Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Progressive Strategies

Trump’s Economic Policies Are No Answer To Our Problems

President Trump has singled out unfair international trading relationships as a major cause of US worker hardship.  And he has promised to take decisive action to change those relationships by pressuring foreign governments to rework their trade agreements with the US and change their economic policies.

While international economic dynamics have indeed worked to the disadvantage of many US workers, Trump’s framing of the problem is highly misleading and his promised responses are unlikely to do much, if anything, to improve majority working and living conditions.

President Trump and his main advisers have aimed their strongest words at Mexico and China, pointing out that the US runs large trade deficits with each, leading to job losses in the US.  For example, Bloomberg News reports that Peter Navarro, the head of President Trump’s newly formed White House National Trade Council “has blamed Nafta and China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization for much, if not all, of a 15-year economic slowdown in the U.S.” In other words, poor negotiating skills on the part of past US administrations has allowed Mexico and China, and their workers, to gain at the expense of the US economy and its workers.

However, this nation-state framing of the origins of contemporary US economic problems is seriously flawed. It also serves to direct attention away from the root cause of those problems: the profit-maximizing strategies of large, especially US, multinational corporations.  It is the power of these corporations that must be confronted if current trends are to be reversed.

Capitalist Globalization Dynamics

Beginning in the late 1980s large multinational corporations, including those headquartered in the US, began a concerted effort to reverse declining profits by establishing cross border production networks (or global value chains).  This process knitted together highly segmented economic processes across national borders in ways that allowed these corporations to lower their labor costs as well as reduce their tax and regulatory obligations.   Their globalization strategy succeeded; corporate profits soared.  It is also no longer helpful to think about international trade in simple nation-state terms.

As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development explains:

Global trade and foreign direct investment have grown exponentially over the last decade as firms expanded international production networks, trading inputs and outputs between affiliates and partners in GVCs [Global Value Chains].

About 60 per cent of global trade, which today amounts to more than $20 trillion, consists of trade in intermediate goods and services that are incorporated at various stages in the production process of goods and services for final consumption. The fragmentation of production processes and the international dispersion of tasks and activities within them have led to the emergence of borderless production systems – which may be sequential chains or complex networks and which may be global, regional or span only two countries.

UNCTAD estimates (see the figure below) that some 80 percent of world trade “is linked to the international production networks of TNCs [transnational corporations], either as intra-firm trade, through NEMs [non-equity mechanisms of control] (which include, among others, contract manufacturing, licensing, and franchising), or through arm’s-length transactions involving at least one TNC.”

tnc-involvement

In other words, multinational corporations have connected and reshaped national economies along lines that best maximize their profit.  And that includes the US economy.  As we see in the figure below, taken from an article by Adam Hersh and Ethan Gurwitz, the share of all US merchandise imports that are intra-firm, meaning are sold by one unit of a multinational corporation to another unit of the same multinational, has slowly but steadily increased, reaching 50 percent in 2013.  The percentage is considerably higher for imports of manufactures, including in key sectors like electrical, machinery, transportation, and chemicals.

onea

The percentage is lower, but still significant for US exports.  As we see in the following figure, approximately one-third of all merchandise exports from the US are sold by one unit of a multinational corporation to another unit of the same company.

oneb

The percentage of intra-firm trade is far higher for services, as illustrated in the next figure.

services

As Hersh and Gurwitz comment,

The trend is clear: As offshoring practices increase, companies need to provide more wraparound services—the things needed to run a businesses besides direct production—to their offshore production and research and development activities. Rather than indicating the competitive strength of U.S. services businesses to expand abroad, the growth in services exports follows the pervasive offshoring of manufacturing and commercial research activities.

Thus, there is no simple way to change US trade patterns, and by extension domestic economic processes, without directly challenging the profit maximizing strategies of leading multinational corporations.  To demonstrate why this understanding is a direct challenge to President Trump’s claims that political pressure on major trading partners, especially Mexico and China, can succeed in boosting the fortunes of US workers, we look next at the forces shaping US trade relationships with these two countries.

The US-Mexican Trade Relationship

US corporations, taking advantage of NAFTA and the Mexican peso crisis that followed in 1994-95, poured billions of dollars into the country (see the figure below).  Their investment helped to dramatically expand a foreign-dominated export sector aimed at the US market that functions as part of a North American region-wide production system and operates independent of the stagnating domestic Mexican economy.

fdi-mexico

Some 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are sold to the US and the country runs a significant merchandise trade surplus with the US, as shown in the figure below.

trade-mexico

Leading Mexican exports to the US include motor vehicles, motor vehicle parts, computer equipment, audio and video equipment, communications equipment, and oil and gas.  However, with the exception of oil and gas, these are far from truly “Mexican” exports.  As a report from the US Congressional Research Service describes:

A significant portion of merchandise trade between the United States and Mexico occurs in the context of production sharing as manufacturers in each country work together to create goods. Trade expansion has resulted in the creation of vertical supply relationships, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border. The flow of intermediate inputs produced in the United States and exported to Mexico and the return flow of finished products greatly increased the importance of the U.S.- Mexico border region as a production site. U.S. manufacturing industries, including automotive, electronics, appliances, and machinery, all rely on the assistance of Mexican [based] manufacturers. One report estimates that 40% of the content of U.S. imports of goods from Mexico consists of U.S. value added content.

Because foreign multinationals, many of which are US owned, produce most of Mexico’s exports of “advanced” manufactures using imported components, the country’s post-Nafta export expansion has done little for the overall health of the Mexican economy or the well-being of Mexican workers. As Mark Weisbrot points out:

If we look at the most basic measure of economic progress, the growth of gross domestic product, or income per person, Mexico, which signed on to NAFTA in 1994, has performed the 15th-best out of 20 Latin American countries.

Other measures show an even sadder picture. The poverty rate in 2014 was 55.1 percent, an increase from the 52.4 percent measurement in 1994.

Wages tell a similar story: There’s been almost no growth in real inflation-adjusted wages since 1994 — just about 4.1 percent over 21 years.

Representative Sander Levin and Harley Shaiken make clear that the gains have been nonexistent even for workers in the Mexican auto industry, the country’s leading export center:

Consider the auto industry, the flagship manufacturing industry across North America. The Mexican auto industry exports 80 percent of its output of which 86 percent is destined for the U.S. and Canada. If high productivity translated into higher wages in Mexico, the result would be a virtuous cycle of more purchasing power, stronger economic growth, and more imports from the U.S.

In contrast, depressed pay has become the “comparative advantage”. Mexican autoworker compensation is 14 percent of their unionized U.S. counterparts and auto parts workers earn even less–$2.40 an hour. Automation is not the driving force; its depressed wages and working conditions.

In other words, US workers aren’t the only workers to suffer from the globalization strategies of multinational corporations.  Mexican workers are also suffering, and resisting.

In sum, it is hard to square this reality with Trump’s claim that because of the way NAFTA was negotiated Mexico “has made us look foolish.” The truth is that NAFTA, as designed, helped further a corporate driven globalization process that has greatly benefited US corporations, as well as Mexican political and business elites, at the expense of workers on both sides of the border.  Blaming Mexico serves only to distract US workers from the real story.

The US-Chinese Trade Relationship

The Chinese economy also went through a major transformation in the mid-1990s which paved the way for a massive inflow of export-oriented foreign investment targeting the United States.  The process and outcome was different from what happened in Mexico, largely because of the legacy of Mao era policies.  The Chinese Communist Party’s post-1978 state-directed reform program greatly benefited from an absence of foreign debt; the existence of a broad, largely self-sufficient state-owned industrial base; little or no foreign investment or trade; and a relatively well-educated and healthy working class.  This starting point allowed the Chinese state to retain considerable control over the country’s economic transformation even as it took steps to marketize economic activity in the 1980s and privatize state production in the 1990s.

However, faced with growing popular resistance to privatization and balance of payments problems, the Chinese state decided, in the mid-1990s, to embrace a growing role for export-oriented foreign investment.  This interest in attracting foreign capital dovetailed with the desire of multinational corporations to globalize their production.  Over the decade of the 1990s and 2000s, multinational corporations built and expanded cross border production networks throughout Asia, and once China joined the WTO, the country became the region’s primary final assembly and export center.

As a result of this development, foreign produced exports became one of the most important drivers, if not the most important, of Chinese growth.  For example, according to Yılmaz Akyüz, former Director of UNCTAD’s Division on Globalization and Development Strategies:

despite a high import content ranging between 40 and 50 percent, approximately one-third of Chinese growth before the global crisis [of 2008] was a result of exports, due to their phenomenal growth of some 25 percent per annum. This figure increases to 50 percent if spillovers to consumption and investment are allowed for. The main reason for excessive dependence on foreign markets is under consumption. This is due not so much to a high share of household savings in GDP as to a low share of household income and a high share of profits

The figure below illustrates the phenomenal growth in Chinese exports.

china-exports

The US soon became the primary target of China’s exports (see the trade figures below).   The US now imports more goods from China than from any other country, approximately $480 billion in 2015, followed by Canada and Mexico (roughly $300 billion each).  The US also runs its largest merchandise trade deficit with China, $367 billion in 2015, equal to 48 percent of the overall US merchandise trade deficit.  In second place was Germany, at only $75 billion.

china-trade-us

Adding to China’s high profile is the fact that it is the primary supplier of many high technology consumer goods, like cell phones and laptops. More specifically:

(F)or 825 products, out of a total of about 5,000, adding up to nearly $300 billion, China supplies more than all our other trade partners combined. Of these products, the most important is cell phones, where $40 billion in imports from China account for more than three-quarters of the total value imported.

There are also 83 products where 90 percent or more of US imports come from China; together these accounted for a total of $56 billion in 2015. The most important individual product in this category is laptop computers, which alone have an import value of $37 billion from China, making up 93 percent of the total imported.

Of course, China is also a major supplier of many low-technology, low-cost goods as well, including clothing, toys, and furniture.

Not surprisingly, exports from China have had a significant effect on US labor market conditions. Economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson “conservatively estimate that Chinese import competition explains 16 percent of the U.S. manufacturing employment decline between 1990 and 2000, 26 percent of the decline between 2000 and 2007, and 21 percent of the decline over the full period.”  They also find that Chinese import competition “significantly reduces earnings in sectors outside manufacturing.”

President Trump has accused China of engaging in an undeclared trade war against the United States.   However, while Trump’s charges conjure up visions of a massive state-run export machine out to crush the United States economy for the benefit of Chinese workers, the reality is quite different.

First, although the Chinese state retains important levers of control over economic activity, especially the state-owned banking system, the great majority of industrial production and export activity is carried out by private firms.  In 2012, state-owned enterprises accounted for only 24 percent of Chinese industrial output and 18 percent of urban employment.  As for exports, by 2013 the share of state-owned enterprises was down to 11 percent.  Foreign-owned multinationals were responsible for 47 percent of all Chinese exports.  And, most importantly in terms of their effect on the US economy, multinational corporations produce approximately 82 percent of China’s high-technology exports.

