nagging doubt here. If a Democratic Administration had continued in power rather than President Nixon, would they still have published? The film ends in platitudes about the victory for a free press. But have things really changed? The fabric of influence from corporate interests to cosy, partisan relations between politicians and journalists remains fundamentally intact. During the second Iraq War the press was embedded with the US army. The Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

And I have another nagging concern. For those of us who embrace a guilty verdict on US policy in Vietnam (still a minority opinion) Daniel Ellsberg was the true hero. He was the most principled player in the historic cast of characters. He was by far the most courageous. Recently some have suggested that Edward Snowden is also such a hero. The sad commentary though is that secret government policies and intrigue are ongoing. Daniel Ellsberg was acquitted of espionage charges. But Edward Snowden is living in exile.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

Garrett Carr's book, The Rule of the Land, is quite simply beautiful. It is written with style, immediacy and depth. The author has a novel idea: to walk along the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and to map and describe the detail along his journey. He relates memories from his childhood traveling with his father across the border into the north to buy cheaper goods and then shuttle them back to the south through customs. His father and others risked such trips despite the 'Troubles' and the presence of British troops then at border posts. Now, as Carr undertakes his journey, he reflects on the history of the borderland and its future, challenged by Brexit.

He begins his journey by boat paddling into the Carlingford  Lough in the east and ends when he reaches Lough Foyle above Derry/Londonderry. In between these two seas Carr tells us the stories of Ireland. He relates conversations with borderlanders he meets along the way. He tells us stories of achievement and conflict both recent and ancient. He sketches and photographs landmarks from prehistory and modern industry. And he weaves all of these tales into a poetic odyssey. 

The borderlands have witnessed both tragedy and human ingenuity. And the forensics are there to prove it. All the facts lie buried and preserved in the bogs, which the author crosses during his trek. Seamus Heaney's observation of the bogs' role as a  chronicle of history is the Bard's truth. 

Since the end of the 'Troubles' with the Good Friday Agreement, the borders have opened. Best they should remain that way. As Carr muses at the outset of his journey, (my summary of the author’s words) ’If only the Lighthouse in Lough Calingford could turn like a spool and gather up the border's twisting black line across the island, it would be a benign act indeed.’

Buy, read and savor this book. Borders the world over beware.

David Hillstrom

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reflections on the Six Day War 

As a young university student 50 years ago I had developed an interest in politics and global affairs. I was already opposed to the Vietnam War and the black sheep in my family on that score, although I still had two years deferment from the draft remaining. When the Six Day War began, l followed the news every evening to learn the latest developments and consider every perspective and nuance. 

I recall leaning solidly in favor of Israel. I can't say whether my leanings had been conditioned by the media or whether I may have been in awe, as were most, of Israel's astonishing military success. But I was clearly pro Israel during the initial days. Then one evening I happened to follow a BBC documentary on the history of the conflict. I was shocked to learn for the first time of the staggering migration of Jews from Europe after WWII. Yet despite those hundreds of thousands of Jewish migrants, the Jews remained a minority in Palestine. The Jewish community had lobbied for statehood and had begun guerrilla action against the British, who then occupied Palestine. When the UN General Assembly approved a partition plan hostilities broke out. What followed was a rapid expansion of the new state of Israel to encompass more then twice the land demarcated in the UN partition plan. Then hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled into Lebanon and Jordan as refugees.

This history is rarely shown any longer on the 'news.' Bits and pieces are occasionally referred to together with qualifying arguments and explanations that play down the facts. For me, however, from that day forward I realized that the history of modern Palestine was far less favorable to Israel than most people appreciate. The simple facts were that the recent Jewish immigrants to Palestine had seized far more land than they had ever been 'promised' and thousands of Palestinians had become refugees. I could no longer admire the Israelis, nor could I support the extension of that history resulting from the Six Day War. 

Perhaps most people reading this opinion article will already have branded me anti-Semitic. While I am not, I won't waste time trying to prove I am not an elephant. In fact this accusation has always confused me. Hebrew is a Semitic language, but then so is Arabic. Others may use a different racial slur and call me an Arab lover. Neither does that hold; I am an atheist with no preference between religious myths. All I wish to do is to examine the recent history of Israel / Palestine in order to make a reasoned judgment on events, the status quo and future directions.

