Sunday, 26 February 2012

Is the Holocaust Unique?

Holocaust Memorial Day January 27th 2012

Between the outbreak of war in 1939 and its final total defeat in May 1945 Nazi Germany ordered, orchestrated and carried out the deliberate murder of 6 million Jewish people from every territory in Europe in which the Nazis had control, in an effort to kill every single human being of Jewish descent in the world.

That is the barest factual statement of what happened. To try to say more is to fall into an abyss, once started it seems impossible to find a decent point to stop without it being somehow inappropriate.  There is always so much more to say.

It is impossible to fully tell the true story of what happened across almost every country in Europe, involving uncountable different communities,  millions of individual experiences and six years, in what were really a series of associated atrocities by different methods united  by the same evil purpose. If I started now and kept talking without pause to a ripe old age I could only tell you a small fragment of the whole story of what happened to so many people.

One of the major historical and popular arguments about the Holocaust relates to whether the Holocaust was in some sense unique. The precise answer to that is that it depends in what manner you mean.  The less precise, but fundamentally more accurate, answer is simply, Yes.  There have been other massacres, other atrocities, other genocides, other periods when more people were killed in total.  But still the Holocaust is unique.  The Holocaust was a uniquely significant event in Western history and world history as a whole.

In the most trivial sense all historical events are unique.  They all involved different places, different people, different real lives and experiences, different contexts and circumstances. The impulse to lump them all in the same and rank them by various criteria, as though it were some crude measuring exercise, should be avoided at all costs.  It is cheap and unworthy, as well as intellectually lazy, to try to reduce them to a few rough yardstick criteria.  Especially when they involve such vast but personal tragedy.

But even in those crude senses the Holocaust is still unique. Despite a sad series of events that have made a mockery of the solemn vow 'Never Again', the Holocaust is still the largest single genocide in human history. But that is not what makes it truly unique.

Even in the 2nd World War, the Jewish Holocaust happened within a much larger campaign of indiscriminate mass murder of unarmed prisoners and civilians by the Nazis and their allies in areas under their own control. It also included (in roughly descending order of size): Soviet POW's, Polish gentile civilians, Romany and Sinti Gypsies, Serbs, Soviet civilians, disabled people, Homosexuals, Left Wing political activists (social democrats, communists, trade unionists), Freemasons, Jehovah's witnesses, Catholic and protestant clergy, and other political prisoners who resisted the Nazis. Including all these groups raises the number of victims to 11-12 million. And this is itself small next to the 65 million victims: massacred civilians, civilians killed due to total war, and military deaths in WW2 as a whole.

I've often thought that there should be separate accepted words to refer to the specific destruction of the Jews and the wider campaign of murder by the Nazis using the same methods and infrastructure: mass shooting, starvation, extermination through labour, and gas chambers.  Possibly one of the commonly used words Shoah or Holocaust could be assigned to refer to each one. This proposal does have one significant problem, namely the visceral and etymological connection both of these terms have to the specifically anti-Jewish campaign of Genocide.

What makes the Jewish Holocaust unique is not the size though. What makes it so unique is the nature of the event, the place it takes in the psychological development of western civilisation. The Holocaust was a continent-wide campaign to murder every man, woman and child of a scattered nation of 9 million people based on nothing more substantial than a wind of vaguely defined, nonsense, paranoid, racist fantasy.  To this end one of the largest and most developed states in the modern world directed every means and instrument at its disposal, utilising its every branch and department in all their administrative complexity and efficiency, the most advanced expertise in science and engineering of the time, and the entirety of a vast professional military and police establishment, as well as the help of collaborators in every country it reached.  All to the end of murdering specific human beings with the greatest efficiency and speed possible, all thoroughly documented and recorded with all the precision one could expect of a modern state bureaucracy.

The genocide was at the centre of the very purpose of the Nazi state as seen by those leading and organising it. In the midst of Total War, even when they were losing that war, Nazi Germany prioritised the genocide over prosecuting the War.  Even into 1944 & 1945 trains deporting Jews were given priority for precious space on Europe's railways over desperately needed war materials heading to the armies. Scarce resources were directed into killing millions of skilled workers despite Germany's desperate inferiority in industrial production. Vital military personnel and administrative capability were tied up in organising and directing the genocide despite the steady collapse of the Nazi state. Quite simply the Nazis would rather murder Jews than win the war. And all for nothing.The Holocaust had no purpose, no possible practical gain, even by the flimsy standards and excuses of historical genocide and mass murder. It was not central to securing anyone's power or some tangential military or economic advantage. It was just pointless, brutal, sadistic murder and destruction for its own sake.

