Archive for ‘Economy’ Category

Blog Link: Australia as a different type of BRIC.

datePosted on 09:39, August 15th, 2012 by Pablo

In spite of some serious dysfunctionalities in its party politics and potential problems with its economic growth model (heavily dependent on mineral exports), Australia is well on its way to becoming a regional great power. In this regard it shares macro-characteristics with three of the four “BRICs:” Brazil, India and Russia (the PRC has surpassed regional great power status and is no longer, in my opinion, appropriately categorized with the others). Although Australians may prefer not be grouped with the others for a variety of reasons, I take the notion of “rising middle power” as the starting point for a comparative analysis of Australia as a different type of BRIC.

Market-oriented social engineering.

datePosted on 13:13, July 24th, 2012 by Pablo

The political Right regularly accuses the Left of engaging in social engineering. Be it pushing such unnatural constructs as union and civil rights, health awareness and environmental concerns, the Right claims that the Left is out to control how people behave and even think. For freedom-loving individualists, this is anathema.

Consider my surprise, then, when I saw the Prime Minister saying that one of the reasons for the $2000 dollar “kiwi-first” purchase option with loyalty premium for Mighty River Power shares was to “change the investment psychology” of New Zealanders. It seems Kiwis put money into real estate and bonds, but not the stock market. Mr. Key thinks that his countrymen and women should diversify their portfolios into stocks, and the asset sales option is one way of promoting that. After all, it is not really prudent to have too many eggs in one basket.

I can see his logic. As a money trader and speculator, stock manipulation comes natural to Mr. Key. Sell short, hold, think long…he has the field covered. And truth be told, in a market environment such as NZ’s, it may not be unreasonable to urge people to spread their savings around. Higher rates of savings are traditionally linked to higher standards of living and growth, so by market logic such a move is both collectively and individually optimal.

What I find notable is the PM’s admission that the Mighty River Power stock purchase proposal is a deliberate attempt to alter the way Kiwis think about investment. In other words, it is a social engineering project that proposes to transform the psychological disposition of Kiwis when looking at their investment options.

But if that is the intention, how is that different from campaigns to get people to stop smoking, not drink and drive, use public transport, practice safe sex, license and desex their pets or stop littering? Are these not all examples of what the Right claims is undue interference by government on the rights of individuals to freely choose how to live their lives? Even if one admits that the share purchase option is not compulsory and still a matter of free choice (as are some of the examples just mentioned), is not the intention of the National government and Mr. Key to engage in exactly the type of social engineering–to include psychological indoctrination–that the Right accuses the Left of championing for its nefarious totalitarian purposes? Mr. Key has admitted that there is a social engineering intent to the proposal, so how is that good when other social engineering experiments are considered by the political Right to be bad? Or are some types of social engineering more acceptable to freedom-loving market individualists than others?

If the latter is true, than even the Right has to admit that social engineering projects embarked upon by governments are not always contrary to the small-governance/more market/individual choice principles that ideologically underpin Right thought. And if that is the case, then how can social engineering experiments be totalitarian, collectivist and fundamentally anti-democratic at their core?

Pardon me if I see a little contradiction here…

In Hellas, out with the new and in with the old.

datePosted on 17:55, June 20th, 2012 by Pablo

The outcome of the latest Greek election is not surprising. When faced with uncertainty and dire predictions of collective and individual doom in the event that radical change occurs, voters often tend to go with the status quo or what is already in place. Confronted with the “valley of transition” to an unknown future, voters rationally calculate that their interests are best served by staying with what is known rather than leap into the unknown. Add to that the orchestrated litany of woes predicted by bankers, capitalist-oriented politicians, and lender nations, who pretty much predicted the end of the world as we know it if Greece were to default on its debts and withdraw from the Eurozone currency market, and it is easy to see why a plurality of Greeks decided to stay with the hand that they have been dealt with.

The trouble is that hand, in the form of a New Democracy/PASOK coalition (the so-called “bailout coalition”) is exactly the hand that got Greece into the debt crisis in the first place. It was first New Democracy, then PASOK governments that set new records of corruption, clientalism, patronage and nepotism while running up the public debt on state-centered labor absorption and entitlement projects that did nothing for productivity or the revitalization of the Greek private sector (which remains fragmented and dominated by oligarchic interests in the few globally viable Greek industries such as shipping). It is to this pro-Euro political cabal that the responsibility for “rescuing” Greece is entrusted. That is not going to happen.

True, the terms of the bailout will be relaxed even further now that a pro-Euro government can be formed. That much is clear given that Andrea Merkel has hinted that the repayment terms can be “softened.” The hard truth is that repayment can be softened because what is being repaid in Greece is the compound interest on the foreign loans. The logic is that of the credit card: the issuer of the card would prefer for users to not pay off their total debt on a monthly basis and instead accumulate interest-accruing cumulative debt while paying off less than the total owed. If the user reachers a credit limit with interest debt accruing, the limit is raised. If the user defaults on the debt after a series of credit limit raises, measures are taken to seize assets of worth comparable to the outstanding amount.

