Fund Your Utopia Without Me.™

02 June 2012

The Sclerotic To Skeletal Rhapsody in F Minus



Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home,
Oh, well, oh, well, oh, well.

Don't it make you feel bad

When you're tryin' to find your way home,
You don't know which way to go?


Published under the title "U.S., Europe on different paths to same place"

The Eurovision Song Contest doesn't get a lot of attention in the United States, but on the Continent it's long been seen as the perfect Euro-metaphor. Years before the euro came along, it was the prototype pan-European institution and predicated on the same assumptions. Eurovision took the national cultures that produced Mozart, Vivaldi and Debussy, and in return gave us "Boom-Bang-A-Bang" (winner, 1969), "Ding-Ding-A-Dong" (winner, 1975) and "Diggi-Loo-Diggi-Ley" (winner, 1984). The euro took the mark, the lira and the franc, and merged them to create the "Boom-Bang-A-Bang" of currencies.

 Sophie Fact:  When Sarkozy wanted to raise the number of hours in the work week from 35 to 40, the entire country went on strike.   It wasn't always that way.  In 1970, the French actually worked 10% more hours than Americans.  What happened?  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Edward C. Prescott, has pointed out:  Taxes have risen sharply since 1970 and higher taxes give workers less of an incentive to work extra hours.

How will it all end? One recalls the 1990 Eurovision finals in Zagreb: "Yugoslavia is very much like an orchestra," cooed the hostess, Helga Vlahović. "The string section and the wood section all sit together." Shortly thereafter, the wood section began ethnically cleansing the dressing rooms, while the string section rampaged through the brass section pillaging their instruments and severing their genitals. Indeed, the charming Miss Vlahović herself was forced into a sudden career shift and spent the next few years as Croatian TV's head of "war information" programming.

Sophie Fact:   Swedes work the longest years in Europe with an average 40.1 years.  Hungarians have the shortest working lives with less than 30 years on the job.  The average American works 45 years.  All of us -- especially our totally pissed off children and grandchildren, who will hate us for what we've done to them -- are going to have to work a lot longer.

Fortunately, no one remembers Yugoslavia. So today Europe itself is very much like an orchestra. The Greek fiddlers and the Italian wind players all sit together, playing cards in the dressing room, waiting for the German guy to show up with their checks. Just before last week's Eurovision finale in Azerbaijan, The Daily Mail in London reported that the Spanish entrant, Pastora Soler, had been told to throw the competition "because the cash-strapped country can't afford to host the lavish event next year," as the winning nation is obliged to do. In a land where the youth unemployment rate is over 50 percent, and two-thirds of the country's airports are under threat of closure and whose neighbors (Britain) are drawing up plans for military intervention to evacuate their nationals in the event of total civic collapse, the pressing need to avoid winning the Eurovision Song Contest is still a poignant symbol of how total is Spain's implosion. Ask not for whom "Ding-Ding-A-Dong" dings, it dings for thee.

Sophie Fact:  Both Spain and Greece have fertility rates of around 1.45.  For a country just to maintain its population, it needs a fertility rate of 2.3.

One of the bizarre aspects of media coverage since 2008 is the complacent assumption that what's happening is "cyclical" – a downturn that will eventually correct itself – rather than profoundly structural. Francine Lagarde, head of the IMF, found herself skewered like souvlaki on a Thessaloniki grill for suggesting the other day that the Greeks are a race of tax evaders. She's right. Compared to Germans, your average Athenian has a noticeable aversion to declaring income. But that's easy for her to say: Mme Lagarde's half-million-dollar remuneration from the IMF is tax-free, just a routine perk of the new transnational governing class. And, in the end, whether your broke European state has reasonably efficient tax collectors, like the French, or incompetent ones, like the Greeks, is relatively peripheral.

Sophie Fact:  One-third of Greece's economy before the crisis was carried out "under the table" or "off-the-books."

Likewise, on this side of the Atlantic: Quebec university students, who pay the lowest tuition rates in North America, are currently striking over a proposed increase of $1,625. Spread out over seven years. Or about 232 bucks per annum. Or about the cost of one fair-trade macchiato a week. Which has, since the strike, been reduced further, to a couple of sips: If you're wondering how guys who don't do any work can withdraw their labor, well, "strike" is a euphemism for riot. The other week, Vanessa L'Écuyer, a sexology student at the Université du Québec à Montréal, was among those arrested for smoke-bombing the subway system and bringing the city's morning commute to a halt. But, as in Europe, in the end, whether you fund your half-decade bachelor's in sexology through a six-figure personal debt or whether you do it through the largesse of the state is relatively peripheral.

