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An inequality chasm is fracturing Europe, warns the OECD

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April in Berlin, Germany. A homeless man sat begging for euros or food in the entrance of an S-Bahn station.

April in Berlin, Germany. A homeless man sat begging for euros or food in the entrance of an S-Bahn station.

Deepening inequalities in income between the richer and poorer families, greater relative income poverty in recent years compared with earlier, a greater burden borne by children and young people than before because of their being relatively poor – these are some of the stark conclusions contained in the OECD briefing, ‘New Results from the OECD Income Distribution Database’.

This is the picture of Europe today (and of the non-European members of the OECD). “Looking at the 17 OECD countries for which data are available over a long time period, market income inequality increased by more over the last three years than what was observed in the previous 12 years,” observed the new briefing, which is sub-titled ‘Crisis squeezes income and puts pressure on inequality and poverty’.

Annual percentage changes in household market income between 2007 and 2010, by income component. Chart: OECD

Annual percentage changes in household market income between 2007 and 2010, by income component. Chart: OECD

The figures and data show that many of the countries recording the most dramatic increases in inequality are European countries which have been subjected to punitive austerity measures by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. The OECD report singles out Spain and Italy, where the income of “the poorest 10 percent was much lower in 2010 than in 2007”.

Five percent falls in income (per year) amongst the poorest 10 percent were also recorded in Greece, Ireland, Estonia, and Iceland. The only non-European nation with a comparable level of income decline was Mexico. The report also stated that over the same period, poor families in the United States, Italy, France, Austria and Sweden all recorded income losses in excess of the OECD average.

Indeed the ‘New Results’ briefing has showed that across OECD countries, real household disposable income stagnated. Likewise, the average income of the top 10% in 2010 was similar to that in 2007. Meanwhile, the income of the bottom 10% in 2010 was lower than that in 2007 by 2% per year. Out of the 33 countries where data are available, the top 10% has done better than the poorest 10% in 21 countries.

This is the OECD picture till 2010. Since then, recession has been the companion of inequality. With an average growth of -0.2 per cent in the first quarter (against -0.1 per cent in the EU as a whole) and hardly better prospects for the whole rest of the year (-0.7 per cent), according to Eurostat, the dreaded “double dip” has become a reality. The press attributes the result largely to the austerity policies.

Gini coefficient of household disposable income and gap between richest and poorest 10%, 2010: Chart: OECD

Gini coefficient of household disposable income and gap between richest and poorest 10%, 2010: Chart: OECD

“Eurozone sets bleak record of longest term in recession,” reported the Financial Times. The daily noted that “this latest dismal record came after unemployment hit 12.1 per cent in the bloc, its highest level,” and that this data “is likely to add to pressure on the European Central Bank to take further action after cutting interest rates this month, and to revise down its economic forecast predicting a recovery later in the year.”

Moreover, relative income poverty – the share of people having less income than half the national median income – affects around 11% of the population on average across OECD countries. Poverty rates range between 6% of the population in Denmark and the Czech Republic to between 18% and 21% in Chile, Turkey, Mexico and Israel. Over the two decades up to 2007, relative income poverty increased in most OECD countries, particularly in countries that had low levels of income poverty in the mid-1990s.

In Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, the income poverty rate increased by 2 percentage points or more. In Sweden, the poverty rate in 2010 (9%) was more than twice what it was in 1995 (4%). Relative poverty also increased in some countries, such as Australia, Japan, Turkey and Israel, with middle and high levels of poverty.

The OECD briefing has stated bluntly: “Households with children were hit hard during the crisis. Since 2007, child poverty increased in 16 OECD countries, with increases exceeding 2 points in Turkey, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia and Hungary.” The ‘New Results’ briefing added: “Since 2007, youth poverty increased considerably in 19 OECD countries. In Estonia, Spain and Turkey, an additional 5% of young adults fell into poverty between 2007 and 2010. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the increase was 4%, and in the Netherlands 3%.”

Annual percentage changes in household disposable income between 2007 and 2010, by income group. Chart: OECD

Annual percentage changes in household disposable income between 2007 and 2010, by income group. Chart: OECD

Between 2007 and 2010, average relative income poverty in the OECD countries rose from 12.8 to 13.4% among children and from 12.2 to 13.8% among youth. Meanwhile, relative income poverty fell from 15.1 to 12.5% among the elderly. This pattern confirms the trends described in previous OECD studies, with youth and children replacing the elderly as the group at greater risk of income poverty across the OECD countries.

These results only tell the beginning of the story about the consequences of austerity, growing unemployment, the burden on children and youth, and burden on immigrant wage labour. The OECD data describes the evolution of income inequality and relative poverty up to 2010. But “the economic recovery has been anaemic in a number of OECD countries and some have recently moved back into recession”, said the briefing.

Worse, since 2010, many people exhausted their rights to unemployment benefits. In such a situation, the briefing has warned, “the ability of the tax-benefit system to alleviate the high (and potentially increasing) levels of inequality and poverty of income from work and capital might be challenged”. These are unusually blunt words from the OECD and their use reflects the depth and persistence of the crisis of modern, reckless, destructive capitalism in Europe.

Across wintry Europe, the spectre of creeping poverty

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An Europe darkened. The ESDE 2012 has said that the large unemployment shocks experienced at the beginning of the crisis and the rising shares of the long-term unemployed point towards serious risks of long-term exclusion faced by a significant share of the population.

An Europe darkened. The ESDE 2012 has said that the large unemployment shocks experienced at the beginning of the crisis and the rising shares of the long-term unemployed point towards serious risks of long-term exclusion faced by a significant share of the population.

