Iceland: The Financial Collapse As A Political And Moral Scandal

Translated from “Darf ich Ihnen das Einwohnerverzeichnis anbieten?“, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 17 Feb 2009

(original German translation by Gudrun M. H. Klöse)

Waiter! The Icelandic Phonebook, please!
Why Iceland’s financial collapse is a political and moral scandal / by Einar Mar Gudmundsson

Once upon a time there was a cannibal flying first class. Given an extensive menu, he politely thanked the stewardess, then handed it back and said: “I cannot find anything good for a snack. Would you be so kind and bring me the passenger list, please?”

I don’t want to equate the richest Icelanders, who together with the Government have left us out in the cold, with man-eaters, at least not in the literal sense: but after becoming incredibly wealthy, it looks like they went back to the Government and the Supervisory authorities and said: there is nothing crispy enough for us to gobble any longer. Would you be please as friendly as to provide us with the list of all Icelandic children?

And I am not saying that anybody should be compared to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, but the Government and their Regulatory Authorities look like they have replied to the country’s Monetary Aristocracy: “Yes, please, here’s the list of all Icelanders. Can we do anything else for you?”

This is nothing short of treason, and therefore we require and pretend, we, who only can claim to have children and grandchildren, the freezing of everything of value that has been used to enrich people at our own expenses. And those people must be made accountable for their actions. Since the justification for their high salaries was the fact that they were working against targets, then we should now take them at their words, and identify their responsibilities. Instead their loss has been nationalized, and the whole System invited to investigate itself.

Under these circumstances, even Franz Kafka would appear like a dry realist. True, it can be claimed that the Government is now gone, and the leadership of the Financial Control Council has been replaced: still, the old system still leads a good life. Corruption in the finance world extends up to the new government of Geir Haarde, while Iceland sits on a debt of thousands of billions of Krones. And it is us the ones that have to pay those debts, together with our children and grandchildren, now fully dependent on the good graces of the IMF and other lenders.

And in these “Tohu va bohu” times, void and without form like the world at the beginning of Creation, one should ask oneself if perhaps Karl Marx had it right all along. A friend of mine, who’s got all the volumes of the “Capital” and has even read them, told me that a condition like the one we are going through is described in the third volume. Few have read this book, and I haven’t, because there is so much mathematics in the second one.

My friend says that Marx deals in the third volume with “fictitious capital”: that means capital not with actual property behind profit, but rather with worthless pieces of paper that change hands, worthless in the sense of unreal.

That’s the box of tricks played with by the Icelandic Neokapitalists, stylishly and zippily wearing the nickname of Export Vikings. They were shining as demigods devoting themselves to noble tasks, and their wives to the plight of children in Africa, all of that, in newspapers which they owned anyway. Men bought themselves a place into companies, won the majority stakes therein, founded new companies, propped up one another and then pocketed the values of the old companies, that is, what was owned by the shareholders. That’s how the box of tricks worked, and many healthy, profitable companies have been lost along the way. Then those men went back to appear on their newspapers, with their own Alpine ski slope, luxury homes in Manhattan and yachts in Florida.

You may have noticed that I used the expression “box of tricks”. That’s not completely true. Actually, everything went according to the rules of the free market. No laws and no regulations prevented the actions of the financial Barons. The Government slumbered on, shrugged the issues away and cheered up the Money Lords, to the point that Ministers would feel more or less offended when not invited to the parties where the glitz and glamor of Hollywood rubbed shoulders with Iceland.

The basis of this system was the coalition between the Independent Party and the Progress Party, as if in a “Fishing Quotas” system, but with the right to trade and make money about fish that had yet not been caught. Soon under the coalition, the banks were privatized, without rules and without any control for the new management. The leaders of those parties, David Oddsson and Halldãr Ásgrímsson, had twelve years of experience at the Government bank. They were so keen with the privatization of banks, they generously threw in summer homes and art collections with the privatization. Anybody and everybody who criticized the new system was summarily classified as jealous, dumb or outdated.

