Monday, 26 January 2015

Syriza’s victory: turning hope into reality

By Michael Burke and John Ross

The Greek people have inspired every progressive force in Europe, and beyond, by electing the first anti-austerity government in Europe. Syriza has similarly inspired every progressive person with the great political skill with which it outmanoeuvred the forces in Greece and Europe who attempted to scare the Greek people into not voting for it. As Alexis Tsipras said immediately after its victory Syriza has opened up hope for the Greek people – and many others as well.

The key question now is how to turn hope into reality.

Syriza has outlined clearly its orientation – which should be supported by every progressive force. Syriza has said it is not seeking to exit from the Euro. It wants Greece’s unpayable and unjust debt renegotiated. The immediate priority of the left throughout Europe must be to organise support for this demand of Syriza during the coming negotiations. It is to be welcomed that not only the political left but also far wider groups arguing for a rational economic policy support this course – including eminent figures in their profession such as Nobel Prize winners in economics Joseph Stiglitz and Chris Pissarides. All efforts must be redoubled across Europe to gain support for the renegotiation of Greece’s debt – a course which corresponds not only to the interests of the Greek people but to the interests of rational economic policy across Europe, and therefore to the interests of the people of Europe.

Whether or not these negotiations succeed, however, the new Greek government is faced with key choices in economic policy. This is even more the case as, if the economic policies of the new government do not succeed, sinister forces that failed to win this election will seek to turn Greece backwards.

The first and immediate priority, of course, is to reduce and eliminate the appalling humanitarian suffering imposed on the Greek people by the austerity policies. Creating jobs, raising wages, restoring pensions, recreating the best possible social security are the top priorities. As always politics must take precedence over economics.

But to sustain the improvement in the living standards of the Greek people it is necessary to relaunch economic growth. And the key to economic growth is necessarily investment. Without rising investment an economy cannot grow.

Under the conditions of Greece it is even more unrealistic than normal to rely on the private sector for investment. It is the collapse in private investment which has driven economic collapse in Greece and economic recession across Europe. Since 2007 Greece’s GDP has fallen by €57bn of which the bulk is the fall in investment at €36bn. The only way to secure economic growth is therefore to embark on a programme of state investment. Those countries which have used state investment as their key instrument to promote growth have enjoyed outstanding success – for example Ecuador, Bolivia and China.

In a country such as Ecuador, which has enjoyed 5% GDP annual average growth over 10 years, real incomes per capita have risen by over 2% a year, and 10% of the population has been lifted out of poverty. This has been driven by state investment which has now reached 15% of GDP.
Economic growth, led by state investment, will in turn create the conditions under which the private sector will begin to invest again.

A key economic task is therefore to assemble the finances and practical programmes which can begin such a programme of state investment. State spending to improve the immediate living standards of the population is necessary but if it is not accompanied by measures to increase investment it will not lead to economic growth, making it increasingly difficult to sustain the popularity of the government.

Under normal circumstances the immediate resources for such an investment programme could come from borrowing – which can be cheap in the present interest rate conditions in Europe. A budget deficit divided between immediate measures of social welfare and measures of state investment would be financed by this borrowing. But the agreement with the Troika prevents the Greek government turning to public borrowing. A key goal in any negotiations must therefore be for the Greek government to regain the right to borrow not only for social welfare but for investment.

While borrowing is the rational way to speedily launch social welfare and state investment, it is entirely possible to finance these programmes through overturning Greece’s corrupt and inefficient taxation system – one designed solely to prevent the rich paying their proper share of Greece’s taxation. As rapidly as possible a fair and efficient taxation system, capable of funding both social welfare and investment, must be created. Borrowing would be the transitional measure until the time such a taxation system can be put in place.

These measures will become even more necessary if, as is very possible, forces within the EU and IMF attempt to block Greece getting the debt reduction which is required for any rational economic policy. The obstruction of these forces will be all the greater because they will consider not only the situation in Greece but they fear the risk of ‘contagion’ – that debt relief for Greece, and success in its anti-austerity policies, will inspire others in Europe to challenge the policies of austerity which have led Europe into a dead end. Here the British government plays a wholly negative role with Cameron and Osborne both criticising Syriza’s victory. As politicians who rely most on the finance sector, this role is hardly surprising.

Very difficult choices will of course be faced by the new government in Greece in the negotiations, in its economic policies if the negotiations are successful, and in the case that forces of reaction in Europe block the successful outcome of these negotiations. All the skill which Syriza has shown achieving the support of the Greek people, without which nothing can be achieved, will have to be shown even more in carrying out the necessary economic policies. If the immediate welfare of the people is not secured, and if state investment is not created to restart economic growth, a way out will not be found.