States are different than individual credit card users because as sovereign entities they can avoid asset seizure on home soil even while bankrupt. As Argentina proved in 2000, they can default and renegotiate the terms of debt repayment according to local conditions (after Argentina defaulted on its foreign debts it was eventually able to negotiate a repayment to creditors of US 36 cents on every dollar owed. The creditors took the deal, then began lending again, albeit more cautiously. The devalued Argentine peso sparked an export boom of agricultural commodities that led to post-default growth rates unseen for 50 years). The short-term impact of default can be painful (witness the run on Greek banks as people try to cash in and export Euros), but measures can be taken to curtail capital flight and to mitigate the deleterious effects of moving to a devalued currency (the Argentines did this by placing stringent limits on currency transfers abroad in the first months after they de-coupled the Argentine peso from the US dollar while at the same time issuing interest-bearing government bonds to dollar holders in the amount valid at the exchange rate of the day before the de-coupling). Greece has not adopted any of these measures as of yet, but that is because a pro-Euro caretaker government, as well as the PASOK government that preceded it, wanted to heighten the sense of doom should an anti-Euro coalition look to be winning majority support.

That scenario emerged in the form of Syriza. Although it is formally known as the Coalition of the Radical Left it is anything but “radical” (no matter how many times the corporate media tries to emphasize that point). Instead, it is a coalition of Socialists, Social Democrats, Greens, Trotskyites, Maoists and independents not associated with the Greek Communist Party (KKE). It has an agenda that includes a possible default, and will now be the largest opposition bloc in the Greek parliament. Contrary to the perception that it came out of nowhere in this year’s elections, Syriza has been steadily building a popular voting base since 2004, increasing its electoral percentage significantly in 2007, 2009 and May 2012. Although it has had splits and defections (which are endemic in Greek politics, particularly on the Left), Syriza was the second largest vote-getter in the May 2012 elections and its margin of loss to New Democracy in the second-round elections held last weekend is less than it was in May. The bailout coalition may have a narrow majority, but Syriza and other Left minority parties will prove to be a formidable parliamentary obstacle to the implementation of  its pro-Euro agenda.

That is why the new Greek “bailout” government will not be successful even if it renegotiates the terms of the bailout along more favorable lines than in previous iterations. It will be forced to deal with the combined pressures of Syriza opposition in parliament and the angry–and I reckon increasingly violent–opposition of the non-parliamentary Left in the street. Greece has a long tradition of student and union militancy and urban guerrilla warfare. Even during the best of times militant groups have used irregular violence to make their points about Greek capitalism and its ties to Western imperialism. They have burned and they have killed (including a CIA station chief, a British embassy official and various Greek security officers) during the decades after the Colonel’s dictatorship fell in 1973. These militant strands have not gone away and instead have been reinforced as the debt crisis drags on and the impact of austerity measures take their toll on the average (and increasingly unemployed) wage-earner. With unemployment at 20 percent and youth unemployment at 50 percent, the recruitment pool for Greek militants has grown exponentially.

Some of this has been siphoned off my neo-fascist parties like Golden Dawn. But the bulk of popular rage has been channeled by the Left, divided into the institutional vehicles of Syriza and the KKE (and various off-shoots), and the direct action, non-institutionalized vehicles comprised by the likes of Revolutionary Sect (who favor political assassinations) or Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei (who appropriately enough favor arson), that follow a long line of militant groups with a penchant for violence such as the N-17 and Revolutionary Struggle (and may in fact include former members of the latter), to say nothing of various anarchist cells.

These militant groups are not going stay quiet. Instead, I foresee a rising and relentless tide of irregular violence coupled with acts of passive resistance and civil disobedience so long as the political elite continues to play by the Euro rules of the  game. Every Greek knows that the solution to the crisis is political rather than economic because the bankers have made more than enough profit on their loans and it is now time for them to draw down or write off the remaining interest owed. A softened bailout package only goes halfway towards easing the collective burden of debt, and the continued imposition of fiscal austerity deepens the stresses on Greek society (urban crime has ramped up significantly this year, and it already was pretty bad when I lived in Athens in 2010). Instead of continuing to cater to banks, the political decision palatable to most (non-elite) Greeks is not a softened bailout package, now into its fourth iteration. It is a complete re-structuring, with or without default, of the economic apparatus so that national rather than foreign interests prevail on matters of employment, income and production. This may require a retrenchment and drop in standards of living over the short-term, but it at least gives Greeks a voice in the economic decisions that heretofore and presently are made by Euro-focused elites more attuned to the preferences and interests of European finance capital than they are to those of their own people.

If there is a domino effect in other countries in the event that Greece eventually (I would say inevitably) defaults, then so be it simply because that is the risk that bankers and their host governments assumed when they lent to PASOK and New Democracy governments in the past. Perhaps it is time for bankers to pay the piper as well. After all, although their profit margins may fall as a result of the Greek default, they have already insured against the eventuality (the write-off of Greek debt by large financial institutions in the US, UK and Europe is the story that never gets mentioned by the corporate media). Moreover, and most importantly, the banks can accept the default and take their losses on projected interest as a means of keeping Greece in the Eurozone market, thereby avoiding the contagion effect so widely predicted at the moment. Default does not have to mean leaving the Euro currency market. Greece can default and stay in the Eurozone so long as the banks accept that it is in their long-term interest to shoulder the diminished profits (not real losses) that a default will bring.