Presently, 50 years following the Six Day War, Israel continues to occupy much of the land that it captured then. Israel also continues to build new settlements within the occupied territory on the West Bank in breach of international law and UN decisions. Of course Israel has its defenders and apologists, but how can one defend the fact of a 50 year occupation. I find myself humming Dylan's lyrics "How many years can some people exist / before they're allowed to be free."

Let's consider the arguments in defense of Israel. (1) The Jews were persecuted in Europe and fled to safety and to a dream of returning to the promised land. This is of course true, although the promised land is partly mythology (as of course most ethnic tales are) and partly ancient history. (2) Israel's statehood was approved by the international community. Since then the Jewish state has simply responded to Arab aggression in defense of their state. In fact this line of argument is deeply biased and not historically objective. But, even if one were to accept such arguments, how can one accept the facts on the ground?

The Palestinian people were denied the right of self determination exactly at the time that The Jewish minority unilaterally declared the formation of their state. The Palestinians have existed in the occupied territories for 50 years now with no political rights and with severe constraints on their movement. How is this different from the South African Apartheid State? Why was the international community united against South Africa, but is not against Israel's policy? The apologists usually reply with two justifications. First, the Palestinians have engaged in terrorism and Israel has a right to protect itself. Yet, the imposition of apartheid policies amounts to collective punishment of innocent civilians, once again an illegal practice. Second, the Palestinians must accept Israel's right to exist before meaningful negotiations can proceed. Yet, in fact the Palestinian Authority has accepted and still negotiations are stalled and Israel continues building new settlements.

Yes, the Jewish people suffered the holocaust. And they were themselves oppressed for centuries within Europe and lived in ghettos and denied freedom and full political rights. That fact however does not confer upon them the right to occupy another population and to inflict on others those same injustices.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Sapiens

A contemporary, scientific view of life on earth differs dramatically from the biblical perspective. To begin with the earth is not at the center of the universe. Nor, is it even at the center of our peripheral solar system. All right fine, you may say, we know all of that. But then, what if we were to stretch this new scientific perspective into an entirely consistent world view from the vantage point of the singular event 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang) that we now consider the beginning? The result of such a Cartesian discourse is a serious stretch for most. Yet, this is the journey that Yuval Noah Harari takes us on in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

The journey and the revelations will be disconcerting to many. Harari though is an excellent guide and his style, that of a non-confrontational story teller, palliates the bitter truth. That  at least is my view of his work. But then I am a fellow traveler. I wrote a book some years ago (2008), The Bridge, where I developed these same ideas and perspectives. To me it is most rewarding to see an historian of Harari's stature embrace such insights. I should confess here that I found myself speculating on how Wallace might have felt upon reading Darwin's publication. 

    And memories of the ebb and flow of ideas. (From The Story of Our People, a poetic drama by David Hillstrom)

Perhaps I should continue by simply stating the case: What are these common ideas? To start with the Big Bang was an absolute beginning. It is meaningless to ask what came before, since time and even space began with the singularity. Following the Big Bang billions of years passed before the earth was even formed. Billions of stars were formed before our own sun was born. The conditions on our planet earth happened to be favorable for the emergence of life (although we still have difficulty even in defining what life is precisely). Life forms then evolved for a few billion years more before we Sapiens appeared. There is no direction to evolution or purpose underlying natural events or human history. Nature has no discernible purpose. Step by step Harari guides the reader through this chronology of events. In fact he includes a timeline of the story as an introduction.

Harari goes on to explain that Sapiens then underwent a cognitive revolution through the development of speech and a greatly expanded consciousness. This cognitive revolution facilitated the growth of common myths that enriched the ability of communities to cooperate. For thousands of years though this cooperation remained at a local level. Once agriculture was invented further growth in the capacity for cooperation arose allowing a dramatic increase in social complexity. From that point on we enter the period of human history. Harari estimates that this cognitive revolution occurred about 70,000 years before the present, nearly 14 billion years after the Big Bang. The cognitive revolution has proven to be quite significant of course. Its impact has already reshaped life on earth (to the detriment of most other species). But, the inception of the revolution is inseparably bound together with the proliferation of myths.

