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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Greens in Government - its not whether or not you sup with the devil, but simply how long is your spoon

After another conversation with someone this morning about, amongst other things

As Green Party TD and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources noted in the Dáil in a debate in early July 2008:

We bought bigger cars for the status that it gave. We built bigger houses with X number of bedrooms and bathrooms, regardless of how we were going to heat these massive properties. We flew to New York in a way that turned Madison Avenue into our latest Grafton Street…Let us be honest with ourselves that is the phenomenon that occurred… In the last decade China and India started to produce our goods for us at a fraction of the cost. That brought down inflation in the developed world and allowed the central banks to lower interests internationally, which led to easy lending, bad lending. (Irish Times, July 11th, 2008)

Greens in government - Its not whether or not you sup with the devil, just how long is your spoon

Ocassioned by another conversation with my good friend John McCormick - who also feeds us since its his organic fruit and veg that feeds my family and I every week - discussing the all too common statement that the 'greens have sold out' by being and continuing to be in coalition govt in the Republic with Fianna Fail (FFers). You hear and see it everywhere the all too glib refrain of 'the one ethical party has sold out', 'I'll never vote for the Greens again'; 'I feel betrayed by the Greens' and other statements along similar lines. This dilemma was forcefully brought home to me (not that it needed any reinforcing for me!) at the meeting on 10th October in Dublin where the party took the decision to continue in govt on the basis of the revised programme for govt. Some party members were saying similar things - and the issue of NAMA seemed to act as the lightening rod for various concerns members had about our continued participation in govt.

I want to outline my own take on all of this. I believe politics is the 'art of the possible' which also means its the 'art of compromise' - those who niavely think that one can get all one desires politically within the modern liberal demcratic system are well....naive. If they don't want to play the game of liberal/bourgeois party politics, then well...don't play the game. Go and play a different one, and while of course this does not mean those who refuse to play the game cannot criticise those of us who do, at least acknowledge that we who play the game know the game's rules...we're not naive. We know and accept its about compromise, and negotiation and at root about the politics of 'good enough' or 'second best'. So yeah I'm a full on 'realo' , realist but with principles and often wonder if people who do criticise do so on the basis of full knowledge of the game and rules thereof. Just as in Norn Iron I'd much rather a (very) bad peace than a (moderate) good war, likewise south of the border ('down Mexico way'....) I'd much rather the FF-Green coalition than FG-Labour alternative. Does anyone who cares about the need to decarbonise the economy, begin the long-overdue step change in the transition away from unusustainability seriously think this will happen in the Republic without the Greens in power?

A lot of anger has been directed at the Greens as if a) the junior member ofthe coalition that b) was not within an ass's roar of being in power during the Celtic Tiger period which laid the causes of significant aspeces of the current economic jocker the Republic's in, as if the Greens were responsible for the crisis or somehow that it is entitely appropriate for them to be judged by different criteria which means they must bear a disproportionate amount of the blame and atract a disproportionate amount of public ire and anger for the current mess. If its a junion coalition party people want to blame its the PDs not the Greens they should be after, and if they wish to direct their anger at the political authors of the current crisis - look no further than the FFers. But, and in conclusion, there is also another party that is not being factored into the conversations about who is blame for the current crisis.

Consider the following:

We bought bigger cars for the status that it gave. We built bigger houses with X number of bedrooms and bathrooms, regardless of how we were going to heat these massive properties. We flew to New York in a way that turned Madison Avenue into our latest Grafton Street…Let us be honest with ourselves that is the phenomenon that occurred… In the last decade China and India started to produce our goods for us at a fraction of the cost. That brought down inflation in the developed world and allowed the central banks to lower interests internationally, which led to easy lending, bad lending. (Irish Times, July 11th, 2008).

