Those who face insolvency, Mr. Schlarmann, a senior member of Germany's Christian Democrats, said, must sell everything they have to pay their creditors. Thus, he said, Greece, given its debt problems, should consider selling some of its uninhabited islands to cut its debt.
The headline in the Bild newspaper took the argument a bit further, "Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks - and the Acropolis too!"
I guess we might call this the Andrew Mellon approach to sovereign debt crises- liquidate, liquidate, liquidate, on a national scale. It's a strategy which, if Niall Ferguson's argument-which contains the wonderful line, US government debt is a safe haven the way Pearl Harbor was a safe haven in 1941- that the US, and other western nations, may soon follow Greece into crisis, proves prescient, might inspire calls for the US to sell some islands, like Manhattan.
Perhaps selling the island outright might be a bit much. Yet, while the Chinese Government isn't a fan of the Dalai Lama it might appreciate the Karmic touch of leasing Manhattan from the US for, say, 99 years. Imagine the road signs, "Now Entering New Hong Kong."
In a sense, assuming Wall St. and the NY Fed were included in the lease, it would be the ultimate "pump and dump"- temporarily stabilize the financial system, in large part with money from Asia, and then dump it, and the derivatives portfolios contained therein, on China. Why wait for the next financial crisis to go hat in hand to Asia. Let's sell Citibank at $4 instead of waiting for it to fall under a buck.
The world might even benefit from such an arrangement. Yesterday, Paul Volcker told the House Financial Services Committee that regulators, like the NY Fed, are unlikely to rein in excessive Wall St. speculation. If the Chinese get the NY Fed, and thus oversight of financial markets, their no-nonsense approach to dealing with corruption, which includes the death penalty, might help finance get back on the "straight and narrow." I'd love to see Lloyd Blankfein testify to the Chinese Communist Party.
A man can dream, can't he? And who knows what the future will bring. I doubt the Ottoman, Mughal and Manchu Empires could have imagined that the West would take over administration of their territories.
Fortunately, at least for Wall Streeters wary of Chinese justice, the German proposal fell on deaf ears. Yet, the seemingly intractable problem of many western governments' unsustainable debt levels remains.
Niall Ferguson argues that the problem is the welfare state- perhaps he should take on Keynes with a new book, The Economic Consequences of the Welfare State. I suspect, however, improper- to the extent such policies are seen as wise means of avoiding social unrest- welfare state funding is but a symptom of an apparently widely held view by many in both public and private sector positions of power that, in the words of Dick Cheney, deficits don't matter.
War finance and Wall St. bail-outs played at least as large a part as welfare spending in US Federal Debt doubling since 2001. Those bail-outs, in turn, were made necessary by Wall St.'s take on Cheney's wisdom, which they express as, too big to fail.
Contra Mr. Cheney, deficits, which add up to debt over time, do matter. Contra Wall St., no insitution is too big to fail. Both views are, in my view, effects of a broader issue. There is no agreed upon method, barring adoption of island sales, for sovereign debt resolution. In decades past when nations retained currency sovereignty devaluation was always an option, and fear of devaluation kept investors on their toes. The more recent desire for supra-national currencies turns countries like Greece into states like California with very limited options.
If current trends continue, nations like Greece and states like California might simply be absorbed into larger bodies. Greece could become a special administrative region of the EU and California could become a district of the US Federal Government. Yet this would simply buy time, making the ultimate sovereign debt problem that much harder to resolve.
If the world is ever to reform global finance it will need, first and foremost, to agree upon a method of debt resolution applicable to all large institutions, public and private. So long as those running large institutions feel there are no consequences to deficits, debt problems will continue to mount. If we are going to use money to drive the world, we need to take it seriously.