16 Dec 2014

Equality, Efficiency and Economic Theory (Social Journal Europe)

Dani Rodrik, Good And Bad Inequality
Dani Rodrik
In the pantheon of economic theories, the tradeoff between equality and efficiency used to occupy an exalted position. The American economist Arthur Okun, whose classic work on the topic is called Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, believed that public policies revolved around managing the tension between those two values. As recently as 2007, when New York University economist Thomas Sargent, addressing the graduating class at the University of California, Berkeley, summarized the wisdom of economics in 12 short principles, the tradeoff was among them.
The belief that boosting equality requires sacrificing economic efficiency is grounded in one of the most cherished ideas in economics: incentives. Firms and individuals need the prospect of higher incomes to save, invest, work hard, and innovate. If taxation of profitable firms and rich households blunts those prospects, the result is reduced effort and lower economic growth. Communist countries, where egalitarian experiments led to economic disaster, long served as “Exhibit A” in the case against redistributive policies.
In recent years, however, neither economic theory nor empirical evidence has been kind to the presumed tradeoff. Economists have produced new arguments showing why good economic performance is not only compatible with distributive fairness, but may even demand it.
For example, in high-inequality societies, where poor households are deprived of economic and educational opportunities, economic growth is depressed. Then there are the Scandinavian countries, where egalitarian policies evidently have not stood in the way of economic prosperity.
Early this year, economists at the International Monetary Fund produced empirical results that seemed to upend the old consensus. They found that greater equality is associated with faster subsequent medium-term growth, both across and within countries.
In high-inequality societies, where poor households are deprived of economic and educational opportunities, economic growth is depressed.
Moreover, redistributive policies did not appear to have any detrimental effects on economic performance. We can have our cake, it seems, and eat it, too. That is a striking result – all the more so because it comes from the IMF, an institution hardly known for heterodox or radical ideas.
Economics is a science that can claim to have uncovered few, if any, universal truths. Like almost everything else in social life, the relationship between equality and economic performance is likely to be contingent rather than fixed, depending on the deeper causes of inequality and many mediating factors. So the emerging new consensus on the harmful effects of inequality is as likely to mislead as the old one was.
Consider, for example, the relationship between industrialization and inequality. In a poor country where the bulk of the workforce is employed in traditional agriculture, the rise of urban industrial opportunities is likely to produce inequality, at least during the early stages of industrialization. As farmers move to cities and earn higher pay, income gaps open up. And yet this is the same process that produces economic growth; all successful developing countries have gone through it. In China, for example, rapid economic growth after the late 1970s was associated with a significant rise in inequality. Roughly half of the increase was the result of urban-rural earnings gaps, which also acted as the engine of growth.
According to Dani Rodrik, we have to distinguish between good and bad inequality.
According to Dani Rodrik, we have to distinguish between good and bad inequality.
Or consider transfer policies that tax the rich and the middle classes in order to increase the income of poor households. Many countries in Latin America, such as Mexico and Bolivia, undertook such policies in a fiscally prudent manner, ensuring that government deficits would not lead to high debt and macroeconomic instability.
On the other hand, Venezuela’s aggressive redistributive transfers under Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, were financed by temporary oil revenues, placing both the transfers and macroeconomic stability at risk. Even though inequality has been reduced in Venezuela (for the time being), the economy’s growth prospects have been severely weakened.
Latin America is the only world region where inequality has declined since the early 1990s. Improved social policies and increased investment in education have been substantial factors. But the decline in the pay differential between skilled and unskilled workers – what economists call the “skill premium” – has also played an important role. Whether this is good news or bad for economic growth depends on why the skill premium has fallen.
If pay differentials have narrowed because of an increase in the relative supply of skilled workers, we can be hopeful that declining inequality in Latin America will not stand in the way of faster growth (and may even be an early indicator of it). But if the underlying cause is the decline in demand for skilled workers, smaller differentials would suggest that the modern, skill-intensive industries on which future growth depends are not expanding sufficiently.
It is good that economists no longer regard the equality-efficiency tradeoff as an iron law.
In the advanced countries, the causes of rising inequality are still being debated. Automation and other technological changes, globalization, weaker trade unions, erosion of minimum wages, financialization, and changing norms about acceptable pay gaps within enterprises have all played a role, with different weights in the United States relative to Europe. Each one of these drivers has a different effect on growth. While technological progress clearly fosters growth, the rise of finance since the 1990s has probably had an adverse effect, via financial crises and the accumulation of debt.
It is good that economists no longer regard the equality-efficiency tradeoff as an iron law. We should not invert the error and conclude that greater equality and better economic performance always go together. After all, there really is only one universal truth in economics: It depends.

24 Oct 2014

Tory Austerity mythology exposed ( from The Guardian & Social Europe Journal )

The same neo-liberal mythology which declares  National as the best manager of New Zealand's economy is used in the UK to boost the credibility of the Conservative Party with disaster-ous consequences.
This article from The Guardian and reproduced in Social Europe Journal gives debunks the mythology and gives Labour Parties world wide the argument necessary to shift the political debate from the grasp of the Tory myth makers.

Why Did Britain’s Political Class Buy Into The Tories’ Economic Fairytale?

Ha-Joon Chang, Political Class
Ha-Joon Chang
Falling wages, savage cuts and sham employment expose the UK recovery as bogus. Without a new vision we’re heading for social conflict.
The UK economy has been in difficulty since the 2008 financial crisis. Tough spending decisions have been needed to put it on the path to recovery because of the huge budget deficit left behind by the last irresponsible Labour government, showering its supporters with social benefit spending. Thanks to the coalition holding its nerve amid the clamour against cuts, the economy has finally recovered. True, wages have yet to make up the lost ground, but it is at least a “job-rich” recovery, allowing people to stand on their own feet rather than relying on state handouts.
That is the Conservative party’s narrative on the UK economy, and a large proportion of the British voting public has bought into it. They say they trust the Conservatives more than Labour by a big margin when it comes to economic management. And it’s not just the voting public. Even the Labour party has come to subscribe to this narrative and tried to match, if not outdo, the Conservatives in pledging continued austerity. The trouble is that when you hold it up to the light this narrative is so full of holes it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.
Even the Labour party has come to subscribe to this narrative and tried to match, if not outdo, the Conservatives in pledging continued austerity.
First, let’s look at the origins of the deficit. Contrary to the Conservative portrayal of it as a spendthrift party, Labour kept the budget in balance averaged over its first six years in office between 1997 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2007 the deficit rose, but at 3.2% of GDP a year it was manageable.
More importantly, this rise in the deficit between 2003 and 2007 was not due to increased welfare spending. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, social benefit spending as a proportion of GDP was more or less constant at about 9.5% of GDP a year during this period. The dramatic climb in budget deficit from there to the average of 10.7% in 2009-2010 was mostly a consequence of the recession caused by the financial crisis.
First, the recession reduced government revenue by the equivalent of 2.4% of GDP – from 42.1% to 39.7% – between 2008 and 2009-10. Second, it raised social spending (social benefit plus health spending). Economic downturn automatically increases spending on many social benefits, such as unemployment benefit and income support, but it also increases spending on things like disability benefit and healthcare, as increased unemployment and poverty lead to more physical and mental health problems. In 2009-10, at the height of the recession, UK public social spending rose by the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP compared with its 2008 level (from 21.8% to 24%).