Five years of economic crisis and the return of recession has pushed unemployment in Europe to new peaks not seen for almost twenty years. Household incomes have declined and the risk of poverty or exclusion is on the rise, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe, according to the 2012 edition of the Employment and Social Developments in Europe Review.

This, the second edition of the Employment and Social Developments in Europe (ESDE), has been released by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. The 2012 Review builds on the integrated approach to employment and social analysis embarked upon in the first ESDE Review of 2011 which did very well to concentrate on cross-cutting themes covering employment, in-work poverty, wage polarisation and income inequalities.

In the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal and Romania the risk of entering into poverty among the population aged 16 to 64 is associated with few chances to get out again, meaning that individuals falling into poverty have limited chances to get back out of it in the following years. Among these countries, this situation is most worrying in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Greece, Malta, Portugal and to a certain extent Italy. Graphic: EU-ESDE 2012

In the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal and Romania the risk of entering into poverty among the population aged 16 to 64 is associated with few chances to get out again, meaning that individuals falling into poverty have limited chances to get back out of it in the following years. Among these countries, this situation is most worrying in Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Greece, Malta, Portugal and to a certain extent Italy. Graphic: EU-ESDE 2012

The ESDE 2012 has said that “impact of the crisis on the social situation has now become more acute as the initial protective effects of lower tax receipts and higher levels of spending on social benefits (so-called ‘automatic stabilisers’) have weakened”.

This means, the ESDE has added, that a new divide is emerging between countries that seem trapped in a downward spiral of falling output, fast rising unemployment and eroding disposable incomes and those that have so far shown good or at least some resilience. [The link to the full report [pdf 23 MB] is here.]

The situation has been described as “especially catastrophic in southern and eastern European countries” by the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI). Previously, only wars have devastated national economies so thoroughly in such a short time as have the austerity measures of the European Union, the ICFI has observed.

This scene, as if from another age of blithe consumption in Europe, is now more likely to be found (instead of in Berlin where I took the picture) in the metropolises of Asia

This scene, as if from another age of blithe consumption in Europe, is now more likely to be found (instead of in Berlin where I took the picture) in the metropolises of Asia

Indeed the ESDE findings are a deep shade of gloom. The average EU unemployment rate climbed to almost 11%. The report confirms a new pattern of divergence, which is most striking between the North and the South of the eurozone. The unemployment rate gap between these two areas was 3.5 points in 2000, fell to zero in 2007 but then has widened fast to 7.5 points in 2011.

Despite the social catastrophe they have provoked with their austerity policies, European governments are intent on tightening the fiscal screws. They are no longer limiting themselves to the periphery of the euro zone, but are ever more ferociously attacking the working class in the core countries. In Greece and Spain, one in four is officially unemployed, and over half of all young people have no work.

Average household income has fallen by 17 percent in Greece over the past three years and by 8 percent in Spain. The health care, pension and social security systems face total collapse. And yet new, draconian austerity plans have been drawn up for Italy, France and Germany. In Britain, where almost a quarter of the population already lives in poverty, the Cameron government is systematically dismantling the National Health System, public education and social welfare.

A two-speed Europe, chronic unemployment and the Euro experiment

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Illustration: Presseurop / Chinese illustrator and cartoonist Luo Jie (William Luo) works for the Beijing English newspaper, China Daily.

There is worry in Europe about the euro, its ten-year-old currency, and about unemployment, which has stayed persistently high throughout 2011. The Euro press has reflected the worries and concerns of the salaried and the informal workers of Europe, and is now talking about whether there is already a ‘two-speed’ Europe. Presseurop has provided some insight:

In ‘Eurozone crisis – Will the EU end up like Yugoslavia?’ Serbian daily Politika remarks on the similarities with the years preceding the break-up of the federation founded by Tito. The Politika opinion said: “Seen from Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo, the economic and institutional crisis that has struck the European Union has a certain air of déjà-vu. Relatively speaking, the European Union (EU) is beginning in many ways to resemble Tito’s Yugoslavia. As At a time when the EU is attempting to reinforce centralised control of its periphery, its foundations are being threatened by excessive nationalism and accumulated incompatibilities between member states.”

The “democratic deficit” suggests yet another parallel, according to the Serbian paper: in the one-party system in Yugoslavia, leaders were not elected by universal suffrage, just like the highly placed civil servants that manage today’s EU – in spite of the fact that all of the members of the Union have multi-party systems. In both cases, the fear that the more populous states would have too much influence has prevented the introduction of the principle of ‘one citizen, one vote’.

The 'La Tribune' front page on a 'two-speed' Europe

Presseurop also invokes the ‘two-speed Europe’ meme in ‘Employment – A two-speed Europe’. Mentioning the front-page headline ‘Europe split in two by unemployment’ of La Tribune, Presseurop has quoted the paper’s reporting on the growing gap between Southern and Northern Europe: “The rate in Germany has declined to a level not seen since 1991 while soaring to new high in Spain, where it is now almost 23%.”

The Paris business daily continued: “This European dichotomy is first and foremost a reflection of the state of the continent’s economies. While some countries have sunk into recession (Greece, Portugal, Spain), others have succeeded in maintaining growth, albeit modest.” Citing reforms undertaken before the crisis as one of the reasons for the healthier economies in the North, The Financial Times remarked that changes to labour legislation in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany “have helped make the workers of these countries internationally competitive – a factor which is sorely lacking in the eurozone periphery”. Typically arrogant and dismissive opinionating from the British paper, which is notorious for kowtowing shamelessly before industry and American foreign policy dictates.

