Europe’s Struggling Political Parties Promise a Return to the Pre-Thatcherite Era

BERLIN—To win voters lost to an anti-globalization backlash, Europe’s mainstream parties are going back to the 1970s.

In Germany, the U.K, Denmark, France and Spain, these parties are aiming to reverse decades of pro-market policy and promising greater state control of business and the economy, more welfare benefits, bigger pensions and higher taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Some have discussed nationalizations and expropriations.

It could add up to the biggest shift in economic policy on the continent in decades.

In Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, the government has increased social spending in a bid to stop the exodus of voters to antiestablishment, populist and special-interest parties. Reacting to pressure on both ends of the political spectrum, it passed the largest-ever budget last year.

“The zeitgeist of globalization and liberalization is over,” said Ralf Stegner, vice chairman of the 130-year-old Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government coalition. “The state needs to become much more involved in key areas such as work, pensions and health care.”

The policies mark the end of an era in Europe that started four decades ago, with the ascent of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her U.S. ally, President Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in Paris, 1982. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

After Thatcher abolished capital controls in 1979 and began selling off state companies in the 1980s, other European governments followed suit, embracing supply-side policies, deregulation, market liberalization and tax cuts. Revenues from privatization among European Union member states rose from $13 billion in 1990 to $87 billion in 2005, according to Privatization Barometer, a database run by consultancy KPMG Advisory S.p.A.

Today, concerns about growing inequality, stagnating wages, immigration, the debt crisis and China’s rising power have fueled the recent political shift. European businesses and governments also worry about potential changes in U.S. policy, amid looming threats of trade sanctions.

Smaller State Governments across Europe retreated from many economic sectors and sold state companies starting inthe 1980s.Privatization proceeds in EU countriesSource: Privatization Barometer reports
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This erosion of the old technocratic consensus about how to run an economy, even in countries where populists aren’t getting any closer to power, could be one the most lasting consequences of the recent antiestablishment surge.

Even in countries where populist parties are already in government, such as Poland, those parties have shifted their focus from nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric to championing generous welfare policies and state aid.

Bigger BenefitsGermany’s government has increased socialspending in a bid to win over voters. Germany’s government spendingSource: Germany’s Federal Ministry of FinanceNotes: Data through 2017 are actual; 2018 and 2019are targets. €1=$1.14
.billionSocial and welfare benefitsOther spending2012’13’14’15’16’17’18’19050100150200250300350€400

Germany’s SPD has embraced additional welfare spending, paid for by tax revenues, to combat a retreat of voters so rapid it threatens to turn the once-dominant force in German politics into a niche player. The party is now pushing for policies such as unconditional pension for people who have worked for a certain period but didn’t make sufficient contributions into the pension pot.

In the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labor Party, has proposed renationalizing railways, public utilities, the postal service and the Royal Bank of Scotland ,the country’s second-biggest lender. It’s effectively a reversal of the privatization spree initiated by Ms. Thatcher. The party is also toying with policies such as universal basic income for all and a four-day working week for public-sector employees.

Labor has been polling ahead of the ruling Conservatives in opinion surveys for most of the past two years.

The re-nationalization plan would cost around $210 billion, according to an estimate by New York-based consulting firm S&P Global. Labor has said it would issue treasury bonds to finance nationalizations. Thames Water, the U.K.’s largest water company, added a clause to its bond to make sure holders are repaid immediately should it be nationalized.

U.K. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn in May. PHOTO: BEN BIRCHALL/PA IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

In France, President Emmanuel Macron reacted to weeks of violent street protests by abolishing plans to increase fuel prices and announcing measures to boost the incomes of low earners. The estimated cost of the spending is more than €10 billion ($11 billion). In a symbolic concession to the antiestablishment yellow-vest movement, Mr. Macron declared he would shut down the university École Nationale d’Administration, his own alma mater, because it instigated elitism.

Mr. Macron reversed a decision to eliminate 200,000 civil-service jobs and announced a tax increase for companies that overly rely on short-term contracts, which his government blames for creating an underclass of workers. In addition, monthly pensions of less than €2,000 have been pegged to the rate of inflation.

He also embraced the idea of holding referendums on certain policy issues, a key demand of populist leaders. The first major referendum will decide whether the sale of the state’s majority stake in the company that runs Paris’s airports should go ahead as planned.

