January 31st 2017 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Graphic by Bartu Kaleagasi
Social networks are the defining innovation of this generation. They are a tool which has given us previously unimaginable levels of connectivity, as well as the ability to easily keep up to date with global news and specific issues that we care about.
Yet, in the midst of a discussion about the so-called “fake news” circulating throughout social media, little attention has been given to another serious problem: the detrimental side effect of our dependence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. Unknowingly, we have created – and consequently live in – digital political bubbles.
A polarisation of ideas
As many have noted, society has never been as politically polarised as it is today. In fact, studies show that we increasingly identify with a particular political party and view the opposite party as “dangerous”.
One reason for this phenomenon is that many of our choices in life are inherently political. We are less likely to be friends with people whose politics are wildly different from ours. We are less likely to live in a neighbourhood where our neighbours have drastically different ideologies from us. Income, background, and geography are all indicators of our politics. The more similar we are with those around us, the more we isolate ourselves from different political opinions. The result? We end up viewing these similar opinions as more “normal” than the rest, hence the polarisation.
Diagram by Washington Post
However, this is not the only factor in play. Even though this sort of polarisation has always existed, it is not an omnipotent force. After all, who has not been challenged on their opinions by colleagues, classmates, or old friends? In today’s world, social welfare policies mean that we no longer only interact with people from identical backgrounds and profiles. Middle class students go to the same public schools as low income students, increasing opportunities for minorities mean our offices are ever more diverse, and while racial segregation in housing is still present, it is much lower than it used to be.
This means that we interact daily with individuals who are quite different from us, being exposed to a variety of opinions. That is what makes for awkward dinners with everyone’s Marxist friend, and why at the end of the day we know and value different political standpoints from ours.
Social networks & algorithms
The advent of social networks has changed this dynamic of political tolerance. One of our most frequent and cherished pastimes is to scroll through our social network newsfeed, and with 2.32 billion people projected to own smartphones in 2017, the separation from political clemency could broaden.
This newsfeed, and our interaction with it, is of vital importance when it comes to our worldview, and hence, our political ideology. One might think that there is nothing political about funny videos or pictures from our friend’s night out. Indeed, not everyone’s feed is full of news articles. However, most social media users can attest to the fact that in between everyday posts, we also see content of a political nature.
Diagram by Dennis Jenders
Videos of refugees begging for help on the coast of Greece frequently popped up last year. So have articles about climate change and the need for action, and the day would not be complete without an article decrying the latest Trump buffoonery. The prevalence of this content varies depending on our individual preferences. However, even the smallest interaction is registered and used by the social network’s machine learning algorithms.
Our interaction with such political content determines the frequency with which we will see similar or relevant information again in our newsfeed. Our newsfeed “knows” what we want to see based on how we interact with it – perhaps the most prominent use of artificial intelligence in current times.
For example, I – along with only 46% of the world – believe climate change is the biggest threat we face today. I am interested in our fight for cleaner energy, which is why I frequently read and share information about it on social media.
My interaction with Facebook posts about climate change is extensive. Facebook’s algorithm can easily pick up on this and oh-so gracefully provide me the content I want in the form of relevant articles my friends have shared. It is unlikely that Facebook will show me articles shared by my friends that it deems less relevant to my interaction patterns. An article arguing against the closing of a coal mine, for example, is less likely to appear in my newsfeed. This is not simply because I do not follow pages that are most likely to publish it. It is because it will go against the “narrative” my clicks, likes, shares and comments have told Facebook I believe in.
Here lies the problem of our digital political bubble. Our perception of what is going on in the world is less influenced by everyday conversation with people who might not agree with us, and more influenced by the content of our social media which always agrees with us.
Photograph by Dominick Reuter
Our politics suffer from this dynamic because it inevitably reinforces our perception over others. I for one could read twenty articles on climate change in the course of a month, but not a single one on the negative economic and social impacts of environmental regulation (e.g. closing a coal mine in low-income areas). Am I not living in a bubble?
