The case for re-nationalisation – Part 2

There was an interesting article written in the London Review of Books (September 13, 2012) by regular contributor James Meek in – How We Happened to Sell Off Our Electricity (you need to subscribe to read it). It discussed how the obsession with privatisation in Britain, which was meant to reduce state control of this sector, has led to the state still being dominant in electricity production. The only problem for the British is that the French government now owns a large swathe of the ‘privatised’ British electricity industry. The outcome demonstrates the absurdity of the whole privatisation debate. This example is not unique. State-owned enterprises have eaten up inefficient privately owned firms all around the world as governments sell off public assets in the belief that prices will fall, services will improve and costs will be lower. The reality now some 35 years or so into the privatisation experiment is that none of these claims have been realised. In many cases, costs are higher and the privatised firms rely on higher public subsidies than was the case when the operations were completely in public hands. Prices are no uniformly lower after privatisation. Profit-seeking firms seek to gain by cutting costs and under investing in essential infrastructure, which leads to poor outcomes for Society (blackouts, poor repair times etc). And, millions of jobs have been lost in this cost-cutting mania. As a result, we argue that a ‘Progressive Manifesto’ must include the case for re-nationalisation of many sectors, which are intrinsic to advancing the well-being of Society. Progressive parties should start researching and demonstrating how this policy will take us into the next century where green, sustainable production is the norm and there are high levels of public service available from these key sectors, rather than allow critics to argue that the re-nationalisation agenda is just a return to the dark old days of inefficient state enterprises where cronyism, nepotism and corruption was rife.

In the first part of this blog (July 13, 2016) – Brexit signals that a new policy paradigm is required including re-nationalisation – I suggested that re-nationalisation of certain sectors has to return as a key industry policy plank for any aspiring progressive political party.

I have written about this in previous blogs (among others) which you can consult for reference and background purposes:

1. Privatisation … was yesterday’s joke (March 6th, 2009).

2. Public infrastructure 101 – Part 1 (March 20, 2009).

3. Public ownership rules airport rankings! (June 9th, 2009).

4. Nationalising the banks (October, 26, 2010).

5. Public infrastructure does not have to earn commercial returns (December 20th, 2010)

6. Qantas should be nationalised (again) (November 3, 2011).

7. Welcome to the world of privatised electricity and canned music (October 3, 2012).

8. Privatisation failure – the micro analogue of fiscal surplus obsessions (January 6th, 2015).

In this second part, I expand on that assertion to give it some evidence base.

Privatisation didn’t work

There is a litany of evidence after 30-40 years of practice to show that the promises held out for privatisation of large state enterprises have not been delivered.

Privatisation was one of the first planks of neo-liberalism and governments around the world, increasingly infested with the Monetarist virus, rushed to outdo each other in how many state assets they could sell in the shortest possible time.

Legal firms and management consultants made a fortune in assisting these governments in what were often fire sales. Politically, a failed privatisation was seen as a disaster and to avoid that ignominy, governments sold assets at well below any reasonable market value to ensure the sales were quick.

Then they could parrot their neo-liberal epithets such as “we are all shareholders now” or “we are all capitalists now” as if that would convince us that the basic class divisions in capitalism were gone and we were all seeking profit.

Privatisation was part of the swing to market-based allocations and a blurring of public interest with private profit. The two rarely go together if ever.

Around the world, neo-liberal politicians in the pay of the lobbyists for big capital have privatised:

1. State banks.

2. Publicly-owned airlines and airport infrastructure.

3. State prison systems.

4. Energy generation, distribution and retailing.

5. Public transport systems.

6. Public hospitals and health care facilities.

7. Public employment services.

8. Public telecommunications.

9. Public water and sewerage utilities.

10. Public postal services.

among other central aspects of our Society.

The evidence suggests that none of these transfers to private ownership have resulted in improvements in the well-being of the Society.

In some case, the privatisation failed outright and the asset was returned back into public ownership (for example, Swissair) because the state maintained the risk of the activity (such as a hospital), despite the claims by proponents of privatisation that a major advantage of the sale was that the risk shifted to the profit-seeking private owner.

In the case of large-scale national infrastructure, the risk can never be shifted from the public to the private domain.

A maximum security women’s prison (Dame Phyllis Frost Centre) in Victoria (Australia) was built as a private enterprise in 1996. By October 2000, the Victorian government was forced to assume ownership and control after its private owners (Corrections Corporation of Australia) were deemed to have seriously mismanaged the facility. So much for the risk transfer!

The case for state ownership is particularly strong where the sector is characterised by what we call natural monopoly.

A natural monopoly arises when the infrastructure costs of setup are high and the resulting market can only support one supplier. The single firm can exploit so-called economies of scale (size advantages) which reduce their operating costs to ensure the product/service is supplied at the lowest possible price.

The telecommunication, mass transport, postal services, electricity and water sectors are often considered to be prime natural monopolies.

In other words, in these sectors, transfer of ownership will just create a private monopoly, which then needs heavy regulation to ensure it delivers socially beneficial outcomes.