Again, the economic decisions about Greece had already been made by the European banks, and they are now simply waiting, while claiming gloom and doom, for the political decision to terminate their interest-based revenue streams. The PASOK/New Democracy bailout coalition only delays that political inevitability, and Syriza and the militant Left will ensure that the next bailout is just another stopgap on the road to default and regeneration along more sustainable lines.

Whatever happens, it looks to be another long hot summer in the Peloponnese. Expect a lot of wildfires.

On “average”

datePosted on 20:44, May 25th, 2012 by Lew

The New Zealand Herald’s archetypal “average” Kiwi family, the Ray family of Sandringham East, has declared the 2012 Budget “sensible and unspectacular”, probably the strongest endorsement Bill English could have hoped for. But let’s look at what this article signifies.

First and most obviously, the article makes something of the fact that the average income in Sandringham East is nearly identical to the average income across Auckland as a whole — not quite $27,000 per annum* — but the Ray family income is about four times that, $105,000. If both adults were in paid work, their income level would be about twice the average. But the article says that Amanda Ray is a full-time stay-at-home mum, from which we can reasonably assume that Alistair Ray’s income is four times the median on its own. Income level: not “average”.

The figures given for income, and for the decile rating of the local school, date from “the last census”, which was held in 2006. Census data from 2011, had it been held, would probably not yet have been released anyway, so that’s not really a factor — but the data is six years out of date in any case. The principal of the local school says the area is “gentrifying” and the middle-of-the-road decile 5 status is likely to be revised upwards. Suburb: not “average”. [Edit to add: the school decile rating doesn’t necessarily support this conclusion; see Graeme Edgeler’s comment explaining deciles, below.]

Alistair Ray is an urban designer, and Amanda has a doctorate in cancer research. I’m not sure of the qualifications required to become an urban designer, but I think it’s safe to assume that it requires postgraduate study to honours — probably master’s — level. Education: not “average”.

Education is just one aspect of social capital more generally. The Rays immigrated relatively recently from the UK. Their language is our language; their qualifications and experience are accepted here without question; many of our social norms and customs, and our legal and political systems are very similar to those of the UK, having been largely derived from the institutions of the Old Country. This is hardly uncommon — roughly a third of immigrants to NZ come from the UK — but neither is it typical. Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific (combined) make up a higher proportion, and these groups do not enjoy the same degree of familiarity that British immigrants do. Social capital: not “average”.

None of this is any sort of criticism of the Ray family. I have no doubt that they are honest, hardworking, skilled and decent folk who are committed to this country, who make a valuable contribution to it, and are as entitled as anyone else to express opinions on its government. They are welcome here. The Herald chose to frame them as an “average” family, though, and by these metrics they are not an “average” family. I think it is fair to characterise the Rays as an “aspirational” family.

And that, I think, answers the implicit question of whose view the Herald’s coverage seeks to express, and whose interests yesterday’s budget serves. The elision of “average” and “aspirational” is, I think, the single most powerful shift in this country’s political discourse in the past five years — since John Key took the National party leadership. This piece of terminology (and its close cousin, “ambitious”) dominated the 2008 election campaign, and while it has tailed off more recently, the policy settings the government has chosen demonstrate that it is still a core theme of their ideological project. This government does not speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders, and in this article the Herald does not really speak to, or for “average” New Zealanders — it speaks to, and for “aspirational” New Zealanders. Blurring ideas of “aspiration” almost interchangeably with ideas of “average” defines an “us” in which nearly everyone includes themselves, persuading “average” people that the government speaks for, and to them, even though the policy programme yields them no direct advantage whatsoever. At the same time, it permits the government and others to define anyone who fails to “aspire” hard enough, for whatever reason — a lack of education or financial or social capital, chronic illness or disability, or a history of abuse, mental illness or repression, poor choices or simply bad fortune — as an unperson. So defined, the state can with relative impunity dismantle the system of benefits, state assistance and remedial advantage that, in the final analysis, enables more of the population to become genuinely “aspirational”.

That bell probably can’t be un-rung. I think we are stuck with this elision, and this delusion that everyone can be above-average — it’s normal, and expected, and if you aren’t, you’re a failure. That’s a concerning prospect.

L

* I should at least give credit to Simon Collins for using the median, rather than the mean with regard to income — many, including the government, are not so scrupulous.

Accumulation versus Distribution.

datePosted on 17:42, March 9th, 2012 by Pablo

The bottom line of any political economy resolves around the question of accumulation versus distribution. Productive activity that generates surpluses (profits) can be accumulated by those who control the means of production (workers or capitalists), or can be distributed throughout the larger community in which production is located. In capitalist system decisions about accumulation and distribution are done by capitalists. Workers organizations fight or bargain for better distribution of profits. Capitalists would prefer to accumulate for their own consumption. Because production is essential for the material standards of everyone, in democracies capitalists and workers negotiate the proper ratio of profits saved to profits distributed. Once distribution has occurred (via wages, benefits and the like) the saved part of profit is re-invested or “taken” by capitalists (owners) for personal use. Both sides adopt minimax negotiating strategies by making maximum claims on the preferred ratio, then settling for a mutually acceptable minimum. By doing so neither wages or profit-taking rise too recklessly or out of proportion to productive gains or inflation, as that would lead to inefficiencies and potential social unrest.

