Thing Versus Blob!

Here’s an example of the great floppy weight of conventional wisdom. And it’s about Francois Hollande, so I guess it’s Epic Blob vs. The Thing, a fine B-movie title. Andrew Rawnsley notes that Hollande doesn’t seem to be doing so well, and Ed Miliband should learn from this.

Astonishingly, though, his conclusion is that Miliband should set out a plan to “deal with the deficit”, i.e. to double-down on failure and join George Osborne hunkering down in the bunker. This is exactly the policy Hollande has adopted!

The French government has pivoted, as they say, to reducing the deficit as the top priority above all else. They have chosen to do so by taxing the rich, which is probably better, but this is a marginal distinction. Hollande’s popularity is slipping precisely because unemployment is up and the economy is going nowhere. It is going nowhere because the European economy is going nowhere.

And Hollande’s options are minimal. He can’t do anything with monetary policy, trade policy, or the exchange rate because he doesn’t control them. He can’t do much with the budget because, thanks to the six pack (aka “I can’t believe it’s not a balanced budget amendment!”) he doesn’t really control that any more.

Of course, this isn’t true of a hypothetical Miliband government.

Fortunately, nobody’s expecting anything from expansionary contraction or internal devaluation any more. But that just leaves what I call sad donkey economics – muddling through and hoping something turns up. The problem here is that it might not. Further, if it doesn’t matter who the hell you vote for, you may as well not, or you may as well vote extremist.

The ultimate development of elite consensus is politics with the politics taken out, the notion that it shouldn’t matter who is in charge. This is of course very close to the vision of the European project as defined by the elite. The Thing beats the Blob, but by then the two are indistinguishable.

Everything Will Be Fine In Just One Chote Unit

So I said that the European economic situation is basically like the Iraq War. Here’s an example from noted dissident David “Danny” Blanchflower:

Even this OBR [the UK Office for Budget Responsibility - ed] forecast is not credible because it suggests growth will be 1.8 per cent in 2014 and 2.3 per cent in 2015. There is no evidence that consumption, net investment or net trade – which are the main components of growth – will grow any time soon; they aren’t.

The OBR’s belief that all will be well in two years is the same assumption they have made in every forecast – so called “mean reversion” – but this hasn’t happened and isn’t going to.

I hadn’t been aware of that, but it is astonishing. The OBR’s core forecasting assumption is that everything will just revert to trend, and therefore everything is OK. The problem here is that things revert to the mean if, and only if, if there is a trend and some evenly-distributed noise around it. That is to say, they literally think nothing has changed, even though things have changed, and policy has changed. It is very important to identify the moments when the trend has changed, and if you’re the government, to reflect on whether or not you might be the trend.

Further, they have even formulated a well-defined timeframe within which everything will be OK. For the OBR, it’s two years. For Thomas Friedman, everything in Iraq was going to be OK within six months, aka one Friedman Unit, and then you pesky kids with your computer diaries were going to be sorry. In honour of OBR director Robert Chote, I therefore give you the Chote Unit. The economy will be fine by 2012, and failing that, in two years’ time.

Some of my readers will protest and say that Robert Chote is a man worthy of respect, a genuine expert. But one of the readers who is most likely to do that has already answered his own objection.

Yes. This government has a terrible record of co-opting genuine experts, using them like fools, and leaving them weeping by the roadside. As well as a Chote unit it could also be a Budd unit, after the founding OBR director Sir Alan Budd, who also thought everything would be fine by 2012, and who quit the OBR after its first intervention in politics, when it made up the numbers to suit the politicians (don’t ask me, ask me the first, me the second, and me the third). But I’m sticking with the Chote unit, because Chote was warned, and he’s stuck with it much longer than Budd.

The Iraq examples are legion, but the most telling one was the fate of the Iraq Study Group, led by none other than the enduring statesman and personal friend of Georges Bush 1.0 and 2.0, James Baker, which went to Iraq in 2006, and reported back that it was a terrible disaster and the best thing to do was to patch up local arrangements like the Marines did in Anbar and then get out as quickly as possible. This was ignored, and passed to the attack dogs to be denounced as treason. Eventually they ended up following the recommendations, after time and blood had passed under the bridge and the military had worked out the same ideas themselves.