Many authors have dealt with questions of mythology and contemporary religions  often with the intent of debunking unfounded beliefs. Harari examines this issue of social belief structures from a rather different perspective. First he expands the discussion to include much broader elements of social organization. All communities he says are fictive; they are imagined realities. Again, many will be comfortable with such arguments as a critique of religion. But how about race, or nation states or empires? Harari even offers the example of business corporations as fictive social structures. So, all social structures are ultimately based in fiction. Yet these fictions, these shared beliefs, allow groups to identify themselves as ‘we’ and to thus establish rules of engagement and cooperation. These fictions, therefore, permit the emergence of ever increasing degrees of complex interaction.

Harari pursues the human story up to the present and beyond. However, he deals with history at a macro level considering major trends. His book is not about the twists and turns of history or the details of specific periods or regions. Rather he observes trends from a satellite perspective, as though an alien observer, and points out the turning points, the paradigm shifts. Quite correctly, I think, he suggests that history has been a progression of empires. Then, with the industrial revolution and the colonial period about five hundred years ago "The entire planet becomes a single historical arena." The trend since then is toward a single empire or some form of international governance. Despite hiccup-examples such as 'Brexit' this looks like a reasonable deduction. But, at this juncture Harari and I part ways.

My personal inclination is to reflect upon how humanity might move from our current state toward a peaceful and just form of international governance. Harari observes that we may be incapable of reaching a consensus on the sort of future we want. Instead he looks for new discoveries or trajectories that will define our future, such as technology and genetic design. Humans themselves are today becoming gods capable of 'intelligent' design. But is rather impossible for us to predict how such new technology will impact the future. Regrettably he is probably right.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paris and Western Military Intervention:
False Policy Alternatives

The events in Paris are unquestionably an abomination. A friend commented that this is France’s 9/11. Yet the response of media and public opinion is ominous. No one should condone such terror. But, we should try to maintain our objectivity and to carefully evaluate the complex history behind the events. We also should try to consider a full array of policy responses to these events from a perspective of enlightened and humanitarian goals for our shared future.
Samuel Huntington, some will say, predicted this clash of civilizations.  Alternatively, one may ask whether the historian’s work was prophetic or whether policies on all sides have become self-fulfilling prophecies. From my personal perspective what comes to mind is a verse from one of Donovan’s songs, I stand here with a fading dream
As a starting point we need to analyze the the historical context and to consider the facts. After World War One France and the United Kingdom carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence. These continuing colonialist policies failed to create stable nations, if indeed that was ever a goal. After World War Two, as nation states across the world increasingly gained independence, the world powers resisted independence for Arab Nation States. The founding of Israel was a cornerstone of US policy in the region, while the indigenous Palestinian population was denied self determination (Jeremy Hammond, Foreign Policy Journal). Instead Palestinians were forced from their land and left for decades in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
We can continue this list right up to the present. The US and UK invaded Iraq on entirely false pretenses, despite the fact that the UN efforts to inspect Iraq for WMD had failed to discover anything. More recently the West hijacked the Arab Spring to promote its own goals of regime change in Libya and Syria. Both of these interventions entailed aerial bombing and the supply of guns to local militias. The result is ongoing civil war in both countries.
The initial mobilization of Islamic resistance fighters took place in Afghanistan as a proxy war against the Soviet Union following its coup attempt and later occupation of that country. The financial support given to those Islamic revolutionaries lit a fuse which has continued to burn across the Muslim world. And the initial support for these groups was provided by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The historical context that I have just briefly presented here is a simple list of facts. Inconvenient facts for those in the West who are calling for war. The war didn’t begin with 9/11 or with the Paris terrorist attacks. It began decades ago and western powers were the perpetrators, the instigators. Acknowledging this is not an attempt to condone terror as a method of resistance. Rather it is an attempt to counter knee-jerk reactions that would support a continuation of failed policies, illegal military intervention by the West in the Middle East.
Since Israel’s founding violence has prevailed in the Middle East. Initially neighboring Arab States tried to face Israel with conventional armies. That attempt failed and resulted in additional loss of territory and eventually an uneasy detente between Israel and its neighbors. Within Israel and the territory occupied during the ‘67 war the world has witnessed an escalating war of resistance vs the Israeli State. The response from Israel has been to progressively enforce apartheid policies, while continuing to build illegal settlements on occupied territory. The response on the Palestinian side has been resistance through intifada and activity the Israelis and most in the West term terrorist attacks. In parallel Israel has pursued a policy of targeted killings and repeated military offensives on Gaza and Lebanon (Noam Chomsky quite rightly calls this State terror). 
There is little question that the efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict in Palestine have been half hearted. It is also clear that Israel prefers either no solution or only a solution which is entirely on its own terms. Since the Afghan conflict, the first Iraq war, the invasion of Iraq and the policy of regime change in Libya and Syria, what we are witnessing is an expansion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to include the entire Arab world and the Western powers. Furthermore the methods of warfare are one and the same. The West is employing targeted assassinations, aerial bombardment and military incursions. The Arab resistance is employing terror tactics and is bringing the war to the West. So once again we are witnessing a contest of State terror vs resistance terror. Again, acknowledging this as a fact is not an attempt to condone terrorism. We need to recognize though that a military response to the Paris attacks will most likely serve the perpetuation and escalation of the conflict. By supporting the military option we may end up in a situation similar to that of Israel; no solution, rather perpetual war and terror.
We must consider policy options more carefully, more wisely. In doing so we also need to reflect upon other aspects of the problem. There are demographic and economic issues that we need to consider here as well. The West has an aging population. In the near future the West will have to face a twofold challenge: The collapse of state pension funds and a labor crisis for industry in the West. Industries which have production facilities in the West are faced with the choice of moving production off shore, pushing their governments for more open immigration policies or opting for full scale automation of production. An interesting observation here is that both problems, industrial production and pension programs, could be mitigated through open immigration policies. But there is a catch to such a policy response. Popular opinion is not in favor or such a solution and the evidence on the ground suggests that Western societies are incapable of integrating Muslim immigrants. Remember the Paris riots?
Across the Arab peninsula and North Africa we observe a clear, mirror image of the problem within the West. Demographically there is a population bulge of young people, who face no or at best poor economic opportunity. In addition these young people now face political instability, civil war and the West’s bombing campaigns. Given these facts their only realistic course is to try to emigrate to countries where they may find opportunity. We can argue ad infinitum over the cause of low economic growth in the developing world. But allow me to suggest that the problem has wide joint ownership. The Arab governments certainly share some of the blame as do the economic policies of Western governments. The UN and development banks have for decades talked about the problem, but have utterly failed to develop successful policies to promote sustainable growth.