David Cameron’s economic policy is wrong and the narrative a fairytale according to Ha-Joon Chang.
When you add together the recession-triggered fall in tax revenue and rise in social spending, they amount to 5.6% of GDP – almost the same as the rise in the deficit between 2008 and 2009-10 (5.7% of GDP). Even though some of the rise in social spending was due to factors other than the recession, such as an ageing population, it would be safe to say that much of the rise in deficit can be explained by the recession itself, rather than Labour’s economic mismanagement.
When faced with this, supporters of the Tory narrative would say, “OK, but however it was caused, we had to control the deficit because we can’t live beyond our means and accumulate debt”. This is a pre-modern, quasi-religious view of debt. Whether debt is a bad thing or not depends on what the money is used for. After all, the coalition has made students run up huge debts for their university education on the grounds that their heightened earning power will make them better off even after they pay back their loans.
The same reasoning should be applied to government debt. For example, when private sector demand collapses, as in the 2008 crisis, the government “living beyond its means” in the short run may actually reduce public debt faster in the long run, by speeding up economic recovery and thereby more quickly raising tax revenues and lowering social spending. If the increased government debt is accounted for by spending on projects that raise productivity – infrastructure, R&D, training and early learning programmes for disadvantaged children – the reduction in public debt in the long run will be even larger.
Against this, the advocates of the Conservative narrative may retort that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that the recovery is the best proof that the government’s economic strategy has worked. But has the UK economy really fully recovered? We keep hearing that national income is higher than at the pre-crisis peak of the first quarter of 2008. However, in the meantime the population has grown by 3.5 million (from 60.5 million to 64 million), and in per capita terms UK income is still 3.4% less than it was six years ago. And this is even before we talk about the highly uneven nature of the recovery, in which real wages have fallen by 10% while people at the top have increased their shares of wealth.
But can we not at least say that the recovery has been “jobs-rich”, creating 1.8m positions between 2011 and 2014? The trouble is that, apart from the fact that the current unemployment rate of 6% is nothing to be proud of, many of the newly created jobs are of very poor quality.
The ranks of workers in “time-related underemployment”, doing fewer hours than they wish due to a lack of availability of work – have swollen dramatically. Between 1999 and 2006, only about 1.9% of workers were in such a position; by 2012-13 the figure was 8%.
The success of the Conservative economic narrative has allowed the coalition to pursue a destructive and unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and finance.
Then there is the extraordinary increase in self-employment. Its share of total employment, whose historical norm (1984-2007) was 12.6%, now stands at an unprecedented 15%. With no evidence of a sudden burst of entrepreneurial energy among Britons, we may conclude that many are in self-employment out of necessity or even desperation. Even though surveys show that most newly self-employed people say it is their preference, the fact that these workers have experienced a far greater collapse in earnings than employees – 20% against 6% between 2006-07 and 2011-12, according to the Resolution Foundation – suggests that they have few alternatives, not that they are budding entrepreneurs going places.
So, in between the additional people in underemployment (6.1% of employment) and the precarious newly self-employed (2.4%), 8.5% of British people in work (or 2.6 million people) are in jobs that do not fully utilise their abilities – call that semi-unemployment, if you will.
The success of the Conservative economic narrative has allowed the coalition to pursue a destructive and unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and finance, with stagnant productivity, falling wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, and savage welfare cuts.
The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate. A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth. Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods. Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.
Without a new economic vision incorporating these dimensions, Britain will continue on its path of stagnation, financial instability and social conflict.

Neo-Liberal Economics and the danger to nations' sovereignty. From Social Europe Journal.

The TPPA debate has echoes in Europe as Neo-Liberal economists conspire to remove national sovereignty through the Juncker Commission.

Will The Juncker Commission Continue To Entrench Neoliberal Policies?

Lukas Oberndorfer, Juncker Commission
Lukas Oberndorfer
A few days ago, the designated European Commission finally showed its true colours: It wants to make sure that its economic policy recommendations become enforceable. Deregulation of rent setting systems, adjusting the retirement age to account for life expectancy and increased flexibility in wage-setting mechanisms were mere recommendations in 2014. That is supposed to change now. Its instruments are the competitiveness pacts 2.0 and a separate budget for the Euro area, even though there is no legal basis for such a measure. A decision is going to be made at upcoming meetings of the European.
Convergence and Competitiveness Instrument; Competitiveness Pacts; Partnerships for Growth, Jobs and Competitiveness – as numerous as their names are the attempts of the European Council to create consensus about binding contracts for neoliberal structural reforms.
Angela Merkel – the organic intellectual of a “reform alliance” consisting of trade associations, the financial industry, national ministries of finance and the economy, the EU Commission, neoliberal heads of state and government and the ECB – has been pursuing such plans since the beginning of 2013.
But is this about the countries who face financing difficulties on the financial markets or about the economies that show excessive trade deficits? No. For those countries, instruments were already put in place in the wake of the economic crisis that obligated them to accept the standards of the neoliberal reform alliance as economic policy.

The Neoliberal Reform Alliance Is Targeting The Remaining Countries

Now, the competitive pacts aim to include the remaining countries, such as France, Germany and Italy. For all Euro states, a mechanism shall be created that will, in the words of the Commission, overcome “political [...] deterrents to reform”: In binding contracts, the countries shall commit to “structural reforms of the labour market, the social security and health care systems and of retirement regulations”. Countries with timely adoption shall receive “financial” incentives.
No mention shall be made of the abuse that corporations inflict on social systems through tax evasion, which deprives public coffers of one billion euros yearly, according to estimates by the Commission itself. No mention of the ever quicker redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. And no mention of the erosion of democracy, in both economy and society, that is driven by financial markets. Rather, the competitiveness pacts strengthen those actors who have spent years calling for “painful but necessary” reforms of the social infrastructure. In times of tight budgets, who can afford to leave money in Brussels?
But for now, voting in the European Council has not been unanimous, as would be required for the competitiveness pacts. Resistance by the unions and by transnational alliances such as “Another Europe is possible,” among others, was too strong and the outgoing Commission too weak.

