Posts tagged with: spain

Protesters outside parliament on May 5 in Athens, Greece.

On the blog of The American Spectator, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at how Europe refuses to address the root causes of its unending crisis:

Most of us have now lost count of how many times Europe’s political leaders have announced they’ve arrived at a “fundamental” agreement which “decisively” resolves the eurozone’s almost three-year old financial crisis. As recently as late October, we were told the EU had forged an agreement that would contain Greece’s debt problems — only to see the deal suddenly thrown into question by internal Greek political turmoil, which was itself quickly overshadowed by Italy’s sudden descent into high financial farce.

No doubt many of these dramas reflect commonplace problems such as governments having difficulty reconciling promises made in international settings with domestic political demands. The apparently unending character of Europe’s crisis, however, is also being driven by another element: the unwillingness of most of Europe’s political establishment to acknowledge the root causes of Europe’s present mess.

One such mega-reality is the unsustainability of the pattern of low-growth, big public sectors, heavy regulation, large welfare states, aging populations, and below-replacement birthrates that characterizes much of the eurozone. Even now, it’s difficult to find mainstream EU politicians who openly concede the high economic price of these arrangements.

Read “Can’t Face Economic Reality” on The American Spectator.

Noted NYU law professor and free-market advocate Richard Epstein has written a provocative piece titled “How is Warren Buffett like the Pope? They are both dead wrong on economics.” Here’s the money quote:

The great advantage of competition in markets is that it exhausts all gains from trade, which thus allows individuals to attain higher levels of welfare. These win/win propositions may not reach the perfect endpoint, but they will avoid the woes that are now consuming once prosperous economies. Understanding the win/win concept would have taken the Pope away from his false condemnation of markets. It might have led him to examine more closely Spain’s profligate policies, where high guaranteed public benefits and extensive workplace regulation have led to an unholy mix of soaring public debt and an unemployment rate of 20 percent. It is a tragic irony that papal economics mimic those of the Church’s socialist opponents. The Pope’s powerful but misdirected words will only complicate the task of meaningful fiscal and regulatory reform in Spain and the rest of Europe. False claims for social justice come at a very high price.

I blogged about Pope Benedict’s comments last week, and while I don’t disagree with Epstein’s main point, I wonder if he actually means to deny the importance of ethics in economics. The Pope wasn’t saying that there should be no fiscal or regulatory reform, but that such reform must consider future, and not merely present, well-being, which is actually the impetus for policies such as liberalizing labor markets. And unlike Warren Buffett, the Pope wasn’t calling for higher taxes on the rich.

In short, the Pope was making a larger ethical argument that can certainly include the much-needed reforms Epstein cites. Since the Pope isn’t an economist and doesn’t pretend to be one, we should listen to his moral teachings and try to incorporate them with sound economics, rather than disparage them as economically damaging. It is true that while Catholic social teaching stresses the importance and necessity of profits, far too many Catholic and other religious leaders neglect how profits are actually made and distributed – which Epstein briefly and usefully describes – and in this sense, it is far too easy for moralists to pit profits versus people. It would make more sense to try to relate how profit maximization can and often does contribute to the common good, but it can’t do so without ethical men and women who won’t lie, cheat and steal.

I’d like to think that both the Pope and Richard Epstein are right.

On his flight to World Youth Day in Madrid this morning, Pope Benedict XVI responded to a question about the current economic crisis. Not sure what the question was, but the well-respected Italian Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli captured the reply. Here’s my quick translation of the Pope’s answer:

The current crisis confirms what happened in the previous grave crisis: the ethical dimension is not something external to economic problems but an internal and fundamental dimension. The economy does not function solely on mercantile regulations, but needs an ethical reason to work for man. This is what John Paul II affirmed in his first social encyclical: man must be at the center of the economy and the economy must not be measured by profit maximization but by the good of all, which includes responsibility towards the other. The economy works truly well only if it works in a human way, in respect for the other according to different dimensions. The first dimension is responsibility for one’s nation, and not only for oneself. The second is responsibility towards the world: nations are not isolated, as Europe is not closed in on itself, but responsible for all humanity, and must confront economic problems with this “key” of responsibility also for other parts of the world, for those countries that experience hunger and thirst. The third dimension concerns the future, we have to protect our planet, but we must also protect the working of the labor system for all, to think of tomorrow as well as today. If today’s youth do not find prospects for their lives, our today is mistaken and wrong.

