Economy

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Greek Myths Retold

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This article originally appeared on Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday the 24th of April. 

The world economy is not strong and the President of the United States is sufficiently concerned about new shocks to it that he recently met the Greek Finance Minister to urge ‘flexibility on all sides’ in the negotiations between the Syriza-led government and its creditors. US concern is fully justified. 

In any attempt to reach agreement it is important both to have an objective assessment of the situation and to understand the perspective of those on the opposite side of the table. In Mythology that blocks progress in Greece Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times argues that negotiations to date are dominated by myths. He demolishes some of these key myths in turn: that a Greek exit would make the Eurozone stronger, that it would make Greece stronger, that Greece caused the crisis driven by private sector lending, that there has been no effort by Greeks to repay these debts, that Greece has the capacity to repay them, and that defaulting on the debts necessarily entails leaving the Eurozone. 

Together, these provide a useful corrective to the propaganda emanating from the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers and ECB Board members. Some of this is slanderous, in repeating myths about ‘lazy Greeks’ (who have among the longest working hours in Europe). Much of it is delusional, based on the notion that Greece can be forced to pay up, or forced out of the Euro without any negative consequences for the meandering European or the world economy. 

Austerity ideology
 

A genuine belief in a false idea, or a demonstrably false system of ideas constitutes an ideology in the strict meaning of that word. Inconvenient facts are relegated in importance or distorted, and secondary or inconsequential matters are magnified. Logical contortions become the norm. 

All these are prevalent in the dominant ideology in economics, which is supplemented by another key weapon, the helpful forecast. In Britain for example, supporters of austerity argued it would not hurt growth and the deficit would fall. Now there is finally a recovery of sorts, they argue austerity worked, ignoring all the preceding five years and the unsustainable nature of the current recovery (and the limited progress in reducing the deficit). 

For Greece the much more severe austerity and its consequences means that supporters are still obliged to rely on the helpful forecast to support their case. The Martin Wolf piece includes a chart of IMF data on Greek government debt as a percentage of GDP, which is reproduced in Fig.1 below. 

The IMF includes not only data recorded in previous years but its own projections for future years. From a government debt level of 176% of GDP in 2014, the IMF forecasts a fall to 174% this year and 171% in 2016 and much sharper declines in future years. The IMF has also forecast an imminent decline in Greek government debt ever since austerity was first imposed in 2010, which has not materialised. 

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cryingbab

I Don’t Want Tax Cuts! I Want Investment and Public Services! And I Want it Nowwwww!!!

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Fianna Fail has announced that it will bring in a new childcare tax credit f it gets elected.  On that basis alone we can only hope they don’t get elected. And any other party that offers such a sop.

It seems that whenever there is a problem in our economy, some party or group of experts have a ready-made response:  tax break.  An under-performing enterprise sector?  Tax break.  A problem with housing?  Tax break.  Poor take-up of costly and uncertain private pensions?  More and more tax breaks.  It’s easy to understand.  With tax breaks, policy-makers don’t even break out into a sweat.  No detailed analysis, no innovative thinking, no attempt to build an infrastructure (which is truly hard work).  Nope.  Just close your eyes and throw the tax brteak at the economic dartboard.  And if it misses?  Throw another, throw more, convince yourself that you’re solving the problem.

Let’s cut to the chase:  if tax credits are introduced it won’t do anything to make childcare affordable.  It will probably increase the cost of childcare, thus wiping out some/most of the cash given to households through the taxation system.  There is nothing to suggest it will increase quality of care.  And it will have the least impact for the low-paid.  Here are some of the arguments. 

Childcare is costly – labour-dense and, thankfully, tightly regulated which can drive up costs.  A model that is based on economic charging – which means revenue must at least equal expenditure – has to charge high fees.  Deloitte’s Review of the Cost of a Full-Day Childcare Placement (which doesn’t seem to be on-line) estimated that the weekly cost per child is between €215 and €254 per week.  And that was in 2007.  Inflation index that up now and the costs will have increased.  For a 45 week placement, the costs could reach €10,000 per year.

Let’s say a tax credit of €2,000 is provided.  While that sounds high it would only mean a tax break of €400 (€2,000 at the 20 percent tax rate).  This wouldn’t even pay for two weeks for a full-day childcare place.

