terça-feira, 24 de maio de 2011

Portugal needs a Liberal Left - Part III (final)

If somehow it is not yet clear, I will summarize it: Portugal needs a political force that breaks all the political prejudices that we may have. Someone that defends: a non-interventionist State on the economy; a pervasive but realistic Welfare State; the deepening of recent societal and legal progressive changes, such as abortion (2006) and same-sex marriage (2010).

The road is beyond rocky.

Every political force will tell you, for example, that the State should support small and medium companies. They probably have in mind lots of subsidies and State-funded internships that will only serve to fund unscrupulous businessmen at the expenses of tax-payers and the interns themselves. They can hardly think that all the licenses, declarations, forms, tax-returns, etc., all those annoying and often imbecile procedures hurt a lot more the small companies than the big ones. And they can hardly think, or if they do think, they do not act on it, that complex fiscal systems only defend the richer, the best informed, those who can pay for someone to play with the law or win the subsidies. No political force realizes that the more power the State (and the local authorities) has on the economy, the bigger problems such as corruption will be. Centralization is not only economically hurtful. It is morally wrong and ethically deviant.

All political forces will also tell you how much they love Welfare State. But the Left is unable to accept the reforms in Social Security that will guarantee its sustainability; in Education, pedagogic theories of dubious origins have resulted in undoubtedly disastrous results. The Right knows its electorate, and does not seem all too keen on rising retirement ages, but they accept that the rich - and only the rich - get off of the system and have their pensions at least partially in private schemes. And, of course, the Right wants dearly education vouchers that will be used to finance religious schools (even more than they already are) and to allow, via this State subsidy, the upper sections of society to keep their children in private schools, away from the general scoundrel and the calamitous public education system governed by the Left.

Like we have recently seen with the judges and with the teachers, all political forces, once in opposition, will block any kind of reform affecting powerful professional groups. It is easy to cut any normal civil servant wage. Try doing that to a judge: from the far-ends of Communism to the far-ends of Conservatism, all voices will rise against you. And that explains why, much more than labour laws (something that all Liberals tend to emphasize) one of Portugal's biggest problems is actually the (at best) inoperative judicial system.

In our near future, we may get to a situation in which the Welfare State starts being dismantled because we need to cut costs. But the problem in Portugal is certainly not a big Welfare State. Checking OECD data, you may easily find out that Portuguese Welfare State is as big as any other European Welfare State, certainly smaller than not few of them. And that non-biased analysis of the Welfare State is what distinguishes a Left Liberal from many other Liberals.
What we must question is where all the rest of the money goes in Portugal. Why do we have so many doctors (and we do)? Why do we have so many judges (and we do, despite our calamitous judicial system)? Why do we have so many unproductive public investments? Why so many subsidies? Why so many taxes imposed for "social justice", with no positive effects whatsoever after all the tax benefits that only benefit the rich? And it is this critical view of the State's power of intervention in the economy that distinguishes a Left Liberal from the Socialist Left.

The road is rocky - but I still believe that a Liberal Left, a Liberalism that knows that (sane) social policies are crucial for people to be free, a Leftism that understands that economic growth is crucial for social justice, is the only key for our future. We need to continue of road from religious serfdom to rational freedom. We need a State that keeps its hands off the economy. We need a State that guarantees that everybody has some chances in life. All of these three goals are only possible through the combination of a Leftist inclination and a Liberal reasoning.

Portugal Needs a Liberal Left - Part II

The Centre-Right normally rules with the brains (exception: Berlusconi - if you consider him Centre-Right, of course, something that I would not). The Centre-Left normally rules with the heart (exception: Blair - if you consider him Centre-Left, of course, something that I would not).

The result is that European governments on the Right do the right things for the bad reasons and European governments on the Left have the good reasons while defending them with the most unspeakably stupid policies (1). So, for example, you have Zapatero, a decent politician that changed the face of Spain and affronted PP, a party depending from Opus Dei and still holding on in some way (or at least in some factions) to Franquism. What did he do to PP's good heritage from PP? Well, the recent defeat in the local elections is a proof that Spanish people do prefer, when the going gets rough, competent bastards to incompetent good guys.

So that is the challenge. Do the right things for the right reasons. It cannot be impossible to have a progressive society, opportunities for all and economic growth. In fact, it makes sense that all those factors go hand in hand. Growth creates opportunities that can be effectively used by people if social prejudices do not create artificial barriers to social mobility and individual freedom.