The business sector assumed power in the country. It was based on the so-called Economic Council. Either had legislators in their bag, or these took a long nap throughout their mandate. In one declarition by the Council it is stated ‘Arguments against public regulation and control of the financial market are more convincing than arguments in favor of such meddling. It would be sensible to encourage market partners to define their own rules and abide by those”.

And about the success of their maneuvering: “An investigation by the Economic Council revealed that the Parliament in 90 percent of cases followed the recommendations of the Council itself.”
The Economic Council had de-facto got in charge, without anyone noticing.

The American expert on the financial crisis, Robert Aliber, repeatedly warned that the Icelandic Government and the Central Bank were even less capable than astrologers to steer our modern economy. They did not understand that the economic growth was built upon a pumping system, – loans were taken in order to pay off other loans – and now they do not know how to re-establish a balance, after the paper wealth has disappeared. Aliber added that it would have been unlikely that different leaders, perhaps arbitrarily selected out of the Phonebook, would have been able to create an economic Desaster as extensive as our Government did.

Iceland’s debt in per-capita terms is higher than the crippling reparations imposed upon Germany after WWI. In Icelandic Kronen, it is expected to be as much as the debt in the Italian budget. But Iceland has approximately 310 000 inhabitants, Italy 60 million.

But the Directors of the new private Banks regarded their activity as such good as a performance that they could cash in every month an equivalent sum to the Nobel Prize. Confronted to the large generosity they reserved to themselves, they angrily threatened to go abroad. We could have done well to them to wish them a good trip, like in the saga of Grettir the Strong, and to beg them just never to come back. But they claimed that abroad there was a strong demand for them, and they lied much about responsibility.

And this is now the gist of the matter, now, after the collapse: Why those that were claiming so much responsibility before, now take no responsibility? If somebody talks about the responsibility of the New Rich, it is only in juridical terms, as if something unlawful may ever be found; and as if the Nation should now be forced in rummaging through codes and contracts, in order to get reparation for the damage. This ignores the fact that responsibility lies also in social, economic, political and ethical terms.

Whilst all the wonderful prescriptions to say “sorry” come out of the crater that all that it’s left of the Banks, the New Rich say: there is nothing unnatural or unlawful in what has happened. How could it be otherwise, given the fact that the Market Economy had full control of the Parliament? Example: the Bank “Kaupthing” lent a British pubs chain around 107 billion Icelandic Krona just before collapsing – a sum approximately as high as the sum of the value of all Icelandic mortages in foreign currencies.

Let’s consider what has happened in the light of the Hávamál in the Edda, what can be considered as most ethically representative of our heritage. The question then becomes: Had anybody been able to domesticate Humans, using money to transform people into apes? That would have been the task for politicians, but it seems that of late they were tamed by the apes. How could that happen?

If the government were like our parents, the Children Protection Agency would have already intervened. Therefore it is just logical that the Government had to resign. Now there is a kind of interregnum until elections at the end of April.

Everything now depends on the active participation of the Icelanders and on their fighting spirit. The danger is that the discouse will still be nominated by the well-lubricated election machinery of the government parties, those that during our so-called pot-lid revolution have look like pitiful figures. The struggle that lies ahead is therefore also a struggle for establishing the right language. And for credibility. Currently the Elites pity themselves, angry with their executives, and the former Minister and current Head of the Central Bank David Oddsson is refusing to go, even if invited to do so by the Government. If only all the people currently unemployed would have proceeded according to Oddsson’s model, they would have simply said, upon receiving the contract termination notice, that they felt insulted and would continue to work no matter what.

Compassion, cohesion – during the booming years those were almost ridiculous notions. Competittion was seen as the natural way forward. Everybody ruminated about that. Commentators spoke under a spell, and the Market became part of television news as indispensable as the weather. Nobody dared to ask what the FTSE and Nasdaq exactly were, in order not to look a smaller player.

But if welfare programs were small during the times of prosperity, how will they become during the period of crisis that is now starting? Not everybody was rich during the fat years. We saw pensioners endure living in tiny rooms, and others become homeless. The lower wages were absurdly so, and medium-level employees had to use all their salaries to keep paying their debts and sustaining their families. It is obvious that it is not people with low wages that have benefited from the “recovery money”.