If the tax credit was increased to €5,000 – a hefty amount – the cash amount would be €1,000.  Again, sounds like a lot but would only amount to a few weeks cost.  This could assist households that only use childcare part-time (e.g. after-school) but it is the households that need full-time childcare that face the greatest costs.

In short, the tax credit could be substantial but would still have little impact on households most in need.

Then there is inflation.  Childcare providers are experiencing considerable cost pressures; most notably in the area of wages.  Some are using JobBridge and the Community Employment Scheme to lower costs while others have been suppressing wages to near minimum wage level.  Many community non-profit providers have experienced cuts in public grants and subsidies.  There would probably be pressures related to delayed investment as well as providers would be trying to minimise costs during the recession and stagnation.

Which is why it would be understandable and economically rational (if not necessary) if providers increased their fees were households to receive a subsidy.  In effect, the tax break would subsidise the provider, not the household.

We can see how this works when looking at the historical trajectory of childcare inflation. In the periods between 2000 and 2008, child income support increased dramatically (e.g. Child Benefit, Early Childcare Supplement).  So did childcare costs.

  • Between 2000 and 2006, overall inflation increased by 12 percent; childcare costs increased by 32 percent.
  • Between 2006 and 2008, overall inflation increased by four percent; childcare costs increased by 11 percent.

Let’s assume that childcare costs increased by five percent over the two years after a credit was introduced.  This would completely erode the benefit of a €2,000 credit and cut the €5,000 credit by half.  Households would be running to standstill.

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dubtrans

Racing Public Transport to the Bottom

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The decision by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to franchise out 10 percent of Dublin Bus and Bus Eireann routes for private tendering, which could cause industrial disruption, signals the start of the race-to-the-bottom in the public transport sector.

One of the more interesting aspects is that the NTA did not model their proposals, did not produce a business impact-assessment, did not undertake a cost-benefit analysis to justify the need for, or benefits from for franchising.  Now just think on that for a moment.  If a private sector company decided it was going to franchise or outsource 10 percent of its business, there would be cost-benefit analyses and business –impact assessments all over the place – upsides, downsides, alternatives.  Any senior management attempting to railroad such a franchise initiative through without such analyses would be clearing out their desks by noon.

What the NTA did do was commission Ernst & Young (E&Y) to provide an analysis.  And in keeping with that time-honoured tradition of providing the conclusion that the commissioning agency desires, E&Y did not disappoint (just as they didn’t disappoint Anglo-Irish Bank).  So what was E&Y’s main argument?  That franchising delivers efficiencies and cost reductions.  What did they base this on?  One academic study.

The OECD’s Privatisation and Regulation of Urban Transit Systems which E&Y relied on is certainly a comprehensive study, gathering evidence from a range of countries that purport to show the efficiency of privatisation of public transport systems.  The problem with this approach is that you can find academic studies producing a number of conflicting and contradictory conclusions over the same proposition.

For instance, the OECD study claimed that in Sweden between 1987 and 1993, following privatisation, total bus transport costs fell by 13 percent.  However, a more recent study found there is no evidence that the Swedish model of competitive tendering has reduced costs. Rather, the cost per passenger trip increased well above the rate of inflation while efficiency levels fell by over 30 percent.  This study was available to E&Y; they decided not to present this information.

Or how about this: a wide ranging international study of bus services covered 73 cities with different types of bus operators in Europe, North America, Latin America Asia and the Middle East.   It found no significant difference in efficiency between public or private operators:

‘Statistical tests do not show any significance as regards relationship between efficiency and the type of operator….The efficient cities … are spread over different continents and public administration styles – Anglo-Saxon, Nordic and bureaucratic – and they are not concentrated in any specific type of operator.’

I could go on an on – but you get the point.  Pull out an academic study that supports your preconceived position, claim this is what the ‘experts’ find, and ignore all other studies and experts who show something different – that approach hardly instils confidence.

Actually, E&Y gave the game away in a wonderful paragraph:

‘The key advantages associated with a move . . .  to competitive tendering stem from elementary economic theory in relation to the effects of competitive pressures and market discipline. In essence, by putting the contract out to tender, market forces are brought to bear to reveal the most economically efficient provider, thereby leading to lower costs and – all things equal – a reduced requirement for subvention.’