It’s pretty clear that the Pope is referring to the economic problems particular to Spain, where youth unemployment is over 40 percent, and also where protesters known as los indignados are blocking the reform attempts of the Spanish government. The same indignados who’ve attempted to start riots in Madrid with World Youth Day pilgrims. The Holy Father is clearly a gentle and patient man.

The Pope also addresses ethics, the central role of the person, our responsibility to others and to the future of our planet. Nothing he said was at all different from what he or his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, has indicated as a morally correct understanding of the market economy. And as he has previously said, dealing with our failings and weaknesses is the price of human freedom and responsibility. The more freedom we have, the greater the risk of our misusing it. But this is not a reason to restrict that freedom; doing so would actually replace the person from the center of the economy with cold, impersonal regulations.

Perhaps the Pope was referring to the record profits of some banks and other companies while unemployment remains high. Much of this is of course due to government policies to “stimulate” the economy in times of uncertainty, regardless of how that money is spent. Was the Pope questioning the results of Keynesian stimulus spending?

The real challenge for economists and policy makers is how do we move from the good intentions of providing ever-increasing, ethically-sound prosperity for all to actual results. Part of that challenge is the fact that our prosperity is the result of constant competition and rapid change, which can also endanger our current standard of living. It is unlikely we’ll ever be able to “guarantee” a stable, prosperous future for everyone because no one actually “controls” the global economy. The cost of putting someone in charge would effectively cut off the competition and innovation needed to create wealth, and would most likely be a force for evil rather than good. The most we can do is to expand opportunities for all, which is difficult enough for today’s local and national leaders, let alone for any global authority.

It is very easy to forget what is happening in other parts of the world especially when we are in the midst of our own financial crisis in the United States. Considering the economic challenges we are faced with, this may be a mistake as we can learn from other’s problems. Europe is experiencing economic woes that continue to worsen. In the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg explains:

As Europe’s financial crisis worsens, it’s increasingly apparent that the economic woes of countries like Portugal, Spain, and Greece have resulted from more than just bad policy. With each passing day, evidence mounts that one dynamic driving the crisis is that of untruth: a disturbing European pattern of fabrication about levels of public spending and debt.

The latest proof for this thesis is the discovery by newly-elected Spanish regional and local governments of concealed debts run up by their predecessors. This contradicts claims by Spain’s Socialist Finance Minister, Elena Salgado, that Spain’s regions had no “hidden deficits” on their accounts. Spain’s business community, however, has long complained about local governments pressuring private companies to do business with them “off the books.”

One reason for such behavior is that Spain’s government knows that the greater Spain’s real overall-public debt, the higher will be the interest-rates demanded by financial markets and the more stringent will be the conditions attached to any “financial assistance package” (i.e., bailout) that Spain might, like Portugal and Greece, eventually need.

As Gregg says, the financial problems in Europe are not just current but have been festering since the beginning of the Eurozone when strict standards were to be implemented:

In the 1990s, European governments agreed the single currency’s success would depend upon countries entering the eurozone on a solid financial basis and then remaining on a firm footing. To that end, both the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) established strict criteria concerning public spending for countries admitted to the single currency.

One such standard concerned the ratio of an applicant country’ gross government debt to GDP. It was not to exceed 60 percent at the end of the preceding fiscal year. Maastricht’s convergence criteria also specified that the ratio of the annual government deficit to GDP should not exceed 3 percent of the same fiscal period.

Such standards were supposed to prevent a “free rider” program from occurring so countries with an irresponsible fiscal reputation, such as Greece, didn’t use their membership to over-indulge and rely on the rest of the members to bail them out. However, this policy wasn’t strictly adhered too. Gregg states that “…many euro applicants were allowed to get away with ‘creative accounting’ to meet the conditions of Maastricht.”

Europe continued to financially falter and wasn’t showing signs of recovery. This could be seen from many actions such as the encouragement of “fudging” numbers through new rules that “added many exceptions for types of spending that would not be included when determining debt and deficit figures.”

Is there a solution to Europe’s financial crisis? Gregg responds with a resounding yes:

Few “core values” would have a more bracing effect upon Europe’s current economic problems than their governments embracing honesty, transparency, and accountability. No doubt many a European political-career would be terminated as a result. The alternative, however, is for Europe’s governments to continue the charade about the real state of their finances.

