28 December 2011

Financial Chincanery Threatens Our Future

While our policy-makers have been striding around their Cotswold estates burning off an excess of Christmas pudding, elsewhere in the world events are occurring that provide further signals that the economic game we have played so effectively for the past two centuries is being superseded.

Do not let your festive white-out blind you from the important decision taken a historic decision to avoid the dollar in their trade relationship. As reported on this blog, for some time China has been arguing for a change in the global terms of trade, a system that has hugely benefited the USA since it was negotiated at Bretton Woods in 1945. The US has refused to negotiate and so China is now taking bilateral action, and Japan appears to be following a similar strategy.

Japan and China have agreed to make direct currency exchanges to settle their external trade balances, rather than negotiate via the dollar. In addition, Japan will buy Chinese government bonds. This shifts the Chinese renminbi towards the status of a reserve currency that China's economic power suggests, although the currency is still controlled entirely by the government, rather than being available for free exchange as the other reserve currencies have been until recently.

The extraordinary fact that the dollar is still the global medium-of-exchange, giving the US completely undeserved and misused global economic advantages, is omitted from discussion of our economic woes. And yet the way that the City operates as the 52nd state leaves us increasingly vulnerable in a world where the powerful economies are those who produce and gain access to resources, rather than those who control currencies.

Another sign of the UK's vulnerability emerges from a report showing that we have been overtaken by Brazil in terms of the global economy league table. As the UK economy shrinks and those of the resource-rich and industrious economies outside the West expand, this is more a shock than a surprise. These economies face another significant advantage over those of Europe: they are able to create their infrastructures in a way not dependent on fossil fuels and hence face significant advantages in terms of a green economic future.

23 December 2011

Time for a Christmas Carol

We are going to have wall to wall Dickens this Christmas. His bicententary has come at an apposite moment: we have never needed his wisdom and his diversion more. He has a strong claim to be our second national writer after Shakespeare, and this must be because we need the moral of his tales as much now as we did when they were written.

Personally I have never got along with Dickens, finding his characters unconvincing and preferring the earthier tales of George Eliot, with the greater depth of relationship and her overwhelming and winning compasion. The ubiquity of Dickens this year has taught me that I was wrong. Dickens's characters are intended to be unreal because his writing is allegorial, not realistic. This is the reason they have daft unconvincing names, but names that tell you immediately what role the character is to play in the morality tale that you are reading (or watching).

The point is most obvious in A Christmas Carol itself, where the unhappy Ebeneezer Scrooge is given the chance to abandon his love affair with his account-book and rejoin the human race. We remember scrooge as a miser, but this is not the role he plays. The Scrooge is actually the businessman driven by the quest for profit rather than people, abandoning love and humanity to commit his time to his enterprise. This book is a tirade against capitalism as powerful as any camp staged outside St. Paul's or any pamphlet from Marx and Engels. It tells how capitalism distorts the human spirit and, most importantly, makes even those who succeed within the narrow and shallow rules of its game, almost as unhappy as it makes the losers. And because capitalism, in its rotten essentials, has not changed, the message is as relevant 200 years on as it was in 1843.

Meanwhile, the characters of Bleak House are fixated by a legal case from which only lawyers gain, the Jarndyce and Jayndyce chancery case standing iconically for the project of any who would dedicate his or her life to the pursuit of financial reward. Many characters in the novel see relationships and health destroyed while they battle for their 'expectations'. The choice of this word throughout the Dickens oeuvre so neatly sums up the way capitalism always offers but never rewards, thereby ensuring a lifetime's unhappy slavery and a perpetual discontent.

At the end of this year during which we saw the 99% who place love and common humanity above profit and power challenge the 1% who are destroying human society and the planet simultaneously, we should congratulate ourselves that this division has been articulated. We must gain in strength as a movement in 2012, but also as individuals we can try to share the Dickensian sense of comfort and joy and remember that both are for life, not just for Christmas.