Or so the system is supposed to work. Depending on relative political balances and the specific location of a given productive sector in the capitalist world cycle at any specific moment, workers or capitalists may have structural and political advantages to play in their favor. Workers will attempt to maximize distribution in the form of job security and wage and benefit gains; capitalists will attempt to maximize accumulation by rolling back worker’s redistributive gains.

For the last twenty-five years logics of accumulation and profit-taking have dominated macroeconomic thought. Workers have steadily seen their distributive gains eliminated. As the process has deepened capitalists have pushed not only to reduce the material aspects of the distributive process. Sensing a favorable economic and political environment in places like New Zealand, they are launching attacks on the rights to collectively organize in defense of distributive stakes or goals. Capitalists well understand that for people to have economic rights they must have political rights.  The right to organize collectively is a political right. Reduce that right and previously held economic rights are more easily curtailed or eliminated. The more the concept of economic rights based on distribution is pushed towards a minimalist definition (encapsulated in the saying “you are lucky to have a job”), the more workers will limit their distributive demands in the quest for basic subsistence. The more that they do so the more working class internal competition will further push down the overall wage bill and increase job insecurity. The process of “casualisation” is the result of that trend, with “labor flexibilisation” being the managerial jargon used to describe employment precariousness.

Today in New Zealand the scales are tipped in favor of accumulation over distribution. The political and economic elite (including many in the Labour Party leadership) overtly side with the logics of accumulation argued by capitalists. They accept the reasoning that in the current global economic moment distribution to workers is contrary to future growth. Thus they accept that not only worker’s distributive demands but their political rights must be curtailed in order for economic benefit to occur. Of course, that benefit accrues to capitalists rather than workers, and if the low rates of re-investment in many productive sectors is anything to go by, profit-taking out of accumulated surpluses have been very good for capitalists indeed.

None of this is particularly new or surprising, even if recent labor conflicts had led to commentary about an impending class war in New Zealand, among other places. What is happening today is just the logical conclusion of a process of market-driven accumulation that began in the 1980s and which is reaching deep into the foundations of modern political economies today. The purpose is to forever privilege accumulation over distribution, and to ensure the political conditions in which workers can no longer challenge that logic or have a say in fixing the “equilibrium” ratio of accumulation to distribution.

Such a system has long been noticed and understood by the materialist school of class conflict. It is called the Asiatic Mode of Production, which relies on super-exploitation of human labor for accumulation gains. Given that New Zealand’s original market ideologues borrowed some of their policy prescriptions from the Chicago School of monetarist economics (later conceptually distorted in the word neoliberalism) as widely applied by capitalist authoritarians in the 1970s and 1980s, it seems  that their heirs have borrowed from the Chinese or Singaporean models, which are also heavily reliant on authoritarian political and social controls. This shift in preferred macroeconomic models makes perfect sense when we consider the move, shared by both major parties, to focus NZ’s diplomatic and trade relations on Asia and the Middle East, where democratic “niceties” are in short supply and where capitalists are largely unencumbered by human rights, much less labor rights or worker’s substantive rights to a share of the benefits of production.

The modern Asiatic model is as ruthlessly efficient as its predecessors, but is also based on a downwards redefinition of the concepts of economic and political rights that is generally considered anathema to democratic values (which in the labor market are enshrined in International Labor Organization conventions, now under siege in NZ and elsewhere). It would seem that in this particular market-driven moment, authoritarian capitalist reasoning prevails, accumulation is the sine qua non of macroeconomic policy, and the notion of egalitarianism as the basis for stable social order reflected in a fair ratio of accumulation to distribution has been abandoned in favor of the all-mightly profit-taking “bottom line.”

That is the state of play in New Zealand today.

Public Goods and Private Bads.

datePosted on 11:14, October 20th, 2011 by Pablo

Much has been written about the difference between public goods and private goods, including issues of fungibility versus liquidity in the allocation of each (public goods are fungible rather than liquid, private goods can be both. Fungible means that something of worth can only be replaced in-kind, in a largely 1:1 transaction. Non- fungible or liquid means that the item can be exchanged for something else of different worth/value)). Less attention has been devoted to the issue of public and private bads, including the responsibility of the state in addressing each. In light of the disasters that have befallen NZ in the last year, it is worth pondering the latter.

The Pike River mine disaster is an example of a private bad. It was human caused, being the result of bad management decisions and poor safety standards within the mine, and affected its employees and profits. However, its impact on the public good was minimal. Even so, lax mine inspection regulations contributed to the explosion and loss of life, which is a public bad because state inaction facilitated the collective tragedy, and the adverse economic impact of the mine’s closure on the local community is also a public bad because it negatively impacts on the community through no fault of their own. The question is, what role does the state have, other than the policing in the aftermath of the event, in addressing the public bad aspects of the disaster?

