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Pain in Spain: Austerity Falls Mostly on the Middle Class, And Yet…

Once the cafe tables are up, a wide pedestrian thoroughfare is an excellent place for a protest. Los Indignados march with a banner that reads "United for a Change". (Photo via occupyclass.org)Scratch the surface of any austerity policy, and chances are you’ll see a bank protection program masquerading as good economic policy.

That’s certainly the case here in Spain, where banks are being made whole, while the middle class is getting flayed and spayed.

But curiously, there’s something missing.

The depression-scale economic collapse here isn’t accompanied by the kind of complete unmooring of society one would expect. In short, the economy is depressed, but the people aren’t.

Angry? Certainly. Active? Yes. You can read it in the ubiquitous graffiti; you can hear it in the massive protests in major cities like Barcelona and Madrid. But look closely at the pictures of these protesters, and you’ll see not despair and defeat, but conviction, and even the occasional smile.

If the US were experiencing 25% unemployment and a rapidly shrinking economy, the social fabric would be coming unmoored. But here in Spain, folks still amble along the many pedestrian-only promenades in their cities; they still sit in cafes sipping espresso or a glass of wine; they still congregate in parks and take the time to enjoy the day. Families are out and about, lovers stroll, old men congregate.

Life goes on; simple contentment and joy still seems possible.

On a trip to Ireland in 2011, I observed the same kind of thing. Ask about the economy at a local pub and you were likely to get a shrug and a smile and a slightly dark witticism. Their attitude seems to have been affluence was great while it lasted, but not really critical to their sense of well-being. Like a favorite Uncle who drifted into town, then left. Nice, but not necessary.

Back in the USA the economy is still growing and unemployment has been coming down, albeit very slowly. It’s less than half that of Ireland, Spain, or Greece. Yet the mood here borders on gloom, and the political discourse approaches hysteria.

It’s worth asking why.

The answer can be found in tunnels. Tunnels? Yup. Tunnels.

Here’s why.

Pass through the Pyrenees, and you’ll go through countless tunnels. The Spanish seem to bore through the mountains at the slightest sign of an impediment. A route that we would turn into several miles of switchbacks in the US is converted to a quarter mile of drilled rock in Spain.

The Spanish design their roads for the driver’s convenience. They’ve taken the same approach with their cities, their towns, their public policies, and their lifestyles. The endpoint – the polestar of their efforts – is human health and satisfaction.

In the US, we design for cost-effectiveness or profit. Tunnels are expensive. Publicly owned pedestrian promenades eat up valuable real estate and encourage leisure time, and leisure is free, but time is money. Take an entire afternoon with an espresso or two? No way. Gotta turn tables to make money. Siestas? Fugheddaboutit.

But the protests here in Spain are deadly serious business. If human satisfaction is the end point, social justice is a factor. Nobody likes to get screwed, and austerity is screwing the middle class in every country where it has been tried. Ironically, it’s also further damaging their economies. At a time when middle class buying power is needed to fuel economic growth and enhance investor confidence, the middle class is being devastated. What company wants to invest in expansion when those it depends upon to buy, can’t?

There will come a tipping point, when the citizens of Spain – or Greece or Ireland or Portugal – can no longer tolerate the inequity and disparity and injustice of a system designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many and major political upheavals will occur. That time is very close in Spain and Greece.

But these upheavals will not be the result of blindly craving more stuff. They’ll be about a financial system designed to serve the few, colliding with a society that is used to a quality of life we can hardly fathom in the hamster-wheel economic system we’ve enslaved ourselves to in the US.

And now we have Republicans threatening to hold the entire world hostage, all for the purpose of concentrating yet more wealth in the top 1% of society, and giving corporations and the financial sector even more leeway to rob us blind, cheat us, and poison our climate.

Make no mistake, that is what this whole fiscal cliff thing is about. Debt and deficits are merely red herrings they use to further enrich the rich.

What we really need is a lot more tunnels and promenades … and a society which recognizes that the pursuit of happiness is more than a blind, lemming-like search for a few more dollars.

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