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Austerity: The History Of A Dangerous Idea


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Canada has now been governed for some time by conservatives who allegedly care about deficits and debt, yet when the implosion of American banks dragged Canada into a recession, our government started spending far more, not less. Years later, we continue to spend into the red and our debt lurches ever higher. By contrast, even since the ascent of the Conservative Party in London, the U.K. has been biting a fiscal bullet. They have chosen to trim government spending in the hope of jump-starting future economic growth—in a word, austerity. According to Mark Blyth, this is a bad idea: “Austerity doesn’t work. Period.” Believing it only persists due to “epistemic arrogance and ideological insistence,” he sets out to trace the intellectual history of austerity, going back to its roots, from Adam Smith, David Hume and John Locke to more recent proponents like Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek and current German leader Angela Merkel. Then Blyth gives us a decidedly discouraging historical tour of austerity in action, which among other things makes us feel sorry for Great Britain’s prospects.

Blyth, a professor at Brown University, is an unusually gifted communicator of complex economic ideas. But though he pens such colloquial sentences—“Iceland, in many ways, was Ireland on crack”—this book is most suitable for readers with at least an intermediate familiarity with macroeconomics. Blyth does not pause long to explain the importance of bond yields. Yet his book provides a rich background for understanding the policy options facing those who would solve the ongoing Euro-crisis. Blyth also revisits the momentous American decision to bail out its banks, which continues to prompt Republican murmurings about the necessity for belt-tightening. Insofar as the United States and Europe have a debt crisis, it is partly the result of a banking crisis. Bank bailouts created much of the debt that we hear so much hyperventilating about. As for puny Iceland, it chose to let its toxic banks go bust, and its economy is now doing rather well.

Blyth is too rigorous to be an ideologue. He thinks austerity measures have their place, but only under the right conditions. Now, apparently, is not such a time.

via Austerity: The History Of A Dangerous Idea – Bookmarked, Books – Macleans.ca.

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The Subversive Summit – In These Times


The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.

ZAGREB, CROATIA—What is often described in media, political and financial circles as the global “debt crisis” actually poses even more insidiously widespread dangers than the ubiquitous doom-filled reports commonly inform. “The greatest catastrophe threatening Greece and Europe is not the economic crisis,” says Costas Douzinas, professor of law at Birkbeck, University of London, “but the total destruction of the social bond, the way we see ourselves, the way we see our relation to the community. This is long-term. Economic crisis, fiscal deficits, can be restored in the medium term. But once you lose the social ethos, then there is no way back.”

That was the takeaway in May as scholars, writers, politicians and activists came together at Zagreb’s sixth annual Subversive Forum to plumb the depths of the current malaise, but also to propose remedies for the five years of European economic upheaval that has produced personal hardship, civic unrest, governmental instability and a general sense of paralysis.

For two weeks every year, Zagreb’s civic festival welcomes hordes of progressive lecturers and audiences to a program of films, debates, roundtable discussions and protest-planning sessions. Running past midnight in the city’s elegant 1920-vintage movie house Kino Europa, standing-room-only keynote speeches attract staunch partisans for advancing the interests of the public sphere against the authoritarian mediocracy that now prevails.

The cataclysm of human and social devastation in Europe is this generation’s defining moment. But calling it a debt crisis, as Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis explains, is like going to the hospital with advanced inoperable cancer and having the doctor diagnose your suffering as a pain crisis.

Yes there is pain, but the pain is symptomatic of bigger problems. The “debt crisis” is also a food crisis—people can’t afford to buy enough to eat. It’s a housing crisis, an education crisis, an unemployment crisis, an immigration crisis, a human rights crisis. In Greece, the New York Times reports, prostitution has surged 150 percent in the last two years as a direct result of social desperation, with supply-and-demand dynamics driving prices for sex work as low as five euros.

The Left rightly rejects austerity, despising it as collective punishment of citizens who had nothing to do with the financial collapse. Public health scholars David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu explain in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills that such spending cuts drastically lower life expectancy due to a higher prevalence of suicide, HIV, alcoholism, heart disease and depression.

Underlying all these other crises is the steady transformation of the over-bureaucratized European Union into a democracy-free zone. Voter turnout is in decline (especially for European Parliament elections, but also in national contests), as constituencies manifest apathy or disenfranchisement. Decisions that people should be able to make for themselves and that are consequential for their lives—how much society spends on healthcare, on education, on defense—emanate instead from afar by EU administrators. A “Merkiavellian” regime, some call it; a secular empire of finance.

