The release of The Big Short, which I saw last week, gives me a moment to connect it with another film that bookends the long financial crisis that started in the 1980s. I watched Trading Places again recently 30 years after it was released, and with the benefit of hindsight it seems like a harbinger for the “gilded age” and its less gilded aftermath.
Post-crisis politics aren’t about right or left. They’re about the core versus the periphery
One of the problems of political science, and social science generally, is that it is hard to prove a hypothesis. A sceptic can always say that there were particular circumstances that affected the outcome. We only get to play our history once.
But the recent events in Brussels in which the ‘Institutions’ settled with Greece have, without any doubt, vindicated the work of the late political scientist Peter Mair. His book Ruling The Void, assembled after his sudden death by his lifelong friend and colleague Francis Mulhern, argued that we were watching a long secular decline in party political engagement, and secondly that our political institutions were being shaped so that they had the appearance of being democratic, but none of the structure. His critical case was the European Union; it looked as if had the right institutions in place, but it was not designed to permit opposition or the expression of representative democracy.
It seems that the rumbling story about HSBC’s Swiss branch has achieved what political pollsters know as “cut through” – meaning that it’s of interest to voters as well as to those reporters who are sentenced to watch Prime Minister’s Questions each week.
The story reminded me of a passage in Wolfgang Streeck’s 2014 article ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ in which he explores the drivers of change that could bring about, well, the end of capitalism. The article deserves more space here on another occasion, but for the moment I just wanted to quote what he writes about his fifth driver, corruption:
Finance is an ‘industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption; where the largest firms are not just too big to fail, but also too big to jail, given their importance for national economic policy and tax revenue; and where the borderline between private companies and the state is more blurred than anywhere else, as indicated by the 2008 bailout or by the huge number of former and future employees of financial firms in the American government.
So far, fairly familiar, if admirably concise. The more important element here is that what this has done is broken the moral story about capitalism – work and the Protestant ethic and all that – that writers such as Max Weber spent so long trying to assemble at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Capitalism’s moral decline may have to do with its economic decline, the struggle for the last remaining profit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset-stripping on a truly gigantic scale. However that may be, public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich. Nobody believes any more in a moral revival of capitalism. The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.
Of course, the idea that capitalism has a moral purpose still floats around in political discourse such as “wealth creators,” a lost signifier loking for something to signify.
I hadn’t meant to come back to Syriza and the Eurozone so quickly, but The Real News Network has a fascinating interview with the German economist Heiner Flassbeck, conducted after the election, where he makes three valuable points. Here’s some extracts and some notes.
1. The Troika is more interested in imposing conditionality than talking about debt.
FLASSBECK: [T]he most important thing is not debt as such, but it is the reforms, the so-called reforms, the so-called structural reforms, where the countries have the conditionality to do something. And whether the debt is now repaid in the next ten years and next 20 years or so is not important. And that is not what it’s all about. What you have to discuss is the conditionality, and this is not covered by Varoufakis’ proposal. …
JAY: So … this is things like lowering the amount of pensions that are paid, the minimum wages.
FLASSBECK: Everything, all the things, the long list of 100 points, including the privatization of the port in Piraeus or things like that, crazy things that have nothing to do with the Greek performance–or not much, at least. Only under a neoliberal ideology it has much to do with the Greek performance. So these things are very important. And there, is far as I understand, the German finance minister said very clearly, no, no way to change that.
So – if this analysis is right – the two sides are much further apart even than the recent coverage suggests. Greece is talking apples, the Troika is talking oranges. But it’s also a sign of the way in which the election of Syriza has changed the game, and the shape of the Overton window. This is one reason why both sides are negotiating in public, as Peter Doyle pointed out in the FT’s Alphaville blog. When you can’t even agree on what the discourse is, the usual channels and the usual forums break down.
2. Since the European debt problem is still being fuelled by German trade surpluses, it’s not going to go away soon.
FLASSBECK: [T]he German surplus of the current account for this year and the official forecast of the German government is, again, 20-30 billion higher than last year. It’s more than 200 billion–a surplus of more than 200 billion, which clearly means, logically means that the German economy, the German politicians are building their whole model of the German economy on more indebtedness of other countries of the rest of the world, including Europe. So they need new debt from the rest of the world of 200 million for this year to get a small growth of 1.5 percent, which is ridiculous….
