“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”- Opening paragraph from “A Tale of Two Cities”
In 1973, E.F. Schumacher wrote a book entitled Small Is Beautiful. The book was well reviewed and was read by many people concerned with the global ecological disaster, but perhaps it was a bit ahead of its time.
That was after all the time of agribusiness and the widely held idea that “big is always better.” That in turn was integral part of a positivist approach which believes that progress is inevitable, it is always scientific and what comes at the end and is most modern is always the best of all possible worlds.
Now we are more likely to be persuaded by those who insist, as Schumacher did, that a more localized decentralized approach to economics may be the more sensible and humane approach.
The question arises: why is that? Quite simply because economic globalization has taken center stage while global warming is often derided and ignored, more often than not by those who are supposed to be our leaders. Some say that globalization actually began with the era of Western colonialism and imperialism and it is unstoppable like the idea of progress. Closer to us, in modern times, while welcomed and seen as a panacea at its inception in the last quarter of the 20thcentury, it has by now transmuted into a great debate on whether globalization is capitalism at its most pernicious or a promising way to reduce poverty world-wide. The sad truth is that while wealth has been increased it has mostly gone to the one per cent on top of the economic pyramid while the poor and middle class have seen no economic process.
Laissez-faire liberal capitalists of various stripes and assorted entrepreneurs searching for world-wide market opportunities a la Trump naturally support globalization and argue that becoming part of the world economy is the only chance for developing countries and those living in abject poverty at grasping economic opportunities and lift themselves out of poverty. They see absolutely nothing wrong with globalization per se; at best they suggest some reforms in its methods and its side effects on regional cultures. They may pay lip service to regional cultures and even religious heritages and tradition while at the same time deriding them as retrograde but necessary superstitions to keep the people docile and exploitable (hence Marx critique of religion as the opium of the people), but essentially they have reduced human beings to mere consumers within the global market place.
As William James used to quip: do not pay attention to what people say, pay attention to what they do and you will know what they really believe in. People willing to ruin reputations and impugn the professional integrity and career of their critics for an ideology reveal with their ad hominem attacks better than with their scholarly treatises the extreme measure to which they are willing to resort to in defense of their pet unexamined ideology.
And that may indeed be the reason why, on the other hand, the protesters believe that globalization is merely an excuse for big business to run roughshod over the developing world. For them “free trade,” so called, simply enables multinationals to dominate developing markets and push out local enterprise. They call for alternative ways of reducing poverty that prioritize environmental and human rights. They argue that by reducing ancient heritages and cultures to their lowest common denominator one dissolves most conflicts and distinctions among them and trivializes them.
The protesters, who have been at it for the last twenty years or so are convinced that Global capitalization is all about getting the rich to be even richer. They cite examples such as this: ten years ago a US company director got 40 times the wages of an average blue collar worker – their wages are now over 400 times as much. Just 400 families have more than half the world’s theoretical wealth. Yet calling this insanity is sneered at. Capitalism requires expansion, there has to be year on year growth, and that’s simple math: if you must expand your economy by an average of 3% a year, in a hundred years you need to consume in a day what we currently consume in a year.
In the world of culture a dichotomy seems to exist between the world of science and that of the liberal arts and the humanities, something I have written at length in previous articles. Indeed, a novel by a great novelist such as Dostoyevsky or Joyce, or a poem by Dante or Shakespeare represents a world rooted in numerous particularities where people from different backgrounds encounter one another and are trying to connect and influence each other; a world complicated by memories and ambitions and multiple connections and displacements. It’s a world wherein its unique rounded characters refuse simplifications.
On the other hand, what Globalization with its reductionistic tendencies seems to produce is the disembowelment of the complexity of world cultures, forcing their differences into the blender of consumerism and accumulation of wealth, to then regurgitate shallow formulaic platitudes, reducing the narrative of those cultures and their heritage of millenarian religious traditions, to a singular outcome; that of universal consumerism and happiness, Disney or McDonald or soccer games style, where business need not be responsive to the people or to truly democratic institutions but to the happiness of its shareholders. This is achieved by moving factories and businesses to the cheapest labor markets and keeping pays low.
According to this severe critical view, history has taught us that globalization means only one thing: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Corporate globalization and financial globalization without a buttressing ethical value system which sees the unity of humanity and its nexus to the earth, inevitably becomes dominated by greed and the profit motive. The critics also point out that those societies with the highest standard of living are those which allow some degree of capitalism, but combine it with a strong sense of social justice as exemplified by their social programs designed to help the less privileged and the least fortunate. The richest country in the world may not necessarily be the country with the highest standard of living. It appears that the element of distributive justice, whether it is taken seriously or it is simply ignored and considered unimportant, makes all the difference
Obviously there are two contrasting ways of looking at Globalization and the question arises: are the two views irreconcilable or is a synthesis of sort possible? While the developing world needs help from the developed world, does such help have to come at the price of pollution and unsustainable technologies under the title globalization? Does globalization have to imply that transporting goods and foodstuffs thousands of miles using valuable fossil fuels and creating massive pollution is a good thing? It appears that Globalization as envisaged by the visionless current world leaders and economic pundits measuring wealth and ignoring justice is likely to damage the developing world more than help it.
What the developing and the developed world need are initiatives that allow countries to be self-supporting and less dependent on the vagaries of world exchange rates, transport costs and international sanctions. However those promoting world trade and entrepreneurial capitalism do not want this, they want to the developing world be dependent on to their technologies and trade tie-ins. The problem is not free trade as such, but the unfair way with which it is implemented. It is apparent to any dispassionate observer that far from upholding the principles of democracy, the exigencies of commerce has served often to thwart them. All one has to do is recall that Britain’s colonial adventures in India, China and the East Indies were perpetuated by what was felt to be an inalienable right to force nations half way across the world to trade with them on their own terms.
Some have suggest that socialism is the solution, but socialism is often seen historically tied to the ideology of communism, adhered to by China’s ruling party, and this despite the fact that it is practiced in genuinely democratic countries in Scandinavia as well as in most industrialized democratic countries of the world which have social services that can only be characterized as socialistic, including the US which has social programs such as Social Security, Welfare benefits, Unemployment benefits, Medicare, Medicaid etc.
The Chinese are out to prove that democracy is not necessary for material prosperity; it is mere frosting on the cake, never mind Marx’s injunction that power ought to always proceed from the people, that is to say, from the bottom up and not from the top down. Hence ideological cultural battles invariably and regularly ensue and as it can be expected they become not part of the solutions but part of the social problems of our global village.
In point of fact, the battle between capitalism and anti-globalization, socialism, communism and all the other -ism’s one can think of is quite pointless – none of these ideologies stand up in extremis. A harmonious balance between regulation and freedom in the markets seems to be the only way forward to benefit all with at least a minimum of egalitarianism and distributive justice while preserving and enhancing freedom and democracy.
There is one glaring example that can be brought to bear to better illustrate the unfair business practices of the developed world toward the developing one. Both Britain and the US make strenuous efforts to sell cigarettes to poor countries. They give no health warnings against smoking as they do by law in their own countries. One can easily imagine how the precarious health services of these developing countries are going to cope in 20 year time with all the smoking related diseases we in the West are imposing upon them. I suppose that at that point in time the rapacious entrepreneurs of our brave new world will get busy selling them expensive medicines manufactured and developed in the West.
The major issue with globalization seems to be that corporate chairmen have power without representation. One of them is all set to become the next US Secretary of State. If we were to think of consumerism as a new political idea, corporate chairmen are the politicians, advertisements are the party broadcasts or propaganda, and the products are the manifesto. The result as advertised is happiness, fulfillment and wealth for everyone concerned. Donald Trump has promised as much to the ignorant and gullible and many are now waiting for the check in the mail. Good luck!
This analysis points to the fact that in effect we live in a semblance of democracy but in reality we live in a deterministic universe wherein we have been reduced to consuming automatons and our personhood and our very humanity has been robbed. It is now impossible to vote a corporation out of power. There is something fundamentally wrong in this situation. Branding globalization protesters as “anarchists” playing at revolution, as the media tends to do, will not lead to any solution either. Schumacher made similar points in the above mentioned book.
In this article I have simply outlined the problematic of Globalization as presented by those on opposite sides of its analysis. Those readers who may wish to further deepen their knowledge and even attempt a solution to the conundrum would be well advised to peruse a seminal and influential article by Steven Weber, Naazneer Barma, Mathew Kroenig and Ely Ratner titled “How Globalization Went Bad” which appeared in Foreign Policy of Jan/Feb 2007.
In conclusion let me say this on the present perplexing and ambiguous age of globalization, the era of the so called interrelated “global village” with its Facebook and Twitter and the Internet: it is both the best of times and the worst of times. The outcome, I suppose, will depend on how well we can hold together in our mind those two contrasting notions and wrap them around our minds as a paradox. I sincerely doubt that logical positivists and assorted entrepreneurs will be of much help here, but I would suggest that the novels of a Dickens or a Dostoyevsky, not to speak of sages and philosophers, may provide some hints on how best to bridge the chasm.
Is Your Neighborhood Store Safe? Amazon and Store Closings
Amazon has reached the far corners of the earth… and the highest elevations. Delivery men venture 11,562 feet up in the Himalayas to leave a package. While the company may serve a useful purpose in remote regions, its phenomenal growth also reveals that no town is immune from its less desirable consequences. The online retailer’s omnipresence has been all too apparent in Chicago, New York, and London in recent months, where stores have been closing in droves.
Treasure Island Foods of Chicago, a family-owned business started by Christ Kamberos in 1963, announced at the end of September that after 55 years it was closing all remaining stores in just two weeks. Now, the lights are out and the shadows empty shelves are all that remain, with the scent of fresh sourdough and gyros cooking on the spit only in shoppers’ reminiscences as they walk by the darkened windows.
Julia Child once described Treasure Island as “America’s Most European Supermarket.” In my memory, it was unforgettable. The stores always had treasure troves for every season, from delicious green picholine olives from France, to liver pâté and English Blue Stilton at Christmas, and of course, Marmite. Not to mention exotic cookies and chocolates from all over the world: marzipan and chocolate from Switzerland and Austria, shortbread from Scotland, and crisp butter wafers from the Netherlands are a few examples. It was a haven for special gifts during the holidays.
Treasure Island was not alone in the struggle to survive amidst food delivery apps and Amazon. Not only were customers buying goods online, but Amazon was also shifting into the grocery market by taking over Whole Foods. Not surprisingly, Chicago’s other local grocery chain Dominick’s closed in 2014. The city lost one of its most beloved bakeries too in 2017 when the Swedish Bakery closed after 88 years in business. Gone were the days of mouth-watering rum balls, Princess Torte laden with green marzipan, and toska cake. In its final days an estimated 500 customers per day flocked in to have one last tasty treat.
Purchasing items online might be convenient but the trend has serious costs for many industries, not only food. Retail has been hit hard. Sears recently filed for bankruptcy and is closing 142 stores. So did Toys R Us, shuttering its outlets last summer. Luxury goods retailer Henri Bendel announced in September that its stores will be closing too, after 123 years.
What’s more the change is not just in the United States. In the UK, Marks & Spencer plans to close 100 stores by 2022. Debenhams and House of Fraser in London are also in trouble. In March of 2018, Sweden’s H & M reported the lowest first quarter profits in more than a decade, down 62%. When large international stores are being squeezed, one can understand how local shops are struggling to keep afloat. A recent Atlantic article observes that Manhattan is becoming a “rich ghost town.” So many store fronts once filled with interesting items are now empty, a trend that the author predicts will move to other cities. Will the choices for future shoppers be restricted to chain stores and dark unrented windows? Local small retailers unable to afford high rents are gradually being nudged out of existence. They need help.
Could Local Currencies Save Our Neighborhood Stores?
Switzerland has had the WIR since 1934 and Ithaca, New York introduced its own currency known as Ithaca Hours in 1991. Ithaca Hours started out with 90 individuals who were willing to accept the currency as a payment for their work, and expanded to become one of the largest local currency systems in the U.S. Ithaca’s example was an inspiration for municipal systems in Madison, Wisconsin, and Corvallis, Oregon.
The UK also has several local currencies including the Bristol Pound. The former Mayor of Bristol accepted his entire salary in Bristol Pounds, and more than 800 businesses accept the local currency.
Once local currencies are in circulation, consumers can continue using their national currency to purchase from large retailers and from online giants like Amazon. Their local currency, though, is typically used at local businesses.
As an example, were a Chicago currency implemented, consumers might use their U.S. dollars to purchase goods online but would use their Chicago currency to buy locally. Legislators and communities could thus lend a helping hand to local gems that remain in our towns. Lutz Cafe and Pastry Shop, for instance, established in 1948, is unique to Chicago, and creates some of the most delicious cakes in the world.
By 2003, there were over 1,000 local currencies in North America and Europe. Yet this is a mere fraction of the total number of cities. If local currencies expanded to a majority of towns, perhaps our beloved neighborhood stores would be able to survive the online onslaught.
The Benefits of Preserving Local Shops
Consumers lose a service every time a small shop shuts down. A local paint store, for instance, can provide advice on what paint to use for a particular purpose, how to use it, etc. Nowadays, in many towns, these stores have closed. Consumers’ options are limited to buying online without input from an expert, or from a large national chain, where they will be lucky to find advice comparable to that from a specialized store. The same holds true for many kinds of home repair.
Then there is the charm of familiar faces at the corner store. Growing up near Treasure Island as a child, I could scarcely forget the cherry-cheeked cherub-like server at the deli counter. After noticing this eight-year-old’s tendency to gorge on free olive samples once a week, he would always laugh heartily with those chubby cheeks and remark with a chuckle that I would end up eating all the olives before reaching the check out line. Ordering specialty olives online is just not the same. There may be no checkout line, but also no one to talk or joke with. The same is true for the automated Amazon Go stores. The nice deli server today is out of a job after decades of service.
Another hidden cost of online purchases is environmental. Aside from fossil fuel emissions, delivery of a parcel requires packaging, and often bubble wrap, made of low-density polyethylene, a form of plastic that comprises 20% of global plastic pollution. Reusable bags and a neighborhood store within walking distance are clearly better for the environment.
Amazon’s reach extends to places like Leh, India, high in the snow-covered Himalayas, where many of its goods may not be available in town. And one can appreciate and understand the value of online purchases in such rural communities. In fact that was exactly the original purpose of Sears with its iconic catalogue.
Yet in cities where one can readily buy the same items in stores nearby, we have to try to refrain from the convenience of one-click shopping. The more we purchase online items, the more we pollute the environment and kill local stores. Without small businesses, cities will eventually become homogenized with block after block of chain retailers, or dark empty windows, as has started to happen in Manhattan. The character of a quaint town or a trendy metropolis becomes obsolete.
Gone will be the unique gift shops and the luxury tailor. When the British high street becomes indistinguishable from U.S. ghost towns and when the only place to eat is a chain burger joint, the fun of traveling and the adventure of new places will be lost forever. The vibrant world of new flavors and experiences will be no more.
So please think twice before clicking an online purchase. You may be signing your local store’s death warrant.
Author’s note: this piece first appeared in CounterPunch.org
Azerbaijan: Just-in-time support for the economy
Over the last two decades, oil has been the defining factor for Azerbaijan; not only for its economic growth but also for its development. During the first ten years of the millennium, Azerbaijan experienced an explosion in wealth. As oil GDP, comprising half of the sectoral share of the economy, grew by an average of 21 percent per year, fueled by global upsurge of oil prices and increased production. Total GDP grew more than tenfold: from US$6 bn to US$66 bn. This was accompanied by rapid decline in poverty, from 49.6% to 7.6%, increase in real wages, and middle-class growth.
However, after the decline in global oil prices in 2014, nearly by half, the reduction of oil revenue caused a domino effect in the economy. The double devaluation of the Azerbaijani manat in 2015 erased half of the manat’s value against US dollar. and subsequent fiscal adjustment together with ongoing banking sector distress led to a 3.8% contraction in GDP (2016). This was accompanied with the rising of traditionally low levels of government debt (from 8.5% in 2014 to 22% in early 2018) primarily due to devaluation of manat.
On December sixth, 2016, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has signed a decree approving the “Strategic roadmaps for the national economy and main economic sectors.” The decree for reforms spanned across 11 sectors, from tourism to agriculture, and aimed to decrease the over-reliance to the oil and gas sector.
Azerbaijan – World Bank Partnership
Under very tight deadlines, Azerbaijani ministry of finance started working on a roadmap, that would reform the economy which had been impaired by a number of negative shocks such as lower oil prices, weak regional growth, currency devaluations in Azerbaijan’s main trading partners, and a contraction in hydrocarbon production. As a long-term partner of the World Bank Group (WBG), they reached out for support in developing a public finance strategy for the medium term at the beginning of 2016. To be able to broach such a broad project, different teams within WBG worked together closely to provide just-in-time support and to cover various facets of the macro-fiscal framework. Government Debt and Risk Management (GDRM) Program, a World Bank Treasury initiative targeting middle income countries funded by countries funded by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) worked on the debt management portion of the issue. The Macroeconomics, Trade and Investment Global Practice advised on macroeconomic and fiscal framework and debt sustainability analysis.
Providing a macro-fiscal outlook, analyzing debt sustainability and proposing debt management reforms
The ministry of finance and WBG joint teams had a thorough review of the macro-fiscal and borrowing conditions and honed in three interlinked issues:
- The need for sustainable financing: While the level of direct debt was expected to remain modest, the sharp increase in the issuance of public guarantees would lead the public and publicly-guaranteed (PPG) debt trajectory to be higher in the next five years.
- Fiscal Rules: Azerbaijan was exploring fiscal rules involving the use of the country’s oil assets, based on recommendations from the IMF.
- The country was facing high exchange-rate and interest-rate risks, due to 98% of the central government debt being in foreign currency and two thirds in variable interest rates.
With that in mind, the teams tested different borrowing strategies to cover the 2017-2021 period under baseline and different shock scenarios, analyzing debt sustainability, and the composition of the public debt portfolio weighing it against the national risk tolerance. They also recommended several measures to better enable the debt management operations: revising and submitting the Debt Management Law to parliament; improving the reporting system; improving the coordination between the ministry of finance; the central bank and the Sovereign Oil Fund; developing a credit risk assessment capacity in the ministry and improving the IT system, and eventually looking at developing a domestic debt market.
Azerbaijan develops the public finance strategy
In December 2017 Azerbaijan ministry of finance shared the debt management strategy, with the President’s office. The proposed strategy comprised a macroeconomic policy framework, a borrowing plan, and associated institutional and legal reforms. In August 2018, President Aliyev enacted and published the “Medium to long term debt management strategy for Azerbaijan Republic’s public debt”. The strategy outlines the main directions of the government borrowing during 2018-2025 based on sound analysis. It puts a limit of 30% of GDP for the public debt in the medium term, with a moderation to 20% of GDP by 2025. The authorities also envisage gradual rise in domestic debt, to develop the local currency government bond market. To reflect the changing macroeconomic outlook and financial conditions, the strategy document will be updated every two years.
“As World Bank, our mission is ending extreme poverty and building shared prosperity,” said Elena Bondarenko, the Macroeconomics and Fiscal Management team member. “It is our privilege to provide just-in-time support to our member countries when they most need it. Especially if we can help build resilience to the economy before further shocks cause major damage.”. “The work doesn’t stop here,” said GDRM Program Task Team Leader Cigdem Aslan. “The GDRM Program will continue its support through the implementation phase of the recommendation and help build capacity for the development of the domestic market for government securities.”
Knowledge economy and Human Capital: What is the impact of social investment paradigm on employment?
Social policy advocates claim the development of the European welfare state model on three phases as follows: traditional welfare state until 1970s; neo-liberal welfare state until the mid-1990s and finally social investment state model afterwards of the mid-1990s. At the first time, on the European Union level, to bring the social investment policy to the political agendas after the 1990s economic hardship, the European Council adopted the Lisbon Strategy in 2000. In fact, the Lisbon Strategy was successful with respect to the employment. In the latter, the social investment state paradigm has fostered once more in the Europe with the “Social Investment Package: Towards Social Investment for Growth and Cohesion” in 2013 by the European Commission that targeted to “prepare” individuals, families and societies for the competitive knowledge economy by investing in human capital from an early childhood together with increase female participation in the workforce.
Generally, social investment idea emerged as a link between social insurance and activation in employment policies and upgrading human capital. Hemerijck (2014) defined the concept of the social investment state to facilitate the “flow” of labour market transitions, raising the quality of human capital “stock” and upkeeping strong minimum income guarantee as social protection and economic stabilization “buffers”. The underlying idea of the social investment strategy has been argued to modernize the traditional welfare states and guarantee their sustainability in line with the response to the “new social risks” such as skill erosion, flexible market, insufficient social insurance and job insecurity.
Economic aim of social investment paradigm is divided into two types by Ahn& Kim (2014),in the following way:The social democratic approach based on the example of the Nordic countries and the liberal approach of the Anglo-American countries. To make the distinguish more clear, the social democratic approach aims to increase the employment for all working classes and strength human capital. On the other hand, liberal approach applies selective strategy which is more workfare policy oriented and covers vulnerable class. In this regard, cross country analyses show that the Scandinavian countries have been the forerunners of social investment and perform the childcare and vulnerable group targeted policies at their best.
Studies have viewed the social investment state approach as a new form of the welfare state and reshaped social policy objectives that addressed to promote labour market participation for a sustainable employment rather than simply to fight against unemployment. Since the beginning, the social investment strategy directs to protect individuals from social and economic threats by investing in human capital through labour market trainings, female (family – career) and child care policies, provision of universal access to education from the childhood. On doing so, the social investment as a long term strategy aims to reduce the risk of future neediness in contrast to the traditional benefit oriented welfare state that focuses on short term mitigation of risks. Or to put it differently, the social investment “prepares” children and families against to economic and social challenges rather than “repair” their positions in such problems later. In short, social investment policies are characterized as a predictor rather than a recoverer. Mainstream social investment argument is that redesigned welfare state model more focuses on work and care reconciliation policy as strengthening parental employment in the labour market is an important factor to exit poverty and support families especially mothers. On the other hand, human capital measures such as education and trainings improve life course employability, particularly for market outsiders as well as human investment guarantees better job security in today`s more flexible job market.
In reality, an economic development and employment is friendly to each other. Thus, income comes from the market through employment as a paid employment is foundation of household welfare. Likewise, a welfare is purchased in the markets. Arguably, unemployment leads to the poverty and social exclusion in the societies. Hereby, work based policy regarded as a sustainable anti-poverty strategy. The welfare states in order to guarantee households` net income and well-being in the post industrialized labour market have turned to invest in preventive measures such as human capital. The human capital (cognitive development and educational attainments) is a must for the dynamic and competitive knowledge economy. Educational expenditures yield on a dividend because they may/make citizens more productive but we need to push the logic much further (Andersen, 2002). In fact, social investment state by being more female and child care policy oriented predicts an importance of the education for a well-being of society and more developed economy in the future. Thus, employment policies need to link with family policies to be more effective in response to the unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. Social investment state as a new shape of the active employment policies invests in education particularly of women and children to prevent unemployment and poverty from the beginning. One hand, addresses to the ageing problem of European societies social investment strategies aim to mobilize motherhood with an employment. On the other hand, by promoting family polices, social investment strategy directs to reduce child poverty and safeguard child welfare in the line with better social and economic conditions of childhood.
What is certain that, social investment state implies human capital strategy. To increase an employment and long term productivity of individuals, social investment policies interchanged with the provision of social insurance. In other words, the social service policies took over the place of the cash benefit oriented policies. It is probably fair to say, the human capital strategies link social investment policies to employment outcomes. Simply, to see the correlation between the social investment paradigm and employment, human capital policy measures (education and trainings) are needed to be checked as a direct labour market value. Since they are the most effective activation measures in skill investment to respond to the knowledge economy, more educated and skilled manpower boosts the labour supply in turn results income equality which is a traditional goal of the social democracy. In this context, social investment state is addressed to reach high quality employment by its human investment orientation. As Andersen, (2002) argues, “We no longer live in a world in which low-skilled workers can support the entire family. The basic requisite for a good life is increasingly strong cognitive skills and professional qualifications”.
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