The principles of democratic self-determination are hamstrung by the powerful Troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission (the EU’s legislative and operational council)—which a disempowered citizenry increasingly views as an automaton that squelches democracy as it protects the interests of the power elite.

A teachable moment

But as many Europeans grow resigned to the “new normal,” a passionate movement of social democrats and subversive activists aims to recast a fatalistic narrative of inevitable capitulation. From the rubble of this financial catastrophe, they are extrapolating a systemic critique of how this mess came to pass and more importantly, how to use the collapse as a teachable moment. The time is ripe—if not for the full-blown revolution, then at least for a transformative backlash to recenter the imperatives of social justice that have lately become so attenuated.

The EU had been promoted as a strong “single market” (by many reckonings, the world’s largest economy) that would defuse Europe’s centuries of conflict: shared economic prosperity would generate cooperative unity. But clearly the EU has not delivered the promised transnational harmony. Capitalism is, after all, inherently a competition, which means there are winners and losers. Labor, always a weak player in this competition, loses the most in a race to attract foreign investment. Consequently, the labor movement fears a descent into what Slavoj Žižek calls a tyrannical “capitalism with Asian values.”

“Peripheral countries,” a label that has become so prevalent in the EU discourse, typifies the fault lines in the “union.” At the Subversive Forum, I noticed how keenly language highlights these tensions and fissures. Not surprisingly, people don’t like being thought of as peripheral—a lesson that might have been learned in light of the offense that the “third world” has always felt about that similarly condescending term. They also don’t appreciate being called PIIGS, the acronym that lumps together Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (the extra “i” doesn’t soften the blow). The term is outdated anyhow as more countries slide into severe downturns. With France and the United Kingdom falling into recession and Cyprus imploding, we can expect even coarser acronyms in the future.

It’s not just about nomenclature. The discourse of “othering” reveals old and supposedly effaced neocolonialist prejudices at their worst. In the minds of those who oppose humane terms of support, the “pigs” are lazy and corrupt, unsophisticated and out of date. They have brought their troubles on themselves and forced austerity will do them good.

The idea of Europe and even the word itself, has become toxic, unstable; co-opted by the bureaucrats’ failed vision, nobody knows exactly what it means. Is the UK in Europe? What about other EU but non-Eurozone countries—like Poland or Sweden? Is Iceland, the canary in the coal mine for financial meltdown, European? Euro-Asiatic hybrids such as Russia and Turkey? Non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland? Can a country be expelled from Europe?

“Europe” is uttered with a sneer or a spasm of abjection. “Euro,” which once denoted simply a strong cosmopolitan currency, is now a root that has spawned a more cynical vocabulary: Eurocritic, Euroskeptic, Europhobe. But if the establishment’s lexicon is becoming degraded, the radical retorts are more fiercely honed. “Union” and “unity” have been exposed as feckless in the face of European inability to sustain these, inspiring a more rousing synonym, “solidarity,” that resounds among those who are focused on social equality rather than financial technicalities. Paradoxically, the counter-rhetoric of the Left has expanded the context of the crisis by contracting the terminology. What was originally construed as “the global economic crisis” morphed into “the Eurozone crisis,” or “the Eurocrisis,” then became more tightly compressed into “the crisis,” and finally—stripping away everything else to convey simply a primordial vortex of personal agony and social decrepitude—the definite article dropped off, leaving just “crisis.”

“Crisis” has mobilized a radical critique of European capitalism. It’s not as simple as debating whether countries should leave the EU, or the euro—as bad as things are now, the alternative is probably catastrophic. But the Left has embarked upon a deep analysis of what sort of society has grown out of the EU’s financial autocracy. “Criminals, disguised as statesmen, were robbing us blind,” says Slovenian poet and critic Aleš Debeljak. “Crisis made us realize this truth.”

The radical mission is to uncover and expose the roots of this incompetence and institutional corruption, to question the motives and hidden agendas lurking beneath the “bankruptocracy” (another salient coinage), to educate and motivate suffering masses, and to reform the system.

“We can’t leave economic issues to the experts any longer,” says Maja Breznik, from the Slovenian Peace Institute. “It’s time for amateur investigations.”

