Tag Archives: austerity

The SPD under Merkel

2 Jun

As part of its continuing series on the European Left, The Current Moment publishes an article by Wolfgang Streeck on the SPD under Merkel. Wolfgang Streeck is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany. Widley recognized in Germany and abroad for his work in sociology and political economy, Wolfgang Streeck’s most recent book is published this month in English with Verso, under the title Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.

 

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Since the fall of 2013 Germany has been governed by a Grand Coalition, led by the Christian Democrats under Angela Merkel and including as junior partner the Social Democrats under Sigmar Gabriel. Arguably the union of Black and Red was nothing more than the formalization of an informal cohabitation that had followed the end of the first Grand Coalition of the new century in 2009. Now that the opposition in the Bundestag has been reduced to a tiny and politically dispersed minority, it seems not much of an exaggeration to consider the government firmly in the hands of a centrist national unity party into which the two former Volksparteien have peacefully dissolved.

What is remarkable is how happy the two parties are with their reunion, and how stable their share in the vote has remained since 2009: the CDU/CSU attracting roughly 40 percent of the electorate – at steadily declining rates of turnout – and the SPD being stuck at around 25 percent, a result that was considered catastrophic in 2009 when it was attributed to having been the smaller party in a Merkel cabinet. Now the SPD seems content with having ceased to be in serious completion for the Chancellorship, if not forever then for a very long time.

There are several reasons for the stability of the current power-sharing – or better: cooptation – regime and its apparent prospects for a long life. Angela Merkel seems much to prefer the SPD over the coalition partner of her second term, the FDP. With the Social Democrats on board, she is no longer at risk of being forced by her party, or tempted by her own passions if such she has, to hurt the feelings of pensioners, the unemployed, or the remaining clients of the welfare state by pursuing neoliberal “reform”, at least in Germany. While the SPD is less given to electoral-political panic, being (still) sufficiently far away from the five-percent hurdle, the FDP may never recover and disappear in the no-man’s land outside of the Bundestag. Moreover, if the SPD were for some reason to break away from Merkel, there are now Greens, eagerly waiting to claim the place of the SPD as the CDU’s partner in government – and the SPD knows this. Having abandoned their old leadership after the disappointing election results of 2013, the Greens are still angry with themselves for having rejected Merkel’s invitation to coalition negotiations. Merkel can now choose between two comfortable majorities, one with the SPD and one with the Greens, and next time around she may actually want to change partners once the SPD will have done the dirty work of revising the Energiewende in line with the interests of the German export industry and, perhaps, the private households suffering from steadily increasing prices of electricity. More on this below.

Meanwhile, Red-Green-Red, a government formed under SPD leadership and including the Greens and the Left, looks ever more remote as a practical possibility. The Greens, having finally abandoned their leftist inclinations, will not let entering a government that includes Die Linke get in the way of their being perceived as a thoroughly buergerliche, middle-of-the road party with a socially progressive and environmentally conscious agenda. And while the Left has worked hard to style itself as a staunch supporter of “Europe” – which in Germany is now the same as the Euro – its empathy with Russia in the crisis over Ukraine is likely to make it even more of an outcast in the German party system than it already is, not least because of the SPD’s untiring denunciations.

Inside the SPD Sigmar Gabriel, party leader and minister of economic affairs, is now fully in control. Not least this is because Merkel, by making major substantive concessions to him during the coalition negotiations, including a disproportionate representation of SDP ministers in the cabinet, made it easier to forget the party’s crushing defeat of 2013 that ut received under his leadership. Moreover, Gabriel’s candidate for Chancellor, Steinbrück, miraculously disappeared only two or three days after the election, as though he had never existed; nobody has heard from or of him since. Steinmeier, Gabriel’s other former rival, is happy to be back at the Foreign Office, in the post he already occupied in the first Grand Coalition 2005 to 2009 when the party was sufficiently impressed with him to make him candidate for the Chancellorship, to disastrous effect.

As to Gabriel, his junior partnership with Angela Merkel has given him the means to heal the rift between the SPD and the unions, with two policy moves he extracted from the CDU/CSU. The first is the introduction of a general minimum wage, the second an effective lowering of the pension age for a select group of workers. Both measures are still in the legislative process and details are contested between the SPD and factions in the Christian-Democratic Parties. The Chancellor, however, as one would expect, sticks firmly to the Coalition agreement and there is no doubt that the two measures will eventually be passed in one form or other.

The prehistory of the impending minimum wage legislation is rather curious. For a long time the unions had opposed any legal regulation of low wages, in order to protect collective bargaining. The first to break ranks was the service sector union, Verdi, which after the Hartz reforms had finally lost control over the low wage end of the labor market. With a delay of a few years IG Metall, still the most powerful among the unions, concurred, which it might have done much earlier given that there are practically no low wage workers in its constituency. Now the SPD can offer a legal minimum wage as a tribute to its union allies, and as a sign that social-democratic participation in government carries real benefits for workers – which in this case is actually true.