Meanwhile, the high panjandrum of expansionary contraction, Alberto Alesina, has noted that the US stock market is up, and concluded this is down to the as-yet-undelivered golden prospects of sequestration. This is genuinely ridiculous. As the Washington Post points out, actual fiscal contraction in the US didn’t bring about a boom, and neither did much greater contraction anywhere else, yet he claims to believe that the mere prospect of it is firing up the old animal spirits.

(Of course, it can’t be those because animal spirits are thoughtcrime and we say expectations which are somehow different and nothing at all to do with Keynes although nobody really knows how.)

So, you can have contraction without expansion, expansion without contraction, and expansion with only future promises of contraction. Further, looking at the British experience, you can also have contraction that starts with future promises of contraction. In what way is this any better than astrology?

Italian Elections: Rounding the Last Pole

Launched in an act of treachery that brought down Mario Monti’s technocratic government, the Italian national election campaign will end one way or another, to the relief of many, Saturday evening. What might have been a sustained debate on the merits of austerity measures in a prolonged recession, on the future of Italian employment and its welfare state or a host of other pressing issues, has instead taken on the quality of an unsavory burlesque revue. Its stars: authentic if acerbic comic Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Stars protest movement may yet shape the outcome, and sick joker Silvio Berlusconi, whose foolish headline grabs have used up much of the electoral space. But it has been a lavish, large-cast production, with indictments flying, old allies back-stabbing, off-color jokes and evanescent affiliations, a Fellini-esque procession of oddities and crudities unworthy of the noble republic Italy could nonetheless become.

What to expect? Given Italy’s ban on published polls in the final two weeks, calling this one from Boston is something like watching a horse race through the wrong end of the binoculars–but I’m going to do it anyway. Bersani and the center-left have led all the way, notwithstanding the Monte dei Paschi banking scandal that implicates Monti as much as Bersani, and neither man in any direct way. Bersani’s campaign has been steady if utterly unflamboyant; he conveys an avuncular credibility that makes it hard to brand him a flaming radical despite Berlusconi’s many tries. He has sought international credibility in Berlin and in the American press, and has scrupulously balanced his attachments to rising centrist Matteo Renzi on his right and leftist but circumspect Nichi Vendola to his left. Nothing suggests that Bersani will be dislodged from the #1 spot, and thus control of the lower house.

But can he form a stable government? That’s a question about the Senate, and really about 2 or 3 key regions that will decide it: Lombardy, Sicily, maybe Campania. This interesting poll predicts a one-vote plurality for the center-left: it may be a long night for Pier Luigi. If he falls short, Monti’s centrist coalition acquires what corporate types call a ‘golden seat’ at the table, with considerable leverage over fiscal policy.

But Monti himself has been the great disappointment of the season. All the EU heavies have lobbied for him, with possibly negative effect. Italian voters may respect him but don’t seem to like him, and his campaign has never achieved lift-off. With fewer distractions this could be the real story of the campaign: even Italy’s desperate straits and Monti’s exemplary financial credentials are not enough to sell austerity to a chronically hurting electorate–liberal politicians throughout Europe, beware! As I’ve noted elsewhere, Monti’s persistent efforts to split Bersani from Vendola have miserably failed, and Monti has lurched from accomodation to hostility to a final call for a renewed ‘grand coalition.’ He may yet find himself part of one, but no thanks to his nondescript political skills.

Vendola, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a team player, capable of flashes of wit such as this wonderful Tweet. He has hewed to a steady left line, insisting that workers’ rights and the full social safety net must be cornerstones of any ‘reform’, but like Bersani he seems a lot less scary than his right-wing detractors would prefer. Look for Vendola in a prominent place in Bersani’s government.