These investigations, an end-run around the self-interested strategies of bankers and other EU cronies, begin from the premise that the vicious circle of debt is not the fault of immoderate spending by governments or households. Instead the primary goal of “recovery” has been a non sequitur: protecting the interests of private moneylenders and multinationals and refilling their coffers after their financial miscalculations and chicanery. The problem as it is being addressed bears little relation to the actual predicament, so society has plunged into deep recession.

As Europe tries to emerge from crisis, an exclusive focus on debt represents a class struggle designed by financiers to transfer losses from their books on to the taxpayers. Troubled countries are forced to sell off their economies to foreign investors. The Troika arranges bailouts under the harshest terms, with the heaviest burdens borne by agencies that support public welfare, because reducing social spending allows countries to pay more money, more quickly, back to the banks.

Privatization of the commons en- sues: everything that can be liquidated is sold, then rented back to the most disempowered classes. Much of the population is perpetually indebted and the idea of “permanent work” becomes a rarity, replaced by piece-work, part-time work and frequent lay-offs. The social contract has been broken.

We “amateur investigators” must ask questions about real value, as opposed to the merely monetary expressions of value that the Troika fetishizes. It seems reasonable to proclaim “bankrupt” (figuratively and literally) the discourse of valuation that culminated in the exotic, abstruse financial products that precipitated the crash.

It is our turn to open the discussion of what is valued from the perspective of the victims of fiscal malfeasance. (By “us” I refer to non-bankers, non-wealthy, non-functionaries and for good measure a healthy cadré of academic fellow travelers.) GDP itself is a subjective measure of value, a war-accounting mechanism that is not the only way to count. A euro is not just a euro: not every use of money is equally valuable. A different model of social accounting—one that focuses on the bottom, the workers, the poor and middle class, and starts with wages, taxes, social security—will produce a very different economic narrative than the one that has predominated for the last five years.

“We demand a new right,” argues Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a Marxist scholar from Milan’s Academy of Fine Arts, “The right to insolvency. We are not going to pay the tax. If I am insolvent, I don’t have money, so I won’t pay the debt.” Instead, there should be a moratorium on interest payments, some debt should be canceled and some repaid with a growth clause (as Germany did in the 1950s). Countries would pay as they grow, and as they can afford it.

Žižek—the Subversive Forum’s patron saint since its inception—warns that the radical Left has historically had a proclivity to sit on the sidelines: “They prefer sometimes not to take power so that when everything goes wrong they can write their books explaining in detail why everything had to go wrong. There is some deeply rooted masochism of the radical Left. Their best books are usually very convincing stories of failure.”

But today there is an especially high onus to take action, to engage in political reform. Leftist activists and politicians do have a concrete agenda for fixing the crisis. In Greece, defying the eulogies of democracy, Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza coalition has shown impressive strength in the last few elections and stands within grasp of parliamentary victory and a majority coalition in the near future. Nearly destroyed by crisis, Greece may soon emerge as the most advanced site of resistance. “The future of Greece is the future of Europe,” Tsipras proclaims, providing a heartening reverberation for the slogan that protestors chant across the continent, “Nous sommes tous des grecs”: We are all Greeks.

The Left’s challenge is to reorganize in a more cooperative, collective way: reclaiming the commons, reappropriating the wealth that is now in the hands of the state and the banks, and reconstituting the social fabric that was destroyed by economic restructuring.

Political platforms like Syriza’s draw on a wealth of theoretical foundations and strategic visions for reform.

Erik Wright, a University of Wisconsin sociologist who wrote Envisioning Real Utopias, is one of many academic subversives who offered Zagreb audiences a sophisticated array of fresh ideas for transcending the status quo of capitalism and replacing it with an emancipatory alternative, a democratic egalitarian pathway that empowers people to take control of their own destinies. Wright described a range of innovations that can be introduced “inside of capitalism” but that embody non-capitalistic principles and more fully reflect the values of democracy: worker-owned cooperatives, participatory budgeting (where citizens help determine civic priorities), freely provided public services like transportation and libraries (which we can think of as anti-capitalist ways to give people mobility and books), and unobstructed access to the commons of intellectual property. Peer-to-peer collaborations like Wikipedia illustrate how a non-capitalist means of production can flourish within capitalism and ultimately displace capitalism altogether (as evidenced by the recent demise of the print edition of that imperialist icon, the Encyclopedia Britannica).

Urban farms organized through community land trusts can support food production divorced from agribusiness. Crowd-sourcing finance like Kickstarter sidesteps the entrenched hegemonies of cultural production. The gift economy in music from the Internet allows people to download songs for free and pay whatever they want. (Wright believes these musicians actually make more income than they would in a conventional sales model because they have created a more palatable moral economy with their fans.)

