The human cost of the Euro ‘dream’

There are times when political discussion can based purely on ideology and principles, and there are times when it can’t. So while the Greek bailout is being debated in the German parliament and endlessly analysed elsewhere, I thought I would have a quick recap on the human costs of Greek austerity.
Healthcare is an obvious place to start and the stats are damning. According to CNN, “the country’s health care system is on the brink of collapse. Government health spending fell 25% between 2009 and 2012, after the country’s 2010 bailout package capped such spending.

Spending on drugs dropped by 32% since 2010. And the country owes international drug makers 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion), according to the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.

Evangelisimos is the biggest hospital in Greece. With 1,000 beds, it is constantly running 10% to 20% over capacity. “There is just too many patients and not enough rooms,” trainee nurse Anastasia Karkasina said. Karkasina is three months away from becoming fully qualified. She is worried about getting a job.

“There are no available positions, because there is no money to pay for them,” she said while taking a short break with fellow trainee Anna Karafoti in the sizzling heat outside the hospital. If the two manage to get jobs, they can expect monthly salaries of about 700 euros ($780).”

A public health tragedy is surely looming, with under-staffed hospitals running at over-capacity.

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Greece: A single story

A few days ago I found myself watching a TED talk by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is as engaging a speaker as she is a writer and she took to the TED stage to discuss what she calls the notion of a ‘single story’. The idea is a simple one: a single story is created by showing a nation (or continent) and its people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again until that is what people believe them to be. To illustrate the point, Adichie uses an example close to her heart, that of the poor, sick and war ravaged Africa, crying out for the help of the benevolent white man; a narrative that treats Africans as unfit to control their own destinies. She also points to the stereotype of the lazy Mexican immigrant, any US Republican voter’s worst nightmare. In both cases, the story is blind to the realities of the individuals and communities tarnished by this lazy stereotyping. But within this critique lies the purpose of this single story. Whoever writes the past can control the present, and whoever illustrates the characters can also define the plot. The single story of the Mexican immigrant may be a depressing generalisation but it is also a powerful weapon for the American far right.

As events unfolded in the seemingly never ending Greek ‘crisis’ over the last few days I kept coming back to this idea of the single story. Since the crisis began we have been constantly told that the bloated Greek public sector must pay the price for years of mismanagement; that the Greek people must stop shirking blame and face the full consequences of living beyond their means; that the Greek government must not expect something for nothing from its friends and partners at the eurozone negotiating table; and, most importantly, that the responsibility for the entire mess lies in Athens. While a quick glance on social media sites will of course show that many people have seen beyond this myopic version of events, it is still the voice of the mainstream media that holds influence in the majority of countries. Controlling the narrative is the key to political success.

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Syriza’s defeat deals a blow to the European Left

“Orderly debt restructuring has been done hundreds of times, hundreds, like with Germany in 1953”.

 Pablo Iglesias

As the leader of Podemos has rightly pointed out on many occasions, sovereign debt restructuring is nothing new. Why, we may ask, should post-war Germany be helped to meet its financial commitments and rebuild its shattered economies, but Greece and other southern European states should not? Well, the standard narrative on the right is that after an initial helping hand, German productivity and fiscal acumen allowed it to become a regional manufacturing powerhouse. After West Germany had sufficiently re-established itself as a responsible and affluent member of the international community, it was then helped to reunite with its crumbling, post-communist sibling. The beauty of this simplistic version of events is that it is essentially a story of redemption and triumph over adversity, and so lends moral weight to Germany’s central role in contemporary European affairs. It does not, however, hold up to scrutiny of the facts. It was Germany’s central position in the cold war, as well as its divisive position in post-war Europe that made the USA aggressively promote it as a new capitalist powerhouse on the continent. By promoting the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the modern EU) with German participation, the USA embarked on a project to strengthen the Deutschmark as an additional pillar of capitalist strength, and work towards the creation of a vast trading block. Nowhere is the commitment to rebuilding the German economy clearer than in the details of the 1953 debt restructuring, where debt repayment was tied to export revenue. Creditor nations therefore had a vested interest in buying German exports, thus allowing the indebted nation to repay its debts and become ultra-competitive on the global scene.

