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Capitalism, democracy & taxation: McDonnell & Varoufakis January 26, 2016

Posted by larry in Abuse of power, Bill Mitchell, democracy, economic inequality, economics, Varoufakis.
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I believe the current UK Tory government to be the most dangerous in living memory, at least for its own citizens and residents. This is why.

John McDonnell, the Labour shadow Chancellor, was interviewed on Channel 4 News last night and on Newsnight later on, Monday evening, 25 January. Even though the Channel 4interview raised the same old chestnuts, he showed he really doesn’t “get” the functions of taxation. He made a big point about how taxes are needed in order to pay for schools, hospitals, &c. And he made an even ghastlier mistake at the end of Osborne’s autumn statement last year, sounding like Balls, how the Corbyn Labour Party would bring down the deficit but slower and in a fairer way. Ye gods!!! Don’t just believe me. Have a look at Beardsley Ruml in 1946 – “Taxes for Revenue are Obsolete”: http://home.hiwaay.net/~becraft/RUMLTAXES.html. McDonnell doesn’t “get it”.

McDonnell may have been listening to Varoufakis, possibly on taxation, too much, methinks. The only things V cares about are Greece and his European democracy project, which are good things to care about. But Varoufakis has bad reasons for counting Osborne as one of his “friends”. I think McDonnell has also talked to Wren-Lewis, a neo-Keynesian, which won’t help. V contends that there hasn’t been much austerity in the UK; compared to Greece, I think he means. Well, Osborne I think has applied his austerity mostly in ways that usually do not affect GDP. The people he usually attacks make no appreciable impact on GDP and therefore would not show up in the overall statistics. So, when GDP drops, he realizes that he may have made a mistake and attacked the “wrong people”, and he adjusts. A tad. No reason Varoufakis should know about this, but then to make the statements he does seems to me to be irresponsible.

What this shows is that GDP in itself is insufficient for assessing the degree of austerity being imposed on a citizenry. You need to know where the cuts are being implemented. So, if where they are being implemented will not affect GDP very much, you will not see much change there and could conclude that not much austerity has been implemented. Which would be a grave error. Welfare payments constitute only about 0.7% of the UK’s GDP, which is not much. In addition, if you believe that taxes pay for this, you will undoubtedly think that money that could be used otherwise has been lost. However, once you grasp that taxation, and thereby taxpayers, do not fund government spending, then you can see that there is no Peter-Paul situation at all. And that spending on welfare does not affect anyone else at all.

As for the European project, Varoufakis has some fascinating and possibly controversial things to say about the relationship between capitalism and democracy. It is only the UK’s singular position he seems to be misled about.

When Varoufakis gets to the relationship between capitalism and democracy, he gets into interesting territory. In the early part of the 20th century, it was often felt that democracy was a consequence of capitalism. The evidence for this was that they arose in tandem and seemed to develop together. Bertrand Russell among others put the view forward that it was capitalism that made democracy possible. Max Weber, a little earlier, put forward a somewhat different argument. He contended that capitalism was the inevitable consequence of Calvinism. Both confused correlation with causation.

Varoufakis does not make that mistake. Although Varoufakis develops his argument in the context of Europe, it applies as well to the UK, virtually without modification. To show by example what I mean, let me go by way of a recent work by Nick Davies, an investigative journalist, published in 2014, Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch. It did, and nothing seems to have changed. Murdoch wants to further invade the UK communications network and, I would contend, further destroy it. Cameron has met with Murdoch a number of times. One would have thought this could not or should not have been happening.

The explanation Varoufakis would provide for this is that the political sphere has been swallowed up by the economic sphere, a scenario in which corporations rule the world in a democracy-free zone. Though he doesn’t say this, one could conclude from this perspective that democracy, if not a complete sham, is for the “little people”, while the rich and the multinational corporations can do whatever they want (an example of which is TTIP) with politicians as their servants rather than their regulators. In such an environment, could one be forgiven for wanting to be rich, even thoughtlessly so?

For Varoufakis, there is no inherent connection between capitalism and democracy. They are independent developments. And the evidence for this lies in Singapore and China, which have successful capitalistic economies devoid of democratic elements. For a good discussion of what democracy is, have a look at Robert Dahl’s How Democratic is the American Constitution? (2nd ed. 2003). Or view Varoufakis’s TED talk from last December: http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2016/01/26/capitalism-vs-democracy-vs-capitalism-my-ted-global-talk/. Varoufakis believes Europe is on the cusp of becoming undemocratic, which would have the most drastic consequences. The ultimate cause of this is the structure of the Eurozone, a currency structure that is completely unworkable. It has only appeared to be workable because it had not faced any volatile stressors until 2008, the GFC, when the world’s banking systems collapsed. Varoufakis’s argument is not very deep but he had only about 20 minutes to put his case, hence my recommendation to look at Dahl’s analysis.

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