The Christchurch earthquakes are clearly a public bad. The combined into a prolonged natural disaster, largely unforeseen. The government mobilised resources to address the aftermath, efforts that are still ongoing. But is there a private bad element to the quake? Did shoddy construction contribute to the loss of life and property? Were regulatory loopholes exploited that exacerbated the impact of the quakes, and if so, what is the state’s role in rectifying those areas in which standards and procedures were skirted. Is it a matter for the industries involved to resolve privately? What happens when private insurers renege on coverage or attempt to minimise payouts? Does the state have a responsibility to cover the difference in the public interest? Or is that purely a private matter?

The Rena shipwreck is most interesting because it clearly combines the two forms of bad. It started out as a private bad caused, apparently, by gross human error. National’s response was predictable: it waited for the parties to the contract of the vessel to negotiate a response. And waited. After four days of calm weather and no private response, a storm blew through and began to break the ship apart, spilling part of its load and fuel from ruptured fuel lines. When leaked oil and containers began to hit Bay of Plenty beaches, the disaster became a public bad, at which time the government belatedly intervened, mostly in a support rather than in a leadership role. This is due to its continued preference for the contracting parties to assume the responsibilities incumbent upon them for having caused a private bad with public ramifications. Meanwhile the environmental impact of the wreck continues to grow, with the costs of the clean up rising and the negative economic impact on local businesses likely to be significant in the measure that the spill is not contained promptly and the clean up process stretches into months. 

In other words, a private bad caused a public bad with private bad implications. Since the National government believes in the primacy of the market and private sector, it has left the bulk of the response to the parties involved, and called for volunteerism (another private act) in its approach to cleaning the beaches.

All of this is quite predictable. The quest for privatisation of the public sphere over the last two decades has reduced the concept of public goods and bads while expanding that of private goods and bads. Left to their own devices in a deregulated public space, private actors will minimize costs and increase risks in the pursuit of profitability. Should an accident such as Pike River or Rena occur, the payouts involved are considered to be acceptable given that they will be less than the costs of compliance in a tightly regulated commercial environment. The calculation is that the costs of occasional “one-offs” (which are not) will be less than the costs of ongoing regulatory compliance. In coal mining and shipping, accidents are not occasional happenstances but regular occurrences so the industries involved are have prepared accordingly (by establishing contingency funds for such events). The difference is that when a private bad becomes a public bad, they have limited contractual responsibility in addressing the latter. It is up to the state to recoup the costs of the public side of the bad incurred, which means taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the legal expenses involved in the court cases taken against the private parties responsible. In some cases–Pike River looks to be one–the state will do nothing of the sort because the public bad aspects are considered to be small, incidental, and not worth prosecution.

It appears that in the rush to privatise sight was lost on the potential public bad caused by private bads. Commercial de-regulation in the pursuit of competitiveness and trade ignores the fact that the private parties in contractual relationships with each other are not, by definition, responsible for the public good. As such, the public bad potential of a private bad event is discounted, in part because private parties know that governments will be loathe to charge them the full costs of a public bad response less they  be seen as anti-business. In an age when the private sector rules over the public interest, few governments will be courageous enough to incur the wrath of major commercial actors regardless of the latter’s responsibility in causing a public bad.

The problem is compounded by the hollowing out of state regulatory agencies, particularly in their operational capabilities as well as their policy scope. Insufficient regulatory enforcement (such as it is) due to reductions in state regulatory agency workforces, combined with reductions in quick response assets in agencies responsible for disaster relief and mitigation, force the state to contract out the latter in an environment made riskier by de-regulation. Since the skill sets required for disaster relief are often very specialised and limited, given the geographic and logistical difficulties presented by specific scenarios in the time-sensitive context in which the public bad occurs, this places private actors with such skills in a de facto monopoly position over the response in their areas of expertise. This allows them to extract monopoly rather than market rents from the state when contracting such assignments.

The private bad-focused approach can be seen as short-sighted in the measure that de-regulation facilitates private actor irresponsibility, which in turn leads to higher costs for the state in the event that a private bad becomes a public bad. Seen another way, robust state regulation of private industries with potentially injurious public consequences may in fact be more of a cost-savings over the long-run given the inevitability of private sector accidents that negatively impact on the public good.

This is the crux of the matter, and it is the one that should be reflected upon when issues of off-shore drilling, mining, nuclear energy and other private industrial ventures with potentially public bad implications are discussed.

 

Really too big to fail.

datePosted on 12:34, August 17th, 2011 by Pablo

Market responses to the US debt crisis and financial downgrade have been like king tides as of late, and inevitably speculation centers on the possibility of a “double dip” global recession (this speculation is more than rhetorical. Gold and other precious metal prices have spiked overt the last three weeks as investors flee the stock, bond, commodity and currency markets). There is much talk, some fearful and some hopeful, of a global meltdown of epic proportions. The argument goes that downgrading the US credit rating devalues US Treasury bonds and the dollar, which slows US private investment at home and abroad, decreases domestic consumption, increases unemployment and generally prolongs the recession begun in 2008. This ripples negatively across the globe given the interconnectivity of commodity chains and the central role of the US in them. Be it on the Left or the Right, the belief in state bankruptcy is taken as an article of faith.