JAY: Let me just break this down and make sure I’m understanding it … They’re sitting on all this surplus, and what they need to do with it is loan it to somebody. So they need some debtors to pick up this $200 billion.
FLASSBECK: They need debtors. Germany needs debtors more than anybody in the world, because the whole economy is built on this surplus, on this idea that the rest of the world would be debtors and Germany’s always a creditor, which is a foolish idea … Every reasonable economist knows it’s a foolish idea. It’s mercantilism.
Two points about this. The first is that it goes to the heart of the Eurozone’s low-growth problem – it won’t grow until Germany starts buying more. The second is that this isn’t a problem stemming from the financial crisis. It’s a problem stemming from the way in which Germany is choosing to manage its economy. And generally, mercantilism went out of fashion in the 18th century.
3. The only way for Greece to resolve  and  is to build a coalition.
FLASSBECK: [I]t’s a violation of the rule inside the Monetary Union that you should not have macro economic imbalances that go beyond a certain point. The Germans insisted that it should be 6 percent of GDP, but now the German surplus is even going far beyond that. It would be 8 percent of GDP this year. So I would, if I were Mr. Tsipras, I would take this point. I would say, you see, the Germans are violating everything, and the most important thing under the sun, namely, the current account balance–and at the same time, they’re accusing us of violating other parts of the treaties of the European treaty. So who is the biggest violator, and who’s going to play along the rules or against the rules?
JAY: And this is the logic with which you try to build your coalition.
FLASSBECK: I would build my coalition exactly along these lines, and then it would be very difficult for the Germans to argue and to say, no, we don’t care about that; our violations do not count; only yours count. If you then have a strong political coalition, including Italy and France, they could easily, in my view, easily get a majority in Europe against the Germans. … That’s where you have to go.
Of course this makes political sense, but it also requires time; and political time and the time of financial markets run at different speeds. Indeed, you can go one step further here and suggest that the ECB’s intervention last week might have been designed to accelerate the speed of a Greek financial crisis and reduce the time and the opportunities to build such a coalition.
But all of this is a complex and dangerous game.
In his excellent Alphaville post, Peter Doyle reminds us that everyone has the same aims for the euro:
The issue is not that the ECB and Syriza have fundamentally different aims for the euro: both want it; both want it to secure stable sustainable growth area wide; and, to that end, both agree that policy in it has to be designed and coordinated at area level because everyone working “by and for themselves” above pre-set floors and subject to “no-bailouts” has all-too-clearly-and-all-too-utterly failed.
But the eurozone has been so badly designed that the only way to keep it in the air is for everyone to keep threatening to crash it.
It is like a mid-air jumbo jet, flown by a large one-member-one-veto committee, with one wing on backwards. So orthodox procedures (all engines on forward thrust) spell ruin … In that context, the current pas-de-deux is not a matter of “whether the Greeks or the ECB blink first.” It is a case of whether the fallout from the perpetual dance of death can be contained.
And sitting in the middle of the whirling dervishes, of course, is Angela Merkel. As Peter Doyle argues, she could decide that the markets seem relaxed about a Greek exit, and let them go, to discover that the markets have just been quiet because they’ve been momentarily doped with a-trillion-or-so of quantitively-eased Euros. Or she could decide that’s too much of a risk, and over-rule her hawkish finance minister Wolfgang Schaüble – fresh from his defeat on the quantitative easing – to have him cause political mayhem internally.
Merkel always prefers the less risky option. But in this context, it is not clear what that is for her. Thus is her dance with the markets.
Someone said dismissively of Yanis Varoufakis this week
(sadly I can’t find the link) that he resembled a man holding a gun to his head and demanding a ransom threatening to shoot (a bit like the new sheriff in Blazing Saddles). In such a volatile situation, acting crazy may be the sanest thing to do.
The interview was with The Real News Network. You can view it here.
It’s impossible to tell how the stand-off between Syriza, Germany, and the ECB will turn out, and events are shifting daily. But some of the thinking in a Futures Company Future Perspective I co-wrote with the journalist and analyst Matthew Lynn on The Future of the Eurozone helps make sense of the situation. It was published in 2012. It’s clear from re-reading our analysis from then that Syriza, and Greece, holds more cards than many people think it does.
The Future Perspective observed that financial crises are a routine feature of market economies, and followed familiar patterns. “This time” is never different. A diagram outlined the tensions that framed responses to a debt crisis.