21 December 2011

The Government that Likes to Say 'Yes'

The parliamentary Communities and Local Government Committee has come out clearly against the plans made by Pickles and his ilk to tear up the Town and Country Planning Act and allow untrammelled development of the countryside. Their report into the National Planning Policy Framework lays bare its fetishisation of simplification and its attempt to prioritise the narrowly 'economic' at the expense of people and planet. As I discuss in a short paper on localism published recently by Green House, this makes a mockery of the government's espoused support for community-led decision-making.

Bizarrely, the original NPPF document relies on the Brundtland definition of sustainable development as 'Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' I am constantly mystified by the way in which people can spout this without considering at what point development would have to stop. Where between the situation we have now, with species becoming extinct but there still being enough green land to enable breathing, and the future development paradise where every scrap of field and hill is covered with concrete and tarmac, is development supposed to stop? Assuming that future generations will still need air to breathe, there must be a boundary, so how do we know that we have not already reached it? And if not, when will we know we are there?

Gamely, the CLG committee has, in its para. 67, added to this definition of sustainable development to include the concept of limits: 'Policies in plans and decisions on development should be assessed against the principles that the nation and areas within it should live within their environmental limits; should achieve a sustainable economy and should seek to ensure a strong, healthy and just society.' It also requires a locally based and democratic basis to planning: 'The achievement of sustainable development through planning should be based on the responsible use of a sound evidence base and developed through an open and democratic system.'

The presumption in favour of development has nothing to do with national well-being or sustainability: it results from the lobbying undertaken by the big construction companies who dominate Tory policy-making. Note the following quotation from the website of Curtin & Co, who are not only experts in planning but also in 'managing green issues':

‘There is no doubt that the local government and planning landscape will change considerably in the next 12 to 18 months. There are still significant holes in the proposed legislation and Curtin & Co will be monitoring the progress of the bill as well as making representations on its community engagement aspects. Curtin&Co’s founder and chief executive is the author of Managing Green Issues (Macmillan, 2001) which advocates many of the aspirations of the Localism Bill and this is embedded in our methodology.’

On this day which our ancestors celebrated as a festival of hope that life would return after the darkness and cold of the winter season we need to remember that 'there is no wealth but life' and resist the equation of development with progress while utterly rejecting the possibility of future economic growth.

11 December 2011

Make the Rich Pay for their Emissions

An excellent funding programme from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into the social impacts of policies to address climate change is beginning to bear fruit. They have created a microsite to make the findings available.

As well as the more conventional investigations into the impact on poorer households of rises in energy bills, a research team based in Bristol and Oxford has produced data about how responsibility for CO2 emissions is shared across the socio-economic classes. Put more bluntly, to what extent can we blame the rich for climate change as well as for inequality?

The primary finding is that:

'Mean average CO2 emissions are strongly correlated with income: households within the highest equivalised income decile have mean total CO2 emissions more than twice that of households within the lowest equivalised income decile. Emissions from private road travel and aviation account for a high proportion of this differential: aviation emissions of the highest income decile are more than six times that of the lowest income decile.'

In other words, the concerns that are often raised about alienating those who fly to Ibiza for a summer holiday by introducing aviation taxes are quite misplaced. It is the rich who jet around the world for conferences and business meetings who are most responsible for aviation-related CO2 emissions.

The figure represents mean annual emission of carbon dioxide from all sources across the income deciles. As we move from the lowest 10% to the wealthiest 10% there is a clear increase, class by class, in the amount of CO2 emissions that are produced. More importantly, a larger proportions of the emissions of the richer people in our society are transport related.

The policies implications are clear. Using household energy bills as the focus of increasing the cost of carbon is not only regressive but will also be ineffective:
'if household carbon reduction policies addressed all transport emissions as well as those from household fuel use, there would be far fewer low-income/high-carbon households, and policies which placed a cost on carbon itself would be likely to be more progressive.'