Pension reform, too, serves to mend fences with the unions. Under the first Grand Coalition the then Social-Democratic party chief and Minister of Labor, Franz Müntefering, almost single-handedly raised the legal age of retirement to 67 years, bypassing the SPD in what was practically a coup-de-état with the support of Merkel. The new legislation will allow workers with more than 45 years of service, including times of unemployment, to retire at age 63, at full pension. The matter is more complicated than it looks and more complicated than its supporters and detractors make it look. What is true is that it will benefit mainly the core union constituency of male manual workers. In exchange, the SPD has swallowed an even more expensive pension increase for mothers with children born before 1992, which was and is a pet project of the Christian Democrats trying to get back the female vote. Like the minimum wage, both pension reforms are fought tooth and nail by German economists, a neoliberal monoculture of astonishing internal conformity that has never been more predictably opposed than now to anything looking only slightly like it might be social-democratic.

In addition to minimum wage legislation and pension reform, three issues in particular will dominate the agenda of the Grand Coalition. Ultimately they will decide upon which constellation of political forces Merkel’s fourth term – and nobody seriously doubts that she wants and will get one – will be founded. The first is Europe. Here the SPD was always in agreement with Merkel, in government or out. It is true that once in a while it deployed anti-Merkel rhetoric to attract the Euro-idealistic segment of the middle class, as represented primarily by the Greens. In this vein, before the 2013 election Gabriel made several attempts to win the backing of intellectuals such as Jürgen Habermas, for what he pretended to be a social-democratic alternative to Merkel’s European policy. The message, although mostly coded and subtle, was that Merkel did less than required to mitigate the suffering in the South. But the only practical consequence, if any, was that Merkel won and the SPD lost among those afraid that “Europe” would become too expensive. It seems that this was why Merkel felt no need to be vindictive about the Social-Democratic attacks.

In fact, when coalition negotiations began after the election, the first deal that seems to have been struck on the very first day was that the SPD gave up on the Europeanization of government debt (“Eurobonds”) so dear to the heart of the Greens and the progressive middle-class milieu, in return for the CDU agreeing to the legal minimum wage. Both CDU/CSU and SPD know that more than symbolic assistance for the crisis countries would be costly at the ballot box although the SPD, to Merkel’s delight, had to pretend for the consumption of the “progressive” part of its constituency that it did not care about this. In truth, Merkel, Schäuble, Gabriel, Steinmeier and the forgotten Steinbrück have for long formed an Einheitsfront, knowing they must defend the Euro to the hilt as it is the lifeline of the German export industry, not just of its employers but also of its unions. For the German economy, European Monetary Union means a favorable external exchange rate plus fixed prices for their products in a captive “internal market” protected from political distortion in the form of a readjustment of national currencies. The German political class knows that at some point this will have to be paid for, but they are determined to keep the price as low and as invisible to voters as possible. One way of doing this is insisting on “reforms” in debtor countries, another offering financial support for social programs in Greece or Spain that are small enough not to make a dent in German public finances but also too small to make one in the South’s misery. Much more important is the tacit backing by both CDU and SPD of the European Central Bank’s various covert measures to bail out the ailing Southern European banking industries and surreptitiously refinance the debt of the Mediterranean states, in contravention of the Maastricht Treaties. While the Christian Democrats pretend they don’t know, the Social Democrats claim credit with their pro-Euro supporters for not getting in the way of the ECB’s “emergency measures”.

The so-called “European elections” were officially framed in German politics in two not readily compatible ways at the same time and by the same players. First, they were depicted as a Manichaean battle between the “good Europeans” united in the CDU/CSU/SPD/Greens/FDP Einheitsfront and the “enemies of Europe” – the “Anti-Europäer” – represented mainly by a new center-right party, AfD, which had formed to demand an end to monetary union. During the election campaign all controversial issues among the governing parties, most of them just pseudo- controversial anyway, had been hidden away (no mention any more of “Eurobonds”!), just as at the European level all impending critical decisions had been postponed (like banking union and the various additional “rescue operations” it will require). This left as common objectives for both Christian and Social Democrats a higher voter turnout and keeping the AfD as small as possible. Both goals were in part achieved as the 7.0 percent won by the AfD remained below the protest vote in many other countries, and turnout increased for the first time in decades in a national election, from 43.3 to 48.1 percent.

Second and simultaneously, the election was presented as a competition between two individuals, both long-serving European functionaries with indistinguishable European convictions, running Europe-wide for the Presidency of the European Commission on behalf of their respective “party families”: the Luxemburger Christian Democrat Jean-Claude Juncker and the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz. Merkel had more or less enthusiastically allowed her party to participate in the charade, apparently on condition that she rather than Juncker was featured on the CDU election posters. The SPD, on the other hand, insisted that the “winner” of the contest had to be appointed President, even though nothing like this can be found in the Treaties, and although Schulz never had a realistic chance of gaining a majority in the Parliament. Remarkably, throughout the campaign the SPD presented Schulz under the slogan, “From Germany, for Europe”, in obvious contradiction of Schulz’ pan-European rhetoric outside his home country. The nationalist frame in which the Social-Democratic “European” candidate was advertised paid off handsomely. While the Christian Democrats lost 2.6 percentage points and ended up at 35.3 percent, the SPD gained 6.5 points (up from 20.8 percent in 2009, which had been the party’s lowest result ever) to finish at 27.3 percent.