There are two things here:  first, is ‘elementary economic theory’.  There you have it – ‘my ancient neo-classical economics professor said competition is best, so let’s privatise public transport – and ,hey, why not primary education . . . ‘  Never mind that this elementary economic theory is highly disputed – especially in public services;  if you repeat it enough times you don’t have to bother with evidence or facts.

No wonder E&Y didn’t include the new wave sweeping through Europe – re-municipalisation of transport systems and public services in general.  Local /regional governments – Germany, France, UK to name some – that had previously privatised their public transport are taking them into public control because of poor service and high fares.  These places tried elementary economic theory – it didn’t work out.

But it’s the ‘reduce subvention’ argument that is the stunner.

 ‘A comparative analysis of subvention levels across Europe indicated that levels of public transport subvention vary between 35 and 60 percent of revenue. When all State interventions are taken into account, the level of subvention to Dublin Bus is at the upper end of the range.’

This is an outrageous assertion.  The fact is that Dublin has a rock-bottom level of public subsidy.

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Bernanke versus Summers and the Irish ‘Recovery’

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There is widely followed debate between Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers which has important implications for the Irish economy and its trajectory. 

Summers, who holds innumerable titles is a Harvard Professor and formerly chief economist at the World Bank, initiated the debate with the view that the advanced industrialised economies were experiencing ‘secular stagnation’ (pdf). Bernanke, who is ex-chair of the Board of the US Federal Reserve Bank, accepts that the industrialised economies have been experiencing weak growth but argues that that this was because of very different and easily remedial problems.

They are both wrong. Those who are interested in their detailed arguments, and the responses and counters, should read their many articles and papers in full. But the debate does shed light on some key problems, and the shortcomings of mainstream answers. Here the particular relevance is to the Irish economy.i

In dismissing the idea of ‘secular stagnation’ (that is, a long-term economic malaise which is distinct from the recent slump and its aftermath) Bernanke argues that it is the imbalances of savings and investment between countries that are the key problems. In a generic sense this would place Ireland in the dock, since the CSO reports a current account surplus in 2014 of €11.4bn, roughly 6% of GDP. Ireland escapes Bernanke’s censure, unlike China, because the scale of the Irish surplus is trivial in a global context.

But this highlights a wider point. The Irish current account surplus barely represents the activities of anyone based in Ireland at all. It is due to the activities of multinational corporations, many of them US-based, who park profits and other activity in Ireland to avail of ultra-low corporate taxes. Any national accounts are the sum of the different sectors, or classes, operating within it.

Risk and reward

Summers’ analysis has the merit of not treating the world as an economic version of the board game Risk. He relates ‘secular stagnation’ to the declining rate of productive investment (plant & machinery, factories, software, vehicles and so on, not housing) by companies operating in the industrialised economies.  He also argues austerity is counter-productive, as it reduces their incentives to invest.

But Summers uses the economic jargon the ‘declining natural rate of interest’ to describe the decline of investment. This is in effect a decline in profitable investment or the requirement for investment to achieve profitability (citing companies such as Google and Apple who are hoarding vast sums of cash or WhatsApp which required little productive investment before becoming a stock market darling).

Yet WhatsApp made only losses, not profits before it was bought by Facebook for $22billion. Summers confuses stock market or financial speculation returns with profits. It is also the case that both Apple and Google do invest in new products, and require increasing productive capacity to do so. It is simply that the growth in their profits exceeds the growth in their investment, so that the cash hoard continues to grow. In effect, this is a drain on the economy as profits are realised but this capital is withdrawn from productive use.

How does any of this affect Ireland (apart from many of these companies being based here, for accounting purposes or otherwise)?  This is shown in Fig.1 below, the total financial balances of two key sectors of the economy, companies (Non-Financial Corporations, NFCs) and government. 

 

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bag

Returning to the Business of Bonuses

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When everything came crashing down there was considerable discussion of the ‘bonus culture’; primarily but not exclusively in the finance sector.  Bonuses were tied to outputs that, while rewarding the individual (usually a senior management figure), played mayhem in the economy –as if the dispensing of loans for property speculation is a measure of commercial success.