The crisis of capitalism offers, as a silver lining, the opportunity for us to reconceptualize more democratic and sustainable systems of social and commercial existence. It’s a moment that is uniquely receptive to new ideas, as the old ones have proven so worthless. A subversive smorgasbord can be created in the world as it is, prefiguring things that might be in the world as it could become. Are these just utopian fantasies? A questioner at Wright’s lecture asked whether a smattering of such small-scale interventions could really inspire fundamental social change, to which the sociologist responded sublimely: “We don’t know for sure. The day before Wikipedia was invented, it was impossible.”

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Dr. Randy Malamud is regents’ professor and chair of the department of English at Georgia State University. He is the author of eight books, including Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (NYU Press, 1998) and An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).   He can be reached at rmalamudgsuedu.

via The Subversive Summit – In These Times.

A Progressive Alternative to Austerity


Passing steeper taxes on the rich isn’t as hard as you’d think.

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BY FRED GLASS

Demographic changes favoring a clear progressive message, coupled with the Occupy movement’s lasting insight that the 1 percent are robbing the rest of us blind, provide the opening to beat back the core conservative idea: that the problem is government and society should seek help from the wisdom of the rich.

“There is no alternative to austerity,” insist the rich, along with their politicians, foundations, think tanks and media.

They’ve been saying it for decades, along with, “taxes are bad,” “government doesn’t work” and “public employees are greedy.”

Consequently, common wisdom had it that “you can’t raise taxes.” Even people who should have known better believed this, while the public sector slid down the tubes.

So how did Proposition 30 succeed? This measure, passed by California voters last November, raises $6 billion a year for schools and services—and in a supposedly “anti-tax” state. The money comes mostly through an income tax hike on rich people, along with a tiny sales tax increase of 0.25 percent.

The story should be better known, because with the right preparation, you could make it happen in your state, too.

Testing the waters

Shortly after Democrat Jerry Brown was elected governor in November 2010, the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) pulled together labor and community groups to craft a ballot measure to raise the revenue needed to keep schools and services afloat. (Full disclosure: I am the CFT’s communications director.)

For two years we had been laying the groundwork for a progressive tax: creating educational materials, publishing opinion pieces, holding training sessions with our members and other unionists, and talking with potential coalition partners.

We funded polls and focus groups, testing how likely various types of taxes would be to gain a majority.

Regressive taxes—like sales taxes and across-the-board income tax hikes—were viewed unfavorably. By spring 2011, people felt ordinary folks had already sacrificed enough, in the worst recession since the 1930s.

The public believed, however, that the rich and large corporations needed to pay their fair share for the common good. They were quite willing to vote for higher taxes on the rich.

As we refined our research, we decided on three principles: bring in the most revenue possible; draw it from those who could most afford to pay; and have the best chance of winning. We arrived at a Millionaires Tax: people who made a million dollars a year would pay an extra 3 percent, and people making $2 million an extra 5 percent, raising $5 billion a year.

Unfortunately, Governor Brown had his own proposal that didn’t follow those principles—it included both a half-cent sales tax hike and an across-the-board income tax increase. People were out gathering signatures for Brown’s initiative, our Millionaires Tax, and a third tax measure sponsored by a wealthy liberal attorney.

The Millionaires Tax ran ahead of the other measures in five straight polls.

In early March 2012, the CFT helped organize a march in the capital against budget cuts and college tuition increases. Thousands of students, faculty, and others paraded Millionaires Tax signs outside the governor’s window.

Two days later, responding to the governor’s charge that three competing measures would all lose, we released the results of a poll testing that idea. It found the others would get less than 50 percent, and the Millionaires Tax would win handily.

At that point the governor called in CFT President Joshua Pechthalt to talk. We compromised and combined the two proposals into Prop 30. The new measure raised the top tax rates on income of $250,000 by 1 percent, on $300,000 by 2 percent, and on $500,000 by 3 percent. We had wanted a permanent tax; Brown’s was for five years. The compromise extended that to seven.

We knew the sales tax was a poison pill and we requested that Brown drop it entirely, but he explained that, to keep the Chamber of Commerce neutral, he had promised not to “demonize the rich,” meaning there had to be a “shared sacrifice” component. He did agree to reduce it to a quarter cent.