10 December 2011

Carbon Politics Down Under

The final word in my short recent series on the developments in carbon policy in Australia should be given to Clive Spash , who was there on the inside and, as an academic economist of the social-ecological position, in a strong position to analyse the policy outcomes from a planetary perspective.

Spash has produced a paper describing how Julia Gillard was able to depose the previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, also of the Labour Party, because of the unpopularity of his carbon emissions trading scheme. The powerful mining sector lobbied strongly against this and the opposition thus generated, most on the basis of untrue claims about the effect on ordinary Australians, allowed Gillard to successfully challenge Rudd and create a new government with support of Green and independent MPs.

Spash describes how the political compromise involved a temporary carbon tax for three years, to be followed up by an ETS very similar to that which had been proposed by Rudd and at considerable political cost:

'That cost extends to allowing major emitters to make guaranteed windfall profits from pollution permits. The emission trading scheme suffers numerous problems, but the issues raised show taxes can also be watered down and made ineffectual through concessions. Taxpayers will get no assets from the billions of dollars to be spent buying-off the coal generators or other polluters. The scheme hopes to stimulate private investors to create an additional 12 percent in renewable electricity generation by 2020.'

Spash sets a much more stringent target of a wholesale shift to 100% renewable energy within a decade, the only proposal he considers 'serious' given the urgent nature of the issue of climate change. His working paper explores the difficulties of implementing meaningful greenhouse gas taxes in Australia.

9 December 2011

Unified Continent not Single Currency

The first time that I was in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Conservatives was some ten years ago when, on behalf of the Green Party, I joined the national campaign against Britain joining the Euro. The pro-finance and little Englander Tories felt the need for a bit of breadth and so invited Euro-sceptic former foreign minister David Owen, a couple of anti-European Labour MPs and a representative from the Green Party to join them.

Around the same time I published a chapter in a book called Implications of the Euro: A Critical Perspective from the Left. In my chapter I discussed the ways that a single currency would force the pace of political change in a way that the institutions could not follow and would alienate the peoples of the countries involved. This, and the growing tensions between nations that would be created, could threaten the future of the European project as a whole. The self-interest of finance could overwhelm the common interest of peace.

This morning I believe we have seen these predictions come to pass. This is why I believe that David Cameron was right not to join the treaty although, just like the Tories on the anti-Euro committee a decade ago, we could not be further apart in terms of the economic route Britain should follow. Cameron's interest is almost entirely to protect the City and to avoid its spivs and speculators from being forced to consider the social consequences of their actions. However, some in his party are articulating concerns about democracy that I still believe have merit.

It is tempting to believe that the European institutions might impose acceptable standards on the City, just as they have forced us to improve our environmental standards and reduced exploitation at work. But the problem every time has been that we have not had the power to make these decisions democratically. We do not elect people with sufficient power to make decisions at the European level and so these decisions have no more political authority than the current unelected prime ministers of Italy and Greece.

The democratic deficit is more threatening to the aims of the EU than the collapse of the euro. For many years the single market and then the single currency were ambitions driven by business to serve its interests. They have utterly distorted the institutions of Europe and have alienated many of the people of Europe from this organisation that was designed to protect their peace and prosperity. How else can we interpret the huge votes in many of Europe's most loyal members for parties of the nationalist right?

Although the details of the new treaty are as yet unclear we do know that it will involve allowing unelected European officials to set levels of spending and rates of taxation in countries over which they have no democratic mandate. The Euro always constrained monetary policy and therefore reduced the room for manoeuvre in terms of fiscal policy. But as the fiscal straitjacket is imposed, and austerity follows, it is Europe and the other nations that make up the continent that will be blamed by the citizens of the countries who suffer.

8 December 2011

Divided We Fall

It is rather ironic that the main question the media has drawn from the latest publication of Social Attitudes in Britain is whether we are more Thatcherite now than we were in the days of Thatcher. If we were we would certainly not have these data to mull over, since Thatcher was notoriously opposed to social research and abandoned the most valuable tool for the social researcher: the National Child Development Survey, as well as virtually eliminating sociology from our universities.

