Austerity, That’s What We Need More Of

austerity
austerity (Photo credit: 401K)

So Britain has gone back into negative growth, fairly conclusive evidence that budget-cutting your way out of recession is like clearing a path through the forest with a flamethrower.

Yet in the eurozone, we seem determined to repeat the error. The forthcoming Fiscal Compact is a legal undertaking not to go into budget deficit. A good thing in principle; of course a country should, in the good times, be creating budget surpluses that will see it through the bad. That’s just prudent. The thing that appears to be escaping them here though is that these are not the good times. These are, in point of fact, the really, really bad times.

We can sign a treaty to promise to balance the budget, sure. What we cannot do, is balance the budget. Not without the wholesale destruction of not simply welfare and health systems, but everything. Policing, education, investment, the fabric of the state.

So are we signing this treaty with the intention of breaking it? Perhaps it is meant purely as a pro forma sop to the markets, Or indeed to the German taxpayers, who seem to forget that they profited vastly from the eurozone boom and so have to be wheedled and cajoled now that it’s come to payback time. “Yes yes, of course everyone is going to balance their budget.” That doesn’t seem a proper way to go about things.

I don’t mean that a fiscal compact is a wholly bad idea. If we’re going to share a currency there have to be some rules. But remember, we had rules. We had the Stability and Growth Pact, of which this is merely a sterner reiteration. Did we break those rules in the boom? Nope. Right up to the Crash of 2008, we ran a surplus. France and Germany broke them, reckless to the effect that had on other countries. They benefited from the conditions that drove our economy to meltdown, and yet somehow it’s we who have to suffer again. This new treaty is the Big Two’s more rigorous attempt to discipline themselves, but what is merely chastisement to them may beat us to death.

Here in Ireland, our Supreme Court has judged that this compact amounts to a new international treaty with constitutional ramifications, and must be put to the people. This is a great aspect to our Constitution, but it means we’re yet again going to have a fraught and confusing public debate. Highly technical and highly political, the text of the treaty is hardly going to make for clear and balanced discussion. So it’s unlikely to be for the right reasons whichever side wins.

The Yes camp will be monging fiscal fear: If we don’t pass it, we won’t be able to raise the money we desperately need to keep the country afloat. But wait, in order to borrow money we should pass a law against borrowing money? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. The No camp on the other hand will be upholding our economic sovereignty. A brave stand, which has been likened to defending the virginity of sex workers. There is only one economic sovereignty, and it’s called “having money”.

At the moment, it looks like we’ll pass it. The incorrect arguments of the mistaken pragmatists will be more persuasive than the incorrect arguments of the mistaken idealists. But it is not too late to change direction. We have a chance here to make a real and lasting difference.

Sure, the last time we turned down an EU treaty they pretty much gave us another chance to say the right answer. All we really did was delay it. But this time, a delay could make a difference. The cavalry – in the form of Hollande winning the French Presidential election – might just arrive in time. He has announced his intention to reopen the treaty, and at least take some of the emphasis off austerity. (Oh those crazy reckless Socialists.) Meanwhile, the other eurozone countries have a chance to absorb lessons like that coming out of the UK.

So Ireland could play a key role here in saving the EU from a tragic, destructive mistake. Enforcing balanced budgets in the long term is a sensible idea. Enforcing balanced budgets during an already murderous recession is not economics, it’s applied sadomasochism.

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Let’s Get Fiscal: Women’s perspectives on the Austerity Treaty

Anyone in Dublin or Galway interested in a public meeting on austerity policies, with particular reference to their impact on women? You can attend the event physically at Feminist Open Forum, Central Hotel, Exchequer St, Dublin, or by live streaming at the One World Centre, 76 Prospect Hill, Galway.

Tonight, THURSDAY 26 April at 7pm.

Sarkozy – Little Brother Is Watching You

EPP Summit October 2010
He'll protect France, even if he has to turn it into a fascist police state

Unable to pass up an opportunity to move his country further to the right, Sarkozy is introducing a law that criminalises visiting sites about violence and hatred “habitually”. Whatever that means.

Can we please apply the brakes of sanity to that? Imagine if there was a law against “habitually” reading books about violence and hatred. Or indeed about habitually reading anything. Or a law against conversations about violence and hatred? Unthinkable. Yet those are the only two things you can do by visiting a website. Read, and discuss. A website is just a form of document after all – indeed, the form that is rapidly replacing books, newspapers and magazines. Yet leaders are eager to make sure that the replacement for printed literature is a thousand times more circumscribed, monitored and controlled than literature has been the birth of democracy. And not only controlled, but controlling – because now we have books and newspapers that can read you back, check you out when you check them out, write reports on you. If it sounds like an old Soviet Russia joke, there’s a good reason for that.

