Monthly Archives For January 2015

Photo credit: Euronews

Syriza’s Victory: Turning Hope into Reality

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This article by Michael Burke and John Ross was originally posted on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Monday the 26th of January

The Greek people have inspired every progressive force in Europe, and beyond, by electing the first anti-austerity government in Europe. Syriza has similarly inspired every progressive person with the great political skill with which it outmanoeuvred the forces in Greece and Europe who attempted to scare the Greek people into not voting for it. As Alexis Tsipras said immediately after its victory Syriza has opened up hope for the Greek people – and many others as well.

The key question now is how to turn hope into reality.

Syriza has outlined clearly its orientation – which should be supported by every progressive force. Syriza has said it is not seeking to exit from the Euro. It wants Greece’s unpayable and unjust debt renegotiated. The immediate priority of the left throughout Europe must be to organise support for this demand of Syriza during the coming negotiations. It is to be welcomed that not only the political left but also far wider groups arguing for a rational economic policy support this course – including eminent figures in their profession such as Nobel Prize winners in economics Joseph Stiglitz and Chris Pissarides. All efforts must be redoubled across Europe to gain support for the renegotiation of Greece’s debt – a course which corresponds not only to the interests of the Greek people but to the interests of rational economic policy across Europe, and therefore to the interests of the people of Europe.

Whether or not these negotiations succeed, however, the new Greek government is faced with key choices in economic policy. This is even more the case as, if the economic policies of the new government do not succeed, sinister forces that failed to win this election will seek to turn Greece backwards.

The first and immediate priority, of course, is to reduce and eliminate the appalling humanitarian suffering imposed on the Greek people by the austerity policies. Creating jobs, raising wages, restoring pensions, recreating the best possible social security are the top priorities. As always politics must take precedence over economics.

But to sustain the improvement in the living standards of the Greek people it is necessary to relaunch economic growth. And the key to economic growth is necessarily investment. Without rising investment an economy cannot grow.

Under the conditions of Greece it is even more unrealistic than normal to rely on the private sector for investment. It is the collapse in private investment which has driven economic collapse in Greece and economic recession across Europe. Since 2007 Greece’s GDP has fallen by €57bn of which the bulk is the fall in investment at €36bn. The only way to secure economic growth is therefore to embark on a programme of state investment. Those countries which have used state investment as their key instrument to promote growth have enjoyed outstanding success – for example Ecuador, Bolivia and China.

In a country such as Ecuador, which has enjoyed 5% GDP annual average growth over 10 years, real incomes per capita have risen by over 2% a year, and 10% of the population has been lifted out of poverty. This has been driven by state investment which has now reached 15% of GDP.
Economic growth, led by state investment, will in turn create the conditions under which the private sector will begin to invest again.

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alphatoomega

From Alpha to Omega Podcast #059: Test Those Theories

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This week I am delighted to welcome to the show Jose A Tapia Granados, associate Professor in the Department of History and Politics in Drexel University. Originally trained as a medical doctor, Jose now specialises in the links between fluctuations in the economy and health conditions. He also is interested in purely economic issues, and is the co-author of the book ‘La Gran Recesión y el capitalismo del siglo XXI’ or ‘The Great Recession and capitalism of the XXI century’ in english. The interview is based upon a really fascinating paper of his I read recently called, ‘Does investment call the tune? Empirical evidence and endogenous theories of the business cycle’. In this paper, Jose looks at the different theories of crisis, in particular those of Keynes and Marx, and sees how they stand up when you test them against the historical empirical data. Very interesting stuff indeed.

Here is the podcast’s new YouTube channel, with all the episodes uploaded:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD63zXEPxFpl9Y0Vh8abp4A

You can find the paper here:
http://sitemaker.umich.edu/tapia_granados/files/does_investment_call_the_tune_may_2012__forthcoming_rpe_.pdf

You can find his book here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/GRAN-RECESION-CAPITALISMO-DEL-SIGLO/dp/8483196115

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risingineq

The Very Real Cost of Rising Inequality

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Inequality is one of those concepts that for many people remain somewhat abstract and amorphous.  There are few that are against equality, but it has difficult gaining traction in the popular debate.  When you’re trapped in deprivation, debt, or low-pay then income or more hours of work becomes the measure of the solution.  Equality, however framed, remains detached.