The Berlin leftish newspaper Tageszeitung (Taz) takes issue with this argument, and notes that the reforms undertaken by Berlin have not created new jobs, but simply redistributed them to a larger number of workers – a process that has resulted in the creation of a new low-pay sector. Reporting that 8.4 million Germans are ‘under-employed’, the Taz recalls that economic inequality in Germany has grown more rapidly than in other industrialised countries. Finally, the Berlin newspaper notes that to ‘celebrate’ the record of 41 million wage earners, the German government has spent 330,000 euros on a poster campaign ‘Danke Deutschland – Wirtschaft. Wachstum. Wohlstand.’ [“Thank you Germany – Economy. Growth. Prosperity”].

Taz is close to the truth, quite the opposite of what the feckless Financial Times, a speechwriter for predatory capitalism, would have us believe. Almost one in four people in the European Union was threatened with poverty or social deprivation in 2010. This is the conclusion of an official report by the European Commission presented in December. According to the report, 115 million people, or 23 percent of the EU population, were designated as poor or socially deprived. The main causes are unemployment, old age and low wages, with more than 8 percent of all employees in Europe now belonging to the “working poor”.

Single parents, immigrants and young people are worst affected. Among young people, unemployment is more than twice as high as among adults. Some 21.4 percent of all young people in the EU had no work in September 2011. Spain leads all other EU countries with a youth unemployment rate of 48 percent. In Greece, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia youth unemployment is between 25 percent and 45 percent.

In countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, youth unemployment rates are lower only because training takes longer and many unemployed young people are ‘parked’ in all sorts of schemes that exclude them from the official statistics – so much for the crafty and misleading ‘Danke Deutschland’ campaign. But even in these countries the chance of getting a decent-paying job is diminishing. Some 50 percent of all new employment contracts in the EU are temporary work contracts. For workers aged 20 to 24, the proportion is 60 percent.

Written by makanaka

January 8, 2012 at 14:47

Of German wurst, French fries and an IMF bullet

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A closed chips stall called 'La Reine des Fritures' ('The Queen of French Fries') in French Flanders. Photo: Stephan Vanfleteren / Panos Pictures

Le Monde Diplomatique, that fearless critic of globalisation and the tyranny of the multilateral lending institutions, has said in its 2011 December issue that in November, the Franco-German directorate of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fundthe ‘troika’ — were furious when the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, announced plans to hold a referendum.

Absolute oligarchs dislike referendums because the idea has a great deal to do with consultation – not a favourite subject for the IMF in the 67 years it has claimed to shape the global economy. That is why, summoned to Cannes for an interview during a summit that his country was too small to attend, kept waiting, and publicly upbraided by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (who were responsible for exacerbating the crisis), Papandreou was forced to abandon the plan for a referendum and resign. His successor, a former vice-president of the ECB, promptly decided to include in the Athens government a far-right organisation banned since the Greek colonels lost power in 1974.

In ‘Europe in crisis, rule by troika’, Serge Halimi has written in LMD that the European project was supposed to secure prosperity, strengthen democracy in states formerly ruled by juntas (Greece, Spain, Portugal), and defuse “nationalism as a source of war”. But it is having the opposite effect, with drastic cuts, puppet governments at the call of the brokers, and renewed strife between nations. Everything, in short, that the IMF and the World Bank have pursued since 1944 mostly successfully in Asia, Africa and South America.

Former bankers Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti have taken over in Athens and Rome, exploiting the threat of bankruptcy and the fear of chaos. They are not apolitical technicians but men of the right, members of the Trilateral Commission that blamed western societies for being too democratic. “Having crushed Greece and Italy, the EU and the IMF have now set their sights on Hungary and Spain,” Halimi has written, and it is a grim warning.

A ferris wheel runs in the centre of Brussels next to an old building advertising Martini and Zanussi. Photo: Stephan Vanfleteren / Panos Pictures

Red Pepper has more on the ways and means of the IMF.

“It’s stripped millions of people of their livelihoods, but the global economic crisis has brought one institution back from the dead: the International Monetary Fund. Two years ago, the IMF looked to be on its last legs. It had got to the stage where nobody wanted to borrow its money. Many developing countries started accumulating reserves to avoid ever having to go to the IMF loan shark. Developed countries in trouble would go just about anywhere – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – to avoid the IMF.”

Then came the meltdown. “The IMF failed to see it coming – pretty damning for a body supposed to oversee global financial stability – but bankrupt countries suddenly had no choice but to come begging.” Exactly the point – the IMF did see it coming because this is what its prescriptions for the previous decade were aimed at in the first place. In April last year, the G20 pumped the organisation with £330 billion of new funds. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called the decision ‘black humour’, saying it would ‘rub salt in the wound’ of countries hit by a crisis they did not create. The IMF is now re-armed and doubly dangerous, with large new areas in what was formerly the Eurozone to subjugate.

Not quietly by any means. After all, the Greeks are Greeks first and then, perhaps, Europeans. Ditto with the Italians, Portuguese, Hungarians, Spaniards and Latvians. It is looking rather like the Germans and the French (elite, mind you, not the labour, the unemployed, the migrants and the armies of informal workers struggling on 25 euros a day) are the last Europeans left.

But this is why major protests have been convulsing Greece throughout the autumn with strikes, and occupations of the main squares in many towns. Civil servants blockaded their ministries, preventing ministers from accessing their departments in September and October. The early November surprise announcement of a popular referendum in Greece on the EU-IMF loan terms and conditions would have marked the first time an IMF lending package was subjected to a test of popular ownership. In the end the political pressure heaped on the Greek prime minister by other European countries, the Greek political opposition and factions from within his own government forced him to back down and resign as prime minister.