Will Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission continue the push to entrench neoliberal economic policies? (photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 euranet_plus)

Old Ideas, New Candour: Enforceability For The Commission’s Recommendations

That is supposed to change now. Just a few days ago, the Handelsblatt reported that EU commissioners Moscovici and Dombrovskis, who have been suggested as heads of the relevant departments, want to “ensure that governments follow the EU’s economic recommendations, which have so far been accorded little attention”. Even though this was “one of Merkel’s ideas which had been regarded as rejected,” parts of the proposal are new:
1) Up to now, the Commission has shied away from stating explicitly that its country-specific recommendations should be the object of the pacts.
2) In order to provide the financial incentives for fulfilment of the competitiveness pacts, a separate budget for the Euro zone shall be established in the medium term.
But what, exactly, is the content of the country-specific recommendations? Since the competitiveness pacts, according to all proposals to date, must be concluded between “the member states of the euro zone and the Commission,” it is worthwhile to take a look at the recommendations that the Commission issued in 2014, before they were toned down by the Council:
Belgium, for example, should aim for a “reform of the wage-setting system, including wage indexation [and] to provide for effective automatic corrections when needed”. Bulgaria is advised to lower its minimum wage. France should commit itself to the German model: The unemployment benefit system shall be “reformed” in such a way that “incentives to return to work” are strengthened. Germany, in turn, shall lead the way once more and “[increase] incentives for later retirement”. Slovenia and Croatia are called upon to privatize and Sweden is even asked to deregulate its rent setting system in order to ensure “more market-oriented rent levels”. For Austria, the Commission envisions linking the statutory retirement age to life expectancy and harmonizing the statutory retirement age for women and men sooner.
But are the competitiveness pacts really about a contest between the EU and the nation state? No. Rather, nation state actors belonging to the neoliberal reform alliance are trying to use the European level to further their interests — to push through demands that are, to date, not enforceable within the democracies of the nation states due to a power balance that does not favour these interests that strongly.

Overcoming Democratic Obstacles

The manner in which the competitiveness pacts are to be established makes it obvious that the main conflict is not between “the EU” and, say, “France,” but rather between the executive (both on the European and the national level) and representative democracy. Jean Claude Juncker, the new president of the Commission, lets us know on that point: “I want to launch legislative and non-legislative initiatives to deepen our Economic and Monetary Union during the first year of my mandate. These would include [...] proposals to encourage further structural reforms, if necessary through additional financial incentives and a targeted fiscal capacity at Euro zone level [...].”
The wording suggests that the competitiveness pacts are to be implemented through a regulation. However, the European Treaties clearly do not grant the Commission authority to establish competitiveness pacts or to pay out the financial incentives associated with them. It seems that also the new president of the Commission has chosen the path of authoritarian constitutionalism which will weaken both national parliaments and the European parliament by circumventing regular treaty amendment procedures.
Yet, you cannot accuse the Commission of being dishonest. For two years now, it has clearly articulated what this is all about: overcoming political obstacles. It remains to be seen, however, if the heads of states will join in this new instance of bypassing the parliaments where the wage-earning population is able to advance their interests with comparative ease. A landmark decision will probably be made at one of the next two upcoming European Councils (October 23 or December 18, 2014).

11 Oct 2014

NEW THOUGHTS ON CAPITAL - Thomas Piketty (From TED Talks)

I found this TED talk to be thought provoking and a challenge to us all as we witness the further stripping of State Assets being signalled in New Zealand.



1 Oct 2014

Trickle Down Economics? No way. Rather it's wealth capture by the selfish few. (From Social Journal Europe)

If You Look At One Graph About Inequality Look At This!

Henning Meyer
Henning Meyer
You might have heard about recent reports stating that global inequality is decreasing. This is a nice example of constructing the comparison according to the result you would like to see. Yes, inequality between countries has declined but the most important comparison is what is happening to inequality within countries as this tells you how the distribution system, that is under direct political control, works. And if you look at this you can only shake your head in disbelief.

Pavlina Tcherneva tweeted two graphs from her research that were also picked up by Vox.com. The graphs answer a simple question: Who actually got what share of growing national income in different periods of time? Here is the answer for the US:
Is there any question that there is something fundamentally wrong with this distribution? And if you think this is only the case in the US look at the equivalent graph for Sweden:
Something is going seriously wrong here! If you look at one graph that tells you all you need to know about income inequality look at who actually takes home the gains of economic growth.

29 Sep 2014

Th Austerity Disaster and its impact - Lessons for New Zealand? (From Social Europe)