In the London Review of Books blog (June 19, 2009) – Liberté, Egalité, Electricité – James Meek wrote:

I paid my electricity bill today, and spent some time trying to work out how much of my bill goes to the French government to defray the costs of running that large, complex and hexagonal country. I don’t live in France. I live in London and, like millions of other Britons, buy my electricity from EDF, aka Electricité de France, which snapped up three of England’s privatised electricity minnows in 2002. Privatisation, a policy supposed to liberate us from the burden of allegedly inefficient state-owned industries, has led to more than five million households and businesses in this country buying electricity and gas from a state-owned industry in that country.

The French power company EDF is “85 per cent owned by the French government”.

He later expanded on that discussion in his 2012 LRB article cited in the Introduction. His central thesis, in relation to the privatisation of electricity in Britain, is that:

What has happened is not what they promised or intended when they put Britain’s state-owned electricity industry on the block.

While Margaret Thatcher berated the people with claims that the privatisations would reduce the role of the state in electricity sector the reality is that “the future of Britain’s energy supply now hinges on state-owned French companies based in Paris”.

Thatcher’s “patriotic tones of of how, with millions of people buying shares in former state industries, privatisation was giving ‘power back to the people'” have been shown by the reality to be hollow.

James Meek concludes that rather than give “power back to the people”, the privatisations have taken the “power away from the people”.

He considers Thatcher’s ideological pursuits to be “naive” because she failed to realise that other nations (such as France) were not going to privatise these key sectors but would exploit the British folly and ‘renationalise’ British assets that Thatcher had privatised.

But it has been a case of “Renationalised … for France”.

James Meek documents the poor results that followed the early privatisations – major job losses, price gouging, massive profits, and reduced investment levels.

He documents the shift to gas-fired power which then compromised the profitability of the coal-fired technology and flooded the market with electricity that, in turn, undermined the viability of many firms within the industry that could no longer compete on costs.

Further, while wholesale electricity prices fell dramatically “customers saw no change in their bills”. The “squeeze in profits” brought about by the entry of gas-fired power stations did not benefit consumers. The private owners who could reduce costs the quickest were the beneficiaries.

The reality was that “(e)xcessive profit margins simply shifted from one set of electricity companies to another”.

And then the French arrived.

James Meek summarises the period of privatisation in this way:

Electricity privatisation hasn’t been a success in bringing down prices. Most recent figures suggest that British prices are typically right in the middle of the European average … It has been a failure in terms of British industry and management; the best measure of the scale of folly and betrayal by politicians of both parties is the simple fact that a reliable, badly run British electricity system was destroyed, rather than being reformed, only so that a large part of it could be taken over by a foreign version of the original. And it has been a failure in terms of clarity, in the sense that in order to fund investment, governments that boast about not raising taxes, or of taking low-earners out of the tax bracket, permit predominantly foreign-owned electricity companies to collect flat-rate taxes that hit the poor disproportionately.

In my home state Victoria (although I now live mostly in NSW), the neo-liberals privatised electricity in the 1990s.

Prior to that the the electricity supply was very reliable and provided via the State Electricity Commission (SEC), a government owned power utility. The SEC was created in 1926 and was abolished in 1994.

During its period of operation, the SEC held a monopoly over the generation, transmission and supply of electricity, consistent with the view that power was a public service and a responsibility of the state to ensure it was supplied to all citizens at equitable prices.

The aim of the SEC was unambiguously to provide a public service – in this case, electricity – and it did so in a reliable fashion at a decreasing real price even though it was faced with continually increasing demand for its services as the population and industry grew in the Post-WW2 period.

Please read my blog – Welcome to the world of privatised electricity and canned music – for more discussion on this point.

Cahill and Beder (2005) provide incontestable evidence that the SEC was efficient, despite the claims to the contrary by the government of the time, which was intent on privatising at all costs.

[Reference: Cahill, D. and Beder, S. (2005) ‘Neo-liberal think tanks and neo-liberal restructuring: Learning the lessons from Project Victoria and the privatisation of Victoria’s electricity industry’, Social Alternatives, 43-8. LINK]

They argue that:

The Electricity Supply Association study of 1000 utilities around the world found that SECV was in the top ten for efficiency of resource use and that it was also highly efficient in terms of technical efficiency of distribution. And a study by London Economics in 1994 found SECVs resource efficiency compared favourably with best practice utilities worldwide …

But by the early 1990s the neo-liberal forces were building and were determined to privatise anything that moved and had value that could be redistributed to the private sector (specifically a few wealthy interests that funded their think tanks and probably their personal incomes).

The push for privatisation – the so-called “Project Victoria” – was:

… an initiative of the Melbourne-based neo-liberal think tanks the IPA and Tasman Institute along with thirteen employer groups including the Australian Chamber of Manufacturers, the Business Council of Australia (BCA), the State Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Victorian Employers Federation and the Victorian Farmers Federation. Commencing in 1990, the purpose of Project Victoria was two-fold: to prepare a radical neo-liberal agenda for the Liberal Party which, it was hoped, would win government; and, to put radical neo-liberal ideas on the public and political agendas in Victoria. Project Victoria was far reaching. It covered water, ports, electricity, public transport and workers compensation. Tasman and IPA prepared a number of reports and strategies on these issues between 1991 and 1993. In the lead up to the 1992 Victorian election, there were close links between Project Victoria and the Victorian Liberal leadership.

While the think tanks pumped out reports which claimed to show how inefficient the SECV was and how it should be broken up and privatised – with competition introduced to each of the stages of production and service delivery – supply, generation and distribution – the reality was quite different.

