Brexit will only count if everybody leaves the EU

Britain can leave the European Union, but it would remain just as tied to capitalist markets as before. The decision to leave the EU is not a decision to leave the world capitalist system, or even disengage from Europe, and thus is not a decision that will lead to any additional “independence” or “sovereignty” outside of proponents’ imaginations.

What has been unleashed is the nationalism and xenophobia of right-wing “populism” — those on the Left celebrating a blow against elites might pause for thought. Yes, voting in defiance of what elites told them to do played its part in favor of a British exit from the EU, but nationalism, scapegoating of immigrants, and convincing people at the mercy of corporate power that less regulation is in their interest were dominant.

It is the far Right that been given a shot in the arm from Brexit — from the National Front in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the hard right within the Conservative Party. The Labour Party’s Blairites have also been emboldened, as the parliamentary coup against Jeremy Corbyn illustrates.

Sunset near Tromsø, Norway (photo by Moyan Brenn)

Sunset near Tromsø, Norway (photo by Moyan Brenn)

By no means is the above survey meant as any defense of the EU. It is a neoliberal project from top to bottom, an anti-democratic exercise in raw corporate power to strip Europeans of the gains and protections hard won over two generations. The EU has a similar function to the North American Free Trade Agreement on the other side of the Atlantic. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the EU, including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and forcing policies designed to break down solidarity among wage earners across borders by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

So we should be celebrating anything that weakens the EU, yes? Perhaps. If this were the first blow to a visibly crumbling edifice, then surely yes. If there were a continental Left with a clear alternative vision to corporate globalization, then emphatically yes. But neither of these conditions are in force, so a more cautious response is called for. What is really needed is the destruction of the EU, for all countries to leave it, not only one.

Britain leaving by itself will lead to far less of a change than Brexit proponents hope, and not necessarily for the better. This is so because the conditions of capitalist competition will remain untouched.

Norway and Switzerland are out but are really in

Brexit proponents point to Norway and Switzerland as models of countries outside the EU but which retain trading access. But what those countries have is the responsibilities of EU membership without having any say.

Norway has the closer relationship of the two. Norway (along with Iceland and the micro-state of Lichtenstein) is part of the European Economic Area, essentially an agreement tightly binding those three countries to the EU. The EEA has been described as a “transmission belt” whereby the EU ensures that the EEA countries adopt EU laws as the price for being a part of the “free trade” area of the EU. That is a one-way transmission. Norway has no say in the creation of any EU laws and regulations.

The EEA treaty calls for Norwegian consultation, but Norway is not represented in any EU body. The agreement allows Norway to “suspend” any EU law that is disliked, but Norway has done so only once. By contrast, Norway’s parliament has approved EU legislation 287 times, most of them unanimously. This loss of sovereignty does not seem to be an issue for Norway’s political leaders. A 2012 Norwegian review of EEA membership concludes:

“This raises democratic problems. Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have any significant influence on them. … [O]ur form of association with the EU dampens political engagement and debate in Norway and makes it difficult to monitor the government and hold it accountable for its European policy.”

The chair of the review committee noted that “There is no upside for Norwegian politicians to engage in European policy. … Because politicians are not interested in European policies, the media are not interested, and lack of media interest reinforces the lack of politicians’ interest.”

The minister of European Affairs in the current Conservative Party-led Norwegian government, Elisabeth Aspaker, confirms government ease with adaptation to EU law. Norway, in fact, has committed to voluntarily contribute €2.8 billion in aid to poorer EU countries for the period 2014 to 2021. In an interview with EurActiv, Minister Aspaker said:

“[W]e believe this is in our interest to improve social and economic cohesion in Europe. If Europe is doing well, Norway will also be doing well. If Europe is doing poorly or is destabilised, this will have a negative impact on Norway and the Norwegian economy. So this is why we believe we should involve ourselves beyond what is required under the EEA agreement.”