The election over, it is again the time of the European Council, the representation of national governments, which today means the time of Angela Merkel. If she wants she can now act as the informal leader of her “party family” and try to install Juncker at the head of the Commission. For the required majority in the European Parliament she will need the support of the Social Democrats, which she might get if she offers Schulz a post as Commission member, maybe as Vice President. This she would be able to do by sacrificing the sitting German commissioner, a former Christian-Democratic Minister President of the Land of Baden-Württemberg who, conveniently, happens to oppose Merkel’s anti-nuclear energy policy. Sending Schulz to Brussels on the German ticket would make Merkel’s German coalition partner happy: not only would it transport the German Grand Coalition to the European level – where Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had always worked together hand-in-glove – but the SPD had during the coalition negotiations demanded the German post on the Commission, without the two sides having come to an agreement. Moreover, a Schulz appointment would usefully demonstrate, if such demonstration was still needed, that Merkel knows how to punish disobedient members of her camp. Alternatively, Merkel could, after a period of indecision, disregard the election results altogether and appoint a Commission President able to get the approval of the British – which would exclude both Juncker and Schulz. This would be a positive signal to the rising numbers in Europe, not just in the UK, who favor a repatriation of competences from Brussels to the nation-states. In particular, it would be a good preparation for the impending negotiations with London on a revision of the Treaties in this sense. Germany, it would appear, should have a strong interest in keeping Britain inside the EU, if only as reassurance against all too ambitious integration projects as are likely to originate in Southern member countries and could be quite costly from a German perspective. Ultimately, perhaps after some public fuss, the SPD, in charge after all of the German Foreign Ministry, will go along with this as it always has.

The second issue the SPD will somehow have to master is the implementation, drawn out over more than a decade, of the balanced budget constitutional amendment passed by the first Grand Coalition under Merkel in 2009. As CDU-CSU and SPD had passed the amendment together, it would be hard for both to defect from it. On the other hand, while the language that was inserted in the Constitution is extremely detailed and technical, making the amendment the longest ever and entirely unreadable for the general public, loopholes can always be found to mitigate spending cuts if need be. As long as the general economic situation in Germany continues to be as good as it is now, the consolidation of public finances, which has already begun, will cause only little pain and budget balancing can remain a joint undertaking. Already, however, the 2014 pension reform was counter to the spirit of austerity under which the Schuldenbremse was installed, and the moment tax revenues will begin to stagnate or decline, the higher pension entitlements will make themselves painfully felt. Among the budget items that may then become politically contentious are the still very high annual transfers to the Neue Länder, the former GDR. For a government that will for political if not for other reasons have to defend these against spending cuts, it will be impossible to advocate new fiscal transfers to the Southern and, increasingly, the South-Eastern member states of EU and EMU, regardless of whether through Brussels or on a bilateral basis. Obviously this will further constrain German options in Europe and in the defense of the common currency. While this is unlikely to destabilize the Black-Red coalition, what may become critical is that the Länder, which together account for half the public spending in Germany, may have a harder time than the federal state to consolidate their finances as required for them by the amended federal constitution. It so happens that most of the Länder are today governed with strong Social-Democratic participation, and some Länder Prime Ministers are powerful figures within the SPD. Bringing them in line with the Federal Government’s fiscal consolidation policy will be a strong test for the SPD national leadership and the Social-Democratic cabinet members, and one that they may well fail.

The third and final of the three critical issues for the Social Democrats under the Grand Coalition is energy. When Merkel ended the nuclear age in Germany by command decision during the panic after Fukushima, she with one stroke gained for herself the option of a Black-Green coalition. In this, perversely, she could count on the support of the SPD, which had long identified itself with the Greens’ anti-nuclear energy stance, in spite of considerable skepticism among the unions, who were concerned about jobs, and among local governments, often Social-Democratic, who worried about a secure energy supply. When general enthusiasm about the Energiewende had dissipated and the immense difficulties of replacing nuclear energy wholesale with renewables began to make themselves felt, Merkel cunningly conceded energy policy to the SPD, by agreeing to move it from the ministry for the environment to the economics ministry which the SPD had claimed for its party leader. Gabriel will now have to square several circles at the same time. First, he will have to find ways to end and perhaps reverse the rise in energy prices for private households caused by the heavy subsidization of renewables. Second and at the same time, he must reassure the Green element in the SPD that he will not fall behind Merkel with respect to the pace and scope of the “energy turn”. Third, German industry has meanwhile become more restive than ever over the rising price of energy, and firms are beginning to talk about relocating production to countries where energy is cheaper. The same fear is expressed by unions in the manufacturing sector, in particular the union of chemical workers, which happens to represent also the energy-producing industry, including the operators of nuclear power plants. Fourth, the European Union in Brussels has become suspicious about what it perceives to be public subsidies (“state aids”, in Brussels jargon) to lower the costs of energy for manufacturers in energy-intensive sectors – which, in turn, are in fear of Brussels depriving them of their benefits. Fifth, citizens, including some of those who had applauded the end of nuclear energy, are becoming averse to the construction of the new power lines required for the transport of wind energy from the north to the south of the country. For Social Democrats, the main battlefield will be the retail price of electricity for low-income households, followed by employment in manufacturing and energy production. No doubt Merkel had every reason to hand the responsibility for Energiewende to her partner, with the Greens waiting in the wings for when Gabriel will have to throw the towel under the intensifying pressures from different and incompatible interests. This, then, may be the hour of Black-Green.