So having survived the Thatcherite axe the social researchers, though privatised, are still funded to tell us that we care less about each other than we used to and that we have utterly lost faith in our public institutions. While we did hear on the BBC about the fall in support for a government role in redistributing wealth we did not hear about the decline in trust for that institution itself: from 72% to 49%. The politicisation of the BBC has destroyed its role as a public-service broadcaster. The only public institution to have gained trust is the National Health Service. There are no data about the extent to which people's faith in statistics has been undermined by the privatisation of those who seek the data: NatCen (a company limited by guarantee) would have no interest in such a question and its results would not reach a high market value.

This sort of data is, as the Spanish say of history, a field in which all can make hay. I would be interested to see some socio-economic breakdown of the responses to the questions about welfare. It seems that those most vulnerable, including many dependent on benefits themselves, are some of the most vociferous in criticising the dependency culture. This represents another example of the cognitive dissonance that is a necessary skill to survive in late-capitalist Britain.

The media emphasis was on the declining levels of support for redistribution, which was matched by a growing sense of injustice about the unequal way in which hard work is rewarded. This chimes with the findings of another report released this week, by the OECD. Called Divided we Stand it rang alarm bells about the negative social consequences of rising rates of inequality withing societies. Hardly the message one might have expected from the club of the world's richest nations and a traditional cheer-leader for globalisation.

Angel GurrĂ­a, OECD secretary-general, is quoted as saying that 'the social contract is unravelling', and this seems to be reflected in the responses to the Social Attitudes Survey as well. The interesting question is why the OECD should suddenly have become interested in the social impact of growing inequality. The real struggle is between the greedy and thoughtless elites and those who realise that capitalism has always relied on the consent of the masses and that without a social contract that consent cannot be guaranteed.

6 December 2011

Poor Standard of Credit Rating

The delight about the rapprochement between Merkel and Sarkozy was short-lived, being undermined almost immediately by a threat from the credit-rating agency Standard and Poors. How are we to interpret these events?

The estrangement in the Franco-German affair was the result of Merkel taking a hard line on monetary policy and refusing to sanction the direct creation of money by the European Central Bank to ease the debt problems of the 16 other Euro members. Apparently yesterday she relented on this, allowing a relaxation of monetary policy in return for a new treaty imposing debt restraint on the Eurozone members.

In response to this a downgrading of the quality of the debt of most Eurozone countries might seem reasonable. But why Germany, which is clearly capable of paying its debts? It appears that this may be more an act of revenge for Merkel's previous insistence that bond-holders must bear some of the cost of their risky investment decisions. The Greek hair-cut was the last stand of a politician who would not accept that the innocent would bear all the pain. Germany will now be punished for the losses this brought to financiers, its own national debt now attracting higher interest rates than the state of its economy demands.

More fundamentally we might question why the US and UK, who are far more debt-ridden and whose economies are struggling much more than that of Germany, are not being threatened in the same way by the markets. The huge money-printing operations of both the Fed and the Bank of England makes investment in these countries far more risky, as does their lack of real production and their low rates of growth, and yet they are not the target of the credit raters. The conclusion is clear: the credit-rating agencies are rating finance-friendly policies, not the strength of national economies and the debt they issue.

More fundamentally the explicit evidence of economic policy being negotiated between politicians and rating agencies makes more urgent the need for politicians to have the courage to articulate an alternative and to co-operate to reclaim the democratic power to determine the direction of their own economies. We need to find a way through this present crisis that is compatible with democracy, not just compatible with the wishes of market investors. If alternative views are not articulated then we will be heading for a political rupture rather than the evolution to a more stable and equitable economic model that our happiness and well-being requires.

5 December 2011

Creating New Economists

I had a very interesting experience over the weekend while attending university open days. I was enquiring from a young woman encouraging people to take economics how pluralist her course was. She really seemed unable to understand my question. She responded that they taught 'normal' economics. I asked her if this meant neoclassical or whether they also had space for classical or Marxist varieties. She was simply unable to answer.