Second, although these high-tech exports come from China, for the most part they are not really “Chinese” exports.  As noted above, China now functions as the primary assembly point for the region’s cross border production networks.  Thus, the majority of the parts and components used in Chinese-based production of high-technology goods come from firms operating in other Asian countries.  In many cases China’s only contribution is its low-paid labor.

A Washington Post article uses the Apple iPhone 4, a product that shows up in trade data as a Chinese export, to illustrate the country’s limited participation in the production of its high technology exports:

In a widely cited study, researchers found that Apple created most of the product’s value through its product design, software development and marketing operations, most of which happen in the United States. Apple ended up keeping about 58 percent of the iPhone 4’s sales price. The gross profits of Korean companies LG and Samsung, which provided the phone’s display and memory chips, captured another 5 percent of the sales price. Less than 2 percent of the sales price went to pay for Chinese labor.

“We estimate that only $10 or less in direct labor wages that go into an iPhone or iPad is paid to China workers. So while each unit sold in the U.S. adds from $229 to $275 to the U.S.-China trade deficit (the estimated factory costs of an iPhone or iPad), the portion retained in China’s economy is a tiny fraction of that amount,” the researchers wrote.

The same situation exists with laptop computers, which are assembled by Chinese workers under the direction of Taiwanese companies using imported components and then exported as Chinese exports.  Economists have estimated that the US-Chinese trade balance would be reduced by some 40 percent if the value of these imported components were subtracted from Chinese exports.  Thus, it is not Chinese state enterprises, or even Chinese private enterprises, that are driving China’s exports to the US.  Rather it is foreign multinationals, many of which are headquartered in the US, including Apple, Dell, and Walmart.

And much like in Mexico, Chinese workers enjoy few if any benefits from their work producing their country’s exports.  The figure below highlights the steady fall in labor compensation as a share of China’s GDP.

china-labor

Approximately 80 percent of Chinese manufacturing workers are internal migrants with a rural household registration.  This means they are not entitled to access the free or subsidized public health care, education, or other social services available in the urban areas where they now work; the same is true for their children even if they are born in urban areas.  Moreover, most migrants receive little protection from Chinese labor laws.

For example, as the China Labor Bulletin reports:

In 2015, seven years after the implementation of the Labor Contract Law, only 36 percent of migrant workers had signed a formal employment contract with their employer, as required by law. In fact the percentage of migrant workers with formal contracts actually declined last year by 1.8 percent from 38 percent. For short-distance migrants, the proportion was even lower, standing at just 32 percent, suggesting that the enforcement of labor laws is even less rigid in China’s inland provinces and smaller cities.

According to the [2014] migrant worker survey . . . the proportion of migrant workers with a pension or any form of social security remained at a very low level, around half the national average. In 2014, only 16.4 percent of long-distance migrants had a pension and 18.2 percent had medical insurance.

Despite worker struggles, which did succeed in pushing up wages over the last 7 years, most migrant workers continue to struggle to make ends meet.   Moreover, with Chinese growth rates now slipping, and the government eager to restart the export growth machine, many local governments have decided, with central government approval, to freeze minimum wages for the next two to four years.

In short, it is not China, or its workers, that threaten US jobs and well-being.  It is the logic of capitalist globalization.  Thus, Trump’s call-to-arms against China obfuscates the real cause of current US economic problems and encourages working people to pursue a strategy of nationalism that can only prove counterproductive.

The Political Challenge Facing US Workers

The globalization process highlighted above was strongly supported by all major governments, especially by successive US administrations.  In contrast to Trump claims of a weak US governmental effort in support of US economic interests, US administrations used their considerable global power to secure the creation of the WTO and approval of a host of other multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, all of which provided an important infrastructure for capital mobility, thereby supporting the globalizing efforts of leading US multinational corporations.

President Trump has posed as a critic of existing international arrangements, claiming that they have allowed other countries, such as Mexico and China, to prosper at US expense.  He has stated that he will pursue new bilateral agreements rather than multilateral ones because they will better serve US interests and he has demanded that US multinational corporations shift their investment and production back to the US.

Such statements have led some to believe that the Trump administration is serious about challenging globalization dynamics in order to rebuild the US economy in ways that will benefit working people.  But there are strong reasons to doubt this.  Most importantly, he seems content to threaten other governments rather than challenge the profit-maximizing logic of dominant US companies, which as we have seen is what needs to happen.

One indicator: an administration serious about challenging the dynamics of globalization would have halted US participation in all ongoing negotiations for new multilateral agreements, such as the Trade in Services Agreement which is designed to encourage the privatization and deregulation of services for the benefit of multinational corporations.  This has not happened.

Such an administration would also renounce support for existing and future bilateral agreements that contain chapters that strengthen the ability of multinational corporations to dominate key sectors of foreign economies and sue their governments in supranational secret courts.  This has not happened.

Another indicator: an administration serious about creating a healthy, sustainable, and equitable domestic economy would strengthen and expand key public services and programs; rework our tax system to make it more progressive; tighten and increase enforcement of health and safety and environmental regulations; strengthen labor laws that protect the rights of workers, including to unionize; and boost the national minimum wage.  The Trump administration appears determined to do the opposite.

Such an administration would also begin to develop the state capacities necessary to redirect existing production and investment activity along lines necessary to rebuild our cities and infrastructure, modernize our public transportation system, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  The Trump administration appears committed to the exact opposite.

In short, if we take Trump’s statements seriously, that he actually wants to shift trading relationships, then it appears that his primary strategy is to make domestic conditions so profitable for big business, that some of the most globally organized corporations will shift some of their production back to the United States.  However, even if he succeeds, it is very unlikely that this will contribute to an improvement in majority living and working conditions.

The main reason is that US corporations, having battered organized labor with the assistance of successive administrations, have largely stopped creating jobs that provide the basis for economic security and well-being.  Economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger examined the growth  from 2005 to 2015 in “alternative work arrangements,” which they defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.

They found that the percentage of workers employed in such arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.  But their most startling finding is the following:

A striking implication of these estimates is that all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements. Total employment according to the CPS increased by 9.1 million (6.5 percent) over the decade, from 140.4 million in February 2005 to 149.4 in November 2015. The increase in the share of workers in alternative work arrangements from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015 implies that the number of workers employed in alternative arrangement increased by 9.4 million (66.5 percent), from 14.2 million in February 2005 to 23.6 million in November 2015. Thus, these figures imply that employment in traditional jobs (standard employment arrangements) slightly declined by 0.4 million (0.3 percent) from 126.2 million in February 2005 to 125.8 million in November 2015.

A further increase in employment in such “alternative work arrangements,” which means jobs with no benefits or security, during a period of Trump administration-directed attacks on our social services, labor laws, and health and safety and environmental standards is no answer to our problems. Despite what President Trump says, our problems are not caused by other governments or workers in other countries.  Instead, they are the result of the logic of capitalism. The Trump administration, really no US administration, is going to willingly challenge that. That is up to us.

Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Labor Unity

There was a lot of talk this election season about the worsening economic conditions of White males.

The chart below, from an Economic Policy Institute report by Alyssa Davis and Elise Gould titled Closing the Pay Gap and Beyond, shows the hourly median wage growth for workers of different gender, race, and ethnicity compared with the economy-wide growth in productivity over the period 1979 to 2014.  As we can see, White male workers do indeed have something to complain about; in contrast to worker productivity, which grew by 62.7 percent over the period, their hourly median wage actually fell by 3.1 percent.

all-worker-decline

But, all this talk about White male workers distracts from the fact that Hispanic and Black men, who on average make significantly less than White men, suffered an even greater decline in their respective hourly median wages.  Thus, relatively speaking, White male workers have far less to complain about than Black and Hispanic male workers.

At the same time, the chart does show positive gains in hourly median wages for women, with White women enjoying the largest gain over the period, 30.2 percent.   However, these gains need to be put in perspective.

As the chart below shows, the earnings gap between men and women remains significant.  The gender gap narrowed over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, partly because women’s wages rose and partly because men’s wages fell.  However, the size of the gap has not changed much since.  In fact, the most striking thing is that the median hourly wages of both men and women have been in decline.

gender-gap

It is also worth noting, as we can see in the chart below, that this gender gap exists at all levels of education, and in fact grows with the level of education.

education-and-gender

And, just as with men, it is important to recognize that the experience of women workers is also shaped by race and ethnicity. As we saw in the first chart above, White women did far better than Black and Hispanic women over the period 1979 to 2014.  And they did so from a higher earnings base: while White women earn approximately 81.8 percent of the White male median wage level, the corresponding percentage for Black women is 65.1 percent, and for Hispanic women only 58.9 percent.  Clearly, there is not a lot for women to cheer about either, despite their relatively better wage performance over the entire period.

Unfortunately, the media focus on White males and their economic difficulties works to weaken the unity, and by extension power, of the labor movement.  One reason is that it marginalizes non-White workers by making them invisible, despite the fact that they confront, as we saw above, far worse economic conditions than White males. Another is that it divides the labor movement into competing groups, setting up a gender conflict in which White male losses are explained by female gains, even though both male and female hourly median wages are falling.

The fact is that the great majority of workers are struggling, even during this so-called period of economic recovery.  As the chart below shows, while productivity grew by 62.7 percent over the period 1979 to 2014, the overall hourly compensation (which includes both wages and benefits) of a typical worker grew by only 8 percent.  This growing gap between productivity and compensation, created by corporate and state policies, helps to explain why profits and the income of the wealthy are growing so rapidly while worker earnings stagnate at best.

pay-and-productivity

There is no shortcut to confronting and reversing existing trends.  Only a strong united labor movement can anchor the broader movement for change that we need.  Building that unity requires developing a shared understanding of the way discrimination produces pay gaps based on gender, race, and ethnicity, gaps that disproportionately benefit corporate bottom lines.  It also requires prioritizing struggles that help to close those gaps in ways that strengthen worker power in both the workplace and community.

The authors of the EPI study provide a useful list of demands that point in the right direction:

Besides doing everything we can to eradicate labor market disparities based on gender and race, to maximize women’s economic security, we should pursue policies that spur broad-based wage growth by giving workers more leverage to secure higher pay. These policies include bringing about full employment, restoring the right to collective bargaining, raising the minimum wage and tipped minimum wage, guaranteeing access to paid sick leave and paid family leave, providing accessible and high-quality child care, ensuring that hourly workers can get the number of hours they need and curtailing employers’ irregular scheduling practices, increasing retirement security, updating  and enforcing labor standards (e.g., raising the overtime salary threshold and cracking down on wage theft), enacting comprehensive immigration reform and providing undocumented workers a path to citizenship, and strengthening the social safety net.