So Portugal needs a political force that is clear on a number of subjects:
  1. We need a change in mentalities regarding finances: we have to save part of what we earn, we cannot spend more than what we earn; we cannot see as normal having deficits of more than 3%, and certainly not on consecutive years (or, as is the case, decades!).
  2. We need a change in mentalities regarding the economy: we have to allow entrepreneurs to appear, we have to avoid defining what the economy should look like and let society decide it on its own; we have to ask ourselves why countries having simpler fiscal laws or having more agile judicial systems keep better growth rates than us.
That is what I call the "Liberal" side of the answer. The other what I call the "Left" side:
  1. We need to have a more intelligent view of society: we have to put aside our pre-conceived ideas about social rights, we have to protect less those who are already powerful, we have to have the same laws for everybody.
  2. We need to defend a good public Education system: public schools are the only way of creating a "republican" society, a society based on equal opportunities; public schools must be ideologically neutral (no financing of religious institutions) and equally accessible for all (the education voucher is actually just a way of financing private schools and rich families that would in any case put their children in such schools because they know that exclusive environments are a way of maintaining the ancestral dynasties that rule the country); but public schools also have to be demanding, hard, and discipline must prevail - otherwise the middle class will no longer believe in it.
  3. We need to defend a good public Health system: WHO data proves that the Portuguese health care system is, counter-intuitively, one of the few things the country can be proud of; it also shows that public systems are cheaper and more cost-effective than private ones; but it needs to face the ageing problem and be sustainable.
  4. We need to defend Social Security: and this can only be done with radical reforms, including eventual limits on accumulation of pensions and fixing ceilings, while the retirement age has to go as up as 68, eventually more if needed - we have to be prepared for it, if we do want to keep a public pension system, having at the same time a good notion of intergenerational justice in which young people are not transformed into fiscal slaves of richer, more numerous (thus more powerful in a democratic society) and older generations.

(1) Do not mix up Europe and the United States. The American Right is only right when it shuts up, and since Republicans are very verbal, they are never right. The Democrats (that, despite the myths that we have among us, are frequently more to the Right than many European Liberals) pursue fairer social policies while having a more "conservative" budgetary policy - as the Clinton governments vs. Reagan and both Bushes example easily proves.

Portugal needs a Liberal Left - Part I

Less than thirty years after the last IMF intervention, Portugal finds itself again in the hands of international institutions, this time with the European Commission and the European Central Bank joining IMF. The years in which the IMF was here seem to be the last years in which some reasonable budgetary policy was followed in the country, with a large coalition of the two main parties, PS (Social Democrats) and PSD (at the time, Liberals by international affiliation, though Conservative at heart).

After that, we had ten years of PSD governments, the ones in which the weight of the State grew the most.
We had six years of PS governments, in which the deficit was reduced, but no reforms were introduced, in some cases pursuing the PSD reality-detached policies, such as regarding pensions. We got to 2001/2002 amid a political, social, budgetary and economic crisis that allowed a victory for a coalition between the two Conservative parties, PSD and CDS.
After less than three years, the country was angry. The Right had promised a "Liberal Revolution" and instead no real changes came, those which came were less than understandable and the government supported an unfair war that had the opposition of over 75% of the population. The Prime Minister, Barroso, fled the country and left it with all its budgetary and economic crisis to be solved, and got the dream job at Berlaymont, and left at his place a man that became a practical joke (and a very sad one) and that had the honour of being the first Portuguese Prime Minister to be fired by the President for outright incompetence.
At the 2005 elections the two Conservative parties had the worst result for the Right in the democratic period of Portugal. Not even in 1974/75, when the country was on the verge of Socialism, did the two Right-wing parties got such a bad result; on the contrary, PS had its best result ever.
And so, we could think (I certainly did) that with an absolute majority and five years of economic crisis the situation would change. Until 2008 it seemed so. It was not perfect, but the Socialists did more and did better than the Right. Right - but wrong. As soon as the financial crisis broke down the old Keynesian monsters were unleashed and PS, that had managed to drop the 6% budget deficit inherited from the Right to a 2,8%, soon brought us to unimaginable deficits of over 9%, while persisting with megalomaniac plans for a new airport and a high speed train.

The rest of the story is more or less known: the deficit is still not under control, the markets and rating agencies dragged the country to its knees, the government tried to resist receiving the international aid, but finally had to accept it, while the now (after the 2009 elections) minority Socialist government and the opposition were unable or unwilling to find a compromise, leading to the upcoming elections in the beginning of June.

How could we summarize Portugal's last years?
- Persistent economic crisis;
- Persistent unbalanced budgets;
- No real differences, in economic and financial policies, between Centre-Left and the Right;
- An irrelevant Left, barricaded in an unwillingness to compromise, though they represent about 20% of the electorate;
- Persistent marks of unequal development, with education results and the most unequal society in Europe and with one of the lowest levels of social mobility, only to be equalled by the United States;
- Crisis is not used as a moment of reflection and reform, but ends up in another wave of migration towards Europe or Africa, such as now is happening with many skilled young Portuguese;
- While changes, cuts and reforms that affect poorer citizens may be done, it is impossible to introduce changes affecting professional corporations, such as judges, doctors or teachers.

How can we move from this? What do we need to move from this?