Bonuses, in general, have been with us for a long time.  It actually started among workers and was paid out as ‘piece-meal’ work – the more you shovelled, the more you harvested, the higher the pay This benefited only a few, especially as the total pot of remuneration rarely grew – it was just redistributed (but it did get workers to produce more for their employers).  But as economies industrialised, bonuses became a phenomenon of management and those with special skills; and as the financial sector was deregulated, bonuses became associated with bankers – senior bankers.

Bonuses are justified on the basis of ‘rewarding performance’ or ‘attracting the talented’.  That’s the justification – a hypothesis rarely tested.  It can reward some aspects of work but it ignores others; they can attract some talent but demotivates other talent.  Employees rely on the fixed income of their wage – either the direct or social wage; bonuses can have a distorting effect and can leave employees reliant on HR whim no matter how dressed up it might be with metrics that aspire to measure productivity.

Whatever the justification, there is one thing we can be sure of:  bonuses benefit higher income employees; namely, managers and professionals.  Very little trickles down to workers on the shop and office floor, production line or building site.   The CSO used to measure bonuses by type of employee – not so anymore.  But we can reasonably assume that the share-out is much the same today.

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We Are All Dunnes Stores Workers

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This Thursday, April 2nd, workers in Dunnes Stores throughout the country are coming out on a one-day strike.  In essence, the dispute boils down to two urgent issues.

The first is zero/low hour contracts.  Such contracts require employees to be available for work but do not guarantee hours of work.  Therefore, workers cannot be assured of their income from one week to the next.  And because hours and shifts change, workers cannot plan childcare, eldercare, family time or leisure.

The Dunnes Stores Workers are seeking what is called ‘banded hours’.  This means people are rostered in such a manner that they are guaranteed a minimum and maximum number of working hours and, so, income.

While Dunnes Stores management might claim (if they ever went public to defend their position) they require roster flexibility, banded hours are widespread throughout the industry (e.g. Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Arnotts, Pennys, to name a few).  This is from Jennifer who has worked for eight years with Tesco:

‘Unlike my Dunnes colleagues, I am much more fortunate in that I have the stability and security of a banded contract. This allows me the guarantee of 30-35 hours every week but also, it does not restrict me to 35 hours. In the event that extra hours become available, I am able to work up to and including 39 hours weekly.’

The fact is that flexibility is a diversion.  Management uses the roster as an instrument of control, punishment and reward to create a compliant and submissive workforce.  If you try to organise a union in the workplace or make a health and safety complaint – don’t expect too many hours next week.

It is also an instrument of payroll cleansing.  This from a Dunne Stores worker:

‘I tell them I can’t work between 2pm and 5pm because of child care issues . . . but they keep putting me on the 2-6pm shift.  They are trying to push me out after 9 years because I’m on an old contract with higher wages.  They want to replace me with cheaper staff on new contracts.’

No wonder that in a survey of Dunnes Stores workers, 85 percent stated that insecurity of hours is used as a method of control.

It is, however, the second issue that cuts to the heart of the matter.  Quite simply, Dunnes Stores management treat their employees as nothing more than a factor of production.  What the Dunnes Stores workers are seeking is terribly simple and far-reaching:

‘You will acknowledge us.’

You will acknowledge us when we want to discuss our contracts, our pay, our working conditions.  We are not mere instruments in the value-added creating process.

Again, management will divert the issue by claiming it is about a union demanding recognition.  It is not.  It is not about Mandate or any trade union.  It is about what the workers want.  Do you or don’t you want to be a member of a union?  Do you or don’t you want to negotiate with your employer collectively?  Do you or don’t you want to appoint a trade union as your negotiating agent?  Do you or don’t you want to take industrial action?  It all starts, proceeds apace and ends with the individual worker and what she or he wants.

The Dunnes Stores workers have made their decision.  They have joined a trade union, sought to negotiate with management, were ignored, and have voted by an overwhelming majority to take this
one-day action.  Now they are paying a considerable price. Management is putting pressure on workers with threats of redundancies and layoffs (in a letter that wasn’t even signed) and especially key activists and workplace representatives whose working hours and income is under threat.