After the SECV was split into three parts – generation, transmission and distribution and supply – Victorians initially endured increased blackouts, as the private operators cut back on investment in order to increase profits.

By the turn of the century some 8 or so years into the experiment, electricity prices had increased by some 60 per cent (Cahill and Beder, 2005).

Generating capacity was becoming compromised and the generating companies were becoming increasingly subjected to mergers and takeovers, which increased the concentration in the sector and pushed up profits.

And it became clear that the privatised electricity providers increasingly gorged themselves on huge executive salaries.

And article in the Fairfax Sydney Morning Herald ((October 1, 2012) – Chiefs on a power trip to higher salaries – revealed that:

For example, the AGL boss just received an “85 per cent pay increase to $6.3 million” and the boss of Origin Energy snaffled a pay package worth $A8.35 million at a time when customer satisfaction has plummetted.

The SMH concluded that:

Customer satisfaction is obviously not a measure to which CEO salaries are closely pegged. Business Day found AGL had delivered the least value for money for shareholders. Earnings per share, the cleanest measure of value for shareholders, dropped 80 per cent to 23.8 cents per share last year. Despite a generous rise in executive remuneration, the big retailer managed only a 2 per cent increase in share price year-on-year and a 5 per cent increase in total revenue.

In Australian states where the electricity industry remained state-owned the evidence is that the “Bosses’ salaries … are a fraction of those for the listed companies”.

So not only have prices risen and service quality falling in the privatised states, but the companies are generating massive profits, which are being eaten up by massive (and totally unjustifiable) executive salaries.

This pattern of abuse runs throughout the privatised sector and provides a powerful case for re-nationalisation.

How re-nationalised enterprises can advance well-being

The point that James Meek makes in relation to French state companies dominating the privatised British electricity industry opens up another discussion that is relevant.

The 2010 study by Paul Cohen – Lessons from the Nationalization Nation: State-Owned Enterprises in France – which I cited in Part 1 of this discussion, outlined how France did not go down the privatisation route that was taken by the Anglo nations.

It is clear that the austerity turn by Mitterrand’s government in 1983 was a major neo-liberal shift in French policy making and set in place France’s acceptance of the Delors Report in 1989 and the Maastricht process two years later.

But while France clearly abandoned much of its Post-World War 2 planning ethos in favour of a German price stability obsession, it did not follow the Thatcher governments obsessive privatisation agenda.

Indeed, as Cohen notes:

France’s embrace of nationalization did not in fact begin with the Socialist François Mitterrand’s 1981 election to the presidency, but decades earlier and under a right-wing president. With France’s economy in ruins at the end of the Second World War, ravaged by German requisitions and Allied bombing, the post-Liberation provisional government led by Charles De Gaulle, with broad support across the political spectrum, launched a wave of nationalizations in order to direct the reconstruction effort. Between 1944 and 1946, the state took control of businesses in energy, transportation, and finance. Private coal companies were reorganized into the public mining giant Charbonnages de France; gas and electricity producers were likewise nationalized to create Électricité de France and Gaz de France. The state absorbed Air France. It nationalized the country’s eleven largest insurance companies, along with Banque de France and the four biggest commercial banks (including Crédit Lyonnais, Société Générale, and what would later become BNP) … Taken together, these measures transformed the state into a giant economic actor: in 1946, it directly controlled 98 percent of coal production, 95 percent of electricity, 58 percent of the banking sector, 38 percent of automobile production, and 15 percent of total GDP. Beginning with Jean Monnet, the first director of the General Commissariat for Planning, the government managed public enterprises and drafted five-year plans in order to shape long-term economic development.

And the large public ownership did not undermine overall growth in France nor productivity growth relative to the US and other more market-oriented nations.

In 1982, Mitterrand expanded the French public ownership by taking over various industries (defense, computers, pharmaceutical and banking).

By then Monetarism was rife, and both the conservative and Socialist parties in France, reversed some of the nationalisations during the 1980s and beyond.

Cohen argues that this:

… move away from state ownership was not in fact born of a rational economic calculus but rather of specific political choices.

The Right were infested with Monetarism and the Left was blinded “by its commitment to European unification and to France’s special relationship with its closest ally, Germany” (beginning with the austerity turn of Mitterrand), which meant France had to obey “the strict free market rules imposed by Maastricht and subsequent EU treaties” which “committed member states to privatization”.

The triumph of ideology over fact!

The facts were that the nationalised French industries were very successful.

The advantages that the nationalised industries gave the French government were many:

1. Cohen says that “successive governments used their stakes in France’s traditional smokestack industries to guide industrial reorganizations.”

This is particularly relevant for progressive aspirations for a green, sustainable energy sector based on renewables.

Public ownership allows the government to shift technologies within the energy sector more easily than if the sector is privately owned and operated.

The transitions from one labour intensive technology to renewable energy with less labour requirements is more easily managed with less cost to workers and their families given that the public sector can absorb the displaced workers more readily.

Cohen compares the impacts of the closure of coal-based power generation in France on the coal communities favourably with “Thatcherite Britain’s brutal mine closures and bloody union-police confrontations.”

2. Publicly-owned firms can ride out economic cycles more easily than for-profit firms. The subsidies to keep a public operation functioning in bad times are typically lower than socialising private losses (Cohen, 2010).