French President Emmanuel Macron in May. PHOTO: PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/REUTERS

Denmark’s Social Democrats, who had been out of government since 2015, won a general election on June 5 following a policy makeover that included going further left on economic policy, while sharply turning right on immigration. They pledged to increase public spending and taxes for companies and the wealthy, and to enable early retirement by rolling back some recent pension changes. Their far-right rivals the People’s Party suffered a major loss in the election.

The reaction from European economists is decidedly mixed.

Some have greeted the shift as a welcome correction to years of pro-business and free-trade policies they think have dug deep rifts in Western societies.

“The lesson from Germany is: Strong growth and a generous social welfare system alone are insufficient to satisfy voters. Globalization and technological change are putting pressure on many people,” said Marcel Fratzscher, head of the German Institute for Economic Research, a Berlin-based think tank. “Europe’s social welfare state needs a fundamental overhaul as it has to focus on empowering people and on stopping the market abuse of firms and lobby groups.”

Others are concerned Europe is deviating from proven economic recipes just as growth is wobbling, or that the policies are outdated.

“We are indeed seeing a kind of return to the pre-Thatcherite approach, but it is doubtful that policies from the era of closed markets and capital controls could work in a globalized world. A vision of the past can’t be implemented in the present,” said Branko Milanovic, a New York-based Serbian-American economist who studies income distribution and inequality.

In Germany, despite a decade of robust economic growth and near full employment, almost four million working people receive welfare benefits to supplement their income. Around one-quarter of all employees work in the low-wage sector, according to government statistics and research by Mr. Fratzscher’s group.

Low Wages Increased competition put downward pressure on wages, while shrinking unemployment benefits increased incentives for Germans to take lower paying jobs. Share of German workers who are low paid*Source: German Institute for Economic Research*Those who make less than two-thirds of the country’s median earnings
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Subsidies to Germany’s mandatory pay-as-you-go pension scheme almost reached the €100 billion mark for the first time in 2018. Earlier this year, Ms. Merkel’s government adopted a new industrial strategy that centers on protecting German companies from foreign competition, including by enabling the government to buy stakes in businesses to shield them from foreign acquisition.

Peter Altmaier, economics minister and author of the industry strategy, said it was designed in part to address the anxieties of Germans who have been drawn to far-left and far-right parties in recent years.

Germany’s SPD, the junior partner in Germany’s government coalition, is now debating whether large real-estate investors should be expropriated as a way to stabilize rents. In Berlin, where they preside over the local government, the SPD announced a freeze on rent prices. The head of its youth wing recently called for car maker BMW to be nationalized, earning grass-roots plaudits and some support from SPD ministers and mayors.

The SPD scored its worst result ever at last month’s European Union election. Polling around 12% to 14%, it is a shadow of its 1998 self, when it gathered 41% of the vote.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 17. PHOTO: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The environment-focused, center-left Greens more than doubled their votes between the country’s last general election in September 2017 and the EU election. It is now polling at around 26%. At least two polls since early June showed the Greens had become Germany’s most popular party for the first time since its creation in the 1980s—ahead of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

Twenty years ago, the German Greens co-wrote with the SPD the country’s last big tax cuts and a deeply unpopular overhaul of labor-market legislation. Today, the party is toying with an unconditional universal income and seizing real estate from commercial landlords as a way to stop rent increases.

The far-right Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, lost ground in last month’s EU election, and is now polling around 13%.

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The AfD has campaigned on immigration in recent elections. Party leaders recently consulted with Steven K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist and now an adviser to nationalist and populist parties in Europe. In a meeting in Berlin on May 13, he advised the leaders to tone down their anti-Islam fervor, purge radical members, and refocus their message from identity politics to economics.

“The real message is the economy,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview. “Populists need to talk to the workers.”

Jörg Meuthen, the AfD co-chair who met Mr. Bannon, said he agreed, but questioned the timing of the message. He said Germany’s economy—with record low unemployment and slowing but still positive growth—remained too healthy for an immediate policy shift.

When the recession kicks in and people start worrying about their jobs, then we can roll out economic campaigns and show our competence. Populists must look at what is affecting people emotionally, and at the moment that is migration and the climate,” Mr. Meuthen said.