The new Trump administration has made clear its anti-worker agenda and determination to break unions.  Our response has to include serious efforts to revitalize the trade union movement and build popularly-led labor-community alliances in support of good jobs, a strong and accountable public sector, and sustainable and healthy cities.  Cutting through the misinformation about the divisions within and conditions facing US workers is a small but necessary step.

The Trump Victory

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the latest example of the rise in support for right-wing racist and jingoistic political forces in advanced capitalist countries.  Strikingly this rise has come after a sustained period of corporate driven globalization and profitability.

As highlighted in the McKinsey Global Institute report titled Playing to Win: The New Global Competition For Corporate Profits:

The past three decades have been uncertain times but also the best of times for global corporations–and especially so for large Western multinationals. Vast markets have opened up around the world even as corporate tax rates, borrowing costs, and the price of labor, equipment, and technology have fallen. Our analysis shows that corporate earnings before interest and taxes more than tripled from 1980 to 2013, rising from 7.6 percent of world GDP to almost 10 percent.  Corporate net incomes after taxes and interest payments rose even more sharply over this period, increasing as a share of global GDP by some 70 percent.

global-profit-pool

As we see below, it has been corporations headquartered in the advanced capitalist countries that have been the biggest beneficiaries of the globalization process, capturing more than two-thirds of 2013 global profits.

advanced-economies-dominate

More specifically:

On average, publicly listed North American corporations . . . increased their profit margins from 5.6 percent of sales in 1980 to 9 percent in 2013. In fact, the after-tax profits of US firms are at their highest level as a share of national income since 1929. European firms have been on a similar trajectory since the 1980s, though their performance has been dampened since 2008. Companies from China, India, and Southeast Asia have also experienced a remarkable rise in fortunes, though with a greater focus on growing revenue than on profit margins.

And, consistent with globalizing tendencies, it has been the largest corporations that have captured most of the profit generated.  As the McKinsey report explains:

The world’s largest companies (those topping $1 billion in annual sales) have been the biggest beneficiaries of the profit boom. They account for roughly 60 percent of revenue, 65 percent of market capitalization, and 75 percent of profits. And the share of the profit pool captured by the largest firms has continued to grow. Among North American public companies, for instance, firms with $10 billion or more in annual sales (adjusted for inflation) accounted for 55 percent of profits in 1990 and 70 percent in 2013. Moreover, relatively few firms drive the majority of value creation. Among the world’s publicly listed companies, just 10 percent of firms account for 80 percent of corporate profits, and the top quintile earns 90 percent.

bigger-the-better

Significantly, most large corporations have chosen not to use their profits for productive investments in new plant and equipment.  Rather, they built up their cash balances.  For example, “Since 1980 corporate cash holdings have ballooned to 10 percent of GDP in the United States, 22 percent in Western Europe, 34 percent in South Korea, and 47 percent in Japan.”  Corporations have often used these funds to drive up share prices by stock repurchase, boost dividends, or strengthen their market power through mergers and acquisitions.

In short, it has been a good time for the owners of capital, especially in core countries.  However, the same is not true for most core country workers.  That is because the rise in corporate profits has been largely underpinned by a globalization process that has shifted industrial production to lower wage third world countries, especially China; undermined wages and working conditions by pitting workers from different communities and countries against each other; and pressured core country governments to dramatically lower corporate taxes, reduce business regulations, privatize public assets and services, and slash public spending on social programs.

The decline in labor’s share of national income, illustrated below, is just one indicator of the downward pressure this process has exerted on majority living and working conditions in advanced capitalist countries.labor-share

Tragically, thanks to corporate, state, and media obfuscation of the destructive logic of contemporary capitalist accumulation dynamics, worker anger in the United States has been slow to build and largely unfocused.  Things changed this election season.  For example, Bernie Sanders gained strong support for his challenge to mainstream policies, especially those that promoted globalization, and his call for social transformation.  Unfortunately, his presidential candidacy was eventually sidelined by the Democratic Party establishment that continues, with few exceptions, to embrace the status-quo.

However, another “politics” was also gaining strength, one fueled by a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic right-wing movement that enjoyed the financial backing of the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class.  That movement, speaking directly to white (and especially male) workers, offered a simplistic and in its own way anti-establishment explanation for worker suffering: although corporate excesses were highlighted, the core message was that white majority decline was caused by the growing demands of “others”—immigrants, workers in third world countries, people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and Jews—which in aggregate worked to drive down wages, slow growth, and misuse and bankrupt governments at all levels.  Donald Trump was its political representative, and Donald Trump is now the president of the United States.

His administration will no doubt launch new attacks on unions, laws protecting human and civil rights, and social programs, leaving working people worse off.  Political tensions are bound to grow, and because capitalism is itself now facing its own challenges of profitability, the new government will find it has little room for compromise.

According to McKinsey,

After weighing various scenarios affecting future profitability, we project that while global revenue could reach $185 trillion by 2025, the after-tax profit pool could amount to $8.6 trillion. Corporate profits, currently almost 10 percent of world GDP, could shrink to less than 8 percent–undoing in a single decade nearly all the corporate gains achieved relative to world GDP over the past three decades. Real growth in corporate net income could fall from 5 percent to 1 percent per year. Profit growth could decelerate even more sharply if China experiences a more pronounced slowdown that reverberates through capital-intensive sectors.

future

History has shown that we cannot simply count on “hard times” to build a powerful working class movement committed to serious structural change.  Much depends on the degree of working class organization, solidarity with all struggles against exploitation and oppression, and clarity about the actual workings of contemporary capitalism.  Therefore we need to redouble our efforts to organize, build bridges, and educate. Our starting point must be resistance to the Trump agenda, but it has to be a resistance that builds unity and is not bounded in terms of vision by the limits of a simple anti-Trump alliance.   We face great challenges in the United States.

The Importance Of Solidarity

As we begin to take stock of the political moment in the United States and strategize ways to build a movement strong enough to resist the policies of the Trump administration and confident enough to project a new social vision, it is important to learn from the efforts of people in other countries facing similar challenges.  South Korea for example.

Park Geun-hye, the current president of South Korea, took office in February 2013.  The daughter of Park Chung-Hee, the brutal military dictator who ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, Park Geun-hye presented herself as a “soft” conservative during the presidential campaign.  But once elected she moved quickly and decisively, with the support of the country’s security forces, to expand the neoliberal and anti-democratic policies of her conservative predecessor and crush any opposition.

The consequences of her rule have been devastating for the great majority of Koreans.  Some highlights: her deregulation of health and safety standards led directly to the sinking of a ferry carrying over 400 students; more than 300 of whom drowned.  Her labor initiatives include laws to increase the precariousness of work and difficulty of unionization, and lower the wages of regular workers.  Her education policies require that public school teachers use only state written history books.  Her militarist policies include the construction of a new naval base for US warships on Jeju island, over the objections of the residents; an intensification of war games directed against North Korea; the closure of the Kaesong industrial zone; and the welcoming of a US THAAD anti-missile battery aimed at China and Russia on South Korean soil.  And she has advanced her policies by outlawing demonstrations, arresting hundreds of union leaders, and dissolving a political party.

Korean social movements, led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, have responded to this rightward movement with ever larger demonstrations, despite the jailing of many labor leaders.  Now, the balance of forces appears to be decisively shifting against the government.  The reason: new revelations point to the fact that many of Park’s policies were made either in consultation with or in response to the dictates of an unelected confidant, the daughter of a now deceased cult leader.

As the website Zoom in Korea explains:

Since late October, when news broke of the government corruption scandal involving South Korean president Park Geun-hye, South Korean citizens have demanded the removal of Park and her administration from office. Last week on November 5, close to 200,000 people took to the streets of Seoul to demand her resignation. A diverse range of people from different social enclaves of South Korean society joined together to send a common message to their government – “Park Geun-hye, step down.”

Throughout the streets of Seoul, one could see recently politicized high school students marching side by side with elderly folks who had experienced past revolutionary moments in South Korean history.

Here is a short clip which shows what it looks like when 200,000 people crowd the streets of Seoul to demand change.

For more on the growing movement in South Korea, its demands and its challenges, read the rest of the Zoom in Korea article here.

 

We are not alone in facing powerful dictatorial rightwing political forces.  As we develop our own response here in the United States we need to keep solidarity in mind, which means both supporting and learning from struggles elsewhere.

 

November 12 update

Zoom in Korea reports:

1 Million in Historic Protest to Oust Park Geun-hye
As of 8:30 pm (Seoul time) on Saturday, November 12, 2016

South Korean media report 1 million gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza to demand Park Geun-hye’s resignation. This is the largest protest South Korea has seen since the democratic uprising of June 1987. People from across the country, including conservative strongholds Busan and Daegu have traveled to Seoul to join the protest. Youth in school uniforms and mothers with children are among the protest.

Protesters on the way to the Blue House are blocked by a barricade of police buses near Gyeongbok Palace. The police have also blocked off entrances to subway stations between the police barricade and the presidential residence. Protesters are intent on reaching the Blue House but so far remain peaceful.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon refused to supply water from the city’s fire hydrants to the police, which had threatened to use water cannons to block protesters.  Referring to the death of farmer Baek Nam-gi, hit by a high-pressure water cannon at a mass demonstration in November 2015, Mayor Park said in a radio interview, “No more.” He added, “Water from fire hydrants is intended for putting out fires, not peaceful protests.”  A reporter outside the Blue House says protesters can be heard from the Blue House, which has been in a state of emergency since Saturday morning but has not issued an official response to the calls for the president’s resignation.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has vowed a general strike if Park Geun-hye refuses to resign.

Election Politics And The Economy

It’s election season in the US and so politicians, supported by their favorite economists, are busy telling us how they will lift the US economy out of its doldrums, ensuring more and better jobs for Americans.

A case in point: the New York Times ran an article highlighting how most Republican presidential candidates are pushing for some form of consumption tax coupled with reductions in income and corporate taxes.

Then the story adds:

. . . the broad direction of their proposals — toward taxing spending rather than income — is one that many economists in both parties applaud. It is also one that politicians, of necessity, may eventually embrace. . . .

“Every one of the Republican plans I have looked at closely has more of a consumption basis,” said Leonard Burman, a former official in President Bill Clinton’s administration who directs the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

Democratic politicians typically oppose taxing consumption on fairness grounds; lower earners spend a greater proportion of their income than higher earners. They favor what are called progressive taxes, those that tax a higher proportion of wealthier people’s income. That instinct is especially acute in an era of stagnant middle-class wages and widening income inequality.

Yet Democratic economists, like their Republican counterparts, say taxing consumption encourages savings, investment and greater economic growth.

Whoa!—can that be true, that there is a growing consensus for a shift in taxes that would penalize consumption, and that this is the best way to promote savings, investment, and greater economic growth?