Sophie Fact:  In Germany, the retirement age is 67 and retirees receive 46% of their final salaries as a pension.  

In the twilight of the West, America and Europe are still different but only to this extent: They've wound up taking separate paths to the same destination. Whether you get there via an artificial common currency for an invented pseudo-jurisdiction or through quantitative easing and the global decline of the dollar, whether you spend your final years in the care of Medicare or the National Health Service death panels, whether higher education is just another stage of cradle-to-grave welfare or you have a trillion dollars' worth of personal college debt, in 2012 the advanced Western social-democratic citizen looks pretty similar, whether viewed from Greece or Germany, California or Quebec.

Sophie Fact:  In Greece, men can retire at 55 and women at 50...unless they work in arduous and dangerous professions like television presenting, hairdressing or radio announcing, then they can retire at 45.  Retirees receive 97% of their final salaries.

That's to say, the unsustainable "bubble" is not student debt or subprime mortgages or anything else. The bubble is us, and the assumptions of entitlement. Too many citizens of advanced Western democracies live a life they have not earned, and are not willing to earn. Indeed, much of our present fiscal woe derives from two phases of human existence that are entirely the invention of the modern world. Once upon a time, you were a kid till you were 13 or so; then you worked; then you died. That bit between childhood and death has been chewed away at both ends. We invented something called "adolescence" that now extends not merely through the teenage years but through a desultory half-decade of Whatever Studies at Complacency U up till you're 26 and no longer eligible for coverage on your parents' health insurance policy. At the other end of the spectrum, we introduced something called "retirement" that, in the space of two generations, has led to the presumption that able-bodied citizens are entitled to spend the last couple of decades, or one third of their adult lives, as a long holiday weekend.

Sophie Fact:  In Italy, a parent can be ordered by a court to pay his 32 year-old daughter an allowance and 85% of Italian "men" between the ages of 18 and 33 live with mama (this was pre-crizioso!)  Bamboccioni!

The bit in between adolescence and retirement is your working life, and it's been getting shorter and shorter. Which is unfortunate, as it has to pay for everything else. This structural deformity in the life cycle of Western man is at the root of most of our problems. Staying ever longer in "school" (I use the term loosely) leads to ever later workplace entry, and ever later (if at all) family formation. Which means that our generation is running up debt that will have to be repaid by our shrunken progeny. One hundred Greek grandparents have 42 Greek grandchildren. Is it likely that 42 Greeks can repay the debts run up by 100 Greeks? No wonder they'd rather stick it to the Germans. But the thriftier Germans have the same deathbed demographics. If 100 Germans resent having to pick up the check for an entire continent, is it likely 42 Germans will be able to do it?

Sophie Fact:   Average government spending by EU nations today stands at approximately 49.2% of GDP — v. 44.8% in 2000.

Look around you. The late 20th century Western lifestyle isn't going to be around much longer. In a few years' time, our children will look at old TV commercials showing retirees dancing, golfing, cruising away their sixties and seventies, and wonder what alternative universe that came from. In turn, their children will be amazed to discover that in the early 21st century the Western world thought it entirely normal that vast swathes of the citizenry should while away their youth enjoying what, a mere hundred years earlier, would have been the leisurely varsity of the younger son of a Mitteleuropean Grand Duke.

Sophie Fact:  In 2011, 23 of the 27 nations in the EU increased spending. This year, 24 of 27 will do so.  In 2011, the United States increased spending.  In 2012, it will do so again.

I was sad to learn that Helga Vlahović died a few weeks ago, but her central metaphor all those years ago wasn't wrong. Any functioning society is like an orchestra. When the parts don't fit together, it's always the other fellow who's out of tune. So the Greeks will blame the Germans, and vice-versa. But the developed world is all playing the same recessional. In the world after Western prosperity, we will work till we're older, and we will start younger – and we will despise those who thought they could defy not just the rules of economic gravity but the basic human life cycle.
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