29 June 2012

Withdraw Barclays' Banking Licence

It is really quite disturbing how often I find myself agreeing with Michael Portillo. On last night's This Week he called for the withdrawal of Barclays' Banking Licence (11 minutes in). A banking licence is literally a licence to print money, a function that is privatised within a capitalist economy. It is important that people grasp that being allowed the privilege of creating money in this way is the result of a political decision, and should only be extended to those who will use it responsibly and for the social good. The Barclays executives have shown themselves to be not fit and proper people to hold a banking licence, and unless Bob Diamond and the other executives involved in fraud resign then the government should withdraw the lience.

I had pre-empted Michael Portillo both by sending a letter to the Guardian and launching a petition on the Downing Street website. The text of the petition is as follows:

'Within a capitalist economy banks perform a vital function in facilitating the production and exchange of goods and services. In return for fulfilling this role responsibly they are allowed to hold a banking licences, which brings them great benefits in terms of the ability to create money through making loans. The systematic manipulation of the LIBOR value to serve its business interests makes clear that Barclays is not a fit company to hold a banking licence. We call upon the government to withdraw Barclays banking licence.'

Please sign the petition and sent the link to your friends.

Greek Economics

This is a shameless advertising post, and like so many posts about Greece it is tempting to indulge in a whole variety of puns. My son asked about the wisdom of translating the book into Greek, when surely economics in Greece is now being written in German.

I hope that the translation of my book on Green Economics into Greek might offer the people some practical ideas for action and policy to go along with the solidarity that we all feel for them, as they suffer at the sharp end of the global financial crisis.

If you know anybody in Greece or have means of spreading the word about the book there that would be wonderful.

28 June 2012

Not Waiving but Drowning

'There's not much to a bank except its licence, its computer system and its reputation.' Thus spake Martin Taylor on this morning's Today programme, the same programme that, with its recent behaviour as lackey of the elites, invited Bob Diamond to give its inaugural lecture in 2011. A member of the 'independent' commission on banking, Martin Taylor was Chief Executive of Barclays between 1994 and 1998. The extraordinary breakdown of retail banking services at RBS and its subsidiaries this week - the result, it appears, of offshoring vital services to under-qualified and under-priced programmers who could not be properly monitored - has seriously eroded confidence in one of those pillars. The fraud revealed by the IFS yesterday further undermines the reputation of Barclays, with other banks set to follow the same route to opporobrium. It only remains for the government to take from Barclays the licence of which bank executives have proved themselves utterly unworthy.

Although the Barclays scandal has pushed the Eurozone crisis off the front pages this morning, the two are intimately related. As the previous post on this blog indicated, the sovereign debt crises have also arisen as a result of banks bidding up the rates of interest paid by nations on the money they borrow from those banks, increasing bank profits while bankrupting countries and destroying their societies. As in their mainpulation of the LIBOR rate they have controlled what is supposed to be a free market to benefit their narrow interests, and the whole economy and wider society have suffered as a result.

What has not been mentioned in this recent round of scandals is that, in a capitalist economy, the banks' most important function is to provide the liquidity that brings into play the factors of production that enable economies to be productive. For years, our banks have failed to do that effectively, preferring to suck money out of productive sectors and local economies to feed it into speculative circuits and lucrative rewards to bank employees.

This situation has gone beyond discussion about regulation, of whatever degree of touch, and into the realms of serious political action. The government already holds controlling stakes in RBS and Lloyds on behalf of the citizenry. The withdrawal of Barclays' banking licence would leave the vast majority of UK banking in public hands. The government therefore has the active power to operate a proportion as public interest banking, keeping the value of money creation to invest in public projects, while the remainder are broken up and made available to be operated as a system of locally based community banks.

Please sign the e-petition calling on the government to withdraw Barclays banking licence.

24 June 2012

Whose Bailout? Whose Responsiblity?

A guest post from Professor Penny Ciancanelli of Glasgow University

Recently, JP Morgan research estimated that of the €410bn borrowed by the Greek government over the past three years, only €15bn went into the Greek economy.  The rest went to Greece’s creditors.