It shouldn’t be.  For all of us are paying a real Euro-and-cents cost for rising inequality.  Inequality has many facets – economic, social, cultural, gender, sexual.  Let’s just look at one aspect – rising income inequality with the assistance of a valuable database:  the World Top Incomes Database.

Equality 1

In 1977, the top 10 percent income group’s share of national income was 27 percent.  By 2009 this had increased to 36 percent – a rise of 9 percentage points.  Two years into the recession saw a drop in this share as income from the speculative bubble fell faster than the national average.  However, don’t worry – Eurostat shows that since 2009 it has started rising again.  While the data isn’t directly comparable (the World Incomes Database is based on tax revenue data, while Eurostat which is based on a survey of households shows little medium-term movement), an indicative number would be that it has risen to 37 percent in 2012.

Another way of looking at this is that the lowest 90 percent saw their share of national income fall from 72.7 percent in 1977 to 63 percent in 2012 (using the indicative number).

Again, this graph is abstract.   So let’s play a little game.  What would be the impact on households if the share of the lower 90 percent had remained the same; that is, how much more money would the lower 90 percent have today if their share of the income was the same as in 1977?

The bottom 90 percent of households would have €10.975 billion more.  Nearly €11 billion spread out among approximately 1.5 million households.

  • For each household, this would mean approximately €7,400 more income

Of course, there would be differences given the variations in household types (single, couple with children, single parents, etc.).  And this is just a suggestive estimate.  But imagine the improvement in their fortune if a low-paid couple (on €30,000 per year) were receiving an extra €140 or more per week.  And compare this to the €4 weekly increase from the tax cuts, which won’t even keep pace with inflation.

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exitsign

Cead Mile Failte

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Now that all the books have been burned

Now that the sea has told you you’re a fish

Now that the baker has eaten all your cake

Now that you know how the bread gets buttered

Now that you know how the wheels get greased

Now that you’re clear on who owns the jam

Now that your water has been turned in to wine

Now that you lie in a trolley made bed

Now that the bright and the best are in charge

Now that you know your future is history

Now that you know at whose table you sit

Now that you know to keep a civil tongue

Now that you know all you read is the truth

Now that the light has been quenched in the room

Now that the dark is your natural state

Now that fear is a constant companion

Now that the exit sign has been lit

Welcome to the ignorance.

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2

Always the Artists: Week Three of the Bank Inquiry

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“Shadows never go away.
Might be you don’t see them,
but they’re always clinging to your heels.”

A Song of Ice and Fire

When I was a child in primary school my way of dealing with Irish class was to find a word in the question that matched a word in the text and hope for the best. The sentence I would find would be the one I’d read out. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But, it was a plan, and it helped me get through the hour.

In the absence of any understanding of the grammar, of the way the words actually relate to each other, you grab what you can and try to make sense of the situation.

In terms of the bank guarantee and bailout, and the different narratives that are being thrown out there, we can’t really do this – we can’t just pick out single words, single events, and use them to make our story. We need to have enough of an overview of the dynamics at play in order to make sure we don’t stray from the path as we go forward.

In other words, we need to understand the grammar that holds it all together, and one of the objectives of the bank inquiry is to fulfill this role.

It helps, of course, to have witnesses that understand this, and with Professor Patrick Honohan last week I’m not sure it did.

On paper the purpose of Honohan’s appearance before the Bank Inquiry Committee was to discuss his 2010 report, which looked at the regulatory and operational failure within the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator’s office. On the day itself, however, the proceedings were dominated by talk of the 2008 bank guarantee – the decision itself and supposed cost.

Honohan initially said that the net cost of the guarantee would be somewhere in the region of €40 billion. When he was challenged on this he revised the figure and, indeed, the parameters, acknowledging that his figure wasn’t for the guarantee alone but for the subsequent bailout. Even with this, Honohan had not factored in added costs such as interest repayments. The moment he gave the definitive-sounding figure of €40bn, though, he had handed the journalists the following day’s headline.