This is the problem the discipline faces: really nice, well-motivated people who have no conception that there might be other ways of thinking about economics than in terms of supply and demand curves and the marginal analysis. To address this problem the Association of Heterodox Economics is running training in alternative methods for economics, beginning with a course of training for researchers.

The postgraduate workshop on research methods will take place at London Metropolitan University on 10th and 11th February next year. It is funded so places are available free for students. Workshop topics will include:

· Reorienting economics to match method with social material

· Open system methodology in Economics

· Grounded theory in Economics

· Mixing quantitative and qualitative data

· Qualitative data analysis

To book a place you need to contact Andrew Mearman: Andrew.Mearman@uwe.ac.uk.

4 December 2011

Carbon Floored

However many cheers we decide to cheer in response to Australia's introduction of a carbon tax , it is an encouraging sign that a country dominated by mining and energy interests and one of the highest carbon polluters is introducing an unpopular policy. What about the UK? Should we be arguing for a carbon tax here? Interestingly, it appears that this discussion is already underway, although in strong contrast to the situation in Australia, it is happening between the government and business, with little or no public debate at all. It is also happening without any mention of the word tax, and yet it is hard to find any other interpretation of the consultation document about a 'carbon price floor' published this March.

The first graphic illustrates the need for such a 'price floor'. It shows the price at which carbon was trading (bear with me on this nonsense) during the first phase of the EU's carbon trading scheme. The collapse in the price in 2007 resulted from the over-issue of a permits as a result of industry lobbying. There were more permits than companies needing to emit CO2, hence no scarcity, hence no price and the market failed.

The second graphic illustrates the government's proposal to use the Climate Change Levy to create a predictable upward trend in the 'price' of carbon to give a clear signal to industries reliant on fossil fuels that they had better increase their efficiency and/or shift their source of energy. This is a purely indicative graphic, with no suggested price, although later the document suggests 'Three illustrative carbon price scenarios for the UK power sector: £20, £30 and £40/tCO2 in 2020 rising to £70/tCO2 in 2030.'

This is one of the major problems with carbon pricing as a solution to climate change: we have no idea what the price should be. Real solutions to the problem of excessive emissions begin with a scientifically determined cap, and then find some way of sharing out the emissions the cap implies. Trading leaves the field wide open for industrial emitters to lobby to increase the number of permits available, and hence fix the market price. We can see from the first graphic that the current carbon price in the EU system appears to be stabilising at around €15 per tonne. As one of my students recently pointed out, given that our individual carbon quotas are around one tonne per year, and our actual emissions are 2.5 times that, he could easily afford to pollute to his heart's content, even on a student income.

3 December 2011

Enclosure 3.0

The role of McKinsey, the US-based management consultants, in spreading the new gospel of corporate capitalism around the world has been widely noted. A new report now makes clear how the creation of the concept of 'ecosystem services' was always, as some of us have long believed, a step towards the commodification and sale of life itself. In spite of the clear evidence that globalisation has resulted in rising rates of inequality and ecological destruction, the report, called Resource Revolution, argues that what the world needs is more capitalism, not less.

Green economists have long been arguing that the two centuries of focus on labour and capital and the sidelining of land has been a mistake. McKinsey have now caught up, concluding that:

'In the 20th century, governments and businesses didn’t have to worry about resource productivity; they could focus on capital and labor. Over the next 20 years, resources must be at the heart of public policy and business strategy.'

The report provides a range of scarey statistics about rising population and increasing demand for resources, but then reassures readers that these offer tremendous opportunities. Unsurprisingly given its source, the opportunities are for businesses to take control of global assets and then organise their distribution. This is justified by the claim that the McKinsey model can offer the necessary increase in resource productivity.