The first question raised by these facts must be--who got the money borrowed by the Greek government?  The answer is mainly the German and French banks that lent money to Greece (e.g purchased Greek government bonds).

For nearly two years, the ‘troika’ of the ECB, EU and IMF created financial packages to pay off ‘private creditors’ using public money borrowed in the name of German taxpayers.  Just to be clear: The bankrupt German banks were recapitalized with German (and Dutch and Finnish) taxpayer money but via troika repurchase of Greek bonds.   The theatre piece of merit is the mis-representation of the bailout of German banks by German taxpayers as a bailout of Greece by their friends in the Euro club. 

The second question raised is why the narrative?  After all neither the US nor the UK government made any pretence; they announced they would use public resources to bail out their banks.  Indeed, politicians of the right in both countries have sought to make a virtue of increased government debt by forcing through radical changes in the scale and scope of government activity.

The reluctance of the French to admit its banks were bankrupt and recapitalize them could be attributed fears of being shut out of the bond markets, given already high level of public debt.  The reluctance of the Germans is harder to figure since they could afford (technically) to bail out the banks.  It is worth noting, however, that the banks it would have had to bail out the most were precisely those (Landesbanken) most successfully tricked by derivatives traders in London and New York.  Hugely embarrassing really.  So rather than take the hit on derivatives trades, better to get dodgy sovereign bonds taken off the balance sheets.

Once undertaken, the strategy conjured up by Merkozy two years ago (of hiding the de facto bankruptcy of its own banks) elevated the problem into a crisis of the Euro (a pure miscalculation owing much to the surprising financial illiteracy of both).  Both leaders had to carry on regardless of the cost to Greece.  For example, about three weeks ago the Greek government borrowed another €4bn or so from the EFSF (an EU finance facility) to pay €4bn to the ECB (another EU finance facility).  At the same time, cancer patients in Greece could no longer get the drugs they need.  But this is the price Merkozy decreed must be paid to keep up the appearances both thought would hide their own bankruptcies.

What next? After the Greek elections, the same people who agreed the debt burden will ask for better terms from the troika.  They will probably get some headlines.  It won’t last.  After all, it must soon occur to someone that economic growth is unlikely to result from Merkozy imposed at EU level which to date consists of the ECB lending money to the bankrupt banks of Portugal, Spain and Italy so that each bank might stuff its balance sheets with the sovereign debt of its own national lender of last resort--a tactic which implies zero net investment in the real economy. 

22 June 2012

Custard's Last Stand

I have had the sort of horribly busy week I normally plan to avoid. This is the result of work I have been doing in connection with Rio +20, although in case I create further confusion about this point I should make it clear that I never had any intention of actually going to Rio,but rather of using the opportunity as much as is possible to raise issues around what a green economy might actually be like. To this end I have pulled together a special issue of the Journal of Co-operative Studies to argue that ownership has to lie right at the heart of debates about the green economy. I also attended a seminar and book launch in The Hague where we focused on women's role in developing sustainable livelihoods. On Monday I was the South-West's Rio+20 conference at Bristol Zoo, and today I am going to a roundtable in London where we hope to share critical views of the European Green Group's Green New Deal proposal. The debate may be happening on the fringes, but it seems to me that only live debate with realistic proposals that is out there.

I have been on a train nearly every day this week and have been caught up with suited commuters. What has impressed me about them is their extraordinary stoicism, although observing this has also raised question for me about why we tolerate being forced into such alienating situations. The question came to a head when one exhausted man - on a train somewhere near Swindon - raised with this colleague a 21st century problem. His office dog tag had fallen into his bowl of custard the previous evening and he had struggled to return it to its pristine state. His colleague asked supportively whether his head had followed into the custard bowl. I wondered why, when as a species we can invent that most sublime of comfort foods, so reminiscent of mother's milk and the nursery, we can also allow ourselves to be forced into the indignity of the obligatory security pass, worn in a daily basis as though a public symbol of our untrustworthiness. This is a more mundane version of the question why we, as a species that has produced Shakespeare and Tolstoy, can stand idly by while our beautiful planet is ravaged by those who seek only money.

