MUNICH - In the search for a solution to the debt problems in the western industrialized countries, a visit to Nuremberg, Germany, could offer some valuable inspiration. The city boasts a Debtors Tower, an exact copy of the original rebuilt after World War II. This was the prison where, until the late Middle Ages, men who did not meet their financial obligations were locked up. Doing time in what was called the "Narrenhäuslein", or little house of fools, was a mark of extreme shame.
Many older people can still remember the day when we only bought the things we had the money to pay for. Living on credit was frowned upon. Of course, people who bought homes took out mortgages and car buyers paid in installments, but the idea was to pay back what was owed as swiftly as possible. Even governments, in the period of reconstruction that followed World War II, strived to keep budgets balanced. Government debt was supposed to be a fallback position in the event of severe recession in the national economy.
Looking back in time just hammers home the difference in the way we think about debt now, 40 years later, when living on credit has come to be seen as almost a virtue.
The change was gradual, and if youve ever been a smoker you know how stealthily an addiction builds. At the beginning, its just a couple of cigs a day. Then a few more. Soon enough, the self-deception I can stop whenever I want to -- is clouding your vision.
And then, somewhere down the line, a fear of lung cancer starts to take hold in many smokers consciousness. When that happens, they realize they are well and truly addicted. And thats the exact point that Western industrialized countries and their money policies have now reached. And that cuts across all sectors in those societies, all of those whom let addiction creep up on them: private households, business, the government. And now comes the nasty moment of truth.
In many families, living on credit has become par for the course. Over-use of credit cards is one of the reasons for the ever-increasing number of personal bankruptcies. So is the dream of home ownership. Real estate has become an object of speculation: take out a loan, buy the house, wait for the price to go up, and then go up a rung on the property ladder by going into debt for an even more expensive property.
Large banks have driven this development. They give credit to speculators gambling on the stock market without a careful check of their credit rating, while an entrepreneur needing money to modernize his or her business will be required to put up substantial collateral.
The value system has changed for the worse. Firms that in the old commercial tradition set cash aside for a rainy day are still being pressured by shareholders to build up the debt necessary for payouts from the capital reserves. Thats how the finance world reached its present condition -- wealth was supposed to magically be created from borrowed money without having to be bothered with such things as real investment in the production of goods. The global crisis is a punishment for this arrogant attempt at financial alchemy.
Governments too succumbed to the delusion. For the first time in US history, on Saturday a rating agency downgraded the world powers credit rating. The idea that America could default suddenly doesnt seem so far-fetched anymore. The same holds true for Japan and the Eurozone. After Greece, Ireland and Portugal, now Spain and Italy have issues with servicing debts.
Lets be clear about this. The financial markets are still putting as much capital at governments disposal as governments need. Theyre asking for markedly higher interest, and there are a number of shady operators on the scene creating unrest on the exchanges. But at the core, its a countrys citizens that finance the government, directly by paying taxes or buying bonds, and indirectly through capital sum life insurance and pension funds. Debts that governments cant pay back decrease citizen assets.
The situation is particularly serious because Western governments have had to rescue their banks. Add to that the fact that for many decades now governments have been following a policy of running deficits, soothed by the notion that they would of course manage to ease down the debt. Eventually.
And voters bought it. We saw the rise of environmentalist parties, but nobody founded an anti-debt party. So how do we fix this mess?
A high level of economic growth is a major prerequisite, yet growth rates are tending to stagnate in the industrialized countries right now. So: over and beyond Greece, debts need to be waived. Citizens will bear the burden, but a new dogma is needed: society is robbed of its freedom when debts are carried over year after year. Dangerous deficits should be forbidden.
The transition is going to be painful. There will be a lot less prosperity for everyone. But the bitter reality of a devolving economy is upon us, and its high time that individual citizens, the government and the financial world start to accept it.
Read the original story in German
Photo - Chris Devers