Sales tax confusion

Our research was validated during the campaign—people don’t like regressive taxes like the sales tax. Millions of dollars in opposition ads did their best to confuse the voters, calling Prop 30 “a massive tax increase on everyone.”

CFT’s coalition, Reclaiming California’s Future, included the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (which emerged after ACORN’s demise), the Courage Campaign and California Calls, a coalition of community groups dedicated to reforming the tax system through voter education and expanding the electorate.

Our coalition emphasized the “tax the rich” message in our literature, public events and door-to-door canvassing, but we were only part of a much broader Prop 30 coalition. The official campaign’s TV ads included asking the wealthy to pay their fair share, but as one message buried among others.

The polling numbers gradually sank to a bare 50 percent. One poll, three weeks before the election, had Yes on Prop 30 at just 48 percent, while the Nos had crept up to 44 percent.

The governor campaigned mostly on the idea that Prop 30 would save education from further cuts, but threw in “shared sacrifice” and “paying down the state’s wall of debt” in his public pronouncements.

We agreed with the education message, disagreed with the others, and insisted on a strong emphasis on taxing the rich. We stressed to the governor that, in order to neutralize the opposition’s ads, the public had to understand what services the tax paid for, who it taxed, and by how much.

In the final weeks, as the governor worked with CFT and other allies in rallies and media appearances, his message became clearer and more consistent: Prop 30 would stop cuts to schools and was fair, because, he said (drawing on his Jesuit background and citing St. Luke), it asked “those who are blessed with the most wealth to give back a little bit so everyone could benefit.”

Ninety percent of Prop 30’s revenues would come from taxing the wealthy; and the quarter-cent sales tax, he said, amounted to a “mere penny on a $4 sandwich.”

Reshaping debate

On Election Day, Prop 30 won 55 percent to 45 percent, reshaping the decades-old understanding of California as an “anti-tax” state. It is the single largest progressive tax passed in the state since World War II, both in the amount of revenue raised and as a percent bump on the income taxes of the wealthy.

What are some lessons from this tremendous victory?

If the word can be gotten out effectively, the electorate is ready to pass progressive taxes to pay for common needs like schools and services.

Demographic changes favoring a clear progressive message, coupled with the Occupy movement’s lasting insight that the 1 percent are robbing the rest of us blind, provide the opening to beat back the core conservative idea: that the problem is government and society should seek help from the wisdom of the rich.

Prop 30’s message was that public education is the foundation of a decent society and we can restore that promise if the rich pay their fair share of taxes.

The anti-Prop 30 messages were the same as always—government can’t do anything right; the rich will leave California if we tax them; taxes are too high; if we remove the waste, fraud, and abuse in government there will be plenty of money for schools.

But these ideas, so effective in the past, had lost their potency, because, especially post-Occupy, the public understands that economic inequality is growing.

Spending tens of millions of dollars didn’t work for the rich this time. In fact, it backfired—they proved our point. We didn’t have to “demonize” the rich; they did it themselves.

Another key, of course, was the old-fashioned work of reaching out to core constituencies. The Reclaiming coalition was crucial, along with a ground campaign by the broader labor movement, which was heavily mobilized to fight an anti-union measure on the ballot (which lost).

Volunteers and staff spent countless hours knocking on doors, phonebanking, rallying, educating. We reached out systematically to less-likely voters—young people, college students, immigrants, lower-income communities of color—and convinced them to come out to vote for their own futures.

Credit for this orientation is due especially to California Calls, which has targeted less-likely voters and stayed in touch over several election cycles.

This year California has begun to restore funds for public education for the first time in years. There is an alternative to austerity; its name is “progressive taxes.”

Reprinted with permission from Labor Notes.

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Fred Glass is communications director for the California Federation of Teachers

via A Progressive Alternative to Austerity – In These Times.

Debt, Austerity, Devastation: It’s Europe’s Turn


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Like plague in the 14th century, the scourge of debt has gradually migrated from South to North. Our 21st-century Yersinia pestis isn’t spread by flea-infested rats but by deadly, ideology-infested neoliberal fundamentalists. Once they had names like Thatcher or Reagan; now they sound more like Merkel or Barroso; but the message, the mentality and the medicine are basically the same. The devastation caused by the two plagues is also similar – no doubt fewer debt-related deaths in Europe today than in Africa three decades ago, but probably more permanent harm done to once-thriving European economies.

