TIME society

A Letter to Millennials: Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution

people-meeting-office
Getty Images

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

It is time to wake up and begin to think about a digital renaissance

In my last letter, I told you there was a time in the late ’60s when the most critically acclaimed movies and music were also the best selling. The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper album or Francis Coppola’s Godfather film were just two examples. I said that that is not happening anymore, and I wanted to explore with you why this change occurred. Because I spent the first 30 years of my life producing music, movies, and TV, this question matters to me, and I think it should matter to you. So I want to explore the idea that the last 20 years of technological progress — the digital revolution — have devalued the role of the creative artist in our society.

I undertake this question with both optimism and humility. Optimism because I believe in the power of rock and roll or movies to change lives. Certainly witnessing Bob Dylan go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 changed this Princeton freshman who was intent on being a lawyer into a passionate follower of the Rock and Roll Circus who managed to make a good living from the entertainment business for the rest of his life. My optimism also showed itself in 1996 when I helped found the first streaming video on demand service, Intertainer. Anyone crazy enough to found a service that needed broadband in 1996 had to be an optimist. That led to humility, because the diffusion of broadband was much slower than I thought, so I know that predicting the future is a humble man’s game.

In the last few years I have run the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds me, I confess that I often feel like a cork tossed into a rushing technology stream. While I have no doubt of the wonders of the Internet revolution, I think it’s time to take stock of where this stream is carrying us.

We have become convinced that only machines and corporations make the future, but I don’t think that is true. In thinking about the role of the humanist in our technology-driven future, I was drawn to a sermon Martin Luther King preached at the National Cathedral in Washington two weeks before he was killed. At the outset he told the story of how Rip Van Winkle had passed a sign with a picture of King George III of England on the way up the mountain where he fell into a long sleep. When he came down the mountain, the same sign bore a picture of George Washington.

This reveals that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain, a revolution was taking place that would change the course of history — and Rip knew nothing about it. He was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution.

I doubt that anyone would quarrel with the notion that the last 20 years of technological disruption have constituted a revolution, but I want to understand just who has been sleeping through this revolution and who has been awake, creating the moral, political, and technical architecture of the world our children will inhabit.

The beginnings of the “cyber revolution” that King referenced in his sermon were already moving forward in 1968 as he was speaking. The origins of that technology revolution were clearly located in the counter-culture, as Fred Turner and John Markoff have shown, and the idea (in Nicholas Negroponte’s words) was to “decentralize control and harmonize people.” That the earliest of networks, like the Whole Earth Lectronic Link (WELL) organized by Stewart Brand, grew directly out of the hippie culture was a natural progression from both the political and cultural growth of ’60s counter-culture.

But within 20 years, starting with Peter Thiel’s cohort at Stanford University, the organizing philosophy of Silicon Valley was far more based on the radical libertarian ideology of Ayn Rand than the commune-based notions of Ken Kesey and Stewart Brand. Thiel, the founder of PayPal, an early investor in Facebook, and the godfather of the PayPal mafia that currently rules Silicon Valley, has been clear about his philosophy.

He stated, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” his reasoning being: “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”

This is a pretty extraordinary statement, and I have reread the interview he gave to the Cato Institute several times. It appears that most women, in Thiel’s judgment, fall into Ayn Rand’s notion of “takers” as opposed to Thiel’s vaunted male “makers.” So for Thiel, in a true “capitalist democracy” only the makers should get to vote, and the women and the welfare recipients will take what the makers chose to give them.

Whew! It gets worse. Thiel has made it clear that his preference (along with Google CEO Larry Page) for a “free cities” model — in which polities are privately owned and unregulated by states — would be an ideal way for capitalists to avoid the “mob mentality” of democracy. He has even suggested that companies could set themselves up off shore (out of the reach of government) on platforms that would give them true freedom to operate.

Like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, he has built his fortune on enterprises that were not taxed or regulated. He also does not believe in competition, havingstated in the Wall Street Journal that “competition is for losers. If you want to create and capture lasting value, look to build a monopoly.”

Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg have not been asleep at the revolution, as their inclusion near the top of the Forbes 400 list of America’s billionaires will attest.

Since the introduction of Napster in 2000, global recorded music revenues have fallen from $21 billion to $7 billion per year. Newspaper ad revenue has fallen from $65 billion in 2000 to $18 billion in 2011. Book publisher operating profits have fallen by 40 percent, and the revenue from DVD sales of movies and TV (of the top 100 titles) has fallen from $7 billion to $2.3 billion.

The astonishing fact of the precipitous declines in revenue has nothing to do with the idea that people are listening to less music or watching fewer movies and TV shows. In fact, all surveys point to the opposite. Consumption of all forms of media is rising. So where did the money go? Two places: into the pockets of Digital Monopolists and Digital Thieves.

While the revenues of movie, music and news purveyors were falling rapidly, the revenues of the “internet platform” providers were exploding. Google’s revenue went from $1.2 billion in 2001 to $66 billion in 2014. Amazon went from $4.8 billion in 2002 to $89 billion in 2014. Apple went from $7 billion in2002 to $199 billion in 2014. One could argue that a massive reallocation in the order of $50 billion a year from creators and owners of content to platform owners has taken place since 2000. Make no mistake, while the movie studios, record companies, newspapers and magazines operate in a very competitive environment, the platform providers are monopolists or, at least, oligopolists. Competition is for suckers, and by now Negroponte’s notion of decentralization and harmony has been replaced by Thiel’s beneficent monopoly.

But this does not account for the role of the Digital Bandits. There is a wonderful picture of Kim Dotcom, who made $200 million in two years off of the stolen music and video of countless artists on his Megaupload pirate site. In the picture, the fat German thief stands on a picturesque beach with his “Playmate of the Year” girlfriend sprawled on the sand in the foreground and his 200-foot mega yacht in the background. Kim, in an attempt to fight the lawsuits against him, has appropriated the message of Martin Luther King, assuming the stance of the man who freed everyone from the slavery of having to pay for creative works. Exactly how the hard work of artists got exempted from the notions of the market economy escapes me, but for Kim to pose as some new sort of freedom rider brings us back to the whole fallacy of the libertarian economy. Ayn Rand’s most famous quote is “the question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.” This is how Kim Dotcom has functioned from day one.

The larger question then becomes, who enables the Kim Dotcoms of the world? Type into your Google search box the words “watch (your favorite movie) online free” and you will have the answer.

Whether it is illicit drugs, stolen music, or jihadist lessons on how to blow up an airplane, Google, with a 70 percent market share of all global searches, is the beginning point of a great deal of online criminal activity.

Of course, for most of your generation, the idea of getting your music or movies for free from pirates like Kim Dotcom doesn’t seem like a big deal. But you are studying at USC to (hopefully) become the next generation of journalists, filmmakers, and musicians, so the future of the business is in your hands. Somehow you have to let go of the idea that this is a victimless crime. As I said to you in my last letter, I’m not worried about Jay Z or Beyoncé. I’m worried about the middle class musician, the journeyman that used to be able to ply his trade and make a living selling 25,000 CDs. That does not exist anymore.