But surely monitoring people’s reading habits is unthinkable in a democracy? Nope, not at all. In fact such laws already exist. It’s just that they’re specific to child pornography. But all around the world, laws that undermined a basic principle of democracy for just that one extra-super-special, won’t-someone-think-of-the-children case are being broadened and repurposed – precisely as predicted.

All you need to pull this off is an urgent threat to security. Say, the threat to security that a shooting spree by one madman who’s now dead so clearly represents. Once you establish the principle, it becomes perfectly legitimate to police people’s reading. And so easily, you have made it a crime to be the sort of person you think might commit a crime.

They’re All Bastards

Reaction to Irish banking and financial crises...
The people do not feel well served

Jesus. The UK’s Channel 4 had a documentary this evening called “The Man Who Killed Michael Jackson“. Did they make that last night? Maybe they went through a documentary they already had, bleeping out the word “allegedly”.

News has been extra weird today. A US Presidential candidate vows to shut down the Department of Education, and the most remarked thing is that he couldn’t remember the name of another agency he wanted to close down? Under the influence of the Tea People the Republicans are turning from the party of the American rich into the party of American national suicide.

In France meanwhile, Sarkozy is mooting a two-speed Europe. In this version there will be an ‘inner’ group of stronger economies using the euro, and an outer using… something else. There are merits to this idea. The part that makes least sense is his assumption that France belongs on the inside.

Who owns the banks in Ireland? You would be forgiven for thinking that we had some sort of controlling interest, after having mortgaged our children’s lives to save them from bankruptcy. Apparently not though, because both Bank of Ireland and AIB have point-blank refused a government request to pass on an ECB interest rate cut. You see, they have to obey the laws of the free market. Or all except the one where losing incredible sums of money means you can’t be in business any more.

We should send them a signal. One bank – selected at random – should be allowed to collapse. Just to remind the rest what reality is.

They’re All Bastards

Reaction to Irish banking and financial crises...
The people do not feel well served

Jesus. The UK’s Channel 4 had a documentary this evening called “The Man Who Killed Michael Jackson“. Did they make that last night? Maybe they went through a documentary they already had, bleeping out the word “allegedly”.

News has been extra weird today. A US Presidential candidate vows to shut down the Department of Education, and the most remarked thing is that he couldn’t remember the name of another agency he wanted to close down? Under the influence of the Tea People the Republicans are turning from the party of the American rich into the party of American national suicide.

In France meanwhile, Sarkozy is mooting a two-speed Europe. In this version there will be an ‘inner’ group of stronger economies using the euro, and an outer using… something else. There are merits to this idea. The part that makes least sense is his assumption that France belongs on the inside.

Who owns the banks in Ireland? You would be forgiven for thinking that we had some sort of controlling interest, after having mortgaged our children’s lives to save them from bankruptcy. Apparently not though, because both Bank of Ireland and AIB have point-blank refused a government request to pass on an ECB interest rate cut. You see, they have to obey the laws of the free market. Or all except the one where losing incredible sums of money means you can’t be in business any more.

We should send them a signal. One bank – selected at random – should be allowed to collapse. Just to remind the rest what reality is.

Just Sign Here Here Here And Here

Shelby County Courthouse, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
"So what's the surpri... Was that a click?"

This is worrying stuff.

You’d hardly notice, but we’re being asked to change the Constitution this Thursday. Twice. Yet nobody is acting like this is much of a deal. The amendments are being thrown in with the Presidential election like some sort of democratic side order, and getting about as much attention. This despite the fact that a Constitutional amendment actually, you know, changes something, while a ceremonial President – in spite of the impression they try to create in their election campaigns – can change about bugger all.

These are not trivial matters either. One would remove the bar on reductions to the pay of judges, something placed in the Constitution deliberately to prevent the sitting government pressuring the judiciary. The other would allow the houses of the Oireachtas¹ to conduct their own quasi-judicial investigations. That would seem to give them quite a lot of power. How much? Well according to part of the proposed amendment:

4º It shall be for the House or Houses concerned to determine, with due regard to the principles of fair procedures, the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest for the purposes of ensuring an effective inquiry into any matter to which subsection 2º applies.’

So only the Oireachtas can say how much power it can give itself. Though it is of course restricted by law. Which the Oireachtas also creates.

Yes parliaments often have powers of investigation, but this seems very broadly drawn, and likely to make power in this country even more unbalanced. Government in a democracy is generally divided into three main branches: The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. There is meant to be a measure of conflict between these roles, in order to ensure that everyone is watching what everyone is up to.