He followed his €40bn with another brash statement – that Brian Lenihan had been ‘overruled’ by a more senior politician with regard to saving Anglo Irish Bank. It was obvious that the ‘more senior politician’ he was referring to was Brian Cowen.

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1

If This Isn’t an Emergency, What is?

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If five percent of the population suddenly fell ill to an unknown disease a national emergency would be called.  Government agencies and health professionals would be brought together under the direction of an emergency cabinet committee to first diagnose the disease, come up with a cure and then deliver it.

Well, we have such a disease – and it affects not five percent but 30 percent of the population. It is not unknown –   It is the economic and social disease of deprivation.  The CSO released the 2013 Survey of Income and Living Conditions and the data on deprivation is truly alarming.

Deprivation 1There are now 1.4 million who are categorised by the CSO as living in deprivation.  There are well over 400,000 children living in households suffering from multiple deprivation experiences.  Since the start of the crisis, these numbers have more than doubled. The disease is spreading.

You are classified as ‘deprived’ if you unable to afford or experience two of the following items:

 

Two pairs of strong shoes * A warm waterproof overcoat * Buy new (not second-hand) clothes * Eat meat with meat, chicken, fish (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day * Have a roast joint or its equivalent once a week * Had to go without heating during the last year through lack of money * Keep the home adequately warm * Buy presents for family or friends at least once a year * Replace any worn out furniture * Have family or friends for a drink or meal once a month * Have a morning, afternoon or evening out in the last fortnight for entertainment

This is not a welfare phenomenon.  Over 22 percent of all those experiencing deprivation are actually in the working force – well over 300,000.

Deprivation 2

The number of people experiencing in-work deprivation has more than trebled since 2008 – more than one-in-five working today.  Over a third of one-income households are in deprivation.  But a substantial number of two-income households also find their living standards marred – one-in-six.

Clearly, having a job is not necessarily a pathway out of poverty.

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brollyT

When Joe Brolly Met Georg Lukács

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Joe Brolly wrote an interesting article on the commodification of sport in this week’s issue of Gaelic Life. It’s a topic that crops up frequently as a critique of capitalist culture, from the Against Modern Football movement to combat the pricing of working-class fans out of the game, to controversies over the proliferation of performing-enhancing drugs in elite sport, to debates over whether college athletes should unionise in the United States.

Brolly, a former Derry footballer turned RTÉ pundit, explores it in the context of the amateur GAA and specifically men’s gaelic football. His thesis is that the increasing commercialism of the GAA leadership is driving the sport towards professionalism, instilling a will to win that is sapping the love of the game from the players and producing private bodies which are enriching the few at the expense of the many.

What he’s describing is similar to a process philosopher Georg Lukács called “reification”. This is where human relations or properties are transformed into human-produced things, given a value independently of and surpassing people themselves, and eventually coming to govern our lives. This distorts human relations, forcing us to interact with each other in terms of things rather than as people ourselves, producing a commodity fetishism. The pre-eminence of economic relationships over social relationships also causes a generalised condition of alienation, where we feel divorced from the work we do, the parts of life we enjoy, each other and even ourselves.

Interestingly, Brolly’s analysis reminds us that these processes do not happen in isolation or simply as economics. They are effected by the latent culture. So, in the GAA, commodification is buttressed by existing ideology like the “doctrine of club and county” and “strong community expectation” which produce a “loyalty” to the organisation and make deviating from its line difficult.

Ideology plays an important part in the GAA, which as well as being one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world has also, as an institution, often been on the side of conservative forces in Irish politics. In certain respects sport has a similar social function to religion, bonding communities, giving them rituals to share and establishing a sense of tradition – even if anyone who has attended Catholic mass would tell you sport’s entertainment value is a good deal higher. But any organisation of that kind that lasts under capitalism will have the GAA’s contradictions – partly playing a role in reproducing the system, partly providing ordinary people relief from its hardships.