But in the 62 years that have passed since, the rules of the game have changed beyond recognition. The European project has boomed into a vast bureaucracy overseeing a continental marketplace. With the advent of the single currency at the beginning of the century, the Eurozone members committed themselves to the observance of strict financial rules in exchange for the so-called stability of a single unit of currency designed to reduce transaction costs and promote financial security within the bloc. It is now widely known that countries, including Greece, failed miserably to meet the requirements of euro entry but were admitted anyway through a combination of financial fraud and European bonhomie. Although this may look like a tragic mistake in hindsight, it was crucial to the project that the southern European countries join the single currency in an irreversible manner. As soon as Greece, Italy and Spain were locked into a currency position which did not allow for default, they had sacrificed their only effective means of making their economies more competitive in the face of German exports (which, as I previously discussed here, are made so competitive by breaking Eurozone rules). In short, they were therefore doomed to run current account deficits vis-à-vis Germany ad infinitum. But to make matters even worse, the lack of mechanism for fiscal transfer within the Eurozone (with the original rules explicitly removing this possibility) meant that there has never been any way for the German surplus to be recycled within the union in the interest of stability and balanced growth. The single currency has been deeply flawed from the start.

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Greece and the Eurogroup: The more things change, the more they stay the same

‘”We cannot negotiate with those who say ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable’”.

John F. Kennedy

So after all the negotiation, tension and gamesmanship of the past few weeks Greece is essentially back to where it started. Have no doubt about it, the announcement that Syriza has agreed to a four month extension of the existing bailout programme is a defeat for the new Greek government. As predicted on this blog over the last couple of weeks, it was always likely that a short-term deal would be found which could keep Greece in the game and offer some breathing space for all sides to work out a long-term deal. This is not the bridging loan envisaged by Varoufakis in his opening Eurogroup discussion but it does at least offer the much needed finance and some element of budgetary freedom. But it does so at the expense of maintaining the crushing austerity measures which were at the heart of Syriza’s electoral campaign. It is hard to see how Syriza can dress this up as anything but a defeat and as Varoufakis’ erstwhile nemesis, Wolfgang Schäuble (maybe he should be renamed Wolgang Schadenfreude) has delighted in pointing out, this deal will be hard to sell to the Greek people.

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But if the popular press is to be believed, the Greeks have not reacted badly to this austerity extension. Perhaps political pragmatism has come to the fore with recognition that this was the best deal on offer. However, Syriza has until tomorrow to present its creditors with a list of reforms that will accompany the finance extension. The devil, as always, will be in the detail and Tspiras and Varoufakis will be hard pressed to word this in a way which maintains their commitment to shaking off the shackles of austerity.

It seems incredible that Syriza has only been in power for a few weeks. But more incredible is the extent to which they have bent to the will of the troika and the Eurogroup in the face of inflexibility from their negotiating partners. Talk of 50% debt haircuts was watered down into growth-linked bonds before finally morphing into what looks like a continuation of the current programme. This is not only a defeat for the democratic will of the Greek people, who had firmly rejected the current austerity measures, but it is a reinforcement of the financial straight-jacket which has been at the root of Greece’s humanitarian crisis. Syriza may have secured additional short-term funds but much of this will be returned to its creditors in the form of debt and interest repayment. Very little (if any) will find its way to the Greek people, who must continue to suffer so that financial principles can be upheld.

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Is it all over for Greece, common sense and humanitarianism?

As I watched Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, brief the press core on the collapse of yesterday’s Eurogroup meeting, Trotsky’s acerbic put-down of Tsar Nicholas II came to mind: “It seemed as though between his consciousness and his epoch there stood some transparent but absolutely impenetrable medium.”

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The stance of the European Finance Ministers in recent days has been close to financial fanaticism. Tied together by a currency union designed to play by German rules of fiscal austerity, the Eurozone countries have all toed the official-line since the election of Syriza in January: The terms of financial bailout enforced by the Troika are non-negotiable. Yes, the Dutch Finance Minister claimed that there is some flexibility in the current programme, but only if it continues to be implemented on the Greek side. As is now being openly discussed in the corridors of Brussels, Greece has long since lost its financial autonomy.

But can this really be the end of the road? This week looks likely to offer a definitive answer to this question and it is hard to see what could unblock negotiations. As I have said over recent weeks, Syriza cannot concede much more from its side of the table. Its extraordinary election success was built on a backlash against austerity and Troika policy. To go back on their electoral promises and swallow whole the medicine being forced upon them by the creditors would be a crushing defeat for national democracy and one which would surely blow Greek politics (and society) apart.