Let’s take another example, the previously mentioned refugee crisis. People reading this article will most likely have seen in their newsfeed a video of refugees stranded at sea; teary, desperate individuals trying to reach Europe’s shores. Or perhaps even a video condemning anti-refugee statements. A conservative voter in the United States, however, will have had a completely different set of information presented to them. They would have followed pages, people and newspapers that you and I have not. And their friends will have posted content that would not come across our screens.
The result of this disparity is that the perception these two people have over the refugee crisis is so vastly different, that is becomes almost incomprehensible to both why the other would have such an opinion. Thus, there is a direct link between our usage of social media and the current phenomenon of political polarisation.
Moreover, social networks like Facebook offer a platform for millions of media organisations to expand their content and bring in more traffic and revenue. This gives these news outlets and companies just one key incentive: to make us click on the article or video they just shared.
Studies have shown that the most reliable stimulator in our brain – the factor that is most likely to make us click on something – is anger. A video of a cat might make us think about it for a minute or two, but the emotion that it provokes is so minimal that it will not stay with us for long.
Article from Daily Mail
A video of a racist attack in the subway, however, will make us angry, and thus will have a far more significant impact. It will compel us to read about this episode in detail; to go see whether the attacker was apprehended, or whether bystanders helped. In other words, we will care more.
Generating anger is the most compelling way to engage with users. News sites who look to generate traffic through Facebook know this. That is why websites regularly post information that they know will make their readers angry, and prompt them to click, to “see more”.
The unintended consequence of this process, however, is that it serves to accentuate political polarisation. Not only do we perceive different realities through social media, but we also regularly see content that make us more impassioned and angrier.
United in diversity
The overall argument laid out is not one against the use of social media. Social media has been, overall, significantly beneficial for everyone involved. However, it is important to understand how websites like Facebook use our behaviour on their platform to predict what it is we want from them, and what will make us stay online more often.
While this may be good for us in some ways, since it allows us to see and read more content related to topics that genuinely interest us, it also means that we live in a digital bubble, shielded from wildly different point of views or arguments. The implications of these bubbles are serious. Many of the shocking political events we experienced in 2016 can be partly linked to voters dealing with a different set of facts, and therefore wildly different perceptions.
There is, however, a simple solution to burst our digital bubbles. We must make the conscious decision to listen to and read arguments which we do not agree with. The only way to do this is by inserting different content into our social media. Here is a list of conservative podcasts, pages and people to follow, and here is one for both conservative and liberal audiences. Enjoy!
June 12th 2016 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Photographs by Mark Lyons, Jessica Kourkounis, and Jewel Samad
As the Democratic primaries come to an end, a significant movement has been brewing among Bernie Sanders supporters: Bernie or Bust.
Those who advocate this approach argue that if Hillary Clinton is to win the nomination, voters should either write in Bernie’s name, or vote for a third party candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. A minority of them also believe that voters should turn around and support Donald Trump in order to prevent an “establishment” candidate like Hillary from clenching the presidency, but that debate is for another day.
This piece is neither an argument against Bernie, whose campaign has exceeded all expectations since last year (TSH), nor in support of Hillary. Rather, it is an evaluation of the Bernie or Bust movement.
The flaws in Clinton’s candidacy
At its core, the movement finds its roots in the view that high-ranking officials of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), referred to as the establishment, have forced the election in November to be between “the lesser of two evils”.
Bernie or Bust supporters believe that they do not owe any loyalty to the Democratic Party, and that they are entitled to vote for whichever candidate represents them best. In other words, #sheepnomore.
They also describe the Democratic Party as having engaged in electoral fraud and voter suppression. In their view, the allegations and evidence suggesting manipulation of the primaries, as seen in states like Arizona and New York, represents proof that party elites are bending the will of the people towards their establishment candidate.
Whilst no conclusive investigation has been conducted on this matter, their mind has already been made up.