Working in London also means travelling frequently by Tube, and I am trying to reframe this as a research opportunity. Where else do you have the opportunity to watching millions of human beings behaving, not as selfish genes, but as wonderfully co-operative human beings? It is an incredible technical achievement to be able to move millions around the capital on a daily basis, but what greater achievement that we share that space with so little aggression. The countless minute calculations people make about whether to give up their seat and how to shuffle along the carriages to make space for fellow commuters is a daily miracle. I am moving into the age-zone where people wonder about offering me a seat from time to time, but what is fascinating is that this happens when I am feeling particularly tired and lacking in resilience. Even when I try to ignore my own exhaustion I can gauge its extent by the treatment I receive from other people who I encounter fleetingly and will never see again.

So shall we remember that what we really love is a bowl of custard and a space sitting in the sun, and dare to admit this to our friends? This challenge to the corporate model of what we are may be the most powerful act of resistance, while the routine compassionate interactions of our daily lives can reinforce our faith in the highest achievements of our species, which have nothing to do with finance or technology.

20 June 2012

How Green is My Parliament?

As Greens we generally have a fairly warm and fuzzy feeling towards Europe. After all, the European parliament has a large group of Green MPs and when it comes to European elections people actually vote for us in large numbers. The extraordinary experience of receiving 2 million votes inevitably leaves a pleasant memory with those of us who were part of that campaign back in 1989.

And the EU does have some notable environmental achievements, especially in terms of its adoption of targets and commitments, such as to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2020 and to pour significant amounts of money into preserving habitats. While the LIFE programme represents less than 1% of the EU budget, it has protected some of Europe's more endangered species and it works better than comparable projects in other jurisdictions.

However, at a recent conference in London, Ariel Brunner from Birdlife International made a strong case that many of the EU policies actually operate as perverse incentives and can even have harmful impacts on the environment. The most destructive policies have been those associated with agriculture and fisheries. Pillar 1 of the CAP is the most destructive: clearly the result of political pressure by large-scale farming interests, it tends to send money towards the most destructive farms without any positive environmental or wider social results. Fisheries policy also has perverse targets, with 26% of the cash going towards fleet modernisation and exacerbating the problem of over-capacity, while 40% goes towards expanding ports, again supporting the large-scale industrial fishing which is destroying fish stocks.

One of the best things about Ariel's presentation was a clear account of the EU budget, to the extent that a clear picture is possible for a budget whose auditors have for years refused to sign it off. The graphic shows the heavy emphasis on the CAP within the overall budget, and the slightly larger budget that is the 'cohesion fund' to redistribute money from poorer to richer countries across the EU.

The emphasis of European policy making is 'green growth' and 'green jobs'. While readers of this blog would probably join me in suggesting that 'green growth' is a contradiction in terms, encouraging the transitional investment necessary to create green jobs might be worth the political effort. A recent report showed that, during the next EU budget period 2014-2020, a €1 billion investment in conservation-related employment can create 29,000 jobs where the same investment in CAP will only create 6,200 jobs. If we are all in this economic crisis together, isn't it time that we stopped subsidising large landowners and spent that money to improve our shared environment instead?


Nature is Not for Sale

As we saw in the discussions at Rio, the marketisation of nature, through the development of concepts such as 'ecosystem services' and 'natural capital' has, in recent years, become an influential new way of thinking about the ecological crisis. Environmental problems ranging from habitat and biodiversity loss to climate change have been framed in terms of the need to create markets for pollution and to create shadow markets for a whole range of environmental 'goods' and 'services'. The National Ecosystem Assessment indicates that this is the dominant discourse of the UK government.