 

What German Left? (Part 1)

7 May

Guest post by Phil Mader, researcher in sociology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and an editor of the Governance Across Borders blog, www.governancexborders.com.

TCM’s launch article for this occasional series argued that today’s German Left was more German than Left. It would be hard to disagree. However, equating the German Left with the SPD (as the article mostly did) offers too narrow a picture. It’s not easy to say what’s Left (and left) of the traditional social/Christian democrat divide in Germany, so for the sake of a tour d’horizon, I’ll attempt an overview of the factional positions and various counter- and cross-currents rippling across the left-of-centre political spectrum in Germany. Marx and Engels bitingly remarked in the German Ideology that “The thoughts and actions of the foreigner are concerned with temporariness, the thoughts and actions of the German with eternity.” They were, of course, criticising their contemporaries, but the statement retains validity for both the tamer and the more radical elements of the German Left, the former being more concerned with the permanence of the German model than Europe’s present ailments, the latter preoccupied with more abstract matters than the current impasse. This first article deals with the moderate parliamentary Left: the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party (Die Grünen). The next examines the leftier Left: the Linkspartei and the extra-parliamentary Left, including the trade union sector and the autonomous movement.

Overall – as in most parts of the Western capitalist world – the past thirty-odd years have shifted the general parameters of party politics in Germany to the right. However, the failure of the German Left to advance solidarity in the banking-cum-Southern European debt crisis has specific Germany-rooted causes. Partly of course economic profiteering plays a role, but ideologically for the vast majority (far into the Left voter spectrum) the only possible narrative of the Euro crisis is that of economic virtue versus immorality. Mirroring the overall rise of a new nationalism, for many in Germany southern Europe’s woes are a welcome confirmation of Germany’s own virtue. Its model for the past 20 years has been the astonishing, perhaps even historically unique, cumulative wage repression amounting to 79 percent of GDP (since 1995), while private debt levels remained among the lowest and steadiest in Europe.

German popular wisdom on southern Europe is embodied in the figure conjured up by Merkel of the proverbially frugal, economically savvy and morally virtuous “Swabian housewife” who knows that you can only ever spend as much as you have. Germany’s current relative economic stability in terms of high capitalization, continued export success, and moderate unemployment (7 percent officially; but 1.4 million Germans receive wage subsidies and 900,000 are temps) appears a late reward for this “wisdom”, while tabloid tirades against lazy, scheming “Pleite-Griechen” (“bankrupt Greeks”) offer rhetorical solace to a populace which has stolidly borne the clear-cutting of social insurance and creation of a new lumpen-precariat, publicly reduced to rummaging in bins for bottles worth 8 cents deposit. Given this combination of base and superstructure, political acts of solidarity with Southern Europe are risky enterprises for any force vying for power.

Not that, under normal circumstances, Germany’s social democrats would be too keen. Far more than Britain’s Labour Party or France’s Socialistes, the SPD has a history of organic alliance with conservative elites, supporting the national cause in decisive, difficult impasses: Lasalle’s anti-communism, the SPD’s “yes” to war bonds (1914), Ebert and Noske’s violent quashing of the revolution in 1919 and 1920. Since World War II, the SPD’s two defining moments in government were Willy Brandt’s rapprochement (conservatives labeled him a traitor yet reaped the later rewards of a smooth incorporation of the East) and the Schröder government’s early 2000s “Hartz” tax, welfare, and labour market reforms, which cut deeper through the social safety net in one electoral term than Kohl ever attempted in four.

At the ballots, the Social Democrats have fought a losing battle ever since, clinging to diminishing remnants of power. After the last election in fall 2013, Social Democrat leaders never considered a possible “Red-Red-Green” Left majority, quickly choosing instead to repeat their “grand coalition” with the CDU (and making Linke and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen the smallest opposition ever in the German Bundestag). One effect of the SPD’s preference for centrist coalitions has been that any political achievements it can show increasingly bear the CDU’s stamp. For instance, the two social causes it championed in the last election – a universal minimum wage and dual citizenship – are materialising as barely recognizable compromises. Over one third of employees who should have benefited from the minimum wage of €8.50 per hour (before tax) will be exempt, and those previously unemployed for over one year are additionally excluded. Dual citizenship will be restricted to Germany-born-and-raised children, bound by strict rules of residence and discriminatory clauses. Despite occasional back-bench grumbling, today’s SPD solidly remains in the hands of Schröder’s successors – foreign minister Steinmeier and a still-powerful Peer Steinbrück – and their political stepchildren, Sigmar Gabriel and Andrea Nahles. This leadership is committed to defending and cementing the turn-of-the-millennium reforms, the undoing of many of which would be conditional for any partnership with Die Linke.

