Three planks for a possible anti-austerity

What would anti-austerity in Canada look like? There are really two types of questions here. There are those of analysis: what has Canada’s austerity looked like, what makes it distinctive and how does it appear in people’s everyday experience? The others are those of political strategy. These are questions that will have to wait for a social, political force ready to meaningfully take up the cause of anti-austerity. With none on the immediate horizon, I don’t intend to pontificate on what Syriza can teach Canada; best look first at what we can learn of our own situation.

When I interviewed him last week, Yanis Varousfakis, now the Finance Minister of Greece, laid out three very general planks of Syriza’s anti-austerity program. Of course, Greece is the unenviable victim of the cruelest austerity experiment in the North, but simplified to their most basic form the three planks articulated by Yanis have broad applicability. To paraphrase, they are

  1. dealing with debt;
  2. increasing social spending;
  3. generating public revenue.

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The Greek canary in the European coalmine: An interview with Yanis Varoufakis

Over at Ricochet, I’ve transcribed my podcast interview with Yanis Varoufakis, economist and Syriza candidate in tomorrow’s Greek elections. With Syriza looking to get the most votes and possibly an outright parliamentary majority, I asked Yanis about the Greek economy, Syriza’s economic plans, his views on what these mean for Europe and how we can expect Greece to take its place in Europe come Monday. Here is the interview in full.

Michal Rozworski: I know this is an enormous topic but what is the current economic situation on the eve of the elections in Greece? Can you give a kind of snapshot?

Yanis Varoufakis: In brief, everyone owes to everyone, and no one can pay. The banks are bankrupt; they owe money to the state, to each other, to foreign banks. Citizens owe money to the banks and owe money to the state. The state owes money to everyone. So we have a triple insolvency: bankrupt banks, a bankrupt state and a bankrupt private sector. There are of course pockets, like everywhere, within society of people who are really well off. They have money in banks in Switzerland, in the city of London, on Wall Street, in Frankfurt, and even some money in the Greek banks.

But the overall situation is that — even though in the last year or so there’s been a small rebound, not in terms of income but in terms of expenditure — the economy is quite clearly still in a downward spiral that is filling everyone’s soul with negative expectations.

It’s interesting you mention that slight rebound. What I found interesting is that there seems to be a bit of a reversal of 2012. So, on the one hand, now some of the economic indicators have improved in minimum ways, if we can even use that word, but on the other hand, the population seems to be more immune to the fear-mongering on behalf of Greek and European elites against the left. What’s changed? What’s led to Syriza actually having a chance of gaining a majority in parliament? 

Well, two things mainly. Firstly, Syriza has matured over the last two years; there is no doubt about that. So it has inspired more confidence in the electorate. Secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, now it is abundantly clear that the whole narrative of a “Greek-covery” — if you remember a year ago or so — was just utterly bogus. It was a piece of propaganda, a bubble that burst and Greeks are sick and tired.…

Credit: Yanis Varoufakis.
Credit: Yanis Varoufakis.

Look, I was in a taxi this morning. The taxi driver said to me — he recognized me as a candidate — “Look, Greeks fall into two categories. There are those who are really scared of losing what little they have left. The rest don’t give a damn; they just want to vote in a way that states it in a way for everyone outside of Greece to see that we’re not interested in this vicious cycle anymore.” (more…)

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Ontario is no California when it comes to debt

The Toronto Star just published an article I wrote in response to claims made by the Fraser Institute and the Toronto Sun that Ontario has a runaway debt problem worse than California’s.

The short version: I call BS. The slightly longer version: California has constraints, such as limits on the size of debt and difficulties in raising new taxes, that have severely hampered its ability to take on and manage debt. It has a smaller debt than Ontario on all measures but much worse credit standing. Ontario, on the other hand, still has a lot of flexibility to deal with debt. The “solutions” proposed along the Fraser Institute’s alarmism actually seek to create similar, harmful constraints in Ontario. “There is no alternative” becomes true only if we allow alternatives to be removed.

Read the full piece here.

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QE: Furthering the habit of privatizing gains and socializing losses

“Privatizing gains and socializing losses” could be the motto for the neoliberal era. Alongside this and “there is no alternative”, few slogans better capture the ideology that has been so successfully diffused throughout the world over the past several decades.

Five years after latest financial crisis, this motto rings true as ever. To say that the losses stemming from the crisis were large is a heroic understatement; indeed, not only were they humongous, their exact size remains a tad fuzzy. Meanwhile, across the world in the aftermath of the crisis, stock markets have rebounded, wealth and income inequalities have grown and corporations and financial institutions have returned to making healthy profits. At the same time, many countries have seen both employment and median incomes either stagnate or fall.

In short, once again, losses were socialized, while gains privatized. Prominent among the means employed by governments to ensure that this be the case were various kinds of asset purchase programs. First, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, came actions that transferred toxic financial assets into public hands either through direct buybacks (as in the US TARP program) or temporary nationalization/bailout. Since these short-term, more explicit socializations of private loss came to an end, the policy of quantitative easing (QE), through which central banks purchase vast amounts of long-term debt from financial markets, has been their implicit continuation. Unlike the earlier programs, QE is aimed instead at the other end of the equation, privatized gains. (more…)

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Austerity and the profitability puzzle: government gives profits a helping hand

This is the third and final post in what has become a three-part series on the puzzle of high profitability and low investment in the Canadian economy. In the first part, I looked at some data that shows the existence of the puzzle and explored a few of the factors that could be behind it. The follow-up post outlined broadly Keynesian and Marxian solutions aimed at raising investment: the former based on stimulating demand, the latter on eliminating overcapacity and increasing the relative profitability of productive capital. Here, I want to continue the thoughts that concluded the second part, namely that the Harper government’s preferred response to the puzzle has been neither demand stimulation nor industrial policy. Instead, it has been austerity – a strategy by no means accidental, but in fact designed to support the status quo of high profitability and low investment.

Austerity is not an isolated Canadian phenomenon nor is it a new one. The neoliberal era that began sometime in the 1970s has seen austerity in one form or another applied worldwide. Economic crises have especially provided governments with excuses to institute or continue austerity policies that would not have been difficult to institute otherwise. While Canada did not experience the latest economic crisis to the same extent as a number of other countries, it has seen a more moderate version of many of the same trends – such as slower growth and lower employment. The crisis was large enough to allow the Harper government to continue and deepen a tentative austerity regime. While Canada has not pursued austerity programs as spectacular as some, for example the UK or Spain, the Conservative government has, nevertheless, succeeded in substantially reducing the size of government, small cut by small cut. While Canadian austerity policies predate the crisis, the crisis has only helped to entrench them and further orient them towards propping up profitability.

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