Reading this, one might well assume that weak savings must be the main cause of the low investment and stagnant economic growth in the US.  However, as the economist Michael Roberts demonstrated in a recent blog post, such an assumption would be wrong.

Roberts, drawing on both an article by Martin Wolfe (a Financial Times economic analyst), and a research study by Joseph W. Gruber and Steven B. Kamin (two US Federal Reserve Bank economists), pursues the reason for weak investment in advanced capitalist economies, including the US, by examining trends in corporate savings and investment.

As Wolfe points out,

companies generate a huge proportion of investment. In the six largest high-income economies (the US, Japan, Germany, France, the UK and Italy), corporations accounted for between half and just over two-thirds of gross investment in 2013 (the lowest share being in Italy and the highest in Japan).

Because corporations are responsible for such a large share of investment, they are also, in aggregate, the largest users of available savings, but their own retained earnings are also a huge source of savings. Thus, in these countries, corporate profits generated between 40 per cent (in France) and 100 per cent (in Japan) of gross savings (including foreign savings) available to the economy.

The following three charts all come from Wolf’s article.  This first shows trends in corporate gross savings as a percent of GDP for all six countries.  As we can see, corporate gross savings as a share of GDP grew, although marginally, in every country but France over the period 1998 to 2014.

corporate-gross-savings

The next chart shows trends in corporate investment as a percent of GDP.  In contrast to corporate savings, the investment ratio fell noticeably in every country, again with the exception of France, over the same time period.

corporate-gross-investment

Combining the two ratios yields the trend in net corporate savings as a share of GDP, which is illustrated in the following chart.  The take away is clear: corporations are saving more than they are investing, which means that the decline in investment cannot be explained by a shortfall in savings.  Thus, it is foolish to think that we will boost investment and growth in the United States, or the other countries, by taxing consumption.

corporate-net-lending

So, what explains the lack of corporate investment?  Gruber and Kamin’s investigation into what they call the “corporate saving glut led them to the following conclusions:

First, . . . in most of the G7 economies we studied, the net lending of nonfinancial corporations rose to very high levels in recent years, and this rise started even before the GFC [Global Financial Crisis]. . . . Second, consistent with other studies of recent investment behavior, we found that models estimated up through 2006 generally tracked the weakness of actual investment during the GFC and its aftermath; conversely, models estimated up through 2001 often over-predicted investment in subsequent years, both before and after the GFC. We interpret these results as suggesting that investment in the major advanced economies has indeed weakened relative to what standard determinants would suggest, but that this process started well in advance of the GFC itself. Finally, we find that the counterpart of declines in resources devoted to investment has been rises in payouts to investors in the form of dividends and equity buybacks (often to a greater extent than predicted by models estimated through earlier periods), and, to a lesser extent, heightened net accumulation of financial assets. The strength of investor payouts suggests that increased risk aversion and a precautionary demand for financial buffers has not been the primary reason firms have cut back investment. Rather, our results are consistent with views that, for any number of reasons, there has been a decline in what firms perceive to be the availability of profitable investment opportunities.

Roberts appropriately highlights the last sentence.  We know that capitalism is driven by the pursuit of private profit.  The question for us is: How well does such a system serve majority interests when during this period of great social need our leading corporations are unwilling to invest because existing opportunities do not offer them sufficient profit?

It is as good a time as ever in the US to reject false strategies for economic renewal and seriously begin conversations about alternative ways to organize our economy and political system.

Union-Community Victory In Seattle

Seattle teachers deserve praise for their recent contract victory.  It highlights how unions can and should defend both their members and the public interest.

From Valerie Strauss who covers education for the Washington Post:

Seattle teachers went on strike for a week this month [September] with a list of goals for a new contract. By the time the strike officially ended this week, teachers had won some of the usual stuff of contract negotiations — for example, the first cost-of-living raises in six years — but also less standard objectives.

For one thing, teachers demanded, and won, guaranteed daily recess for all elementary school students — 30 minutes each day. In an era when recess for many students has become limited or non-existent despite the known benefits of physical activity, this is a big deal, and something parents had sought.

What’s more, the union and school officials agreed to create committees at 30 schools to look at equity issues, including disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect minorities. Several days after the end of the strike, the Seattle School Board voted for a one-year ban on out-of-school suspensions of elementary students who commit specific nonviolent offenses, and called for a plan that could eliminate all elementary school suspensions.

Other wins for students in Seattle’s nearly 100 traditional public schools include:

Teachers won an end to the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate them — and now, teachers will be included in decisions on the amount of standardized testing for students. This evaluation practice has been slammed by assessment experts as invalid and unreliable, and has led to the narrowing of curriculum, with emphasis on the two subjects for which there are standardized tests, math and English Language arts.

Special education teachers will have fewer students to work with at a time. In addition, there will be caseload limits for other specialists, including psychologists and occupational therapists.

Seattle teachers had said they were not only fighting for pay raises but to make the system better for students. It sounds like they did.

Not A Happy Labor Day

Sadly most working people in the U.S. continue to lose ground despite overall economic growth.  As an Economic Policy Institute report makes clear, wage stagnation has deep roots in the workings of the economy and policies simply designed to spur growth are unlikely to change things.

Figure A from the report shows trends in economy wide net productivity and average hourly compensation for production/non-supervisory workers over the period 1948-2014.

Figure A

Productivity is a measure of the national output produced by an average hour of work.  Its increase over time highlights the potential for raising majority living standards.  Here, and in the following figure, we are actually looking at net productivity, which shows output after subtracting depreciation of plant and equipment.  The “typical” worker is represented by production/non-supervisory workers who comprise approximately 80 percent of the U.S. labor force.  Their real hourly compensation includes wages and employer-paid benefits.

The trends in Figure A show that over the period 1948 to 1973 the typical worker enjoyed gains in real compensation commensurate with the increase in productivity.  However, the situation from 1973 to 2014 is far different. In this latter period, the typical worker received little if any benefit from their contribution to increased net output.  Said differently, they suffered from wage stagnation despite a growing economy.

We can learn more about why from Figure B, which covers only the latter period.

Figure B

While Figure B has the same measure of productivity as Figure A it includes two different measures of compensation: the real average hourly and the real median hourly compensation for all workers.

Median hourly compensation is probably the variable that best captures the “typical” worker’s earnings.  It was not used in Figure A because data for this variable only dates to 1973.  Figure B shows that real median compensation for all workers has actually been trending down over the last few years of our so-called expansion.

Growing income inequality is one reason for this wage stagnation.  As we can see, there is an ever larger gap between hourly average and median compensation.  This gap reflects the fact that a growing share of labor compensation is going to a small percentage of the labor force, thus driving the average up but not the median.  This divergence between the two compensation series is not surprising since we are looking at wage trends for all workers, which means we are including the salaries paid to managers and CEOs and their earnings from stock options and bonus pay.

But, as we can also see, there still remains a widening gap between compensation and productivity even accounting for the explosion in compensation inequality.  This remaining gap is explained by two developments.  The first is that there has been a change in power relations between owners of capital and workers, which has enabled the former to shift the distribution of national income to their favor at the expense of the latter. In other words, corporations are now keeping a larger share of national income for their own use, increasingly to fund mergers, stock buy-backs, and dividend payments.

The second is the divergence between consumer and output prices.  Real labor compensation is measured relative to the prices of consumer goods and services.  Real output, the basis for the productivity calculation, is measured relative to the prices of all goods and services produced, consumer and non-consumer.  Since consumer goods prices have been rising faster than overall prices, real labor compensation grows more slowly than productivity.

The authors of the Economic Policy Institute report estimate the relative importance of these three factors in explaining the overall gap between median labor compensation and net productivity.  Over the entire 1973–2014 period, 58.9 percent of the gap was due to compensation inequality, 11.5 percent to the loss of labor’s share of income, and 29.6 percent to the price divergence.  Looking just at the period 2000-2014, the totals were 45.2 percent, 38.8 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.  The results for the latter period make clear that wage stagnation is increasingly caused by the growing strength of corporate power.

The takeaway: an end to wage stagnation will require worker organizing aimed at curtailing the power of corporations and those at the top of the income scale, who of course largely represent business interests.  The increasingly successful struggles across the country to win $15 an hour minimum wages and new rulings by the National Labor Relations Board that strengthen worker and union rights are important steps in the right direction.

Lessons From A Defeat In Europe

The Troika are celebrating the end of negotiations with Greece, proclaiming that thanks to their tireless efforts the Eurozone remains whole.  And why wouldn’t they celebrate.  They have demonstrated their power to crush, at least for now, the Greek effort to end austerity and its associated devastating social consequences.  Tragically, Syriza has not only surrendered, the nature of its defeat is likely to leave the country worse off, at least both economically and very likely politically as well.

At this point, one of the most important things we can do is try to draw lessons from the Greek experience.

  • Perhaps one of the most obvious lessons is that visions of a more humane Europe are not real.  European leaders were more than willing to pursue the complete collapse of the Greek economy in order to break Syriza and the movement that gave it power for fear of the demonstration effect a successful Syriza might have had on broader European politics.  Using the lever of a European Central Bank cut off of funding for Greek banks, the Troika pressed Syriza to the wall.

  Here is how a Guardian blog post described the nature of the discussions leading up to the final Greek surrender:

Alexis Tsipras was given a very rough ride in his meeting with Tusk, Merkel and Hollande, our Europe editor Ian Traynor reports.

Tsipras was told that Greece will either become an effective “ward” of the eurozone, by agreeing to immediately implement swift reforms this week.

Or, it leaves the euro area and watches its banks collapse.

One official dubbed it “extensive mental waterboarding”, in an attempt to make the Greek PM fall into line.

An unpleasant image that highlights just how far we have now fallen from those European standards of solidarity and unity.

  • Second, the vicious nature of the European response to the Greek government’s initial offer of moderate austerity, symbolized by the stance of its dominant power Germany, reflects more than ignorance or petty mindedness on the part of European leaders.  It reflects the increasingly exploitive nature of contemporary capitalism everywhere.  Capitalists, pursuing profits in an increasingly competitive and unstable global system, demand ever greater power to intensify the exploitation of workers everywhere and that is how dominant states approach social policy in their respective countries and international institutions.
  • Third, class interests dominate so-called “economic rationality”.  A case in point: in the period before the July 5 referendum we learned that IMF staff believed that Greece would be unable to pay its debts under the best of conditions and that therefore any agreement with Greece had to include debt relief while at the very same time the head of the IMF was aggressively joining with European leaders to reject Greek government pleas for just such relief.
  • Fourth, since dominant powers will do everything in their power to block meaningful social transformation, those seeking to lead it must prepare people as best they can for the expected class struggle and opposition.  In this case Syriza can and should be faulted for not engaging people about the difficulty of achieving both an end to austerity and Eurozone membership under current conditions and doing its best to develop the technical and political capacities necessary for a break from the Euro on its own terms if and when the situation called for it.