We saw during the GFC that many governments had to effectively nationalise several large banks to protect deposits. The fear of collapse would disappear if held in public hands.

Which then raises the question of rate of return. I covered that issue in this blog – Public infrastructure does not have to earn commercial returns – and demonstrated that some large public entities deliver community benefits that mean the concept of commercial profits is irrelevant.

Public service means just that!

3. Cohen provides evidence to show that even on commercial terms, publicly-owned enterprises that are largely producing for a consumer market, can be very successful. He uses the car industry to make his case.

He concludes that:

State management is no small part of the reason why France today is home to profitable automobile manufacturers whose product lines are focused on small, innovative, fuel-efficient cars.

The point that was lost in the privatisation debate is that the actual legal ownership status of the activity is not the reason for success or otherwise.

Organisations are successful if they have a culture of success. That culture can survive in private and public enterprises. Neither sector has a monopoly on successful organisational culture.

Which means that if a public enterprise is organised and managed well and understands that its primary charter is to deliver benefits that advance the well-being of the people then it is typically preferable to maintain its public status rather than compromise its objectives by forcing it to pursue private profit.

4. Cohen also shows that “public investment to be an invaluable tool for creating new industries and stimulating growth”, which is an argument we will deal with in more detail when we consider the literature on the entrepreneurial state and the role the state plays in innovation.

It is clear, that some state-owned enterprises have been disasters. But that sort of outcome is not exclusive to the public sector.

The GFC is testament to the fact that the private sector is capable of massive inefficiency and dysfunction.

Cohen concludes by saying that:

Over the entire period since the Liberation, French planning’s record of creating employment and prosperity is considerably better than neoliberal critics would have it. The state has used planning as a flexible tool to restructure companies and save jobs, to create new industries from scratch and promote job growth, to soften deindustrialization’s blow to workers and their communities, and to orient transportation and energy policy onto more sustainable pathways.

Which suggest that re-nationalisation should be part of a progressive policy agenda.

The arguments for privatisation based on textbook free market narratives, which were powerfully persuasive in the 1980s, have now been shown to be false.

Privatisation has accomplished many things (increased income and wealth inequality etc) but it has not delivered on the things that were claimed and used to justify the sell-offs.

It is time to rethink all of that and to understand the advantages that these state-owned sectors can play in advancing the well-being of Society and insulating it from the vicissitudes of capitalist fluctuations.

Railways

In the recent British Labour leadership tussle, it was argued by the now leader Jeremy Corbyn and one of the principal challengers Andy Burnham that the UK railways should be renationalised.

A recennt study (Badstuber, 2015) found that:

… the evidence suggests that integrating the UK’s expensive and fragmented rail network under public ownership could save hundreds of millions and also provide a better service.

[Reference: Badstuber, N. (2015) The case for re-nationalising Britain’s railways, August 28, 2015. LINK.]

And the people who use the service (the citizens) seem to agree. A 2014 survey from the London-based YouGov – Why the public want to nationalise the railways – showed that “British people support re-nationalising the railways by 60-20% – for the main reason that they should be accountable to taxpayers rather than shareholders”.

The three principal reasons given for thus support was accountability (62 per cent), lower fares (47 per cent) and increased cost effectiveness (43 per cent). Other concerns which drove the support for re-nationalisation were better working conditions for rail workers, better customer service, improved punctuality, and cleaner and more comfortable trains.

The results provide a damning assessment of the privatisation experiment which began in 1995 under the guise of “harnessing the management skills, flair and entrepreneurial spirit of the private sector to provide better services for the public” (see Secretary of State for Transport, 1992).

[Reference: Secretary of State for Transport (1992) New Opportunities for the Railways: The Privatisation of British Rail, White Paper, July, London, HMSO.]

A report prepared by the House of Commons Library (2013) showed that rail fares in Britain rose in real terms (that is, faster than the general inflation rate) after privatisation, especially for the long distance operators.

[Reference: House of Commons Library (2013) Railways: fares statistics,December 30, 2013. LINK.]

The House of Commons Library study found that by 2013, the real change in rail fares was 23 per cent.

The first phase of the privatisation specified under the 1993 Railways Act was a disaster. The private company responsible for the provise of rail network infrastructure proved to be incompetent – underinvesting and high cost – and a government body (Network Rail) had to be be created to take back the responsibility.

The so-called management excellence that the Tories foreshadowed in its early justifications for privatisation has proven to provide nothing more than a highly subsidised, inefficient service that does not advance the well-being of British society.

On December 17, 2012, the House of Commons received a report from the Transport Committee (2012), which showed that the total subsidy to the rail industry had risen (in real terms) from around “£2.75 billion (in 2011-12 prices) in the late 1980s to £4 billion today”.

[Reference: British Transport Committee (2012) Transport Committee – Seventh Report Rail 2020, December 17, 2012. LINK.]

Clearly, the railways in Britain continue to rely heavily on British government payments for survival (and profitability).

Badstuber (2015) outlines a viable path to re-nationalisation based on the expiry of the current franchises. She says that the British government could steadily re-create an integrated network and service by taking the franchises “back into the public sector one piece at a time, at no cost.”

She lists the benefits of the railways re-nationalisation (which are common for other large re-nationalisations) as:

1. Government would get the dividend payments not the private shareholders. Although this is a point commonly made by progressives who advocate re-nationalisation, from an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective the benefits to the public coffers only matter if the government running the services does not issue its own currency.