Many pro-environment NGOs have now fallen comfortably into this new discourse, so that we find WWF supporting a project encouraging payment to protect the health of local water systems. And here we find RSPB producing a detailed guide to exactly how you can go about putting a price of various aspects of the natural world. In view of the heavy support for this discourse from government, NGOs show a remarkable lack of scepticism towards terms like 'natural capital' and 'ecosystem services' that sound as though they were invented in boardrooms and no doubt serve these interests of those who inhabit them.

To be clear about what we mean by valuation, commodification and pricing is of crucial importance. Just as the ecological footprint was a useful metaphor for bringing home to people the impact of their consumption on ecological systems, so the idea of 'ecosystem services' is a useful metaphor for communicating the vast and essential value of the natural world to our economy. However this concept has broken its metaphorical bounds and is now exerting considerable agency amongst powerful decision-makers. The slippery nature of this measure-cum-metaphor is being exploited by those who seek to use the desperation and naïveté is some environmentalists to dismember and make available for sale the very natural world they seek to protect.

The confusion amongst economists and policy-makers is not helped by the fact that many involved in this debate are operating well beyond their expertise. The refusal of many economists to take seriously the empirical realities of climate change, preferring to remain barricaded within their mathematical abstractions, has left the debate around the economics of the environment to those with experience in the hard sciences but little knowledge of the history of theories of economics. The winners of the Blue Planet prize are a good example. While we pay tribute to their work in forcing this issue into political agendas at the highest level, we would suggest that they allow some space for the expertise of scholars of economic and social systems. And to the latter we issue a heartfelt plea that they make this a greater priority of their own research interests.

18 June 2012

Damned Lies and Carbon Statistics

What a contrast there is between the attention paid to the first Rio conference and the low profile of the 20-year follow-up which comes to a head this week. I have already posted to raise the question of whether the carbon emissions of our politicians are worth the investment, when it seems that so little political progress is going to be made. What can explain the great difference in interest between the two conferences, especially when almost all the indicators of ecological crisis have become far more urgent since 1992?

First, I think we must not forget the huge vote for the UK Green Party in the 1989 European Elections. This indicated to politicians that people do care about the environment, but rather than introduce the hard-edged policies necessary to constrain the corporate economy, the politicians managed expectations and allowed the corporations to take over the green economy even before it was defined.

Secondly, we must not be naive about the vast amount of lobbying and deliberate confusion that has been caused. Today's launch of a report from the Green House thinktank indicates clearly that the claim that our greenhouse gas emissions have been falling since the first Earth Summit is a deception. Two of the most significant sources of CO2 emission are simply left out of the calculations: those caused by air transport and freight shipping; and those embodied in consumer goods we import.
 If you put these and a few other sources of emissions that have been discreetly tidied away back into the picture it looks like this.

It is clear that emissions are continuing to rise. It can't have escaped the notice of Kyoto negotiators that these were the fastest rising sources of emissions, and omitting them from consideration is, as the report notes, rather 'like a chocoholic going on a calorie controlled diet and deciding not to
include chocolate'. The explanation can only be the result of significant, powerful and ultimately destructive lobbying on the part of those who profit from the global trade in goods and the massively increasing amount of air travel.

15 June 2012

Lending for Spending?

At first sight the 'new' policy announced at the Mansion House last night is incomprehensible. Banks, whose job is to create money to lend to companies, are to be loaned money at low rates of interest to lend money to companies. This bizarre and pointless piece of choreography appears to ignore the fact that banks have the ability to create their own money without the Bank of England's involvement, and that what limits their lending is the absence of companies seeking loans which they, as profit-making institutions, consider worth the risk. Following the previous policies of quantitative easing, Project Merlin and the Loan Guarantee Scheme, this new policy indicates not only the continuing desperation of Chancellor and Governor but their stubborn insistence that private-sector solutions growing out of monetary policy will solve our problems.

The reason for the impasse is more ideological than economic. Those with power are just refusing to accept that monetary policy is not, and never was, a private affair. The 2008 crisis made clear that the citizens of a country stand behind their banks and that a banking crisis, unless dealt with early and in a way that allows banks to make losses, will become a sovereign debt crisis. In the UK case, we went even further than this, taking control of some of our largest banks, which have in reality been transferred to the public sector. As such, they could be used to send money directly into the economy, not via banks that are too nervous to lend, but directly to fund green infrastructure projects or other transitional public investment. What stops this from happening is the destructive ideological mantra that says the private sector should grow while the public sector shrinks. This is maintained not because it is working, or because it would make our country a better place, but rather because it is an article of faith for free-market believers.