Although couched in 21st century language, this is precisely the same argument made by the 18th-century improvers, who provided the intellectual justification for the theft of land during the Enclosures. Then, as now, the role of politicians was limited to freeing up the market ('unwinding subsidies'), making capital available, guaranteeing property rights. Oh yes, and providing safety-nets for those 'very poor people' who may lose out to deal with change. Perhaps we could ask McKinsey to hold a public meeting to discuss their findings - I'd like to suggest we book the Speenhamland Village Hall.

2 December 2011

High Hopes?

Last week the High Pay Commission reported the results of its detailed survey of the structure and culture of remuneration in some of our largest companies. Yesterday's headline in the Independent ('The rich get richer and the poor get poorer') may result from the decisions about public spending made by the Chancellor, yet the origin of the huge increase in inequality in our society is in the way pay setting takes place in the private sector.

Perhaps it would not be going to far to conclude that while the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s liberated the private sector to pay top executives out of all proportion to their performance, it is the current coalition government (which has never had a majority of support) that is undermining the redistributive policies that previously held inequality in check.

The graphic illustrates the differences in pay between teachers (£34,476), cleaners (£7278) and higher level civil servants (£163,000), none of whom come anywhere close to the average pay of the CEOs of FTSE 100 companies, at £4,200,000. Perhaps even more striking is the relative increase in the pay of top executives between 1980 and 2011. The Barclays executives have seen their pay rise by nearly 5000%, while those of BP have received increases of more than 3000%.

The report is a useful source of data that helps inform the debates we are having, in these times when the struggle for value within capitalism is becoming more explicit. The recommendations for change, by contrast, are surprisingly weak. Putting employees on remuneration committees is all very well, but unless they are in a majority they are likely to be intimidated and their views dismissed. Similarly, forcing companies to publish pay ratios will aid transparency, but amongst the shameless people who head our companies it is unlikely to bring any change.

A government really concerned about inequality and the pernicious effects of high pay could easily introduce a tax regime that would make pay above some upper limit, say £1m, meaningless, since it would all be reclaimed for the public purse. But then that sort of government would be unlikely to reach power in our less-than-democratic political system.

1 December 2011

Defending Dissent

In support of the courage of dissenting economists I posted the news that Clive Spash had been forced to resign from his post at Australia's publicly-funded research body CSIRO almost exactly two years ago. The political disagreements over how Australia, one of the greatest carbon emitters per head of population, should address its climate sins, has resulted in the carbon tax also discussed recently on this blog.

The behaviour of CSIRO has now reached the Australian parliament, with questions raised over CEO Megan Clark's involvement with financial organisations involved in carbon trading and the fact that Simon McKeon, executive chairman of Macquarie Bank’s Melbourne office, was appointed as CSIRO’s chairman. In connection with the paper 'The Brave New World of Carbon Trading' that was at the heart of the dispute, Senator Colbeck asked:

'CSIRO’s internal review concluded that the original paper did not report new research or present empirical evidence to support all of the authors’ conclusions. The paper was also viewed as offering opinion on matters of government policy by applying a critique of neoclassical economic theory to the ETS. Therefore it was not approved for publication. Were those issues to have been rectified as CSIRO strived to do with Dr Spash, CSIRO would have supported the publication of that paper and any public comments that related to the papers findings.'

As Peter Earl notes in his post on the Real World Economics blog:

'This organisation apparently rejects institutional analysis, historical analysis, descriptive analysis and policy analysis . . . it is now evident that the fact that [Spash's] critique was levelled against the use of neoclassical economics as foundations for the policy was the heart of the problem. Their statement explicitly supports neoclassical economic theory and rejects anything critical of that theory because it is being used to support carbon emissions trading. According to the CSIRO this was not about the content or politics!'

This is a rare explicit statement of the role that neoclassical theory plays, much more one of catechism than of scientific theory. As the global economy spawned by four decades of neoclassical theory founders between the Scylla of ecological disaster and the Charybdis of the renewed credit freeze, we need thoughtful pragmatic economists like Spash more than ever.