Last week I gave a talk in Brussels at a debate moderated by Pierre Defraigne, Executive Director of the Madariaga – College of Europe Foundation. It was ACitizen’s Controversy with Lars Feld, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Freiburg and Member of the German Council of Economic Experts.
George Osborne was presumably aiming at himself and his friends, when he vowed “to speak truth to power and wealth” at the Tory party conference this week, but dare he speak economic truth to the rest of us? – simultaneously published on Left Foot Forward >
On the narrowest of bases, he might still claim he spoke “truth” to the weak and powerless when in the House of Commons debate on the economy on August 11th he made this challenge:
“Those who spent the whole of the past year telling us to follow the American example, with yet more fiscal stimulus, need to answer this simple question: why has the US economy grown more slowly than the UK economy so far this year?”
It was a ‘brave’ claim when he made it, and it’s looking even ‘braver’ – and more disingenuous – now.
“I have just returned from a lecture tour of Australia where I came across the story of the Sydney Diocese and what the Aussies call the GFC – the Global Financial Crisis.
The Sydney Diocese, far from chasing the money-lenders from the temple that is their faith, invited them in, borrowed money against the diocese’s collateral, and used the borrowed money to invest – some would say gamble – on the stock market. When the financial crisis broke in 2008, stock market losses were amplified by the church’s huge borrowings. Archbishop Dr. Peter F. Jensen broke the bad news while addressing the church’s annual Synod in 2010, and according to ABC, said that the synod’s “losses total more than $100 million.”
As mayhem breaks out on stock markets; as Eurozone banks freeze up; and as the global financial system approaches a frightening ‘danger zone,’ the champions of the globalised ‘free market’ and of the Euro are in search of a scapegoat.
Instead of accepting that it is the broken banking system; the de-regulated financial Eurozone, and the deflationary monetarist policies of the Maastricht Treaty that are the roots of the crisis, the Troika (the IMF/EU/ECB) want to identify a convenient whipping boy.
Instead of going after the real culprits — un-regulated bankers that lent recklessly, confident they would always be bailed out by taxpayers — the approach of the Troika is to scapegoat Greece. The implication is that the whole fabric of the Euro, and with it the global economy, is torn apart because one poor country, Greece, will not enforce ever-deeper austerity on her people.
As bank shares and stock markets plummet, and investors flock to the safety of government bonds; as obstinate EU leaders crucify their countries in a futile struggle to defend today’s equivalent of the gold standard; as British and American politicians adopt austerity policies and drive their economies closer to the cliffs of depression; and as most professional economists stand aloof from the escalating crisis – what lies ahead for ordinary punters like you and me?
First, let’s take look at the big political picture. This crisis is already sharpening the divide between left and right in both the EU and the United States. Studying a precedent – the implosion of the 1920s credit bubble in 1929 – we note that four years after that crisis erupted, the political divide sharpened decisively. The United States and Britain moved to the left. Germany chose a different path. After 1930, Germany’s Centre party under Chancellor Brüning adopted austerity policies that resulted in cuts in welfare benefits and wages, while credit was tightened. At the same time the German government engaged in wildly excessive borrowing from the liberalised international capital markets. The ground was laid for the rise of fascism.
I appeared on Al Jazeera’s ‘Empire‘ on Thursday evening – hosted by Marwan Bishara, the panel was made up of myself, Dr. Georges Corm (former Lebanese finance minister and former special consultant), World Bank Professor Alex Callinicos (director of European Studies, King’s College London and author of ‘Bonfire Of Illusions’) and Dr Mario Blejer (former governor, Argentine Central Bank and former advisor, Bank Of England).
Tonight, Wednesday 3 August 2011 at 08.00pm BST (GMT +1), BBC Radio 4 will broadcasta debate which took place at the London School of Economics (LSE) on 26 July. This broadcast will be repeated on Saturday, 6 August, at 10.15 p.m BST (GMT +1).
Along with my colleagues Prof. Victoria Chick and Douglas Coe at PRIME we have written the following response to the debate:
On the one hand we are pleased that the BBC and the LSE now acknowledge rival positions to the present austerity policies of Western governments. On the other we are concerned that the debate might have served mainly to reinforce existing prejudices, rather than to clarify the substance of the matters under discussion, matters which – there can be no doubt – are of the most profound importance.
Lord Skidelsky provocatively but justly reminded the audience that in the early 1930s, the same orthodoxy driving western austerity policies directed the actions of Germany’s 1931 Bruning government and paved the way for the rise of Nazism. These actions – vigorously opposed by Keynes – were the final straw for a Germany crushed by defeat and the disastrous boom-bust cycle that followed their return to the gold standard. Reparations were easily circumvented by wildly excessive borrowing from financial interests around the world, in a manner that even Keynes did not anticipate. It was these financial and fiscal policies that brought Hitler to power.
With financial interests still firmly in the ascendency and reactionary right-wing forces increasing their grip in the United States and much of the Western world, we must not forget these lessons from history, which formed the background to the original debate between Keynes and Hayek themselves. The stakes are high indeed.
It was wonderful to be, first of all at such a professionally and well organised event (congrats to Mark Letcher and his team). It was also fantastic to be amongst such an interesting array of speakers including John Gapper ‘the secret gardener’ who has spent the last 35 years propagating wild flowers in Brighton and Hove (watch his talk here) and Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose – two mothers with a simple but brilliant idea to get children playing outside (watch their talk here).
My talk was on how we can afford to finance the Green Transition – watch below:
The statisticians, clutching at straws, blamed the victims – the British people – for the measly 0.2% growth in GDP. It turns out we are too fond of holidaying (the royal wedding effect) and basking in “warm weather”.
But this cannot explain the fall in manufacturing by 0.3% and the 3.2% fall in electricity, gas and water supply. Nor does it explain the rise by 0.7% in “business services and finance”. The fact is the economy remains unbalanced, and the coalition government is doing very little to restore some balance, and with it the potential for recovery.
And without economic recovery, there can be little hope for the public finances. The fact is, the chancellor cannot cut the deficit if the economy does not recover. Today’s numbers offer little succour. GDP is still lower than it was in 2006 – four years after the crisis “debtonated” in August 2007.
The chancellor’s budgetary outcome depends on the plans of the entire economic system and its reactions to the Treasury’s policies. Right now the British economy is responding to the government’s determination not to provide a stimulus to the very weak private sector – by faltering.
The argument is that Britain “cannot afford” a fiscal stimulus. That we “cannot afford” to boost the private and public sectors, create jobs, generate income and restore hope to 2.5 million unemployed people.
But we could, apparently, afford to bail out the banking system.
The coalition government’s determination not to stimulate the creation of employment, and with it the income that will generate recovery – will be viewed negatively not just by the powerful rating agencies, but by the British people too.
The fact is that just as work makes things affordable for individuals, so employment makes recovery affordable for the economy as a whole. And until the chancellor eats humble pie, and absorbs this economic lesson, neither the economy, nor the public finances will recover.