Saturday, August 20, 2011

Why is European Civilization Collapsing?

By Son of Bastiat
“A culture of defeat and pessimism, abetted by faux compassion, brings the world down on its knees”

Scanning last week’s Time Magazine after this essay had been substantially written, after the Dow Jones Industrial average had again plunged down (at one point by as much as 528 points), and after parts of the smoldering city of London had quieted down into ashes and cinder, the author tried hard to discern what it will take for pundits to understand the reasons why civilizations explode violently with such suddenness.

Once again the economists blamed it on the effects of runaway sovereign debt and fiscal spending. The sociologists were blaming the withering effects of these cutbacks on the welfare state. There was recognition that something else more fundamental was at work, but few speculated on what it was. Slowing down economies and failing welfare programs are decades long phenomena no longer fit to report unless there is something new. . . like China’s impending societal collapse, though like Europe it eventually shows up as an economic one.

China’s collapse, a word that should no longer surprise considering what’s happening in Europe, is now increasingly suggested by decadal indicators showing marked slowdowns in export manufacturing, higher defaults among SOEs, steeply rising past dues of banks, increasing loans by local and provincial governments, and anemic consumer retail sales. These indicators have trended down for a while so “imminent” may still be warranted.

But unless China can quickly rev up its exports at a point when the global economy itself is in serious recession (by collapsing prices and letting its currency depreciate despite raging inflation), its only hope for growth is in ramping up public investments fueled by money creation or a drawdown of its reserves. With China’s capital to GDP ratio now at a precarious 5 x, more capital offers limited prospects. But these measures only tell the late, “economic” part of the story.   

After investing in big infrastructure projects to prop up demand, and cutting back on environmentally or technically flawed projects hastily implemented to boost GDP, China looks increasingly like chasing after a mirage. For the next few years China’s overinvestment will become an albatross to growth, further stressing out its already undercapitalized banking system, which in turn will then cut down on small and medium term loans that represent China’s last hope for growth, having for too long delayed the strategic restructuring needed to free up consumer spending.

A long period of slow growth is now the payback for China’s delayed exit from mercantilism, with all the ills (of degraded environment, extreme inequality, and limited consumer choices) attendant to that system. Command economies can always buck trends as China has done for the last two decades, but they can only delay the inevitable reckoning. File it under a materialist system that, well, fell short of delivering the materialist Shangri la.

The Skinny on Global Recessions

This extended reference to China’s economic woes is done not to criticize it (its economic and business managers must rate at the top given the problems they had to contend with) but to let the reader better appreciate the kinds of problems that are now hobbling the major economies, and why snapping out of the present global malaise is not a matter of revving up exports or ramping up capital spending.

For one, it highlights a key aspect about the present economic slowdown – that whereas previous global recessions could count on offsetting growth performances, the present recession is one where all three major economic engines (EU-US-China) are in 0,-1,2 (comatose-stalled-slowdown) mode. The other third of the global economy would have to miraculously double their share to nullify the losses from these 3. Second, whereas most past recessions were triggered by a collapse in effective demand, the most pernicious feature of the present slump is the compression of purchasing power as banks and households de-lever their massive debt accumulated during the prior decades of growth (added to fiscal irresponsibility).

For the first time in over a half century, psychological and institutional incapacity render the economy impervious to monetary and Keynesian stimulus. Pessimism over bankruptcy and lost net worth is driving the economy over the cliff, which deficit spending or liquidity infusions cannot easily reverse. 

The Strange Case of Europe and the EU

With China’s economy all but ready for major surgery, and the US badly gasping for sharper, bigger and targeted growth-oriented intravenous infusions, the Eurozone is the world’s last and only hope for recovery. But after months of indecisive deliberations and hectoring about the “evils” of Greece-type bail outs while doing little to reverse member country budgetary infirmities, the Eurozone is now about to reap the fruits of a peculiar “double barrel” approach to resolving conundrums: its two top economic workhorses all but technically in a recession – France which barely grew at 0.1 % Italy and Germany at 0.2 %. With lending in Western Europe and the former Eastern Bloc crimped by bad bank balance sheets, the chance of their picking up the slack opened by France and Germany is negligible if not zero.