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2010

Not a Vintage Year

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This is a post by Michael Burke originally posted on Notes on the FrontMichael works as an economic consultant. He was previously senior international economist with Citibank in London. He blogs regularly at Socialist Economic Bulletin.  You can follow Michael at @menburke

The publication of the ESRI’s latest Quarterly Economic Commentary follows the recent publication of the national accounts for 2014. But they were both strangely muted affairs given that the headlines were GDP growth of 4.8% in 2014 and GNP growth of 5.2%. The ESRI is forecasting 4.4% and 4.1% respectively for 2015- although it does not have a very good forecasting track record.

Not only are these the strongest actual and projected growth rates since the recession began but they are also the strongest growth rates in both the EU and in the OECD. So why the long face? Why are people still taking to the streets to protest water charges and the government parties getting no bounce in the opinion polls?

One factor is that despite all the talk of recovery, even on the distorted GDP measure of activity the patient is still convalescing. The economy has not returned to its pre-recession peak, as shown in Chart 1 below. GDP contracted by 12% from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009. In the 5 following years about 70% of that shortfall has been recovered.  On that trend it will be 2016 before the economy is finally in recovery.

Chart 1. Real GDP

MB ESRI 1

On most indicators including GDP the level of activity is now back to around the level last seen in 2010, which was hardly a vintage year. Following a deep recession, industrialised economies much more usually bounce back equally sharply. But this is a slow, painful and incomplete recovery from a deep recession.

Stagnation apart from exports

There is another factor in the subdued mood. GDP is a measure of activity. But it is not designed to be a measure of prosperity. It is widely accepted that recorded export activity is hugely distorted by the activities of multinational company operations in Ireland. Yet since the economy stopped contracting at the end of 2009 these highly distorted net exports (exports after imports are deducted) have risen by an annualised €16bn, almost exactly equal to the rise in GDP.  Net exports, many of them purely fictitious, account for the entirety of the partial recovery.

Chart 2 below shows that the key components of domestic activity are either still falling or are stagnating after a sharp fall. Personal consumption is over €7bn below its peak on an annualised basis and is stagnating. Government spending is €5.6bn below its peak and continues to contract. Popular anger is actually inclined to grow the more there is talk of ‘recovery’.

But the most dramatic contraction is in fixed investment which is now €23.6bn below its peak at the beginning of 2007. The decline in investment led the recession and continues to act as the main brake on recovery. The fall in investment now far outstrips the total decline in GDP since the recession began.

Chart 2 Personal Consumption, Government Consumption and Investment

MB ESRI 2

There might be grounds for increased optimism if the ESRI were plausibly making the case for higher consumption, government spendign and investment. But that is not the case. Private consumption and government consumption are projectedf to rise by just 2% and 0.5% respectively in 2015. Investment is forecast to rise by 12.5% following a double-digit increase in 2014. Even if the ESRI’s optimism is borne out, the fall in investment is now 60% from its peak. So it would take another 4 years of growth at that pace to begin a full recovery.

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What would Europe Win from a Grexit? ‘Peace and quiet. (Pause…) For a period’

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Two recent interviews with Marxist economist, and now Greek MP Costas Lapavitsas are worth have a look at, particularly as they outline his view of the strategies that Syriza need to follow during the engineered ‘breathing space’ created by recent negotiations with the European institutions. He also outlines how a strategy he has long advocated, a Greek exit from the Euro, should be managed.

The first, published on the 12th of March in Jacobin magazine. The interviewer was Sebastian Budgen, an editor at Historical Materialism.

And Varoufakis himself explicitly located his position within a kind of Keynesian framework, and is allied with people like James Galbraith who are openly Keynesians.

Let me come clean on this. Keynes and Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now. The Marxist tradition is very powerful in dealing with the medium-term and longer-term questions and understanding the class dimensions and social dimensions of economics and society in general, of course. There’s no comparison in these realms.

But, for dealing with policy in the here and now, unfortunately, Keynes and Keynesianism remain a very important set of ideas, concepts, and tools even for Marxists. That’s the reality. Whether some people like to use the ideas and not acknowledge them as Keynesian is something I don’t want to comment upon, but it happens.