Switzerland has a separate agreement with the EU that is essentially a “free trade” agreement. Switzerland has a little bit of room to not adopt EU laws, but some of its goods are blocked from export to EU countries as a result. Switzerland, however, is under pressure to do as the EU dictates, and not only does Berne not have representation, it lacks even the toothless consultation that Oslo has.

Britain will still pay but have no say

Will Britain really be free of transfers to Brussels as the “Leave” campaign, dominated by the Tory right and UKIP, loudly claimed before the referendum? Their immediate back-tracking on that, and on their implied promise of significantly reduced immigration, provides an important clue. The Centre for European Reform, a neoliberal think tank that declares itself in favor of European integration, in a nonetheless sober analysis declares that Britain would pay a substantial amount to retain its access to European markets. In its report, “Outsiders on the inside: Swiss and Norwegian lessons for the UK,” the Centre writes:

“Britain would also have to pay a financial price, as well as a political price, for retaining access to the single market. As a relatively rich country, it would presumably be expected to pay special contributions to EU cohesion and aid programmes on a similar basis [as] the Norwegians and Swiss do. Currently, Norway contributes €340m a year to the EU. If multiplied by 12 for Britain’s much larger population, that rate would imply a contribution for the UK of just over €4 billion, or nearly half its current net contribution to the EU budget as a full member. That is a lot to pay for associate status of the club.”

It is possible to grumble that the foregoing is a product of a pro-EU perspective, but doing so would ignore that Britain’s firm place in the world capitalist system, geographical location and trading patterns dictate that it retain its commercial access to Europe. A post-Brexit Britain’s remittances to Brussels might be larger than even that postulated by the Centre for European Reform. An Open Europe analysis calculates that Norway’s net contribution to the EU works out to €107 per person, while Britain’s current contribution is €139 per person. It may not be realistic to expect a future British contribution to be substantially less than Norway’s.

Sea defenses on the South Coast near Winchelsea, England (photo by Atelier Joly)

Sea defenses on the South Coast near Winchelsea, England (photo by Atelier Joly)

Furthermore, the Open Europe analysis notes that gross immigration to Britain is significantly less than that of Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. Those countries each must accept the free flow of people (along with goods, services and capital) the same as any EU member. The scare tactics of UKIP and the Tory right were simply that, tactics. And the promise by Brexit proponents of the return of an golden age and the scare tactics of Brexit opponents that financial armeggedon would be at hand? A separate Open Europe report finds the most likely range of change to British GDP would be within minus 0.8 percent to plus 0.6 percent by 2030.

Not much of a change. The high end of that modest range assumes that Britain adopts “unilateral liberalisation” with all its major trading partners because “free trade” offers the “greatest benefit,” the Open Europe report asserts. But studies purporting to demonstrate the benefits of “free trade” agreements tend to wildly overstate their case through specious assumptions. These often start with models that assume liberalization can not cause or worsen employment, capital flight or trade imbalances, and that capital and labor will smoothly shift to new productive uses under seamless market forces.

Thus groups like the Peterson Institute invariably come up with rosy projections for “free trade” agreements, including fantasy figures for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that ignore the reality of job losses and resulting downward drag on wages. So it is perhaps not a surprise that the rosiest prediction here is for Britain to throw itself wide open to world markets, as if Britain wasn’t already one of the most de-regulated countries in the global North.

There are lies and then there are damned lies

A different sort of lack of realism pervaded the Brexit campaign, and their avowed desire to remain in the European single market surely has something to do with their rapid backtracking. Boris Johnson, a leading spokesperson for Brexit, certainly was far more cautious in his post-vote June 26 column in The Telegraph than during the campaign. He claimed, in the face of all evidence, that immigration fears were not a campaign factor, that the British economy is “outstandingly strong” and “nothing changes” except for a goodbye to European bureaucracy. Seldom do we see so much undisguised lying in a single article.

The response from the other side of the English Channel is illuminating. A commentary in Der Spiegel, undoubtedly reflecting official thinking in Germany, concludes by declaring, “The British have chosen out, and now they must face the consequences,” given with a favorable reference to hard-line Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The Guardian, quoting an assortment of European diplomats, provided this report:

“ ‘It is a pipe dream,’ said [one] EU diplomat. ‘You cannot have full access to the single market and not accept its rules. If we gave that kind of deal to the UK, then why not to Australia or New Zealand. It would be a free-for-all.’