Photograph by CNN
As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, the movement has highlighted many aspects of her candidacy that appear rather visibly flawed in contrast to Bernie Sanders.
First, they point to her corporate fundraising networks worth billions of dollars and highlight possible undesirable effects that lobbyists could have on her future administration and policy decisions. This most notably includes her campaign contributions from the oil industry, as well as millions of dollars that she personally received for speeches to financial firms like Goldman Sachs, for which she still refuses to release the transcripts.
As a result, her campaign has been marred with public distrust in her relationship with Wall Street and the question of whether she would be able to regulate the financial industry adequately.
Second, they allocate partial blame to her for the negative consequences of Bill Clinton’s policies in the 90’s, including the controversial 1994 crime bill which increased incarceration rates in the United States disproportionately for African Americans.
Third, they argue that her foreign policy decisions are as “hawkish” as her Republican counterparts. They point to her vote in support of the Iraq War and her actions as Secretary of State as evidence for this assertion.
Finally, they claim that the numerous inconsistencies and policy changes throughout her political career, whether regarding TPP or the minimum wage, show that she is willing to “flip-flop” in order to pander to the electorate and gain more votes.
This suggests that she may not always keep her promises, especially with regards to progressive policy commitments that she made in response to the threat of Bernie’s campaign.
A matter of principle
To many Bernie supporters, Clinton is the epitome of the political elite, a candidate that is overly friendly with corporate lobbyists and inevitably influenced by multinational companies and rich individuals.
They see a United States that is controlled by big money interests, and a middle class that has been shrinking as a result of it. To them, Hillary Clinton is the representative of an America that they want to avoid, rather than a “Future to Believe in”.
Photograph by Matthew Gore
One of the movement’s key objectives is to bring the Democratic Party back to what they view as its rightful place in the political spectrum, the centre-left. They argue that the party has moved towards the right in the last few decades, and that therefore US politics does not have a truly progressive party to represent them.
Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly centre-right in the eyes of Europeans, but now it seems she may even be too centrist for many Bernie supporters. The argument follows that if Hillary wins the presidency, the country will continue to see the Democratic Party shift even further to the right, whereas a Bernie presidency would have a long-lasting progressive influence.
The Bernie or Bust movement doubles down on this idea, arguing that a Trump presidency would be so disastrous that from its ashes and through the movement that is growing at the moment, a genuine progressive party would emerge – a prospect they consider unlikely if Hillary won the election.
The Bernie campaign’s effect
It is important to note at this point that Bernie’s campaign has had a significant impact on public opinion, especially among his supporters.
During her tenure as Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, Hillary Clinton’s favourability varied between 56% to 62%. It currently holds at 41%. Since Clinton has been in politics for more than 35 years, she is on record about most of her ideas and voters have had plenty of time to research her positions and character (having also run for the Democratic nomination in 2008).
Her decline in popularity can be seen as a result of both the Republican apparatus having demonised her in the wake of both legitimate and cooked up scandals like her FBI email investigation and the Benghazi attacks in 2012, as well as Senator Sanders’ campaign narrative.
Diagram – Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings
Bernie’s message offers a binary version of politics in the United States, an “us vs them” paradigm, which allows him to point out the evils of American politics without being considered complicit. This is further aided by his undoubtedly honest character and the steadfastness of his opinions.
His campaign against what he considers elites that control politicians, and a government that serves the wealthy, has turned Democratic voters against Hillary Clinton. To them, she represents all of these evils and more.
By no means is there a lack of arguments against Hillary Clinton, but clear heads do not always prevail during political campaigns, and especially one with such a strong narrative and polarised voter base.
One might wonder what Hillary’s likability would have been if Sanders had fixated less on her Wall Street speeches (which he was initially reluctant to bring up) and more on her policy flip-flops.
If not pro-Hillary, then anti-Republican
The Bernie or Bust movement has rightfully shined the light on some of Clinton’s disagreeable aspects. However, if Bernie’s supporters are revolting against a plutocracy as they say, then they should not stay at home in November.