And so on the one hand you have an organisation of over a million members, operating on a communitarian ethos, rooted in local communities, with a genuine sense of ownership for the grassroots, and at the same time its assets are over €2.5billion, many fans are priced out of its biggest games, its former leader sits in the European Parliament with Fine Gael and its most notable moment in 2014 was when it tried to force through a series of multi-million dollar concerts against the wishes of a working-class urban community.

Brolly’s description of the merits of the GAA, an organisation that teaches us “the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work”, echoes what Liverpool greats said about their sport in the past.Bill Shankly said that football was about “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards”. John Barnes said that “for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.” Both compared this ethic explicitly to socialism.

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Time for the Left to Act Together

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Popular desire for political change has become a feature of the current campaign against the water charge. This charge is the last straw in a litany of bank-bailout  impositions; and many want an entirely different set of socio-political priorities. Recent months have also shown the power of the mass movement to bring change. The movement now needs to drive home the advantage by making the charge unworkable through mass non-payment and continued mobilization. But this in itself is not enough to create the radical political alternative that would implement the significant change that many in the campaign, and across society, desire.

Such change would require a new left party – committed to a socialist alternative. The imperative for socialism has never been greater given the disastrous impact of the financial crash on working people and impending environmental meltdown due to the failure of the market system to curb fossil fuelled growth.

Is a new left party on the political horizon at present? Clearly not. The closest recent approximation to the start of such a party was the United Left Alliance. While we acknowledge its failure, we think there are some lessons from the ULA experience that can help us today.

At the time when ULA TDs were elected there was little mass challenge to the government: dissatisfaction was expressed through the election and there was no mass movement behind the new political formation. So there was no big growth in the ULA.

But other factors also influenced the difficulties in the ULA. There was insufficient trust between the leaderships of the two main political groups; there was unease at working together in a common organization, while having differences. There was also a failure to prioritise the ULA and build it as a functioning organisation.

But the political conditions for such a formation have changed for the better: there now exists a powerful mass movement against the water charge and other austerity measures – albeit quite fragmented. It has created the conditions for a political alternative to the Troika parties and to Sinn Fein, which is prepared to go into coalition with the Troika parties – with the inevitable political accommodations that preserve inequality such as we have seen Labour and the Greens implement.

Based on the experience of the ULA, we think that any new left formation cannot be based solely on an amalgamation of the current small parties but would have to draw in activists who have mobilised in recent months and who want real change. Relations between these parties are not great at present: witness the electoral competition in the European elections and Dublin South West. But a commitment to develop common work against the water charges and a common electoral project involving many new activists could generate positive working relations and create the momentum and trust required for the construction of a new, anti-austerity political formation after the election.

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elderly

The New Fiscal Enemy Within: The Elderly

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“Old people don’t need companionship. They need to be isolated and studied so that it can be determined what nutrients they have that might be extracted for our personal use.”

– Homer Simpson

The Irish Times published the highlights of a paper produced by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPR) purporting to show the latest crisis awaiting us – the crisis of unsustainable public pensions.  DEPR produced some numbers:

  • The number of people aged 65 and over is projected to increase from 570,000 in 2013 to 855,000 in 2026.
  • Spending on the contributory and non-contributory State pension schemes already account for €4.93 billion, or 25 per cent, of the total cost of social protection services.
  • The State could have to provide annual increases in funding of nearly €200 million up to 2026 just to keep pace with the growing elderly demographic.  This means a 50 percent increase in spending on state pensions by 2026

These look like truly scarifying numbers – 50 percent increase in the number of pensioners and 50 percent increase in pension costs.   No wonder the newspaper headline read:

‘Cuts to state pensions “must be considered”

What can we do, short of setting up a kind of Hunger Game for the elderly?  Thankfully, DEPR has some ideas:

  • Cut the weekly pension by €8.50 per week
  • Scrap the €10 weekly top-up for people over the age of 80
  • Bring forward the scheduled dates for raising State pension eligibility
  • Abolish the free TV licence.
  • Means test fuel allowance for new recipients of the Department of Social Protection’s household package of benefits.
  • Abolish free travel passes for spouses and companions of the elderly

Or we could take another route:  increase PRSI contributions and/or cut back on expenditure in other areas (health, education, etc.).  Thankfully, DEPR is on top of things, laying out the painful but necessary reforms (i.e. cuts) necessary to sustain our public pension system.