After the collapse of the Greek government, Elena Papadopoulou of the Athens-based Nicos Poulantzas Institute said: “Despite the proclaimed enthusiasm, there is no realistic reason to believe that the new coalition government – with the participation of the extreme right – will follow anything other than the socially destructive policies applied according to IMF recipes with the agreement of the European elites.”

World crop estimates 2011 November – more wheat, China corn, less rice

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The November data and major crop summaries from the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE, US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service) are out today. Here are the highlights:

Wheat – Global wheat supplies for 2011-12 are projected 2.6 million tons higher mostly reflecting higher production in Kazakhstan and EU-27. Kazakhstan production is raised 2.0 million tons as an extended harvest period capped off a nearly ideal growing season, confirmed by the latest government reports. EU-27 production is raised 1.2 million tons with further upward revisions for France and Spain and higher reported production in the United Kingdom and Czech Republic. Partly offsetting these increases is a 0.5-million-ton reduction for Argentina and 0.3-million-ton reductions for both Algeria and Ethiopia.

World wheat trade is raised for 2011-12 with higher expected imports for China, a number of African countries, including Morocco and Algeria, as well as for Brazil and several FSU-12 countries neighboring Kazakhstan. Partly offsetting is a reduction in projected imports for South Korea where more corn feeding is expected. Exports are raised 1.0 million tons each for EU-27 and Russia reflecting larger supplies in EU-27 and the continued heavy pace of shipments from Russia.

Global wheat consumption for 2011-12 is raised 2.4 million tons with increased feeding expected for Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Serbia. Larger crops in Kazakhstan and Serbia support more wheat feeding. Recent rains in southern Brazil have reduced wheat quality in some areas raising the potential for more feeding. Higher consumption is also expected for EU-27, Ethiopia, Kenya, and several smaller FSU-12 countries. Global ending stocks are projected 0.2 million tons higher. Rising stocks in Kazakhstan, China, and Morocco are partly offset by reductions in major exporting countries including Russia, Argentina, and EU-27.

You can get the WASDE 2011 November outlook here [pdf] and the 2011 November Excel file is here [xls]. Current and historical WASDE data are here.

Coarse grain – Global coarse grain supplies for 2011-12 are projected slightly lower with reduced U.S. corn production and lower EU-27 rye production more than offsetting higher Argentina sorghum production, higher EU-27 corn, barley, oats production, and higher Kazakhstan barley production. Corn production is lowered for a number of countries with the biggest reduction for Mexico where production is lowered 3.5 million tons. A late start to the summer rainy season and an early September freeze in parts of the southern plateau corn belt reduced yields for Mexico’s summer crop. Lower expected area for the winter crop, which will be planted in November and December, also reduces 2011-12 corn production prospects. Reservoir levels are well below those necessary to sustain a normal seasonal draw down in the northwestern corn areas which normally account for 70 to 80 percent of Mexico’s winter corn crop.

Increases in 2011-12 corn production for a number of countries partly offset reductions in Mexico, the United States, and Serbia. Corn production is raised 2.5 million tons for China with increases in both area and yields in line with the latest indications from the China National Grain and Oils Information Center. EU-27 corn production is raised 1.9 million tons mostly reflecting higher reported output in France, Romania, and Austria. Argentina production is raised 1.5 million tons with higher expected area. FSU-12 production is raised 0.7 million tons with higher reported yields in Belarus and Russia. There are also a number of production changes this month to corn and sorghum production in Sub-Saharan Africa which reduce coarse grain production for the region.

World coarse grain trade for 2011-12 is raised with increased global imports and exports of barley and corn. Barley imports are raised for Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan with exports increased for EU-27 and Russia. Corn imports are increased for China, Mexico, and South Korea. Higher expected corn exports from Argentina and EU-27 support these increases. Higher sorghum exports from Argentina offset the reduction in expected U.S. sorghum shipments. Global corn consumption is mostly unchanged with higher industrial use and feeding in China and higher corn feeding in EU-27 and South Korea offsetting reductions in Mexico and the United States. Global corn ending stocks are projected 1.6 million tons lower with reductions in EU-27, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States outweighing increases for China and Argentina.

RiceGlobal 2011-12 rice supply and use are lowered from a month ago. World 2011-12 production is forecast at a record 461.0 million tons, down 0.4 million from last month due mainly to decreases for Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, which are partially offset by an increase for China. Thailand’s 2011-12 rice crop is lowered nearly a million tons as losses in the main-season crop from recent flooding are partially offset by an expected re-planting of some of the main season crop in the Northern Region along with an expected record dry-season crop. Flooding also lowered crop prospects in Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. China’s 2011-12 crop is raised 2.0 million tons to a record 141.0 million, due to an increase in harvested area. Harvested area is increased based on recent indications from the government of China. The increase in global consumption is due mostly to an increase for China. Global exports are lowered slightly due to reductions for Burma and Cambodia, which are partially offset by increases for Argentina and Brazil. Global ending stocks for 2011-12 are projected at 100.6 million tons, down 0.8 million from last month, but an increase of 2.6 million from the previous year.

The EU crisis pocket guide

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The Transnational Institute has produced a terrific pocket guide on the financial crisis in the European Union, called, not surprisingly, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’. It’s a very handy alternative to reading about 257,000 words of confusing and jargon-heavy tripe authoritative commentary written by hopelessly compromised economist-blokes commentators and observers of the financial scene.

‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ tells you, as straight as a punch to the chin, how a crisis made in Wall Street was made worse by EU policies, how it has enriched the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. It doesn’t stop at that – quite unlike the boring and largely clueless economist blokes who take great delight in pointing out a problem but have little to say about how to solve it, keeping the 99% in mind.

In keeping with the civilised socialist tendency therefore, ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ outlines some possible solutions that prioritise people and the environment above corporate profits.

You are well encouraged to download the booklet from these links:
Pocket guide: 12 page (PDF, 403KB) or Pocket guide: 8 page (PDF, 399KB)

What ‘The EU Crisis Pocket Guide’ contains: How a private debt crisis was turned into a public debt crisis and an excuse for austerity; The way the rich and bankers benefited while the vast majority lost out; The devastating social consequences of austerity; The European Union’s response to the crisis: more austerity, more privatisation, less democracy; Ten alternatives put forward by civil society groups to put people and the environment before corporate greed; Resources for further information.

I am much obliged to the peerless Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal for calling our attention to this absolute gem of a guidebook. Links, if you didn’t already know, promotes the exchange of information, experience of struggle, theoretical analysis and views of political strategy and tactics within the international left. You are well advised to read it regularly.

Here are some of the eye-openers from this Pocket Guide, things we suspected but which the dibbly-dobbly economist blokes and their corporate sponsors never admitted:

Much of the so-called debt crisis was caused not by states spending too much, but because they bailed out the banks and speculators. European Union government debt had actually fallen from 72% of GDP in 1999 to 67% in 2007. It rose rapidly after they bailed out the banks in 2008. Ireland’s bank bailout cost them 30% of their national output (GDP) and pushed debts to record levels.

As austerity cuts swept Europe, the numbers of the wealthy in Europe with more than $1 million in cash actually rose in 2010 by 7.2% to 3.1 million people. Together they are worth US$10.2 trillion. The five biggest banks in Europe made profits of €28 billion in 2010. There are 15,000 professional lobbyists in Brussels, the vast majority of them representing big business.

European Union’s answers to the problem? More austerity. In the UK, 490,000 public sector jobs are being cut; in Ireland, wages for low paid workers have been reduced; in Lithuania the government plans to cut public spending by 30%. The EU is planning to impose requirements by 2013 that means that no European member state countries can have a budget deficit of more than 3% of GDP or a public debt of more than 60% of GDP which will mean even more austerity.

Alternatives from the 99% – Clearly, there is a strong need to break with the dangerous free market fundamentalism that has created and worsened a social crisis of vast proportions. Here are some proposals for alternatives – put forward by many civil society groups – that could create a fairer and more just world.

Occupying Wall Street

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The immediate area around the New York Stock Exchange, “Wall Street,” has been closed to the public and protestors who are encamped at a nearby park, chanting, singing and dancing along with marching and bugling on surrounding streets accompanied by phalanxes of cops and motor scooters, to cheers and thumbs-up from tour buses and hand shakes from passersby and street workers.

There has been no sign of the commercial media. Mainstream media in the Asia-Pacific region have ignored the historic occupation entirely, not because of their failure to see the beginning of an American democratic awakening, but because the channels of cross-holding and control are now well-established.

These mercantile cables are tightly wound around the “emerging economies” and their growing middle class populations whose consumption patterns are seen as replacing those to be lost by social movements such as this in the West.

“On the 17th of September, we want to see 20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Like our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Greece, Spain, and Iceland, we plan to use the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America. We also encourage the use of nonviolence to achieve our ends and maximize the safety of all participants.”

According to their website, the mission of the leaderless resistance movement is to flood thousands of people into lower Manhattan, set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months in order to persuade President Barack Obama to establish a commission to end “the influence money has over representatives in Washington.” Demonstrators gathered to call for the occupation of Wall Street, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in New York.

Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. The original call for this occupation was published by Adbusters in July; since then, many individuals across the country have stepped up to organize this event, such as the people of the NYC General Assembly and US Day of Rage. There’ll also be similar occupations in the near future such as October2011 in Freedom Plaza, Washington D.C.

This is from their statement:
“We agree that we need to see election reform. However, the election reform proposed ignores the causes which allowed such a system to happen. Some will readily blame the federal reserve, but the political system has been beholden to political machinations of the wealthy well before its founding. We need to address the core facts: these corporations, even if they were unable to compete in the electoral arena, would still remain control of society. They would retain economic control, which would allow them to retain political control. Term limits would, again, not solve this, as many in the political class already leave politics to find themselves as part of the corporate elites. We need to retake the freedom that has been stolen from the people, altogether.”

Agricultural supply and demand estimates show impact of US heatwave

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The heatwave of mid-2011 is reflected in the latest World Agricultural Demand and Supply Estimates (WASDE), from the US Department of Agriculture, for 2011 September. The numbers and the accompanying commentary show just how badly this year’s scorching temperatures and insufficient rainfall has affected the outlook for corn, soybeans and cotton, as Worldcrops has observed.

Worldcrops has said that the most serious supply-demand tightness of these three agricommodities will be felt in corn, with a stocks-to-use ratio by the end of August 2012 now put at 5.3%. The national average yield in the US is forecast to be 148.1 bushels/acre, 4.9 bushels less than last month’s report and a massive 16.6 bushels below the record set in 2009-2010. Nevertheless this would still be the third biggest crop ever.

The USDA has slashed projected corn use for 2011-2012 by 100 million bushels – but only cut expected corn-for-ethanol usage by a meagre 50 million bushels. By August next year the US ending stocks will be, according to the report, 672 million bushels. That’s a drop in the bucket and by rights – and barring a global macroeconomic disaster – we ought to see $8/bushel corn futures sooner rather than later. Not least because the later the corn matures in the ground, the greater the risk of early frost damage.