Europe’s Austerity Disaster

Joseph Stiglitz, Austerity Disaster
Joseph Stiglitz
“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the theory,” goes the old adage. But too often it is easier to keep the theory and change the facts – or so German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other pro-austerity European leaders appear to believe. Though facts keep staring them in the face, they continue to deny reality.
Austerity has failed. But its defenders are willing to claim victory on the basis of the weakest possible evidence: the economy is no longer collapsing, so austerity must be working! But if that is the benchmark, we could say that jumping off a cliff is the best way to get down from a mountain; after all, the descent has been stopped.
But every downturn comes to an end. Success should not be measured by the fact that recovery eventually occurs, but by how quickly it takes hold and how extensive the damage caused by the slump.
Viewed in these terms, austerity has been an utter and unmitigated disaster, which has become increasingly apparent as European Union economies once again face stagnation, if not a triple-dip recession, with unemployment persisting at record highs and per capita real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in many countries remaining below pre-recession levels. In even the best-performing economies, such as Germany, growth since the 2008 crisis has been so slow that, in any other circumstance, it would be rated as dismal.
Austerity has been an utter and unmitigated disaster, which has become increasingly apparent as European Union economies once again face stagnation.
The most afflicted countries are in a depression. There is no other word to describe an economy like that of Spain or Greece, where nearly one in four people – and more than 50% of young people – cannot find work. To say that the medicine is working because the unemployment rate has decreased by a couple of percentage points, or because one can see a glimmer of meager growth, is akin to a medieval barber saying that a bloodletting is working, because the patient has not died yet.
Extrapolating Europe’s modest growth from 1980 onwards, my calculations show that output in the eurozone today is more than 15% below where it would have been had the 2008 financial crisis not occurred, implying a loss of some $1.6 trillion this year alone, and a cumulative loss of more than $6.5 trillion. Even more disturbing, the gap is widening, not closing (as one would expect following a downturn, when growth is typically faster than normal as the economy makes up lost ground).
Simply put, the long recession is lowering Europe’s potential growth. Young people who should be accumulating skills are not. There is overwhelming evidence that they face the prospect of significantly lower lifetime income than if they had come of age in a period of full employment.
The European economy is still in major trouble and the policy direction is making matters worse, according to Joseph Stiglitz.
Meanwhile, Germany is forcing other countries to follow policies that are weakening their economies – and their democracies. When citizens repeatedly vote for a change of policy – and few policies matter more to citizens than those that affect their standard of living – but are told that these matters are determined elsewhere or that they have no choice, both democracy and faith in the European project suffer.
France voted to change course three years ago. Instead, voters have been given another dose of pro-business austerity. One of the longest-standing propositions in economics is the balanced-budget multiplier – increasing taxes and expenditures in tandem stimulates the economy. And if taxes target the rich, and spending targets the poor, the multiplier can be especially high. But France’s so-called socialist government is lowering corporate taxes and cutting expenditures – a recipe almost guaranteed to weaken the economy, but one that wins accolades from Germany.
The hope is that lower corporate taxes will stimulate investment. This is sheer nonsense. What is holding back investment (both in the United States and Europe) is lack of demand, not high taxes. Indeed, given that most investment is financed by debt, and that interest payments are tax-deductible, the level of corporate taxation has little effect on investment.
The hope is that lower corporate taxes will stimulate investment. This is sheer nonsense. What is holding back investment (both in the United States and Europe) is lack of demand, not high taxes.
Likewise, Italy is being encouraged to accelerate privatization. But Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has the good sense to recognize that selling national assets at fire-sale prices makes little sense. Long-run considerations, not short-run financial exigencies, should determine which activities occur in the private sector. The decision should be based on where activities are carried out most efficiently, serving the interests of most citizens the best.
Privatization of pensions, for example, has proved costly in those countries that have tried the experiment. America’s mostly private health-care system is the least efficient in the world. These are hard questions, but it is easy to show that selling state-owned assets at low prices is not a good way to improve long-run financial strength.
All of the suffering in Europe – inflicted in the service of a man-made artifice, the euro – is even more tragic for being unnecessary. Though the evidence that austerity is not working continues to mount, Germany and the other hawks have doubled down on it, betting Europe’s future on a long-discredited theory. Why provide economists with more facts to prove the point?

The Damage Fallacies of Neo-Liberal economics cause

The on-going and recent scandals (Judith Collins & Oravida, Maurice Williamson & Donghua Lui, John Key & Dirty Politics....)  in New Zealand that have swirled around the neo-liberal National Party government of Key, supported by the discredited political parties of ACT and United Futures, with a combined total of 18000 nation wide, and the Maori Party did not prevent their re-election in the September election. The result is still being analysed and the fall-out worried over by those on the Left of the political spectrum. However, I think that this article in The Guardian best explains why, despite the National Party offering no visible policy direction for New Zealand except for a "steady as she goes...don't rock the boat" campaign which, late in the campaign, held out the possibility of tax cuts in 2017 the electorate cast their Party vote for National.

The description of the personality that dominates the Neo-Liberal society is an exact description of those, like Key, Joyce, Collins, and Bennett, who are now stitching up deals with the "support parties"  like ACT and United Futures to consolidate the striping of the State we have seen since 2008.

Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us

An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and our personalities

City of London and Canary Wharf
'We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited.' Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
We tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative. If you’re reading this sceptically, I put this simple statement to you: meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.

This description is, of course, a caricature taken to extremes. (Hardly, sounds exactly like those at the head of the NZ National Party.)  Nevertheless, the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.

More important, though, is the serious damage to people’s self-respect. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other, as thinkers from Hegel to Lacan have shown. Sennett comes to a similar conclusion when he sees the main question for employees these days as being “Who needs me?” For a growing group of people, the answer is: no one.

Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.

A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman neatly summarised the paradox of our era as: “Never have we been so free. Never have we felt so powerless.” We are indeed freer than before, in the sense that we can criticise religion, take advantage of the new laissez-faire attitude to sex and support any political movement we like. We can do all these things because they no longer have any significance – freedom of this kind is prompted by indifference. Yet, on the other hand, our daily lives have become a constant battle against a bureaucracy that would make Kafka weak at the knees. There are regulations about everything, from the salt content of bread to urban poultry-keeping.

Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.

25 Jul 2014

Why the Super-Rich need Governments. (from Social Europe Journal)