What does all this add up to?  Rubbish.

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paristhumb

Discussing Charlie Hebdo

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It is possible to mourn human loss without embracing everything those humans did.

It is possible to mourn human loss while being openly disturbed that certain deaths are never mourned, and the reasons for that.

It should be possible to discuss the political consequences of an act without having to dissociate that discussion from the politics of the act itself.

It is possible to speculate as to motivation, causality, experience, relations and histories without condoning, or being accused of condoning, an act.

It is possible to defend a right and also to enact it in criticizing the way in which that right is enacted, and reductively understood.

It is possible to oppose an assault on free speech, while also insisting on the hypocrisies, inequalities and elisions that undermine the idea that free speech is a cornerstone of ‘the West’.

It is possible to value politically the freedoms you have without understanding them as deriving from exclusively Western ideals, or as evidence of civilizational superiority.

It is possible to understand the political value of ‘the right to offend’, while opposing the political deadness of the contemporary duty to offend.

It is possible to defend a universal right to free expression, while noting the strange contemporary relativism that has little interest in the content, context and consequences of what is expressed.

It is possible to recognize the intentionality of an expression without accepting that this defines its meaning or significance.

It is possible to insist on the importance of context without assuming that there is but one context.

It should be possible to recognize the importance of context without writing dissenting voices and evident antagonisms out of that context.

It is possible to oppose oppressive institutional and political uses of religion while not contributing to the ways in which presumptive religious identities are racialized.

It is possible to be critical of positions derived from faith while not succumbing to the kind of identity politics that depends on treating faith as a failure of the mind.

It is possible to grasp that the lack of secularism, in one context, underpins oppression, and that a surplus of secularism, in another, extends it.

It is possible to approach racism as a political effect and not as an individual moral failing.

It is possible to critique racism without the reductive certainty of categorising racists and antiracists.

It is possible to understand that political actors can act against particular forms of racism while simultaneously extending others.

It is possible to affirm that ‘Islam is not a race’, while still contributing to anti-Muslim racism.

It is possible to hold onto the diversity of Muslim populations while recognizing the ways they are collectively racialized as Muslims.

It is possible to grasp that effects matter more than intentions, and thus that what is presented as antiracist may be received as having racializing consequences.

It is possible to wear your values on your sleeve, if you wish, and still reject monocausal explanations.

It is possible to advance a grinding form of communitarianism while criticizing the appeal to community.

It is possible to insist on the living legacies of colonialism and the hierarchies of the racist state, while recognizing that this does not determine the political agency of  ‘extremists’.

It is possible to oppose both antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism, and not to present them relationally as a zero-sum game.

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Syriza Comes to Ireland’s (and the Eurozone’s) Rescue

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Everyone in Ireland, regardless of their political orientation or party-political affiliation, should be hoping Syriza wins the upcoming Greek election and forms the next government. Why?  Because their proposals on public debt would be a major boost to Ireland and the Eurozone as a whole.   The headline to Denis Staunton’s excellent article said it best:

‘Why Ireland should support Greek plan to write down euro-zone public debt’

Leave aside your ideological predispositions.  Even Wolfgang Munchau of the Financial Times believes Syriza and Spain’s Podemos are the only parties talking sense about European debt.

Syriza is proposing a European Debt Conference – similar to the one held for Germany after World War II.  And the broad proposals they will bring to the Conference are based on this this paper written by Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos, Yiannis Milios and Spyros Lapatsiora.  In short:

  • The European Central Bank (ECB) acquires a significant part of the outstanding sovereign debt of the Eurozone countries – reducing national debt levels to 50 percent of GDP.
  • These bonds would be converted to zero coupon bonds with a 1 percent discount
  • The countries will buy back the debt when the ratio of those bonds falls to 20 percent of GDP

The impact for Ireland would be dramatic.  In one fell swoop our public debt would be more than halved – reduced from 108 percent of GDP to 50 percent.  This would cut interest payments by approximately half, saving €3.7 billion.  Imagine what we could do with that €3.7 billion every year – increase investment, improve public services, and boost social protection income (even cut taxes if that is your political perspective).  Whatever, this money would constitute a major stimulus programme for Ireland.