So I cannot blame Varoufakis for that, for associating himself with Keynesians, because I’ve also associated myself with Keynesians, openly and explicitly so. If you showed me another way of doing things, I’d be delighted. But I can assure you, after many decades of working on Marxist economic theory, that there isn’t at the moment. So yes, Varoufakis has worked with Keynesians. But that isn’t really, in and of itself, a damning thing.

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1t

Economic Fundamentals and a Unified Irish Economy

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This article is based on a background paper which was delivered to a fringe meeting at the recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis

In Ireland there are two separate economic entities. Their separation means they run up against the fundamental laws of economics, as first identified by Adam Smith[i]

In the first instance it is the size of the home market which determines the scope of the division of labour. But in Ireland both economies, by their separation, have a truncated home market. This was not always the case. As part of the British Empire the North East portion of the island was highly integrated into what was then the largest ‘home’ market in human history. At the same time most of the rest of the island was primarily a breeding ground for cattle, to help feed the large metropolitan imperial centres.

Post-Partition the situation has dramatically changed.  The Empire is gone while the southern economy has both developed a home market of a certain size while integrating itself to one of the world’s largest markets in the EU. This is the key fundamental fact which explains the dramatic changes in average living standards in the two parts of the Ireland since Partition. 

This is illustrated in Fig.1 below, which shows per capita GDP using common international Dollars (adjusted for Purchasing Power Parities, first Angus Maddison and then OECD). It amounts to a startling transformation of relative prosperity within Ireland.

To specify the data, Maddison shows that per capita GDP in Ireland in 1921 was $2,533 and that in Britain it was $4,439 (and from a variety of sources that average incomes in the north-east counties of Ireland was at least on a par with Britain). From OECD data per capita GDP in RoI was $37,581 in 2013 and in the UK it was 34,755 (and the ONS data shows NI per capita output was 82% of the UK level).

 fig1_mb

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Starving Ourselves: Ireland’s Low-Spend Economy

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When we look at the headline numbers, it appears that Ireland is a low-spend economy – that is, Government spending is well below EU averages.  This helps explain why we don’t have anything near the public services, income supports and investment that other EU countries enjoy.  However, it is claimed that a significant part of the extra spend in other EU countries is due to their older demographic which necessitates higher public resources (pensions, healthcare, etc.).  Strip this away, and we may find that Ireland is actually a high spending country.

Seamus Coffey has contributed to the debate by doing just that – stripping out spending on the elderly.  When this is done Ireland comes in, not near the bottom, but near the top:  the 5th highest public spending economy in the EU-15, even ahead of ‘high-spend, high-tax’ Sweden.

This is a politically loaded argument.  If it can be established that we are, in fact, a high spending country this would justify a tax-cutting agenda.   We have the money, so the argument would go, we just don’t spend it right.

So are we an average or even high spending economy by EU standards?  No.  Not even close.  In fact we are starving ourselves of public resources.  Let’s go through this argument because I’m sure we’ll hear more of this as the campaign to cut taxes continues.

Headline Figures

First, with the help of the EU Ameco database, let’s look at primary expenditure (public spending excluding interest payments) with an adjustment for GDP per the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (which has created a hybrid measurement between GDP and GNP).  2012 is the last year we have data for old age expenditure – and as we will see below, it is highly misleading to make any conclusions about spending levels for this year.

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Syriza’s Only Choice: A Radical Step Forward

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An article by Spyros Lapatsioras,[1] John Milios[2] and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos[3]

 “One must know how to employ the kairos of one’s forces at the right moment. It is easy to only lose a little, if one always keeps foremost in the mind the idea that unity is never the trick, but the game.” [4]

1. Introduction

The transitional “bridge Agreement” of the 20th of February is a truce intended by the Greek government and welcomed by the other side (the European “institutions”). Within the truce period (the next four months), the conditions for negotiating the next agreement will be shaped. This could mean that everything is still open. However, that is not true for two reasons. First, the very transitional agreement changes the balance of power. Second, the “hostilities” will continue in the course of the next four months (i.e. the review of the commitments and the re-interpretation of the terms by each party).