An American financier said once that the best moment to start buying things up, is during the time of riots, when blood flows through the streets. Is that what our Government is waiting to react? Signs of the beginning of that already exist. Indebted firms find themselves debt-free and back in the hands of their former owners. That goes on particularly smoothly. The same people occupuy the same positions, while each one of us has to contend with being in the red for 10 or perhaps 20 million Kronas. And like everything else, even the exact amount of our debts is a matter of contention, as they should be cumulated with household mortgages, money lost with the devaluation of the Krona, private bankruptcies and unemployment.

Perhaps Iceland is a kind of experiment for what will happen to the whole world. In any case, an at least excessive result of the situation, of the crisis, as much as it can be recognized, is that the debt obligations of the Icelandic banks are twelve times the gross national product. Someone told me that this mirrors the situation worldwide. But it is still premature to state what the crisis actually means and how it will evolve. Before the loss, nobody was right in evaluating their possessions. And now it is difficult to predict whether the “fat servant” will manage to rise, now, in the place where he was made to become a thrashed-up slave..

Einar Mar Gudmundsson is a writer living in Reykjavik.

Is China’s Authoritarian Capitalism Better Than Liberal Democracy?

(No it isn’t: just like trying to earn a living by gambling is not better than having a salary, even if potential returns are much higher)

Is China’s authoritarian capitalism better than liberal democracy (as “the condition and motor of economic development“)? That’s more or less what Slavoj Žižek, co-Director of the International Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck College, asks in the Letters section of the London Review of Books (Vol. 30 No. 8 · Cover date: 24 April 2008), at the end of a singularly even-handed description of the Tibet-China relationship (that by the way only victims of their respective propaganda machines will believe to be a story of good guys vs. bad guys).

Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that democracy can only ‘catch on’ in economically developed countries: if developing countries are ‘prematurely democratised’, the result is a populism that ends in economic catastrophe and political despotism. No wonder that today’s economically most successful Third World countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule.

Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There are a few i’s to dot, and t’s to cross in Mr Žižek’s discourse. First of all, Taiwan, South Korea and Chile became “today’s economically most successful Third World countriesafter getting rid of “authoritarian rule“. So from those examples it appears that dictatorship may gestate a successful economy, but more often than not “Authoritarian Rule” transforms itself into a suffocating mother, if not an evil stepmother.

More importantly, China itself is in a sense only the last manifestation of a truism: an (economically) enlightened dictatorship can be much more efficient than the collection of dirty tricks known as democracy. Voltaire likely believed in that, just as Plato and countless others, and even if it does sound like an elitist concept, it is obvious nevertheless. An intelligent, caring, politically and economically wise Prince can decide for the best of everybody in minutes, rather than wasting months trying to convince, negotiate, win over people, perhaps in interminable parliamentary committees.

Such a Prince can also guarantee decades of good governance, truly a blessing for his (or her) people.

There is a small matter though. Say, your Prince is Octavianus Augustus and peace and prosperity is for everybody. Then comes Tiberius, and things start out ok: only, to worsen with his increasing paranoia.

Then you’re stuck with Caligula. And Nero is not too far away either.

Things haven’t changed much in the intevening 2,000 years. The trouble with authoritarian rule, hence with authoritarian capitalism, is not its ability to generate prosperity: rather, its perfectly equivalent capacity to degenerate, quickly because almost without control, thereby hampering the growth of that prosperity if not killing it off entirely.

Speaking the language of the financial world: just like a new CEO can resurrect or destroy a Company, so a despotic Prince (or committee of Princes, aka the “Communist Party of China Central Committee“) is a recipe for increased earning opportunities and, for the very same reasons, for an increase in risk.

And that’s something that should definitely be factored in in any judgement about what to choose as “the condition and motor of economic development“. After all, who wants to continuously gamble all of one’s wealth?