The echoing result of this appalling event was that the European, modernist, rationalist, arrogant Enlightenment myths of superiority, civilisation and progress that laid at the basis of so much Western self-belief were destroyed for ever. Along with so many assumed truths about what modern man was capable of, about the possibility for evil in supposedly ordinary, decent human beings and even the providence of God. The Nazis twisted all the things that modern, western civilisation had built its assumption of superiority and civilisation on into the utmost mindless evil.  Organisation, law, modern technology, industrial efficiency, modern medicine, even the language and dressings of science and rationalist, naturalist enquiry itself. The Holocaust revealed the veneer of civilisation, morality, compassion or religion, on which we place so much faith, to be dangerously thin and transparent, and devastated western faith in itself, in civilisation and even in reason itself.

Its horrors were so great, so widespread, so unthinkable, so utterly without meaning or purpose but also so targeted, so regimented and so coldly planned that they penetrated into the very core of the understanding of western civilisation in a way no other event ever has. And uniquely among historical events it was so powerful that it shocked the Western World into taking a real step back and considering itself again: The United Nations, War Crimes, International Human Rights Law, Genocide, Israel, Crime against humanity, European Union, Refugee Status, Hate Speech, Memorial, Education & Intervention.

All these organisations and categories were developed, or greatly increased in importance, as a response to the War in general, but particularly the Holocaust, which was by far the most shocking and horrifying nadir even in a conflict not otherwise short of horrors.  These ideas were radically creative and new, driven by a deep-seated sense that the tragedy represented something radically, horribly new in our shared history and hence required an entirely new response.  A recognition that the instruments and assumptions of the old world had proved totally inadequate to what had happened and that if the civilised world was to hold onto or regain any sense of justification then it had to formulate a new response.

These measures also came from a wider horrific realisation that responsibility, if not guilt, for the Holocaust did not just rest with a handful of Nazi criminals, or even all Germans. It was facilitated and passively supported by a deep spiritual and moral malaise in societies across the western world.  As early as the 1930's Hitler made no attempt to hide his desire for personal dictatorship, nor the violent and barbaric methods of his henchmen, nor his rabid hatred of Jewish people but he succeeded anyway because, to quote Norman Davies, "the prevailing political culture in Germany at the time did not preclude the election of gangsters".  Hitler could not have legally abolished the constitution with the votes of the Catholic Centre Party, a liberal, bourgeoisie Christian Democrat party that at the crucial moment voted with Hitler and thus ensured its own destruction and the horrors that followed. He pursued racist and violent policies to harass and exclude Jews from German life well before the outbreak of War. But still he had defenders and supporters in Western countries, or just well meaning politicians like Chamberlain, who were able to believe he was anything other than a grim, anti-human psychopath.

His crimes were only possible because anti-semitism and political violence were deep-rooted and accepted within German culture, whether among more mainstream conservatives, or the wider population, even among groups that would never themselves have gone as far as the Nazis did. The Christian churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, even where in some cases they half-heartedly opposed Nazism or Hitler's excesses, such as Michael von Faulhaber Archbishop of Munich, had a long history of promoting anti-Judaism, which contributed to anti-Semitism pervading German society as an acceptable component.  This all meant that when the time came the plight of Jewish citizens was met, admittedly not by joy, but also not by resistance or outrage, but by indifference.  To quote Ian Kershaw "the road to Auschwitz was laid by hatred, but it was paved with apathy".

And the German Nazis could not have acted alone.  In almost every country they exploited widespread anti-semitism to one degree or another.  Anti-semitism that meant there were always those willing to collaborate and in vast numbers those willing to stand aside. Anti-semitism that had been a widely accepted part of culture and life even among supposedly civilised and liberal countries. In some countries, like the Baltic states and Ukraine, some locals were willing participants in pogroms and massacres.  In others, like France or Hungary, the local police and security forces were willing, even eager participants in rounding up and deporting Jewish people in their country at the Nazi's command, to the point where their enthusiasm  surprised the Germans.