We turn to the WASDE 2011 September commentary direct:

Wheat – Global wheat supplies for 2011-12 are projected 7.6 million tons higher mostly on larger beginning stocks in Canada and increased production for Canada, EU-27, and Ukraine. Beginning stocks for Canada are raised 1.3 million tons and production is raised 2.5 million tons, both reflecting the latest estimates from Statistics Canada. EU-27 production is raised 2.3 million tons with increases for Germany, Romania, France, Spain, and Bulgaria as harvest reports and revisions to official estimates continue to indicate higher yields. Production for Ukraine is raised 1.0 million tons based on the latest harvest reports. Other smaller production changes include 0.2-million-ton increases for both Brazil and Morocco, and a 0.2-million-ton reduction for Uzbekistan.

World wheat trade is raised slightly for 2011-12 with increased imports projected for the United States and Uzbekistan. Global exports are also raised as higher expected shipments from Canada and EU-27 more than offset reductions for the United States and Turkey. Global wheat consumption is increased 1.9 million tons with higher expected wheat feeding in Canada, China, Morocco, and Turkey more than offsetting a reduction for Russia. World wheat ending stocks for 2011-12 are projected 5.7 million tons higher at 194.6 million. At this level, global stocks would be up from 2010-11 and the second largest in the past decade.

Conversion Factors
1 metric ton = 45.9296 bushels
1 metric ton = 19.68 cwt
1 cwt is a hundredweight of 112 pounds or 45.35 kilogram

Coarse grain – U.S. feed grain supplies for 2011-12 are projected lower this month with reduced corn production as summer heat and dryness continue to be reflected in survey-based yield forecasts. Corn production for 2011-12 is forecast 417 million bushels lower with expected yields down from last month across most of the Corn Belt. The national average corn yield is forecast at 148.1 bushels per acre, down 4.9 bushels from August and 16.6 bushels below the 2009-10 record. As forecast, this year’s yield would be the lowest since 2005-06. Despite the lower yield, production is forecast to be the third highest ever with the second highest planted area since 1944. Total corn supplies for 2011-12 are lowered 442 million bushels with a 20-million-bushel reduction in carryin and a 5-million-bushel reduction in expected imports. Beginning stocks for 2011-12 drop with small increases in 2010-11 exports and use for sweeteners reflecting the latest available data. lmports for 2011-12 are reduced with the smaller forecast corn crop in Canada. Supplies for 2011-12 are projected to be the lowest since 2006-07.

USDA corn stocks-to-use ratio. Graphic: Worldcrops

Total corn use for 2011-12 is projected 400 million bushels lower with tighter supplies. Projected feed and residual use is reduced 200 million bushels mostly reflecting lower expected residual disappearance with the smaller forecast crop. Corn use for ethanol is projected 100 million bushels lower with higher expected corn prices and continued weakening in the outlook for U.S. gasoline consumption as forecast by the Energy Information Administration. Corn exports for 2011-12 are projected 100 million bushels lower with increased supplies and exports expected from Ukraine, Argentina, and Brazil. U.S. ending stocks are projected 42 million bushels lower at 672 million. The stocks-to-use ratio is projected at 5.3 percent, compared with last month’s projection of 5.4 percent. The season-average farm price is projected 30 cents per bushel higher on both ends of the range to a record $6.50 to $7.50 per bushel.

Global coarse grain supplies for 2011-12 are projected 3.1 million tons lower with larger barley, sorghum, millet, and oats supplies only partly offsetting the reduction for corn driven by the U.S. changes. Global corn supplies are reduced 4.5 million tons as increases in foreign beginning stocks and production partly offset the reduction in U.S. supplies. Projected global corn production for 2011-12 is lowered 5.9 million tons as a 4.8-million-ton increase in expected foreign output is outweighed by the 10.6-million-ton U.S. reduction. Brazil and Argentina production for 2011-12 are raised 4.0 million tons and 1.5 million tons, respectively, on higher expected area with rising returns for corn in both countries. Ukraine corn production is raised 1.5 million tons based on indications for higher yields. Production is raised 1.0 million tons for EU-27 with higher expected yields in France and several countries in Eastern Europe. Production is lowered 1.0 million tons for Canada based on the latest Statistics Canada estimates. Production is also lowered 2.1 million tons for Egypt as lack of government restrictions on planting resulted in a sharp shift in acreage away from corn and into rice.

Global coarse grain trade for 2011-12 is raised slightly with increased foreign trade in barley and corn more than offsetting the reduction in U.S. corn shipments. Barley imports are raised for Saudi Arabia and Syria with larger shipments expected from Ukraine and Russia. Corn exports are raised for Ukraine, Argentina, Brazil, and EU-27. Corn exports are lowered for Canada and Paraguay. Global corn consumption for 2011-12 is lowered 7.3 million tons, mostly reflecting lower expected use in the United States. Foreign corn feeding and consumption are nearly unchanged. World corn ending stocks are projected up 2.9 million tons with increases in South America, Ukraine, and EU-27 more than offsetting the reduction projected for the United States.

Rice – All rice beginning stocks for 2011-12 are lowered 2.7 million cwt from last month to 48.4 million (rough-equivalent basis) based on USDA’s Rice Stocks report released on August 26. The import projection is raised 1.0 million cwt to 19.0 million as it is expected that more long-grain rice will be imported due to tighter domestic supplies.