2. The agreement of the 20th February: A first step on slippery ground… 

2.1 Negotiation targets

In the first substantive phase of negotiations at the Eurogroup of the 12th February, the Greek government sought an agreement on a new “bridge program” stating that it would be impossible to extend the existing program on the grounds that it has been rejected by the Greek people:

  1. The “bridge program” would not involve conditions, reviews and so on, but should be an official manifestation of the willingness of all parties to negotiate without pressure and blackmail and without any unilateral action.
  2. In the above context, Greece would forgo the remaining installments of the previous program, with the exception of the return of the 1.9 billion euros that the ECB and the rest of Eurozone’s national central banks gained from the holding Greek bonds (programs SMP and ANFA). Greek authorities could issue treasury bills beyond the limit of 15 billion euros to cover any liquidity emergencies.
  3. At the end of this transitional period: (a) Greece would submit its final proposals, which according to the program of the government would include a new fiscal framework for the next 3-4 years and a new national plan for reforms; (b) the issue of a sovereign debt restructuring-reduction would come to the negotiating table.

The German government and the “institutions” (EU, ECB, IMF) came to the negotiations with the position that Greece had to request a six-month “technical extension” of the existing program – renamed as the “existing arrangement” – to enable its successful completion. 

2.2 The outcome of the negotiation

The agreement of the 20th of February includes a four-month extension of the “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement (MFFA), which is underpinned by a set of commitments.” The extension of the Agreement (“which is underpinned by a set of commitments”) means: (a) evaluations by the three “institutions,” (b) commitments and conditions, (c) scheduled installments as they appear in the previous Program, subject to a positive evaluation, (d) return of the profits from holding Greek bonds by the ECB and national CBs, but subject to a positive evaluation by the “institutions” (even given the “independence” of the ECB).

In short there is a rejection-withdrawal of the Greek government’s negotiation targets (1) and (2). In addition, there is no explicit reference to how the government will cover its short term financing needs (e.g. issuing treasury bills to cover bond redemptions, interest payments and other possible emergencies) until the completion of the assessment. In this regard, the reference to the independence of the ECB may imply its “discretion” in assessing the extent to which the Greek government responds positively to the “commitments” that accompany the extension of the agreement (something which undoubtedly will complicate any “interpretative” attempts in relation to the agreement on the part of Greek government).

At the same time, the February 20 Agreement includes the statement: “The Greek authorities have also committed to ensure the appropriate primary fiscal surpluses or financing proceeds required to guarantee debt sustainability in line with the November 2012 Eurogroup statement.” This means that the Greek government refrains from the target of debt restructuring-reduction and adopts the sustainability plan based on debt repayment mostly through primary surpluses. This implies the rollback from point (3b) of its initial negotiating package.

What the Greek government has won (aside from the mere change in terminology, about which there was intense debate) is:

  • A. Part (a) of section (3) of its initial suggestions, namely the right to propose reforms to the “institutions” for approval with regard to fiscal consolidation and growth. The policy measures agreed by the previous government (reduction of pensions and increase of VAT in the islands) were thus taken out. Both sides agreed to give particular emphasis to the “overdue” fight against corruption and tax evasion, public sector efficiency, improving the tax system, etc.[5]
  • B. Further negotiations on the size of the primary surplus for 2015. Instead of the previously agreed 3% of GDP, the new agreement leaves open the issue of a lower primary surplus for 2015: “The institutions will, for the 2015 primary surplus target, take the economic circumstances in 2015 into account.”

It is clear that the new agreement is a truce, but truce is by no means a tie. The agreement is a first step on slippery ground. The Greek government may have gained time, but the political landscape seems quite tough, having minor similarities with the initial minimum negotiation targets set by the Greek side on the 12th February.

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New Land League press conference yesterday. Photo courtesy of the Irish Times

Those Were the Days, Wha? Jerry Beades’ Old Ways Given a New [Land League] Gloss

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I would like to point out that one does not need a long memory to recall when Mr De Rossa and Mr Rabbitte were constantly using the media to get their socialist message across to the masses.

Jerry Beades 1996

Like a lot of people, I try and avoid reading media stories that have all the hallmarks of absurdity. As these stories grow, boosted by some invisible force they annoy me more because they prove difficult to ignore. You find that you have the gist of what is going on without even trying. Work colleagues discuss them in your presence, people waiting in supermarket queues rattle through the reported facts, and even sometimes, curiosity gets the better of you and in a bored moment you click a link to a seductive news headline and scan the article’s salacious content.