Dani Rodrik

The very rich, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “are different from you and me.” Their wealth makes them “cynical where we are trustful,” and makes them think “they are better than we are.” If these words ring true today, perhaps it is because when they were written, in 1926, inequality in the United States had reached heights comparable to today.
During much of the intervening period, between the end of World War II and the 1980s, inequality in the advanced countries was moderate. The gap between the super-rich and the rest of society seemed less colossal – not just in terms of income and wealth, but also in terms of attachments and social purpose. The rich had more money, of course, but they somehow still seemed part of the same society as the poor, recognizing that geography and citizenship made them share a common fate.
As the University of Michigan’s Mark Mizruchi points out in a recent book, the American corporate elite in the postwar era had “an ethic of civic responsibility and enlightened self-interest.” They cooperated with trade unions and favored a strong government role in regulating and stabilizing markets. They understood the need for taxes to pay for important public goods such as the interstate highway and safety nets for the poor and elderly.
Business elites were not any less politically powerful back then. But they used their influence to advance an agenda that was broadly in the national interest.
By contrast, today’s super-rich are “moaning moguls,” to use James Surowiecki’s evocative term. Exhibit A for Surowiecki is Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of the private equity firm the Blackstone Group, whose wealth now exceeds $10 billion.
The venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot, both compared populist attacks on the wealthy to the Nazis’ attacks on the Jews.
Schwarzman acts as if “he’s beset by a meddlesome, tax-happy government and a whiny, envious populace.” He has suggested that “it might be good to raise income taxes on the poor so they had ‘skin in the game,’ and that proposals to repeal the carried-interest tax loophole – from which he personally benefits – were akin to the German invasion of Poland.” Other examples from Surowiecki: “the venture capitalist Tom Perkins and Kenneth Langone, the co-founder of Home Depot, both compared populist attacks on the wealthy to the Nazis’ attacks on the Jews.”
Surowiecki thinks that the change in attitudes has much to do with globalization. Large American corporations and banks now roam the globe freely, and are no longer so dependent on the US consumer. The health of the American middle class is of little interest to them these days. Moreover, Surowiecki argues, socialism has gone by the wayside, and there is no need to coopt the working class anymore.
Yet if corporate moguls think that they no longer need to rely on their national governments, they are making a huge mistake. The reality is that the stability and openness of the markets that produce their wealth have never depended more on government action.
The super rich are now more separated from the rest of society than ever before (photo: CC 4WheelsofLux Photography on Flickr)
In periods of relative calm, governments’ role in writing and upholding the rules by which markets function can become obscured. It may seem as if markets are on autopilot, with governments an inconvenience that is best avoided.
As former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King aptly put it in the context of finance, “global banks are global in life, but national in death.”
But when economic storm clouds gather on the horizon, everyone seeks shelter under their home government’s cover. It is then that the ties that bind large corporations to their native soil are fully revealed. As former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King aptly put it in the context of finance, “global banks are global in life, but national in death.”
Consider how the US government stepped in to ensure financial and economic stability during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. If the government had not bailed out large banks, the insurance giant AIG, and the auto industry, and if the Federal Reserve had not flooded the economy with liquidity, the wealth of the super-rich would have taken a severe blow. Many argued that the government should have focused on rescuing homeowners; instead, the government chose to support the banks – a policy from which the financial elite benefited the most.
Even in normal times, the super-rich depend on government support and action. It is largely the government that has financed the fundamental research that produced the information-technology revolution and the firms (such as Apple and Microsoft) that it has spawned.
It is the government that enacts and enforces the copyright, patent, and trademark laws that protect intellectual property rights, guaranteeing successful innovators a steady stream of monopoly profits. It is the government that subsidizes the higher-education institutions that train the skilled work force. It is the government that negotiates trade agreements with other countries to ensure that domestic firms gain access to foreign markets.
If the super-rich believe that they are no longer part of society and have little need of government, it is not because this belief corresponds to objective reality. It is because the prevailing story line of our time portrays markets as self-standing entities that run on their own fuel. This is a narrative that afflicts all segments of society, the middle class no less than the rich.
There is no reason to expect that the super-rich will act less selfishly than any other group. But it is not so much their self-interest that stands in the way of greater equality and social inclusion. The more significant roadblock is the missing recognition that markets cannot produce prosperity for long – for anyone – unless they are backed by healthy societies and good governance.

8 Jul 2014

YESTERDAY'S RUBBISH..why is a minimum wage different from Free Trade?

Andrew Watt
Andrew Watt
Germany’s first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer is usually held to be the origin of an often-quoted phrase „Was kümmert mich mein Geschwätz von gestern?“. Roughly: why should I be concerned about the rubbish I talked yesterday? Whatever the rights and wrongs of this attribution, the phrase – used to draw attention to someone who places political flexibility over intellectual consistency – has occurred to me numerous times over recent months in the context of Germany’s debate over the introduction of a statutory minimum wage.

The statutory minimum wage in Germany

The decision was finally taken yesterday in the Bundestag. Germany will, for the first time in its history, apply a statutory minimum wage of EUR 8.50 to almost all workers from the start of 2015. It is estimated that up to 3.7 million workers will benefit, and given very pronounced wage inequality at the bottom of the German labour market, the wage rises for some workers will be substantial. There is a two-year transition phase for pre-existing sectoral collective agreements. A number of groups of workers have been excluded, some permanently the majority for a transition period, from the minimum wage requirement, which has given rise to an intense debate in the country.
This debate about exemptions, as with the battle over the minimum wage more generally, has centred, unsurprisingly, on possible negative employment effects. Once the minimum wage has been introduced it will be possible to analyse its employment effects, even if this will be difficult because its impact will not be easy to disentangle from that of other factors happening at the same time. For the moment, one has to rely on studies focusing on past minimum wage introductions and increases in other countries. The thrust of that literature is that, provided the minimum wage is at a “reasonable rate”, it is very hard to identify negative employment effects in the aggregate. (For a discussion of whether EUR 8.50 is “reasonable” in the German context see here.)
What we will see though is a lot of “argument by anecdote”. Firm A in region B has been forced into bankruptcy by wage increases necessitated by the minimum wage. Worker C in city D was happy about the minimum wage when it was being discussed, but now he is furious because instead of a job paying EUR 6.50 he is unemployed. Indeed, we are already seeing this argument being deployed in the form of threats and predictions. Handelsblatt, the German business daily, recently had a piece whose title asks whether the minimum wage will lead to bankruptcies (“Pleiten dank Mindestlohn?”, Handelsblatt, 15.05.14). The article answers the rhetorical question in the affirmative, based on the opinions of the director of the hotel and catering lobby organisation, the board chairman of a chain of hairdressers, and the president of the German employers association BDA. And this concern has been expressed by many liberal economists, by employer-linked think tanks such as the Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft[1], and, not least, by the German Council of Economic Advisers.[2]

Political flexibility or intellectual consistency?

What I find interesting here is less the specific arguments put forward (which are rather weak) than the fact that the basis for the arguments is completely at odds with the way that employers’ representatives[3], and certainly liberal economists, normally position themselves. It is as if, on the issue of the minimum wage they are collectively saying: why should I be concerned about the rubbish I talked yesterday?
Consider the debate on free trade. A country has tariffs that protect a sector of its economy. They are removed, leading to job losses and bankruptcies in the least productive firms in that sector. Do employer representatives and liberal economists favour an anecdotal approach here and call for the reimposition of tariffs in order to protect jobs and companies? On the whole they take a very different line. The production and employment protected by the tariffs is “inefficient”. Free trade brings a welcome does of competition. It enables higher incomes and a shift of production to areas in which the country has a comparative advantage. Workers who lose their jobs move to more productive occupations or regions and everyone is better off. (At least, the more sophisticated would add, this is the case after an intervening adjustment period.) Focusing on protecting “old” jobs is a barrier to productivity and progress. One cannot judge from individual job losses that the overall employment level must fall.
A similar argument is put forward with respect to technological change. Yes, some workers are thrown out of work when new, more efficient machinery and production processes are introduced. Others have to adjust through training. But here, too, the overall impact is beneficial (after a lag), because lost employment can be recouped elsewhere in the economy, as higher-productivity jobs pay higher wages that in turn expand employment opportunities for workers in other parts of the economy. If you are against technological change you are a Luddite and economically illiterate.
This begs the question why different standards seemingly apply in the case of the minimum wage. Firms facing a rise in labour costs in the wake of its introduction have a number of ways to adjust. (These are not mutually exclusive in practice but can be separated for expositional purposes.) They can increase prices. Given that the minimum wage applies across the whole economy (i.e. will not just affect individual firms) this is likely to happen. Relative prices will adjust: the prices of goods and services produced with the use of large quantities of low-skilled labour will increase relative to those using more high-skill labour and capital. The economic (not technical) productivity of the low-wage workers will rise, thanks to higher product and service prices, to match the increase in their wages. Or firms can raise their productivity (in the technical sense), through innovation and reorganisation, just like a firm facing a dose of wholesome foreign competition because tariffs have been cut. Companies may also accept a lower profitability, and the wage share would rise somewhat. (If nothing else, this would make Thomas Picketty happy).
But, undoubtedly, in some firms these adjustment strategies may not be practicable or sufficient. Some may lay off workers and others be forced to close. This is the basis for the anecdotal argument. But surely, given their normal argumentative pattern, business representatives and liberal economists should be vociferously pointing out that this is actually not a problem, certainly not an inevitable one. For as we have seen a minimum wage has very similar effects to a bracing dose of foreign competition or the “creative destruction” associated with technology. Induced productivity gains and higher wages generate additional income that sustains employment in firms across the whole economy. Those employers that cannot keep up are forced out of business. And the labour that is displaced will, or at least should[4], be rapidly deployed to other regions or sectors where it can be put to more productive use.

