Monday, May 11, 2009

The Green, Green Shoots Of Hope

It was only a matter of time before someone would detect a sign of recovery in the Spanish economy. The newly appointed finance minister, Elena Salgado, should be offered some kind of prize for being the first person in Spain to have detected the "brotes verdes" (green shoots) of economic recovery. Whilst most of us can only see a vast expanse of dry cracked earth, Salgado hailed the unemployment figures for April as indicating that (maybe) the worst was over. It's true that the April increase was far less dramatic than that which we have seen in the first quarter of this year, but it is still the highest such increase for that month recorded for a very long time. A lot of employment in Spain is very seasonal, and the middle period of the year tends to see higher levels of employment anyway. So still far too early to decide whether the Spanish economy has hit the bottom of the recession.

The rate of increase in the jobless figures has led to something of a campaign emerging for changes in the labour market, usually amounting to little more than a call for employment protection to either be considerably relaxed or removed altogether. Unemployment has increased massively in the last year amongst those who were on temporary contracts, and very little in the case of those with more secure arrangements. Not fair, claim the proponents of change. It's true, it's not fair at all, but there is more than one way of levelling this particular playing field. It won't perhaps be surprising that many of those so loudly denouncing the injustice seek to rectify it by removing any remaining security from the rest of the working population. Many of these temporary contracts are a fraud, the contracts are constantly renewed until the point is reached where the employee might have to be offered a permanent contract. At that point they are replaced with someone else. To be fair, not all of those seeking change adopt such a one sided approach - but even they are focusing entirely on something which is not the cause of the crisis.

Amongst those who would prefer not to acknowledge any sort of fundamental problem with the way in which the world economy has worked, there seems to be a common trend to try and pretend that what we have now is really a miraculous collection of simultaneous recessions all caused by the incompetence of the individual governments in each country. Nothing to do with the financial system or casino capitalism, you understand. The Spanish right has taken this version of events to heart in a big way, mainly because it allows them to claim that Zapatero is solely to blame for everything, but also because it permits them to pursue an economic strategy that would be the pride of any survivors of the neocon debacle. Leading the charge has been the great moustachioed crusader himself. Jose Maria Aznar has emerged in recent weeks with the startling claim that had he still been in power there would have been no economic crisis at all! Don't be too hard on him, he has a new book to sell and ex prime ministers only have a few years in which to cash in before they are laid to rest in the Valley of the Forgotten. Aznar's crisis recipe? Tax cuts, slash public spending, privatization and of course "labour market reform". The number of countries currently following this recipe to get out of the crisis? None that I know of. There must be some way of locking up those who propose such lunacy in a secure place for the duration, all in the interests of public safety?

Following Aznar's cue we got the head of the employers association showing how in touch he is with reality when he was caught by a stray microphone saying that the crisis was the result of the Zapatero years. Whatever you might think about the government's handling of the economy since 2004 one thing is clear; it didn't represent any sort of change from the Aznar years. The property and construction bubble started in the late 1990's, not on the 15th March 2004. That's why the PP had nothing at all to say on the economy during Zapatero's first term. The same man was also overheard claiming that Esperanza Aguirre was "cojonuda", which more or less instantly disqualifies him as a reliable pundit on any subject of any kind. Aguirre had delivered another of her predictable neocon speeches about those who live off useless subsidies. She should know, she operates a vast web of publicly funded patronage where any bit of public money that doesn't go to friends or family can rightly be regarded as badly spent.

There's the point really, Spain's employers don't actually want to live in that hard and cold dog-eat-dog environment that is being sold by their political fellow travellers. Even as they attribute the crisis to the government, they are busily demanding that the same government give them more money. This sort of self-interested short termism is what ensures that many highly qualified young Spaniards simply end up looking overseas for chances to develop a career. A lot of the mythology behind this latest crusade relies on highly selective comparisons. In reality, Spain does not have an excessive tax burden compared to the European average, nor is it the only country where there is respectable compensation for being unfairly dismissed. No matter, those who did so well out of the boom do not intend to be at the back of the queue when it comes to doing well out of the recession. That the supposed solutions have nothing to do with the cause of the problem should not be allowed to disturb the dreams of those whose hopes are once again placed on that day when they can spin the wheel, and off we go for yet another crazed round of "We Take Your Money and You Never See It Again!" The role of the rest of us is to wait 5-10 years to be plunged back into the same situation we are now, but with even less social protection.


Troy said...

Just got back from unclicking the 'fines sociales' box at hacienda and read your latest post.

These people calling for an easier way to fire people in the midst of so much unemployment fascinate me. The fact that they say these things so openly without fear of being lynched speaks marvels of Spanish tolerance.

I'm not sure that, had I been casually fired after working my ass off for some company so that they can maintain their profit margin, I wouldn't look for the nearest tallest tree...

Graeme said...

That's probably why they've removed all the tall trees in Madrid. Glad to see you've done your duty as a taxpayer, I wonder how many of those with the high profit margins manage to get round presenting their declaración?