Who said this? An astute social and political commentator like Fintan O'Toole or David McWilliams? A member of the Labour or FG party? Someone from CORI or David Begg of the Trades Union movement? No, it was Green Party TD and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. And what he was saying - namely that people in the republic need to look closer to home (as well as seeking other causes) for causes of the current economic crisis. While irresponsible lending by banks certainly happened, while developers built thousands of houses for the 'buy to let' market, while various Irish companies made money from promoting the puchasing of houses and apartments in eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey and elsewhere - no one 'forced' Irish people to do any of this (if compulusion was anywhere it was for those for whom the 'Celtic Tiger' economic boom was something they read about rather than experieced themselves). People (by which of course I do not mean ALL people - since not everyone engaged in the orgy of debt-fuelled consumption, spectulative house buying for a quick buck and all the rest of it. Yes, perhaps one of the reasons why the Greens attract a disproportionate amout of the public anger about the end of the Celtic Tiger and the curent pain is that to publicly admit that the responsibility lies sqaurely with the FFers, the PDs and their active encouragement of consumption, debt, housing speculation etc is to also have to face the fact that many people did so knowing that this was too good to be true, that maybe there was something wrong with the developer-FF coalition on the back of which so many Irish people made a lot of money snd had a high old time. Maybe, just maybe, focusing anger on the Greens is a way to avoid looking at the FF mirror in which a lot of people currently slagging of the Greens will find their own reflection. After all, its only when the tide goes out do you know whose naked, and to hide their embarassment people will use any fig leaf....Green in this case.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Neo-Liberalism as a Water Ballon

This is a fantastic, simple, funny and wonderful explanation of ne0-liberalism explaining how the operation of its principles is the root cause of our current economic problems. I particularly like the explanation of the class, gender, racial and disability division of society and its unique way of outlining how 'credit' fuels consumption and spending. Hats off and well done to those who did this!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Thursday, 8 October 2009

TASC Progressive Economy Conference - Saturday 10th October

Just finished my presentation to the TASC Progressive Economy Conference entitled 'Greening the Economy, Greening Economics' - The picture here basically summarises the paper which critiques the dominant neo-classical economic orthodoxy - a theme I've been banging on about for years/decades its seems - ever since I first had the temerity in an undergrad economics tutorial in UCD in the mid 1980s to question the ethical and political values underpinning it. I seem to recall it was a discussion sparked by an article - whcih as I recall had lots of those impressive looking econometric algorithms and tables etc. which basically developed a 'model' and 'proof' (not an 'argument' mind or anything as 'soft' as that) that bought sex was not as utility maxmising as sex with someone you love. I'm kidding you not and I'd love to find that article again. This experience was for me (although scarily not everyone else in the class and not least the economics lecturer who shall remain anonymous) the 'emperor has no clothes' moment when I said WTF? First its obvious why this would be case but more importantly what was this economic thinking doing meddling in this aspect of human experience? I was happy (and still am) that if you've a limited budget and have to choose between a coiuple of optoins as to what coat to buy, had fixed 'non-transitive' preferences, didn't take the views of others into account, lived on this mysterious island where everyone was perfectly rational, utility maximising and there existed the utopia of a 'perfect market' with perfect information, neo-classical economics is yer only man!

The FFers

Says it all....and not a Green in sight!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

NAMA: Toxic legislation for toxic debts?

O'Donaghue resignation

I'm tempted to think that if someone were to say to me 'What do you think about O'Donaghue's resignation?', I'd reply 'A good start'. O'Donaghue is only the tip of the ice berg in terms of the culpability not just of the FFers but of other political parties in the Republic who've been parasitic on the body politic. That's why the Green Party's demand for a reduction of the number of TDs as part of the re-negotiation of the Programme for Government is spot on, as is their other demand for an end to corporate donations to political parties. O'Donaghue, like other FFers such as Ray Burke are simply an exaggerated example of the arrogance within that party that it was the 'natural party of government' in Ireland and for whom political power, priviledge and patronage (though appointments to the boards of semi-state agencies etc) was something they were 'to the manor born'. The likes of O'Donaghue have acted like an aristocracy, whose power like the aristorcracy and monarchy is fundamentally based on a lack of openness and transparency and critical reflection. If I was asked further for an epithet for O'Donaghue it would be this: 'Some people bring joy wherever they go: some whenever they go'. Let him be the first of many as the stables of Irish politics and the political class are cleaned out.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Bring back Sammy!

Things have been quiet, too quiet on the environment front here in 'norn iron' since we swapped the climate change denying Minster Sammy Wilson for his creationist party colleague Edwin Poots.