So for all intents and purposes the “comatose” description for the EU is, or has not been, too far off the mark and with US and China heading to their respective gurneys, that can only bode ill for the prospects of global recovery within five years. The words “Europe” and “malaise” are synonymous in this regard.

In fairness to the Eurozone countries, their leeway for solving economic problems are lashed by a tight straightjacket that without careful thought they hastily rushed into – forming a common currency union without ascertaining its workability amidst differing taxation and spending regimes of 17 sovereign and disparate cultures. Eurozone banking practices and standards which were to have been harmonized for common monetary policy to work effectively could not accommodate the member countries’ different rates of growth, inflation and stages of financial development, causing lack of coordination and control right in the very heart of financial policy which is what a common currency tries to facilitate.

The result is the present ECB reduced to a de facto Central Bank unable to monetarily work with 17 separate fiscal entities all of whom are beholden to local constituencies and vested interests. For anyone who has lived and worked in Europe as the author did in the 80s, this is Europe at its classically, dysfunctional, worst.

But Is Lack of Policy Coordination THE Reason for EU’s Malaise?

Those folks who have monitored these broad trends for other than quarterly or year-end assessments cannot help but wonder whether there is anything more, other than the parochial and exclusionist mindsets that are the standard indictments of its culture that explains why Europe is what it is today. There is in fact an honest answer to this question, although it tends to be ignored if not violently ridiculed by the elites, an effete group of faux glitterati and pseudo-intelligentsia, children of the Enlightenment who have long been in denial but who now must confront it unless they wish to become even more irrelevant and parasitical than they are now.

The real answer is that Europe is what it is today because it has turned its back on the roots which for centuries have been the nurturers and anchors of its vibrant, optimistic and creative culture, supplanting them with a culture of death and despair that now turns most ordinary decisions into epic struggles for survival. It is called atheistic humanism.

There is nothing novel or even earth-shaking with this statement, being the underlying theme of the writings of perceptive men like George Weigel (“The Cube and the Cathedral”) and Niall Ferguson (“Eurabia?” and “War of the World: 20th C. Conflict and the Descent of the West”). In their view, Europeans’ contempt for religious and secular tradition pushes them to the cult of the contemporary (Brague) which prevents their drawing the most obvious conclusions about the impending bankruptcy of their economic culture. One sign of this pessimism is its refusal to provide for its own defense, and engage in the most fundamental duty of raising the next generation, with the result that “Europe’s biggest problem is senescence” (Ferguson).

Once thought to be a rejection of and withdrawal from the most shameful aspects of their history, it is now believed instead to result from a deliberate denial of the transcendent roots of its religious traditions. If the reader wants proof, just look at the EU Constitution that Europeans adapted in June 2004 – at 70,000 words (7 times longer than the US Constitution) and not one word or phrase acknowledging Europe’s Christian patrimony.

The inevitable culmination of such beliefs (and the policies they give rise to) is the demographic suicide and pessimism about the future that is so rampant everywhere in the Europe of today. That attitude is inimical to achievement, generating the growth-paralyzing confusion now so rife in that Continent.

The Modern Economy’s Cornerstone in Faith

One reason why Europeans who see themselves as modern in both outlook and intellect have so little regard for transcendent values, is their arrogant belief that anything that cannot be sensibly grasped or even only comprehended by the mind in the context of past or contemporary experience, has no valid standing in reality and should therefore be discarded as pure fictions or figments of imagination. This empirical and physical criterion for what is real flies in the face most ordinary phenomena which many people who call themselves “reasonable”, take to without much doubt or incredulousness, such as most hypotheses about people’s motives or expectations about near term events.