Europe needs to analyze the failure of past policies, both economic and military, before rushing into an escalation of military conflict. As I noted earlier the military response is most likely to result in permanent war and terror. It will also result in continued, massive migration from the Middle East to Europe. The pressure of migration in turn will result in calls for the end of Schengen and further centrifugal force toward the break up of the Union itself. The terror attacks in Paris were an abomination, but the rational response to our trauma is not a call for revenge or war. Despite the frightening number of casualties, Western civilization is not in imminent danger. Thousands more innocent civilians have been killed across the Muslim world by Western bombs than by the terror attacks within the West (This is but one more inconvenient fact.) Unfortunately though popular opinion fed by mass media sensationalism and misguided political leaders is leaning toward the wrong policy response. As another friend said, this is just going to lead to more racism and madness.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Neocolonial Air Power: The Kunduz Crime

Neocolonial Air Power:
The Kunduz Crime

The NATO air attack in Kunduz is a dual tragedy. Innocent lives were lost and 'Doctors Without Borders' has withdrawn from a country in need of medical support. But in the wake of this tragedy it is useful to reflect on the use of air power today.

During the colonial period Western nations built empires by occupying less developed countries. The popular consensus today is that the practice was egregious and exploitative. Furthermore, most people believe that the wave of independence that began following WWII was a positive trend, even if the full potential of independence has not been realized.

You might ask what connects these two observations? Just this: Western nations and alliances have not ceased intervening in the political affairs of smaller, less developed countries throughout the world. Usually this intervention is managed through economic leverage; hence, the term neocolonialism. Occasionally however, and all too often, western powers revert to the use of military force. Herein lies the connection, but with a new twist.

Today when the US, the U.K. or France employs military force to impose political solutions, they rely overwhelmingly on air power. The reason behind this preference in favor of air power is clear. There is little support within the American electorate for placing ground troops in harm's way. Political and military leaders, however, assure us that modern technology permits precision strikes with limited 'collateral' damage. 

Obviously the strike on a hospital in Kunduz refutes the technology claim. But the more damning conclusion remains obscured. What right does the US or any other super power have to intervene militarily in foreign, sovereign countries? 

