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.”

Google’s Shadow Work Force: Temps Who Outnumber Full-Time Employees

High-tech companies have long promoted the idea that they are egalitarian, idyllic workplaces. And Google, perhaps more than any other, has represented that image, with a reputation for enviable salaries and benefits and lavish perks.

But the company’s increasing reliance on temps and contractors has some Google employees wondering if management is undermining its carefully crafted culture. As of March, Google worked with roughly 121,000 temps and contractors around the world, compared with 102,000 full-time employees, according to an internal document obtained by The New York Times.

Though they often work side by side with full-timers, Google temps are usually employed by outside agencies. They make less money, have different benefits plans and have no paid vacation time in the United States, according to more than a dozen current and former Google temp and contract workers, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.

Better treatment for those workers was one of the demands made by organizers of a Google employee walkout last year to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

“It’s time to end the two-tier system that treats some workers as expendable,” the walkout organizers wrote on Twitter in March.

The reliance on temporary help has generated more controversy inside Google than it has at other big tech outfits, but the practice is common in Silicon Valley. Contingent labor accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the workers at most technology firms, according to estimates by OnContracting, a site that helps people find tech contracting positions.

OnContracting estimates that a technology company can save $100,000 a year on average per American job by using a contractor instead of a full-time employee.

“It’s creating a caste system inside companies,” said Pradeep Chauhan, who runs OnContracting.

In statements to The Times, Google did not directly address concerns that it had created a two-tiered work force, but said it did not hire contractors simply to save money.

Eileen Naughton, Google’s vice president of people operations, said that if a contingent worker “is not having a good experience, we provide lots of ways to report complaints or express concerns.”

She added, “We investigate, we hold individuals to account and we work to make things right for any person impacted.”

.. When Google became a public company in 2004, its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wrote that they believed in rewarding employees with unusual benefits because “our employees, who have named themselves Googlers, are everything.”

But not everyone doing work for Google over the years has been a Googler. The company has been using temps and contractors since its early years in projects like scanning books for online search. According to one former Google employee, temps and contractors accounted for about a third of the work force about a decade ago, and that share has steadily climbed.

It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs

The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes.

.. Consider the Industrial Revolution. Well before it took place, in the 19th century, another revolution in work occurred in the 18th century, which historians call the “industrious revolution.” Before this revolution, people worked where they lived, perhaps at a farm or a shop. The manufacturing of textiles, for example, relied on networks of independent farmers who spun fibers and wove cloth. They worked on their own; they were not employees.

In the industrious revolution, however, manufacturers gathered workers under one roof, where the labor could be divided and supervised. For the first time on a large scale, home life and work life were separated. People no longer controlled how they worked, and they received a wage instead of sharing directly in the profits of their efforts.

This was a necessary precondition for the Industrial Revolution.

.. the creation of factory technology was possible only because people’s relationship to work had already changed. A power loom would have served no purpose for networks of farmers making cloth at home.

.. our current historical moment is better understood as a second industrious revolution

.. Over these four decades we have seen an increase in the use of day laborers, office temps, management consultants, contract assemblers, adjunct professors, Blackwater mercenaries and every other kind of worker filing an I.R.S. form 1099. These jobs span the income ranks, but they share what all work seems to have in common in the post-1970s economy: They are temporary and insecure.

.. In the last 10 years, 94 percent of net new jobs have appeared outside of traditional employment.
.. services like Uber and online freelance markets like TaskRabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it.
.. Uber is a symptom, not a cause... shortly after World War II, a Milwaukee man named Elmer Winter founded Manpower, the first major temp agency, to supply emergency secretaries.

.. The emergence in the 1970s of a new, strictly financial view of corporations, a philosophy that favored stock and bond prices over production, of short-term gains over long-term investment. Theories of “lean” corporate organization became popular, especially those sold by management consultants and business gurus.

.. Pundits have offered many paths forward — “portable” benefits, universal basic income, worker reclassification — but regardless of the option, the important thing to remember is that we do have a choice.

 

The Class Struggle According to Donald Trump

the fact that a worker’s wealth and well-being is much more dependent upon her employer than the employer is on a given worker tilts things in the employer’s favor.

.. Two trends demonstrate the decline of labor and the ascent of business. Since 1979, after-tax corporate profits as a share of gross domestic product have grown by 22.8 percent, while the share of nonfarm business sector income going to labor has dropped by 10.3 percent.

The decline in worker bargaining power in the United States is the cumulative effect of numerous small and large changes over recent decades reaching into almost every area of law and policy. This combines with a decline in the enforcement of existing laws that could protect workers’ bargaining power — laws protecting unions, laws against wage theft, nondiscrimination laws, and more.

.. Among these changes is the requirement that employees sign what are known as “noncompete” and “no-raid” agreements, both of which restrict workers’ ability to extract pay hikes by threatening to take similar jobs at competing companies.

.. “less than half of workers who have non-competes also report possessing trade secrets.”

When entry-level workers at fast food restaurants are asked to sign two-year non-competes, it becomes less plausible that trade secrets are always the primary motivation for such agreements.

.. The treasury report estimated that 30 million American workers have signed noncompete agreements.

.. 94 percent of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.

The growing emphasis on “shareholder value” has provided additional justification for all of these anti-worker developments.

.. “the shareholder value movement starting in the late 1980s and now institutionalized through industry analysts” was crucially important in the devaluation of employees:

.. Accounting in business is mainly about costs. Finance people hate fixed costs because of the challenges they raise to share price valuation when there is uncertainty, and the biggest fixed costs are labor. Simply moving the same labor costs from employees to outside staffing companies moves it from one part of the accounting ledger to another and makes analysts happier.

This mentality, in turn, encourages “the use of temps and contractors” to fill high-wage jobs because “that way the employer doesn’t have to raise wages for all their employees.”

.. Companies could outsource work to areas with cheaper labor and less of a union presence. This both weakened the union and ramped up competitive pressure on the companies that were unionized. The result was fewer unions.

.. In 2017, 6.5 percent of the private sector work force was unionized, down from 35 percent in 1955.

.. The contemporary weakness of organized labor and the threatened status of employees has roots in the breakdown in the 1970s of the postwar capital-labor accord — what A.H. Raskin, the legendary labor reporter for The Times, called a “live-and-let-live relationship” that held sway for 30 years.

.. First, they would alter antitrust enforcement to require consideration of the likely effect of mergers on concentration in the labor market, in order to prevent “too high a risk of wage suppression.”

.. Second, Krueger and Posner would support legislation making noncompete agreements “uniformly unenforceable and banned if they govern a worker who earns less than the median wage in her state.”

.. ban no-poaching arrangements altogether:

We propose a per se rule against no-poaching agreements regardless of whether they are used outside or within franchises. In other words, no-poaching agreements would be considered illegal regardless of the circumstances of their use.

.. In the 2016 election, Trump profited from the conviction of rural and working-class voters that they were on a downward trajectory. If anything, Trump appears to be gambling that letting those voters’ lives continue to languish will work to his advantage in 2020.

.. His administration has turned the executive branch, the federal courts and the regulatory agencies into the sworn enemy of workers, organized and unorganized. Trump is indisputably indifferent to the plight of anyone in the bottom half of the income distribution:

  • look at his appointments,
  • look at his record in office,
  • look back at his business career and
  • look at the man himself.