Yesterday’s rubbish?

From the macroeconomic point of view it makes no sense at all to lock a large proportion of the workforce into low-paid, low-productivity jobs. If they were consistent, liberal economists and employers’ front organisations should be making that point. But they are not. It could be that they have suddenly abandoned liberal views as yesterday’s rubbish. This is implausible, however. The argument still applies in other areas; see for example the salutatory effects that such commentators ascribe to the TTIP (Transtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).
Rather the discrepancy is presumably because the same effect is produced by two different causes: trade or technological change, on the one hand, which are seen as market outcomes, and the minimum wage, on the other, which is perceived as an market intervention. This dichotomy is wrong, or at least oversimplistic, of course. Trade and technology are also highly regulated, while many economists argue that the minimum wage (at a reasonable level) is correcting a market imperfection that gives undue power to employers. But even those who believe in it should be aware of the inconsistency of using anecdotal argument from individual companies as a stick with which to beat the minimum wage.
It will be quite some time before careful studies, with all the required controls, are made of the employment impacts of the introduction of the statutory minimum wage in Germany. Until they are done, expect a lot of heart-rending anecdotal argument about job losses and bankruptcies. And when you hear or read them, remember to confront those making such arguments with Konrad Adenauer, or whoever it was who said: Was kümmert mich mein Geschwätz von gestern?

[1] In its „eight facts about the minimum wage“ the INSM states baldly (translation mine) „ The introduction of a minimum wage, whatever ist level, destroys all those jobs that no longer pay. And a job no longer pays when the employer gets less from it than he pays the worker. And so it is clear: the higher the minimum wgae, the greater the job losses.“
[2] In their annual report 2013/2014. It is worth emphasising that one of the „Five wise persons“, Peter Bofinger, dissented from the majority view on the minimum wage issue.
[3] The following may not apply to heads of individual companies, who can be very protectionist, but it usually does to those representing employer interests at national level.
[4] The word “should” here can be understood in the sense that redeployment will happen if appropriate measures are in place to maintain aggregate demand and smooth the adjustment process through active labour market policies. And of course provided the increase in the minimum wage is “reasonable” so that the employment reallocation system is not completely overwhelmed.

7 Jul 2014

Robert Reich on the 7 big lies told by neo-liberal politicians.

This video is worth watching and listening to as Robert Reich exposes the fallacies that underpin the neo-liberal economics so beloved by John Key and his asset stripping cronies.


27 Jun 2014

The Herald and Key duck, scuttle and run as Donghua Liu story loses credibility

The anatomy of Dirty Tricks.

It looks like the powers that be on the Herald's editorial board are starting to realise that being a paid shill for the Key owned National Party is not as wise a move as they thought. Particularly as the realisation that the allegations fed from John Key and  those around Donghua Liu are proving to be a quicksand that is sucking the already doubtful credibility of the paper as a crusading, principled record of fact away from it.

The self parodying editorial (27.6.14) was the beginning of the duck strategy and, today, the normally rabid Key adoration puffer, Fran O'Sullivan, began to drop the blame for the fiasco on Key's desire to extract utu on Cunliffe for daring to reveal the extent to which National Party cabinet ministers have been prepared to go in the quest for largesse from foreign property speculators and "investor immigrants". Her comments that:

It was lack of discipline when he recently fuelled the journalistic flames on the so-called Donghua Liu donations scandal from the comfortable distance of the US.
He appeared to have forgotten a basic rule of politics — don't fan the flames of scandal unless you are sure where it will finish up. It's understandable that Key was tempted to indulge in some gotcha politics himself after a torrid month where he had to put Judith Collins on Cabinet leave after the Oravida affair and ask for Maurice Williamson's ministerial resignation after he intervened in a police matter involving the Chinese business investor.
It must have been pure utu to watch while the proverbial was thrown back all over Labour after Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse informed Key there was an 11-year-old pro forma letter in the files that showed Cunliffe wrote to authorities on Liu's behalf over his residency application.
The Prime Minister wasn't the direct source of the Liu "revelations" (I use that word advisedly as many of the more hyperbolic Liu claims have since proved to be a mirage).
Herald investigative journalist Jared Savage, who broke the story which led to Williamson's resignation, had already sought Liu's immigration file under the Official Information Act. But it is instructive in that it was sources close to National who shopped the story of Liu's anonymous donations to Labour elsewhere after Woodhouse had accessed the file.
National has not played a straight bat on this story.
Woodhouse has yet to explain why he initially told porkies by denying he had informed Key about the Cunliffe letter — something that may have been literally true but skated over the fact he had told the prime minister's staff about the letter (and one from former Labour MP Chris Carter) and his office had provided both letters to Key's office.
While Cunliffe was obviously stitched up over the Liu letter, the political donor's subsequent "misstatements" have left thoughtful people wondering whether it was indeed Labour that had proven tricky — as National's meme invites us to believe — or the governing party.

reveal some deep disquiet emerging within the party political PR machine behind Key and the National Party.

"Smile, Wave, brain-fade, scuttle and run" The stategists in confrence?