But perhaps this tolerance for criminals like Kim Dotcom is part of a larger problem. As the Associate Chancellor of UC Berkeley, Nil Gilman, has written, we are plagued by a twin insurgency: “From below comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies that route around states and seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadow of the global economy. From above comes the plutocratic insurgency, in which globalized elites seek to disengage from traditional national obligations and responsibilities.”

Just how we distinguish between the criminal, the warlord, and the rogue state actor will become harder, as Robert Kaplan pointed out many years ago in his prescient book, The Coming Anarchy. What was the nature of the massive hack on Sony this fall? Will we ever know if it was a state-sponsored act or that of an angry laid-off employee? The on-rush of the much-heralded “Internet of Things” will make the possibilities of cyber crime even more profitable. Imagine the now-prevalent cyber blackmail (“pay me $1000 to unlock your data”) played out on a larger scale: “Pay me $200 million to bring the Los Angles Department of Water and Power back on line.” Forbeshas reported a software program being sold on the Dark Web that can ostensibly hack into the “connected car” and take over the acceleration and braking functions.

Here we run into the tricky area of free speech. Google says it can filter out child porn from YouTube but not the Jihadist videos from Anwar al-Awlaki that were the entrance point of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists into the al-Awlaki network.

Just where Google draws the line seems important. Should they block al-Awlaki’s Inspire online magazine, which last month published detailed instructions on how to build a bomb that could pass through airport screening undetected? I don’t really have the answers, but I hope we can begin to have a dialogue around this issue.

Abraham Lincoln supposedly was the first to say, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Certainly the fact that there are 3000 ISIS videos on YouTube and 10,000 ISIS accounts on Twitter should give you pause. Clearly this is a tricky area, and I don’t believe this is necessarily a matter for government regulation.

The use of their automated content identification technology could be employed to filter content being uploaded to their servers before it is ever displayed on YouTube. But then they couldn’t be selling paper towels in front of ISIS videos.

At this point you might be asking why the loss of billions in the media and entertainment sectors is worth worrying about in the face of the benefits ubiquitous Internet technology has brought you. My feeling is that media is just the canary in the coal mine, and that in the next 20 years, millions of the jobs you are training for might be automated. The Economist recently ran an article in which they projected the probability of your job being taken by a robot in that time period. Citing work from two Oxford University economists, they wrote that “jobs are at a high risk of being automated in 47 percent of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted.”

Larry Summers recently said that those who think that the answer to the jobs crisis is just higher education are “whistling past the graveyard.”

What a life awaits you. You can loan your car out on Relay Rides or become an Uber driver. If you can afford a house, you can rent your extra room out on Airbnb and find extra work on TaskRabbit.

We are only a few years into the sharing economy, but one thing is clear: As with Google, most of the economic gains will flow to those who own the platform rather than to those who do the work. Uber is currently valued at $41.2 billion, making it one of the 150 largest corporations in the world. That’s a capitalization larger that Delta Airlines or FedEx, all built on Ayn Rand’s motto: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

With such economic power comes political power. Uber recently hired Obama campaign svengali David Plouffe to help it navigate the political lobbying waters of Washington, taking a page from Google’s bible. Google outspends all but a few financial and military firms in its lobbying efforts. The main financial backers of the Libertarian movement, the Koch brothers, have vowed to spend $900 million in the 2016 election cycle to ensure that the “no regulation, no taxes” principles of the movement are sacrosanct in the corridors of power.

The digital monopolists are not above using the rhetoric of libertarianism to spread the message that they alone are the guardians of freedom in the world. When the media companies tried (in an admittedly ham-handed fashion) to pass a law (Stop Online Piracy Act) that would require Google to block sites that were making millions off of stolen content, Google unleashed an online campaign stating this would amount to censorship. The uproar from the crowd quickly killed the bill.

Perhaps it is time to ask the question of who benefits from this technological revolution. Who is awake and steering the boat, and who is asleep below decks? As The Economist pointed out, the ability to substitute capital for labor has profound implications for the future of our society. In early 1929, before the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression, the top 1 percent earned 23.9 percent of national income. By 1976, because of 30 years of changes in tax policy as well as regulation, the 1 precent earned 8.9 percent of national income. But the Reagan era reversed both the tax and regulatory policies that had brought on more income equality, and today the top 1 percent earn 24.2 percent of national income.

What is clearly visible is that the great productivity gains brought on by technology, which used to benefit the ordinary workers’ paycheck, now only flow to the owners of capital. The work of Thomas Pinketty, the French economist, shows that this growing income inequality will only get worse in the coming years. The irony is the John Maynard Keynes envisioned this substitution of capital for labor in the ’30s but thought that the result would be an average work week of 15 hours, with a great deal of paid leisure for the common man.

Some have suggested a guaranteed income, but without some discussion, we risk a kind of social unrest that we have not experienced since the ’60s.

If the technology revolution has failed to bring the average worker increased prosperity, it has also created a vast new set of industries built on mining that worker’s most private data, with questionable return benefits. By the end of 2016 there will be 5 billion smartphones in the world, every one of them a vast treasure trove of personal data that can be mined by both the surveillance state and the corporate data brokers who sell your digital life for immense profits. This is where Martin Luther King’s “asleep at the revolution” metaphor seems most telling. Clearly the current corporate narrative about privacy is that it is a sort of currency to be traded to corporations in return for innovation. But Georgetown University Professor Julie Cohen argues that privacy has meaning in and of itself. Jonathan Sadowski describes her argument in The Atlantic:

What Cohen means is that since life and contexts are always changing, privacy cannot be reductively conceived as one specific type of thing. It is better understood as an important buffer that gives us space to develop an identity that is somewhat separate from the surveillance, judgment, and values of our society and culture. Privacy is crucial for helping us manage all of these pressures — pressures that shape the type of person we are — and for “creating spaces for play and the work of self-[development].” Cohen argues that this self-development allows us to discover what type of society we want and what we should do to get there, both factors that are key to living a fulfilled life.

Do you think your shrinking zone of privacy is altering your behavior? Are the pressures of social media keeping us from finding this fulfilled, authentic life? What keeps us asleep at the revolution? Could it be that drinking from the firehose of big data is a sort of deep distraction that prevents us from even asking the humanistic questions of what makes for an examined, authentic life? In the ’30s Aldous Huxley imagined a future in his Brave New World — a future in which the average citizen would take his dose of Soma (a kind of hybrid Prozac/Viagra) and go out to the Feelies, a form of entertainment so all-engrossing that the “prole” never had any sense that he was not a free human. Chris Sullentrop of the New York Times recently reported that several experts told him the virtual reality porn was going to be the killer app. Huxley would smile.