The SPD has thus become a party without a cause, and though much the same may be said for Merkel’s CDU, the conservatives retain a final trump card: values. That, together with SPD cadres’ mortal dread of sharing anything – even opposition – with the Linkspartei, explains its hunger for “scraps at the table” (TCM). SPD stalwarts still resent the treason of the Lafontaine-led Left breakaway which created today’s Die Linke (more in the next article). Conservatives’ praise for Schröder’s and Fischer’s reforms, meanwhile, has been ample, nurturing a genuine, helpless affinity among Social Democrats across the centre aisle (“nobody except the CDU understands us”). More than once, lately, political commentators have sounded the SPD’s death knell; its aging faithfuls have kept its vote share between one quarter and one fifth, but its decline into insignificance is increasingly a real possibility. Neither going forward – devising or embracing more liberal reforms – nor back – recanting Schröder’s legacy and ousting his disciples – are emerging as practical options.

The Grünen, meanwhile, whose entire history since 1980 has been an intense identity struggle, are currently the most dynamic and growing political force in Germany (aside from the right-wing anti-Euro AfD). The Greens are rapidly eating into the SPD’s share of the vote, as well as attracting middle-aged, middle-class, socially and economically liberal voters from all camps; each successive shift away from its militant roots to the organic food liberalism of an eco-bourgeois party has rewarded internal “reformers” against the resistance of party “Fundis”. Die Grünen now even head the state government, of all places, in conservative Baden-Württemberg, ruling with the SPD as their smaller partner. Having won the election on a tide of popular outrage against a major railway infrastructure project (hardly their core ecological agenda) this geographic shift of the Green heartland south-west illustrates its programmatic metamorphosis. The change is personified by Winfried Kretschmann, one-time student radical turned proudly Catholic eco-libertarian schoolteacher, who heads the government. He embodies a transformation within the Green party as profound as the one once undertaken by Joschka Fischer.

The party’s recent change in leadership has cemented its trajectory towards the centre, further increasing the likelihood of a green-conservative love marriage after 2017, should the SPD flag as Merkel’s partner. The Greens supported the balanced budget amendment which enshrined austerity in Germany’s constitution with far less groaning than the SPD (only Die Linke opposed). A series of state-level coalitions (most recently in Hessen) have demonstrated the viability of such coalitions which on a newly-demarcated political centre ground.

Thus, for different reasons economic support for Greece or Portugal – let alone visions of a more thoroughly redistributive Europe – are not on the menu of the traditional centre-Left in Germany. Protection of the German economic model remains both the SPD’s and Greens’ priority, albeit with two different flavours, both oddly palatable to the conservative majority: first, a productionist economy of wage-moderated full employment in collaboration with national capital (the SPD/“Volkswagen” model), or a fiscally sustainable eco-libertarian economy of green technology leadership (the Greens/“organic growth” model). Neither envision overcoming Europe’s impasse by addressing the imbalances which Germany brings to Europe. The next article will explore the possibilities for such progressive politics further on the Left.

More German than Left

6 Jan

This post is the first in an occasional series on the European Left and the Euro-impasse that we will run over the course of the next few months. We shall begin with a series of posts from the editors and guest contributors on the German Left.

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More German than Left

The German Left has always been a lynchpin for the international left. For that very reason it has also been a disappointment. From the failed hopes of 1848 to Ferdinand Lasalle’s cooperation with Bismarck; from Bernsteinian revisionism to the SPD’s vote for war credits during WWI; from the failed revolutionary years of 1918-1923 and the split between communists and socialists in the interwar period; from post-war, Brandt-era ambivalence and indecision to the decisive abandonment of socialism by the 1980s, the German Left’s potentiality never quite measured up to its actuality. Nobody has been sharper on its failings than its own progeny. Marx’s famous critique of Lasalle, Luxemburg’s condemnation of reform, to name just two, mark not only the missed historical possibilities but the dashed hopes. There was a moment but it was never realized.

Today, Germany remains the center of Europe, and the German Left the only agent able to shape a different course than the current sadomonetarism emanating from the Bundesbank. The election of Hollande in France yielded the sop of high marginal tax rates, but within the context of a concession to austerity. Some brief sparks were ignited in Greece, during last year’s election campaign, but the leader of Syriza – Alexis Tsirpas – blinked and eventually caved into the prevailing ‘bail-out in exchange for cuts’ consensus. The SPD’s lukewarm reaction to Syriza, replicated in many other Left parties across Europe, contributed to its capitulation.

The historical difference now is that there is not much reason even to view the German Left as…Left. Angela Merkel’s recent appointment to a third term as chancellor, under a Grand Coalition including the SPD, involves a nominal turn leftward on condition that everyone accept more of the same with respect to the major economic issue of the day: the euro and its debt problems. Sabine Lautenschläger’s nomination to replace Jörg Asmussen at the ECB came with a promise to increase German pressure to focus on inflation rather than employment. As Wolfgang Munchau recently commented, among the rather narrow mainstream alternatives, the idea of debt mutualization and bank backstopping appears to have finally lost out to “austerity and price deflation.” The SPD, meanwhile, happy for scraps at the table, refuses to fight for leadership of Germany, let alone Europe.