The history of the Donghua Liu scandal is revealing, as commented on in earlier postings and by other commentators, because of its obvious links to the scandal spreading blog sites closely connected to the Ninth Floor of the Beehive and the readiness of The Herald to swallow without due diligence the statement given it by, to quote Fran O'Sullivan, those close to National ... after Woodhousehad accessed the file. 

And, now, as the allegations begin to unravel and there is colder, closer and more focused examination of the apparent deliberate anti-Labour campaign being waged by the opinionista in The Herald the classic Key strategy of "smile, wave, brain fade, scuttle and run" is being followed in an attempt to extricate the news-sheet from the  mess it helped create.

24 Jun 2014

The Ground gets boggier under Key's shifting feet

The Donghua Liu saga has just got even more dangerous for the  John "drop the insinuation then duck" Key as The Herald is forced to publish an altered statement from Mr Liu that changes much of his original statement.

It now appears that Mr Liu is claiming to have donated $2000.00 to the Hawkes Bay Rowing Club Branch of the NZ Labour Party and $60,000+ to The Yangzte Concrete Factory Branch of the NZ Labour Party to give the "honorable members a luxury cruise as a reward for their hard work making concrete for honorable building projects."

The claim that he purchased a bottle or bottles of wine  at a Labour Party Auction on June 3 2007 has also been shot down in flames as searchers have now identified the auction being one run by The Midland's Hawkes Bay Wine Charity at which no wine was sold at the inflated price Mr Liu claims to have bid. The Herald's new story now has Rick Barker receiving the bottle of wine from Mrs Liu rather than, as was originally alleged "giving it to her." The Herald is certainly back tracking all over the place on this story.
I look forward to the front Page apology to David Cunliffe, the NZ Labour Party and the long suffering NZ public who have had to put up with irresponsible reporting from the paper for far too long.

Left, Rick Barker receiving a bottle of wine from Donghua Liu's (top right) partner Juan Zhang. Photo / Supplied, NZ Herald

Left, Rick Barker receiving a bottle of wine from Donghua Liu's (top right) partner Juan Zhang. Photo / Supplied, NZ Herald

The questions need to be asked loudly, clearly and many, many times to John "Scuttle and Run" Key, Cameron Slater, Jami-Lee Ross and others close to Maurice Williamson and Donghua Liu "Who wrote the original statement for Mr Liu and who fed it to Key and Jared Savage?" and "Did Mr Liu really understand what he was signing  because, as Mr Williamson claims Mr Liu speaks and reads minimal English?"

POST SCRIPT: 1) The Fairfax stable is now asking questions about the Herald's reporting and the Key involvement in the Donghua Liu situation. About time the blow torch was applied to the links between The Herald and the Ninth Floor of the Beehive.
2) Radio New Zealand  Morning Report Political journalist declares that the Liu story doesn't stack up (27.6.14).
3) NZ Herald attempts to back off from its inept reporting by lampooning itself in an editorial claiming to be a crusading, reputable news-sheet and reducing the alleged "donations" from Liu to $38,000 in a series of anonymous donations over several years to different un-named MPs. 

22 Jun 2014

Murkier and murkier - What happened on Sunday June 3rd 2007?

The latest "revelation" dropped from the PR machine employed by the National Government is classic Bellmanism.
For those unaware of the Bellman's persuasive technique it can be summed up as: "I've told you three times so it must be true." And so it is with the National Party-Liu connections and the allegations that Liu was "generous" to the Labour Party one Sunday evening (3 June 2007). (Addendum: The Herald is now claiming the escape clause of an American date writing (appropriate since Key sold the country to the USA over the past week) so the fund raiser could have been held on Tuesday the 6th of March 2007. A date that would be as highly unlikely as the Sunday event as, in my experience, the major fund raisers are invariably Friday or Saturday events in order to maximise attendance. - Yet another example of slack investigation by the Herald hacks.)

The question that should be raised is: "What is the difference between a bid at an auction for an item and a donation / gift of money to the National Party?

The answer is that a bid at an auction is not a donation even though the bid price accepted may result in an artifically high price. A donation / gifting of cash is a transaction in which one party accepts a sum of money from another without ostensibly purchasing anything tangible.  On this basis a journalist would recognise the difference and realise that they're being spun a line and not reporting accurately.

But, No, the journalists accepted the story that, according to Mr Liu there was a large fundraising wine auction that Sunday at which he bid crazy money for a signed bottle of wine and a signed biography of Helen Clark.  Apart from the unlikelihood of a fund raising event being held on a Sunday the claims of crazy money bidding for a bottle of wine and a biography have a distinctly invented look to them.

Despite all enquiries and dredging the memories of any body involved with fund raising in 2007 no one has identified a fund raiser held in June 2007 that resulted in such a large sum of money. As Martyn Bradbury says if such an event with single bids like those alleged by Mr Liu then the story would have been member talk almost immediately and been common talk for months and months but he had never heard any amazed talk in all his involvement within the Party.

An alert reporter / editor would ask the question: "If Mr Liu claims he paid $100,000 for a bottle of wine at a Labour Fund Raiser in 2007 surely we would have heard about such ridiculous money being bid for abottle of wine because such a sum would have been buzzing around the newsrooms at the time. Didn't we write up a sensational headline back then about the Labour Party having money being rained upon it? We'd better search the morgue to find the story all the better to substantiate Mr Liu's allegation." Obviously there was no report or rumour on record within the Herald's story morgue or else they would have republished their sensational rumour of 2007.

Again, an alert Editor would have noted that Mr Liu also claimed that the staff function he invited Rick Barker to on his visit to China was to be seen as a "donation" to the Labour Party. Again, an alert and responsible editor would've recognised such a claim as being (a) an invention in order to create the illusion of an $150,000 "donation" and (b) a deliberate attempt to confuse a previously arranged staff function to which he invited Mr Barker into a luxury cruise perk to give the PR company a further spin point for the lazy MSM to fasten their word processors to.

There are so many inconsistencies in Mr Liu's statement that any reporter / journalist worth his or her salt would have checked, checked and checked again before accepting the rumours dropped from the lips of John Key while he was muppeteering in America as being gospel.

 The whole story stinks of Crosby-Textor dark ops aimed at distracting from an election fought on policies to one fought on innuendo.

19 Jun 2014

Thomas Piketty on why Austerity & wealth Inequality is bad for the economy.

 Here's a good thinking person's article to give further ammunition as to why a Labour vote is important this year.