If the United States is a plutocracy, it is quite clear whose fault that is. It is not the mere consequence of an elite class plotting to screw over the middle class. It is a direct result of misguided economic policies and regressive social ideology adopted by conservative administrations, at both the state and national level.
Bernie points out that the level of inequality is extremely high. It was Reagan’s administration that gave immense and disproportionate tax cuts for the rich in the 80’s and set inequality on an upward trajectory. It is also Kansas’s Republican governor who did the same in 2014, even though trickle-down economics had already been disproved many years ago. It is Republicans that have cut social programs to help the poor such as Medicare and food stamps.
Photograph by Tom Williams
He argues that Wall Street’s reckless behaviour was the cause the financial crisis. It is still part of the Republican Party’s platform today that deregulation of financial markets is beneficial for the economy.
He talks about campaign finance regulations and the corrupting influence of money on politics. It is Republicans who want to appoint a Supreme Court judge like Antonin Scalia, who himself voted in favour of “Citizens United v. FEC”, resulting in the complete removal of limits on political donations.
He argues for universal healthcare and points to the power of insurance companies over government. Republicans not only oppose universal healthcare, but they want to actively repeal the arguably modest scheme that is Obamacare.
He opposes the United States military apparatus and reckless spending. Republicans want to increase military spending and advocate for its frequent use in international operations.
He wants to give a path to citizenship to all illegal immigrants in the country. Republicans want to deport them.
As a campaign message, it may be easier to portray the state of affairs in US politics as the consequence of a greedy elite of officials and corporations, but it must also be understood as the consequence of several decades of flawed policies.
Bernie or Bust voters may rightly believe that Hillary Clinton has too many flaws to gain their vote. Yet, if they really do want to end corruption and elitism in US politics, a Republican, even if he is a muttering buffoon with an anti-establishment agenda, should be the last person they want to see in office.
Democratic platform or Trump presidency?
The Bernie or Bust movement is thus presented with two options: (a) vote for Hillary and attempt to influence the Democratic Party’s platform, or (b) vote against her and endure four years of Trump presidency for the opportunity to fight again in 2020.
Not voting for Hillary in November would inevitably result in a Trump presidency. However, the movement argues that Trump has proven himself to be as ineffective as he is inconsistent. The chaos that exists within the Republican Party, together with expected wins by Democrats in mid-term elections, could be enough to make a Trump presidency powerless and thus with little negative consequence. Then, after four years, the progressive movement would be able to take over the 2020 election and cement a permanent foundation.
The problem with this option is that Trump has aligned himself with very conservative officials, and he is running as the Republican nominee. So even if he himself is not as regressive in real life as his colleagues, the institutions that will carry him to the presidency and help him run the country definitely are, and they will want to see their policies turn into reality.
Photograph by Charlie Neibergall
The other option is to influence the Democratic Party platform and push Hillary towards the centre-left. Sanders has already been given some influence over policy at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July, and there is growing pressure on Clinton to pick progressive hero Senator Elisabeth Warren, a darling of the Sanders movement, as her candidate for Vice-President.
Bernie’s voters would rejoice at the idea of influencing the Democratic candidate, her future administration, and the party platform to introduce their ideas of economic, social, and environmental justice. However, the problem with this option is that the Democratic establishment might not be willing to change it self so easily in order to accommodate Bernie Sanders’ concerns.
If Bernie or Bust voters find themselves unable to trust the Democratic Party to fulfil their progressive objectives, their decision becomes rather complicated.
The November trade-off
There is no doubt that Bernie voters have raised legitimate issues about Hillary Clinton, but come November, he will most likely endorse her candidacy against Donald Trump in the general election.
Some of his supporters must now decide whether they will vote against their conscience and try to influence the party platform, or go through a Trump presidency in the hope of a better Democratic Party in the next election.