Globalization BacklashProtest parties focused on denouncing the economic, cultural and security impact of globalization have drawn more attention across Europe.Populist party poll performance in selected countries Source: NomuraNote: Weighted averages of national polls.
%GermanyFranceSpainU.K.2015’16’17’18’19051015202530

In Spain, Pedro Sanchez, acting premier and leader of the Socialist Party, won the national and the EU elections this year after sharply raising the minimum wage and announcing a boost in social benefits and corporate taxes.

Mr. Sanchez’s bet on wooing working-class voters lost to protest parties paid off, said Daniel Diaz Fuentes, professor of economics at the Spanish university of Cantabria. Mr. Fuentes said that the rise of populism could trigger a re-nationalization wave.

“I think that the state will become a much more active entrepreneurial actor via venture capital and involvement in investment via the banking system,” Mr. Fuentes said.

Two TrajectoriesThe income of low earners has decreased since 1980, while that of top earners has grown.Income shares of the top 10% in European regions*
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Income shares of the bottom 50% in European regions*Source: Thomas Blanchet, Lucas Chancel and Amory Gethin, World Inequality Database*Population-weighted country averages
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Wolfgang Schmidt, deputy German finance minister and one of the strategists behind the SPD’s new approach, said the success of socialists in Spain, Britain and Denmark, in elections and opinion polls, shows that voters have turned against economic orthodoxy.

“As a society, we need to stop looking down on people. Anxiety about the future of work is driving voters to populists. People read about automation and self-driving cars and they ask themselves what will happen to their jobs in the near future,” he said.

Many European politicians and economists say the swing away from markets and back to the state misses the point of many voters’ anxiety, which is rooted in politics or culture. An annual poll about the fears of Germans conducted by the R+V Versicherung AG insurance group found that nine of respondents’ top 10 fears focused on politics, security and health. Economic concerns dominated between 2004 and 2015.

Paul Ziemiak, the second most senior official in Ms. Merkel’s conservative party, opposes what he says is an SPD-driven spending spree. “These policies have never made any country successful. Countries that have [tried them] have ultimately failed—politically, but also economically,” he said.

Protectionism would destroy a German economy built on exports and cross-border supply chains, said Clemens Fuest, an economist and adviser to the German government. Ambitious redistribution programs such as pension increases, early retirement or a universal income would collapse as soon as tax revenues fall in the slowdown. Companies were privatized 30 years ago because the state is generally bad at managing businesses, he said.

“Established parties are taking over the populists’ agenda to show voters that they have heard their message,” Mr. Fuest said. “But they are making big promises that cannot be kept.”

Where in the world is it easiest to get rich? | Harald Eia | TEDxOslo

In which society is it easiest to get rich? Contrary to common belief, it is not countries like the US or the UK that create the highest number of rich people per capita, but Nordic social democracies like Norway and Sweden. Counter intuitive as it may sound, high taxes, generous welfare states and strong unions makes a better environment for the people who wants to earn huge amounts of money, than free markets, low taxes, and minimal government intervention.

Harald Eia is a trained sociologist who works in television with comedy and documentaries.

Yes, Venezuela Is a Socialist Catastrophe

In the age of A.O.C., the lesson must be learned again.

Conspicuous by its absence in much of the mainstream news coverage of Venezuela’s political crisis is the word “socialism.” Yes, every sensible observer agrees that Latin America’s once-richest country, sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster, and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough.

But … socialist? Perish the thought.

Or so goes a line of argument that insists socialism’s good name shouldn’t be tarred by the results of experience. On Venezuela, what you’re likelier to read is that the crisis is the product of corruption, cronyism, populism, authoritarianism, resource-dependency, U.S. sanctions and trickery, even the residues of capitalism itself. Just don’t mention the S-word because, you know, it’s working really well in Denmark.

Curiously, that’s not how the Venezuelan regime’s admirers used to speak of “21st century socialism,” as it was dubbed by Hugo Chávez. The late Venezuelan president, said Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, “showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice, and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step toward.” Noam Chomsky was similarly enthusiastic when he praised Chávez in 2009. “What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela,” the linguist said, is that “I can see how a better world is being created and can speak to the person who’s inspired it.”