So in Australia, the railways are run by State governments (rather than the Federal government) and the increased revenue would allow the government to reinvest the funds to maintain a high quality service.

2. A range of so-called ‘savings’ on “subcontractors”, the operation of the tendering system and administrative costs of the regulative environment would be achieved.

Again, the issue for a national government is not that it cannot make these payments – it clearly can as the currency issuer. The real issue is why should it divert public spending into areas that do not advance public benefit but help to underwrite profits for a small group of shareholders, who would otherwise own insolvent companies.

But, more so, is that argument that the major arguments for privatisation – lower costs, lower prices, better services etc – have not been delivered.

It is clear that the railways in Britain (and elsewhere) should return to public ownership and used as part of a new strategy to take cars off the road and improve the attractiveness of mass transport systems.

Banking

Re-nationalising the banking system would eliminate the largely unresolvable tension that exists in the current system where banks occupy a special protected place and are not really allowed to fail by dint of government support (implicit or otherwise) yet at the same time behave just like risk-taking entrepreneurial firms, paying exorbitant executive salaries and skewing their operations to the interests of their shareholders.

The tension between the public nature of banking and the intrinsic social role they play and the greedy pursuit of private profit – or the privatisation of profit and the socialisation of loss – is palpable and unsustainable.

Socialisation the profits and loss and steering the activities of banks 100 per cent towards the advancement of public purpose would go a long way towards eliminating the worst features of the banking system which culminated in the global financial crisis.

The nationalisation of banks would mean that a key social institution is serving only one master – the public rather than compromising its public charter to line the coffers of their private owners.

When we consider the essential progressive reforms to the financial system in a later blog, a starting point will be to return banks to being banks rather than gambling casinos.

Part of that process, should be the re-nationalisation of the banking sector.

Conclusion

There is now ample evidence available which shows that the major arguments used to justify the wide-scale privatisations in the 1980s and 1990s have not been shown to have substance.

There is no unambiguous evidence that shows the the privatised sectors now offer lower costs, lower prices, better services and better working conditions.

It was often claimed that the privatisations would just shift workers from the public sector to the private sector and as a result their pay would rise in line with superior productivity growth arising from the better management.

What happened was that the major job losses were accompanied in many cases by suppressed wages growth and worsening conditions of work.

A progressive policy agenda should embrace re-nationalisation and a way to reduce the uncertainty for workers arising from the private spending fluctuations and to use these public enterprises as vehicles to accomplish necessary technology changes in areas such as mass transportation, energy and water.

They should use a nationalised banking system to help stabilise financial markets and reduce the likelihood of another GFC arising, which was the direct result of a deregulated financial system running out of control through greed and corruption.

These large sectors, which provide necessary goods and services to citizens, should always be in public hands, with a service ethic rather than an ambition for private profit and cost cutting.

The series so far

This is a further part of a series I am writing as background to my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. More instalments will come as the research process unfolds.

The series so far:

1. Friday lay day – The Stability Pact didn’t mean much anyway, did it?

2. European Left face a Dystopia of their own making

3. The Eurozone Groupthink and Denial continues …

4. Mitterrand’s turn to austerity was an ideological choice not an inevitability

5. The origins of the ‘leftist’ failure to oppose austerity

6. The European Project is dead

7. The Italian left should hang their heads in shame

8. On the trail of inflation and the fears of the same ….

9. Globalisation and currency arrangements

10. The co-option of government by transnational organisations

11. The Modigliani controversy – the break with Keynesian thinking

12. The capacity of the state and the open economy – Part 1

13. Is exchange rate depreciation inflationary?

14. Balance of payments constraints

15. Ultimately, real resource availability constrains prosperity

16. The impossibility theorem that beguiles the Left.

17. The British Monetarist infestation.

18. The Monetarism Trap snares the second Wilson Labour Government.

19. The Heath government was not Monetarist – that was left to the Labour Party.

20. Britain and the 1970s oil shocks – the failure of Monetarism.

21. The right-wing counter attack – 1971.

22. British trade unions in the early 1970s.

23. Distributional conflict and inflation – Britain in the early 1970s.

24. Rising urban inequality and segregation and the role of the state.

25. The British Labour Party path to Monetarism.

26. Britain approaches the 1976 currency crisis.

27. The 1976 currency crisis.

28. The Left confuses globalisation with neo-liberalism and gets lost.

29. The metamorphosis of the IMF as a neo-liberal attack dog.

30. The Wall Street-US Treasury Complex.

31. The Bacon-Eltis intervention – Britain 1976.

32. British Left reject fiscal strategy – speculation mounts, March 1976.

33. The US government view of the 1976 sterling crisis.

34. Iceland proves the nation state is alive and well.

35. The British Cabinet divides over the IMF negotiations in 1976.

36. The conspiracy to bring British Labour to heel 1976.

37. The 1976 British austerity shift – a triumph of perception over reality.

38. The British Left is usurped and IMF austerity begins 1976.

39. Why capital controls should be part of a progressive policy.

40. Brexit signals that a new policy paradigm is required including re-nationalisation.

41. Towards a progressive concept of efficiency – Part 1.

42. Towards a progressive concept of efficiency – Part 2.

43. The case for re-nationalisation – Part 2.

The blogs in these series should be considered working notes rather than self-contained topics. Ultimately, they will be edited into the final manuscript of my next book due later in 2016.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2016 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Spread the word ...
    This entry was posted in Britain, Demise of the Left, UK Economy. Bookmark the permalink.