Sammy while vilified by Greens and environmentalists - he positively took pleasure in winding us up - is sorely missed since his combination of arrogance, ignorance and media-hunger was gold-dust for green campaigners, giving us plently of media coverage. So, perhaps time to bring back Sammy? Just in time for the implementation of the new sustainable development strategy perhaps?!

Big week for the Greens

This is going to be a huge week for the Greens in Ireland. On Saturday we hold a special convention to vote on two significant issues which depending on how the vote goes may mean we walk from coalition government with Fianna Fail leading to a general election - and possible electoral meltdown for ourselves - based on the kicking we got in the locals in June. The first issue is party support for a new Programme for Government (PfG) which is being negotiated and finalised as we speak. The FFers also got a kicking in the June polls and are extremely weak, so the Greens rightly are pushing them hard on getting more radical green proposals into the PfG.

The second is NAMA (National Asset Management Agency) proposed legislation - a 'toxic' piece of legislation to deal with the toxic loans in the Irish banking system. This complex piece of legislation seems to come down to basically Irish taxpayers - via the state - compensating those bankers and developers who engaged in risky and speculative financial dealings during the boom time of the Tiger economy, by bailing out the banks and buying up around 75 billion euro of toxic debt for sum of around 54 billion euros. Its a lot more complex than this, and its caused outrange within Irish society and the Green party. However, the argument we're told is that we need NAMA to get the economy going again, to start credit flowing from the banks etc.

A group within the Party, called Greens against NAMA, is calling for the party to reject it. A member of this group today emailed me the following interesting clip which makes the case against NAMA and connects it to the issue of peak oil - . In that video Party leader John Gormley does make the point that NAMA is simply kick-starting an unsustainable economy, but we're not going to change it overnight etc.

The danger, of the many that now confront the party, is that a rejection of NAMA will fuel a groundswell to reject the PfG and participation in government and lose the change of a generation perhaps for the Greens to be in power and get some radical policies implemented. If NAMA is the price for our staying in power for another 2 years, will members reluctantly support it? or should they support it? I have to say I'm conflicted on this one - NAMA doesn't look like a good deal (but what are the alternatives? - here I have to admit I'm partial to nationalising all the banks myself) - but the pragamatist in me does want the party to stay in power - but not at any cost....Dilemmas, dilemmas. On this one, politics looks less like the art of the possible than squaring the impossible...

I'll be down in Dublin on Saturday for the convention - and also speaking at the TASC conference that morning - I'll be making my mind up which way to vote on both these issues then....

Friday, 2 October 2009

What would Steiner do?

Off to an Anthroposophical Society of Ireland workshop on the financial crisis in Dublin (looking forward to it if not the 6am start!) 'Money - In Search of Truth and Reality within the Financial Crisis'.

I've been reading a little about Steiner's view of the economy - as part of his conception of the 'threefold social order' (economy, state, society), but can't say I've really understood him. In an effort to better do this I've joined and now subscribe to the Centre for Associative Economics - latest issue its journal - Associate! has some interesting articles. In one I read the following:
"To bring balance to purchase money and loan money, we need to step in through gift money and convert our excess surplus into purchase money: in effect to give away capital to maintain a healthy economy. This is not necessarily a matter of more charity; there are other ways this can be accomplished such as interest free loans, or loans that can be written down as the borrower achieves success in his or her business activity. The other solution is to cut debt, to reduce the principal on a housing loan, in effect just shrink the amount of debt in the economy. These actions free up funds to spend on core activities; ideally activities which serve the general needs of humanity – education, health, culture. This gesture is guided by the understanding that capital cannot grow indefinitely in relation to spending money, that excess surplus has to be returned to the economy in a healthy way, that my surplus at some point is probably best used by someone else, not accumulated for my benefit. “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours.” This, according to the Rabbi, is the attitude of the virtuous for it recognizes the importance of giving. The parallel in the associative economic view is the importance of gift money".

This idea of 'gift money' seems to be that for moral as well as sound economic reasons (to prevent booms and crashes) 'surplus' profits (or a proprtion of them) should be simply recycled back into the system. The idea of interest free loans has a definite appeal in relation to the financing of any 'Green New Deal' with innovative financial mechanisms such as 'Green Bonds' or creating a 'Green Bank'.