The reality is different. What is happening is a fiscal crisis of the Western State rooted in a cyclic crisis of capitalism. Arguments about the blown-out US public debt obscure the fact that it is the result of the same conditions that produced the 2008 recession and which are at root the cause of the next one. For the last thirty years the ‘bubble” of private debt was replicated by the US Government, in the last decade under the strain of simultaneously fighting two prolonged low intensity conflicts. In Europe public debt was in part procured in order to compensate for private debt (via the provision of subsidized entitlements). Capital was lent on looser and looser terms as interest payment calculations came to rival returns on productive investment as the dominant macroeconomic logic. The market in financial derivatives boomed, then busted, bringing with it a crisis in small scale property ownership at the same time that major manufacturers were being bailed out by the US government.

There is a difference, however, between the private sector and the State when it comes to fiscal crises. The analogy between States and firms is overdrawn. Firms go bankrupt; States do not. States may default on loans and suffer the indignities of downgrading by financial institutions, but they do not go out of business. The reason is simple. States  with a presence in the global economy may fail but they do not cease to exist.

Modern states are political entities with other measures of power beyond economic resources, are rooted in historical and cultural ties within more or less fixed borders, have distinct political systems and political regimes that govern them, and are therefore sheltered from the hard realities that beset wayward market agents in a globalised system of production, service and exchange. More importantly with regard to the social and political relations of production, the modern nation-state supercedes the market at any specific moment even while being generally subject to its rhythms and dictates. It is, after all, a capitalist type of state that is not reducible to the productive apparatus.

Imagine even if the US defaulted on its current obligations. Its credit rating would fall further in parallel with the value of its currency, but how long will that last? Even if the US fails its financial obligations, it would be the markets that push for a debt restructuring favourable to it.  As the core of the global economy, the US is simply too big to fail because its financial collapse would reverberate widely and deeply through the world. In fact, with the exception of undeveloped failed states and microstates with minimal economic resources to promote, virtually all modern states can survive a fiscal crisis and default.

 Take Argentina, which in 2000 defaulted on its foreign loans, uncoupled its currency from the US dollar and then renegotiated the terms of its obligations. Since most of the outstanding balance was interest rather than principal, foreign creditors were eventually forced to settle on terms favourable to the Argentines (about 60 cents on the dollar lent). The weakened Argentine peso stimulated commodity exports and attracted foreign investment in resources and primary goods. In spite of endemic corruption, political interference and a multitude of market inefficiencies, over the last five years Argentina has averaged growth rates in excess of six percent and attracted the highest levels of foreign investment ever even while maintaining a large public deficit.

 Greece, the poster child of all that is supposedly wrong with governments and societies that do not couple entitlements with production, is another such case. What would happen if Greece defaulted on its recently rescheduled loans? Will it cease to be? what it could do is drop out of the Eurozone, replace the Euro with the much less expensive drachma, and print money to fund its domestic obligations. Somee foreign investors may flee, but local capitalists will continue to engage the domestic market, people will continue to consume, albeit at lower rates with regards to imported goods, tourists will still flock to see the historical sites and visit the islands, and the country will continue to exist. In fact, should it be successful at restructuring its economy on more internally-focused terms out from under the straitjacket of Eurozone obligations (say, by making its tax collection system more rational and efficient), it could serve as a model for the other “PIGS” nations—Portugal, Ireland and Spain—as well as Italy.

It was Northern European, mostly German capital, directly and channeled through the European Central Bank, which sought to recycle in the European periphery the super-profits accrued during the last two decades of derivative market expansion. These are the creditors who took the risk in the PIGS and who now demand debt repayment schedules rooted in austerity measures and privatization programs. They are also the beneficiaries of a strong Euro, unlike the weaker Southern European economies now under siege. Should debtor countries in Europe decide to reconfigure their economies around a devalued national currency a la Argentina, the European Union will be finished as a currency regulator. Here the sub-regional ripple or contagion effect makes each of the PIGS too big to fail, something that is magnified in the case of the US. Loss of credit rating and a high debt to GDP ratio, in others words, does not translate into State bankruptcy.

 The larger point is that states can default but they cannot be bankrupted because they are not solely economic agents but instead sovereign political actors with interests that transcend a financial bottom line. They can be upgraded and downgraded as financial risks, but even if investment falls and inflation rises, they will not disappear. Think of Brazil and Argentina in the late 1980s when inflation ran at over 1000 percent per year. Did they disappear? Did all foreign investment dry up? Did local markets crash?

Truth be told, capitalism, led by finance capital, was on overheated overdrive for the two decades before 2008, only slowing down briefly after events such as 9/11, even when objective conditions advised against the maintenance of the macroeconomic policies private agents used to calculate the speed of their returns. Western States emulated private agent logics, whereas Asian banks and sovereign wealth funds  were less keen to adopt derivatives-led financial approaches backed by increasingly unsecured loans (although some of that did creep into Asian markets as regional economies attracted Western investment).

Here is where global networks come in. Rather than wage war on States with economies in default, other States that are debt free or less indebted work to cover their investments, and those of their private agents, in the debtor States. This means that even if private agents in the debtor States fail as a result of their market excesses or miscalculation, and State treasuries do n not have enough reserves to cover their debts, States remain open for business, perhaps even on more favourable terms depending on the nature of sovereign debt restructuring agreements (public debt for equity swaps are one measure that can improve State efficiencies as a result of restructuring). Inefficient producers are expelled from the market; inefficient States muddle along.