    24 Responses to The case for re-nationalisation – Part 2

    1. Neil Wilson says:

      We know that the nuclear power of capitalism causes untold damage if it is not contained within a firm vessel of social democracy, and managed via the powerful control rods of a Job Guarantee.

      But if you put those in place you get useful output without the boom.

      So are we up to the challenge of designing the next generation of economic reactors?

    2. Nigel Hargreaves says:

      Neil. Simple answer no. Teresa May has apparently (according to Mariana Mazzucato) just said that we must live within our means. No hope.

    3. Willem says:

      Excellent article.

      Same applies to Belgium where massive (nuclear) energy profits go to GDF/EDF.

    4. Willem says:

      Mazzucato has written interesting books on the state as innovator, investments too risky for venture capital.

    5. larry says:

      Here is Mazzucato & Jacobs on May’s industrial strategy.

      https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/19/theresa-may-industrial-inequality-osbornomics-austerity

      It is clear that it will be nigh on impossible for May to meet the promises she has made in the speeches she has given recently unless she ditches Osborne’s virtually monomaniacal approach to economic policy. And Hammond, while possibly not an Osbornite, has not said or done anything to indicate that he will dramatically alter the Tories’ approach either. So, the auguries for a different kind of macroeconomics for the 99% would appear to be one where their children will be born to endless night.

    6. Simonsky says:

      Nigel, that means: ‘we should live within our memes’!

    7. Simonsky says:

      Nice typo/neologism today, Bill: ‘Privitisatinos’ – perhaps influenced by your recent visit to Spain! certainly applicable to the UK Tories, perhaps it will become a useful antonym to Corbynistas.

    8. Nigel Hargreaves says:

      To be fair, I travel occasionally by rail and find the services are reasonably efficient (other than those into London from the South East), and the rolling stock is modern and commendably clean and well-mainiained. It is not my recollection of the old British Rail days when the trains were dirty and years out of date compared with those of France, for example.

      That said, there is a long-running industrial dispute with one of our local train operators about whether the trains should be driver-only. Another, Great Wester,n has recently taken delivery of sparkling new state-of-the art electric trains (from Japan) but Netwrok Rail are years away from electrification of the line. The trains either had to stand idle or, as has happened, fitted with deisel engines to generate the electricity on board.

      And train fares are very expensive compared to, again, France.

      Electricity? Nightmare. Bring back the Electricity Generating Board any time.

    9. sam w says:

      @Nigel Hargreaves
      “And train fares are very expensive compared to, again, France.”
      Personal experience: SNCF has put tickets up almost two fold since 2013. A trip to and from Paris (~800km away) costs me 2 times what the fuel would cost driving. Before its was about break even versus the car. These days flying is often cheaper which is not exactly great outcome for global warming :-(.

      The French system is going downhill plus EU plans to put everything in a privatization mandate straightjacket:
      http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/policies/4th-railway-package/

      Another one to add to the list Bill.
      Irish water (EU inspired system) is basically bankrupt and does less than the underfunded public system it was supposed to supersede:
      http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/colette-browne/irish-water-running-up-huge-debt-with-little-to-show-in-investment-31391471.html

    10. Bob says:

      The “market socialists” like Chris Dillow are not going to like this.

    11. larry says:

      Simonsky, that is terrible. But clever.

    12. Well said! Of course natural monopolies should be government-owned, not sold off to profiteering rent-seekers. The privatisation of our freeways is surely the last straw? Whatever happened to the right to the freedom of our highways and byways? All these sell-offs are because of our current refusal to accept the source of what once built Australia’s roads, rail, damns, bridges and schools – land-based revenues. As we landowners complain against our now miserable level of municipal rates we, too, have turned ourselves into mini rent-seekers. As we no longer accept the principle we once did in the Progressive Era–remember the federal land tax 1910-1952, Canberra being originally based on a leasehold system to keep the rent-seeking parasites out–we now cast about wondering how to fund infrastructure short of privatising everything. We’re getting dumber and dumber and letting the economic rents that should accrue to the public purse be captured largely by the rent-seeking 0.1%.

    13. Neale says:

      Meek has collected a number of his articles on this theme in PRIVATE ISLAND. https://www.versobooks.com/books/1731-private-island . The LRB has featured most of them I think. I read good ones on rail and postal/delivery services

    14. Nigel Hargreaves says:

      Sam w.

      Okay. The last time I was on a French train was 2012 so I’m clearly out of date. Thanks for that.

    15. Andre says:

      Privatization is a complex issue.

      I live in Brazil and, in the early 90s, a phone line swoul cost more than a car (and it is no exageration). Just a few rich people owned telephone lines, and it was a form of wealth. There was a big second market industry to resell telephone lines.

      In just a few years this telecomunications industry was privatized, and then phone lines prices went down to a normal international standard, which was very cheap.

      It is crystal clear that the government wouldn’t be able to achieve this in its own.