Faithful – and older – New Internationalist readers will recall the dread phrase ‘structural adjustment’. ‘Adjustment’ was the innocent-sounding term for the package of economic nostrums imposed by wealthy Northern creditor countries on the less-developed ones in what we then called the ‘Third World’. A great many of these countries had borrowed too much for too many unproductive purposes. Sometimes the leadership simply placed the loans in their private accounts (think Mobutu or Marcos) and put their countries in hock. Paying back in pesos, reals, cedis or other funny money was unacceptable: the creditors wanted dollars, pounds, deutschmarks…

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Anti-austerity protests in Spain

 

Furthermore, the Southerners had contracted their loans at variable interest rates, initially low but astronomical from 1981 when the Federal Reserve declared an end to the era of cheap money. When countries such as Mexico threatened default, panicked creditor-country treasury ministers, top bankers and international bureaucrats spent some sleepless weekends eating take-out and cobbling together emergency plans.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.* Decades later, serial crisis meetings still take place, this time in Brussels and, with minor variations, the response is identical: you only get a bailout in exchange for committing to a set of stringent requirements. These once echoed the neoliberal ‘Washington Consensus’; now they are more truthfully labelled ‘austerity packages’ but demand the same measures. Sign here, please, in blood.

For the South, the contracts said: ‘Cut back food production and grow cash-earning crops. Privatize your State enterprises and open up profit-making activities to foreign transnational corporations, especially in raw materials and extractive industries, forestry and fisheries. Drastically limit credit, cancel subsidies and social benefits. Make health and education paying propositions. Economize and earn hard currency through trade. Your prime responsibility is to your creditors, not your people.’

Now it’s Europe’s turn. The countries of southern Europe, plus Ireland, are relentlessly told: ‘You have been living beyond your means. Now pay.’ Governments meekly accept orders and their people often assume that their debt must be paid instantly because the debt of a sovereign State is just like the debt of a family. It’s not – a government accumulates debt by issuing bonds on financial markets. These bonds are bought mostly by institutional investors such as banks which receive an annual interest payment, low when the risk of default is low, higher when it isn’t. It’s absolutely normal, desirable and even necessary for a country to have a debt which will pose zero problems and generate many benefits if the money is prudently invested for the longer term in productive activities such as education, health, social benefits, solid infrastructure and the like.

Indeed, the higher the proportion of public spending in a government budget, the higher the standard of living and the more jobs are created – including private-sector jobs. This rule has been verified time and again since the correlation between public investment and national well-being was first noted in the late 19th century.

Obviously, borrowed money can also be wasted and spent stupidly and benefits can be distributed unfairly. The big family-State budget difference is that States don’t disappear like bankrupt companies. Productive, well-managed investment financed by government borrowing should be seen on the whole as A Good Thing.

The magic numbers

In 1992, European countries narrowly voted Yes to the Maastricht Treaty, which at the insistence of Germany contained two magic numbers, 3 and 60. Never allow a budget deficit greater than three per cent; never contract public debt greater than 60 per cent of your Gross Domestic Product (GDP).** Why not two or four per cent, 55 or 65 per cent? Nobody knows, except perhaps some ancient bureaucrats who were there, but these numbers have become the Law and the Prophets.

In 2010, two famous economists announced that beyond 90 per cent of GDP, debt would plunge a country into trouble and its GDP would contract. That sounds logical because interest payments would take a bigger chunk out of the budget. But in April 2013, a North American PhD candidate tried to replicate their results and found he couldn’t. Using their figures, he got a positive result for GDP which would still rise by more than two per cent per annum. The famous, if red-faced, twosome had to admit they were Excel victims and had misplaced a comma.

Even the International Monetary Fund has confessed to similar mistakes, this time on the austerity cuts issue. We now know, because the Fund was honest enough to tell us, that cuts would hurt the GDP by two to three times more than it initially foresaw. Europe should go easy, says the IMF, and not ‘drive the economy with the brakes on’. The magic 60 per cent of GDP debt limit is no more sacred than the three per cent deficit limit; yet policies remain the same, because the neoliberal hawks seize upon every scrap of dubious evidence that seems to promote their cause.

We are faced with two basic questions. The first is why did the debts of European countries rise so steeply after the crisis struck in 2007? In just four years, between 2006 and 2010, debts escalated by more than 75 per cent in Britain and Greece, by 59 per cent in Spain and by fully 276 per cent in all-time champion Ireland, where the government simply announced it would assume responsibility for all the debts of all the private Irish banks. The Irish people would henceforward be held responsible for the irresponsibility of Irish bankers. Britain did the same, though in lesser measure. Just as profits are privatized, losses are socialized.