It would have a similar effect throughout the Eurozone.  All countries would benefit (with the exception of Estonia, Latvia and Luxembourg; their debt is already below 50 percent).  Over €4 trillion of Eurozone debt would be removed.  With the massive interest payment reductions, the Eurozone would receive a similar stimulus boost.  This would be the best way to escape the looming deflationary crisis.

The authors also hold out the prospect of a further boost, by presenting a slightly different alternative scenario to the one above:  interest payments would be suspended over the first five years and rolled up into the zero coupon bonds. Giving Ireland and the Eurozone a free pass on interest payments over the next five years would have an even more stimulatory and economically-galvanising effect.

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makingendsmeet

The Era of Making Ends Meet

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2015 will be all about making ends meet; or rather, not making ends meet.  Gone are the drama days of the last few years – NAMA, bondholder debt, collapsing employment and output, bailouts and Troikas (unless the EU decision-makers are determined to accelerate the European deflationary spiral; then we could have drama aplenty).  It’s not that these issues have gone away – but they are now embedded, hidden, in what can be called a ‘new normal’.  And this means we are entering into an excruciating and potentially protracted period of grinding things out; day by day.

So many commentators talk about the economy in recovery but ‘people not feeling it yet’.  I suggest there is a better way of looking at it.  The boulder has fallen down the hill – that’s what the gravity of recession will do; that, and austerity pushing it down faster.  Now people are pushing the boulder back uphill – it’s a big boulder and it’s a big hill.  And people are supposed to be ‘feeling it’?  They are supposed to be grateful?  Hmm.

We have discussed other indicators – deprivation, food poverty.  These are harsh benchmarks that affect a significant proportion of the population.  But there is another indicator, referred to as ‘soft’, which gives a more representative picture of this phase we are entering:  making ends meet.  It is called soft because it is not calculated on the basis of percentages of the median wage (relative poverty) or even a survey of people’s concrete experience (deprivation indicators).  It is based on asking people ‘are you having difficulty making ends meet’ – a highly subjective question that doesn’t define ‘difficulty’ or ‘ends’.  It is left to people to determine that.

The EU asks such a question in the annual Survey of Income Living Conditions.  They break it down by degrees:

  • Households making ends meet with great difficulty
  • Households making ends meet with difficulty
  • Households making ends meet with some difficulty

This is the result:

Making Ends Meet 1

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laugh

From Alpha to Omega Podcast: #058 Radical Laughs

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This week I am delighted to welcome Sean Michael Wilson to the show. Sean Michael Wilson is Scottish comic book writer, who now lives and works in Japan. In the last couple of years, Sean Michael has released a couple of explicitly political graphic novels:

‘Parecomic: The Story of Michael Albert and Participatory Economics’

‘Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protests Among the English Speaking Peoples’

He has also recently wrote a post for the Forbidden Planet Blog on how an anarchy-based economic system would benefit the creation of comics, and all art in general. We discuss the creative process of the comic-book writer, the emergence of the adult comic-book genre, the Walking Dead and it’s Hobbesian view of the world, why Hollywood does not do anarchy, progressive politics in comics, socialism and the world of art, and the need for revolutionary jokes.

You may also be interested in a promising new podcast that has just been launched by Amogh Sadu and C. Derrick Varn called ‘Symptomatic Redness’. It features a really good interview Amogh did with me earlier in the autumn, where I give my opinions on all things economic and political, and slander all my previous guests. You can listen to the interview here.

Here is where you can get your hands on Sean Michael’s Work:

Here is Sean Michael’s blog:

You can find Sean Michael’s Forbidden Planet blog post here.

The music on this show was:

‘The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters’ by Sun Ra and his Arkestra
‘Turning Japanese’ by the Vapors
‘wrapping the green flag around’ by The Dubliners
‘Such A Waste Of Mind’ by Faron Young
‘Bring Me Sunshine’ by Morecambe and Wise

You can find the Sligo Anarchist here.

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