 

Greeks elected a progressive government, voting Syriza into power in January 2015, on the basis of the party’s commitment to both anti-austerity and continuing Eurozone membership.  The leadership of Syriza never wavered from encouraging Greeks to believe that both were possible and most Greeks, for many reasons, were eager to believe that this was true.  Although the results of the July 5 referendum showed that the Greek working class has a strong fighting spirit, polling also revealed that most of those who voted No hoped that their vote against the European austerity plan would lead to a better deal from Europe, not a break from the Eurozone.  They no doubt felt this way because of government pronouncements.

For example, below are the results of polling done the day before the referendum:

consequencesNO

 

eurovsEU

Tragically, immediately after the vote the Greek government surprised everyone by returning to negotiations with the Troika with an offer to accept an austerity program much like the one that had been originally placed before the people and rejected.  The only meaningful addition was that it included the long held Greek proposal for debt relief.  This decision was a serious mistake for two reasons—it generated serious confusion on the part of the Greek population and perhaps even more importantly convinced the Troika that the Greek government was not prepared to use its new domestic support to challenge the status quo.  This only emboldened the Troika to proclaim that the referendum had changed everything and now that trust had been lost between the Troika and Syriza leaders, the austerity demands had to be intensified.

In fact, we have learned that Syriza’s leaders did not expect to win the referendum and were prepared to and in fact perhaps hoped to be able to resign and let more conservative forces negotiate and approve a new austerity package.  Here is part of an interview with James K. Galbraith, a strong Syriza supporter:

The recent Ambrose Evans Pritchard piece is very much on the mark (” Europe is blowing itself apart over Greece – and nobody seems able to stop it“). The Greek government, and particularly the circle around Alexis, were worn down by this process. They saw that the other side does, in fact, have the power to destroy the Greek economy and the Greek society — which it is doing — in a very brutal, very sadistic way, because the burden falls particularly heavily on pensions. They were in some respects expecting that the yes would prevail, and even to some degree thinking that that was the best way to get out of this. The voters would speak and they would acquiesce. They would leave office and there would be a general election.

It all went downhill from there.  In short, Syriza leadership had no plan B.  The Troika knew that Syriza was unwilling to pursue its own break from the Eurozone, which meant that its leadership would do anything to remain in the Eurozone.  The following is from an interview with Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, that provides insight into the somewhat self-inflicted weakness in Syriza’s bargaining stance:

The referendum of 5 July has also been rapidly forgotten. It was preemptively dismissed by the Eurozone, and many people saw it as a farce – a sideshow that offered a false choice and created false hope, and was only going to ruin Tsipras when he later signed the deal he was campaigning against. As Schäuble supposedly said, elections cannot be allowed to change anything. But Varoufakis believes that it could have changed everything. On the night of the referendum he had a plan, Tsipras just never quite agreed to it.

The Eurozone can dictate terms to Greece because it is no longer fearful of a Grexit. It is convinced that its banks are now protected if Greek banks default. But Varoufakis thought that he still had some leverage: once the ECB forced Greece’s banks to close, he could act unilaterally.

He said he spent the past month warning the Greek cabinet that the ECB would close Greece’s banks to force a deal. When they did, he was prepared to do three things: issue euro-denominated IOUs; apply a “haircut” to the bonds Greek issued to the ECB in 2012, reducing Greece’s debt; and seize control of the Bank of Greece from the ECB.

None of the moves would constitute a Grexit but they would have threatened it. Varoufakis was confident that Greece could not be expelled by the Eurogroup; there is no legal provision for such a move. But only by making Grexit possible could Greece win a better deal. And Varoufakis thought the referendum offered Syriza the mandate they needed to strike with such bold moves – or at least to announce them.

He hinted at this plan on the eve of the referendum, and reports later suggested this was what cost him his job. He offered a clearer explanation.

As the crowds were celebrating on Sunday night in Syntagma Square, Syriza’s six-strong inner cabinet held a critical vote. By four votes to two, Varoufakis failed to win support for his plan, and couldn’t convince Tsipras. He had wanted to enact his “triptych” of measures earlier in the week, when the ECB first forced Greek banks to shut. Sunday night was his final attempt. When he lost his departure was inevitable.

“That very night the government decided that the will of the people, this resounding ‘No’, should not be what energised the energetic approach [his plan]. Instead it should lead to major concessions to the other side: the meeting of the council of political leaders, with our Prime Minister accepting the premise that whatever happens, whatever the other side does, we will never respond in any way that challenges them. And essentially that means folding. … You cease to negotiate.”

Of course, it is easy to call for a break with the Eurozone but in reality such a break would not be a walk in the park.  For example, Varoufakis makes clear that there were no certainties for what would happen if the government decided on a break:

“He [Tsipras] wasn’t clear back then what his views were, on the drachma versus the euro, on the causes of the crises, and I had very, well shall I say, ‘set views’ on what was going on. A dialogue begun … I believe that I helped shape his views of what should be done.”

And yet Tsipras diverged from him at the last. He understands why. Varoufakis could not guarantee that a Grexit would work. After Syriza took power in January, a small team had, “in theory, on paper,” been thinking through how it might. But he said that, “I’m not sure we would manage it, because managing the collapse of a monetary union takes a great deal of expertise, and I’m not sure we have it here in Greece without the help of outsiders.” More years of austerity lie ahead, but he knows Tsipras has an obligation to “not let this country become a failed state”.

To be a bit more specific, a break from the Eurozone would require nationalization of the banks—an act that would immediately draw the country into a serious legal test with Europe since the banks are technically under the control of the European Central Bank.  It would require the government to quickly issue new script as it prepared a new currency, and aggressively engage in an expanded public works program.  At the same time it was unclear whether the new script would be accepted and whether the country would have sufficient foreign exchange to maintain minimum purchases of key import items such as food and medicine.  Moreover, many businesses, holding debts denominated in euros, would likely be forced into bankruptcy necessitating government takeover.  And, all this would take place in a relatively hostile international environment.  No doubt some countries would offer words of solidarity, but it appears unlikely that any would or could offer meaningful financial or technical assistance.   Still, with proper preparation the possibilities for success could have been greatly enhanced.

Strikingly, Varoufakis mentioned that Syriza had established a small team to think about what a break would mean shortly after their January 2015 election, a team that no doubt was kept small because the government wanted to keep the planning secret.  But that was a mistake.  Planning should have happened on a large scale and in a visible way.  Discussions should have been held with international legal experts as well as with the Brics countries concerning possible use of their new lending and investment facilities.  There was no need to keep this planning quiet, quite the opposite—Eurozone leaders should have been made aware that Syriza was seriously studying its alternatives.  And the population should have been brought along—that the government would do all in its power to stay in the eurozone as long as this was consistent with an end to austerity.

As it was, Tsprias went back into negotiations unarmed, desperate for a bailout.  Once the ECB tightened its support for Greece’s banking system it should have been clear, if not before then, that a German-led Europe was only interested in total surrender on the part of Greece.  And as far as I can tell total surrender is what they got.

Greece has agreed to austerity program that is far worse than any previously rejected.  Here is the Guardian summary of what was agreed:

Greek assets transfer

Up to €50bn (£35bn) worth of Greek assets will be transferred to a new fund, which will contribute to the recapitalisation of the country’s banks. The fund will be based in Athens, not Luxembourg as Germany had originally demanded.

The location of the fund was a key sticking point in the marathon overnight talks. Transferring the assets out of Greece would have meant “liquidity asphyxiation”, Tsipras said.

As the statement puts it: “Valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an independent fund that will monetise the assets through privatisations and other means.”

The “valuable assets” are likely to include things such as planes, airports, infrastructure and banks, analysts say.

Some of the fund will be used to recapitalise banks and decrease debt, but analysts are sceptical about how much money there will really be to work with.

“Given the experience of the last few years’ privatisation programme, these targets appear overtly optimistic, serving as a signalling mechanism of Greek government commitment to privatisation rather than a meaningful source of financing for bank recapitalisation, growth and debt reduction,” said George Saravelos, a strategist at Deutsche Bank.

Pensions

Greece has been told that it needs to pass measures to “improve long-term sustainability of the pension system” by 15 July.

The country’s pensions system, and its perceived generosity relative to other eurozone states, has been a key sticking point in the past five months of negotiations with creditors.

The so-called troika of lenders believes that Athens can save 0.25% to 0.5% of GDP in 2015 and 1% of GDP in 2016 by reforming pensions.

Greece had wanted to draw out reform of early retirement rules, starting in October and running until 2025, when everyone would retire at 67. The EU wants the process to start immediately, by imposing huge costs on those who want to retire early to discourage them from doing so. The lenders also say Athens must bring forward the reform programme so it completes in 2022.

VAT and other taxes

Another source of contention in the months of failed negotiations that preceded Monday’s tentative deal, VAT is now also on the block for immediate reform.

The latest agreement demands measures, again by 15 July, for “the streamlining of the VAT system and the broadening of the tax base to increase revenue”.

One of the key objections from Greece’s creditors to its VAT system is a 30% discount for the Greek islands. Athens proposed a compromise on 10 July under which the exemptions for the big tourist islands – where the revenue opportunities are greatest – would end first, with the more remote islands following later.

The onus on Greece to “increase revenue” is likely to mean more items will be covered by the top VAT rate of 23%, including restaurant bills, something that had until recently been a red line for Tsipras.

Statistics office

Another demand for legislation by 15 July is on “the safeguarding of the full legal independence of ELSTAT”, the Greek statistics office.

Balancing the books

Greece has been told it must legislate by 15 July to introduce “quasi-automatic spending cuts” if it deviates from primary surplus targets. In other words, if it cannot cut enough to balance the books, it should cut some more.

In the past, the troika has demanded that Greece commit to a budget surplus of 1% in 2015, rising to 3.5% by 2018.

Bridging finance

Talks will begin immediately on bridging finance to avert the collapse of Greece’s banking system and help cover its debt repayments this summer. Greece must repay more than €7bn to the European Central Bank (ECB) in July and August, before any bailout cash can be handed over.

Debt restructuring

Greece has been promised discussions on restructuring its debts. A statement from Sunday night also ruled out any “haircuts”, leaving the €240bn Greece owes to Brussels, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the books.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said the Eurogroup was ready to consider extending the maturity on Greek loans. She argues that a delay in loan repayments and a lower interest rate act in the same way as a write-off, which is why many analysts point out that the Greek debt mountain is worth the equivalent of 90% of GDP in real terms and not the 180% commonly quoted. Merkel said that for this reason there was no need for a Plan B.

Radical reforms

Tsipras pledged to implement radical reforms to ensure the Greek oligarchy finally makes a fair contribution. The agreement thrashed out overnight would allow Greece to stand on its feet again, he said.