A second EU diplomat said: ‘There are no preferences, there are principles and the principle is no pick and choose.’

The diplomat stressed that participating in the single market meant accepting EU rules, including the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, monitoring by the European commission and accepting the primacy of EU law over national law — conditions that will be anathema to leave advocates who campaigned on the mantra ‘take back control.’ ”

No wonder no Tory seems eager to start negotiations. Perhaps “more of the same but with less say” will not meet the expectations of those who voted for a British exit from the EU. Certainly, corporate ideology has done its job well of convincing some that corporations abandoning communities isn’t the fault of the corporations leaving nor the capitalism that rewards those abandonments. Consider this passage in The New York Times on June 28, quoting a blue-collar worker in an English city that voted heavily to leave:

“ ‘All the industries, everything, has gone,’ said Michael Wake, 55, forklift operator, gesturing toward Roker Beach, once black from the soot of the shipyards. ‘We were powerful, strong. But Brussels and the government, they’ve taken it all away.’ ”

Of course, the ceaseless competitive pressure of capitalism, ever ready to move to the place with the lowest wages and weakest regulations, is responsible for the hollowing out of Sunderland, England, and so many industrial cities like it. Britain adhering to EU rules on unrestricted mobility of capital as the price of retaining its European trade links will have exactly zero effect on that dynamic, and British entry into “free trade” agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or similar deals will accelerate it. Governments sign such agreements, true, but they are acting under compulsion of powerful industrialists and financiers within and without their borders, conceding ever more sovereignty to multi-national capital as the price of remaining “competitive.”

The EU is a bonanza for multi-national corporations and an autocratic disaster for working people across Europe. But one country leaving and agreeing to the same terms as an “outsider” will effect no change whatsoever. An exit from capitalism is what the world needs, not from this or that capitalist treaty.

Higher taxes lead to more jobs

Make it harder for people to retain a job, and fewer people will. Adequate pay that makes a job worthwhile is one factor, but frequently overlooked are support structures that facilitate employment.

Contrary to orthodox economic ideology, punishing people does not increase employment.

Countries that provide more subsidies toward services that are complementary to work — such as child care, elder care and transportation — have higher workforce participation rates. This shouldn’t be surprising as we don’t leave the rest of our lives behind when we go to our jobs, however much bosses insist we should. Such a finding can only be controversial in a world dominated by ideologies that insist that conditions be made as harsh as possible to “force” people to work.

Alas, such a world is the one most of us live in, particularly in the English-speaking advanced capitalist countries. I have often noticed that the thinking of middle-class conservatives often boils down to “I had to suffer, so everybody else should have to suffer.” I’ve heard words to this effect from many conservatives. Although people who have enunciated that to me often are people who did indeed work hard to rise from modest circumstances, the reductionist hyper-individualism it reflects is blind to the social solidarity necessary for society to function.

Moving up the vertical scale represents higher rates of employment; moving left on the scale represents higher effective tax rates. (Graphic by Henrik Jacobsen Kleven)

Moving up the vertical scale represents higher rates of employment; moving left on the scale represents higher effective tax rates. (Graphic by Henrik Jacobsen Kleven)

More subsidies lead to a higher percentage of working-age people holding regular employment, and these subsidies are possible through higher taxation. Contrary to orthodox economics, higher rates of taxation lead to more employment. This is the conclusion of a study by Henrik Jacobsen Kleven, “How Can Scandinavians Tax So Much?” Professor Kleven, a professor at the London School of Economics, compared Denmark, Norway and Sweden with other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries (a club of the world’s advanced capitalist and some of the largest developing countries) and found strong correlations between taxation rates and workforce participation.

More social services, more employment

Plotted on a graph, there is a steady progression of countries with higher “participation tax rates” having greater percentages of their population employed. This pattern, not surprisingly, is even stronger for women than men. The author defines a country’s “participation tax rate” as the average effective tax rate when including all income and consumption taxes, and public benefits. This rate is far higher in Denmark, Norway and Sweden than it is in, inter alia, the United States, Japan or Britain. Professor Kleven writes:

“[T]he Scandinavian countries spend relatively large amounts on means-tested transfer programs that create implicit taxes on working and therefore reinforce the distortions coming from the tax system. On the other hand, these countries also spend relatively large amounts on the public provision and subsidization of goods that are complementary to working, including child care, elderly care, and transportation. Such policies represent subsidies to the costs of market work, which encourage labor supply and make taxes less distortionary. Furthermore, Scandinavian countries spend heavily on education, which is complementary to long-run labor supply.” [page 7, citations omitted]

Denmark, Norway and Sweden also have unusually low rates of tax avoidance. Professor Kleven writes that systematic third-party reporting is “crucial” to minimizing tax avoidance. (If your income is reported, it is very difficult to avoid paying taxes on it.) The three countries also have a broad tax base and Denmark in particular allows very few deductions and exceptions.

The United States, in contrast, has a complicated tax system riddled with loopholes. U.S. tax policy for low-income workers centers on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), yet the Scandinavian countries have higher rates of workplace participation without such tax deductions. Because child care subsidies act as a subsidy to labor participation, Professor Kleven argues, those countries have no need for a U.S.-style income tax credit.

Although the author recoils somewhat from his own conclusions at the end of his paper, he does earlier write:

“[E]empirical and theoretical arguments above suggest that public spending on work complements such as child care, preschool, and elder care allows for a more efficient provision of low-income support and at the same time weakens the argument for low participation tax rates at the bottom of the distribution through an EITC. In this sense, it is conceivable that Scandinavian countries (with their large subsidies to work complements and no EITC) got it right, while the US (with its small subsidies to work complements and a large EITC) got it wrong.”

More health care earlier, better jobs later

Perhaps imposing ever harsher conditions on working people makes for a weaker economy? It would seem that several years of punishing austerity has not exactly brought prosperity to the world. Another study daring to offer heterodox economic ideas, just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, calculates that spending by the U.S. government on child health care through the Medicaid insurance program likely will pay for itself by the end of a recipient’s adult working career.

Providing health care ought to be a human right; it is something that should be provided as a matter of basic humanity to enable better lives. In the U.S., of course, such is not the case; health care there is a privilege reserved for those with full-time employment that provides benefits or for those who can afford it. But, in raw economic terms, Medicaid for children may be cost-free over the long term.

This study, “Medicaid as an Investment in Children: What is the Long-Term Impact on Tax Receipts?,” prepared by Amanda E. Kowalski of Yale University and two economists with the U.S. Treasury Department, David W. Brown and Ithai Z. Lurie, found that children who were Medicaid recipients as adults earn more money on average and thus pay more in taxes than those who did not receive that benefit. These cohorts were followed until age 28, but, projecting the results over a full working career, the authors estimate that the extra taxes accruing to the federal government will amount to 56 cents for every Medicaid dollar. That is virtually identical to the 57 cents that the federal government pays out of every Medicaid dollar.

Professor Kowalski, in summarizing the study, said:

“Although it will take years to know the long-term impact of current expansions of Medicaid undertaken as part of the Affordable Care Act, this study shows that the investments that the government made in Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s are paying off in the form of higher tax payments now.”

The study did not take into account the extra tax money paid to state and local governments, nor benefits from decreases in mortality and increases in college attendance. If all factors could be calculated over a lifetime, it is conceivable that Medicaid for children will actually be a direct financial benefit. Such a crass calculation shouldn’t be necessary, but the U.S. health care system exists to provide corporate profits rather than provide health care, which is why U.S. spends much more on health care than other countries while achieving inferior results.

A society that provides the infrastructure for a productive, balanced life, as opposed to one that imposes grim struggles to survive, is a healthy society. We are, after all, a social species, something that the ever more propagandized individualist ideology of capitalism seeks to erase.

Nationalizing banks works for the short term; why not permanently?

U.S. President Barack Obama famously sneered that “Sweden had like five banks” when dismissing the idea of a government takeover of the U.S. banks that brought down the world economy. He did so despite acknowledging that Sweden had swiftly overcome its early 1990s financial crisis by taking over its largest banks.

The president was channeling a prevailing mythology within the United States — namely, that Sweden is a socialist country. Socialist! Run, run for your life! Therefore anything Swedish must automatically be so horrifying that we must not allow any thoughts about it to enter our minds for even a fleeting second.

Sweden is actually a capitalist country (albeit one with social-welfare policies to ease capitalism’s harshness), and the solution that it used to put its big banks back on their feet was well within the confines of capitalism. Actually, Sweden did not go as far as its neighbor, Norway, which also nationalized big banks to overcome its own early 1990s financial crisis.

Sweden and Norway made the banks — and their executives, directors and shareholders — pay for the crisis they caused, rather than making their taxpayers pay for it. Unsurprisingly, deregulation and speculation were behind the Scandinavian meltdowns.

Rather than following the Scandinavian model, the U.S. government shoveled trillions of dollars into its big banks following the 2008 financial meltdown without forcing any changes in banking practices or management. Or much of anything — it was the world’s biggest blank check. As a result, the banks are bigger than ever, the bonuses executives give themselves are as big as ever, not a single financier has been brought to justice, the financial crisis goes on and we remain at the mercy of the financial industry.

Sweden and Norway may not be large countries, but, despite President Obama’s sneering comment, they are not tiny, either. Sweden, in fact, has more than 100 banks. What Sweden and Norway have in common with the U.S. is that their banking industries are dominated by a few large banks. The four biggest banks in the U.S. in the first months of the economic crisis — JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — accounted for almost two-thirds of the assets of U.S. commercial banks. Thus, as Keynesian economist Paul Krugman once noted in his blog, “as far as this discussion is concerned, we’ve got, like, four banks.”

Norway wipes out shareholders, fires bankers

Because Norway took stronger measures than Sweden, let’s start the comparison there. Four banks accounted for almost 60 percent of bank lending in Norway on the eve of its crisis, and three of them would get themselves into deep trouble. Norwegian banking had been tightly regulated, but in the mid-1980s a series of measures lifted most regulation of banking and housing and eliminated capital controls, sparking a wave of speculation in the forms of a boom in new lending and a real estate bubble. Household consumption rose dramatically, based on debt incurred via the new loose credit, and bank managers began to be paid based on growth in lending.

A simultaneous drop in oil prices (Norway is dependent on oil exports) led to a devaluation of Norway’s currency (then on a fixed exchange rate) and a trade deficit. As the real estate bubble began to burst, several of Norway’s small banks failed, a problem that could initially be contained because the Norwegian government had continued to enforce a requirement that all of the country’s banks contribute to guarantee funds; these funds covered depositors. But continued financial turbulence caused two of the country’s four biggest banks to fail and a third to be on the brink of failure.

The guarantee funds had been depleted due to the failures of the small banks, and private investors were unwilling to invest with their own capital. The Norwegian parliament stepped in and injected capital directly into the banks, taking ownership and enforcing several conditions, including these:

  • Existing share capital would be written down to fully cover losses — shareholders would be wiped out.
  • Managers and members of the board of directors would be fired.
  • Banks must reduce operating costs and downsize some activities.

The banks were now owned by the government, which acted like an owner. But that ownership was exercised not directly by the government, but through a special agency created for the purpose of managing the taken-over banks and staffed by specialists to avoid political interference. Eventually, the Norwegian government sold all the shares of two banks and retained a minority interest in the third to block a foreign takeover of what is now the only one of the major banks to be based in Norway. By 2001, the government had earned a net gain for its troubles.

This program specifically avoided guaranteeing bank losses. It was designed so that taxpayers would not assume the risk, which would only encourage more risk-taking by bankers. In a report on these events, the deputy governor of Norges Bank (Norway’s central bank) wrote:

“If the government injects new capital into a crisis-stricken bank, it is important that the value of the existing shares are written down as far as necessary to cover the losses. Otherwise, the government would implicitly be using taxpayers’ money to subsidize shareholders of a failed or failing bank and would give rise to serious moral hazard problems.”

Sweden forces banks to write down losses

The Swedish government did not impose conditions as stringent as those imposed in Norway, but did make shareholders absorb some of the pain and nationalized the most troubled big banks. Financial deregulation in the 1980s led to reckless lending and a real estate bubble in Sweden. When the bubble burst in 1991 and 1992, Sweden fell into a recession and unemployment quintupled in three years.

The Swedish government declared it would guarantee all deposits in all banks, committed itself to recapitalizing banks in trouble and said any bank seeking government money would have to first write down its losses. Sweden did seize the most troubled big banks, although in one case (in which it already owned a majority interest) the government paid the full price for acquired shares rather than wiping out shareholders.

Sweden then set up two “bad banks” and transferred non-performing loans made by the taken-over banks to them. Privately owned banks would have forced immediate bankruptcies to shut down and seize the assets of the small and midsize businesses that had taken out these loans they could not repay. In contrast, the government “bad banks” took control of the businesses and worked to stabilize them for eventual re-sale, the proceeds of which would recover the bad loans.

For the most part, however, Sweden forced shareholders out of failed banks and imposed stringent risk-management measures and overhead reductions. But by issuing a blanket guarantee of all bank loans, the government benefited shareholders of the banks that had not been taken over, a contrast to Norway. But, similar to its neighbor, Swedish taxpayers benefited when the government later sold its shares in taken-over banks.

U.S. rewards bankers for destroying economy

In contrast, the U.S. government, during both the Bush II/Cheney and Obama administrations, handed out vast sums of money with no strings attached. Wall Street executives, on loan to the government, “advised” the presidents that unconditional and unlimited bailouts to their companies could be the only solution. As a result, financiers remain free to speculate at will and give themselves vastly bloated salaries and bonuses. A good example is provided by a Dartmouth University professor, B. Epsen Eckbo, who wrote during the first months of the economic meltdown:

“It’s a zero-sum game: if the tax-payer doesn’t insist on the best possible deal, some other party to the bailout will reap benefits at the tax-payer’s expense. A clear case in point is the $8 per share windfall to shareholders of Bear Stearns, when the government debt guarantee of that firm caused JPMorgan to raise its takeover bid from $2 to $10. This type of shareholder windfall, which we also saw in Sweden as the stock market responded to the government’s blanket debt guarantee, would have been avoided had the government taken an equity stake in the bailed-out bank.”

The Obama administration did take an equity stake when it bailed out the automobile manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler, with the potential to earn a profit from doing so, while saving jobs directly and indirectly associated with the two companies.

Why not do the same with big banks? Or, why don’t we not be timid and go further: Why not eliminate financial speculation through public ownership of banks? Norway and Sweden did solve their banking crises, but not underlying economic weaknesses — Norway remains dependent on high oil prices and Swedish unemployment, while well below its peak, remains far above what it was before the early 1990s crisis.

In fact, there is a successful example of state-owned banking inside the United States. It is the Bank of North Dakota, wholly owned since 1919 by that state’s government. The Bank of North Dakota operates as a commercial bank, taking deposits and making loans, and also is where the state government deposits its revenue.

The state’s tax money, therefore, is invested in local infrastructure projects rather than being used for speculation by national banks as other states’ revenues are. So successful is the bank that it has given $300 million in profits to the state government in the past ten years.

North Dakota is the only one of the 50 U.S. states to have its own bank, and while the local economy is currently strong due to an oil and gas boom, it certainly serves as an example. Why not replicate this success elsewhere?

As long as we are asking questions, why should something so critical to a modern economy as finance and banking be in private hands for private profit, and be conducted recklessly at the expense of everybody else? Why shouldn’t banking be a public utility, operated for public good? Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before the next financial crisis, when, once again, the profits will be privatized and the losses socialized.