After I gave a speech on this topic, I got a note from Jimmy Bartz, the minister at the small Episcopal Church, Thad’s, that I attend. He, too, agrees that we are asleep at a revolution:

However, I don’t believe enough people can be inspired to endure what it will take to change things if they are “asleep.” You mention the uptick in opiate addiction. There are also soooo many more people on mood altering medication (some need it, but not as many as take it), then, we have food, credit, media, devices. Our ability to endure what we’d have to endure to create the change you espouse (and I espouse) has atrophied to the point that we don’t even have consciousness around it. There’s a level of “insobriety” we’ve never experienced before — data, food, pharma, credit — we’re so doped up on that stuff that we’ll never have the will to legislate the change, and Washington’s too doped up on cash to have the will to do the right thing.

This sense that we are too doped up to care is distressing, but what’s more worrying is that we are building whole sectors of the digital economy on the concept of addiction. I recently picked up a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, in which the author shows how you too can build the latest Snapchat. The schematic of a “trigger, action, reward, investment” sequence is curiously close to that of the Skinner box we all studied in Psych 101.

Like the poor lab rat in pursuit of happiness clicking on the bar for a reward pellet, we spend hours looking for the “like” reward on our social networks. Those with the most likes can turn it into currency, as was demonstrated at the myriad “gifting suites” at the Sundance Film Festival, where popular YouTubers like iJustine collected thousands of dollars worth of free merchandise in exchange for posting about the swag on their social networks. iJustine, whose fames stems from having posted a video on YouTube about her 300-page iPhone bill, noted to the New York Times, “I love products, and I love sharing if I love something. Like, you can probably guarantee that it’s going to be posted, especially if I love it.”

It would be easy to diss iJustine’s blurring of the line between her own opinion and what she is getting paid to like if it weren’t the basic currency of the Internet age. What is any hip hop star but a walking product placement opportunity? How would the TV and movie business survive without “brand integration” dollars to top up the budget? And how would Vox, BuzzFeed or even the vaunted Atlantic survive without the “native advertising” that totally blurs the line between editorial content and paid advertising? If indeed the author of Hooked is on to something, and we really are building powerful addictions to social network apps, then is Peter Thiel’s almost-spiritual commitment to “liberty” really the same as Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? I don’t think so.

Here I am just a guilty as you. I surrender all of my personal data to Facebook in return for the ability to post my vacation photos to my friends.

I have no doubt that innovative developers can continue to build addictive products. Just try to walk down any sidewalk in this university while you constantly dodge people staring at their smartphones. I’ve told you that the Innovation Lab has studied Twitter and politics, and what we found was pretty disturbing. The anonymity that Twitter provides a shield that brings out the worst in humans. Plato told a tale of the Ring of Gyges that when put on would render you invisible. He asked the question: If we were shielded from the consequences of our actions, how would that change the way we act? We know the answer. As David Brooks says, we have created a “coliseum culture” in which some new celebrity gets thrown to the lions on a weekly basis. Of course, I know that writing you to resist the instant riches that might flow to you if you invent the newest addictive app, like Yik Yak, which allows students to shame each other anonymously, is probably a fool’s errand.

My deeper question comes from my position as a professor here for the last 12 years, where I have watched the lure of Silicon Valley grow stronger. If the best and the brightest of you are drawn to building addictive apps rather than making great journalism, important films, or literature that survives the test of time, will we as a society be ultimately impoverished? I was lucky enough to be involved with some artists like Bob Dylan, The Band, George Harrison, and Martin Scorsese, whose work will surely stand the test of time. I’m not sure I know what the implications are of the role-model shift from rebel filmmaker to software coder.

This brings me back to the question of what the tech plutocrats mean by freedom. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington for “jobs and Freedom.” It’s obvious now that the new freedom brought to us by the libertarian elite will not come with jobs. The fact that Facebook generates revenues of $8 billion with less than 9000 employees speaks volumes. Is Peter Thiel’s idea of corporations, free to reap monopoly profits free from government regulation, what we want for our country? Thiel’s icon Ayn Rand defines freedom as “to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.” How far is this from Jefferson’s great inspiration, the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who defines the good life in these terms?

  • The company of good friends.
  • The freedom and autonomy to enjoy meaningful work.
  • The willingness to live an examined life with a core faith or philosophy.

I worry that our universities are being turned into trade schools in the pursuit of the almighty tech dollar. Are we forsaking the humanities and a basic liberal arts education all in promise to prepare students for the shark tank that awaits them in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street? As I said at the outset, I have no answers, but another phrase from Dr. King’s sermon calls out to me: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and unguided men.”

Let us not assume that this technological revolution we are living through has but one inevitable outcome. History is made by man, not by corporations or machines. It is time to wake up and begin to think about a digital renaissance. As my colleague Ethan Zuckerman said, “It’s obvious now what we did was a fiasco, so let me remind you that what we wanted to do was something brave and noble.” Your generation does not need to surrender to some sort of techno-determinist future. Let’s try and “rewire” (Ethan’s term) the Internet.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

This Is How You Build a Conscious Capitalism Movement

group-people-jumping-backlit
Getty Images

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

The most important word in a democracy is "we"

It’s been almost two years since I started my job as U.S. Secretary of Labor. And during that time, I’ve met a lot of business leaders who are combining idealism and pragmatism to create and expand opportunity.

Take Kip Tindell, CEO of the Container Store, as an example. Kip recently stopped by my office to talk about his belief in “conscious capitalism” — the idea that businesses can look out for the best interests of their communities and workers without hurting their bottom line.

Container Store employees earn well above the minimum wage and bonuses each year based on their performance. The company’s turnover rate is just 10 percent, compared to the 70 percent retail industry average. This approach has earned the Container Store a spot on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 15 straight years because they understand that investing in their workers is good for business.

More and more companies are discovering that an innovative high-road business model improves their bottom line. It reduces turnover and training costs and it makes for more productive employees who provide better customer service.

The goal is to build an economy that works for everyone. How do we do that? How do we ensure that the wind at our back propels everyone forward? How do we create broadly shared prosperity? I believe that government at all levels plays a critical role, but government simply can’t do it alone. We need leadership from a business community that recognizes shareholders are best served when all stakeholders are well-served. We need even more employers to embrace the idea that we all succeed only when we all succeed.

Adopting and updating the Sullivan Principles, a simple code of conduct for companies, could be a catalyst for the change we need. The Sullivan Principles were developed in 1977 by the Reverend Dr. Leon Sullivan, the first African-American in our nation’s history to sit on the board of directors of a major corporation. They included: equal pay, non-segregation, training opportunities, and quality of life in housing, transportation, education and health.

The Sullivan Principles were updated in 1999, but I think it’s time for another version. I have a few ideas of what might be included in a set of 21st-century Sullivan Principles for shared prosperity:

1. Reject false choices.

Do I treat my workers with dignity or grow my business? That’s a false choice. It’s possible and profitable to do both. Companies like the Container Store, Costco, Shake Shack, and others have proven that the right decisions lead to win-win-win scenarios where you can do the right thing by your workers, your shareholders and your customers.

2. Shareholder return is not the only metric of a successful business.

It’s an important outcome, but not the only important outcome. We need a stakeholder, rather than a shareholder, model. Doing business in America is a great privilege; employers benefit from a great number of public services like schools and roads to make their businesses grow. So your responsibility has to be not just to quarterly earnings, but also to the common good.