If this skepticism was a mere result of hidden complexes or repressed behaviors, the same intellectual elites would readily adapt to them without question. No, the problem is much deeper, and a useful insight to it is a dialogue between the followers of the medieval friars Aquinas and Ockham, whose views about reality would determine the course of modern philosophy over the next five hundred years. That debate concerned the question of whether Platonic universal concepts can exist outside the mind, with those who deny it (the “Nominalists”) saying that universal ideas only exist inside our minds, meaning that there are no such things as “human nature” or “freedom”, only particulars like persons and the choices they make.

Pushed to its ultimate conclusion it means that there are no objectively good or bad things, only events; it is the heart of the materialistic creed that in totalitarian form has caused so much evil and mayhem during the 20th C. If the reader needs proof of the power of bad ideas and their consequences, this is it.

Those deeply into philosophy see in nominalism (and its modern day offshoots) a vain attempt to put an objective spin to what in essence are transcendental matters, finding its highest expression in the harsh empiricism of Hume, Locke or Hobbes, to whom there are no such things as morality; in the Positivist ideas of Comte who taught that science was humanity’s only reliable beacon; all the way to the “usefulness” criterion of Pragmatists Mead and Dewey. The problem with these ideas is that their bold claims of logical validity all run smack against the upper limits of the scientific method, which insists on complete un-falsifiability as the only legitimate test of validity. But as Kuhn said, scientific paradigms at best reflect the “objective” views of parties with vested interest in its progress.

In spite of this, philosophers’ bent on denying the scientific existence of universals have fought hard to win the mantle of scientific objectivity, with little sympathy from scientists. This is a warrant against those who work in the social sciences and humanities, who keep aspiring to scientific objectivity when studying human beings and their institutions; science itself is, at bottom a conjectural and culturally suffused endeavor.

This detour into the innards of scientific philosophy and theory of knowledge is crucial because its gross misunderstanding is what lies at the heart of all the problems that bug the modern economy – the claim that a scientific or empirical approach without consideration of transcendental values can help derive the best solutions for improving society and perfecting man. In this deformed interpretation of reality, only a values free approach to economics (or indeed to social sciences) can guarantee objectivity and optimal results.

The results of that arrogant assumption are now seen in the grotesquely deformed global economy. How else to explain the durability of such views in modern endeavors (politics, economics, management, etc.) except as a rejection of universal, transcendent values? Why should it surprise us to see the sorts of behaviors that led to the financial crisis, or that poverty continues amidst so much plenty? Or, for that matter, why does Europe continue to meander despite its claims to cultural and scientific enlightenment? If the reader is wondering whether he’d ever see a day when not believing in transcendental values could actually cause material society to crumble, he is not without company.

Europe’s malaise, which ultimately is rooted in inordinately high pride, makes its reversion to spiritual redemption too difficult, deferring any prospect for a return to the origins of its civilization. If the greatest drag to recovery is now Europe’s disarray and its dispirited economy, isn’t this proof that atheistic humanism abetted by the faux liberal view of compassion is the greatest threat to world order? [If a humbled EU is the warning that the Apocalypse referred to, then China would be wise to listen]. 

This is why the Pope’s recent visit to Spain to bring the message of hope and renewal was directed at the young who are, after all, both the inheritors and fount of such values, sending the message that there is no hope in secular humanism and atheism that reek of the stench of death and pessimism.

Isn’t it sweet irony and comeuppance that Europe’s (and the world’s) only hope of material survival now lies in the transcendent values which they vehemently deny?

[; copyrights VRR@NYC2011]  

1 comment:

  1. Hear, hear. I agree. No matter what we say about Europe, it is still the heart beat of the world. Too bad it has let itself go to so much eclectic intake of soporifics, like the total detachment between mind and tangible reality, between emotion and intellect, between work and rest and finally, between me and you. No matter what the rest think, as goes Europe, so goes the world, no matter whose on top, even if it's China.