That inadequacy was not limited to those countries occupied by the Nazis.  In the environment before WW2 countries had very strict limits on  immigration and refugees, regardless of circumstance, unless a person was very wealthy or important.  Many refugees fled Nazi occupied Europe, in the 1930's and even after war started, but were turned away by country after country that would not accept them, either through anti-semitism or sheer indifference. Even in Britain or America desperate refugees were deported back to central Europe, where they would later be caught up in the Holocaust and murdered. Yad Vashem, the official Israeli Holocaust museum has a whole program devoted to remembering those relatively few non-Jews who did risk their lives to rescue Jews. Among these people is a whole category made up of diplomats in various European countries who, faced with the desperate refugees, ignored the strict rules governing immigration at that time and mass produced the official Visas these people desperately needed to cross borders and be safe in other countries.  Tens of thousands were saved by the compassion of a few people in important places in handing out these documents without the usual checks and procedures.  But perhaps hundreds of thousands more died because the vast majority of such diplomats, faced with these people and their obvious terror, stuck, mindlessly, to the rules they had been given, and thus trapped them where they would be killed.            

During the War the Nazis made some effort to hide the full extent of what they were doing.  But even despite this, primarily thanks to the astonishing bravery of a few incredible individuals who escaped the death camps, news about what was happening slowly leaked back to the West.  These people were widely disbelieved, their honour doubted, their stories written off as wartime propaganda. Tragically symptomatic of the inbuilt indifference and lack of seriousness given to the horrific events that were occurring.

After the War, though tentatively at first, Western society grasped all these things.  And took some steps, some efforts to change.  The concepts of International Human Rights Law, or War Crimes, and the need to formally try and convict people for such acts, were created out of thin air to give some of legal framework to respond to the atrocities that have happened.  The Nuremberg trials were criticised at the time for having no legal basis in existing law.  This was undoubtedly true, but the words of the Chief US Prosecutor at Nuremberg best described why the Trials had to occur regardless.  "Civilisation asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance."   The word and concept of 'Genocide' was invented and recognised, and made a particular recognisable category of war crime, with the hope that explicitly recognising the type of event would make it easier to ensure that it never happened again.  'Refugee' status was explicitly defined and, shamed by the way they had failed so many refugees from the Nazis, the United Nations members accepted an unprecedented new duty to accept those fleeing persecution regardless of restrictions on numbers or place of origin.  In the political sphere it drove the creation of the UN, the EU and the State of Israel and the turmoil that surrounds those institutions even down to today reflects the turmoil that drove their creation and the fact they were created in an emotional response to the tragedies that had happened, and not necessarily in even-handed consideration of the circumstances.

More widely there was a new commitment across the Western World to banish and reject the casual bigotry, prejudice and hate speech that had been such an accepted part of even civilised society. I believe this had a powerful impact on the unprecedented drive to remove the casual bigotries, whether sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist that had shaped the assumptions of western societies, especially from the 1960's onwards. The horrifying circumstances these attitudes had enabled gave a powerful and sustained reproach that drove the move to make those attitudes unacceptable in any polite society. The near immediate abandonment of the previously popular idea of eugenics in British and American society being one good example.  The concept of Hate Speech was invented, and has taken on a powerful role both in law and in our political and social discussions.  Western democracies took on a new and continuing emphasis on education, on intervention and memorial, a drive to ensure people never forgot what had happened and the lessons of those terrible events, to fight against their causes in society root and branch.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Going Beyond the Universal Credit - The next steps in welfare reform

 The current government has launched the largest reform of the UK welfare system since 1945. The British welfare system developed out of the Centuries old Poor Law in the early 20th Century. From 1945-1950 it was transformed from a limited and conditional system into a universal safety net to protect people 'from cradle to grave'. The system grew steadily more expensive and under the 1979-97 Conservative government conditionality and limits were re-introduced in an attempt to control costs. The Labour government of 1997-2010 introduced various new benefits and dramatically increased spending but also continued introducing means testing and attaching conditions to welfare.

Now means testing is perfectly sensible as far as it goes. However, it also leads to a significant unintended consequence. The means testing of various branches of welfare (JSA, ESA, housing benefit, council tax benefits and tax credits) involves people steadily losing welfare income the further their income goes above a threshold until they get nothing. For each extra pound they earn they lose, say, 20p of benefit. But millions of people are on 3 or 4 benefits at the same time. Losing 20p or so of income from each benefit and paying taxes means an effective tax rate of 90%+. In other words if someone on benefits gets a job they can find themselves no better off that being on welfare, and can even end up with less money. This welfare trap hits millions of people. Our standard suite of unemployment benefits involves JSA, council Tax benefits and Housing benefit. That is enough that if a person gets a job for a few hours a week they will lose all the extra money they earn and possibly more.

