Blogs: Kathleen M. Packard
“Doc Martin” is the TV drama about crotchety Dr. Martin Ellingham, who practices medicine in the north Cornwall village of Port Wenn. To say that Doc Martin has a condescending would be understating is ability to offend. “Is there anyone here who has a genuine medical problem?” is a typical comment to his overflowing waiting room.” To one patient, he says: “ Bert, it's been a long day. Take two aspirin and insult me in the morning.” On another occasion, he opines: “Well, there's the mystery of medicine. Everyone comes to you for an opinion but when you actually give them that opinion nobody really wants it, do they?”
The “Doc’s” bedside manner needs work: “So you're not going to give me anything for my throat?” one patient asks. The doctor respondeds: “No. And I'm not going to give you anything for the chip on your shoulder either.’ Later, he adds: “Mr. Fenn, there is a high probability you have a cancer of the larynx. You'll need surgery and you may well lose your voice, which has a certain appeal.”
Doc Martin is, he thinks, surrounded by incompetents and idiots. “I'm only going to say this once. Firstly, antibiotics don't touch viruses. Secondly, even if you had a bacterial infection you'd be well advised to try and fight it on your own to build up some kind of natural immunity. Thirdly, we are noticing some bacterial strains becoming resistant to antibiotics in common usage due to the widespread overprescription by doctors like the late great Jim Sim dishing out antibiotics in all probability to whingers like you.”
“Look, Marty, you do realise that the villagers are dusting off their pitchforks, don't you?” asks his beloved Aunt Joan (now deceased). The scornful doctor replies: “Yes. Exactly how many generations ago did the inbreeding start with these people?”
Martin is a good physician – once he was a good surgeon. But he suddenly grew unable to stand the sight of blood: “I was operating on a woman one day. Simple procedure. I went to see her in the ward beforehand. Her family were there; her husband, her sister and her son; and they were clinging to her. Wouldn't let go. Next time I saw her she was prepped and laid out before me on the operating table and I couldn't do it. I haven't been able to operate since actually, which is a shame because it's the only thing I was ever any good at.
One can imagine Doc Martin in Washington. To a certain extent, Dr. Tom Coburn, has performed that function – delivering uncommon honesty, albeit without Doc Martin’s common venom. Too bad, Senator Coburn is retiring for medical reasons at the end of this year.
Still, one yearns for a tell-it-like-it-is physician who might diagnose the nation’s monetary and economic problems in Washington. One could imagine echoes of Doc Martin declaring: “I do hate Port Wenn. I hate the people - their pinched faces, and their ridiculous accents, and their unerring knack of catching any virus that comes within a five-mile radius! They spread contagion like a bush fire!”
Recently, China celebrated Mao Zedong’s 120th Birthday. Dexter Roberts reported in Bloomberg Businessweek: “Across China, there’s a new focus on Mao, who more than anyone is responsible for the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Party secretary Xi Jinping has encouraged the attention: ‘We must not abandon Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought; otherwise, we will lose our foundation,” Xi said during a speech in November 2012. Xi has resurrected core Mao principles, including the “mass line,” or ensuring that the 85 million-member Communist Party learns from and remains close to the people, and revolutionary-era tactics such as cadre self-criticisms. Xi, premier Li Keqiang, and the five other members of the party’s politburo standing committee visited Mao’s mausoleum in the center of Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Dec. 26.
The Xinhua news agency has reported the good news: “China's economy expanded 7.7 percent in 2013, overshooting the official target of 7.5 percent. Beneath the headline number, several pleasant changes were seen spreading across the economy amid the country's rebalancing efforts. The following are some facts and figures on China's economic performance in 2013...
China’s trade surplus expanded in 2013 to $259.75 billion. Labor costs are also on the increase, reported the New York Times: “China has kept its export machine running even while wages rise,” wrote Keith Bradsher. “Blue-collar pay has soared between fivefold and ninefold in dollar terms in the last decade, wrecking China’s reputation as a low-wage place for export-oriented manufacturing. Rocketing wages and benefits reflect an acute shortage of manufacturing labor, as a younger generation goes to college instead of heading for factories and as rural China has mostly run out of young adults to send to the cities.”
