Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Riots continue in Iceland

As I noted here December 23rd, riots and violent protests were disrupting Iceland, a country not known for these types of actions. Admittedly, the economic situation there is much worse (currently) than in the United States, but perhaps not for long. The Icelandic current account deficit is currently 22% of GDP, vs. 7% for US; the Icelandic GDP is forecast to decline by 9.6% for 2009- a number nobody is contemplating for the US. Inflation in Iceland is rampant, while deflation has taken hold in America.

However, there are several parallels worth noting. Iceland is forecasting a rise in the unemployment rate to 7.8% in 2009 (a number the US would be lucky to maintain in the face of steeply mounting layoffs and business closures). Iceland's currency has lost more than half its value, which is certainly not unforeseeable in the future for the US. But more than just the numbers, the story certainly sounds familiar to those of us in the United States. From The Guardian:

The fault is clearly shared between the business elite and the government, which failed to regulate the newly privatised financial sector, allowing a few incompetent and egotistical business tycoons to gamble with the nation's fortune. And yet neither the government nor the bankers – who, by the way, seem to have disappeared into the cold thin air – see anything wrong with their own behaviour.

The governor of the central bank blames the risk-seeking bankers, the bankers blame the government and the prime minister attributes the whole crisis to the international credit crunch. This lack of any sense of responsibility has angered the Icelandic public to the extent that they have turned to the streets in greater numbers than ever before.

Sound familiar? Do you hear anyone in American politics or banking accepting responsibility?

From the Huffington Post:

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [and] whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." As the protesters fight to enforce that right, in this county that has known no war for generations, that has not seen violent conflict among its citizens for centuries, we must ponder what could be.

Today, as the United States makes a fundamental shift in direction, Iceland is tearing itself apart. The peaceful transition of power we watched in Washington following a fiercely contested election is a symbol of hope to us. The competent confidence and inspiring rhetoric of Barack Obama have rallied the vast majority of Americans behind him to face the myriad challenges all around us. The arrogance and obliviousness of Iceland's ruling elite has had the opposite effect.

Once again, I sincerely hope that I am wrong about the direction we are headed. However, the way I see it, he stimulus package cannot stand up to the kind of fiscal devastation that has been unleashed around the planet, nor can the TARP (or TARP 2.0, 3.0, etc... which are surely going to be coming). Please consider what could happen here if the results that people expect from the incoming administration fail to live up to the expectations engendered by the utterly non-specific rhetoric of "hope", and "change", and "yes, we can". What happens if we simply cannot? Once more, from The Guardian:

It is the first time in Icelandic history that a young anarchist can well expect to meet his grandmother in the crowd demonstrating against the government and drumming with her kitchen knife on pots and pans. The government is surely hanging by a thin thread and might fall at any moment.

The Icelandic public fear that their country has virtually been stolen by the globetrotting business elite that spent more time rubbing shoulders with international high society than giving back to the society that enabled them to enjoy this privileged lifestyle. Now ordinary Icelanders are determined to take their country back.

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