Implementation of the reforms would be tough, he said, but “we fought hard abroad, we must now fight at home against vested interests”.

He added: “The measures are recessionary, but we hope that putting Grexit to bed means inward investment can begin to flow, negating them.”

Liberalising the economy

The new deal also calls for “more ambitious product market reforms” that will include liberalising the economy with measures ranging from bringing in Sunday trading hours to opening up closed professions.

Greece’s labour markets must also be liberalised, the other eurozone leaders say. Notably, they are demanding Athens “undertake rigourous reviews and modernisation” of collective bargaining and industrial action.

Pharmacy ownership, the designation of bakeries and the marketing of milk are also up for reform, all as recommended in a “toolkit” from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

IMF support

The statement from the euro summit stipulates that Greece will request continued IMF support from March 2016. This is another loss for Tsipras, who had reportedly resisted further IMF involvement in Greece’s rescue.

Energy market

Greece has been told to get on with privatising its energy transmission network operator (ADMIE).

Financial sector

Greece has been told to strengthen its financial sector, including taking “decisive action on non-performing loans” and eliminating political interference.

Shrinking the state

Athens has been told to depoliticise the Greek administration and to continue cutting the costs of public administration.

The Guardian highlights one of the hidden landmines in the agreement:

Our economics editor Larry Elliott has been going through the details of this morning’s deal and concludes it will deepen the country’s recession, make its debt position less sustainable and that it “virtually guarantees that its problems come bubbling back to the surface before too long.”

He continues:

One line in the seven-page euro summit statement sums up the thinking behind this act of folly, the one that talks about “quasi-automatic spending cuts in case of deviations from ambitious primary surplus targets”.

Translated into everyday English, what this means is that leaving to one side the interest payments on its debt, Greece will have to raise more in revenues than the government spends each and every year. If the performance of the economy is not strong enough to meet these targets, the “quasi-automatic” spending cuts will kick in. If Greece is in a hole, the rest of the euro zone will hand it a spade and tell it to keep digging.

This approach to the public finances went out of fashion during the 1930s but is now back. Most modern governments operate what are known as “automatic stabilisers”, under which they run bigger deficits (or smaller surpluses) in bad times because it is accepted that raising taxes or cutting spending during a recession reduces demand and so makes the recession worse.

At least according to press reports, Tsprias put up his greatest fight over inclusion of the IMF in monitoring the agreement and privatization.  The IMF is definitely in.  As for privatization or what the Guardian calls “Asset Transfer,” gains were minimal.  One can question in fact whether at least the latter area is one where Tsprias should have tried to draw lines.  At least on the face of it, it would seem that it would have made more sense to fight the demand to “liberalize” labor markets.  A victory here would have given the state freedom to encourage the development of a strong labor movement, regardless of ownership.

Moreover, as noted in the summary, Greece is still not guaranteed new loans or debt relief.  Its parliament has to pass all of the above and then the government gets to start negotiations again.

As the Guardian reports:

European leaders lined up to say Grexit has been averted, but this snappy soundbite glides over the fact the eurozone has simply agreed to open negotiations on an €86bn (£62bn) bailout. Although this is a step to shoring-up confidence in the euro, it is only a promise to have more talks with no guarantee of success.

Talks on the bailout plan are forecast to last around four weeks. “We know time is critical for Greece, but there are no shortcuts,” said Klaus Regling, the official in charge of the the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s permanent bailout fund that Greece hopes to tap.

But these formal talks can only begin, if eurozone leaders avoid several political and financial tripwires. The Greek government has until the end of Wednesday to ensure that sweeping reforms to its pension system and VAT rates are written into law. If Greek lawmakers meet this eurozone-imposed deadline, the baton will pass to the creditors. At least five countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, will have to put the idea of opening negotiations on a bailout to a parliamentary vote.

Politics could be overtaken by financial deadlines. Athens faces demands to repay €7bn of debts in July, including €3.5bn due to the European Central Bank on Monday (20 July).

Eurozone officials are working round the clock to come up with emergency funds that will help Greece bridge the gap before a permanent bailout kicks in. “It’s not going to be easy,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the hawkish Dutch politician, who was re-elected chair of the eurozone group of finance ministers on Monday. Several options were being discussed on bridge finance, but no one had found “the golden key to solve the problem”, he said, although he hopes to see progress by Wednesday.

The ECB will also continue to maintain a choke hold on the Greek economy perhaps for months, tightening if any deviations take place.

They told clients tonight that the European Central Bank is unlikely to cut Greece much slack until the third bailout is agreed.

We suspect the ECB will stall an ELA decision until Greece begins to legislate the new deal later this week.

Greece would still face a tight ELA cap, however. We expect the ELA cap will remain carefully calibrated and controlled at least until the new ESM loan is fully in place. Access to banks could be fully normalised only in the fall.

It is hard to see this agreement as anything but failure.  Clearly the main responsibility for this disaster rests with the leaders of Germany and the European Union.  They showed that they had no interest in meaningful, honest negotiations, fearing that they would likely lead to a real challenge to their power.  But unfortunately Syriza’s leadership did not make the best of the bad hand they were dealt.  They needed to talk more truthfully to the population about the political/class nature of and reasons for the difficult challenges they faced and do the maximum possible to strengthen their negotiating position and prepare the population for the failure that they thought likely.

Hopefully, the Greek people will find the time and space necessary to digest and learn the lessons from this struggle and successfully regroup. We all must.

Victory: Greece Over The Troika

It seems certain that the political economy textbooks of the future will include a chapter on the experience of Greece in 2015.

July 5, 2015, the people of Greece overwhelmingly voted NO to the Troika’s austerity ultimatum.  According to the Greek government, “61.31% of the votes for the 5th of July Referendum voted “NO” whereas 38.69% voted “YES”.  There was also a 5.8% of invalid/blank votes.  Turnout was 62.5%.”

The Greek government, led by its prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, refused to accept Troika dictates.  Instead, recognizing how important the decision was, he put the Troika’s “take it or leave it” ultimatum up to referendum.  Win or lose, that was an inspiring vote of confidence in the Greek people.  And by the extent of their participation and choice in the vote the Greek people showed that his confidence was not misplaced.

Background To The Referendum

Greece has experienced six consecutive years of recession and the social costs have been enormous.  The following charts provide only the barest glimpse into the human suffering:

Infographics / Unemployment

Infographics / Unemployment

Infographics / Social Impact

Infographics / Social Impact

Infographics / Poverty

Infographics / Poverty

While the Troika has always been eager to blame this outcome on the bungling and dishonesty of successive Greek governments and even the Greek people, the fact is that it is Troika policies that are primarily responsible.  In broad brush, Greece grew rapidly over the 2000s in large part thanks to government borrowing, especially from French and German banks.  When the global financial crisis hit in late 2008, Greece was quickly thrown into recession and the Greek government found its revenue in steep decline and its ability to borrow sharply limited.  By 2010, without its own national currency, it faced bankruptcy.

Enter the Troika.  In 2010, the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF penned the first bailout agreement with the Greek government.  The Greek government received new loans in exchange for its acceptance of austerity policies and monitoring by the IMF.  Most of the new money went back out of the country, largely to its bank creditors.  And the massive cuts in public spending deepened the country’s recession.   By 2011 it had become clear that the Troika’s policies were self-defeating.  The deeper recession further reduced tax revenues, making it harder for the Greek government to pay its debts.  Thus in 2012 the Troika again extended loans to the Greek government as part of a second bailout which included . . . wait for it . . . yet new austerity measures.

Not surprisingly, the outcome was more of the same.  By then, French and German banks were off the hook.  It was now the European governments and the International Monetary Fund that worried about repayment.  And the Greek economy continued its downward ascent.

Significantly, in 2012, IMF staff eventually acknowledged that the institution’s support for austerity in 2010 was a mistake.  Simply put, if you ask a government to cut spending during a period of recession you will only worsen the recession.  And a country in recession will not be able to pay its debts.  It was a pretty clear and obvious conclusion.

But, significantly this acknowledgement did little to change Troika policy to Greece.

By the end of 2014, the Greek people were fed up.  Their government had done most of what was demanded of it and yet the economy continued to worsen and the country was deeper in debt than it had been at the start of the bailouts.  And, once again, the Greek government was unable to make its debt payments, now to Troika institutions, without access to new loans. So, they elected Syriza in January 2015 because of the party’s commitment to negotiate a new understanding with the Troika, one that would enable the country to return to growth, which meant an end to austerity and debt relief.

Syriza entered the negotiations hopeful that the lessons of the past had been learned.  But no, the Troika refused all additional financial support unless Syriza agreed to implement yet another round of austerity.  What started out as negotiations quickly turned into a one way scolding.  The Troika continued to demand significant cuts in public spending to boost Greek government revenue for debt repayment.  Syriza eventually won a compromise that limited the size of the primary surplus required, but when they proposed achieving it by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy rather than spending cuts, they were rebuffed, principally by the IMF.

The Troika demanded cuts in pensions, again to reduce government spending.  When Syriza countered with an offer to boost contributions rather than slash the benefits going to those at the bottom of the income distribution, they were again rebuffed.  On and on it went.  Even the previous head of the IMF penned an intervention warning that the IMF was in danger of repeating its past mistakes, but to no avail.

Finally on June 25, the Troika made its final offer.  It would provide additional funds to Greece, enough to enable it to make its debt payments over the next five months in exchange for more austerity.   However, as the Greek government recognized, this would just be “kicking the can down the road.”  In five months the country would again be forced to ask for more money and accept more austerity.  No wonder the Greek Prime Minister announced he was done, that he would take this offer to the Greek people with a recommendation of a no vote.

Here is the New York Times version of events:

ATHENS — Last Friday morning [June 26], the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, gathered his closest advisers in a Brussels hotel room for a meeting that was meant to be secret. All the participants had to leave their phones outside the door to prevent leaks.

A week of tense negotiations between Greece and its creditors was coming to an end. And it was becoming increasingly clear to the left-leaning prime minister that he could not accept the tough economic terms that his lenders were demanding in exchange for new loans.

As Mr. Tsipras paced and listened on the 25th floor of the hotel, his top aides argued that neither Germany nor the International Monetary Fund wanted an agreement and that they were instead pushing Greece into default and out of the euro.

The night before, at a meeting of eurozone leaders at the European Union’s headquarters, Mr. Tsipras had asked Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany about including debt relief with a deal, only to be rebuffed again.

This is going nowhere, the 40-year-old Greek leader said in frustration, according to people who were in the room with him. The more we move toward them, the more they are moving away from us, Mr. Tsipras said.

After hours of arguing back and forth about possible responses, Mr. Tsipras made a decision to get on a plane and go home to call a referendum, according to the people who were in the room. . . .