Exports for 2011-12 are projected at 93.0 million cwt, down 4.0 million cwt from last month, and down 18.6 million from the revised 2010-11 estimate. Long-grain exports are lowered 5.0 million cwt from last month to 61.0 million, and combined medium- and short-grain exports are raised 1.0 million to 32.0 million. The decrease in the export projection is due mostly to a much tighter supply situation, but additionally to an expected increase in competition from South American exporters in Western Hemisphere long-grain markets. Long-grain exports to Iraq are also expected to be lower. Increased competition principally from Egypt is expected to reduce medium-grain exports to Libya. All rice ending stocks for 2011-12 are projected at 38.3 million cwt, up 5.1 million from last month, but down 10.1 million from the revised 2010-11 stocks.

Projected global 2011-12 rice supply and use are increased from last month. Global rice production is projected at a record 458.4 million tons, up 2.1 million tons from last month, primarily due to larger expected crops in Brazil, China, the Philippines, and the United States. China’s 2011-12 rice crop is increased 1.0 million tons to 139.0 million, due mainly to an increase in the early rice crop. Brazil’s rice crop is raised nearly a million tons due to both an increase in area and expected yield. The recent surge in global prices accounts for the increase in planted area in Brazil from last month’s forecast. Global 2011-12 trade is nearly unchanged from last month. Global consumption is raised 0.7 million tons from a month ago due mostly to China. Global ending stocks for 2011-12 are projected at 98.7 million tons, up 0.7 million from last month, and the largest stocks since 2002-03. Stocks are raised for Brazil, China, the Philippines, and the United States.

Worldcrops has said that for soybeans. Ending stocks by end-August 2012 are put at 165 million bushels, 29 million higher than the August report but still tight. The US will have a reduced capacity to export soybeans and the futures price in our opinion will climb inexorably to $15/bushel and go significantly higher, if the weather outlook for the all-important South American soybean crop is unfavourable later this year. All in all this report has nothing which will astonish the markets immediately but lays the foundation for a significant bull-run in corn and, to a lesser extent, soybean futures in the coming months.

Europe’s workers say ‘no’ to top-down ‘austerity’

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Strikes in EU, September 2010. Photo: Socialist WorldAfter ordering drastic ‘austerity’ programmes in Hungary, Romania, Greece, Spain and Portugal, pressure is now being increased on other countries to significantly reduce the living standards of broad social layers. This is what ‘austerity’ in the EU, and particularly western Europe, actually means. It does not mean the ruling parties and their agencies do with smaller salaries. It means that the massive deficits in public finances resulting from the economic crisis and bank bailouts be countered by slashing wages and social spending.

The German government, acting on behalf of the German export industry, is calling the tune for western EU. This spells continuing trouble for Europe’s working classes for it has been clear for several years that the ruling coalition in Berlin is acting in concert with the most powerful European financial and business circles, in particular the German export industry which claims to have led Germany into a new phase of ‘growth’.

There is no lack of voices saying these policies are short-sighted. On Monday, four leading European economists warned in the Financial Times that such harsh measures were “necessary but risky”. They threaten to trigger a depression affecting the whole eurozone. The resulting economic, financial and social stresses could destroy the eurozone. They suggested, therefore, a European solution: the European Financial Stability Facility established in the spring should become a permanent instrument that can be used to support highly indebted countries.

But this week Europeans marched on the streets in protest against the impacts of ‘austerity’. Up to 100,000 took part in a march on Wednesday on the European Union buildings in Brussels, Belgium, organised by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), reported the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). The march in the Belgian capital was the official centre-piece of Europe-wide demonstrations against austerity and cuts, though a general strike in Spain was by far the most significant expression of workers rising anger at the attack on their livelihoods.

Nearly 70% of Spanish workers — 10 million — took part in Wednesday’s general strike. In some sectors, such as mining, metal, auto manufacture, electronic, fishing and other industries, participation was nearly total. The movement also encompassed many self-employed workers and small businesses. Although the government tried to downplay the effects of the strike, the national grid operator Red Electrica Corp. said that electricity consumption was down by 20%.

The strike dealt a blow to business leaders, politicians and the media who claimed it would not be well supported. But without the minimum service levels agreed by the unions, which allowed the government and local authorities to determine how many airplanes, trains and buses had to be provided, the country would have ground to a complete halt.

[There’s more in Deutsch on the strikes from Die Tageszeitung of Berlin, which reported on the strikes in France, the protest against the pension ‘reform’ and the social impacts of ‘austerity’. The Liberation of France reported on the massive Spanish strikes, and Socialist World has reportage of the Brussels strike.]

Greece’s main union federations, representing about 2.5 million workers, did not strike on Wednesday and only organised a march to parliament in the evening. Only a few of the smaller unions called strike action, with hospital doctors stopping work for 24 hours. There was strike action by bus and trolley drivers for several hours and the Athens’ metro system and trams were shut down for a period at noon.

A demonstrator reacts after being hit by anti-riot police in central Barcelona during the general strike held in Spain. (Guardian) Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

In Ireland, there were rallies hundreds strong in Belfast and Derry. A man drove a cement mixer covered with anti-bank slogans into the gates of the Irish parliament in Dublin to protest the bailout of the banks. In Portugal, there were protests in Lisbon and Porto. According to trade unions sources some 20,000 people took part in the evening demonstration in Lisbon.

Most of the other protests were in eastern Europe. In Poland, thousands marched in Warsaw against government plans to freeze wages and raise some taxes. They demanded the government guarantee job security and scrap plans to raise taxes. In Lithuania, some 400 protesters held an illegal demonstration in Vilnius. In Slovenia, around half of all public service workers continued a third day of an indefinite strike to protest at the government’s plan to freeze salaries for two years.