Morally and financially, that’s not an option at all.

Click here to read the full article in the American Spectator.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, March 10, 2011

A new commentary from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up here to get the latest opinion pieces delivered to your email inbox on Wednesday with the free weekly Acton News & Commentary.

Deficit Denial, American-Style

By Samuel Gregg

Until recently it was thought the primary message of the 2010 Congressional election was that Americans were fed up with successive governments’ willingness to run up deficit-after-deficit and their associated refusal to seriously restrain public spending.

If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.

While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.

Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.

During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.

These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.

And yet despite all the passionate rhetoric from Americans about the need to diminish government-spending, the Wall St Journal-NBC News poll suggests that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare as deficit-reduction measures. As the Wall St Journal’s own commentators noted: “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’

Unacceptable? Think about that word. Do large numbers of Americans really believe there is something morally evil about significant reductions to welfare-spending under any circumstances? Since when – apart from Greece and other models of fiscal rectitude – have welfare payments assumed the status of an absolute right subject to no qualification? Have we really gone so far down the path of economic-Europeanization?

Granted, the same poll suggests much larger numbers of Americans are willing to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But is that the best Americans are willing to do?

Spain’s unreconstructed-1960s-lefty Socialist government has just lifted Spain’s retirement-age to 67. Unsurprisingly, that won’t fully kick-in until 2027, long after Spain’s political class and their tame voting constituencies have met their Maker and no longer need to live off their children’s futures. But can Americans who proclaim their attachment to free enterprise and personal responsibility really do no better than left-wing Western Europeans?

Back in 2007, the journalist Robert J. Samuelson summarized the situation perfectly. “Most Americans,” he wrote, “don’t want to admit that they are current or prospective welfare recipients. They prefer to think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made. Americans do not want to pose the basic questions, and their political leaders mirror that reluctance. This makes the welfare state immovable and the budget situation intractable.”

Presidential campaigns are invariably accompanied by a great deal of posturing. It would be helpful, however, if some serious candidates for the nation’s highest office in 2012 – Republican or Democrat – would use their moment in the spotlight to educate Americans about what’s at stake.

One former American vice-president once reportedly insisted, “Deficits don’t matter.” Unfortunately, there is mounting proof he was wrong. After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.

That’s worrying because while deficit-cutting matters, wealth-creation matters even more if we are to dig ourselves out of our fiscal hole. America now seriously risks seeing its burgeoning welfare costs suffocating the productive sector of the economy that makes social welfare possible in the first place.

Incidentally, it won’t be the rich who suffer. It will be the poor. In their laudable concern for the weakest among us, Americans ought to remember that and start matching political rhetoric with consistent fiscal action.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes in a new piece that “while moral beliefs have an important impact upon economic life, the manner in which they are given institutional expression also matters. This is illustrated by the different ways in which people’s responsibilities to those in need—what might be called the good of solidarity—are given political and economic form.”

Excerpt:

… the rather modest welfare and labor-market reforms presently being implemented in Spain, Greece and France have sparked considerable moral indignation (and not just from welfare recipients) despite widespread acknowledgment that such reforms are inevitable. Obviously there are many whose negative reaction is partly driven by consciousness that such reforms mean that the days of not-very-demanding jobs for life may be numbered. Nevertheless it’s also true that many Western Europeans genuinely believe the good of solidarity is threatened by efforts to move beyond the present and economically unsustainable status quo, precisely because of the state-oriented institutional expression given by Europeans to the surely uncontroversial proposition that we are our brother’s keeper.

While Americans are often regarded as more individualistic than Western Europeans, this perception is partly driven by the different economic and institutional expressions that Americans have often given to the idea of concern for neighbor. This was among one of the distinguishing features of America that struck the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. The emergence of social and economic problems, Tocqueville noted, did not elicit demands from Americans for the government to “just do something.” Indeed, Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.

Tocqueville quickly realized, however, that this “absence” of the state was not symptomatic of a callous disregard by Americans towards their fellow citizens in need. Though Americans tended, Tocqueville noted, to dress up their assistance to others in the language of enlightened self-interest, he observed that Americans usually expressed the value of helping those in need through the habits and institutions of free and voluntary association. In short, Tocqueville wrote, Americans banded together to try and resolve social and economic problems through voluntary associations. Some of these associations (like churches) had a more-or-less permanent presence in American society. Others lasted only as long as a particular economic or social problem persisted. As a consequence, the same pressures for centralized top-down government-led solutions and all their economic implications that prevailed in France were not present in the young American republic.