3. Lifting up worker voice.

“Worker voice,” defined in many ways and taking various forms, is indispensable to business competitiveness and a growing economy. One example is Volkswagen, which uses a works council model. For New Belgium beer company, it’s employee stock ownership. Proctor & Gamble has done it with profit-sharing for decades. Unions run organizing campaigns and engage in collective bargaining. But for all of them, regardless of the vehicle, the value proposition is the same: We’re stronger together; we prosper because we embrace the power of we.

4. Fair pay leads to “countrywide prosperity.”

If you work full-time in America, you should be able to support your family without being on public assistance. Higher wages actually reduce employer costs in the long run, and the benefits reverberate throughout the economy. Henry Ford figured that out this virtuous cycle more than 100 years ago. “If we can distribute high wages,” he said, “then that money is going to be spent and it will serve to make storekeepers and distributors and manufacturers and workers in other lines more prosperous and their prosperity will be reflected in our sales. Countrywide high wages spell countrywide prosperity.”

5. Respect work-life balance.

If you really believe family comes first, don’t just pay lip service to it, put it into practice. Twenty-first-century workers, in order to be productive and add value, need the same paid leave enjoyed by their counterparts in every other advanced economy on earth. Companies should help people meet their obligations at work and at home. Something is wrong when families have to pay, in many cases, more for infant day care than for in-state tuition at a public university. We live in a Modern Family world; let’s not live byLeave It to Beaver rules.

6. The most important word in a democracy is “we.”

America has often mythologized individualism, but in reality the nation became great and can only become greater when we work together, strive together, and overcome hardship together. That’s true not just of social justice movements — it’s true of our most successful businesses too.

That’s my back-of-the-envelope attempt to enumerate Sullivan Principles for the world we live in today. I consider it a work in progress, and I challenge everyone to build on it by creating an accountability measure for the businesses you work for, spend at, and invest in.

We have a growing movement of business leaders and others who are committed to building human capital, who believe they can prosper by harnessing the power of we. The sooner we upscale this movement, the sooner we can expand opportunity for all Americans.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME world affairs

Greece’s Referendum Was Still a Good Idea

While it certainly won't save the economy, the vote at least may have prevented social and political upheaval

After Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for Sunday’s vote on whether Greece should accept the austerity measures its creditors are demanding, the international reaction was nearly universally negative, with the leftist Greek leader accused of engaging in demagoguery at the expense of his nation. The criticism has even made its way to Urban Dictionary:

Greek Referendum

Noun. An act of intense self-destruction. A suicidal act. Usually harms many people, not just the person committing the act. Often causes those witnessing the act to facepalm or exclaim in a loud voice, “Why?”

The average Greek citizen is not a political economist or an expert in international finance, which means most eligible voters weren’t nearly knowledgeable enough on the technical financial issues involved to make an informed decision—certainly not as informed as the government they elected to make these decisions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that Greek citizens were given a choice means that the Greek referendum might actually be good for the country in the long run.

Going into the vote, Greece faced two very bad options. On the one hand, it could turn down Europe’s bailout proposal, reject the attached austerity measures, and face the wrath of its creditors. This would destroy Greece’s credit rating for years and probably lead to the country’s exit from the European Union, which would in all likelihood trigger massive capital flight, inflation, and all sorts of other economic horrors. On the other hand, Tsipras and his team could accept yet another round of unpopular austerity measures, further cutting salaries and pensions and raising taxes, under the hope that this austerity package (unlike the last several) would finally lead to an improvement in the Greek economy. But with unemployment already at record highs, this would put severe financial strain on Greek families, and potentially cause the economy to collapse further.

In other words, it didn’t matter which decision the Greeks made; the ramifications were going to be pretty bad. It was pick-your-poison time.

One might say that the biggest threat to Greece right now, however, wasn’t austerity, nor is it the now very real possibility of leaving the Euro. The biggest threat to Greece right now may be the political instability that could result from citizens’ frustrations regarding the inevitable fallout from either of those two unenviable paths. Disruptive protests, rioting, constitutional change, or (at worst) an unconstitutional change in government or regime would only make Greece’s economic situation worse—and could have ripple effects on every aspect of Greek life for years to come.

So how does the government in Athens prevent unrest? Bringing its citizens into the decision-making process may make them more likely to accept the ultimate outcome, whatever that outcome may be. As we discussed in our book, Democracy Despite Itself, there is a strong psychological principle that people are much more at peace with a decision—even one they disagree with—if they are given a voice in the decision-making process. This so-called “procedural justice” also reduces corruption and makes people more willing to follow rules and get along.

Research captures these effects. During the 1991 California drought, the amount of water residents rationed wasn’t influenced by their beliefs about the drought’s severity, but instead was driven by how fair they thought water pricing and allocating polices were. Studies show that people are more likely to pay taxes when they get to vote on where the tax money goes, even when they aren’t on the winning side of the vote.

The referendum result isn’t likely to help Greece make better decisions about it s future, but it very well could help Greece nonetheless. The mere fact that the voters themselves are deciding could make all the difference in the world.

Mike Edwards is a writer and political analyst based in Boston. Daniel Oppenheimer is a professor of psychology and marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. They are the co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System that Shouldn’t Work at All Works so Well. They wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Money

Banks Are Right To Be Afraid of the FinTech Boom

FinTech offers users an array of financial services that were once almost exclusively the business of banks

Americans across the economic spectrum struggle to manage their money. We spend too much, save too little, and wait too long to invest. While we could all be more responsible, access to services that facilitate sound financial decision-making is often concentrated at the top of the economic ladder. Each rung down, those resources get a little harder to come by, with those at the very bottom are often locked out of the financial mainstream. Poor and minority families historically have gotten caught between the rock of discriminatory practices like redlining and high-risk lending and the hard place of debt traps. Without access to banks, they find themselves subjected to the to the exorbitant fees and charges by providers of alternative financial services, such as check cashers and payday lenders.

Policymakers should take steps to ensure that all Americans have access to secure, functional, and affordable financial services, as these commodities are crucial to financial wellbeing. But in absence of policy action, the market has moved to fill the need. Financial technology companies (known collectively as FinTech) are broadening access to a range of services that they claim can help us manage our spending, save more money, and make investments in our long-term financial security.

FinTech offers users an array of financial services—from transactions to underwriting—that were once almost exclusively the business of banks. Personal finance apps like Acorns, Digit, and Mint help users track their spending and stay on budget without the assistance of a financial advisor. Personal lending innovators like Lending Club and Prosper enable users to bypass traditional intermediaries with a peer-to-peer lending platform. Companies like Betterment and Wealthfront that facilitate investments, financial planning, and portfolio management have emerged as popular alternatives to traditional wealth managers.