This foundation of economic policy on inappropriate ideology also prevents the Chancellor from insulating us against the problems of the Eurozone. While little can be done to reduce the impact of Euroland recession on our exports, this could be compensated by increased effective demand at home if the Chancellor used his control of our national currency to intervene positively in the economy. This is why economists across the political spectrum fought to maintain our national currency. Similarly, because we own some of our largest banks we can also insulate national monetary policy from the turbulence in the European banking system, at least to the extent that it derives from the internal contradictions of a currency area of which we are not a part.

We do not need to be suffering from the death spiral, which is largely of the Chancellor's making. We could be using the opportunity of the bursting of the credit bubble to acknowledge the role of the government in monetary policy and to use that to shift the economic energy in our country away from finance and speculation and towards investment in a transition to a real green economy. The opportunity is there; it is only the ideological blinkers worn by our politicians that prevent it from being grasped.

8 June 2012

Enough to Bury a Skyscraper?

If, like me, you are tired of hearing the same old simplistic dichotomy between austerity and growth you will enjoy the new retrospective on debt from the Jubilee Debt Campaign. It leaves aside the waffling nonsense from the credit raters and finance friends who got us into the mess. It has a simple and appealing message: the system of political control over finance worked, and it is long since time that we went back to it.

The political system we are talking about is the one agreed at Bretton Woods at the end of the Second World War. It was by no means perfect, and had the serious downside that it allowed dollar domination, but until Nixon broke the link between the dollar and gold in 1971 it did guarantee relative financial stability on a global basis. Since currencies have roamed free we have had an increasing number of financial and debt crises, each more serious than the one preceding it. This conclusion comes from that well known source of radical and anti-capitalist opinion: a Bank of England policy paper. In fact their conclusion is even more damning:

'The current system has coexisted, on average, with: slower, more volatile, global growth; more frequent economic downturns; higher inflation and inflation volatility, larger current account imbalances; and more frequent banking crises, currency crises and external defaults.' (p. 8).

The JDC report gives a useful account of the past 30 years of debt crises, and their human consequences. They give as an example the island of Jamaica, whose people have struggled with debt for the past 35 years:

'At independence, the country inherited a legacy of dependence on exporting cash crops such as sugar, coffee and cocoa. . . The IMF and World Bank began lending large amounts of structural adjustment bailout loans in the 1980s, with the consequent austerity. For example, through the 1980s, the number of registered nurses fell by 60 per cent. The most drastic adjustment took place under the programme in 1989-1993, with large increases in inequality and poverty following financial liberalisation in 1991. . . Since the most recent financial crisis began, Jamaica’s debt has increased by one-third. In 2011/12, a quarter of government revenue was spent on foreign debt payments. In 2010, Jamaica went on an IMF programme again, borrowing $850 million from 2010 to 2012. One of the IMF’s conditions was wage freezes for public sector workers in 2010 and 2011, which given inflation, amounted to a 20 per cent real terms cut.' (p. 17).

Drawing on both the reports cited here we can conclude that the unregulated globalised economy has been less successful in terms of stability, growth and equity than the system that preceded it, which constrained capitalism within politically agreed boundaries. There are people who are gaining from the absence of political controls but, since they are probably around about the 1% who are the source of so much rage just now, shall we agree that next time we are going to vote for politicians who are prepared to challenge and control them?

7 June 2012

Flying Down to Rio

World leaders are gearing up for their trips to the global environmental conference in Rio later this month. With so much bad news around who could resist a little climate grand-standing? The suited heros will stride the world stage comparing the size of their green stimulus packages. Civil servants will spend hours preparing documents demonstrating reductions in CO2 emissions, despite the fact that a report soon to be launched by Green House thinktank includes clear evidence that, if you include aviation and freight emissions that are left out of the Kyoto totals, and especially if you include the emissions embodied in our imports, then we are polluting more and not less.