Read all of “Socialism and Solidarity” on the Public Discourse website.

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Europe, Immigration, and Merkel’s Christian Values

By Samuel Gregg

It’s not often senior European political leaders make politically-incorrect statements, but Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently made a habit of it. The subject has been the touchy question of Muslim immigration and the challenges it poses for European identity. Not only has Merkel upset the European political class (especially the Left and the Greens) by saying what everyone knows—that multiculturalism has “utterly failed”—but she also argued that the issue was not “too much Islam” but “too little Christianity.”

“We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind,” Merkel claimed in a recent speech. She then stressed that Germany needs to reflect more upon “the values that guide us, about our Judeo-Christian tradition.” It was one way, Merkel maintained, of bringing “about cohesion in our society.”

Merkel: Multikulti not working for Germans

On one level, Merkel is surely stating the blindingly obvious. How can Europeans ask Muslim immigrants to integrate into European society and respect European values without Europeans themselves being clear in their own minds about what values are at the core of European identity and where these values come from?

And as much as significant portions of European society would like to deny it, it’s simply a historical fact that the idea of Europe and European values such as liberty, equality before the law, and solidarity did not suddenly appear ex nihilo in the late seventeenth-century with the various Enlightenments. Central to the formation of European identity and such values was the synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem achieved by Christianity following the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in 476 A.D.

Indeed there’s plenty of evidence that the antecedents of most of the various freedoms and genuine achievements of the various Enlightenments are to be found in Christianity. There is increasing recognition, for example, that the idea of human rights was first given concrete expression by medieval canon lawyers.

Yet it is hardly a secret that the Judeo-Christian heritage sits very loosely on many European societies. We find this in a type of secular-fundamentalism—exemplified by Spain’s current Socialist government—that has become fashionable among sections of the European Left. But the ambiguity also manifests itself in the persistence of historical legends that diminish, distort, and denigrate Christianity’s contributions to European civilization.

A good example is the mythology of the so-called “Dark Ages” that permeates popular and elite discussion of European history. Most of the moral, political, and legal foundations of modern market economies, for instance, were established in Europe well before the sixteenth century. Likewise the scientific method was born in the Middle Ages. Medieval thinkers such as Albertus Magnus made crucial contributions to the development of the natural sciences. Yet despite these facts, many persist in claiming that market economies are essentially a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, or that Christianity is essentially “anti-science.”

But the problem is not only with secular opinion. Since the 1950s, many European Christians have gradually reduced their Christian faith to a vacuous humanitarianism worthy of the best EU-funded NGO. One difficulty with “liberal Christianity” (or whatever’s left of it) is that it isn’t especially interested in affirming any Christian values that go beyond sentimental platitudes about tolerance and equality which are routinely emptied of any specific Christian content. It’s goodbye Thomas Aquinas, hello John Rawls.

This makes it even more ironic that increasing numbers of secular European thinkers believe Europe can only reinvigorate its distinct identity and values through reengaging its Judeo-Christian heritage. This is certainly the conclusion of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas.

A self-described “methodological atheist,” Habermas has been insisting for some time that Europe no longer has the luxury of wallowing in historical denial. As Habermas wrote in his 2006 book, A Time of Transitions: “Christianity, and nothing else [is] the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

It follows that any serious discussion of Europe’s Christian values in the context of contemporary immigration and identity debates will require many Europeans to go beyond their often-truncated understandings of European history and Christianity. There’s something paradoxical about this being facilitated by the increasing numbers of Muslims living in Europe. But such an engagement is arguably being made even more urgent by the economic reality that Europe will need even more immigrants if its present demographic winter persists for any significant period of time.

What Chancellor Merkel herself understands by “the Christian view of mankind” was not clear from her remarks. Nor is it evident that particular Christian ideas are always compatible with some Muslim positions. Despite the interfaith babble to the contrary, there are some fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam, many of which have implications for subjects ranging from religious liberty to the nature of the state. Merkel, however, is undoubtedly correct to insist that any discussion of immigration in Europe should involve Europeans worrying a little less about Islam and paying far more attention to knowing the truth about their own heritage and Christianity’s place in it.