This is especially true for those with marginal, part-time or temporary employment prospects. The risk with any such work may be that a person may end up both with less money, and being thrown out of the welfare system, meaning that if their job ends or they find themselves incapable of completing it they may face re-applying for a range of benefits, a process taking months and involving climbing a mountain of bureaucracy. For those in difficult financial situations the stress of the risk of this occurring provides a significant incentive for people to actively avoid part-time or marginal work that does not provide an assurance that the person will be propelled well beyond benefits. But these marginal and temporary jobs are very important because they keep people in contact with the jobs market allowing them to maintain skills and experience, and to provide them with the basic sense of control over their own future that is essential to maintaining the morale to keep slogging away finding a real job. Hence the welfare trap is a particular problem precisely for those people from the most deprived and welfare dependent communities and backgrounds.

The Universal Credit was a centre plank of the Conservative manifesto in the 2010 election.  The idea is to solve this problem by combining all benefits into a single payment that would then have a single 'withdrawal' rate to make sure that for each pound of extra income earned welfare recipients kept at least some of the money, or as the slogan put it 'making work pay'. Allowing people to keep some of their benefits for a while when starting work, and removing benefits steadily in a manner insuring people always have a financial incentive to do an extra hour of work. The estimated extra cost of this is £3 billion a year upfront but will hopefully pay for itself in the long term by ensuring people always have an incentive to be seeking any work they can, keeping them in contact with the job market, maintaining skills and experience and hopefully meaning over time more people move from welfare into work permanently.

This is an ingenious solution to the welfare trap that exists for earned income. This welfare trap comes about through the fact that the system is a hodge-podge of different responses to particular problems. The overall effect of all these solutions was never considered holistically and hence the dramatic perverse incentives were not noticed and a system that is meant to not just keep people alive but also empower them to improve their own situation can become for many a system that traps that at a level just above subsistence. Those on welfare find themselves in a situation totally different from that facing most people. Working harder and 'earning' money often does not bring the prospect of increased income and security but at best working harder for the same money, or at worst facing greater poverty and stress. The Universal Credit attempts to correct this situation, ensuring that the welfare system acts as a trampoline not just a safety net and always involves an at least quasi-normal relation between working harder and having more money

It is possible to go beyond the reforms that make up the Universal Credit and and structurally improve the welfare system even further using the same principles and , making it even more of a springboard.  There is not just a welfare trap in Income, there is also a less well known (and admittedly less significant) welfare trap in savings.  In addition to the income means test there is also a savings mean test that is applied. For many benefits if you have cash savings of more than £16,000 then you cannot access welfare.  In particular there is a standard £6,000 threshold, below which one receives full benefits and then for each £250 of savings one has over the threshold the person loses £1 a week of benefit income.  This is quite reasonable.  If people have considerable cash savings it is reasonable that they draw on these rather than getting help from the government. The problem is the upper threshold of £16,000. As one'sone's income suddenly drops to zero. For example, someone who is unemployed with savings of £15,000 can receive around £102 a week in welfare.  Someone with £16,500 in savings will receive nothing.      

This means that if you are in a position where you have some cash savings, but not considerably more than £16,000, say in the £6,000-£20,000 range, and you think you may need to access welfare at some point in the short or medium term then you have a strong incentive to not save any of the money you earn.  You are better off spending it all, knowing that if you lose your job or your income you will then be able to safely access welfare, rather than saving the money, both forgoing buying stuff now and risking that you would just have to spend it all and then access welfare, leaving you in exactly the same position after considerable stress in the intervening period.

This is socially damaging in the long term. For most people wealth is empowering, it gives people security and a control over their own life.  Once people have a bit of wealth it makes it easier to get more wealth and stand on their own two feet going onward. More widely there is a strong correlation between wealth and social mobility, health, and a whole other raft of statistics. From a financial perspective people having some wealth in turn makes them less likely to need to access welfare or government support in the future. As with the income welfare trap it is also those with little wealth, or otherwise marginal financial situations, who are in most need of encouragement and support in gaining this security and safety net whereas in reality through our welfare system they are the ones being particularly discouraged.

This issue also applies to considerable numbers of people. Especially because in our society wealth is even more unequally distributed than income, and this distribution has been becoming more and more unequal over the last several years. There is an easy way to solve this problem though, and by using the mechanism already built into the welfare system, without the need for  dramatic re-engineering, like the Universal credit.  Two simple steps would largely remove this problem: firstly, increasing the ceiling for benefits withdrawal from £16,000->£26,000 and slightly adjusting the withdrawal rate to a loss of £1 a week in income for each £200 of savings over the threshold.  These two steps would largely remove the cliff-edge, leaving only a small step. For example, current unemployment benefits are about £135 a week for a single person. As savings increase from £6,000->£16,000 this reduces from £140->£100 and then falls straight to £0.  Under these changes as savings move from £6,000->£16,000->£20,000 welfare income falls from £140->£90->£40 and only then falls to £0.