Is the cost of a Clinton presidency really higher than that of a Republican one, or does the importance of Supreme Court nominations for progressive legislation supersede all other considerations?
November 15th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Photograph by Mark J. Terrill
Anyone following the US Presidential Elections 2016 has no doubt heard the name: Donald Trump.
To the surprise of many, the real-estate mogul, TV personality, and professional controversy artist entered the Republican race in June. The media, and especially comedians across the US and the world, were all excited for what was to come.
However, as time flew by and summer continued, jokes became comments, and comments became policy. Trump’s rallies started increasing in size, his interviews became more frequent, and his endorsements started piling up. Now, he is leading the polls, with 28% percent of Republican primary voters supporting his candidacy.
Although there may be no need to worry about his national electability, the situation is somewhat concerning. The fact that a candidate who claims he will build a wall between Mexico and the US is leading the polls, followed closely by Dr. Carson who described Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”, says something about today’s Republican Party. Really, what ever happened to the GOP?
The Republican Party
The answer is two-fold. The current situation the party finds itself in is a direct result of its response to Obama’s nomination and policy agenda.
The President’s healthcare bill, his stimulus package, and his general liberal stances and charisma, have cast an unbearable burden over the relationship between his administration and the GOP.
As Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the Senate said: after Obama’s nomination, “the GOP’s top political priority should be to deny Mr Obama a second term”.
That statement best summarises the party’s stance today. Rather than focusing on a genuine conservative agenda, the Republicans have adopted an anti-Obama agenda, causing a political gridlock that has crippled Congress throughout the Obama years.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had tried to delay and defund Obamacare by strong-arming the Democratic-led Senate and Obama administration on the federal budget. With neither side backing down, the government was unable to agree on a budget in time and was forced to shut down for 16 days.
The GOP was, in a way, pressured to follow this strategy by the Tea Party movement. Having emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s plan to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners (a sin in Republican ideology), the Tea Party movement quickly spread and became a loud minority within the Republican Party.
Its followers divided the GOP by pushing mainstream politicians (usually dubbed “the establishment”) and members of congress further to the right, or rather, more anti-Obama, by threatening to challenge their seats in congress (which 40 congressmen lost in 2010).
Trump and Carson
It is in this context that Trump appeared. By calling politicians “losers” and “all talk but no action”, he touched the minds of many disillusioned citizens, especially Republicans who saw their party as incompetent.
The Republican Party had spent the good part of these last 8 years picturing Obama as a dangerous president whose policies would ruin the entire country. Their depiction of an evil Obama administration made Republican voters see their party as incapable of standing up to fight this “danger”, especially when Obama continued pushing his policy agenda despite the gridlock in Congress.
Trump and Carson, seen as “outsiders” of the political spectrum, carry a simple, yet powerful message: “I will get the job done”. Their campaigns have proven to be entertaining, and it seems unlikely they will receive the nomination, but their success says a lot about today’s Republican Party.
As Bill Maher said when addressing Republican commentators, “this is the Frankenstein monster that was created with the Tea Party, this is your worst nightmare”.
Diagram by Fox News
This diversion, however, follows a long-term trend within the party and its policies. Indeed, the GOP has greatly diverted from what it was, or what it could have been, in the last decades. Many commentators, including conservatives in the US, have argued that legendary Republican figures like Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower would have no place in today’s GOP.
The Republican Party’s most prominent politicians have lost touch with the party’s supposed core values, and in doing so, they have been losing many voters.
Most Republican congressmen are climate change deniers, consistently doubting the proven facts and unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is a man-made phenomenon.
Last February, Sen. James Inhofe even threw a snowball in Senate to prove that since there is still snow, the planet is clearly not becoming warmer. This issue is one where the Republican Party diverted, and made a huge mistake by doing so.
Had the Republican Party stuck to the message that we must take care of our environment and react when it is in danger, instead of spreading misinformation, they would have more credible amongst voters today.