So citizens pay through austerity, whereas bankers and other investors who bought the country’s bonds or toxic financial products contribute nothing. After the 2007 crisis, the GDP of European countries dropped by an average five per cent and governments had to compensate. Escalating business failures and mass unemployment also meant more expenditures for governments just when they were taking in less income from taxes.

The New Morality

Economic stagnation is expensive – higher expenditure and lower revenue add up to a single answer: borrow more. Saving the banks and taking the consequences of the crisis they created are the fundamental reason for the debt crisis – and consequently for harsh austerity today. People were not ‘living beyond their means’ but the New Morality is clearly ‘Punish the Innocent, Reward the Guilty’.

This is no defence of stupid or corrupt policies such as allowing the Spanish housing bubble to inflate or Greek politicians to hire masses of new civil servants after each election. The Greeks have a bloated military budget and inexcusably refuse to tax the great shipping magnates and the Church – the biggest property owner in the country. But if your bathtub leaks and the dining room paint is peeling, do you burn down your house? Or do you fix the plumbing and repaint?

The human consequences of austerity are inescapable and well known: pensioners search through rubbish bins at mid-month hoping to find a meal; talented, well-educated Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards flee their countries as unemployment for their age group approaches 50 per cent; unbearable stress is laid on families; violence against women increases as poverty and distress rise; hospitals lack essential medicines and personnel, schools decline, public services deteriorate or disappear. Nature takes the brunt as well: nothing is invested in reversing the climate crisis or halting environmental destruction – it’s too expensive. Like everything else, we can’t do it now.

We know these outcomes, the results of what Angela Merkel calls ‘expansionary austerity’ policies. This neoliberal theory claims that markets will be ‘reassured’ by tough policies and reinvest in the newly disciplined countries concerned. This hasn’t happened. Pictures of Merkel adorned with swastikas are appearing throughout southern Europe.

Many Germans think they are helping Greece – and they don’t want to anymore. In fact, virtually all the bailout money has taken a circuitous route: EU government contributions made through the European Stability Mechanism have been channelled via the Greek Central Banks and private banks right back to British, German and French banks that had bought up Greek Eurobonds to get a higher yield. It would be simpler to give European taxpayers’ money directly to the banks, except that said taxpayers might notice. Why make an ongoing psycho-drama over two per cent (Greece) or 0.4 per cent (Cyprus) of the European economy? A cynic might say: ‘Easy. To ensure Ms Merkel’s re-election in September.’

The second basic question is: why do we continue to apply policies that are harmful and don’t work? One can look at this self-created disaster in two ways. Eminent prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz believe that the European leadership is brain-dead, ignorant of economics and needlessly committing economic suicide. Others note that the cuts conform exactly to the desires of such entities as the European Roundtable of Industrialists or BusinessEurope: cut wages and benefits, weaken unions, privatize everything in sight and so on. As inequalities have soared, those at the top have done nicely. There are now more ‘High Net Worth Individuals’ with a much greater collective fortune than in 2008 at the height of the crisis. Five years ago there were 8.6 million HNWIs worldwide with a pile of liquid assets of $39 trillion. Today, they are 11 million strong with assets of $42 trillion. Small businesses are failing in droves, but the largest companies are sitting on huge piles of cash and taking full advantage of tax havens. They see no reason to stop there.

This is not a crisis for everyone and the European leadership is no more stupid than its counterparts elsewhere. It is, however, entirely subservient to the desires of finance and the largest corporations. Certainly, neoliberal ideology plays a key role in its programme but serves especially to emit thick smokescreens and pseudo-explanations and justifications so that people will believe There Is No Alternative. Wrong: the banks could have been socialized and turned into public utilities, like other utilities that run on public money; tax havens closed down, taxes levied on financial transactions and many other remedies applied. But such thoughts are heretical to neoliberalism (although 11 Eurozone countries will start taxing financial transactions in 2014).

I am a fervent European and want Europe to thrive, but not this Europe. Against our will we have been plunged into class warfare. The only answer for citizens is knowledge and unity. What the one per cent has imposed, the 99 per cent can reverse. But we’d better be quick about it: time is running out.

Susan George is Board President of the Transnational Institute and author of 16 books, most recently Whose Crisis, Whose Future? and How to Win the Class War, on her website in June for electronic download and print on demand along with six ‘Susan George Classics’.

* ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’

** Public debt is money owed by a government in the form of loans obtained on the financial markets rather than other forms of lending.

via Debt, Austerity, Devastation: It’s Europe’s Turn.

Austerity Today- A summer of discontent for Europe?


4austerity 4

A summer of discontent for Europe?


BBC News
The economies of many eurozone countries remain fragile, with high unemployment and austeritymeasures causing public anger. So could Europe be set for a new financial crisis and will the continent suffer a summer of discontent? Bill Blaine is a 
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A socialist program against war, austerity and the drive to dictatorship

World Socialist Web Site
The financial and corporate elite was demanding the junking of the post-financial crisis stimulus spending measures associated with Rudd, and the implementation of austerity measures aimed at slashing the living standards of the working class. At the 
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Multiple austerity budgets ‘damaging most vulnerable elderly people’
Irish Examiner
A pre-Budget forum at Dublin Castle will hear today how the cumulative impact of multiple austeritybudgets is having a severely damaging effect on the most vulnerable of older people. More than 30 organisations, including Age Action, St. Vincent De 
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Amartya Sen: The taste of true freedom
The Independent
Now, he calls the UK Coalition’s austerity programme “an intellectual failure”. “Is there anything surprising in that it failed? Should a well-educated economist have been able to anticipate that? Yes. One doesn’t have to be a Keynesian to see it. My 
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Campaign groups join in Lisbon anti-government rallies
The Portugal News
Various anti-austerity campaign groups have added their voices to that of Portugal’s largest trades union federation, the communist-linked CGTP, in calling for a demonstration outside the presidential palace on Saturday, to demand an end to the current 
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5 Reasons Why Cyprus Should Leave the Euro
Yahoo! Finance (blog)
Reason 1: Severe budget austerity will not work: Cyprus is hardly the first European country to have been required to sign up to severe budget austerity in return for IMF-EU bailout funds. Greece, Ireland, and Portugal have all preceded Cyprus down 
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Older people ‘at breaking point’

Irish Health
Older people are reaching ‘breaking point’ as a result of the austerity measures they have had to withstand in recent years, Age Action Ireland (AAI) has warned. According to the national charity, the effect of cuts in services combined with rising 
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Fears austerity is being ‘pushed too far’ after Suffolk County Council underspend
Bury Free Press
County council leaders have been accused of ‘pushing austerity too far’ following an underspend of more than £3.5 million last year. The Conservative controlled Suffolk County Council made about £26.19 million in budget cuts for 2012/13 with further 
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BARRIE GRUNEWALD: Austerity? It isn’t working
St Helens Today
THE government’s spending review for 2015/16 last week provides clear evidence that their austerityprogramme just isn’t working. Since the 2010 election the Chancellor George Osbourne has argued that the tough spending cuts would lead to economic 
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MP Andrew George’s weekly column – July 4, 2013
This is Cornwall
In a time of stress and austerity, community celebrations become more, rather than less, important. After all, what would we do if our lives just continued with routine and mundane sameness, with no light relief or anything to look forward to; with no 
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Austerity cuts ‘hitting pensioners’
Belfast Telegraph
Age Action warned the Government that the cumulative impact of multiple austerity budgets was having a severely damaging effect on the most vulnerable of older people. Think tank Social Justice Ireland also called for the poorest pensioners to be given 
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IMF Sees Bulgarian Risk in Unstable Government, Euro Area
Businessweek
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski took office on May 29 after antiausterity protestsforced out his predecessor, Boyko Borissov, leading to a May 12 snap election. An appointment of controversial media and business executive Delyan 
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FINANCIAL TIMES: Portugal needs new model
BDlive
Yet a deeper and more drawn-out recession than expected has weakened that consensus just as Portugal prepares for the most difficult phase of its austerity regime ahead of the scheduled exit next summer. This would require more cuts to the size of the 
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Fresh Eurozone fears over Portugal’s ‘unsustainable’ debt
The Week UK
In May, a fresh package of austerity measures increased the working week of civil servants from 35 to 40 hours and reduced the workforce by 30,000. In response, workers staged a number of demonstrations last month and unions organised a general strike.
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UK strikes dip to lowest level since 2005
Financial Times
Britain lost only 248,800 working days through strikes last year, the lowest since 2005, as public sector protests against the coalition’s austerity measures faded. The figure published by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday is down from 1 
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