Investors have responded favorably to FinTech companies. Just six months into 2015, FinTech startups have raised nearly $12.4 billion from venture investments and are on track to double their backing over the previous year. While FinTech is booming, it’s unlikely to replace banks altogether, and many FinTech companies actually rely on existing bank accounts. But it is sapping away the banking sector’s profitability, which has raised concerns among traditional banks about their capacity to maintain low-margin services and in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Generally, banks follow a loss leader pricing strategy: They provide certain products (checking accounts) at a cost below their market value to stimulate the sales of more profitable products (loans) and to attract new customers. Now FinTech companies are extracting the most profitable portions of the banking model, leaving banks stuck with high overhead and less profitable products. To recoup their resulting market losses and mitigate the threat of FinTech insurgents, traditional banks and other legacy players in the financial sector are discussing a range of strategies, including charging more for low-margin services, closing bank branches to cut costs, and acquiring FinTech companies. Unfortunately, the impact of some of these strategies has the potential to disrupt the financial lives of low-income households.

The worst-case scenario for low-income families is FinTech’s drain on their profitability prompts banks to abandon their loss leader strategies. For people at the margins of the financial mainstream, the loss leader strategy is a financial lifeline that enables them to maintain checking and savings accounts. If banks compensate for lost revenue by raising fees and charges on current accounts, account ownership is likely to decline. Currently, over a quarter of American households are un- or underbanked. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, one in three unbanked households reported high or unpredictable account fees as a reason for not owning an account and approximately 13 percent reported this to be the main reason. Raising the cost of owning a bank account could drive even more people away from the banking system entirely.

While life with banks can be rough, life without banks can be brutal. Without access to a transaction account, households often turn to alternative financial products that charge exorbitant fees. The average underbanked household spends a staggering $2,412 each year on interest and fees alone. For many households, access comes down to proximity to a brick-and-mortar branch. But as banks look to slash costs, branches are closing in droves (nearly 2,599 in 2014). Low-income and minority neighborhoods are often the first areas targeted. Since late 2008, an astounding 93 percent of the bank branch closings have been in ZIP Codes with below-national median household income levels. And the rise of digital banking may contribute further to this trend as regulators consider a new proposal that would give banks more latitude to decide where they have physical branches.

If the threat to their business grows, banks could opt to use their superior resources to buy up FinTech companies. With the five biggest banks controlling nearly $15 trillion in assets, FinTech’s $12.4 billion in venture investments this year look like peanuts. Acquisition was the approach Capital One took earlier this year when it bought Level Money, an app that helps users track their spending. If proven profitable, it’s likely that other banks will start buying up the competition. While usurping the threat of FinTech by co-opting it may relieve immediate pressure on the banks, it won’t necessarily stop them from trying to cut costs in other ways that disproportionately impact those at the bottom rung on the income ladder. With the last 50 years of history at our backs (or even just the last 10), do we really want banks annexing every potential rival?

Competition is good, as is innovation, especially if they create inroads for new and currently underserved consumers to access and use traditional financial services. And for all their insurgent disruption, some FinTech startups have vision that traditional banks have lacked. They see underserved consumers as an emerging market, especially in developing countries where technological advances like mobile banking have been a key driver of financial inclusion.

The rise of FinTech gives policymakers a good opportunity to take stock of where we have been and where we should be going when it comes to providing the means for low and medium-income Americans to save for the future. As these market forces unfold, policymakers should be designing and supporting ideas that promote more financial inclusion, whether that means more community credit unions, subsidies and tax credits for financial services, or a government-run option like postal banking. Regardless of the provider, legislators need to make access to secure, functional, and affordable financial services for all Americans a bigger priority—and FinTech’s impact on the banking industry is bringing that need into sharper relief by the day.

Patricia Hart is a program associate with the Asset Building Program at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME stocks

Why China’s Stock Market Meltdown Could Hurt Us All

The negative consequences are already spreading beyond China's borders

The great Chinese stock bubble of 2015 has, as many expected it would, popped. After peaking on June 12, the Shanghai Composite Index has fallen 32% and the more volatile, tech-oriented Shenzhen Composite Index has dropped 40%.

For the first three weeks after those markets peaked, Chinese stocks listed in the relatively stable US exchanges were largely unaffected. Many of them declined a bit, but for the most part investors accepted they were insulated from the margin trading, absurd valuations and speculative trading afflicting stocks in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

That has changed quickly this week. NetEase, a Chinese gaming company traded in New York, has lost 10% of its value in the past two days. Sina has fallen 15% while its peers in the online-media industry have slipped further: Yoku down 19%, Sohu and Weibo both down 20%, Changyou, another gaming company, is down 25%.

There are a couple of exceptions. E-commerce titan Alibaba is down 3% in the past two days, while Internet giant Baidu is down 5%. Both of those stocks are widely held and considered the blue chips of Chinese companies traded on US exchanges.

Few of these stocks saw the huge surges in share prices over the past year that their cousins on Chinese exchanges did, in which many recent tech IPOs tripled or more in value thanks to speculation and margin debt. Loans to individual investors may have risen as high as $1 trillion earlier this month. NYSE margin debt, by contrast, is around $500 billion.

When stock prices collapse, they prompt margin calls that require investors to either put up more money against the loans or sell the stocks, which only accelerates the selloff. But if investors in the US aren’t getting margin calls, why are the shares of Chinese companies traded on the NYSE and Nasdaq suddenly diving?

There are two key reasons. The first is that the declines on the Chinese exchanges have gone from a simple correction to a full-fledged selloff and now seems to be on the verge of something much more perilous: an all-out market panic.

That scenario seems likelier after the Shenzhen Composite fell another 2.5% Wednesday and the Shanghai Composite fell 5.9%. But those figures don’t tell the full story, because more than 1,300 companies have halted trading in their shares to prevent declines – including 32% of listings in Shanghai and 55% in Shenzhen. In total, 40% of the market cap on those exchanges can’t be bought or sold right now.

The second thing that changed this week is that it became apparent that the Chinese government, with its formidable ability to control many aspects of its economy, has met its match in the stock market. China recently cut interest rates, prevented any new IPOs and arranged $19 billion in purchases from fund managers, moves that only slowed the selloff temporarily.

On Wednesday, China’s central bank vowed to provide liquidity to help a state-backed margin finance company try to stabilize the market, once again to no immediate benefit. China’s efforts to stem the panic selling may end up like the Japanese government’s campaign to shore up stocks in Tokyo when that market collapsed in the early 1990s. Then, government money was spent only to slow an inevitable decline, as well as its recovery.

For Chinese companies, this is bad news because it threatens to stall consumer spending. As China’s growth has slowed, the government has tried to shift the economy away from a reliance on infrastructure and housing toward consumer spending. Many of China’s Internet companies listed in the US rely heavily on consumer engagement with e-commerce, games and ad-supported content.

The decline in US-traded stocks coincides with the spread of the selloff from mainland stock exchanges to the Hong Kong market. The Hang Seng Index fell 5.8% Wednesday and is now down 10% for the week. Tech stalwarts traded there are falling even further: Internet-media giant Tencent is down 14% this week and computer-manufacturer Lenovo is down 12%.