The Republican Party, at its core, believes in “small government”: the idea that the federal government has no business intervening in your private life.
This libertarian concept has many positive aspects, and is even used by some advocates of marijuana legalisation. Yet, the GOP consistently criticises and attacks this stance, claiming that marijuana is as dangerous to society as any other illegal drug.
Republicans have enacted and supported harsh laws against its use, putting thousands of people behind bars. In fact, 55% of federal and 21% of state prisoners found guilty of drug offences are incarcerated due to marijuana, and some are even sentenced to life in prison.
Diagram by Kegler Brown
This, along with other drug policies, have increased the amount of prisoners in the US to a point where it is now the largest prison population in the world and second highest per capita.
Some republicans like Rand Paul have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy behind the Republican Party’s support for such policies regarding drugs, since they have greatly expanded the intervention and cost of federal government.
The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2014 was $30,619 – money that could be much better spent elsewhere.
Separation of church and state
The GOP has always been the conservative party which believes in traditional values. However, it has also been the constitutional party.
Republican politicians have argued that the Constitution should be followed as narrowly as possible, and that by following the Constitution the country would avoid dangerous and harmful policies.
Yet, the Party has diverted from this clear and (somewhat) reasonable stance, by consistently ignoring the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
Photograph by Bartu Kaleagasi
This amendment, established in the 18th century, clearly states that the US government is never allowed to identify with one religion.
Despite this fact, The Republican Party has time and time again proclaimed that the US is a Christian country, and that government must abide by traditional Christian values.
They have argued against the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion, criticised the idea that a Muslim could be president, and consistently cited the bible and their Christian values as an argument against marriage equality.
Another deviation relates again to the idea of “small government”.
Instead of sticking to the message that the American people are better off if the government does not interfere in their lives, the GOP has supported the NSA in the national debate regarding their mass surveillance program.
As Rand Paul said, “Republicans don’t like big government until they like big government”.
Photograph by Dado Ruvic
According to most Republicans, it is not right for the government to expand in order to provide entitlements to the American people, yet it is right to expand in order to provide greater powers to the NSA and other intelligence agencies, allowing them to spy even on their own citizens without needing approval from a judicial entity.
In any democracy, in order for the national debate to progress, all sides must indulge in rational discussions, arguments, and policies. It is not enough for Democrats to laugh at a possible Trump nomination or look at current Republican policies and feel relief.
If the country is to go forward, a real debate must happen during these elections. This is unlikely to happen when one of the largest parties cares more about appealing to a loud minority within its voters than about representing its core values. Doing so simply alienates the majority of Americans and reduces the potential for national debate.
As to us Europeans, we are left watching and enjoying the race. However, we should not get too comfortable either, since we all know what happened the last time America elected a questionable President.
A look at the past and future of the EU debt crisis
August 9th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Photograph by Milos Bicanski
In the past few months, Greece has been the centre of attention of world media. As the possibility of a Grexit came closer than ever, the financial stability of the Eurozone, and arguably the world, was at play.
On the 8th of July, Guy Verhofstadt gave a passionate speech in the European Parliament, directly addressing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the height of troubled negotiations between Greece and its creditors. His speech, which went viral on all forms of social media, ended with the phrase “do it now!”.
Mr Verhofstadt’s comment pinpoints the current scene of the “Greek Story” that we’ve been witnessing. A retrospective look on this story is necessary not only to understand the present situation, but also to understand what needs to be done in the near future.
In the 1940s, Greece suffered a civil war which ended with the surrender of the communist party.
In its aftermath, leftists in Greece were both marginalised and blamed for the war. Years later, this rejection of the leftist movement culminated in the 1967 coup d’état, led by fascist generals at the time. Their military “junta” brought about oppression, forced exiles, persecutions, and torture of communist academics, activists and cultural figures.
After the fall of “The Colonels” in 1974, there was a progressive liberalisation of the leftist movement in Greece (along with the rest of Europe) which led to the successful election of the nation’s first ever social democratic party, PASOK, in 1981.