The case of Syria is a perfect example. US leaders have been insisting for several years that President Assad must leave. They say he has used violence against his own people. Yes, the civil war in Syria is deplorable. But how does that empower the US to decide the political fate of Syria or Libya or any other country? And when the US or NATO send their air forces in bombing raids against targets within Syria or Afghanistan how does the situation differ? The simple fact is that they are using military power to impose a political outcome. And they are using such power not within their own sovereign territory, but rather against a foreign people.

During the colonial period western nations occupied colonies. They controlled the police and imposed peace on the ground. Popular opinion rejects the practices of that historical period, because the colonies were denied their political rights. And furthermore we recognize that the economic policies implemented by colonial powers were generally in their own interests and not the interest of the indigenous population. Yet today public opinion is far too complacent about military intervention across the world, as long as 'our casualties' are few.

Clearly we need to deepen our analysis. The dots are not difficult to connect. Should sovereign nations around the world be free and independent to chart their own political and economic course? Yes! Should it be permissible for major powers to pressure smaller, independent nations to recognize and accede to demands that cater to those major powers' national interests? No! No nation should have such extended power. In fact the concept of overseas national interests is blatantly contradictory. All transactions beyond national borders should only, must only, be matters for negotiation on equal terms. Any balance to the contrary evidently smacks of neocolonialism.

Was the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz a war crime? There is no need for an inquiry. The US has been an occupying power in Afghanistan for over a decade. If President Assad is guilty of war crimes against his own people, then President Obama is guilty of war crimes against the Afghan people.    

