Our problems are not due to a lack of innovative ideas; they are due to an excess of financial power concentrated in the hands of an elite of bankers.
For years already, the youth of Europe’s heavily indebted periphery has been facing mass unemployment. In Greece and Spain, a respective 59 and 56 percent of young people are now out of work, while youth unemployment in the EU as a whole currently stands at a troubling 24 percent, up from 22.5 percent last year. The “lucky” ones are those waiting tables with PhD degrees in their back pockets. Those who were forced to leave their families and friends behind to join the generational exodus to Germany or Angola don’t even show up in the statistics.
In recent weeks, European leaders somewhat belatedly seem to have become mightily interested in the issue. Italy’s new Prime Minister Enrico Letta called youth unemployment the most serious problem facing his country and called for an EU plan to “combat” it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, flag-bearer of the European austerity movement, similarly considers youth unemployment to be “Europe’s biggest challenge.” Meanwhile, a new campaign by Big Think somewhat naively asks “what’s causing youth unemployment and what can fix it?”
Apart from the obvious hypocrisy of these concerns — coming from the lips of the same officials whose unrelenting insistence on austerity, neoliberal reforms and full debt repayment largely caused the unemployment crisis to begin with — this newfound sympathy for our generation’s plight hinges on a dangerous assumption that serves to ideologically re-construct youth unemployment as a “problem” that can somehow be “solved” with a magic fix or a continental master plan — without addressing the underlying causes of austerity, depression, and a fundamentally unsustainable debt load, let alone the internal contradictions of the eurozone and globalized financial capitalism more generally.
It should be clear to any intelligent person by now that youth unemployment is not a problem in the ordinary sense of the word; it is a symptom of a much more deep-seated disease that’s breaking down our society from within. Other symptoms include the rise of neo-Nazism and xenophobic violence in Greece; the wave of suicides across Southern Europe; the 400.000 families that have been evicted from their homes in Spain; the thousands of starving horses that have been abandoned by their owners in Ireland; the UK students who had their tuition fees tripled and now face the prospect of either dropping out, studying abroad, or accruing massive student debts; the eurozone record levels of mortgage debt held by Dutch households, etc., etc. — not to mention the thorough discrediting of democratic institutions and the massive riots that have rocked major European capitals like London, Athens, Madrid, Lisbon and Rome.
But European leaders seem blind to the metastasis of misery that has crept into the social fabric of our continent. Wouldn’t it be great, they now seem to tell us, if we could have crippling austerity, an increasing debt load, a devastating social crisis, starving pensioners, the return of fascism, a wave of suicides and mass deprivation — but without the youth unemployment? I’m not buying this story, and I don’t think any of us should. The attempt to cast the current crisis in generational terms serves to drive a wedge between us and our unemployed, indebted and/or retired (grand)parents. It serves to co-opt the youth in the ongoing wave of neoliberal reforms, making us believe it is in our best interest to crack down on the labor rights, jobs and pensions of our parents so we ourselves can better compete for the increasingly precarious jobs of the future.
The real reason European leaders are suddenly so concerned about youth unemployment — while they remain unmoved by the plight of Greek AIDS patients, for instance, who now can’t get their anti-retroviral drugs — is simply that they are terrified by the prospect of social unrest. As the New York Times reported today, “it is clear that policy makers are seriously worried that millions of frustrated young job seekers pose as much of a threat to the euro zone as excessive government debt or weak banks.” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble literally admitted that “We will have to speed up in fighting youth unemployment, because otherwise we will lose the support, in a democratic way, in some populations of the European Union.” What they fear, in other words, is a continent-wide youth uprising. At its worst, their plans to “fix” youth unemployment serve to distract us from the obvious class dimension at play, promoting the illusion that the social crisis we face is just a series of economic problems that can be fixed without radical changes to the political status quo.
The inconvenient truth is that unemployment is an integral element of the neoliberal policy response to the crisis pursued by the European Union and the IMF. This, in itself, is nothing new. IMF austerity programs in the developing world have long involved dramatic reductions in wages and rises in unemployment. Careful quantitative analysis of the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s has shown that “the most consistent and statistically significant impact of Fund programs in Latin America … was the reduction in labor share of income.” Even official IMF studies recognize that its austerity programs “boost unemployment and lower paychecks.” Most importantly, the authors of a 2011 IMF report, Painful Medicine, conclude that austerity causes not just short-term but “particularly long-term unemployment.”
In other words, asking for austerity measures without youth unemployment is like insisting on the medieval practice of blood-letting without the blood-loss. It is not only brutal, but also practically impossible. Austerity and unemployment are like Siamese twins, conjoined at the hip, designed to strengthen and reinforce one another. As long as the EU and IMF keep imposing these highly destructive adjustment measures, unemployment will keep on rising. The only genuine “solution” to unemployment, therefore, would be to break free from the shackles of austerity and to default on the foreign debt. This is the reformist vision pursued by SYRIZA in Greece, and despite the lack of revolutionary imagination of this quasi-Keynesian approach, there is certainly something to be said for it from a humanitarian point of view.