Still, one always has to worry about China. Indeed, one always has China to worry about if all other worries fail. Ralph Atkins wrote in the Financial Times at the end of 2013: “Globally, investors see the biggest ‘tail risk’ – an improbable event that would cause significant disruption – as a hard economic landing in China.” The Economist has observed that “China’s economy, worth over $9 trillion in 2013, divides opinion. Often it divides it neatly in two: optimists contend with pessimists, apologists with alarmists, bulls with bears. Figures released this month encouraged both camps. China’s economy grew by 7.7% in 2013, a little faster than once feared. But a widely watched index of manufacturing, published by HSBC, a bank, fell for the fourth month in a row.
Bank balance sheets are one cause of concern. The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne has written: “An alarming urge in local government debt reflects China's obsession with gross domestic product growth, which encourages officials at every layer of the bureaucracy to borrow and spend, often recklessly.
"GDP worship," as the official Xinhua news agency has described it, is a prime reason why local debt ballooned to $2.9 trillion by the end of June 2013, the equivalent of 33% of GDP, up from just $1.7 trillion at the end of 2011, according to a government audit.
Left unchecked, this buildup could threaten China's financial stability, which is why the Communist Party last month announced a new incentive program to reward local officials more for the quality of growth, including attention to the environment, rather than the quantity.
According to Xinhua, “China should continue its current prudent monetary policy and maintain appropriate liquidity for the world's second-largest economy in 2014, the monetary-policy committee advising the People's Bank of China (PBOC, central bank) said Tuesday in a statement.
The Chinese central bank should also keep money supply and total social financing (TSF) growing at a reasonable pace, and optimize financing and credit structures, said the statement, which came after a regular quarterly meeting of the committee.
The central bank should embed reforms in its daily macroeconomic management and continue improving the efficiency of China's financial market, it said.
The New York Times’ Neil Gough and Keith Bradsher wrote: “Official bank lending has more than doubled since the global financial crisis, growing nearly twice as fast as the overall economy. The even bigger problem, however, appears to come from the rise of a shadow banking system that has allowed a number of companies and individuals, often with political connections, to borrow from state-controlled banks at low interest rates and relend the money at much higher rates to private businesses desperate for credit at almost any price. They wrote:
Europe isn’t out of the Unemployment Thicket or Hunger Woods. Britain’s economy, pushed by growth in London, grew by nearly two percent in 2013 – the best economic stretch since 2007. The Guardian reported, however: “It's worth remembering that, despite the decent growth seen so far this year, Britain's economy has still not reached its pre-crisis peak. Three months ago it was still 2.5% smaller than its peak in 2008.”
Chancellor George Osborne told a BBC interviewer: "The economic recovery is broadly based with manufacturing growing more than other sectors, and that's evidence that the long-term economic plan is working....We've learnt our lesson and what you see today ... is a rebalancing of the British economy." The London Mirror reported that “claims that Britain's economy is now powering ahead have been dismissed as ‘cloud cuckoo land’ by shadow chancellor Ed Balls.
Others are also not so optimistic. The New York Times’s Katrin Bennhold wrote about Britain: “The working poor, long a part of the social landscape in the United States, are becoming more common on this side of the Atlantic. As their numbers grow, so too does hunger — a feeling Ms. Burton describes as a nagging sensation, not pain as such, more an obsession that consumes all your thoughts and energy. It is no longer confined to the homeless or those struggling to make ends meet on state benefits in the world’s sixth-richest economy, say charities, economists and even some members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.”
“Unbalanced and unsustainable – that's the correct message on the UK economy to take from today's fourth quarter GDP figures, not that things are magically turning on a six pence,” wrote the London Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner. “This is a recovery being driven by a combination of strong growth in London and in consumer spending; it's plainly better than no growth at all, but it's not yet the sort of recovery we were hoping for.”
Warner concluded: “In the end, the only route to sustainable, balanced growth is via gains in productivity and incomes, and regrettably, we are not yet there. The economy has been juiced to give Coalition parties a boost ahead of the election, but with the deficit not yet tackled, glaring gaps in industrial competitiveness, severe supply side constraints, and a runaway housing market, we are still a million miles away from economic salvation.”
Songwriter Roger Miller wrote: “England swings like a pendulum do.’ Some folks are waiting for the swing of the pendulum.
The policy of the Argentine government has been fluctuating along with the Argentine peso. The value of the peso is down. Its future worth is in doubt. Dollar reserves are dropping. In order to attempt to stem the drop, the government has liberalized rules on exchanging pesos into dollars. The Wall Street Journal’s Ken Parks observed that “some Argentines and investors begin to lose patience with an administration whose loose fiscal and monetary policies have spawned the second-highest rate of inflation in the Americas, behind Venezuela.”
