Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
Published 9:57 am, Sunday, May 27, 2012
The American republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money -- Alexis de Tocqueville
I recently was in the mood for some entertaining non-fiction and made the mistake of purchasing Michael Lewis' latest book, "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World." I was eager to escape and live someone else's life vicariously. Yet, instead of being allowed in the clubhouse of a brilliant, rogue major league general manager or allowed to be a fly on the wall as a handful of contrarian investors bet heavily against the massive housing and credit market bubble of the mid to late 2000s, I was ricocheted across the globe to observe the financial meltdown occurring in a half dozen countries as their sovereign debt turns into monopoly money.
Not since reading "The Exorcist" and "Pet Sematary," had I been unable to sleep, frozen in the darkest hours drinking in a narrative filled with fear, loathing and stupidity. I kept talking out loud and waking up my wife, "No! Spain! Don't take that loan from the ECB. You'll kill yourself!" It is indeed torture when you know something wicked this way comes. The tension of Lewis' book arises out of trying to figure out who will get slashed first and how many of the characters with whom you feel a connection are going to end up as worm bait in the back garden.
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When I arrived in London in April 2000, the world was heralding the European Economic Community and was astonished at its member's abilities to conform to more stringent fiscal guidelines to support their common currency. Europeans love the notion of a common currency but hate the idea of diluting their national identities for the sake of common monetary policy -- especially one that has Germans involved. Europe's emotional intelligence, cultural stamina and a genetic predisposition to avoid difficult issues is summed up in the acronym "FEAR" which can stand for "Face Everything and Recover" or "Bleep' Everything and Run."
The "Euros" are odd bedfellows. We have the "Wimpies" -- countries who assured their new partners that they had plenty in the bank but always seemed low on lunch money -- telling everyone that they would gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today. To the north, in Iceland, the prosaic national occupation of fishing lost its luster when Icelandic men realized that blond supermodels preferred dating financial professionals who did not smell like cod. The problem was that no one in Iceland really understood the world's complex financial markets, and after three years of borrowing, buying high and selling low, the proud, independent nation of mariners went broke.
The contagion of borrow, spend and speculate while all the while coming up with new generous entitlements to guarantee re-election spread to Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. The French attempted to also join the party but did not like the fact that anyone could get in as long as they paid the cover charge. They continued their own private fete and rationalized that they would have not spent nearly so much money on ice sculptures.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel and those judicious Germans watched from a distance. While Southern Europeans preferred to not discuss the logistics of fording a river until they were literally on its banks, the Germans were mapping the next 500 kilometers and did not like what they saw. The European Central Bank was responsible for the Euro Zone's financial stability and the integrity of the European currency -- and Germany held much of this debt. Yet, austerity was not happening in many nations who shared the currency with the Germans. Still sensitive over their bad rep for invading and plotting the extinction of most of their neighbors, the Teutonic Knights just sat in their backyards listening to polka music on their head phones, quietly doing their calculus and getting worried.
Things got worse a few weeks back when the Greeks threw out their current government, which had encouraged them to pay taxes, accept cuts in generous entitlements, tolerate reductions in the minimum wage and understand that not everyone can retire with a full pension at the ripe old age of 25. You must first graduate from government paid college. The Greeks were outraged at the suggestion of tightening their belts as many of them had gotten so fat that they had stopped wearing them. They immediately voted for new anti-austerity leadership and attempted to form a coalition government -- the equivalent of trying to build a space ship out of newspaper and JELL-O.
This week, Interpol foiled a plot by the new French government of Francois Hollande to sell the Greek islands of Mykonos and Cos to the Germans for 1 trillion euro and a promise that no German woman over the age of 40 would ever remove her top on a Southern European beach again. The French operatives posing as wealthy Greek shipping magnates had agreed on a price and had already transferred funds to a Swiss Bank when one of the "Greeks" heard a car backfire and immediately surrendered. As one German put it, "A Greek would run, but he would not surrender so quickly. We knew something was not right."
And so the food fight continues as everyone agrees that austerity is a good thing but no one wants fiscal sacrifice to happen on their watch. It seems deficit spending by politicians is in vogue which means many nations' sovereign debt is now multiples of the average annual income of each citizen. Polarized politicians cannot agree on a way forward. Prime ministers and presidents are advocating wishful stimulus spending as a way to lift all balloons out of the abyss. The concept that one must pay down their sovereign debt, reduce the size of government spending until revenues exceed expenditures, be honest about the net present value of entitlements and agree on what taxes can and must be raised to help offset cuts in spending -- are all quaint and inconvenient notions that have a time and a place, just not on the current administration's watch.
The creepiest thing about Michael Lewis' book is it sounds a lot like America. In fact, his last chapter does not end on the shores of Normandy but drops you helplessly into the middle of California -- the world's largest economy and now America's No. 1 candidate to enter The Biggest Financial Loser contest as it struggles to shed $16 billion of budget deficit. If the state of California were a man, he could have three wives and they would never meet. Alas, America, the all powerful, young invincible that fears no one, and believes like our teens that bad stuff only happens to other people, has wet its own bed.
As I share my entreaties for fiscal conservatism with anyone who will listen -- including my Australian shepherd who supports me as long as I do not cut his kibble, everyone agrees with the notions of sacrifice, as long as it is someone else doing it. And we keep sending the same jellyfish back to Washington to assume their place in a two-party skirmish line that is at odds over how to achieve the magic of stimulus without tripling tax revenues, reducing public spending, ensuring everyone owns a home, has health care and a loaf of multi-grain bread on the table. I admit to not being a math major, but their cloudy calculus doesn't seem to work for me.
But, hey -- what do I know? It's all Greek to me.
Check out Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.