At the same time, I have now written some 50,000 words on this question — why not default? – for my PhD thesis, showing precisely why the option of default is often so elusive. In a word, default would greatly harm the interests of foreign private creditors, who just happen to control virtually all the critical resources in the global economy, giving them a disproportionate ability to block the type of solutions that would favor the unemployed. So to get to the phase where we can even realistically start considering genuine “solutions” to the “problem” of youth unemployment, we first have to confront the financial power structures that obstruct the pursuit of such solutions to begin with. This requires much more than a continental master plan to combat youth unemployment. It requires a radical break with the status quo.
Our problems, in short, are not due to a lack of innovative ideas; they are due to an excess of financial power concentrated within the hands of a tiny elite of bankers. This means we have to dramatically reformulate our question. Rather than asking what innovative ideas can solve the problem of youth employment, we should be asking what type of strategies could upend the structural power of international creditors. This leads us away from economics and back into the realm of revolutionary theory and praxis. How could Europe’s downtrodden youth ever possibly conceive of shaking the global financial order? It is to this impossible question that I will turn in my next post.
Above German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble
Ahead of today’s visit to Dublin by German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, German officials said retooling the emergency loans to the defunct bank was more politically palatable than transferring Irish legacy bank debt to the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) bailout fund.
Irish officials indicated yesterday that Minister for Finance Michael Noonan would concentrate in today’s talks on the promissory note – issued to pay depositors and creditors of Anglo Irish Bank and, later, Irish Nationwide – and would return to the legacy debt issue when there was more promise of political progress.
Mr Schäuble will hold talks with Mr Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin ahead of a joint press conference. Both sides played down expectations of substantial progress today, ahead of Thursday’s talks in Berlin between Taoiseach Enda Kenny and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
“On the promissory notes it’s difficult to say anything in public as, officially speaking, this is European Central Bank territory,” said a German political source.
“A promissory note deal wouldn’t change the actual amount of debt,” said another official, “but would turn it into a 40-year mortgage.”
The promissory note obligations, an IOU issued to stabilise Anglo Irish Bank, have been the subject of ongoing technical discussions with the ECB.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded stronger central powers for the European Commission to veto national budgets that breach EU rules, risking a clash with France at a summit of EU leaders today.
Addressing parliament in Berlin hours before the 22nd summit since the start of the euro zone‘s debt crisis, Dr Merkel also sought to slow the race to create a single European banking supervisor, saying quality was more important than speed.
French president François Hollande took a very different tack in an interview with six European newspapers, warning that budget discipline alone would not solve the euro zone’s problems without doing more to revive growth. He called for greater haste in implementing a banking union.
“The topic of this summit is not the fiscal union but the banking union, so the only decision that will be taken is to set up a banking union by the end of the year and especially the banking supervision. The other topic is not on the agenda,” he said at pre-summit meeting of socialist leaders.
Dr Merkel and Mr Hollande are expected to hold a one-on-one meeting before the summit proper begins, EU officials said, which may provide a chance to discuss their differences.
Dr Merkel skirted the issue of a possible credit line for Spain, which euro zone officials expect Madrid to request within weeks, but reiterated her desire to keep Greece in the currency area despite its chronic debt problems.
In Greece, workers walked off the job for the second time in three weeks, aiming to show EU leaders that a new wave of wage and pension cuts will only worsen their plight after five years of recession.
“We have made good progress on strengthening fiscal discipline with the fiscal pact but we are of the opinion, and I speak for the whole German government on this, that we could go a step further by giving Europe real rights of intervention in national budgets,” Dr Merkel told the Bundestag lower house.
A proposal by German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble to create a super-empowered European currency commissioner was a possible way forward, she said, and more European control should be accompanied by a stronger European Parliament.
THE GOVERNMENT’S campaign for debt relief was dealt a fresh blow yesterday as Germany, Finland and the Netherlands said national bodies should remain liable for most bank losses. The three states are insisting that governments remain on the hook for loss-making legacy assets even after any bank rescues by the ESM fund.
This demand, laid down by the countries’ finance ministers, is in apparent defiance of the decision by EU leaders in June to break the link between sovereign and bank debt.
After talks near Helsinki, the ministers said the ESM should assume only a limited burden if it makes direct bank recapitalisations.
The intervention comes as the Government faces persistent difficulty in its pursuit of a deal in Europe to ease the burden of the banking debt.
There is increasing concern in Dublin about German-led backsliding on the promise of a radical new deal to settle the banking crisis in Ireland and Spain. One of the Government’s core objectives is for the ESM to take direct equity stakes in the surviving banks: AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB.
“It leaves the situation extremely uncertain from an Irish point of view,” said John Fitzgerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute. “Depending on how it is interpreted, it may or may not allow the Irish government to sell its interests in the surviving Irish banks to the ESM.”
EU leaders agreed in principle three months ago to allow direct bank recapitalisations by the ESM, the basic idea being for the European fund to replace governments as the final backstop on banking losses.
However, German minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Finland’s Jutta Urpilainen and Dutch minister Jan Kees de Jager said they want to curtail the ESM’s exposure to bad debts. “The ESM can take direct responsibility of problems that occur under the new supervision, but legacy assets should be under the responsibility of national authorities,” they said.