,” as it was dubbed by Hugo Chávez. The late Venezuelan president, said Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, “showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice, and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step toward.” Noam Chomsky was similarly enthusiastic when he praised Chávez in 2009. “What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela,” the linguist said, is that “I can see how a better world is being created and can speak to the person who’s inspired it.”

.. Chomsky walked back some of his praise as Venezuela became more overtly dictatorial, but others on the left weren’t as squeamish. In a lengthy obituary in The Nation, New York University professor Greg Grandin opined, “the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough.”

At least Grandin could implicitly concede that socialism ultimately requires coercion to achieve its political aims; otherwise, it’s human nature for people to find loopholes and workarounds to keep as much of their property as they can.

That’s more than can be said for some of Chávez’s erstwhile defenders, who would prefer to forget just how closely Venezuela followed the orthodox socialist script.

  • Government spending on social programs? Check: From 2000 to 2013, spending rose to 40 percent of G.D.P., from 28 percent.
  • Raising the minimum wage? Check. Nicolás Maduro, the current president, raised it no fewer than six times last year (though it makes no difference in the face of hyperinflation).
  • An economy based on co-ops, not corporations? Check again. As Naomi Klein wrote in her fawning 2007 book, “The Shock Doctrine,” “Chávez has made the co-ops a top political priority … By 2006, there were roughly 100,000 cooperatives in the country, employing more than 700,000 workers.”

And, lest we forget, all of this was done as Chávez won one election after another during the oil-boom years. Indeed, one of the chief selling points of Chavismo to its Western fans wasn’t just that it was an example of socialism, but of democratic socialism, too.

Government overspending created catastrophic deficits when oil prices plummeted. Worker co-ops wound up in the hands of incompetent and corrupt political cronies. The government responded to its budgetary problems by printing money, leading to inflation. Inflation led to price controls, leading to shortages. Shortages led to protests, leading to repression and the destruction of democracy. Thence to widespread starvationcritical medical shortages, an explosion in crime, and a refugee crisis to rival Syria’s.

.. All of this used to be obvious enough, but in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez it has to be explained all over again. Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, “eventually you run out of other people’s money.

.. Surely there’s a compound in Havana where that gang can live out their days without tyrannizing a nation.

The Case for the Wage Subsidy

Americans across the political spectrum should focus on how best to spend government money already slated to go out the door.

.. The controversial subsidies that New York and Washington offered Amazon to attract its “HQ2” are not some novel approach to economic development. Last year, Wisconsin offered a larger package of incentives to entice electronics supplier Foxconn, assembler of iPhones, to build a $10 billion manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. Annual payroll for 13,000 workers would exceed $700 million, and Wisconsin expected the plant to generate annual state and local tax revenue of $181 million and lead to the creation of 20,000 additional jobs. Critics panned the deal as corporate welfare, to which Governor Scott Walker fired back, “That’s fine, but I think they can go suck lemons.”

.. The value of the subsidy would be set relative to a “target wage” of, say, $15 per hour and would close half the gap between the market wage and the target. A worker would initially receive a subsidy of $3 per hour in this case, equal to approximately $6,000 per year if he worked full-time.

.. This differs from most programs that transfer resources to lower-income households, including the EITC, which phase out as the household’s total income rises; for every additional dollar earned by the household, the worker loses some of the benefits he was receiving. With the direct wage subsidy, the worker receives the same subsidy for every hour worked at a given wage, no matter how much total income he earns. He can take a second job and earn the subsidy for each of those hours. His wife can take a job and earn her own subsidy, too. The value of the subsidy declines only as workers become more productive, earning promotions and raises.
.. First, the wage subsidy is the appropriate mechanism for redistributing gains from the economy’s “winners” to its “losers.” It comes closest to doing this directly, by taking tax revenue drawn from higher earners and inserting it directly into the paychecks of lower earners.
.. Second, the wage subsidy offsets subsidies given to foreign producers and moves the cost to employers for domestic workers closer to parity with what firms pay foreign workers living in sharply different social and economic contexts. The benefit is largest for industries where the work is most labor-intensive and relies on the lowest-cost labor — in other words, the industries under greatest pressure from globalization. But it does this through a neutral structure
..  A community lacking the ability to export (even to the rest of the nation) must rely on government transfer payments to fund the resources it requires from the outside world — the community is literally exporting need. The existing American safety net conditions those transfers on very low incomes — often, no work at all — and channels them primarily toward consumption of health-care services. With a wage subsidy, work, rather than unemployment, draws government support, and that support can flow to a fuller range of productive activities in the community. In this model, a services economy can still thrive disconnected from a tradeable sector — not an ideal arrangement but one far better than today’s.