The truth doesn’t just set us free. There’s no future without it.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

drdog-2In August, the Wall Street Journal Europe published an article exploring the difference in health care received by domesticated animals and humans. (see “Man Vs. Mutt: Who Gets the Better Treatment?” in WSJ Europe, August 8, 2009) The editorialist, Theodore Dalrymple (pen name for outspoken British physician and NHS critic, Dr. Anthony Daniels) argued that dogs and other human pets in his country receive much better routine and critical healthcare than humans: their treatment is “much more pleasant than British humans have to endure.”

Dalrymple outlines just why this is so: pets in the U.K. actually have it better than their owners since: a) they receive immediate treatment with no waitlists or postponed operations “(and) not because hamsters come first”; b) there is no fear that somehow they are being denied the proper treatment for economic reasons: there is “no tension, no feeling that one more patient will bring the whole system to collapse…; (no one is) terrified that someone is getting more out of the system than they.”; and c) pets in veterinary facilities have more options and flexibility for choosing a healthcare practitioner: “if you don’t like him, you can pick up your leash and go elsewhere.”

British humans, on the other hand, have to deal with navigating the rapids and swells of NHS bureaucracy, which requires the skills of a “white-water canoeist”. They must also endure interminable wait-times for prostheses and life-improving operations. Often they receive sub-standard administrative services, nursing assistance and meal provisions.

As President Obama continues to promote a Europeanization of the American healthcare model, the WSJ Europe editorialist beckons us to listen to such howling in the twilight of the Old Continent’s rapidly aging nationalized healthcare systems. Part of this howling is caused in the less dignified forms of public health services and treatment of human patients. Yet, there is plenty of loud barking over the mismanagement and abuse within nationalized healthcare across Western Europe, particularly in terms of mishandling budgets and sources of revenue. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, December 18, 2006

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Anthony Bradley takes a look at the Spanish economy as it faces a “dilemma,” as he puts it, “simultaneously needing immigrants and seeking to curb them.” Bradley also notes that “institutions like marriage and family seem silly to many Spaniards.”

As APM’s Marketplace reports, shifting trends in Spain might claim another Spanish institution, the siesta. A variety of factors, including increasing competition with labor forces in other nations, are leading some to question the viability of the siesta system in Spain.

The siesta works like this: in the middle of the workday, beginning at around 2pm, offices and businesses close up shop for a few hours, giving workers an extended break. It used to be that employees could go home, spend some time with the family, have a meal, and take a brief catnap, returning fresh to work after the siesta concluded.

But nowadays, the lengthy commutes for urbanites makes a trip home impractical. And many workers don’t like having to stay at work until 9pm in order to get a full day’s work in after the siesta break. What once was a way to create family time is now being seen as contributing to an anti-family work environment. As Jerome Socolovsky reports, “Young parents who want to go home before 9 o’clock to be with their kids can meet with disapproval from the boss.”

One interesting thing about this story is the juxtaposition of the situation in Spain, which seems to be heading away from the siesta model, and the reality in some other industrialized nations, such as Japan, where “power napping” is becoming big business.

In his depiction of the Christian’s daily activities in Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that “the noonday hour, where it is possible, becomes for the Christian family fellowship a brief rest on the day’s march. Half of the day is past. The fellowship thanks God and prays for protection until eventide. It receives its daily bread and prays…”

It strikes me that in the rise of the Japanese power nap and the fall of the Spanish siesta, we’re seeing two extremes come together. Perhaps working 12-hour days, as is common in Japan, isn’t the human ideal. And neither is the extended break during the hottest hours of the day necessary in places where the work being done isn’t manual labor.

Appropriate rest is needed, that is beyond question. But exactly what constitutes the right amount of rest seems to be an open question, or at least culturally contextual to some extent. As Calvin observed, the moral requirements of the fourth commandment concerning Sabbath observance are universal, and include provision for “our servants and labourers relaxation from labour.” This includes the “carnal” labor of daily work, as but a pointer toward “the mystery of perpetual resting from our works.”

Update: Marketplace takes a look at the immigration boom in Spain here. According to one immigration lawyer, a major reason immigrants head to Spain is “the generous welfare system. Illegal aliens get free health care here.”