In many ways, trying to find success and a decent life in this contemporary world is like playing a very high risk game of musical chairs. At every step one tries to better one’s life, which requires more risk and greater costs and debts, all the while there are fewer and fewer chairs to sit at for those seeking to find a better place for themselves. Reading about the finances of states and nations is rather grim and depressing news, but there are patterns that run through the different crises, so I thought it worthwhile to examine the subject even if it is rather dismal. Economics isn’t the dismal science for no reason, after all.
I have been reading about the Greek debt crisis for a while, and it’s a good example of what happens when the music stops. When a nation lacks the power to inflate itself out of debt, and has its financial and some of its political power limited by a higher power (in this case the European Union), the price of the music stopping can be very severe. When the bondholders and people with the purse strings demand austerity to a populace that is not willing to suffer for years while others (who are already wealthy) receive their hard earned money, the result is predictable: political chaos as protest parties gain influence, and a lot of bad options without any good ones .
It seems that the only solution that most people in power think of when it comes to dealing with debt is austerity, making ordinary people suffer so that debts can be repaid to those who already have a great deal of money. Of course, such debts were freely entered into, be they personal or societal. Of course, people run up massive student loan debts to pay for college in the hope of getting a better job, just like societies run up debts to pay for either large projects they hope will produce tax revenue, or more often to pay for salaries for public sector workers or for entitlements that are necessary to ensure the support of the voting public.
And yet it is the little people who suffer the most when the music stops. No one thinks to lower the salaries of the incompetent politicians whose families and friends benefited from insider trading. No one thinks to hack and slash at the ranks of unelected boards of directors, but it’s always the adjunct professors at community college or first responders like firemen and policemen that are held hostage when times are tough and when deficits need to be paid, as is the case in California right now . Either the common people must suffer through higher taxes and lower entitlements or their own modest wages and jobs are held hostage by hiring freezes and cuts to the budgets on the few expenditures that actually serve a valuable social purpose. The cuts are never proposed in the fat, only in the already too lean muscle.
When the music stops, people start looking for scapegoats. Very rarely do the people look at their own responsibility, and the fact that the demands for money from the till in the forms of socialized medicine, public education, subsidized university expenses, lengthy unemployment benefits (which, sadly, I have never been able to collect, for various reasons), disability and old age income. All of these cost money, and as a population ages, there are fewer younger people to foot the bill, especially when there are fewer opportunities for those people coming up. It’s much easier to blame freeloading illegal immigrants than it is to put the finger at ourselves and admit we have a share in it. These crises would be possible to handle if everyone was willing to be upfront and honest about their contributions to the mess, but we generally aren’t.
I don’t know of a good way out of these messes. In a best case scenario, I would look for widespread forgiveness across the board to reduce the present burden, but then immediately one is faced with the need to avoid repeating the same mistakes again. This will require painful and difficult changes in our behavior, as people and institutions like the family and churches would be forced to take responsibility for matters that they have conveniently left for the government. In addition, there needs to be some serious auditing of expenditures to make sure that fat is cut from those who can afford to lose resources before any austerity is demanded of those who are already in difficult straits.
The problem is that I don’t see our civilization and its societies and smaller elements as having enough social cohesion within its families and communities to be able to handle the burden of responsibility that it would need for long-term success. Likewise, I don’t see the selfish elites of any nations of this world as being generous enough both to forgive what they feel is owed to them or to suffer for the common good. Rather, they want to make the ordinary people suffer so that they can preserve their own unsustainable standard of living, a state of affairs that generally ends poorly after a lot of people suffer, either with uprisings and defenestrations and heads on pikes served up by angry mobs. This is not going to end well. I just wish it could be different, but we are not wise enough, honest enough, or generous enough for it to be so.