The entire Western capitalist combine was due for a retrenchment given the downward slope it has been on since spending, both public and private, exceeded productive output in material goods and services. So long as money could be made off of lending money and risks were passed on to increasingly lower-level actors, early 21st century capitalism saw States tax and spend without coherent productive purpose (which mirrored the approach of the financial markets). This was a good political calculation but not a sound economic grounding for future productive growth within current capitalist parameters. Thus the turn towards private sector retrenchment in 2008, with public sector retrenchment now following.

We hear about the demise of various States because they can no longer afford to repay what they have borrowed in order to maintain whatever it is that is considered precious to national identity and political stability–public goods and entitlements in Europe, a war machine in the US. Retrenching Western States may not be able to provide these services in the measure they used to, but thy remain (however diminished) as linchpins of an international system that has its origins in the Treaty of Westphalia rather than Bretton Woods or the Washington Consensus. States are the ties that bind that global system of exchange, and Western States continue to have a central role in it even as the system moves towards increased multipolarity.

Markets and politicians alike need to be cognizant of this fact, because as Keynes pointed out, it is political conditions, not economic conditions, that are the best guarantors of long-term investment. Rather than the economic particularities of a given investment climate at a specific moment in time, political stability offers better conditions for secure future private return. A stable national polity is the best guarantee of profit even if the public books are not balanced. That is the political cost for the social peace that is the basis for economic stability.

Ironically, it was the short-term focus of the macroeconomic logics that propelled the “bubble” that led first to the financial crisis of 2008 and now to the current conditions of political impasse and social instability in many liberal democracies. That is where the convergence of the fiscal crisis of the Western State and the cyclic crisis of capitalism can lead to liberal democratic State failure: when it produces a crisis of legitimacy of the political elite, often confused with regime crisis, that once rooted in and superimposed on the economic downturn and social unrest constitutes an organic crisis of the State. The UK evidences these type of pre-conditions.

Rather than demand zero-sum tax cuts and a diminished State role in guaranteeing the social relations of production,  the priority of the market during a State fiscal crisis should be to to express confidence in the State because delegitimisation of the latter is an absolute guarantee of disasterous market consequences for the private actors involved with them in the event that they are overthrown or fragment. That is where market ideologues have failed in their basic obligation: to help foster the political and socio-economic conditions in which stable rates of private return are generated. Instead, they are exacerbating the crisis with their jitters, demands and panic trading. This will not lead to an organic crisis in most liberal democratic states (which will muddle along), but it could produce legitimacy crises in newly democratic states or those with significant social cleavages. Even then the prospect of State, as opposed to regime or private sector failure, is unlikely.

All of which is to say that when it comes to the fiscal crises of modern Western States, this too shall pass.

 

 

Rioting Poms.

datePosted on 11:57, August 9th, 2011 by Pablo

A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics.  All was well in the Realm.

In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.

The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.

So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.

The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.

Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.

This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative  to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).

In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.

 

PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier  post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.

The Problem with Trading Down.

datePosted on 10:13, November 9th, 2010 by Pablo

Jane Kelsey’s latest  book on trade, an edited collection titled No Ordinary Deal, was launched last night in Auckland. Other launches will follow in Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch this week before the road show heads to Australia. As a contributor to the book I attended the launch and enjoyed the speech given by another contributor, Lori Wallach, a trade specialist at the US research institute Public Citizen (founded by Ralph Nader in 1971). Lori, who wrote the chapter on the US domestic agenda and approach to the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, noted that the model for the TPP is not the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT) but instead the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which essentially is an investor’s guarantee agreement rather than one about free trade per se.

In her chapter and her speech, Lori noted that among many other downsides to the TPP, it would exempt foreign investors from domestic regulations in NZ, and should the investor be made to comply with those regulations by court order, the costs of compliance would be borne by the NZ taxpayers in the form of mandatory compensation. She went on to note how local pharmaceutical regulations and control boards would be circumvented in favour of US drug company standards, and explicated the dumping and market monopolisation efforts of US agri-businesses under this type of trade regime. As a sidebar she noted how NZ dairy exports would not appreciably increase to the US under the agreement, as well as the fact that the recent midterm elections have ridden on a backlash against trade because of presumed US job losses tied to it, which means that the possibility of the US ratifying the TPP in the next two years under the new congressional leadership (even if negotiations are concluded, which itself is unlikely) are improbable at best. Her basic premise was that she would not object to the TPP if it were about free trading of goods and services as per the Ricardian ideal. What she objects to is the use of free market rhetoric to cloak cross-border commercial arrangements that are less than free or fair and which contain pernicious costs for smaller national partners and wage labour-dependent consumers in general.

The bottom line is that the TPP is fraught and the public need to be aware of the very large downside to it. It is not a genuine “free trade” agreement in the proper sense  of the term. Instead, it is a US-centric investor’s agreement skewed in favour of large (mostly foreign) corporate interests rather than consumers and local producers. Among other topics, chapters (there are 19 in all) explore the impact of the TPP on indigenous rights, climate change, intellectual property, cultural exchange and, in my contribution, security. They are well worth reading, and often eye-opening.