The Guardian reported that in Portugal, unions said 50,000 protesters joined a march in Lisbon and 20,000 in Porto. “It’s a crucial day for Europe,” said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trades Union Confederation, which orchestrated the events. “This is the start of the fight, not the end. That our voice be heard is our major demand today – against austerity and for jobs and growth. There is a great danger that the workers are going to be paying the price for the reckless speculation that took place in financial markets. You’ve really got to reschedule these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause Europe to plunge down into recession.”

In Brussels marchers from across Europe waved union flags and carried banners saying “No to austerity” and “Priority to jobs and growth”, bringing parts of the city to a halt. The protest was led by a group dressed in black suits and masks and carrying umbrellas and briefcases to represent financial speculators, acting as the head of a funeral cortege mourning the death of Europe.

Wheat sends food prices up, US agriculture exports to be $107.5 bn

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Surging wheat prices drove international food prices up 5% last month in the biggest month-on-month increase since November 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has announced. The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 176 points in August, up nearly nine points from July, FAO said in its latest update on the global cereals supply and demand situation. The 5% increase brought the Index up to its highest level since September 2008, but still 38% down from its peak in June 2008.

FAO Food Price Index

FAO Food Price Index, 2010 September

The FFPI surge mainly reflected the sudden sharp rise in international wheat prices following drought in the Russian Federation and the country’s subsequent restrictions on wheat sales. But other drivers included higher sugar and oilseed prices. FAO’s update said that the forecast for world cereal production in 2010 has been lowered by 41 million tonnes to 2,238 million tonnes from 2,279 million tonnes reported in June.

However, even at this lower level, world cereal output in 2010 would be the third highest on record and above the five-year average. Among the major cereals, wheat accounted for most of the cut, reflecting mainly smaller crops in the leading producers in the CIS due to adverse weather. Under the present forecast world cereal utilization would slightly exceed production in 2010-11. This would trigger a 2% contraction in world ending stocks from their 8-year-high opening levels and to a small decline in world cereal stocks-to-use ratio. At 23%, however, the ratio would still remain well above the 19.5% low witnessed in the 2007-08 food crisis period.

A further cut in the forecast for 2010 world wheat production since FAO’s last update on 4 August puts this year’s wheat crop at 646 million tonnes, down 5% from 2009 but still the third highest ever. The latest revision reflects a further cut in the estimate of this year’s harvest in the Russian Federation to 43 million tonnes (from 48 million tonnes in August) more than offsetting higher forecasts for crops in a number of other countries including the United States and China.

FAO Food Commodity Price Index, 2010 September

FAO Food Commodity Price Index, 2010 September

The forecast for world wheat ending stocks in 2011 was also lowered, to 181 million tonnes, down 9% from their 8-year high opening level. The stock-to-use ratio for wheat in 20010-11 was projected at 27%, down 3% from the previous season but still 5% higher than the 30-year low in 2007-08.

World production of coarse grains was forecast to reach 1 125 million tonnes, down 6 million tonnes from the previous forecast in June but up marginally from 2009 and the second highest on record. Maize production was heading towards an all-time high of 845 million tonnes, with expectation of record crops in China and in the United States. But world barley production was forecast to fall by 22% to a 30-year low of only 129 million tonnes in 2010, driven mostly by a sharp cut in production in the CIS and in the EU as a result of poor weather.

The forecast for global rice production in 2010 was also revised downward and now stands at 467 million tonnes, 5 million tonnes lower than the June 2010 forecast but still 3% more than in 2009 and a  historical record. Much of the revision was the consequence of Pakistan’s floods but it also stemmed from lower expectations in China, Egypt, India, Laos and the Philippines. The recent disturbances in  world cereal markets will be examined by delegates meeting at a special one-day session of FAO’s Intergovernmental Group on Grains and Intergovernmental Group on Rice convened for 24 September at FAO headquarters in Rome.

World Food Day 2010

16 October is World Food Day 2010

Industrial agriculture news sources such as Agweb are reporting the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) agriculture products exports for financial year 2010, which have just been released. Increased exports of grain and feed at higher values along with increased livestock, poultry, and dairy product exports all helped to push up the forecast for US ag exports in fiscal year (FY) 2010. USDA has said the value of US ag exports for FY 2010 will be US$107.5 billion, up US$3 billion from their May forecast. And their first look at FY 2011 has the value of those shipments projected at US$113 billion, up US$5.5 billion from FY 2010 forecast.

On the import side, USDA now puts FY 2010 imports at a value of US$77 billion, up US$500 million from their May forecast. For FY 2011, USDA sees the value of US ag imports rising to US$81.5 billion. USDA now expects a slightly larger trade surplus for US agriculture for FY 2010 – US$30.5 billion, up US$2.5 billion from May, and for FY 2011 they expect the trade surplus will be US$31.5 billion. Analysts for USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) also included this caution:

“The three major threats to world growth in 2011 are the EU economy tanking due to their debt situation, the U.S. economy going into a recession, and a continuing widening of the Chinese trade surplus. A major near-term risk to the world recovery is a potential spillover of the crisis brought on by high government debt in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland.

“The consensus forecast for 2010 and 2011 is of continuing recovery in both the developed and developing economies, with a few regional rough patches. The case for moderate world growth for the rest of 2010 and solid growth for 2011 is based on low interest rates, increasing trade flows, and the willingness of central banks to keep financial assets on current balance sheets, encouraging easier private credit and strong growth in corporate profits. At this time, that scenario is much more likely than any or all of the downside scenarios.”