But will Grillo’s anti-political movement obtain an intractable bloc in the new Parliament? Populist protests are notoriously hard to measure, though Grillo’s internet-savvy and personally charismatic style have made an indisputable and perhaps permanent impact. My own hunch is that on Sunday Grillo may underperform, losing a share of his 15% to that other discreet contender, Abstention. This shadow-candidate is thought to command 30% already, and I wonder: instead of showing their disdain for politics by going out to vote for Grillo, why won’t a fair proportion of his supporters send the same message by staying home? Well, maybe because they love Beppe–we’ll see.

In any case, Berlusconi’s faux-populism can’t hold a candle to Grillo’s real deal. The Cavalier still stands to win a substantial fraction–25%?–but without Grillo he would have had a better chance to harvest the broad dissatisfaction with Monti. Why this cadaverous has-been still gets even 1% is a mystery to me, but I remain confident that he will be shut out of any new government. Why? Because he is pure poison.

So I’m among the few who wait optimistically for Monday’s verdict. Last spring I hoped Hollande would feel empowered to contest Merkel’s disastrous orthodoxy. I noted the brief but surprising flourish of the Dutch Socialists last fall; I observe Alexis Tsipris’s recent arrival on the main stage, and sense a gathering change of mood in much of Europe, perhaps in time for next year’s Euro-elections. A Bersani-Vendola government would move the Old Continent a few more cautious steps in that direction. Avanti!

Point Counterpoint in the Italian Campaign

Let’s forget about the Pope’s retirement, OK? Not that it doesn’t have huge implications for the theology of the Church and the role of future tenants of St. Peter’s see, but none of that is an electoral matter. And please, let’s pay no further attention to the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, that bad little boy who wants all our attention, all the time. Just ignore him. Let’s notice instead where the Italian electoral campaign is really happening, where it has always been happening, and where in the aftermath of next Sunday’s vote all the political action will be concentrated. Let’s look at the wonderful triangulation between Pier Luigi Bersani, Nichi Vendola, and Mario Monti.

For background, recall that Bersani and Vendola both came of age in the old Italian Communist Party, both participated in the Rifondazione movement in the ’90s, and both retain a fondness for working people and the venerable culture of the Left that comes with that territory. When Bersani was consolidating his hold on the big-tent Democratic Party a half-decade ago, Vendola still held on to his Left purism, enough so, some say, that he helped bring down Romano Prodi’s center-leaning government in 2008. Since then his SEL (Left Ecologist Freedom) Party has governed Puglia with a red/green slant, but has embraced as well the business growth and market logic that have made Puglia a rare success story in Italy’s Mezzogiorno.

What does any of this have to do with the technocratic Monti, the former EU Commissioner, professor at an elite business school, unelected premier in the ‘government of the professors’ that made Italy take its austerity medicine for the last year? Well, all parties declare a grudging mutual respect, and indeed Bersani’s PD was a solid if reluctant pillar of Monti’s reformist government until Berlusconi chose to kick out the props and make it fall. More to the point right now, though Bersani still polls well ahead in the race for the lower house, and thus the premiership, his alliance seems unlikely to pick up enough seats in the regionally skewed Senate to control it. He can’t govern without it. SEL’s seats won’t do it–he’ll need the centrist senators controlled by Monti. Which may explain that grudging but persistent respect.

Meanwhile day after day Vendola and Monti go at each other, like rival siblings competing for the attentions of a fond but slightly absent-minded father. Except of course for a few things: Bersani’s aloofness is anything but accidental, Monti HATES being bracketed with a leftist politican, and the differences they are flourishing are the essential policy questions that will determine Italy’s future. Such as:

  • On Monday Monti declared he could sit in the same government with Vendola as long as it was ‘reformist’; Vendola quickly noted that for Monti ‘reform’ means rolling back workers’ rights, while for his part those rights are the cornerstone of any reform.
  • Vendola has consistently deplored the benefit reductions Monti has imposed at the behest of the ECB, referring yesterday to his austerity measures as the “same old conservative ideology.” Bersani meanwhile lamented Monti’s “lack of gratitude” for the support his government received from Bersani’s Democrats.
And so forth. What is playing out is a classic competition between management strategies, as Vendola advocates for activist stimulus and Monti calls on Italians to tighten their belts for one more round. Bersani meanwhile tries to walk a fine line he calls “austerity with justice,” whatever that turns out to mean. But as Hollande waffles along the same line, and Merkel prepares to defend her mercantilist fundamentalism this fall, Italy–for all its woes, still the Eurozone’s 3rd biggest economy–will be helping to arbitrate the larger EU’s path through this intractable crisis. And it is Vendola and Monti who are waging that struggle day by day.
Sadly, American readers are at risk to miss the whole show. Rachel Donadio, the Times’s estimable Rome correspondent, managed to write a whole story about the election last Friday without mentioning Vendola’s name. But that’s OK–as I noted at the time she wrote a similar article a month ago that lovingly catalogued Berlusconi’s clown acts but failed to even mention Bersani, the clear front-runner. With the EU leadership openly campaigning for Monti, along with David Axelrod (hired by Monti’s campaign) and maybe President Obama himself (Gianluca Luzi in today’s Repubblica calls the President’s support for continued reform “a sort of endorsement for Monti”), one might almost suspect an aversion to the ex-Communists of the center-left. But like ‘em or not, they are poised to take over Italy’s government, though on what terms is precisely the contested terrain of this election.

 

There is no pony.

Leaving aside scepticism about the Euro for a moment, and turning to the European Union, Nosemonkey argues that the idea of “auditing the costs of EU law” is silly. Well, it’s a Cameron policy proposal…but enough snark.

British Eurosceptics tend to like estimates of the “costs of regulation” a lot. But there is a big problem with this argument. Specifically, if the British public love economic libertarianism so much, why don’t they vote for it?

Getting rid of the costs of regulation by leaving the EU only makes sense if, as well as completely re-orienting foreign and trade policy, we also completely revolutionise our internal policies in a whole range of fields. The libertarian claim for Euroscepticism is that we’d have the utopia, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids, or rather, foreigners. But there is no evidence that the UK electorate would vote for this implied, but never stated, political programme. The Libertarian Alliance is not a big force in British politics, to say the least.

Further, where’s the evidence that the UK has become a more regulated economy since 1973? Europe didn’t seem to slow down Thatcher much. Big Bang, privatisation, the campaign against the unions, various macroeconomic nostrums, we got them all.

Eurosceptics should be honest, and say that they intend to leave and then pass a massive program of economic Texanisation. Or else, they should sit down and shut up – at least as far as bignum forecasts of regulatory savings go. They can’t deliver them, because the British won’t vote for them.

Meanwhile, perhaps the Euro has too many friends and the European Union too few.

Can This Really Be Europe We Are Talking About?

In recent days I have been think a lot, and reading a lot, about the implications of Greece’s recent election results.

At the end of the day the only difference this whole process makes to the ultimate outcome may turn out to be one of timing. If  Alexis Tsipras of the anti bailout, anti Troika, party Syriza won and started to form a government then the second bailout money would undoubtedly be immediately stopped. On the other hand if the centre right New Democracy wins and is able to form a government, as the latest polls tend to suggest, then the country would quite possibly try to conform to the bailout conditions, but in trying it would almost certainly fail, and then the money would be stopped. Before the last election results, it will be remembered, this was the main scenario prevailing. Continue reading

Catherine Ashton

Is it time for AFOE to declare victory on this post about Catherine Ashton’s appointment as EU foreign minister (but we don’t call it that)? Laura Rozen writes that the Iran nuclear talks are making progress for the first time in ages.

The Russians are being constructive. The head of the Israeli military thinks that there has been no decision to build the Bomb, and that the talks are going the right way. David Ignatius sketches some details of a possible agreement, which would combine a halt to uranium enrichment with a promise of regular supplies of 20% enriched uranium and explicit recognition of the right to own the fuel cycle. And it’s been suggested that the Iranian government is trying to prepare public opinion for a deal.