Studying the economic policies of Ecuador, Bolivia and China will give ideas as to how aid in constructing such programmes.

Before all else, while the new government of Greece deals with key economic and other issues which confront it, the widest possible forces across Europe and the world must campaign with all their strength to ensure that the legitimate needs of the Greek people are met in the coming negotiations. The greater the success of this campaign the greater will be the chances of success for Syriza and the hope it represents first of all for the Greek people but also for every progressive person in Europe.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Tory own goal on debt and the deficit pledges

By Michael Burke

The Tory Party has decided to make public finances a key battleground for the election. Key supporters of austerity such as the FT's economics editor Chris Giles have echoed that, arguing that the "defining battle of the 2015 general election [is] over borrowing and public spending".

It is only possible to stake out political ground on the issue of public finances because of the distortions surrounding them. The level of government debt is rising. This is because the government is adding to its annual levels of debt stock with new public sector deficits.

The actual trajectory of government finances, rather than Coalition propaganda, shows that austerity has not led to a significant improvement, certainly nothing like the promise to 'balance the books' in this parliament. Government debt and the deficit have both deteriorated under austerity. In addition the data on public finances actually show that the opposite policy works. Investment (albeit in a very distorted form under Osbornomics) leads to economic recovery and improving government finances.

This article will deal solely with debt and a further article will deal with the deficit. There are two main measures of public sector debt used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The first is Net Debt. But this is data which includes the costs of the bank bailouts from 2008 and 2009. Therefore the ONS produces a dataset on Net Debt Excluding Public Sector Banks. This is an underlying measure of debt related to the real economy and government fiscal policy.  

These two measures have been moving in opposite directions. This is because the amount of debt incurred in the public sector bailout of the failed private banks has been falling. A large proportion of that debt has been repaid by the banks. The two main measures of public sector debt are shown in Fig. 1 below.

Fig.1 Net Public Debt and Net Public Debt Excluding Public Sector Banks

The last year of the New Labour government in 2009 recorded a level of Net Public Sector Debt Excluding Public Sector Banks ('Net Debt excluding banks') of £884bn. The same measure of debt has risen to £1,483bn by end 2014, and will certainly be higher before the Coalition leaves office in May.

At the same time the total Net Debt measure has shown a decline from a peak of £2,261bn in 2010 to an estimated £1,795bn at the end of 2014. This is because there has been a repayment of over £1,000bn in the amount borrowed by the public sector to bail out of the banks. The remaining discrepancy between the two main debt measures is the amount still owed by these banks, a total of £308bn.

It is highly questionable whether all of these outstanding debts will be repaid and there were certainly better uses for government funds than bailing out failed bank speculation. Even so, the divergence in these two debt measures should highlight two important facts. First, austerity has not led to an improvement in government finances, the underlying level of debt has surged under the Coalition.

Secondly, even the investment in failed and corrupt banks, whose managers and traders continue to siphon off huge bonuses, has provided a return to government finances. If the bonuses had been curbed and instructions issued to lend to the most productive sectors of the economy then the return could have been substantially higher. In solely the narrow and false framework of government finances austerity fails to deliver improvement whereas even misdirected investment does. Properly directed pubic investment remains the real alternative to austerity.

The data does not support the Tory propaganda on public finances. The debt has soared under austerity. The alternative of state-led investment has been shown to work.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Greece needs debts cancelled and growth

Greece goes to the polls this Sunday (25 January) and the anti-austerity party SYRIZA has been consistently ahead in the opinion polls for a number of months. A SYRIZA win would be a boost for all those opposed to austerity in Europe and beyond. The Greek economy has seen a devastating collapse, brought on by austerity policies as well as the efforts to pay off the debts incurred by bailing the banks and other speculators who lent to Greece. In the Guardian a number of economists have supported the letter below, which outlines some key economic demands on dropping the debt.

Greece needs debts cancelled and growth

As economists, we note that the historical evidence demonstrates the futility and dangers of imposing unsustainable debt and repayment conditions on debtor countries; the negative impact of austerity policies on weakening economies; and the particularly severe effects that flow on to the poorest households.

We therefore urge the troika (EU, European Centra Bank and IMF) to negotiate in good faith with the Greek government so that there is a cancellation of a large part of the debt and new terms of payment which support the rebuilding of a sustainable economy. This settlement should mark the beginning of a new EU-wide policy framework favouring pro-growth rather than deflationary policies (Report, 14 January).