This invites the question, Isn’t the wage subsidy just another form of redistribution, like all the safety-net programs we already have? Yes and no. Yes, it is redistribution. And yes, high-income taxpayers will finance it. But unlike with government assistance disconnected from work, the value of a productive job through which someone supports her family and contributes to her community is not diluted if it yields a paycheck into which the government has put in more than it takes out. Certainly a society of thriving and perfectly self-sufficient families would be preferable. But America is nowhere near such a reality today, and for some people, it may never happen. If we can at least make redistribution a tool for creating jobs and promoting work, we will be moving the labor market in the right direction and delivering better outcomes for those who need support.

.. They might accept a subsidy as a replacement for existing safety-net programs, but if cutting safety-net spending is on the table, many would prefer to spend that savings on a growth-generating tax cut.
.. What really infuriates Democrats, meanwhile, is the possibility that employers might benefit. Factually speaking, they have a point. If the government offers a $3 subsidy atop a $9-per-hour job, the result will not necessarily be a $12-per-hour job. The employer might instead cut the market wage to $8, to which the government would add $3.50 — half the $7 gap to the target wage of $15 — leaving the worker with $11.50. Both worker and employer are better off than without the subsidy, but the entire benefit is not the worker’s.
.. roughly 75 percent of the financial benefit accrued to workers. In general, employers have to benefit at least somewhat. A central premise of the wage subsidy is to pull more prospective workers into the labor force. Other things held equal, if the supply of workers increases, then employers will be able to offer lower wages — even as, thanks to the subsidy, workers take home more... Remember, the wage subsidy’s goal is not only, or even primarily, to transfer resources into the pockets of low-income households. It is also to connect more workers with employers in permanent jobs. The task requires employers to do the hard work of hiring and training certain employees whom they otherwise would not, and this benefits society greatly.

A central premise of the wage subsidy is to reward employers sufficiently so that they choose to do more. By contrast, just wishing that firms would create more and better jobs when they have no economic incentive to do so is futile; it has zero bearing on what will happen in the actual labor market.

.. Note that this need to create incentives for the employer is no different from what happens in any other effort at assisting low-income households in a market economy. When people use food stamps at the supermarket, the supermarket benefits. When they use housing vouchers to pay the rent, the landlord benefits. Unless the government wishes to produce everything itself, or order market participants to take actions against their own interests, efforts to deliver results that the market will not deliver for low-income households always benefit the businesses that choose to participate in the transactions. Otherwise, they wouldn’t participate!

.. It is a strange consequence of our commitment to individuals as consumers that we unthinkingly pay hundreds of billions of dollars each year to hospitals and universities to provide treatment and education to customers whom they otherwise would turn away but that we shrink from the idea that society might pay anything to an employer to hire someone he otherwise would not.

.. Just as the Republican party’s relative disinterest in the labor market is made apparent by its preference for a tax cut over a wage subsidy, a good distillation of the Democrats’ core attitude toward the labor market emerges from comparing a wage subsidy to their preferred approach: the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage is the quintessential left-of-center labor-market policy. Unsatisfied with the market outcome, Democrats suggest decreeing a different one. The outcome it professes to deliver is widely desired. It seems “free.” And then it damages, rather than strengthens, the labor market.

.. The minimum wage and the wage subsidy both aim to raise the earnings of low-wage workers, but whereas the wage subsidy asks taxpayers to make up the difference, the minimum wage asks employers to

.. The wage subsidy injects funds from outside the labor market to boost the formation of employment relationships and encourage greater investment in labor-intensive businesses. The minimum wage does the opposite, operating as a tax on low-wage employment that employers have to pay for every low-wage hour they use.

.. The roughly $200 billion price tag for a wage subsidy might require some new tax revenue, but its funding could come largely from the existing safety net, which already dedicates more than $1 trillion annually to low-income households