What came next has been attributed as the root of Greece’s modern woes.
In order to gain the vote and sympathy of the divided Greek society, the PASOK government engaged in systemic clientelism and nepotism. The public sector expanded immensely, jobs became favours, and corruption became a regular part of Greek politics and civil society.
On the other hand, the Greek people developed a love-hate relationship with the government which still persists today. Most people distrusted the government and evaded taxes in some form, whilst also simultaneously relying on it for a number of services ranging from jobs to personal favours like permits and licences.
Photograph via Media Commons
One cannot solemnly blame PASOK for this, as Greece was a relatively new country with dysfunctional institutions. Yet, as the years went by, clientelism continued and became ingrained in the minds of the average Greek citizen and politician.
In 1990, Nea Dimokratia (ND), the centre-right party, came to power in government. However, instead of changing and fixing Greece’s political culture, ND feared it would alienate voters if it discontinued the “way of government” that had prevailed during the 80’s.
Thus, Greek clientelism continued untouched, passing from ND to PASOK and arguably reaching its climax in 2004 when Greece hosted the Summer Olympics. The games not only cost billions in public money, but were also the subject of bribery relating to building contracts. In Greece, many still regard it as “the games we couldn’t pay for”.
The Great Recession
In 2009, ND’s rule came to an end. In the wake of the Great Recession, the european financial market was hit by high government structural deficits and accelerating debt levels.
The countries most affected by the recession saw a strong rise in interest rates for government bonds as a result of investor concerns about the future sustainability of their debt. Investors started to doubt Greece’s ability to repay its accumulated debt, not only because of its ever increasing size, but also due to revelations that past data on debt levels and deficits was manipulated by the Greek government.
The outcome was a deep crisis of confidence in Greece’s economy, shown by an increase of bond yield spreads and in the cost of risk insurance on credit default swaps compared to other Eurozone countries. This not only meant that the “cheap” money flowing into Greece due to its membership in the Euro (feeding its clientelistic system) could not continue, but that the government could not even borrow any more at market levels due to the recession.
In exchange, the Troika demanded austerity measures from the government which would lower its debt and reduce the size of its public sector. It also put forth the need for structural reforms in ministries and in the country’s tax collection system.
Whilst some were necessary, many of these measures were rightly criticised as harsh, and sometimes even counter-productive. In fact, the image of the Troika’s tainted black cars and suited men arriving in Athens to “dictate terms” gave them the lovely nickname of “Men in Black”.
Troika’s austerity measures
In theory, the reforms would be a way of showing the Troika that Greece could indeed put its finances back in track and ditch the clientelist system that had reigned for decades. All in exchange for the bailout money.
However, PASOK and ND, the parties who oversaw the first and second bail-out reforms in 2010 and 2012, both failed to do their job.
From the list of Troika’s demands, Greek politicians chose the “easiest” and ergo most superficial ones to implement. They raised taxes, cut salaries, and reduced public sector jobs. The essential reforms that actually needed to be done, the ones that required time, energy and great political cost, were largely postponed.
For example, the fund that was designated to privatise many of Greece’s undervalued assets had as its goal to raise €50 billion euros. In reality, it raised little more than €2 billion.
Photograph by European Parliament
Indeed, privatisation in a country where the government is as big and dysfunctional as Greece’s can make those who benefit from the state angry, which in turn results in MPs losing their jobs. That is why it was easier to just sign in laws that reduced government expenses rather than making essential and difficult reforms.
In economic terms, this did little more than prolong Greece’s recession and had a very small positive effect on the country’s debt crisis.
The rise and fall of SYRIZA
So, after five years of austerity that hadn’t paid off, Greeks were becoming increasingly frustrated.
In January of 2015, the people elected SYRIZA, a party that vowed to repeal austerity laws, rehire public workers, halt privatisation of public assets, reach an agreement with the Troika that wouldn’t require austerity, “force” them to write down the debt, and eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites that dominate the Greek economy.