The first observation is that in Greece it has taken quite a long time, and some astonishingly adverse social and economic outcomes, for the political dimension at the bottom of the diagram to push its way to the forefront. This is partly because Greece’s mainstream parties chose to align themselves with austerity programmes, as they did elsewhere in Europe. But perhaps we should be surprised instead by the speed at which an opposition party from way outside of the mainstream has come to power: historically, such shifts take a generation or more, not a decade. Podemos in Spain, and Sinn Fein in Ireland, could follow.
One of my pleasures over the holiday period has been reading The Baffler‘s third book-length collection of articles, No Future For You. (I read the first one, Commodify Your Dissent in the early 2000s, but missed the second one.) For those new to The Baffler: it is a radical American magazine, published three times a year, that has mostly been going since 1988. The list of authors in this latest collection is impressive, from Baffler founder Thomas Frank to Susan Faludi, Evgeny Morozov, Rick Perlstein, Barbara Ehrenreich, and David Graeber. The collection of subjects ranges wide across the sociopathies of our late Potemkin-capitalism, from gentrification to LinkedIn, to Vice, NewsCorp and the Washington Post, to Sheryl Sandberg and the Waltons, to Fifty Shades of Grey and Prometheus to all of the President’s biographers. I bought the book to have a print copy of David Graeber’s magisterial essay “Of Flying Cars And The Declining Rate of Profit” on the failure of innovation in the digital age.
If there is a theme that binds these different authors and their disparate subjects, it is that The Baffler has a sharp eye for hucksters and hucksterism. And more: that in our present era of late capitalism, with its “morbid symptoms” manifested by a failed order desperately trying to keep itself and its privileges afloat, hucksterism is the latest, or last, symptom of therentier economy.
PFI, outsourcing, and privatisation have all been strategies to shift money from the public sector and the taxpayer to the financial sector. But they are now running up against political limits.
I think we’ve got to the point where we have to name British politics for what it has become: a wholesale looting of the state and the public, with the complicity of the political class, to reward the financial sector. I’ve tried all of the other explanations, and none of them work better. It is the only explanation that fits the facts. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but what finally triggered me to write was a relatively minor tweet from the Cabinet Office:
While it’s sensible to make sure that public assets aren’t standing idle, the Property Finder is related to the Government’s “Right to Contest”, explained this way in a story in The Guardian:
Under a right to contest introduced in January, anyone can force the government to explain why a building or plot is not being used fully. If the department that owns it cannot justify its current use, it will be forced to release it for sale.
Hashtag GovSavings. It will be forced to release it for sale. And in turn this made me wonder if I could identify a single decision made by George Osborne or the Coalition that didn’t benefit the financial classes – and the 1% – rather than the rest of us. I came up with one, the raising of the minimum wage, where the Chancellor was outmanouevred by Ed Miliband. (In case you’re wondering about the raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000, just no.)
Anthony Jenkins, the retail banker who succeeded Bob Diamond as the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, has rightly been criticised this week after the bank announced that it had increased its bonus pool when profits were falling and the bank is pushing through large cuts – 7,000 people – in retail banking. You judge a system by what it does, not what it says it does, and this decision spoke volumes – yelled it from the rooftops, really – about who benefits from the Barclays’ banking system.
Over at the excellent Global Dashboard, Alex Evans has a post reflecting on the things he and David Stevens called wrong (and less wrong), looking through their development and poverty lens, in the aftermath of the crisis. In a similar spirit, my sometime colleague Ian Christie sent me ‘Ten notes on the crisis’, representing his take on what we’d learnt about economics and politics since 2008. I thought they deserved a wider audience. And so, with his permission, I’m republishing his Ten Notes here. They start below the fold.
The received wisdom about the collapse of the British entertainment chain HMV and its acquisition by the distress specialists Hilco is that it didn’t see the internet coming. And doh! Actually, the truth has a lot more to do with economics and the way finance dominates business. This long post is broken into two parts: part 2 is here.
The immediate cause of HMV’s collapse, of course, was the British recession, which has gone on longer than anyone expected, and the economy is now teetering on the edge of an unprecedented triple dip recession. Here’s the NIESR chart showing comparative GDP since the pre-recession peak for the past six recessions. The black line at the bottom is the current recession, and yes, this chart should be on the wall of every economic policymaker in the UK.