But a close look at the events of the last week — based on interviews with some of the participants and others briefed on the discussions — reveals an accumulation of slights, insults and missed opportunities between Greece and its creditors that led the prime minister to conclude that a deal was not possible, regardless of any concessions he might make.

Greece’s creditors see it differently, of course. In their view, Mr. Tsipras, who swept into power on a wave of anti-austerity support, was only interested in a deal that would go light on austerity measures and deliver maximum debt relief. He could not and would not comply with any agreement that required more sacrifices from the Greek people.

Still, for a week that ended with so much enmity, its start was auspicious.

That Monday, June 22, Greece’s technical team in Brussels submitted an eight-page proposal to their counterparts. The paper was an effort to bridge a six-month divide on how Greece planned to sort out its future finances.

For political reasons, the Tsipras government had said it would not cut pensions or do away with tax breaks that favored businesses serving tourists on the Greek islands. Instead, the new Greek plan envisaged a series of tax increases and increases in pension contributions to be borne by corporations.

The initial response seemed positive. Both Pierre Moscovici, a senior finance official at the European Commission who is known to be sympathetic toward Greece, and Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the head of Europe’s working group of finance ministers who is one of Greece’s harshest critics, said on Tuesday that the plan was promising.

The Greek team was elated. For the first time, the Greek numbers were adding up.

The next morning, though, that optimism evaporated.

Greece’s creditors — the I.M.F., the other eurozone nations and the European Central Bank — sent the Greek paper back and marked it in red where there were disagreements.

The criticisms were everywhere: too many tax increases, unifying value-added taxes, not enough spending cuts and more cuts needed on pension reforms.

The Greek team couldn’t believe it. The creditors had seemed to dial everything back to where the talks were six months ago. . . .

Instead of bending as the deadline neared for Greece to make a payment of 1.5 billion euros to the I.M.F., Germany and the fund appeared to be hardening their positions.

On Wednesday night, Greece was presented with a counterproposal. At the behest of the I.M.F., the tax increases had been reduced and, crucially, the government was told that it needed to increase value-added taxes on hotels.

Moreover, several requests by the Greeks to discuss debt relief had been rejected — you need to agree to reforms first, they were told.

On Thursday, Mr. Varoufakis and Mr. Tsipras agreed that they could not present this latest proposal to their cabinet back in Athens. In recent weeks, radical factions within the ruling Syriza party in Greece had become more vocal in opposing any deal that crossed certain lines on pensions and taxes.

Moreover, some within Syriza were even pushing Mr. Tsipras to walk away from Europe altogether and return to the drachma, an approach that the prime minister and Mr. Varoufakis had promised never to consider. . . .

Mr. Schäuble began criticizing Mr. Moscovici, the senior European Commission official, over his positive comments regarding the Greek offer.

Even the latest proposal from the creditors was too lenient toward the Greeks, Mr. Schäuble argued, saying that he saw little chance that he could get it past the German Bundestag, the national parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The only solution here is capital controls, he said, his voice rising.

But Mr. Varoufakis persisted on the issue of Greece’s staggering debt load, ignoring the admonitions of Mr. Dijsselbloem and others.

Then Mr. Varoufakis turned on Christine Lagarde, the French director of the I.M.F.

Five years ago, the fund had given its blessing to the first bailout, doling out loans alongside Europe despite internal misgivings that Greece would be in no position to repay them.

Now the I.M.F. was pushing Greece to sign up to yet another austerity program to access more loans even though the fund had now concluded that their initial misgivings were correct: Greece’s debt was unsustainable.

I have a question for Christine, Mr. Varoufakis said to the packed hall: Can the I.M.F. formally state in this meeting that this proposal we are being asked to sign will make the Greek debt sustainable?

Yanis has a point, Ms. Lagarde responded — the question of the debt needs to be addressed. (A spokesman for the fund later said that this was not an accurate description of the exchange.)

But before she could explain, she was interrupted by Mr. Dijsselbloem.

It’s a take it or leave it offer, Yanis, the Dutch official said, peering at him through rimless spectacles.

In the end, Greece would leave it.

The Referendum

Almost immediately after the Greek government announced its plans for a referendum, the leaders of the Troika intervened in the Greek debate.  For example, as the New York Times reported:

By long-established diplomatic tradition, leaders and international institutions do not meddle in the domestic politics of other countries. But under cover of a referendum in which the rest of Europe has a clear stake, European leaders who have found Mr. Tsipras difficult to deal with have been clear about the outcome they prefer.

Many are openly opposing him on the referendum, which could very possibly make way for a new government and a new approach to finding a compromise. The situation in Greece, analysts said, is not the first time that European politics have crossed borders, but it is the most open instance and the one with the greatest potential effect so far on European unity. . . .

Martin Schulz, a German who is president of the European Parliament, offered at one point to travel to Greece to campaign for the “yes” forces, those in favor of taking a deal along the lines offered by the
creditors.

On Thursday, Mr. Schulz was on television making clear that he had little regard for Mr. Tsipras and his government. “We will help the Greek people but most certainly not the government,” he said.

European leaders actually actively worked to distort the terms of the referendum.  Greeks were voting on whether to accept or reject Troika austerity policies yet the Troika leaders claimed the vote was on whether Greece should remain in the Eurozone.  In fact, there is no mechanism for kicking a country out of the Eurozone and Syriza was always clear that it was not seeking to leave the zone.   As the Guardian explained:

One day before Greece’s bailout ends and the country’s financial lifeline melts away, Europe’s big guns have lined up one after another to tell the Greeks unequivocally that voting no in Sunday’s referendum means saying goodbye to the euro.

There was no mistaking the gravity of the situation now facing both Greece and Europe on Monday. Leaders were by turns ashen-faced, resigned, desperate and pleading with Athens to think again and pull back from the abyss.

There were also bitter attacks on Alexis Tsipras, the young Greek prime minister whose brinkmanship has gone further than anyone believed possible and left the eurozone’s leaders reeling.

One measure of the seriousness of the situation could be gleaned from the leaders’ schedules. In Berlin, Brussels, Paris and London, a chancellor, two presidents and a prime minister convened various meetings of cabinet, party leaders and top officials devoted solely to Greece.

The French president, François Hollande, was to the fore. “It’s the Greek people’s right to say what they want their future to be,” he said. “It’s about whether the Greeks want to stay in the eurozone or take the risk of leaving.”

Athens insists that this is not what is at stake in the highly complicated question the Greek government has drafted for the referendum, but Berlin, Paris and Brussels made plain that the 5 July vote will mean either staying in the euro on their tough terms or returning to the drachma.

In what was arguably the biggest speech of his career, the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, appeared before a packed press hall in Brussels against a giant backdrop of the Greek and EU flags.

He was impassioned, bitter and disingenuous in appealing to the Greek people to vote yes to the euro and his bailout terms, arguing that he and the creditors – rather than the Syriza government – had the best interests of Greeks at heart.

Tsipras had lied to his people, deceived and betrayed Europe’s negotiators and distorted the bailout terms that were shredded when the negotiations collapsed and the referendum was called, he said.

“I feel betrayed. The Greek people are very close to my heart. I know their hardship … they have to know the truth,” he said.

“I’d like to ask the Greek people to vote yes … no would mean that Greece is saying no to Europe.”

In a country where the hardship wrought by austerity brought a sharp increase in suicides, Juncker offered unfortunate advice. “I say to the Greeks, don’t commit suicide because you’re afraid of dying,” he said.

Juncker’s extraordinary performance sounded and looked as if he were already mourning the passing of a Europe to which he has dedicated his long political career. His 45-minute speech was both proprietorial and poignant about his vision, which seems to be giving way to a rawer and rowdier place.

That was clear from the trenchant remarks of Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor and the head of the country’s Social Democratic party. He coupled the Greek situation with last week’s foul tempers over immigration and said that Europe faces its worst crisis since the EU’s founding treaty was signed in Rome in 1957.

Gabriel was the first leading European politician to voice what many think and say privately about Tsipras – that the Greek leader represents a threat to the European order, that his radicalism is directed at the politics of mainstream Europe and that he wants to force everyone else to rewrite the rules underpinning the single currency.

The unspoken message was that Tsipras is a dangerous man on a mission who has to be stopped.

Standing alongside his boss, Angela Merkel, as if to send a joint nonpartisan national signal from Germany, Gabriel said that if the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they would be voting “against remaining in the euro”.

Unlike Juncker and Hollande, who pleaded with the Greek people to reject Tsipras’s urging of a no vote, the German leaders sounded calmly resigned to the rupture.

For Merkel, it was clear that the single currency’s rulebook was much more important than Greece. In this colossal battle of wills, Tsipras could not be allowed to prevail.

Having whipped up popular fears of an end to the euro, some Greeks began talking their money out of the banks.  On June 28, the European Central Bank then took the aggressive step of limiting its support to the Greek financial system.

This was a very significant and highly political step.  Eurozone governments do not print their own money or control their own monetary systems.  The European Central Bank is in charge of regional monetary policy and is duty bound to support the stability of the region’s financial system.  By limiting its support for Greek banks it forced the Greek government to limit bank withdrawals which only worsened economic conditions and heightened fears about an economic collapse.  This was, as reported by the New York Times, a clear attempt to influence the vote, one might even say an act of economic terrorism:    

Some experts say the timing of the European Central Bank action in capping emergency funding to Greek banks this week appeared to be part of a campaign to influence voters.

“I don’t see how anybody can believe that the timing of this was coincidence,” said Mark Weisbrot, an economist and a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “When you restrict the flow of cash enough to close the banks during the week of a referendum, this is a very deliberate move to scare people.”

Then on July 2, 3 days before the referendum, an IMF staff report on Greece was made public.  Echos of 2010, the report made clear that Troika austerity demands were counterproductive.  Greece needed massive new loans and debt forgiveness.  The Bruegel Institute, a European think tank, offered the following summary and analysis of the report:

On July 2, the IMF released its analysis of whether Greek debt was sustainable or not.  The report said that Greek debt was not sustainable and deep debt relief along with substantial new financing were needed to stabilize Greece. In reaching this new assessment, the IMF stated it had learned many lessons. Among them: Greeks would not take adequate structural reforms to spur growth, they would not sell enough of their assets to repay their debt, and they were unable to undertake sufficient fiscal austerity. That left no choice but to grant Greece greater debt relief and to provide new financing to tide Greece over till it could stand on its own feet. The relief, the IMF, says must be provided by European creditors while the IMF is repaid in whole.

The IMF’s report is important because it reveals that the creditors negotiated with Greece in bad faith.  For months, a haze was allowed to settle over the question of Greek debt sustainability. The timing of the report’s release—on the eve of a historic Greek referendum, well after the technical negotiations have broken down—suggests that there was no intention to allow a sober analysis of the Greek debt burden. Paul Taylor of Reuters tells us that the European authorities worked hard to suppress it and Landon Thomas of the New York Times reports that, until a few days ago, the IMF had played along.