And what of the carbon impact of the conference itself? The admittedly rather primitive calculator provided by the website Flying Off to a Warmer Climate suggests that a business flight to Rio generates around 3,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide with a warming equivalent of around 10,000 tonnes. (The warming impact from aviation is higher because the emissions are produced high in the atmosphere.) This is more than two years' worth of an individual's total carbon emissions. And that is just Ed Davey. What about his civil service retinue? I can imagine a situation where, if these high-level negotiations were serious, this production of CO2 could be justified, but the kind of hot air that will be produced in Rio just does not deserve this level of planetary warming

It is a times like this that I wonder whether there is a God, but the constant stream of cosmic jokes and coincidences restores my faith. Not only does God exist, but she has a great sense of humour and wonderful timing. In 1933, some four years after capitalism's last world-wide catastrophe, and during a similar burst of cultural escapism, RKO made the film Flying Down to Rio. The film, which starred Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, included a range of crazy scenes with tiller girls high-kicking on the wings of planes that seemed so novel and glamrous in the thirties. This has provided the inspiration for the wonderful cartoon by Imogen Shaw that you are invited to share far and wide.

3 June 2012

Time for a Real Jubilee

I am not sure whether the coincidence of the next critical phase in the global credit crisis with the celebration of the Queen's jubilee is ironic or tragic, but it certainly gives me an opportunity to explore the real roots of the concept of jubilee, a concept whose real meaning could not be further from the spectacle of disempowered British citizens, burdened with the debts of their unaccountable elite, paying homage to the figurehead of the system of unequal power and property relations that oppresses them.

A jubilee is not an arbitrary celebration of any feature of civil society that has simply lasted a certain number of years, rather it is a distinct legal requirement introduced by the ancient Jewish community to ensure that the ownership of land and property did not become too concentrated. In the ancient world, as in ours, bad luck or bad character could mean that some fell into debt slavery, but the inherent spiritual offensiveness of such a status required the possibility of release, and this was realised in the jubilee that occurred every 7 x 7 years.

I am not an aficionado of the Jewish bible so I am relying on the interpretation of the German theologian Ulrich Duchrow whose book Property for People not Profit explores these writings as a prescription for a world of economic justice. His interpretation of the writings of prophets such as Isaiah and Micah was that they were critical of the devastating consequences for the Jewish people of social and economic injustice. The jubilee - the freeing of slaves, the returning of land to its original owners, and the cancellation of debts - was proposed to ensure the stable functioning of Jewish society:

'To sum up, according to the Book of the Covenant, in view of God's solidarity with all his creatures, the needs of real life, including freedom from oppression, write the economic rules.' (p. 18)

I had always assumed that Jesus, who was clearly either a communist or a hippy or some combination of the two, could be called in to support my opinions regarding economic emancipation, but now it seems that he was merely reviving ancient wisdom that had been lost in the decadence of the Roman world.

I have been posting for some time about the contemporary proposal for a debt jubilee, a process that begins with a campaign for a Citizens' Audit. I have now finished a full paper on this proposal, including detail about its origins in international law. You can find the paper on the Social Science Research Network, and I would be grateful if you could use the opportunity of the jubilee to share it with your friends.

So, enjoy your bank holiday. Although many radicals criticise the Windsors for being out of touch, I credit them with enough understanding of working people to know that giving us holidays from labour is a useful way to reach our hearts. It seems unlikely that the members of the elite we have bizarrely elected to run our country would have increased the number of days when we are allowed the freedom to do what we really enjoy: chatting, resting, and drinking. But wherever you are, please use the opportunity of the unusual occurrence of the word 'jubilee' in everyday speech to remind people of what it was really for. If we could resuscitate the concept of jubilee in everyday understanding we would no longer need to rely on the magnanimity of an unelected elite to enjoy a well earned rest from work.