In Steiner's 1922 lectures on economics he writes perceptively about money and its role in the economy;

"We ought not to let money merely flow
into circulation and give it freedom to do
what it likes. For we thereby do something
very peculiar in economic life. If we require
animals for some kind of labour, the first
thing we do is to tame them. Think how
long a horse has to be tamed before it can
be used. Yet we let money circulate quite
wildly in the economic process

Steiner, R Lectures on Economics, New Economy Publications, Canterbury 1996 - emphasis added.

From what I can gather - or gather so far from my very limited reading and understanding of his ideas - what Steiner had in mind was the necessity to build in devaluation within the money supply. This is something I've come across before in my research and reading on alternative/complementary currencies and the use of 'scrip money' during the 1930s Depression (I wonder will our current economic woes which are being called a recession develop into a depression so that it will have to have a capital D like the 1930s?!), which was a form of local money existing alongside the official currency

One of the main issues with scrip money is it had an in-built depreciation mechanism - either each time you used it, this was one transaction closer to it being no longer useable (i.e. each scrip note had a fixe number of transactions it could be used for), or there was a date set when the scrip note would be worthless and no longer accepted as a medium of exchange. The ingenoius element of scrip money, and which speaks to Steiner's concern about the dangers of 'surpluses' being accumulated, is that these currencies encouraged exhange and economic activity but discouraged hoarding. What's the point of hoading currnecy that is 'worthless' after it time limit has come?

I would suspect that as the economic crisis deepens we'll see a return to such localised responses. Alongside people shopping more in charity shops anothe depression-beater is re-localisation, and one of the most successful and best know recent examples of this is the Totnes pound championed by the Transition movement .
Had great fun today blogging and responding to posts I put up on TASC's Progressive Economy website - first reponding to comments from mainstream neo-classical economists on the release of the Comhar Green New Deal report - and also a reply 'The Neo-classical empire strikes back' - to a post Richard Tol had put up on http://www/ attacking the report. The replies to these two posts and ensuing conversations were illiminatation. I'll put them below