Currency rationing has been in effect – but so have creative ways to avoid currency rationing. So the Argentine government has sought to align currency fantasy and currency reality. The New York Times reported: “In a matter of days, Argentina has become a symbol of the economic stresses mounting in developing countries around the world. Fears are rising that the demand for commodities, a centerpiece of Argentina’s economy, is weakening in places like China, a slowdown that could threaten developing nations.
At the same time, the prospect of better returns in the United States is drawing money out of the developing world and battering currencies from Turkey to Russia to South Africa.
The worries over contagion are spreading. In Brazil, the country’s powerful automobile industry is bracing for the problems in Argentina, one of Brazil’s biggest export markets. But beyond the global forces at play, the financial swings this week have called attention to the particular challenges for some of Latin America’s most vulnerable economies.
The Wall Street Journal’s Ken Parks and Taos Turner reported that Argentina’s “devaluation and burgeoning economic crisis is shaping up as the biggest challenge to President Cristina Kirchner since she took power in 2007, succeeding her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner, who has since died. It also threatens the source of her power, which relies on spending and subsidies to ensure popularity.” The Journal noted: “Argentina has been burning through its currency reserves, which are down to $29 billion from a peak of $52.6 billion three years ago. Too few reserves might prompt the country to default on its debts again or fall into a deep recession because it can’t buy the imports it needs to keep its economy going.”
There is only so far that the Argentine government will go, however. Fox News reported: “Economy Minister Axel Kicillof told local daily Pagina 12 in an interview published Sunday that the Argentine tax rate on credit card purchases made in dollars will not be lowered Monday to 20 percent from the current 35 percent, as he had announced.”
The BBC noted that “rising inflation is the main concern for Argentines. Some electronics stores had already stopped displaying the prices of television sets, computers and home appliances on Friday, as they feared the new value of the peso would have an impact on all imported goods.” Policy uncertainty plus peso uncertainty does not feed economic growth.
“The best that can possibly be said for Greece right now is that the worst is probably over,” wrote Dunstan Prial on Fox Business. “But that's purely from a macro-economic point of view. The average Greek citizen, struggling under years of astronomical unemployment rates and severe austerity measures imposed by the euro zone hierarchy, might not share that view.
Huge budget deficits caused by a stagnant economy and years of excessive spending on social programs and government payrolls and pensions buried Greece in debt five years ago, leaving the southern European nation unable to pay off its loans and unable to borrow more money. With Greece teetering on the edge of financial collapse, a debt crisis was triggered across Europe as other countries and major banking institutions that held Greek debt pondered the fallout from a Greek default.
The Greek government is under continuing pressure from outside monetary authorities and citizens inside the country. The current government under Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has just a three-vote margin. According to Reuters “Greece will post a budget surplus of at least 1 billion euros in 2013 and return the bulk of that to cash-strapped Greeks.” George Georgiopoulos and Renee Maltezou wrote: “Greece's economy shrank by almost a quarter and unemployment has soared since the country was forced to slash public spending to avoid bankruptcy. Although a six-year-long recession is seen coming to an end in 2014, many Greeks remain angry about the hardship they have endured.”
“The EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, which have already postponed completing their latest review of the economy, [have] signalled that rescue funds will not be forthcoming if Greece fails to implement improved competition rules,” wrote the Guardian’s Helena Smith. “Prime minister Antonis Samaras's increasingly beleaguered administration has indicated it will be unable to enforce all of the reforms, going so far as to propose alternatives at the weekend.”
The stand-off comes as Greece's highest legal body, the court of state, challenged the country's fragile economic recovery by demanding that the military and police be reimbursed for cuts dictated when Athens signed up to a second EU-IMF rescue programme in 2012.
The New York Times’ Andrew Higgins wrote: “In search for solutions, Greeks are tinkering with a new kind of economy with little precedent in modern Europe. The collapse of the Greek economy is challenging not only the survival of Greeks, but also some of the basic mechanisms of capitalism in a nation where the economy has shrunk by about 25 percent since 2008.”
In the view of widening numbers here, Greece’s market-driven system has broken down, a victim of endemic corruption, budgetary mismanagement by the state and the overbearing demands of global financial markets.
Higgins wrote: “The movement seeks to cut out wholesalers, shop managers, state bureaucrats or anyone else between producers and consumers who once took a share of profits and added to the costs of goods. Instead, Mr. Tsolakidis’s group runs a website where orders are placed in advance and then distributed at markets to customers for a fixed price paid in cash.”
BY KATHLEEN M. PACKARD: