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The policy of artificial scarcity of currency

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Herodotus tells us that it was Croesus, King of Lydia, the land from which, according to Livy, the Etruscans came, who invented the minting of coins – hence currency – by impressing his seal on the electrum, a natural alloy of silver and gold. According to ancient history, it was a temporary stopgap.

The alloy was bound to be depleted sooner or later and much of the material extracted and sealed would be hoarded, as always happens with “good money”, whereas the one which does not appreciate over time is exchanged at high speed with goods and services.

Furthermore the scarcer the currency, the greater the need for credit for equal goods and services available.

Currently, however, we are increasingly faced with policies which tend to avoid the use of money as such, or to limit it, because of the danger of favouring the “money laundering” of proceeds from organized crime, corruption or many illegal activities.

From the logical viewpoint, these regulations closely remind us of some city police regulations of the nineteenth century, which banned for inns and taverns the possession and use of sharp knives.

If we confuse the means with the use and, in the case of money, if we eliminate exactly the typical feature of currency, as from Croesus onwards, namely its being universally valid in its legal tender, the economy will really cease to exist.

Either we hoard everything or we spend everything – hence without having any idea of the value/price ratio.

Also the European Central Bank (ECB), which never misses a novelty, will stop printing the 500-euro banknotes in 2018 which, however, will remain legal tender and will mandatorily be exchangeable at the issuing bank’s counters.

Therefore currency exchanges are no longer free, because each transaction shall be controlled by a specific bank passage and flow which, according to the naive drafters of these laws against money, should reassure on trade lawfulness.

A bank passage and flow which may also be a credit, so that the bank now succeeds in gaining money from what previously was one of its formal obligations.

Furthermore, who will guarantee us that banks are not involved in dirty money flows?

With the end of philosophy, also rationality applied to people’s practical life comes to an end.

These are the thoughts springing to our mind when we read about the demonetization of the Indian economy adopted – approximately fifty days ago – by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

As stated by the Indian law, by December 31, 2016 all 500-rupee (7.5 euro) and 1,000-rupee banknotes – the two average denominations of Indian currency – shall be forcibly returned to the bank, from which the equivalent of the money deposited can be withdrawn in smaller, or even larger denominations, such as 2,000 rupees or more.

The government’s aim was to stamp out corruption, the informal economy and tax evasion.

The problem is that the illegal economy or, anyway, “underground” or informal economy, is the only one on which the huge masses of poor Indians can live.

If we implement some form of tax checks or legal scrutiny for the many poor people’s intermediation and brokerage activities, they would cease all of a sudden, as if by magic.

Hence how could poor people survive? Can we imagine a tea seller, on the streets of Mumbai, issuing a “regular receipt”?

How much would the huge check apparatus cost?

Moreover, India has more than one billion poor people – surveyed inductively – not to mention usury in rural areas, generated exactly by the intermediation and brokerage between labour and land ownership – real estate usury continually pushing recently-created masses of rural underproletariat to megacities.

India’s per capita GDP is 1,718 US dollars per year.

China’s current one is triple, albeit with a ratio between urban and rural areas – the mainstay of the creation of capitalism and the crisis of the various forms of Communism – which is, to some extents, similar to the Indian one, although with a different investment policy in agriculture.

The Indians who earn incomes comparable to those in the First World countries are just 320 million people, while only twenty million families of the Indian Federation own savings over one million euro.

In India the one billion poor and very poor people earn 3 dollars a day at the maximum.

50% of Indian children are rickety. Any kind of diseases are widespread and hence the poor people’s average age decreases – the only relief from their earthly misery.

How can we imagine all these masses entering a bank and making it gain money with their exchanges, so as to increase money collection and later favour the opening of credit to the best clients, as usual?

Moreover, if over a billion people use, or think they use, ATM, POS and credit cards, taxes and deductions on transactions will increase and, of course, it will be equally impossible to trace illegal money.

It is as if the Indian government regularizes exactly one of the primary mechanisms for money laundering, namely smurfing, which means using runners to perform multiple financial transactions to avoid the currency reporting requirements. This technique involves the use of many individuals (the “smurfs”) who exchange illicit funds (in smaller, less conspicuous amounts) for highly liquid items such as traveller cheques, bank drafts, or deposited directly into savings accounts.

Obviously the results of the Indian regulations on forced demonetization have materialized almost immediately and are before us to be seen.

The slow withdrawal of new cash has quickly blocked the whole Indian economy, both the small-scale legal one and the huge informal economy.

Food prices have plummeted by 50%.

Because poor people have no longer money to buy the already scarce food.

All this has happened without even imagining the effects of this price collapse on rural incomes.

In some areas producing rice and other foodstuffs, after realizing that sale prices did not even cover half of the transport costs, farmers destroyed crops throwing them in the streets, with the immediate effect of a massive and deadly famine.

Also handicrafts, which were part and parcel of the informal economy, such as retail trade, are disappearing in India.

Obviously the banks are increasingly slow in providing the equivalent of the banknotes returned. They earn on deposits, invest and lend the money collected to primary clients.

Hence in India barter is back again – the only way people know to replace the ”universal equivalent”, namely currency.

This implies, however, further fragmentation of the Indian society by   castes, ethnic groups, geographical areas and family clans.

Even exports, in which India stood out, are suffering the mad crisis of moralistic demonetization.

In general terms, the most modern companies report a 25% drop in sales and we cannot imagine how, in this context, India can have normal economic relations with foreign countries.

Obviously criminal organizations, the only ones which can make money with these beautiful monetary ideas, have quickly stepped in by offering a 20% discount for exchanging old banknotes. Hence the law of unintended economic consequences enables criminals and Mafias to launder money, which was previously much more difficult.

Even Narendra Modi, however, has his own theorist that, this time, is not a Western technocrat, but Anil Bokil, the founder of a financial and political movement known as Artakranti, namely “monetary revolution.”

According to this beautiful mind, who is in no way inferior to our third-rate economists, the bulk of illegal capital is exactly the one which raises the prices of vital goods (real estate, in particular), while the money earned honestly – that is quickly noticed – would lose value when the “bad money” grows.

It would take Vilfredo Pareto’s poison pen to mock these ideologies, but it is worth recalling that many of our graduates and economists are not far from similar theories.

With a view to corroborating his ideas, Anil Bokil, states that if you demonetizes, “illegal” wealth is self-destroyed, while poor people’s money, namely the “good money”, would appreciate.

Even Bokil, however, has his own pocket-size Tobin Tax: if demonetization is complete and the “black money” is driven away, we could abolish all taxes, except for a 1% “Tobin Tax” on each transaction.

Meanwhile, the poor wretched Indians’ banks accounts are blocked for lack of cash and the new banknotes are so badly printed that they can be easily reproduced, thus leading us to predict great success for “black money”.

And inflation throughout India worse than Weimar’s.

Faced with this fever of economic foolishness which is spreading across Asia, even Australia wants to get rid of the bad 100-Australian dollar banknote (equal to 70 euro approximately), which is responsible for all moral iniquities in the land of kangaroos.

In fact the word “kangaroo” comes from the Anglicisation of the kangaroo natives’ expression “I do not know” or “I do not understand”.

Here the logic is still wrong, such as the one of the Indian mystic monetarist, but has its own foolishly Western meaning.

In fact, if we eliminate a currency which serves mainly for private hoarding, market liquidity will increase immediately.

Not necessarily, but they think so anyway – they studied in some Ivy League universities and are exempted from using the logic and studying the classics.

However what should Australians use for hoarding their savings?

And if they do not hoard money, how could they pay loans, mortgages, taxes, utility bills, rents?

Shall they use coconuts? Or avocados? It is impossible because they are perishable products and, by eating them, their children would immediately become capitalists.

The fact is that banks and governments want to increase the households’ credit share, by abolishing their independent money reserves.

As has somehow happened with the great wage freeze since the euro introduction onwards.

Wages and salaries have decreased in real terms to the same extent as the share of consumer loans increased.

The privatization of wage increases with high percentages.

Hence If we do not think again to an economy which can work well also for the poor people, possibly with a small one-off tax to be paid every year, we will never get out of this cage full of crazy Hindus, monetarists, salon Keynesians and various ignorant people and doctrinarians with no idea of practical life.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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Economy

Is Your Neighborhood Store Safe? Amazon and Store Closings

Meena Miriam Yust

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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?

The answer may be introducing local currencies.  Studies have shown that municipal currencies stimulate the local economy.  They serve as shock absorbers and protect in times of recession.

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

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Economy

Azerbaijan: Just-in-time support for the economy

MD Staff

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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.”

World Bank

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Economy

Knowledge economy and Human Capital: What is the impact of social investment paradigm on employment?

Gunel Abdullayeva

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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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