Five minutes with Thomas Piketty: “We don’t need 19th century-style inequality to generate growth in the 21st century”

In an interview with EUROPP’s editor Stuart Brown and British Politics and Policy at LSE’s editor Joel Suss, Thomas Piketty discusses the rise in income and wealth inequality outlined in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and what policies should be adopted to prevent us returning to the kind of extreme levels of inequality experienced in Europe prior to the First World War. Professor Piketty recently gave a lecture at the LSE, the video of which can be seen online here.
Your research has shown that inequality is rising and that without government action this trend is likely to continue. However, are we correct to assume that inequality is a fundamentally negative development in terms of its consequences on society?
There is no problem with inequality per se. In actual fact, up to a point inequality is fine and perhaps even useful with respect to innovation and growth. The problem is when inequality becomes so extreme that it no longer becomes useful for growth. When inequality reaches a certain point it often leads to the perpetuation of inequality over time across generations, as well as to a lack of mobility within society. Moreover, extreme inequality can be problematic for democratic institutions because it has the potential to lead to extremely unequal access to political power and the ability for citizens to make their voice heard.
There is no mathematical formula that tells you the point at which inequality becomes excessive. All we have is historical experience and all I have tried to do through my research is to put together a large body of historical experience from over twenty countries across two centuries. We can only take imperfect lessons from this work, but it’s the best that we have. One lesson, for instance, is that the kind of extreme concentration of wealth that we experienced in most European countries up until World War One was excessive in the sense that it was not useful for growth, and probably even reduced growth and mobility overall.
This situation was destroyed by World War One, the Great Depression, and World War Two, as well as by the welfare state and progressive taxation policies which came after these shocks. As a consequence, wealth concentration was much lower in the 1950s and 1960s than it was in 1910, but this did not prevent growth from happening. If anything, this probably contributed to the inclusion of new social groups into the economic process and therefore to higher growth. So one important historical lesson from the 20th century is that we don’t need 19th century-style inequality to generate growth in the 21st century, and we therefore don’t want to return to that level of inequality in Europe.
How would you respond to those who doubt whether there is sufficient evidence to draw this kind of conclusion?
This will always be an imperfect inference because we are in the social sciences and we should not have any illusions about what is possible. We can’t run a controlled experiment across the 20th century or replay the century as if World War One and progressive taxation never occurred. All we have is our common historical experience, but I think this is enough to reach a number of fairly strong conclusions.
The lesson we have already mentioned – that we don’t need the kind of extreme inequality of the 19th century in order to have economic growth – is simply one imperfect lesson, but there are other important lessons if you look at, for instance, the rise of inequality in the United States over the past 30 years. For example, is it useful to pay managers a ten million dollar salary rather than only one million dollars? You really don’t see this in the data: the extra performance and job creation in companies which pay managers ten million dollars rather than one. In the United States over the past 30 years almost 75 per cent of the aggregate primary income growth has gone to the top of the distribution. Given the relatively mediocre productivity performance and the per capita GDP growth rate of 1.5 per cent per year, having nearly three quarters of that going to the top isn’t a very good deal for the rest of the population.
This will always be a complicated and passionate debate. Social science research is not going to transform the political conflict over the issue of inequality with some kind of mathematical certainty, but at least we can have a more informed debate using this historical cross-country evidence. Ultimately that is all my research is aiming to do.
What specific policies can be used to prevent us returning to the kind of extreme levels of inequality you have discussed?
There are a large number of policies which can be used in combination to regulate inequality. Historically the main mechanism to reduce inequality has been the diffusion of knowledge, skills and education. This is the most powerful force to reduce inequality between countries: and this is what we have today, with emerging countries catching up in terms of productivity levels with richer countries. Sometimes this can also work within countries if we have sufficiently inclusive educational and social institutions which allow large segments of the population to access the right skills and the right jobs.
However while education is tremendously important, sometimes it’s not sufficient in isolation. In order to prevent the top income groups and top wealth groups from effectively seceding from the rest of the distribution and growing much faster than the rest of society, you also need progressive taxation of income and progressive taxation of wealth – both inherited and annual wealth. Otherwise there is no natural mechanism to prevent the kind of extreme concentration of income and wealth that we’ve seen in the past from happening again.
Most of all, what we need is financial transparency. We need to monitor the dynamics of all of the different income and wealth groups more effectively so that we can adapt our policies and tax rates in line with whatever we observe. The lack of transparency is actually the biggest threat – we may end up one day in a much more unequal society than we thought we were.
A video of Thomas Piketty’s recent LSE lecture is available here
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
Shortened URL for this post: http://bit.ly/1l0xKZV

18 Jun 2014

The murk around Donghua Lui grows each day.

The comment on The Standard tonight about the continuing connections between Donghua Lui are interesting especially the note that perhaps the journalists might like to chase the invisible Botany MP - Jami-Lee Ross who is only known to emerge from perpetual hibernation once every three years in order to play pass the microphone at hastily arranged public meetings designed to give the impression that he is doing something while leaving the attending public in a haze of wondering what it was Jami was offering as a solution to the mess that is East Auckland public transport.

From The Standard:
" First things first, this Donghua Liu thing is a set-piece smear from the National party, it could be nothing else.
The classic signs of National’s comms stick out like dogs balls….
  • timed the breaking of the story for when John Key is out of the country, keeps him clear of the dirt.
  • info was leaked to the tentacles of National’s comms (whaleoil, farrar) as was clearly hinted by barnsley bill (Cameron Slater’s right-hand man) who couldn’t keep his mouth shut on dimpost a couple of days ago.
  • the perfectly timed OIA release.
  • and the fact that Donghua Liu is still tight with National.
Reliable sources have also told me that Donghua is still donating cash to National too. (Any journos reading might like to ask Jamie-Lee Ross about this)
It’s no accident that this was released a couple of days before the 3 month interval that Claire Trevett covered in the herald. Interestingly Farrar made a big deal about this the other day."

Given that the sources noted in The Standard are reliable then questions should be asked:

"What are the connections between the East Auckland National Party and the disgraced Chinese businessman Donghua Liu?"

"How much money has flowed into electorate coffers from Mr Liu to support his campaign to gain citizenship and access to the Key led Cabinet members?"

Following on from the Standard sourced story one could be driven to ask: "has Mr Ross ever been involved in joining Maurice Williamson in lobbying for Mr Liu?"  Botany electors would certainly like to know.

The suspicion of murky and suspect dealings by the National Party in Botany haven't disappeared with the departure of Pansy Wong, whose use of the tax-payers' money to boost her husnband's business interests in China led to her resignation and the by-election that put the Slater supported Jami-Lee into Parliament.