The problem for the European left is that Germany is the core. Without the SPD breaking from its benighted belief that the rest of Europe needs to follow its decade of ‘virtuous’ wage-suppression, not to mention its ruinous embrace of European-wide internal devaluation, there is little wiggle-room for the rest. The dismal LTROs, ELA, and other monetary efforts, which receive only reluctant German support as it is, all come with the austerian string attached. The German Left has accepted the basic equation that since their workers have been sucking it up, it’s time for everyone else to do the same. This demonstrates a distinct lack of trans-European solidarity, let alone serious assessment of the possibilities. Moreover, the unwillingness of the German Left to articulate a clear alternative strategy means it tacitly participates in the increasingly nationalist terms in which the whole Euro drama has been cast. Ugly nationalist stereotypes have been trotted out to explain everything from ‘Mediterranean’ stagnation to the so-called dangers of eastern immigrants to the ‘virtues’ German prudence. In the absence of a conflict within Germany between concrete alternatives – alternatives that can be repeated across Europe – Germany appears unified around trying to punish the rest of Europe. And as Marx once said: “relations…appear as what they really are.” The German Left really is, at this point, more German than Left. The Left in Germany (and elsewhere for that matter) has never been rewarded for being the junior partner in a national coalition, but until it becomes willing to take risks and challenge its major opposition, it will remain what it appears to be. It could be more.

The effects of QE

21 Oct

Of all the new terms that have been invented since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, quantitative easing is perhaps the most bizarre. A purely technical term, it has entered into everyday language as ‘QE’. Monetary policy has taken centre stage as the main tool governments have to do something about growth and QE is it.

Tucked away in the small money supplement of the FT weekend was a long piece on QE. Its discussion of the effects of quantitative easing is worth commenting on. QE is basically a monetary stimulus programme, where central banks create money and use it to buy assets from banks and other financial institutions. The main thing central banks have bought are government bonds. Holders of bonds have therefore exchanged them for cash and that cash is what the governments hope will be spent in ways that stimulate the economy. QE was dreamed up at a time when interests were so low that they couldn’t really go any lower, making a traditional monetary policy response to an economic downturn impossible. The standard approach had been to cut interest rates in a downturn, raise them when the economy seemed to be overheating. Unable to do that with rates so low, QE was the radical alternative.

QE has been striking by its ubiquity: it has been the key policy response of the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan. What is surprising is how prevalently it has been used but how sceptical people are of its effects. The idea is that cash injected into the economy would generate new economic activity. There is little evidence, however, that QE has done that. Banks have tended to use the money to boost their capital ratios rather than to increase lending to businesses. Companies have sat on increasing piles of cash. QE in general is seen as having had little effect on the real economy.

Where has its impact been felt? After all, the US Federal Reserve has been buying $85bn a month of US government bonds since it started its QE. Intervention on such a huge scale cannot be free of effects. According to the FT, the main impact of QE has been on asset prices rather than on the real economy as such. These prices have risen considerably, boosting the wealth of those who own such assets. Predictably enough, that means the already very wealthy. The FT cites a Bank of England study that finds that in the UK, the top 5% of households hold 40% of the assets whose price has risen most because of QE. The central banks’ policy of printing money has inflated some asset prices, to the great benefit of those that hold them.

For everyone else, the effect has been more mixed. By keeping interest rates at very low levels, QE has obviously favoured the lenders over the savers. All those hoping to earn some return on their savings have been disappointed. Home owners, especially those with big mortgages, have been happy.  This view of QE helps us understand some of the curious features of this current economic downturn: as the real economy data continues to give cause for real concern (unemployment remains high, growth is anaemic, business investment remains very low), the price of fine art, the best wines and the high end properties in London, Paris and New York have all soared. With low interest rates and with central banks injecting so much liquidity into the bond markets, investors are looking for some return wherever they can. And that includes in a Monet or a large house in Neuilly or Richmond.

The best defence of QE cited by the FT was that things could have been worse without it. It returned confidence to markets and investors, and so helped us avoid the complete collapse that could have occurred in 2008 or 2009. As the FT admits, this argument is difficult to prove: “we just don’t know what would have happened without QE”. It is surprising that a policy with such obvious distributional effects has not been the subject of greater debate or disagreement. This is perhaps because the term itself is so euphemistically technical. Or because it has been carried out by central banks whose place is somewhat outside the terrain of partisan politics. It may also be that governments have been good at convincing people that there is no alternative to QE, which is tantamount to saying that they have no way of tackling problems in the real economy directly but can only work through asset prices.

This, of course, is not true. Governments could intervene far more directly in the economy. However, QE sits alongside the view that governments are fiscally constrained and need to reduce their outgoings as much as possible. Fiscal austerity combined with QE gives us the policy mix for the current period: a massive boost in the prices of assets owned by the wealthiest section of society and extensive cuts in government spending on public services. However technical it may sound, there is nothing ideologically neutral about QE and its effect.

 

Solving the productivity puzzle

10 Oct

In recent days, there has been much “I told you so” in the air. The IMF has revised its forecast for growth in the UK, predicting that the British economy will grow more than it had expected in earlier forecasts. The French chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, had raised something of a storm in the UK earlier this year when he criticized the government’s austerity drive. Now that the UK appears to be growing more than expected, the British Chancellor George Osborne feels vindicated.