We urge the Greek government to abandon the austerity programme that is crushing economic activity and adopt a more expansive fiscal policy setting, targeting immediate relief from poverty and stimulating further domestic demand; to launch a fully independent investigation into the historic and systemic failure of the Greek public financial management processes (including any evidence of corruption) that led to the accumulation of debt, the disguising of the size and nature of the debt and the inefficient/ineffective use of public funds; and to consider the establishment of a judicial body or alternative mechanism that is independent of government and charged with a future responsibility of investigating corruption from the highest to lowest levels of government.

We urge other national governments to exercise their votes within official sector finance agencies and to pursue other diplomatic activities that will support a cancellation of a large part of the Greek sovereign debt and new terms of payment for the rebuilding of a sustainable Greek national economy.

Malcolm Sawyer Emeritus prof, University of Leeds
Danny Lang Associate prof, University of Paris
Prof Yu Bin Professor and deputy director, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Prof Ozlem Onaran University of Greenwich
Prof Mario Seccareccia University of Ottawa
Hugo Radice Life fellow, University of Leeds
John Weeks Professor emeritus, Soas, University of London
Prof Howard Stein University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Anitra Nelson Associate professor, RMIT University, Melbourne
Prof George Irvin University of London, Soas
Dr John Simister Manchester Metropolitan University
Mogens Ove Madsen Associate professor, Aalborg University
Wang Zhongbao Associate professor, editorial director, World Review of Political Economy
Dr Susan Pashkoff Economist
Andrea Fumagalli University of Pavia
Pat Devine University of Manchester
Professor Ray Kinsella University College Dublin
Alan Freeman Co-director, Geopolitical Economy Research and Education Trust
Eugénia Pires Economist, member, Portuguese Citizens Debt Audit
Dr Jo Michell University of the West of England, Bristol
Michael Burke Economist, Socialist Economic Bulletin
Paul Hudson Formerly Universität Wissemburg-Halle
Dr Alan B Cibils Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Guglielmo Forges Davanzati Associate prof, University of Salento
Prof Sergio Rossi University of Fribourg
Faruk Ulgen Associate prof, University of Grenoble
Tim Delap Positive Money
Eleni Paliginis Middlesex University
Grazia Ietto-Gillies Emeritus professor, London South Bank University
Professor Radhika Desai University of Manitoba
Michael Roberts Economist, ‘The next recession’
Michael Taft Unite the Union, Ireland region
Dr Andy Denis City University London
Peter Kenyon Chartist
Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Colin Harcourt UNSW Business School


The letter in the Guardian was originally published here.  

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The causes of the A&E crisis

by Michael Burke

The A&E service in British hospitals is in crisis. All health services come under pressure during winter as seasonal flus take their toll and some lead to more complicated conditions. But winter comes round every year and this is not an especially severe one so far. Yet hospitals across the country report increasing pressures and this is focused on accident and emergency services, not normally in the front line of winter demand. A more severe winter could produce a deepening crisis.

NHS England data shows that waiting times for A&E are now the worst in a decade. The Coalition reduced the previous targets for waiting times but even these targets have been missed. Only 92.6% of A&E admissions are being seen in under 4 hours, which means 3 out of every forty patients are waiting longer. Some of these emergency patients are waiting much longer. The data is shown in Figure 1 below.

Fig. 1 NHS A&E waiting times


There is a significant campaign of misinformation underway, with the government attempting to escape responsibility for the crisis. But Dr Clifford Mann President of the College of Emergency Medicine was clear. He told Radio4 listeners that, "elective surgery is profitable. Emergency surgery will always be unprofitable and so hospital trusts have not invested in it." The structural cause of the crisis is clearly the introduction of market mechanisms and principles into the NHS.

There is also a direct effect from austerity policies, which is the catalyst for the crisis. The government likes to claim that it has 'ring-fenced' NHS spending. But this only means that the cash total for the NHS is broadly unchanged. In effect NHS spending is frozen in real terms. But there is inflation in the health service (usually greater than the broader economy because of rising drug and equipment prices). In addition, the population is rising and it is ageing. There is an increased demand in terms of rising prices and rising need. Freezing spending inevitably leads to deteriorating services.

The fact that NHS spending has been frozen in real per capita terms is directly responsible for the immediate crisis.

The fall in NHS spending as a proportion of GDP is shown in the chart from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) below. According to OBR projections the fall is likely to accelerate in future years.

Fig.2 NHS Spending as a proportion of GDP

There is no mystery behind the crisis in the NHS. Structurally, the introduction of the market made crises inevitable and austerity has brought it about. Saving the NHS and providing a decent health service means ending austerity and removing the market 'reforms'.