There is a broader concern here: The emergence of a stock bubble on Shenzhen and Shanghai exchanges occurred inside China’s borders. The popping of the bubble did too – until this week. It’s not just Hong Kong stocks and shares of Chinese companies traded in the US, the selloff is spreading for now to markets in countries that do a lot of business with China. Japan’s Nikkei 225, for example, was down 3.1%, dropping below 20,000 for the first time in nearly a month.

If the selloff in China does turn into a panic-driven meltdown, it could be bad news for US companies that have come to rely on the growing Chinese market for sales. GM said Tuesday its China auto sales were flat in June, even after it slashed prices 20% on dozens of models. Apple’s fortunes have revived recently on the success of its iPhones in China. The effect of the selloff on those sales last month may become apparent when the company reports earnings later this month.

Until now, the rise and fall of the Chinese stock bubble this year has been a fascinating spectacle to many in the US. And it remain that if the government does shore up the market or if the sense of panic dissipates. If not, the turmoil could end up slowing down China’s economy even further, and that could also become a drag for many US companies in this globally interconnected era.

TIME Economy

These 5 Facts Explain Greece’s Bank Shutdown

greece bank shutdown referendum
Simon Dawson—Bloomberg/Getty Images Pedestrians pass the headquarters of the Bank of Greece SA, Greece's central bank, in Athens on June 28, 2015.

Capital controls may have stopped Greek banks from bleeding out, but how long can they stave off the panic?

As the people of Greece are learning, without functioning banks, the daily lives of citizens and businesses come screeching to a halt. Capital controls—limitations on the free movement of money—are seen as desperation measures, and whether they work depends on how well the medicine suits the disease. If currencies or banks themselves are harming an economy, capital controls may work; otherwise, watch out. These five stats explain some of the most recent implementations of capital controls and how Greece compares.

Iceland

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Iceland’s banks were caught with assets valued at over $185 billion, roughly 14 times the size of the country’s annual output, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “too big to fail.” Fearing exposure to the overleveraged banking sector, investors started fleeing the krona. Iceland’s currency lost over 50 percent of its value against the euro in just months. Assessing the situation, the government in Reykjavik decided stopping the flow of money out of the banks was the only way to prevent a bad situation from turning into utter catastrophe. Iceland’s GDP fell by 10 percent from 2009 through 2010. But the exchange rate stabilized shortly after capital controls were introduced, and Reykjavik eased its monetary policy, making borrowing cheaper. For the past three years, Iceland has been growing at about a 2 percent rate per year.

(NYT, Economist, Vox EU, Economist)

Malaysia

After years of growth, the economies in East Asia started to sour in 1997 when Thailand was forced to unpeg its currency from the U.S. dollar. The crisis spread to neighboring countries, and global investors started selling Malaysian assets to bet on the depreciation of the currency, the ringgit. By mid-1998, the ringgit’s value had fallen 40 percent, the stock market’s value had plummeted 75 percent, and Malaysia imposed capital controls that September. The government had tried raising interest rates to keep money from fleeing the country, but the move hurt businesses and the economy, which contracted by 7.4 percent in 1998. Capital controls allowed the Malaysian government to spend money on public works projects without injecting too much liquidity into the Malaysian money supply. By 1999, Malaysia was growing again at 6.1 percent.

(IMF, Economist, World Bank)

Cyprus

At its height, Cyprus’s banking sector was 7.5 times the country’s annual GDP of roughly $23 billion, largely fueled by Russian investors using Cypriot banks as tax havens. But Cypriot banks also held a significant amount of Greek government debt. In 2011, Cyprus’s banks were required to accept a 50 percent write-down on that debt. With its banks severely weakened, Nicosia was forced to request its own bailout from Europe in March 2013, to the tune of 10 billion euros. But harsh conditions were attached: first, Laiki Bank—at the time the island’s second largest financial institution—would be shut down and its “good” assets would be merged with the Bank of Cyprus. Following that, all deposits in the Bank of Cyprus above 100,000 euros would be subject to a 47.5 percent haircut, with depositors receiving bank shares in exchange for their lost cash. In this case, capital controls were imposed to give Cypriot authorities time to restructure the banking sector. Nearly two years later, those controls have finally been lifted and Cyprus’ economy has started to recover.

(Reuters, NYT, FT, Economist)

Argentina

Like Greece, Argentina had a long history of government overspending and weak institutions. Despite growing for most of the 1990s, by 1999 the Argentine economy was mired in recession and saddled with 14.5 percent unemployment and unsustainable government debt. But unlike Greece, Argentina had its own currency, the peso, which was pegged at an exchange rate of one peso to one U.S. dollar. In December 2001, Buenos Aires imposed capital controls while it forced a conversion of its banks’ dollar deposits into pesos, but at a new exchange rate of 1.4 pesos to the dollar (the adoption of a floating exchange rate ultimately dragged the peso’s value down almost 90 percent overall). The government limited withdrawals to 250 pesos a week in a move known as El Corralito, or “the little fence.” Even with these draconian measures, Argentina defaulted in 2002 on more than $81 billion owed to external creditors, though notably it paid its debt to the International Monetary Fund. The immediate aftermath was miserable: unemployment went north of 20 percent, with over 50 percent of the population living in poverty. But Argentina started to recover by June 2002 as domestic growth was boosted by its newly devalued peso and its traditionally strong agriculture sector. Argentina has been limping on since.

(NYT, NYT, Telegraph, Economist, BBC)

Greece

And now, Greece. Last week, Athens decided to shutter banks in a defensive move to prevent a bank run as the government’s negotiations with its creditors collapsed. Upward of $45 billion has been pulled out of Greek banks since mid-December over fear that deposits would be seized and forcibly converted from the euro to a new drachma. If this conversion were to happen, things would get much worse for the Hellenic Republic—Standard & Poor’s recently estimated that Greece could lose 20 percent of its GDP over the next four years if it were to leave the euro, on top of the 25 percent it has already lost since the crisis started. Unlike Argentina, Greece doesn’t have a strong export industry that can benefit from the competitiveness of a devalued currency, meaning unemployment would climb even higher than the current rate of roughly 26 percent. What’s worse is that even if Greece went the way of the drachma, it would still have a mountain of debt that’s denominated in euros—Greece needs to make payments worth another 10.33 billion euros to the European Central Bank and the IMF in July and August alone. And that’s not including the IMF payment of 1.5 billion euros it just missed last week. So while capital controls may have stopped Greek banks from bleeding out, the Greek economy overall is still critically wounded.

(CNBC, Fortune, Guardian, BBC)

TIME Greece

Here’s What Could Happen Next in Greece

No one cares enough to save Greece with their own money

Confused? You should be.

All sides say they still want Greece to stay in the euro, and as long as that’s the case, then there’s always a chance that they will make the necessary compromises.

However, all sides are acting like they would rather Greece were out of it: Greece’s government has made impossible promises about keeping the euro without austerity. The Eurozone’s last offer was a deal that pretended Greece has a realistic future in the currency union without growth. The European Central Bank is pretending that Greece’s banks are solvent, but still refusing to lend them any more money to cover a massive run by depositors.