This squabbling over numbers points us to one of the problems with the austerity debate as it stands. Much of it has rested on forecasts and estimates. Projections of growth trends and government revenues three or four years down the line are notoriously difficult and yet both sides of the debate have claimed that their estimates make the most sense.  

This focus on numbers is particularly problematic in the UK as it detracts from the main issue. Newspaper headlines and public debate tend to focus on interest rate movements, the UK’s government-fuelled housing price bubble, the revision of growth forecasts that we have seen in recent days. What is not being discussed is the real mystery in the UK since the beginning of the crisis: the marked dip in productivity. Writing in the Financial Times, Chris Giles rightly points out that being so focused on the ups and downs of fiscal policy has meant we have missed the big issue of the UK’s productivity puzzle. Looking back at forecasts made in 2008, the main finding is that growth is much lower and inflation higher than was predicted.

 According to Giles, this tells us that the main problem in the UK is not a lack of demand due to austerity policies. Rather, “it suggests that something has gone wrong with the supply of goods and services in Britain” – this is what economists are calling the productivity puzzle and few have any explanations for it. Steve Nickell, a member of the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility committee, recently admitted that whilst there are many theories about this puzzle, there is still no coherent explanation for it (FT, 10/10/13).

One idea (see Charles Goodhardt’s article here) is that if employment is held roughly constant, then falls in demand will lead to falls in output, which will then depress productivity. Logically this holds: if the same number of people are producing fewer things, then their productivity (output per worker) will fall. Compared with previous recessions in the UK (early 1980s and early 1990s), employment has held up well. We have not seen the collapse in manufacturing employment that we saw in the early 1980s, for instance, which had the effect of boosting productivity. A feature of the 2008-2013 downturn in the UK has therefore been the protection of manufacturing capacity and the avoidance of massive liquidation and bankruptcies. The result has been a fall in productivity. In other countries, like Spain, where unemployment has mushroomed, productivity has risen noticeably. Why this job-rich recession in the UK? And what about other countries like Germany, who have also managed to hold up employment? Has productivity fallen there too?

Goodhart’s is one explanation amongst many others and it may not convince everyone. After all, unemployment in the UK rose from just over 5% in 2008 to 8% in 2010. Isn’t that enough to keep up productivity levels? If not, then how much is enough? Compared to the petty points scoring of Osborne and co, though, and the fixation on forecasts and projections that has characterized both sides of the austerity debate, this is what we should really be thinking about.

The meaning of Merkel’s victory

2 Oct

Originally published in the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique

Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrat party (CDU/CSU) have won a resounding victory in Germany’s general election. Merkel has broken what had become an established rule of European politics since the beginning of the crisis: incumbents don’t get re-elected.

Merkel had seen this at first hand as close working relationships with other European politicians were felled by electoral fortunes. The peculiar alliance of France and Germany (“Merkozy” to the European press) was undone as Nicolas Sarkozy lost out in the 2012 French presidential election to his Socialist challenger, François Hollande. Mario Monti, another favourite partner of Merkel, was routed in Italy’s election earlier this year by the comedian-cum-blogger Beppe Grillo and his Five Star movement. Incumbents have lost out across southern Europe — Spain, Greece, Portugal — as voters hope that a change in government might mean a change in fortunes. There has been no decisive shift left or right, just a broad and sweeping dissatisfaction with existing governments. Apart from Germany.

Merkel’s re-election doesn’t mean that nothing has changed in Germany or that it has been blissfully untouched by the Eurozone crisis. Looking at the substance rather than at the party labels, we see shifts. The more dogmatically free-market FDP, Merkel’s coalition partner in the outgoing government, failed to secure any parliamentary representation at all. The Left Party, Die Linke, a persona non grata for mainstream German politicians because of its roots in East German Stalinism and its opposition to NATO, now has more parliamentary seats than the German Greens. If the Social Democrats (SDP) enter into a coalition with Merkel’s party, then Die Linke will lead the opposition within the Bundestag.

The policies of Merkel herself have steadily drifted leftwards as she has taken on ideas first floated by the SDP. From military conscription to a minimum wage and rent controls, Merkel has adopted policies that first came from the left. This had the effect of emptying much of the campaign of any traditional ideological conflict. German voters have not been divided by the politics of left and right, given the vastly similar programmes adopted by the main parties. Merkel has even given up on nuclear power, in a move that pulled out from under the feet of the Green Party their most distinctive policy position. Instead, the campaign was fought around the language of risk and of personality. Germans preferred Merkel’s low-key, homely aspect to Steinbrück’s debonair image and, seeking reassurance in the widespread depoliticisation, voted for Merkel’s motherly, risk-averse approach.