In this context, Laura Rozen profiles the three women at the core of the Western negotiating team, Catherine Ashton from the EU, Helga Schmid from the German Foreign Ministry, and Wendy Sherman of the US State Department. Quote of note:

“She is totally working class,” the European diplomat said. “The criticism from the British press if anything is that she is from northern England, and speaks with a northern accent…

Yeah, well, if you think international understanding is difficult…

sapiens to be homo

Transport for London have intervened to block advertisements promoting ‘gay conversions’ that were due to run on the side of London’s buses next week.

The adverts were part of a campaign by fundamentalist Christians to promote ‘reparative therapy’ which they believe can ‘cure’ people of homosexuality.

One thing about the gay gene conjecture I don’t like is that it makes for weedy politics. The essential proposition is ‘don’t blame me, I can’t help it’. It is, I suppose, suitable for a movement which now aspires to nothing more radical than the right to get married like everyone else.

There’s clearly no obligation on anyone to be any more radical than they actually are just because they ride the other bus, and, if female, get off at Hebden Bridge. On the other hand, this is one of those occasions when a bit of radical vim and vigour might do some good because it’s one of those issues where more speech could be the answer. Let the evangelicals put their ads on buses. And let the gays go unto the lamaseries of the evangelicals and proseletize under the slogan ‘we’re gay because we want to be and it’s fucking great’ or something equally suave, and perhaps hand out illustrated leaflets. By the time the dust settled I bet you’d have far more transfers from the Jesus column to Sodom than vice versa.

parenting

So, it's parenting that's responsible for last year's riots. Speaking in that capacity, there's a pretty good chance I'd have been proud of a kid of mine who took part in the 1981 riots. Last year's riots, not so much. But then I don't really know. Maybe the political aspect of 1981 seems good to me now because I'm missing my youth, and maybe the greed and  violence shown last year seems that way as a function of my middle age. Such is the condition of being a parent.

Having said that, after seeing the justice on offer after last year's riots there is absolutely no way I'd give my kid up to the cops if I knew he was involved last year, provided his involvement was limited to potential property crime. You have a responsibility to make your kids face justice, but also a responsibility to protect them from revenge. It is, in fact, the same responsibility.

worse than a blunder

I’ve said before here that Crumpsall, where I live, has a relatively low rate of unemployment for Manchester but the highest rate of underemployment in the city: lots of families with two part time jobs or one low paid full time and one part time. I mentioned this in connection to the payday loan storefronts that have proliferated locally since 2010 and the sense they gave of a neighbourhood circling the plughole.

One thing that hasn’t been much mentioned in budget coverage are the cuts in working family tax credits announced in 2010 but due to take effect this April. It’s these in particular which are really going to get the drain gurgling round here, especially since the raising of the tax threshold will dump more people into an income level where far more money will be taken from them because they’ve gone over the trigger limit. Being a cynic, I wonder if that wonderful measure was done partly in the expectation that this would happen. Well, the local Peacock’s clothing store shut down a few weeks back, so there’s another storefront available for our lovable local vulture lenders.

 It’s different from living in Hulme: that was a neighbourhood that had already hit bottom, and there was a kind of resilience, even the occasional bout of optimism, available from knowing things couldn’t actually get any worse. We’ve gone to the dogs. And here they are: the dogs. Nice doggie. Woof. Of course those were the days when it was believed that jobs were created through the concentration of capital in the organisation of the firm or through state agency. In the absence of those things, you got the dole. These days, it’s fashionable to believe that jobs are created by goading the jobless into spectacular acts of willpower and performative humility: so I guess the folk down in M15 are being shovelled wholesale into the maw of A4E these days.

But it’s something else living in a working neighbourhood, which in normal times flails along with its collective head just above the water, being gradually and through the systematic application of government policy suffering a kind of collective punishment; and the organic commerce which had evolved to serve it beginning to go down with it. The top end of Cheetham Hill Road was always low-margin.  Shops would come and go, but there always seemed to be somebody else ready to have a try. These days it’s looking more than a bit gap toothed.  It’s an odd feeling watching financial repression happen around you; like living in the middle of a crime in progress.