SYRIZA, treating the Greek people much like a naive child, made such a vast range of impossible-to-complete promises. Journalists and politicians constantly questioned the financial and political feasibility of such actions, but never got an answer. Nonetheless, their rhetoric played well with a society that had suffered five years of crippling austerity and recession.
Photograph via New York Times
After six months, the verdict is quite clear: SYRIZA negotiators botched the negotiations with their counterparts and brought Greece on the verge of a Grexit.
The government is now negotiating for a third bailout, having had to first implement capital controls and increasingly harsh measures. More importantly, the country is finally seeing some positive structural reforms, those that ND and PASOK had failed to implement for so many years.
Yet, the national debt has not been written down, SYRIZA has not reduced, but perhaps even increased the clientelistic methods used in the past, it has failed to eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites of the economy, and it and has eliminated some of the previous positive reforms made by ND and PASOK during the 2010 and 2012 bailouts.
The Third Bailout
The newest agreement between Greece and Troika is set to unfreeze €86 billion over three years.
The reforms in question consist of a mix of taxation, labour market, and banking sector reforms, alongside privatisation of state-owned assets (details can be found here). More industries will be subject to the top VAT rate of 23%, Greek islands will no longer have the lowest VAT rate of 6%, and corporate tax will also increase up to 28%.
Moreover, the retirement age will increase to 67 by 2022, whilst state-funded aid to the poorest pensioners will be eliminated by 2019. The reforms also aim to liberalise the labour market and, among other things, increase shopping hours and adopt “rigorous reviews and modernisation of collective bargaining, industrial action and, in line with the relevant EU directive and best practice, collective dismissals”.
Greece also has to reinforce banking governance by “eliminating any possibility for political interference, especially in appointment processes”. Indeed, the deal signals for the creation of a concrete programme for “de-politicising the Greek administration”.
Photograph via Reuters
Lastly, the most controversial aspect of the deal was that “valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an independent fund that will monetise the assets through privatisations and other means”.
The fund, with a value of €50 billion, will be headquartered in Greece and managed by Greek authorities under the strict supervision of the Troika. Of its revenue, 50% will go to debt repayments, 25% to investments and the remaining 25% to the recapitalisation of greek banks following their massive loss of capital that prompted capital controls.
The deal, however, does not mention a reduction for Greece’s unsustainable debt (a detail that makes the IMF wary). With such tough reforms ahead, Greece is heading for its third and hopefully last bailout for years to come.
The next chapter
So what happens now?
With the third bailout soon on its way, difficult times are ahead for Greece. There are two main issues now at play.
First, the anti-austerity platform will continue under other politicians in Greece, having been “given away” by SYRIZA. Greek society will thus continue to be divided between those who see austerity as the necessary evil to fight Greece’s woes and those who see it as an unnecessary punishment by Greece’s creditors.
Politicians will emerge, possibly old members of SYRIZA disillusioned with its trajectory, who will carry the anti-austerity movement in Greece and exploit the understandable anger and frustration of the Greek people.
Photograph by European Parliament
Second, Greece will have to live through a period of political turmoil until we can find a party to properly carry on the reforms of the third bailout. It is quite clear that SYRIZA does not believe in the reforms it signed up for; they will not be the ones to implement them.
Yet, despite the surrounding uncertainty, Greece has made one thing clear during these last 6 months: the will of the Greek people is to stay in the Euro and to find a solution to Greece’s financial problems by restructuring what is fundamentally wrong with the country.
Almost all Greeks agree that something has to change, yet they also agree that what happened these past five years is not the real answer. True reforms need to take place, and there is now, more than ever, both the political and social will to do them.
The question is, who is going to carry them out? The two parties who created the problems in the first place, or the party who promised its way into power just to repeat the same mistakes?
One thing is clear, as Mr. Verhofstadt said, someone needs to “do it now!”.