We’re a parliamentary democracy though; that immediately reduces internal contention because it means there is no effective difference between the executive and the legislature. Unlike countries with an executive presidency such as France or the US, the legislature elects the executive – which then pretty much dictates everything else the legislature does.

Another safety mechanism is a bicameral legislature; two houses each with oversight of the other – House/Senate, Commons/Lords, etc. Our upper house though is effectively the creation of the executive, which appoints the majority of its members. So no balance there either; whatever party wins most seats in an election just sweeps the board of executive and both houses.

That only leaves the judiciary as an independent power, and we are being asked to pass two amendments to our constitution, one of which will take away its chief protection against undue government pressure, the other of which will usurp some of its functions. Still wonder why I’m worried?

 

  1. Parliament/Congress

Patents – The New Rock ‘n’ Roll

Phone patent litigation in US courts alone ©The Daily Beast

With what I want to believe was ill-disguised glee, Samsung has taken out injunctions against sale of the iPhone 4S in France and Italy over alleged patent infringement. Why just there? It’s difficult not to believe that they’re keeping it commensurate with Apple’s blocking of Galaxy Tab sales in Germany and the Netherlands, that basically they’re saying “If you want to go there, we can go there”.

Do they have a case? Who can tell. The only thing certain is that patents are the new Rock ‘n’ Roll.

And not in a good way. Like Rock ‘n’ Roll in its heyday, the mobile technology world is turning into a filthy quagmire, with pretty much everybody accusing everyone else of stealing about everything – as the illustration shows. The main reason Google purchased Motorola‘s mobile arm was that otherwise the two companies could have sued each other out of existence¹. R&D is rapidly becoming the new A&R, with phone makers patenting about anything in the hope of finding the one elusive hit technology that will rake in unimaginable sums. This wasn’t very good for music, and it won’t be so good for technological innovation either.

While being able to profit from research and invention is a good thing, current law allows companies to charge exorbitant fees or even refuse to license their patents, essentially granting them a monopoly to a lucrative technology. While this was fine in the days when you might patent a tangible device like a mousetrap, now they can be used more or less as intellectual property land-grabs, claiming rights to possible designs. A cause célèbre of course is the granting to Apple of patents so fundamental to a multitouch interface on a mobile touchscreen device that it is hard to see how anyone can now create one without infringing them. Yet Apple did not invent either the multitouch interface or the mobile touchscreen, they were merely the first to put one on the other. Does that really mean they deserve to control the entire concept for the next twenty years?

What might work much better is a short period – maybe only a year or two – of exclusive use. That would decrease the incentive to take out speculative patents on everything, and greatly increase the incentive to, you know, innovate.

  1. To give the actual science of this: When two corporations collide at sufficiently high financial energies, they either fuse into a single entity or annihilate one another in a shower of fundamental business particles known as “happy lawyers”.

France Unveils A Darker Side

Anti-Muslim and anti-women, or pro-freedom and pro-women? Or indeed, anti-Muslim and pro-women, or (here’s a combo) pro-freedom and anti-women?

It’s hard to take sides on this unusually crucial issue of French couture. I am against people hiding their faces in public, whether they choose to or are forced. I’m against Islam – and indeed religion in general.

But I am in favour of the freedom to practise whatever religion you choose, no matter how strongly I disagree with that choice, as long as you do no harm to anyone else. And I can’t really accept that hiding your face in public is harmful to others. Rude certainly, but France isn’t introducing any law against rudeness.

I will have no truck with When-in-Rome arguments. In this Rome, they do religious freedom. Or did. And it is a matter of religious freedom. There is no point claiming that the veil is not a genuinely Muslim practice. Are you really going to say to someone “Your religion is not what you think it is”? Your beliefs are what you believe they are, I think.

Does the veil oppress women? Certainly if someone is forcing a woman to veil herself that is oppression, but there is no need for a law against forcing people to do one specific thing. Indeed, it’s a very poor precedent – do we need separate laws for everything you can’t force people to do? And if she chooses it herself, then this law is oppressing her. In practice there will be winners and losers. While some may seize on this as an opportunity to unveil, it will make others prisoners in their homes. No one can say that the net effect will be liberating.

When it comes down to it, the real motivation for this law is discomfort. France is uneasy with the number of Muslims who live there, but is willing to tolerate them – as long as they aren’t too blatant about it. So they ban the practice of a small minority, basically because it’s highly visible. A country has a right to outlaw things it considers foreign to its way of life I suppose. But rather than protecting France’s revolutionary ideals, this betrays them.