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Time to change our priorities: improving society should be about more than supporting business

With capitalism in the doldrums and a general election nearly upon us it is the season to reflect on how we might manage to convert the neoliberal, market-driven free-for-all of our current society into something we might actually like to live in. Will Hutton set the ball rolling in the Guardian yesterday with a lengthy promotion of his new book, which lays out a new framework for building “smart societies.” Hutton’s critique of the existing  order raises some salient points and only those living on the moon over the last generation or three could have failed to notice that “problems in the British economy and society run deep.”  He is also right in asserting that, if “there are no networks of reciprocal obligation, and no acknowledgement that human beings associate in a society they can construct, redesign and reform around those principles, then we are all reduced to atomistic consumers and workers – serfs who are no more than notations in the spreadsheets of companies and public bodies alike.”

Do businesses really deserve to be at the centre of society?
Do businesses really deserve to be at the centre of society?

The problem with Hutton’s analysis, however, is that he still puts business and wealth creation at the heart of society. “The aim of any manifesto for change” says Hutton “must be to create the smartest economy for Britain – it is the only route to prosperity in the decades ahead.” Refining the mechanisms of wealth generation is all very well but surely this should not take precedence over the social and human fabric of the world we live in. Unfortunately, Hutton is a little sketchy on this issue and even though he is adamant that businesses should not solely tools of stock market speculation, he also declares that “companies are organisations of genius, solving problems, innovating and delivering great goods and services.” ICI, GEC and Rolls Royce are all used to show Britain’s great industrial tradition but he conveniently forgets recent allegations of corruption and bribery in the latter.

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Crunch time in Greek debt crisis: time for compromise?

It is well and truly crunch time and this week will be pivotal in defining the future of Greece and the Eurozone. It was interesting to read criticism this morning of Syriza’s approach to negotiations over the last couple of weeks, with at least one commentator pointing out that Varoufakis’ negotiating actions have not matched his academic knowledge of game theory. Let’s not forget though that at least he is showing willingness to resolve the situation in a way that will keep Greece solvent and avoid disaster. This is more than can be said for his Eurogroup partners.

Later today Syriza faces a vote of confidence in the Greek Parliament. Although it is likely to gain enough votes, this is just a precursor to tomorrow’s meeting in Brussels of EU finance ministers which could be one of the last opportunities to take steps towards a compromise before things start to unravel. After the ECB stopped accepting Greek bonds as collateral on loans last week, the National Bank of Greece has been forced to increase its operations through the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) in order to prop up the Greek banks. This is essentially a form of credit sanctioned by the ECB but with the proviso that it can be cut off at any moment if the ECB feels it is excessive. The end of Greek ELA would be the point of no return, leading to a run on Greek banks, bankruptcy and a certain exit from euro. Even now, Greek bank deposits continue to plummet at an alarming rate, adding to the likelihood of a run on the banks. Unless things change dramatically Greece will surely have to institute capital controls very soon to hang on to what’s left in their financial system. According to the ECB, Greek banks have lost around 21 billion euros since December, amounting to unsustainable losses. Although capital controls would break the European Union Treaty, this is not without precedent, and Cyprus was allowed to introduce this measure, with some success, in 2013. However, this will be an unpopular measure within Greece and is likely to be a severe test for Tsipras and his government.

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An unequal view of inequality: tackling wealth and income distribution

“There is no moral justification for extreme poverty side by side with great wealth.”

Alfred Marshall

Inequality was the hot topic in economics and political economy in 2014. Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, hit the best-sellers list and brought an overdue and welcome look at the historical evolution of wealth distribution in the developed world. Politicians, business leaders and celebrities all weighed in with their analysis of Piketty’s research and brought inequality discussion firmly into the mainstream. I finally got round to reading it towards the end of 2014 and found myself in agreement with much of what was written, particularly with the compelling case Piketty makes for the historical evolution of inequality. The crux of the matter, says Piketty, is that over the long-run returns to capital (r) are larger than economic growth (g) and so there is a tendency for wealth to outgrow income, leading to increased levels of inequality. This central point of his analysis has made some waves in the economics community and there has been a predictable backlash from some quarters. Nonetheless, it makes for compelling reading up to, that is, the point where Piketty proposes measures to reduce inequality (more about this later).

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Although ‘Capital’ is already old news, it is been in my mind over the last couple of weeks due to a few interesting developments. Firstly, it was a shock to see President Obama move towards tackling inequality in his State of the Union address in January with a few Piketty-influenced measures. Raising capital gains tax to 28% for those with incomes over $500,000, closing a popular tax loophole for the rich, and imposing a new levy on firms with assets over $50 billion, were all interesting measures, and not ones we would normally expect from a US President. Although the sentiment is right, it is still hard to justify the wealthy paying less in capital gains than regular mortals pay in income tax.

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