Fantasyland

     My favorite story this week was the Chinese stock markets.
     China’s two biggest stock exchanges, the Shanghai and Shenzen, have dropped by more than 30 percent in a month, so the Chinese government did a clever thing on Monday.
     It ordered the newspapers to publish nice things on Tuesday about buying stocks.
     So of course the newspapers did that, and it worked – for a few hours.
     Then the markets lost another 6 percent on Wednesday.
     Oh, well.
     Far be it for an American to criticize China for manipulating the stock market. If we didn’t actually invent most of the tricks, we’re the best in the world at them.
     But I prefer China’s approach to market regulation because it’s closer to pure philosophy: the philosophy described in Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt’s best-selling book, “On Bullshit.”
     Frankfurt pointed out that liars tell lies to try to fool people. Bullshitters lie without giving a damn whether it will fool anyone or not. They just bullshit.
     Most political systems are built on bullshit. Thomas Pynchon got to the heart of it when he wrote that you never have to lie to anyone if you can get them to ask the wrong questions.
     Our government today does that even better than China’s. They’re just different kinds of bullshit. I like China’s better because it’s funnier. Plus, I don’t have to live there.
     Not that the two of us have a lock on bullshit. Today’s crisis between Greece and Europe is an even better example. As of this writing, Germany insists that Greece pay off its entire, unpayable debt, and Greece insists that it doesn’t have the money.
     Again, two kinds of bullshit.
     Germany’s economic prosperity was built on the biggest debt default and the biggest debt forgiveness in history. After Germany defaulted on its World War I debts during the Great Depression, France’s insistence that Germany pay its debts in full led to an economic crisis that brought Hitler to power.
     Then after World War II, the United States persuaded the world to forgive virtually all of Germany’s foreign debt. That made Germany’s economic recovery possible. Now that Germany is top dog in Europe, it insists that European economic health and the value of the euro cannot be sustained unless Greece pays all of its foreign debts. That’s bullshit. Germans should know that, and Angela Merkel surely knows it.
     But Greece’s position has a firm foundation of bullshit too. Not that its foreign debt is unpayable: Greece is right about that. One reason it is unpayable is that Greek governments have been so corrupt for so long that a key element of their economic policies – no matter who’s in power – has been to curry public favor by not making people pay taxes.
     Even the Greek government admits that it lets citizens slide on about 30 billion euros of taxes a year. That’s only one-eighth of the country’s gross domestic product of 242 billion euros. But economists in Greece and elsewhere estimate that 24 percent of Greece’s real economy is on the black market, and another 25 percent in on what we politely call the gray market. So Greece collects less than half the taxes it’s due every year, and has done so for decades. It could cut its tax rate by 40 percent and still come out ahead if it collected all the taxes.
     Today’s European financial crisis is not complicated at all. It’s just competing brands of bullshit.
     Again, as an American, I feel a bit bad about criticizing other countries for this, when we have so much bullshit at home. Consider the debt problems in Illinois. Or New Jersey. Or consider the governments of South Carolina, Texas and Kansas. Or the taxes we collect from General Electric and Apple.
     But I’m writing a column here, not an encyclopedia.

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