      Of course, I’m not saying that all privatizations are good. A lot of them are disastrous. But the theme is complex, and to demonize every kind of privatization is just unhealty debate…

    16. Will R says:

      Nigel I think the reason BR was like that was because of a US style pro-car anti rail lack of investment in what was a safe reliable industry. The worst criticisms were the sandwiches…so fair enough…maybe outsource that.

    17. Jake says:

      Great article.

    18. Peter Shaw says:

      Dr Mitchell –
      A (rather long) comment to your series so far.

      You offer a concept (nationalisation) with anecdote and report of bad effects of privatisation, instance of public ownership associated with good economic performance, general argument that it can be more effective, and candidate entities. You are rather light on how a nationalised entity will be run, and performance metrics for it.
      I think you will need more to convince those with unhappy memories of post-WW2 Britain (me too).

      Perhaps it’s time for your logical next step – the concept-shaping process. This will very likely disclose insights into: Why privatisation fails and the specifics that modern nationalisation will use against those; in what ways public ownership differs from private (or does not); what “efficiency” means in this context, and how to evaluate it; and more.

      Any consideration of nationalisation hereabouts leads directly to W Mosler’s concept of “public purpose”. I take these concepts together here.

      Concept-shaping is a “many-minds” exercise, for which a blog seems an excellent venue. I offer the following to stimulate discussion (or, at least, pertinent objection;)). I think it’s at least consistent with MMT core values.

      Context:
      WM: “In this view, the economy is seen as a ‘constructed object’…” – I think you’re too tentative here. The economy is indeed a “created capability”, therefore a *technology*. I find technology-analysis a rewarding approach to economic behaviour.
      All technologies evolve – you’ll need this to argue that it’ll be Different This Time.

      Scope:
      Mosler’s “public” must (I think) be understood as “national” – the resources (human and material) under the hand of a sovereign government. This might be devolved to an autonomous region (such as I understand an Australian State to be), but as an instance of national policy. Anything national is also inevitably strategic, so the economic rules change.
      “Purpose” might be: To satisfy the persistent needs of the population, directly or indirectly. You may need a good metric for “customer satisfaction” ;).
      Together, these indicate that a publicly-owned entity cannot (and should not) grow by expansion; however, normal evolution can (and must) produce growth in value and quality. (Dr M et al: We really need a MMT-friendly vocabulary to discuss such; “growth” doesn’t serve.) In the prior British case, was normal evolution stifled, so producing living fossils?

      Behaviour:
      Neil Wilson pertinently commented that productivity improvement (= evolution) persistently reduces workforce. A publicly-owned entity is then expected to match the private-sector’s behaviour (perhaps -1% pa?). Job-preservation cannot be a criterion.

      I have a simple paper argument, based in basic business economics, that indicates the steady-state for a for-profit monopoly (or cartel) is to under-capitalise by about one-third while raising price to what the market will bear; ie consistently overcharge and under-deliver. Any criticism is countered with assertions that substantial capex would be needed (true), and that the price then must rise (false). I gave this more credence when I (with a few million others) experienced an eerily similar scenario.
      This suggests two insights: That public purpose must operate by different economic rules; and that a public entity, losing vision, will evolve to the for-profit state.
      WM: “…increased blackouts, as the private operators cut back on investment in order to increase profits.” …or, the simplest hypothesis is that evolution proceeds, regardless of motive.
      Dr Mitchell – You may have to assemble an Economics of Public Purpose…

      A case for electricity:
      Do I have to argue this is emphatically a public good, not a commodity? Foreign ownership of even part of reticulation and retail supply is perilous, as such owners will act in their own interests, which with the best will in the world might not coincide with domestic ones. I think it improper for a national government to allow such a situation to occur.

      A case for a British steel industry:
      Here, although the value is national, the size realistically must be a fraction of the domestic market (say a fixed 15-20%). The purpose surely must be conservation of a domestic centre of excellence; ie skills, not jobs. Various people, from steelworkers to senior Defence staff should approve; perhaps selected government customers should be required to buy domestically, with additional product sold at market prices. Dr M has argued elsewhere that this entity need not make a profit (in the narrow sense), so it can always undercut the commercial operators and sell all. Government purchases are effectively at nett of tax (ie 30-40% off), and money from domestic customers has greater economic value spent locally than abroad (I read of maybe 3x; expert opinion, Dr M?). Properly calculated, such operation may not be “uneconomic”.
      To avoid obsolescence and maintain a rewarding work environment, the common business/technological cycle of upgrade and replacement applies; ie government investment in its own enterprise. Productivity could be expressed as annual ktonne stock steel per worker, converted using an equitable price into GDP contribution.

    19. Jesse Hermans says:

      I have to say I agree in general with the principle Bill.
      It only makes sense that natural monopolies remain state monopolies as opposed to private monopolies. Although I guess what constitutes natural monopoly is where the details come in.
      Take electricity for instance, the distribution (I.e. Poles and wires) is a right-of-way (ROW) infrastructure monopoly, and as such should definitely be public. Generation on the other hand isn’t necessarily a public monopoly, although I accept the argument that significant state activity in the sector is warranted.
      Retail as far as I’m aware, is merely an administrative function involving dealing with customers. I’m not convinced or at least haven’t seen reasonable evidence to suggest that privatising retail was bad for the sector.