"I'm sure Richard Tol, if he so chooses, will be well able to defend his position. However, for me, Richard's post identifies the clear choice between, on one hand, governments setting (and committing to) the policy and taxation regime, facilitating the market mechanisms (e.g., cap-and-trade) and applying the necessary regulation and, on the other, governments being the prime movers, investors, policy-makers, regulators, winner-pickers, etc. Att all times and places, when and where this choice is valid,and applying the tried and tested tools of economic analysis, the former is superior to the latter.
October 2, 2009 2:35 PM
John Barry said...
OK, fair enough - its clear where we both stand on an unfettered market and role of the state etc. but what about the other points raised in my post - for example the ideological bias and dominance of one take (neo-classical)on economics? I'm unsurprised whenever I raise this 'hidden' aspect of the mainstream take on economics that the silence is both deafening and telling. I'm NOT saying neo-classical appraches are always and everywhere wrong etc, all I'm asking for is a) an explicit recognition of its normative assumptions and b) greater pluralism in the debate about economic policies. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
October 2, 2009 2:46 PM
Paul Hunt said...
The difficulties always arise when the economic circumstances are such that some deviation from the first option may be required to achieve a valid policy objective. The configuration of energy policy, regulation and economic organisation in Ireland is so dysfunctional that major reform is required if the objective is to begin to alter the pattern of energy consumption and to reduce carbon emissions in the short to medium term.But this, of course, isn't on the political agenda. There may, indeed, be a role for direct government intervention in the context of incomplete, inadequate or malfunctioning markets, but only when the fundamental dysfunction is addressed. As a result we are fated to experience expensive, economy-damaging government interventions.
October 2, 2009 3:00 PM
John Barry said...
And the question as to the ideological and normative assumptions of neo-classical economics?.....Go on, you can say it here - you're among free thinkers!
October 2, 2009 3:19 PM
Paul Hunt said...
You jumped into the join between my posts - posting on this site is a pain. By no means "unfettered". Even the most imaginative S-M fan would struggle to conceive of the incentives and constraints I see as necessary. The huge body of theory and evidence has persuaded me that markets are the least worst tool we have to make capitalists (possessors of human, physical or financial capital)jump through hoops to deliver economically and socially useful outcomes. And, to the greatest extent possible, governments should focus on using this tool effectively - rather than intervening directly. There will always be plenty for governments to do in other areas.
October 2, 2009 3:22 PM
John Barry said...
So, just to be clear - the basic ideological position is the following:Markets are good, but need government regulationGovernments should stay out of marketsMarkets deliver for societyAnd of course none of these are 'objective' or 'scientific' but based on normative assumoptions not about how society or the economy is, but how the economy ought to be.But may I ask, though I guess I know the answer - what are markets for? what does a market based/organised economy deliver? Namely, orthodox economic growth - which again has a whole range of normative implications and assumptions - ranging from how this acts as a substitute for greater socio-economic inequality, its implications in terms of global justice and the distribution of development opportunities globally; how a sub-system (the economy) can expotentially grow when the larger system (the ecosystem) is finte and fixed; to the really thorny issue of the contribution of this model of economic growth to well-being beyond a threshold. So... if one is not an egalitarian, is not particularly concerned abotu global justice, or ecological limits, or that well-being ought to be a matter for public policy, then its clear - neo-classical economic growth is yer only man. Is what I've said here a complete distortion of your position?
October 2, 2009 3:39 PM
Paul Hunt said...
I'm not dodging your legitimate questions. I'm not keen on labelling - it encourages pigeon-holing and stereotyping (as well as creating carricatures), but we need to distinguish between Neocons, Neo-liberals and Progressives. As I have pointed out on previous posts, the Neocons have shamelessly purloined the neo-liberal brand which has a distinguished pedigree from Adam Smith through JS Mill to Keynes and onto Krugman, Sen and Stiglitz in the modern era. Only for the purposes of this post I would describe Neocons as "Markets everywhere; government nowhere (expect to enforce prperty rights, to clean up the mess they make or to prosecute profitable wars)"; Genuine Neo-liberals as "Markets where possible; government as and when required"; Progressives as "Governments everywhere; and markets only if we really have to". I know this is probably unfair, but if the cap fits...
October 2, 2009 3:44 PM
John Barry said...
Paul, I think you misunderstand me. I'm not interested in labelling myself, but am asking about the underlying values, and normative principles which each and every theory of political economy has - whether it makes these explicit or not. Each of the three positions you outline - neo-cons, neo-liberals and progressives - have different (and some shared) normative views, all I'm asking for is a greater honesty or self-awareness that none of these positions - and others - are objective, scientific, value-free or non-ideological. That's all. My main gripe is the continuing fiction amongst neo-classical economists that their position on the economy is somehow non-political or non-ethical or non-ideological.

So far no reply to this last post....

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Green New Deal for Republic of Ireland published

Comhar - the Irish Sustainable Development Commission - has today launched its 'Green New Deal' document outlining an alternative, green, sustainable and low carbon path to economic recovery in the Republic.

As someone who has worked on the GND for NI (and as someone who had some small input into this report), I am extremely pleased and welcome it obviously.

Some of the report's findings include:

· Revive the Irish economy and create job opportunities through building an innovative, low-carbon and resource efficient society.

· Protect ecosystems and biodiversity while reducing fossil fuel dependency.

· Provide for greater social inclusion through stimulating new green jobs, reducing fuel poverty and delivering better access to transport.

· Build ecological resilience and capacity to adapt to climate change.

It recommends focusing on the following areas:

· Improve the energy efficiency of existing housing stock
· Renewable Energy
· Transforming the National Grid
· Delivering Sustainable Mobility
· Public Sector Investments
· Skills and Training
· Green Infrastructure

All of which the report argues would create hundreds of thousdands of jobs, create economic activity as well as enhancing energy security, begin dealing with peak oil ('leave oil before it leaves us' as it were) and reducing CO2 emissions.

The report has been discussed in today's Irish Time's by Jim Gibbon

The timing of this is interesting in that the Green party has begun negotiations with Fianna Fail about reviewing the Programme for Government and its clear the junior coalition party is going to push for greater 'greening' of that programme and has a list of radical policy demands that may, given the weakened state of FF, be delivered upon.

I'd like to think that there was some synchronisation involved....and good luck to the Green negotiating team in pushing the FFers as far as possible to implement some radical policy changes.