So where do things go from here?

1. How long can the current deadlock last?

The best guess is still July 20th. This is the day when Greece is due to repay the ECB €3.5 billion. It will miss that payment barring some kind of miracle. On that day, it becomes politically impossible for the ECB to continue making emergency short-term loans to Greek banks. If the ECB won’t take the Greek government bonds as collateral, their value will collapse, and the banks will become insolvent (for supervisory purposes, their current troubles are deemed to be ‘temporary’ liquidity difficulties).

No sensible investor would put new money into a bank in that situation, so you would have to use administrative measures to reduce the banks’ liabilities to a level where they are properly covered by assets. The only realistic ways to do that are to convert deposits into equity, or to “haircut” them. That can either be done by simply writing them down or by redenominating them in a new currency.

2. Is there no hope that the creditors will back off on the demand for austerity?

Actually, yes, there is. The creditors’ red line is to write off part of the money Greece owes them. But they can achieve the same effect by rescheduling the debt so that it’s paid off over a much longer time (say 50 years) and with a long grace period. That way, Athens wouldn’t have to run as tight a budget as is currently being demanded, giving the economy more room to grow. If the economy is growing and the debt level isn’t, then pretty much everybody would be satisfied with that.

But there are a lot of problems even with that. For one thing, Greece is already paying less, proportionately, on debt servicing than countries such as Italy and Belgium (whose coat-tails they would be riding on). For another, it would encourage radicals in other countries, bolstering the kind of tax-and-spend leftism that is anathema to Berlin and the European Commission. And most importantly, growth depends on more than writing debt off. The IMF, which suggested the above idea on debt re-profiling last week, despairs of the Greek government ever reforming enough to generate growth.

3. Will Germany relent?

German press coverage has started to swing against Chancellor Angela Merkel as the risk of breaking up the Eurozone rises (see above), but it’s happening too late to change a groundswell of public opinion bitterly opposed to lending Greece any more money. Merkel herself said that there are “only a few days left” to avoid the worst as she arrived for today’s summit. In that timeframe, she has more to lose politically by caving in to Greece than by refusing them. The most likely outcome is that she will try to spin a “Grexit” as a measure to strengthen the euro’s credibility. The Eurozone’s political elite would dearly like to believe that, but the evil Anglo-Saxon speculators who dominate global finance will take more convincing.

4. Can anyone else stop Greece being forced out?

It’s clear that governments from China to the U.S. are concerned by what could happen if Greece goes (President Barack Obama has called Merkel and France’s President Hollande in recent days to voice those concerns). There will be major market volatility (and China’s are quite volatile enough already), huge question marks over the future direction of the E.U., another slowdown in its economy (the world’s largest), and a failed state right on the front line of a migrant crisis that is a major humanitarian disaster.

Despite all this, no-one (not even Vladimir Putin or Nobel Prize-winning liberal economists) seems to care enough about the Greek state, in its current dysfunctional form, to save it with their own money.

5. Would Greece be better off without the euro?

Who better to ask than the Greeks themselves? A Bloomberg poll last week showed 81% of people wanting to keep the euro, and only 12% wanting a return to the drachma. That’s because a euro is a hard currency, with real spending power. Nobody knows what the value of a currency printed at will by Greek governments would be worth, but Greeks remember the last one well enough to have very serious doubts about it. For more on what a drachma would be worth – read this by Fortune’s Stephen Gandel.

6. So why did Greeks vote ‘no’ at the referendum?

Because the government’s message–that this was about austerity–drowned out the warnings from the rest of Europe that it was actually about keeping the euro. That suggests that Greeks are still suffering from acute cognitive dissonance, believing that they can keep the euro without the conditions that everyone else in the Eurozone says are necessary.

7. Will Greece cave at the last minute?

Maybe. The government has to pay pensions and public-sector wages again at the end of every month, and it will not be able to gather together the euros to do that after July 20th. So at some stage it has to admit who has ultimate control over the supply of euros. At that point, it could accept the creditors’ demands. But so many of Tsipras’ party would rebel that the country will need new elections and a new parliament to have any hope of implementing a new deal. On the bright side, once Tsipras and Syriza are out of power, the European might be more inclined to grant debt relief. Politics is a personal business, after all.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Money

Could You Live on $64 a Day If Greece’s Crisis Happened Here?

Imagine if Greece's capital controls were imposed in America

Greece’s banks remained closed on Monday for the sixth straight working day, heightening anxieties over the nation’s cash withdrawal and transfer limit of €60 ($67) per day per account.

What if those same capital controls were imposed in America? As shown in the chart above, our budgets would need a significant downsizing — by over 50%.

It’s true that credit or debit card transactions — for some, the primary mode of payment — aren’t affected by the rules. But many day-to-day Greek businesses and services, like restaurants, have begun demanding cash payments. Other Greeks have found even their credit cards are being rejected with confusion surrounding the capital controls. As a result, for many account holders, it’s truly a $67 per day limit: $67 for food, housing, healthcare and transportation, often to support a family of several people (We should note that some Greek public transportation has been free during the capital control period).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent report on U.S. consumer expenditures, American households spent an average of $140 per day in 2013. Indeed some of these costs could be eliminated more easily, like leisure ($6.80) and cash contributions ($5.02). But Americans’ three highest daily costs — housing ($49.98 per day), transport ($24.67) and food ($18.09) — aren’t just harder to cut down on, but also far above the $67 limit already.

Read next: Why Greece Matters for Everyone

TIME Economy

Why Greece Matters for Everyone

Like it or not, Greece is a domino that will have ripple effects throughout the rest of the world

Greece is a tiny country. It’s 0.3 % of the GDP of the world. Most private creditors took their money out of the debt-ridden nation years ago. So why is the possible exit of Greece from the Eurozone rocking markets? Because it represents what could be the end of the biggest, most benevolent experiment in globalization, ever.

On Sunday, Greek voters said “no” to Europe’s latest bailout offer. That means that a Greek exit from the Eurozone is now very likely–most analysts are putting the odds at somewhere around 60%-70% at this point. For Greeks, the next few weeks will be chaotic. Banks are closed; last week, people could take only 60 euros at a time out of ATM machines, this week it may go to as little as 20 euros. Merchants have begun eschewing credit cards in favor of hard currency as a cash hoarding mindset kicks in.

Global markets are not surprisingly down on the news and will likely be quite jittery for the next few weeks. It’s not that the economy of Greece itself matters so much–China creates a new Greece every six weeks–it’s that a Greek exit from the Eurozone calls into question the entire European experiment. Europe was always an exercise in faith: 19 countries coming together to form a made-up currency without any common fiscal policy or true political integration seemed like a great idea in good times, but was destined to be fragile in bad times.