Then the deed is done. You’ve gone deeper than you ever indended. The mind recoils at the avoidance of facts contained in it and the framing of the story to justify the attention given to something that deserves none.

The example I am talking about is this Irish Times story about the ‘repossession‘ and Jerry Beades role in it.

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Greece – The Rocky Road Ahead

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It’s been a week now since the guns fell silent between Greece and its creditors and a 4 month armistice was agreed – so what are we to make of the outcome? Yes it’s true that Tsipiris, Varoufakis and Co. were not able to deliver on one of their two main election pillars – debt forgiveness – but does that necessarily make it the complete capitulation that some have said? Would an honourable defeat be a more accurate appraisal? Or could it be that the agreement was simply a crucial exercise in buying time and space?

These are certainly valid questions but unfortunately valid questions don’t always elicit easy answers. For the position we take on this temporary agreement is in many ways determined by how we viewed the bargaining power of Syriza relative to the European establishment from the outset. In other words; hows we perceived that power differential helps determine what range of outcomes we would have considered possible.

So for example if you thought that in the negotiations Syriza held the trump card and all that was required was calling the Eurogroup’s bluff and threatening the nuclear option (Grexit) then you would see the agreement as a relative failure largely attributable to a leadership that lost its nerve. Thus all that was required was different players made of tougher stuff.

If on the other hand you believed that Syriza was negotiating from a much weaker position given that they were seemingly less prepared (and more scared) of Grexit than their interlocutors, then you could rationalise the agreement as best that could have been bargained for whilst providing the necessary breathing room to prepare a potential Grexit strategy.

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The Money Exists for Investment in Greece

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This article originally appeared in Socialist Economic Bulletin on Friday, the 27th of February

The fraught negotiations between the new Greek government and representatives of the EU institutions are likely to be prolonged. They have centred to date on Syriza’s efforts to find room to alleviate some of the worst effects of austerity and address what is called the ‘humanitarian crisis’.

This is entirely justifiable given the depth of the fall in living standards with widespread malnutrition in Greece, a health crisis, hundreds of thousands of homes cut off from electricity supply and other ills.

Policies aimed at income redistribution can help in this key area, so it is entirely correct to attempt to increase tax revenue from the rich in order to ameliorate the effects of poverty on the poor. But any sustainable improvement in living standards must be based on increasing the productive capacity of the economy which requires investment. Any transfer of income will be a one-off effect if income does not grow. Yet the austerity measures imposed by the Troika (EU Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) and the existing burden of debt interest payments prevent the government from investing and provide a further disincentive for the private sector to invest of its own volition.

Domestic sources of investment

There are two key sources of funds that could be tapped for investment; domestic and international.

Domestically the Greek business class claims the highest share of national income in the whole of the OECD. In 2013 (in nominal terms) the Gross Operating Surplus of Greek firms was €102.2bn from a GDP total of €182.4bn. This profit share in GDP of 56% is way in excess of the customary levels in the OECD. By comparison the German profit share in the same year was 39.3%.

A high profit share is not itself directly harmful to growth and prosperity. If firms were investing profits the productive capacity would be rising rapidly and new high-quality and high-paid jobs could easily be created. But the opposite is the case in Greece, which also has the lowest rate of investment as a proportion of GDP in the whole of the OECD. Again in nominal terms investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) in Greece in 2013 was just €20.5bn or 11.3% of GDP. By comparison the German proportion of investment was 19.8%.

This is not to hold up the German economic model to be emulated. Like all the Western economies (including Britain) the rate of investment in the German economy has slowed dramatically over several decades, which is the cause of the ‘secular stagnation’ of the Western economies over the same period.

Even so, the disparity in the profit rate and the investment rate is exceptional in Greece. The proportion of uninvested profits in Germany is equivalent to 19.5% of GDP (profits equal to 39.3% of GDP minus an investment level equivalent to 19.8%). This level of uninvested profits is very high by historical standards. But the proportion of uninvested profits in Greece is 44.7% (profits of 56% of GDP minus investment of 11.3%). The nominal level of profits and investment is shown in Fig. 1 below.

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