Marx and Nietzsche on Socialism and Envy

Follow-up to my earlier blog: “Research Shows Socialism Is About Envy“:

(many thanks to my friends M and E for this)

First a quote from Karl Marx himself. I found it in extended length at the blog called “The Sentinel“:

Marx, in his much neglected Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts warned against [...] what he termed “crude communism”. Crude communism “appears in a double form; the domination of material property looms so large that it aims to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone as private property. It wishes to eliminate talent, etc., by force . . . The role of worker is not abolished but extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things . . . This communism, which negates the personality of man in every sphere is . . . Universal envy setting itself up as a power, is only camouflaged form of cupidity which re-establishes itself and satisfies itself in a different way. The thoughts of every individual private property are at least directed against any wealthier private property, in the form of envy and the desire to reduce everything to a common level; so that this envy and levelling in fact constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of such envy and levelling-down on the basis of a preconceived minimum. How little this abolishing of private property represents a genuine appropriation is shown by the abstract negation of the whole world of culture and civilisation, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private property but has not even attained to it. The community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as universal capitalists. The two sides of the relation are raised to a supposed universality; labour as a condition in which everyone is placed, and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community.

Marx was likely talking about Babeuf, but the idea of flattening everybody down to the lowest common poverty has come back into fashion (usually dressed up as “antiglobalization” or “environmentalism”).

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And now unto Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Anti-Christ (section #57):

Whom do I hate most among the rabble of today? The socialist rabble, the chandala apostles, who undermine the instinct, the pleasure, the worker’s sense of satisfaction with his small existence–who make him envious, who teach him revenge. The source of wrong is never unequal rights but the claim of “equal” rights.

Nietzsche was of course talking about Christians too, but that I’ll leave to another blog…

Research Shows Socialism Is About Envy

Michael Shermer on the Los Angeles Times

“Would you rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 a year while other people get $250,000? Assume for the moment that prices of goods and services will stay the same.

Surprisingly — stunningly, in fact — research shows that the majority of people select the first option; they would rather make twice as much as others even if that meant earning half as much as they could otherwise have. How irrational is that?”

And so it is shown that Socialism (American Liberalism) as the belief that societies should be fair is basically about making sure nobody earn more than you do.

No wonder “socialist economies” were unable to make the people rich: everybody’s goal was to bring everybody else down

Old World Bank

An interesting if somehow obvious and subdued debate today on the BBC World Service’s “World Business Review” about reforming the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Finance Corporation and the International Development Association.

I do not have much faith in any reform at any of those institutions. Just as the UN’s Security Council, they are still stuck in the 1950’s and will keep themselves that way unless some major international crisis changes the lot.

Fact is the whole system has been managed (if not designed) in order to keep the international Order firmly in the hands of Americans and Europeans.

After all it is not far-fetched to say that the whole ideas of “Third World” and “Development” were not with us until the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War and most of all the end of Colonialism.

Why would the Old Boys want to relinquish their control right now? It’s just much simpler to leave things as they stand. “Development” in this respect is a side show, as demonstrated by the absence, after six decades, of any idea on what actually can push a country out of abject poverty (apart from luck, location, and luck of location).

Cato Institute Scholar Lauds the Power of Taxes

Perhaps Arnold Kling may want to reconsider his thoughts after realizing he has just argued for higher taxes, and heavier governmental intervention in the energy sector:

The most important, inconvenient truth about energy policy is that there is no justification for a subsidy for good energy. Subsidies for wind farms, solar energy, ethanol, and so forth, whether they come from government “energy policy” or personal carbon offsets, are pure pork.

It may be true, as Greg Mankiw argues in his Pigou Club Manifesto, that higher taxes on bad energy are justified. Figuring out the optimum tax is a difficult challenge, even for the Pigou Club. However, once the correct tax is set, that by itself provides all the incentive that is needed to get people to switch to good energy. The tax on bad energy will raise the price that people are willing to pay for good energy. That higher price for good energy is all of the incentive that producers need to undertake the effort to provide more good energy.

It would have helped to have a little more reasoning on how difficult the challenge to find what a “optimum tax” is, and how dangerous things can become if that’s miscalculated.

As things stand, I can imagine such details getting forgotten whilst certain people will use the article “The Political Economy of Alternative Energy” to support strong governmental activism.

Or perhaps it’s a matter of finding the lesser of two evils? Was Kling’s a way to demonstrate that pork looks worse than taxes in the eyes of a person advocating freer markets?