MORE: Here’s What Greek Austerity Would Look Like in America

The risk now is that a chaotic Greek exit from the Eurozone starts to undermine faith in other peripheral countries, like Italy or Spain. Watch what their bond spreads do over the next few days. If they rise a lot, it means investors are worried. While ECB head Mario Draghi has promised money dumps to help stabilize these nations and any other Eurozone countries that need help (perhaps we should start calling him “Helicoper” Mario), he can’t stop the euro from falling against the dollar, or keep investors from fleeing to “safe havens” like US T-bills. That might be good for US bond markets, but Europe’s crisis could also impact the Fed’s ability to raise interest rates in September, which until quite recently seemed like a sure thing.

No wonder President Obama and Jack Lew are getting vocal about it all–while this isn’t going to be a Lehman Brother’s style domino collapse of financial institutions (private creditors represent only about 12 % of Greek debt; most got their money out back in 2011 or 2012), there’s little question that Europe’s growth will slow, which will affect US companies and workers. The stronger dollar will also hurt US exporters.

But even more important than the short-term jitters are the longer-term economic and geopolitical impacts of the Eurozone crisis. One of the reasons that Russia has been so aggressive in places like the Ukraine is that Europe is perceived as being weak, unable to make the political integrations that would actually solve this debt crisis permanently. (That would require creating a real United States of Europe–something that requires German buy in.)

MORE: Greece Says ‘No’ to Austerity

The Greeks may think that a “no” vote to Europe has increased their power to bargain for a third bailout, but I think it will be very hard to convince German voters of that (and any deal will have to pass through the Bundestag). Germans simply don’t understand why the rest of Europe can’t be more like them, despite the fact that the math doesn’t really work.

If Greece is left on its own, where will it turn for support? To Russia, China, and any number of countries in the Middle East. Suddenly, you’ve got the stability of the Balkans in play. And as it becomes clear that the future of the world’s second largest reserve currency isn’t necessary a given, that could weaken investment in Europe as a whole, throw the Eurozone back into recession, and undermine the EU on the world stage. A political bloc that can’t guarantee its own currency will also have reduced clout in any kind of political negotiation. Europe’s weakness could be very destabilizing at a time when America’s own geopolitical power has ebbed.

That’s bad news for everyone. Europe is one of the three legs of the global economic stool, along with the U.S. and China, which is in the middle of its own debt crisis. America’s recovery isn’t strong enough to pull the world along. Europe’s debt crisis is not only an economic crisis but also a political crisis–one that poses challenges not just the EU itself, but liberal democracy as the model of the future.

MORE: Greek Finance Minister Resigns

TIME Greece

Everything to Know About Greece’s Debt Vote

It could have serious consequences for Europe's future

Q. Why and when are the Greeks voting on this referendum?

A. The Greek government called the referendum because it failed to get acceptable terms for debt relief and further assistance in four months of negotiations with the creditors. It felt it couldn’t agree to the last set of proposals received before the expiry of its bailout, because they couldn’t square it with their election promise to end austerity.

The referendum will be on Sunday, 5th July.

Q. So what are the Greeks actually being asked to vote on?

A. They’re being asked to vote on a set of proposals drafted by IMF, ECB and European Commission officials that were never formally completed or published.

This is the actual ballot. As you can see, the “No” (OXI) option, recommended by the government, is above the “Yes” (NAI) option.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 16.14.12

For the non-Greek readers, (or for those who only know ancient Greek), here’s a translation:

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 16.18.50

The two documents referred to can be found here and here (debt sustainability analysis).

Q. What are the key points?

A. The most contentious demand is that Greece squeeze another 1% of GDP in savings out of its battered pension system, specifically by eliminating top-ups that have been desperately needed by poorer pensioners to keep themselves above the breadline in recent years. The other big point is the elimination of VAT exemptions for Greece’s islands. The government argues this threatens the existence of the tourism industry on the islands.

The DSA, meanwhile, almost–but not quite–brings itself to admit that the debt load is unsustainable. If Greece adopts and implements the conditions immediately, it says, then the debt-to-GDP ratio could fall to 124% by 2022 from over 175% right now. That’s the best case scenario, and not one that sits comfortably with the last five years’ experience. It’s also not many people’s idea of sustainability.

Q. What happens if Greece votes ‘Yes’?

A. A ‘Yes’ vote would be the first step towards a third bailout agreement for Greece (the IMF suggested today that Greece will need €50 billion, or $56 billion, in financing to get it through to the end of 2018, as well as a 20-year grace period). The last one expired Tuesday.

Q. Could the Greek government collapse?

A. Probably. It has campaigned for a ‘No’ vote, so the blow to its credibility would be huge. Its electoral mandate–to end austerity while keeping the euro–would be obsolete. Individual ministers have already said they’ll resign in that event. However, the radical left-wing Syriza party is by far the largest in parliament, a large part of its lawmakers won’t sign any new bailout deal, and there is no stable pro-bailout majority without it. That points to new elections. Quite how negotiations could resume, and quite how the banks could reopen, in those circumstances isn’t clear.

Q. If Greece votes ‘No’, what happens?

A. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras claims that a ‘No’ vote will strengthen the Greeks’ negotiating position by showing the strength of resistance to further austerity. However, the creditors have shown no sign that it would change their position. More likely is that the continued uncertainty will make it impossible for the banks, which have been closed since Monday, to reopen. They would be immediately faced with demands for cash that they can’t possibly meet. In practical terms, the banks couldn’t open again until the bulk of their liabilities–i.e. customer deposits–had been re-denominated in a new Greek currency. This would lead to a large part of the country’s savings being wiped out.

Q. Could this vote result in Greece leaving the Eurozone?

A. Absolutely, because it would be clear that the political will to share a currency with Germany and others was no longer there. How we get from A. to B. is unclear, because there are no precedents and no provisions for it in the E.U.’s treaty. There is a provision for leaving the E.U., but not even Tsipras wants to do that.

Q. Is the bailout deal they’re voting on even still on the table?

A. Not officially, but the creditors will look stupid, merciless and irresponsible if they don’t react to a ‘Yes’ vote with something to relieve the immediate pressure on Greece’s banks and the economy at large, and a large part of the political dynamic in this process is about dodging blame for the whole mess. It’s tempting to think that, once Syriza is out of government, some form of debt restructuring will become politically possible. The creditors would rather eat dirt than reward a party, and individual ministers, that they regard as dangerous charlatans.

Q. What does this mean for the global economy?

A. A ‘Yes’ vote would remove one of the big geopolitical risks that are currently holding back investment in the Eurozone, which would be a clear bonus to global growth (the Eurozone is over two-thirds of the E.U. economy, which about 20% of world GDP).

A ‘No’ vote, could have quite mild consequences if Greece can be kept inside the Eurozone and the ECB douses the flames of market fear with a flood of liquidity. That wouldn’t be as good for the economy, but it would at least contain the damage to financial markets. But a ‘No’ vote that leads to “Grexit” is another matter. Again, one would expect the ECB to throw money at the markets to keep volatility down, but the sight of European integration going into reverse would nix a basic geopolitical assumption of the last 60 years. The resulting political uncertainty could be highly damaging for investment not only in Europe, but also further afield.

 

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com