      Then there is Telecom. On the one hand the infrastructure (I.e. Internet/landline infrastructure – like water/sewerage, but not necessarily mobile towers) is monopoly (ROW) infrastructure, the original public monopoly model of the NBN being a good example. However I’m unsure that complete public ownership of telecom is necessary. Certainly at least, the state should own the infrastructure and annually lease it out to competitive private sector tender. However I also think the private sector has done reasonably well in the mobile phone sector. Although undoubtly the state needs to ensure national mobile coverage, which means in the case of rural areas means providing the critical infrastructure and then not auctioning it off to private monopolists. Though mobile towers are not necessarily natural monopolies, rather it is the EMS spectrum which is inherently the fixed supply constraint which rent seekers profit most from.

      On rail, public ownership is good although I would’ve thought that regularly auctioning off the tender competitively passed on KPIs and retaining public ownership of ROW rail infrastructure would also be sufficient. Public subsidies of rail is not necessary as MTR demonstrates in Hong Kong, provided Land Value Capture is incorporate into covering the capital costs.

      On nationalising banks. While I agree its one of the more sensible options, I was under to the impression you opposed centralised control of banking? I recall you being opposed to qualitative lending guidance which was used in Japan. Is your model of nationalisation more akin to localising the banks?

    20. Neil Wilson says:

      “You are rather light on how a nationalised entity will be run, and performance metrics for it.”

      If you look for the similarities rather than the differences, then you can see what the issue is. Organisations that persist over time develop entropy. Very large organisations more so.

      So the issues that arise tend to be with older, larger organisations that have not suffered from significant organisational disruption. It doesn’t matter if they are public or privately held or what metrics they run against. The issue is whether they continue to persist when their internal organisation heart wood has rotted away.

      The theory behind ‘competition’ is actually a theory of destruction and renewal. Unless you are getting destruction and renewal that reverses the tendency towards entropy then the operation moves towards stagnation and oligopoly. Usually the large the organisation the more chance it will move towards stagnation. It happens with smaller operations as well, but less so as they are more vulnerable.

      Every operation tries to carve out a niche and then build a moat around that niche to stop anybody else getting onto their patch. Businesses hate competition and do everything they can to avoid it. The job of the government should be to keep the heat up and force competition onto players in a market. In particularly they must put in place mechanisms that allow failure to take place.

    21. Neil Wilson says:

      “However I also think the private sector has done reasonably well in the mobile phone sector.”

      Only in the same way that the original train companies did reasonably well with the railways during the growth phase. Of course that lead to duplication in the UK for example – where St Pancras and Kings Cross are next door to each other.

      It may have been more effective if the mobile phone network was constructed in the same way as the National Grid.

      The mobile phone system has now go to the stage where the duplication is getting in the way of the service.

      But then on the flip side you have OpenReach and National Rail – both of which are universally hated by the service providers. One is a private held monopoly that is heavily regulated and the other is a public held monopoly that is heavily regulated. Both have appalling service models.

      I’m never quite sure why that is, but it seems to be that the core monopoly tends towards a defensive operational structure that spends most of its time ensuring that nobody can ever be blamed for anything, rather than ensuring the best customer outcome. And that’s because failure is so much more costly than any successes.

      In the service providers there is also a defensive structure when they get larger, but there it is more about how far they can stretch the capital and mask the failures with PR and advertising tricks before anybody notices.

    22. Jesse Hermans says:

      Neil Wilson,
      I understand and also agree with that line of thinking – that duplication of mobile coverage can lead to inefficiency. What makes mobile coverage a bit more unique is some companies can erect limited Urban coverage relatively cheaply and offer discounts on the service for those who don’t need national coverage (I.e. The Vodaphone network) while those who want the premium of national coverage can pay for Telstra which has more and better coverage. This unfortunately discriminates against rural communities though, which is why I made a related comment on it.
      A more sensible way would probably be to have a nationalised, nation wide cell phone network, which the government then tenders out leases of bandwidth of regions to multiple, various companies regularly. This way people could still purchase discounted service with inferior coverage, while still insuring fair coverage nationally and provision for rural communities. Maybe regulate so that prices cannot discriminate based on location?
      This would also still allow competitors to enter into various regions to make sure there are no geographic based monopolies.
      Additionally the state telecom company which owns/runs wholesale Internet infrastructure, could compete in this market in case market failure results in insufficient competitive firms in given regions. I.e. Not enough phone companies purchase the regional lease for an area, meaning consumers have to buy wholesale from the state provider. This way the nationalised firm sticks to more focused, niche markets and can specialise. That would help keep the entropy of large organisations at bay. It also keeps open the door for private sector entrants if they think they can come in and run it better at profit I.e. keeps competitive forces.

    23. Mike Ellwood says:

      Nigel Hargreaves says:
      Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 22:50
      “To be fair, I travel occasionally by rail and find the services are reasonably efficient (other than those into London from the South East), and the rolling stock is modern and commendably clean and well-mainiained. It is not my recollection of the old British Rail days when the trains were dirty and years out of date compared with those of France, for example.”
      .
      I’m sure we can all remember dirty trains. However, for example, in the latter years of British Rail, they introduced the HST 125, which was quite advanced for its time …. and those trains are still running (refurbished) at least in my area.
      .
      In fact BR was getting better and better in many ways. Then when it was looking like privatisation was likely, all investment in it stopped.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    *
    To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the answer to the math equation shown in the picture.
    Anti-spam equation