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Greece in Crisis

Greece's Third Bailout:
An Assessment of Circumstances and Policy Options

Following the vote of acceptance in the Greek parliament negotiations are ready to begin on the terms of a new agreement between Greece and its creditors. The negotiations will not be easy. Creditors have made it quite clear that they expect difficult reforms and austerity measures to be implemented. For Greece on the other hand this third program will allow the country to remain in the Eurozone and to pull back from the abyss. 
The question, however, which taxes one's mind, is whether this new package will successfully end the crisis. For the next three years, assuming Greece implements the terms of the agreement, new crises should be avoidable. But what will be the shape of the Greek economy after this three year program? Can we reasonably hope for renewed growth next year? Will the debt burden be any more or less viable in three years?
The only true way to exit a debt crisis is either through the restructuring of the debt or through rapid economic growth. For the past several months the Greek government has tried to negotiate the restructuring option. These efforts are certain to continue and the IMF appears to be an ally in the effort. However, success will not be easy. The difficulty is that most of the debt is now owed to the official sector (i.e. other governments or supra-national institutions). It is difficult to negotiate haircuts with such creditors, because the issue becomes a political conflict rather than a commercial discussion. That could have been an option at the outset of the crisis, when the debt was owed to financial institutions (e.g. the PSI program negotiated with the IIF in 2012). That was the strategy adopted by Iceland. However, Greece followed the alternative strategy of asking for support from the EU and the IMF. So, now most of the national debt is owed to the official sector. Consequently, growing the economy is a more promising alternative.
The problem of course is for Greece to promote economic growth, while simultaneously implementing austerity. Many well known economists have pointed out that austerity traps economies in recession and continuing austerity leads to a downward spiral of economic depression. There is a possible solution to this trap, however. Two policy measures could be adopted to shift the recessionary trend in favor of growth. First, Greece has a very inefficient public sector. Moreover, the balance between the private and public sectors in Greece is badly skewed toward the public side of the scale. Adopting measures to promote efficiency within the public sector could free up resources for growth. Such an effort is long overdue. The issue is how to communicate the need for enhanced efficiency.
The idea that rising productivity enhances economic growth is very well established. In fact it is essentially a tautology. Unfortunately there is often resistance to productivity enhancements. But the fact is that rising productivity permits increases in gross production. The difficulty lies in the fact that clashes between class interests over the fair distribution of the economic pie often lead to confusion and a rejection of productivity gains. The result is we all remain poor, but continue to argue over the spoils. Within the Greek public sector productivity is very low. In recent years progress has been made in the introduction of technology platforms. But at the same time antiquated procedures have remained in place to temper productivity gains.
The second policy option is to liberalize the rules of the market in order to encourage private sector investment. It is notoriously difficult to do business in Greece. Once the current crisis recedes it is absolutely essential that policy measures be taken to encourage private sector activity. How else might the government act to improve the balance between the private and public sectors?
Unfortunately both of these policy options have been anathema to successive Greek governments over several decades. Whether this government or any Greek government can successfully break out of this cultural entrapment is an open question. Yet, if Greece fails to shift policy directions, the chances are very high that in three years’ time we will end up more or less exactly where we are today.
Two specific issues may help to explain the current predicament. The first issue relates to the Greek banking sector. The second example is the problem of the public pension funds.
Banking in Greece had been highly regulated for decades. However, in the ‘90s the banking sector was deregulated and several state owned banks were privatized. Over a period of roughly 15 years banking flourished. Credit to the private sector was more readily available. New technologies and products were introduced. And banks were quite profitable. Two trends caused these positive developments to derail. The first problem was that bank lending expanded far more rapidly than deposit growth. The funding gap was covered by borrowings from other European banks. That left Greek banks dependent upon foreign sources of funding. When the financial crisis began in 2008, Greek banks suddenly were unable to access liquidity. The second problem relates to the fact that Greek banks invested heavily in Greek government bonds. This was a profitable business segment prior to the introduction of the Euro. Unfortunately the legacy strategy was maintained and indeed exposure was increased after the introduction of the Euro. When the financial crisis mutated to a sovereign debt crisis, the banks were left holding seriously impaired assets. In 2012 with the imposition of the PSI haircut, Greek banks instantaneously went bankrupt.
A great deal can be said and argued over the wisdom of the PSI. In the case of the Greek banks the agreement to take a 50% haircut and accept a low interest and long dated rescheduling of the balance proved fatal. The EU and the IMF recognized the problem and put up 50B Euro to recapitalize the banks. Oddly they counted this capital as new loans to the Greek state. The reasons behind such a convoluted structure are purely political. Europe was not prepared to take ownership of the banks directly, since measures had not been agreed on implementing policies toward an EU-wide banking union. So, the Greek government took on additional debt of 50B to recapitalize its private banks, despite the fact that Greek debt was already at an unsustainable level.
Under the new agreement the EU is proposing an additional 25B to recapitalize the banks once again. After 3 more years of recession and a bank run that forced a bank holiday and capital controls, the Greek banks were left with a huge confidence deficit and tottering capital adequacy.. So, yes the banks need fresh capital. But why lend the necessary capital to an already overburdened Greek state. The columnist Hugo Dixon (Reuters / INYT) pointed out this fallacy in a recent opinion article. The EU should extend the capital directly and take direct control of the banks. Such a move would be a tremendous stimulus toward regenerating public confidence in the banks. Of course there are contrary views on this proposal, both in Greece and the EU. However, banking should no longer be a national game. (Just as countries are eventually going to be forced to abandon national airlines.) A full fledged banking union within the EU should begin now as a resolution to the current crisis in Greece.
The problem of pension funds in Greece has somewhat similar origins. Greece does not have particularly generous pensions. However, over the years policies had allowed on the one hand quite generous early retirement benefits. On the other hand the pension funds were poorly invested. Much of the available liquidity was invested in government bonds (just as the banks had done). The PSI hit the pension funds too therefore. Hence, pension funds with inadequate actuarial viability were immediately left in a severe crisis. (Clearly the planning of the PSI failed to consider the full fiscal impact.) So, what can be done?
Reducing pensions is of course one option. But that measure will certainly be recessionary. An alternative is to shift the structure of the pension system for future generations in a manner similar to what was done over twenty years ago in Latin America. Defined benefit plans are notoriously poorly invested when run by national governments. By converting pension schemes to defined contribution and individualized, investment portfolios the impact could be a boon to overall levels of investment. Ultimately Eurozone countries need to move toward pension fund union. Campaigning for such changes will be far more effective than begging for debt forgiveness.
Policy alternatives certainly do exist. They may be initially painful, but they are far more effective than praying for miracles. However, taking steps to realign policies requires creative thinking. My fear is that such thinking is culturally inconsistent with the political scene in Greece. The risk of enduring three more years of austerity only to find ourselves in the same stagnant, economic environment at the end of the program looms ominously.

David Hillstrom

Greece, July 16, 2015