As a result, the entire burden of adjustment was to fall on the Greeks before any debt reduction could even be contemplated. This conclusion was based on indefensible economic logic and the absence of the IMF’s debt sustainability analysis intentionally biased the negotiations. . . .

But, of course, as the IMF now makes clear, if a country has to repay about 4 percent of its income each year over the next 40 years and that country has poor growth prospects precisely because repaying that debt will lower growth, then debt is not sustainable. If this report had been made public earlier, the tone of the public debate and the media’s boorish stereotyping of Greeks and its government would have been balanced by greater clarity on the Greek position.

But the problem with the IMF report is much more serious. Its claims to having learned lessons from the past years are as self-serving as its call on other creditors to provide the debt relief. The report insistently points at the Greek failings but fails to ask if the creditors misdiagnosed the Greek patient and continued to damage Greek economic recovery. Protected by the authority and respect that the IMF commands, it is easy to lay the blame on the Greeks whose rebuttals are treated as more hysterical outbursts of an (ultra) “radical” government. . . .

This is why the IMF’s latest report is disingenuous. The report says that growth in Greece has failed to materialize because Greeks are incapable of undertaking sustained structural reforms. There is so much that is wrong with that statement. First, my colleague Zsolt Darvas of Bruegel argues persuasively that the Greeks have, in fact, undertaken significant structural reform. He notes that the “Doing Business” index has improved materially and labor markets are now more flexible than in Germany. Second, the IMF had set unrealistically high expectations of structural reforms: productivity was to jump from the lowest in the euro area to among the highest in a short period of time and labor participation rates were to jump to the German level. Again, the IMF’s own research department cautions that the dividends from structural reforms are weak and take time to work their way through (see box 3.5 in this link). The debt-deflation cycle works immediately. If it has taken decades for Greece to reach its low efficiency levels, it was irresponsible to assume that early reforms would turn it around in a few years. Finally, when an economy spirals down in a debt-deflation cycle, demand falls and that, in itself, will show up in the less productive use of resources. So, it is even possible that productivity has increased more but is being drowned by shrinking demand.

In other words, the leaders of the Troika were insisting on policies that the IMF’s own staff viewed as misguided.  Moreover, as noted above, European leaders desperately but unsuccessfully tried to kill the report.  Only one conclusion is possible: the negotiations were a sham.

The Troika’s goals were political: they wanted to destroy Syriza because it represented a threat to a status quo in which working people suffer to generate profits for the region’s leading corporations.  It apparently didn’t matter to them that what they were demanding was disastrous for the people of Greece.  In fact, quite the opposite was likely true: punishing Greece was part of their plan to ensure that voters would reject insurgent movements in other countries, especially Spain.

The Vote

And despite, or perhaps because of all of the interventions and threats highlighted above, the Greek people stood firm.  As the headlines of a Bloomberg news story proclaimed: “Varoufakis: Greeks Said ‘No’ to Five Years of Hypocrisy.”

The Greek vote was a huge victory for working people everywhere.

Now, we need to learn the lessons of this experience.  Among the most important are: those who speak for dominant capitalist interests are not to be trusted.  Our strength is in organization and collective action.  Our efforts can shape alternatives.

 

 

Greece Versus The Troika

The Greek drama continues to play out.  Greece is supposed to make a 1.6 billion euro loan payment to the IMF by June 30.  The Syriza-led government says unless the Troika—The European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF)—releases the 7.2 billion euros authorized as part of the 2012 Greek bailout agreement it won’t have enough money to pay the IMF.  And it also won’t be able to make a July loan payment to the European Central Bank.

The Troika is adamant that the money will only be transferred to the Greek government if Syriza agrees to abide by the terms set by the past bailout, which was itself an extension of a 2010 bailout.  Those terms include further rounds of austerity, privatization, and labor market liberalization.  But that is the problem.  As the Levy Institute explains, these bailout terms are largely responsible for years of economic crisis (see Figures 1 and 2):

Estimates of real output for the Greek economy, published by the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ElStat), showed some signs of recovery up to 2014Q3, after six long years of uninterrupted fall in output, even though the fourth quarter of 2014 and preliminary estimates for the first quarter of this year show a reversal that, if it continues in the second quarter, will indicate the economy has slipped back into recession. Real output, at the end of 2014, was below its 2000 level, marking a more than 26 percent drop from its peak in 2007, while an even larger fall—30 percent—in employment has been recorded. More than one million workers have lost their jobs relative to the previous peak in 2008, with an increase of 800,000 unemployed—the total now stands above 1.2 million—while the active population is shrinking, as workers leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad.

Capture (1)

The Los Angeles Times provides a more ground level view of the devastation:

Estimates vary, but some experts peg the number of new homeless as high as 20,000. Moreover, nearly 20% of Greeks no longer have enough money to cover daily food expenses, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The nation’s unemployment rate is 26%, the highest among 28 European Union members.

At Athens’ many apartment buildings, stories are rampant of people delinquent on so many months of rent that they simply leave behind keys and furniture, sneaking out in the middle of the night.

Until five years ago, it was hard to imagine masses of people living on the streets here; homelessness was so negligible that almost no one even bothered to measure. At the time, this was a strong welfare state with a rich tradition of family bonds. But austerity has eroded the former, and economic recession has frayed the latter.

The crisis has played out in a kind of domino effect. What might begin as a hard-luck case or two soon cascades through families and social groups. At some point there are too few roofs for too many relatives or friends.

The Greek people elected Syriza precisely because the austerity policies promoted by the Troika have left their country devastated.  See the video below for a five minute history of the forces propelling Syriza’s January 2015 election victory.  To this point, Syriza has offered several proposals involving compromises of its initial position.  However, these have all been rejected.  Syriza, for its part, continues to reject the Troika’s “take it or leave it” demand.

Experts claim that if Greece defaults on its loan to the IMF the government will be unable to sustain the country’s economic activity; Greece no longer prints its own currency so the government would not have the funds to pay salaries or support services.  It will be forced to put capital controls into place, nationalize the banking system, leave the euro area, and reintroduce its own currency.

Everyone agrees that the Greek economy and people will suffer in the short run regardless of whether it leaves the Euro Area or accepts Troika dictates and gets the money.  However, it is the long run view of future events that is up for debate.

The Troika argues that without a deal the Greek economy will enter a downward spiral leading to total collapse.  In contrast, some in Syriza argue that the above policy steps are precisely what the country needs to lay the ground work for a sustained recovery.  They point to Iceland’s use of similar policies to rapidly overcome its own devastating collapse after the great financial crisis of 2008.   

One thing is clear, euro membership has not produced the benefits promised for Greece and the other weaker euro area countries.  In fact, these countries actually did better before they adopted the euro, during the period when they had their own respective currencies which gave them some control over their interest rates and exchange rates.

MW-DO175_euro_c_20150616121435_ZH

As Brett Arends points out:

There’s a secret fear gripping the powerful across Europe.

It has policy honchos lying awake at nights in Brussels. It has bankers in Berlin tossing feverishly on their silken sheets. It has eurocrats muttering into their claret.

The fear?

It isn’t that if Greece leaves the euro, the Greeks will then suffer a terrible economic meltdown.

The fear is that if Greece leaves the euro, the country will return to prosperity — and then other countries might follow suit.

Take a look at the chart, above.

As you can see, Greece with the bad old drachma had double the economic growth of Greece under the euro. Double. And it wasn’t alone.

Italy, Spain and Portugal tell similar stories. Their economic growth back in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were “struggling” with the lira, the peseta, and the escudo, makes a mockery of their performance under the German-dominated euro.

Of course nothing is certain.  To this point a majority of Greeks want their country to remain in the Euro Area and Syriza is hoping that the Troika will modify their demands for austerity, accept Syriza’s program which includes a moderate increase in spending for social programs and employment creation, and release the funds.

In the meantime, Syriza has taken a number of steps in respond to popular demands.  One on-the-ground commentator, Quincey, offers the following summary of some of them:

What the hell has the SYRIZA-ANEL government been doing all this time, apart from negotiating with its creditors?

The answer may be found below, through a list I compiled from various sources. The list is not exhaustive, I focused on issues which I consider interesting for an international audience.

So, here it goes:

The SYRIZA-ANEL government initiatives’ list, as of today.
1. 
The government passed the humanitarian crisis bill, which will provide some 300,000 families with food stamps, free electricity, and a rent supplement.
2. It confirmed universal, free access to uninsured Greeks (not migrants) to the public health system.
3. Abolished the 5 euro public hospital entrance fee/ticket.
4. Abolished pension cuts (which were scheduled to take place automatically in February 2015).
5. Reopened the Public TV/radio broadcaster (ERT). ERT had been shut down 2 years ago, by the right-wing Samaras government.
6. Re-hired some 4,000 public officers who had been sacked by the previous government, among which the cleaning ladies of Finance Ministry (who achieved nation-wide fame thanks to their long and consistent struggle).
7. Canceled the “hood law”, under which dozens, perhaps hundreds of people arrested during protests, were risking up to 7 years imprisonment.
8. Theoretically speaking, the government abolished the new maximum security prison where political prisoners were held (not all prisoners have been transferred to normal facilities).
9. Non-regularized migrants held in detention camps are –supposedly- gradually released (the extent to which this process is actually taking place is debatable); police controls on migrants are significantly milder.
10. Generally speaking, police repression of protest is significantly milder (compared to the previous governments, one could say non-existent).
11. The Greek Parliament introduced an Odious Debt Committee to control for the legitimacy of the public debt (a mostly symbolic move).
12. The Greek Parliament founded the German War Reparations Committee (Greece has not been repaid the obligatory “loan” Nazi occupiers extracted during WWII, nor any war reparations).
13. The government introduced installments and discounts to help citizens and companies pay their debts to the state and pension funds.
14. A new bill will grant Greek citizenship to second generation migrants.
15. A bill is about to be voted, which will expand civil union to cover homosexual couples, granting them equal rights to the ones married couples enjoy.
16. An educational reform has been announced. The reform re-establishes academic asylum (abolished in 2011), reduces high-school students’ workload and allows for the so-called “perpetual students” (those who failed to get their degree on time) to retain their university student status.
17. The Minister of Labour, Panos Skourletis, has just announced that a (most-needed) labor reform, which would re-establish collective bargaining and collective agreements (practically abolished in 2012) will be introduced in the forthcoming days. The legislative proposal should – logically – include another major SYRIZA electoral promise, the gradual increase of the minimum monthly wage from approximately 550 euros (gross) to 750 euros (gross), during a period of 18 months. But we have to wait and see for that, as the reform has already been announced a couple of times, only to be blocked the day after by the country’s creditors.

So far, Syriza maintains majority support despite Troika efforts to discredit it as reckless and incompetent for rejecting the status quo.

More to follow in another post.