The book is designed to promote informed debate on the matter by offering a critical counter-point to the received wisdom of the policy elites who attempt to sell it as as “win-win” universal good for all involved. As I have noted previously when writing about asymmetric trade, this is a far cry from the truth and carries with it not only the potential for a loss of economic freedom and sovereign control of strategic assets, but also the very real danger of increasing both physical and emotional insecurity in the smaller partners involved in such agreements. Since insecurity breeds fear (be it fear of job loss, fear of environmental harm, fear of forced dislocation from one’s land or cultural roots, to say nothing of fear of physical harm by direct or indirect means), and freedom from fear is considered to be an inalienable human right, the downside of the TPP needs to contrasted againt the supposed upsides championed by those who stand the most to benefit from the deal, and who constitute an elite and often unaccountable minority among the constituencies involved.

More publisher information on the book and the launches can be found at www.bwb.co.nz.  An information sheet on the book is here:

No Ordinary Deal
Unmasking the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement
Jane Kelsey
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is no ordinary free trade deal. Billed as an agreement fit for the twenty-first century, no one is sure what that means. For its champions in New Zealand a free trade agreement with the US is a magic bullet – opening closed doors for Fonterra into the US dairy market. President Obama sells it as the key to jobs and economic recovery, while protecting home markets. Australia hails it as a foundation stone for an APEC-wide free trade agreement.

None of these arguments stacks up. All nine participant countries except Vietnam are heavily liberalised, deregulated and privatised.* They already have many free trade deals between them. Who really believes that US dairy markets will be thrown open to New Zealand, or that China, India and Japan will sign onto a treaty they had no role in designing?

No Ordinary Deal
Experts from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Chile examine the geopolitical and security context of the negotiations and set out some of the costs for New Zealand and Australia of making trade-offs to the US simply to achieve a deal. ‘Trade’ agreement is a misnomer. The TPPA is not primarily about imports and exports. Its obligations will intrude into core areas of government policy and Parliamentary responsibilities. If the US lobby has its way, the rules will restrict how drug-buying agencies Pharmac (in New Zealand) and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (in Australia) can operate, and the kind of food standards and intellectual property laws we can have. Foreign investors will be able to sue the government for measures that erode their investment. The TPPA will govern how we regulate the finance industry or other services, along with our capacity to create jobs at home.

Above all, No Ordinary Deal unmasks the fallacies of the TPPA and exposes the contradictions of locking our countries even deeper into a neoliberal model of global free markets – when even political leaders admit that this has failed.

*The US, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia joined in October 2010.

  • RRP: $39.99
  • 288 pages
  • 270 x 140 mm
  • ISBN 9781877242502
  • Publication November 2010

Distributor: HarperCollins, PO Box 1, Shortland Street, Auckland
Contact: customerservices@harpercollins.co.nz
Sales Manager: Tony Moores, tony.moores@harpercollins.co.nz
PO Box 12474, Wellington 6144
Phone: 04 473 8128
Email: info@bwb.co.nz
www.bwb.co.nz

The Contributors: Jane Kelsey, Bryan Gould, Patricia Ranald, Lori Wallach, Todd Tucker, José Aylwin, Paul Buchanan, John Quiggin, Warwick Murray, Edward Challies, David Adamson, Geoff Bertram, Tom Faunce, Ruth Townsend, Susy Frankel, Jock Given, Ted Murphy, Bill Rosenberg, Nan Seuffert.

Bananazelandia.

datePosted on 09:48, October 28th, 2010 by Pablo

There is a small island country in which, in spite of their avowedly private market-oriented ideology, government leaders have directly involved themselves in negotiations with foreign film makers in order to keep production of a film series on the islands. The foreign studio bosses threaten to take their production elsewhere; the famous director–a local boy made good– fumes and blames union organisers for raising production costs (in a film that is mostly based on computer animation and special effects rather than humans acting, in a country where the local currency is less than 80 cents of the US dollar). Although the film production is no long-term investment and will not bring employment stability or trickle down benefits beyond those connected to its production and its purported positive impact on tourism (supposedly because foreign tourists will come to the islands to see a movie set called “Hobbitown” in which gnomes abound), the government agrees to offer the foreign studio bosses NZ$100 million in tax and marketing breaks and to change local employment law so that actors are classified as contractors rather than employees while working on feature films (should the law apply to all actors this could well extend to TV, stage and radio actors working on local productions as well).

Although the film industry is currently an significant source of revenue for the country and has spawned a considerable technological base associated with it, it does not add to the long-term national development growth of the island state. Compared to core national industry, it is much like a diamond in a coal mine–a source of pride and joy but not a basis for long-term prosperity.

All of which is to say: foreign corporate masters involved in an industry that does not add long-term value to a nation’s economy have managed to get the island country’s leaders to bow before them in order to secure short term economic gain for a small local industry with limited direct ancilliary impact and a more hypothetical than concete follow-on revenue generation effect. To do so, not only was money offered to appease the foreign masters. The basic law of the land was changed at their behest as well.

Since the country has been engaged in a long-term debate about changing its national flag and its status relative to its colonial master, perhaps it is time to also consider changing its name.

Bananazelandia. Say it with a Spanish, French or Portuguese accent and it just rolls off the tongue.

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