Sunday, 27 January 2013

Plight unseen

Monzón is the sort of town that looks like there's a recession even when there isn't. It reminds me a little bit of Hartlepool, where I used to go and watch football when studying in Newcastle a dozen years ago, and I would arrive to find an absence of people, even on the main street outside the railway station. Perhaps, those being the boom years, they were all down the Marina, but it was eerie nonetheless.

Monzón is not quite so deserted, not on a working day anyway, but you notice that it isn't busy. Even in better times, I've noticed that it isn't busy, and not because the pace of life is slower. Last week I noticed that it wasn't busy, and not because the wind was cold, though the wind was cold all right - cold enough to serve as a metaphor, if we didn't have enough metaphors of foreboding already.

It is not busy because there are not many people about, the reason for this being that not many people are working. I was in a bar in Monzón when the television news announced the latest unemployment figures, which are as close to five million as makes scarcely any difference. Feburary's will surely reach that score. There was a map on the TV showing where unemployment was worst: in the south, and almost all the south, with a harsh red colour indicating a figure of above 30% for Andalusia, Extremadura, the Canaries, Castilla-La Mancha and maybe Murcia as well. It is probably 30% in Monzón too, I wouldn't be surprised to learn.

Anyway, after the unemployment figures there were a couple of brief clips from Davos, with Angela Merkel saying how austerity has to be stuck to, and Christine Lagarde saying God knows what. I didn't pay attention: listening to Lagarde is like listening to the Pope, the only difference being that Lagarde's pieties are in French and English rather than Latin and German.

I am sure I remember from my teenage years, reading The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner, specifically a passage in which, having bought their first television, the protagonist's family get bored with it and resort to turning the sound off and making fun of the silenced talking heads. (I'm also sure I remember that three million was considered such a scandalously high unemployment rate for a country with a larger population than Spain, the government had to repeatedly fiddle the figure to get it down.) Watching Lagarde and Merkel is a bit like that, without the element of fun. They might as well be lip-synching. Or speaking in tongues. Or reciting the Lord's Prayer.

It is as if the six million unemployed did not exist. You cannot see them, of course - they are at home, behind blinds and shutters and curtains. Six million of them. They can see Merkel and Lagarde, but Merkel and Lagarde cannot see them.

During Davos, the IMF took the trouble to advise George Osborne that his economic policy wasn't working and needed to be changed. A statement of the bleedin' obvious, but a welcome one nevetheless. But I wondered, looking at my empty coffee cup in Monzón and turning to the empty faces on the television, where the similar advice was for the Spanish government. If the UK is going in the wrong direction, where is Spain going? To correct one policy and leave the other unmentioned is like pointing out the holes in a roof on one side of the street while a house on the other side is swept away by floods.

So why? Why the UK and not Spain? One explanation is that the IMF, which is anything but an objective observer where it is actually involved, has a much greater stake in Spanish economic policy than in British, having openly encouraged and praised the labour market reforms which were central to the PP government's strategy. (If you can call it a strategy. There is no proper reason to be so kind.)

Lagarde went out of her way to call them "brave", which meant what it usually means in contemporary political political discourse, which is nasty, and against the interests as well as the wishes of the voters. Having publically and visibly lined up with the reforms, the IMF - for all its rowing back on multipliers which impresses economic correspondents - is not going easily to change direction.

Cándido Méndez said it plainly last week: "La reforma laboral es una máquina de destruir empleo". The labour reform is a machine for the destruction of jobs.. If it had done as much damage to share prices as it has done to employment, the financial markets, the Troika and all the economics correspondents in Europe and North America would have been screaming for it to stop. But all it has done is to put a million more people out of work - and behind curtains and shutters and blinds - in a country where there are no jobs. This being so, it is something which, Merkel says explicitly and Lagarde implictly, should continue.

The other explanation, and they are not at all mutually exclusive, is the cant about competitiveness. In the minds of Europe's elites, I think there is a strategy to change the relationship of Northern and Southern Europe back to what it was, before the Euro, when the EU was the EEC. Rather than becoming competitive, the plan for the Mediterranean countries is that they cease to be direct competitors with the North, but rather serve as sources of cheaper, but educated labour for it. They will be poorer places: their young people will, as in Ireland, be encouraged to emigrate. The economies they leave behind will be devoted to servicing the debts incurred during the boom and the subsequent crisis. They will become exporters of people.

This sounds more conspiratorial than it is, and more than I would like it to: but I am talking about a broad picture, not a narrow plan. A direction of travel, rather than a fixed itinerary. It would suit the leaders of the Northern European countries. Come to that, it would suit the leaders of the Southern European countries, who want nothing more than to say there is no alternative, and whose lives and families are not affected.

I don't really know to what extent such a strategy exists. It may even not exist at all, in which case the ship really is a rudderless one, and one without maps and sextant either. But what other reason can there be, for ignoring the disaster of six million unemployed? Other than that this is something that Europe's leaders want?

[Photo: Radio Huesca]


  1. "If the UK is going in the wrong direction, where is Spain going? To correct one policy and leave the other unmentioned is like pointing out the holes in a roof on one side of the street while a house on the other side is swept away by floods.So why? Why the UK and not Spain?"

    Mainly because the UK has room to manoeuvre as it has its own Central Bank. Spain is pretty much powerless as it made the mistake of giving up its currency and therefore its ability to print money. On top of that the government doesnt have the political leverage to increase fiscal spending as it needs the Euro cores approval to get money to bailout its insolvent banks. The harsh reality is Spains economic policy is determined by the Germans - sad but true.

    The UK doesnt have these problems. The cardinal sin of Osborne is he can borrow at record low rates and engage in Keynesian style spending along the lines that Obama is doing, but instead refuses to u-turn. Thankfully, the IMF and even some investment bankers are putting pressure on George to change course. Hell, even Boris is telling him to abandon austerity!

  2. Searching for Project Syndicate led me to Raghuram Rajan (coincidentally criticised by Krugman just yesterday) and this in particular:

    In southern Europe, by contrast, it means removing the regulations that protect firms and workers from competition and shrinking the government's presence in a number of areas, in the process eliminating unnecessary, unproductive jobs.

    That's precisely the view I was trying to locate.

    As far as withdrawal from the Euro is concerned, I basically agree, but only in so far as I think it's going to happen anyway, so why bother with years of economic lunacy first. (As it happens, Spanish withdrawal - or a substantial Euro devaluation - would put an end to my living, but I don't think my personal circumstances should drive Spanish economic policy.)

  3. I beg to differ, EJH.

    I don't think it will be allowed to happen. The north needs the south (or the periphery if you like) to be economic basket cases within the euro.

    Why, because in a time of competative currency devaluation you need all the ballast you can contrive. Whatever the human costs.

    Yrs etc.

    The Anonist.