Political stability in Germany reflects its unique position in Europe as the country that has survived the crisis. Not unscathed, as the leftwards shift suggests, but markedly better off than any other country. Having reformed itself in the early 2000s, German industry rode an export-led boom that continues today. As trading partners in Europe — from Eastern Europe through to southern Mediterranean economies — crashed and burned from 2009 onwards, Germany compensated by expanding sales in non-European export markets. What it lost by way of demand in Europe it has gained in emerging markets, especially in Asia. Germany’s current account surplus, at $246bn over the last year (6.6% of GDP), is greater than China’s. Along with a more flexible labour market that is keeping unemployment low (but part-time employment high), we have the material foundation for Merkel’s victory. But though this foundation is solid, Germany is not booming. Since the early 2000s, German wage growth has been very limited. Moreover, few Germans own their own homes, meaning that they have not experienced the same wealth effects of rising house prices felt by a chunk of the British middle- and upper-middle class, the Dutch, Italians and Spaniards. They have been saved from the effects of collapsing property prices but have not known the heady days of year-on-year price rises. Merkel’s cautious optimism reflects the attitude of a large part of the German working and middle class who feel that their relative prosperity is precarious and needs to be closely guarded.

The meaning of Merkel’s victory for the rest of Europe is mixed. It is possible that Merkel will soften her stance to some extent now the election is over, though we should not expect any sudden U-turns on something like Eurobonds. A slow recalibration of the Eurozone economy is more likely, as crisis-hit countries like Spain and Ireland regain some competitiveness via internal adjustments to wages and prices. Where Merkel may compromise is on measures to boost domestic demand. If Germans were to consume a little more rather than save so much, that would help pull other Eurozone economies out of their deep depression. Though something like this may happen, any recalibration will still occur within the context of a Eurozone marked by massive disparities in wealth and spatially organised around a clear logic of centre and periphery.

Making the best of a good crisis?

17 May

A recent debate has emerged around the use European elites can make of the Eurozone crisis. According to the Naomi Klein theory of social change, backed up recently by Paul Krugman, crises are used by capitalists as opportunities to reform economies in their favour. Whether such crises, or “disasters” to use Klein’s turn, are wars provoked by outside interventions (Iraq) or financial crises of the kind we are seeing today in Europe and elsewhere, the point is that crises are good for those who favour neoliberal policies.

In the context of the austerity versus stimulus debate, Krugman suggests that the reason why austerity is preferred is not that it works (it clearly isn’t working) but it is because stimulus might work. If European economies begin to grow again, then the window of opportunity to replace “social Europe” with a neoliberal alternative will have gone. Successful stimulus will only strengthen the case against deeper structural reform. Krugman notes that this view is already entering into the evaluation of Japan’s recent attempt at monetary stimulus: cautious voices are pointing out that if this works, then there will be no incentive to tackle the country’s underlying problems.

There is quite a bit wrong with this explanation for austerity, however compelling it may seem at the intuitive level. Everyone likes to bash those far-sighted capitalists – the elusive 1% – who conspire behind closed doors to get what they want at the expense of everyone else, the 99%. But this is more a conspiracy theory than it is an explanation of why governments are committed – for the time being – to the austerity agenda. Profiting from a crisis is one thing. Creating a crisis in order to implement a cunning plan is another. In Europe, there is no doubt that authors of the bail-outs have tried to calibrate carrot and stick, using the difficulties of the present crisis in countries like Greece and Portugal as a way of encouraging structural reform. They have also cautioned against any suggestion that the crisis is over, believing that such talk will undermine the commitment of national elites to the reform programme. All this, however, is a far cry from the notion that crises are manufactured as opportunities for neoliberally inspired reforms.

Krugman makes the added point that elites chose austerity over stimulus because they feared the latter could be too successful. He invokes the work of the Polish Marxist Michal Kalecki and his notion of the political business cycle. According to Krugman, Kalecki’s idea explains why businessmen don’t like Keynesian economies. In fact, Kalecki argues something much more specific. At issue for Kalecki is not the ability of Keynesian deficit spending to return crisis-ridden capitalist economies to the status quo ante, which is what Krugman and others imply. Kalecki’s point is not about the stabilizing effects of Keynesianism but rather about its transformative and radical political effects. These are not internal to Keynesianism itself – Keynes was far from being a radical on this point – but are part of the political consequences of Keynesian policies (hence the title of Kalecki’s famous 1943 essay, ‘Political Aspects of Full Employment’).

Kalecki argues that full employment, as a policy goal, is both feasible and attainable. However, politically, the problem with maintaining full employment is that it empowers the working class to the point that it begins to challenge the basic contours of the capitalist economy itself. Full employment has a creative effect by way of ideas and actions that threatens the fabric of capitalist society. It holds up the prospect of a better society and stimulates people to think about how that alternative could be achieved. Kalecki’s point is that stimulus makes a return to the status quo ante more difficult and that is why owners of capital will do everything to frustrate governments who identify full employment as their main goal.

In today’s context, what is striking is that the austerity versus stimulus debate is had against a backdrop of consensus around the nature of the economic system. Both are means to an agreed end and Krugman’s argument for stimulus is that it works better than austerity in this regard. Kalecki’s point about stimulus was that it throws open, because of the mobilisation and politicisation of workers, the question of what the ends are and of what kind of economic system we would like. If we want to bring back Kalecki to the present discussion, it is this aspect that we should emphasize. And to resist Krugman and Klein’s conspiratorial accounts of intended crises and infinitely cunning capitalist elites.

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