This approach reduces the size of the drop by more than half, while also allowing people to get considerably further clear of Broke before it kicks in and hence significantly reduces the disincentive to save money. It does also maintain a reasonable upper limit, avoiding dragging more and more people into the welfare net, and also avoiding a situation of needing to process claims for a few pounds a week of welfare. These limits are always a compromise, but I think this would be a far better compromise than the current one. It also should not cost that much money. Steepening the withdrawal slightly from £1 for every £250 to £1 for every £200 would save some money.  Also for a number of people it would mean placing them on a smaller amount of weekly welfare, rather than forcing them to wear down their savings until they go below £16,000 and then putting them on a larger weekly sum of welfare, making the overall increase in cost minor.

The way to look at this is like this: The welfare system and public services are the way we redistribute wealth.  They provide access for all citizen to services and support that would normally require each citizen to have considerable amounts of money to buy.  The top 10% have 100 times as much wealth as the bottom 10%.  But it has been calculated that the wealth that would be required to buy the bundle of public services and welfare that each person has an entitlement to is about £100,000.  This is the common inheritance we give to each citizen, and that reduces the disparity in wealth to 10:1. Like I said, real wealth is empowering and gives people security and chances.  These reforms would shape this common inheritance to ensure that, like real wealth, it also acts to empower and secure people; acting as a springboard not just a safety net.

Another possible reform in relation to the savings means test for welfare relates to the definition of 'savings'. This encompasses financial savings apart from equity in a property.  This produces a sizable distortion though in favour of those who own housing against those who rent. In other words if you have £20,000 in savings and use the money to rent a property, you have no access to welfare; if you use that money to get £20,000 of equity in a house so you don't have to rent you do have access to welfare. This makes sense in terms that wealth bound up in a house is obviously not wealth that can be used to pay bills and buy food and support a family in a time when money is short.  But in terms of fairness it cannot really be justified. There are ways for people who's wealth is in housing equity to contribute that money against the cost of welfare which don't involve kicking them out of their homes. For example in terms of some amount of housing equity above a certain minimum, say £20,000, passing over to the government according to a tariff related to the amount of welfare received. The government would then get that share of the equity when the house was sold, or when the owner died in a manner similar to private equity release schemes. This would be an admittedly slow burning way for home owners to contribute towards welfare, in the same way that those without housing equity would have to.  But over the long term it may be worth it for the government, and would even-out a significant disparity between homeowners and non-homeowners and even go some of the way towards meeting the cost of the reform to savings means testing outlined above.

A third important structural improvement to the welfare system would be to overhaul the point which a partner's income affects a person's eligibility for welfare support.  I will now explain what that means in English.  I've already mentioned the Means test that is used to check eligibility for welfare both with reference to savings and income, and how this can produce severe disincentives for people on welfare to work or save. The means test doesn't just take into account the income and savings of the person applying for welfare, but also that of their spouse or partner.  Again, in principle, this is quite reasonable. Of course in situations where one partner has considerable money or income they should support their partner once their eligibility to contributory welfare runs out rather than relying on the state indefinitely.  The problem comes in the details. The means test is currently set at an absurdly low level. A partner's savings are assessed as the same as the applicant's savings and the threshold for income is only about £8,000. This basically means that if a partner has any job or savings then a person cannot access welfare beyond the time limited contributory benefits.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Christmas & Family

Merry Christmas! (I know this is a bit late.  But my excuse is it is still within the 12 days of Christmas. Just.  And hence still technically Christmas. Oh, and happy Epiphany as well.)

Christmas is the great stereotypical time to spend time with your family. I am lucky that my family have always got on well together without much stress. I've always enjoyed Christmas get togethers, as much now I'm an adult as when I was little. For some people Christmas and other family occasions are not relaxing, to say the least, and that is very sad.  It is a rupturing of what family means at a time dedicated to a uniquely unique family.

Thanks to the good works of a friend whenever I think about what family means I will always think of a line from a certain Disney Film. "Ohana" in Hawaiian, "means family, and family means no-one gets left behind". Family means a commitment to one another -to care, to sacrifice, to have patience and compassion- to not give up on one another because there is a responsibility that cannot be put aside. The difference between Family and other relationships is that Family is a bond you're not allowed to give up on. Family may annoy you, they may irritate you, there certainly may be times you don't like them, but if they're family you're stuck with them. And so you do whatever you can to get along, to mend relationships and get to a situation where you can enjoy your time together because you are stuck together. This is a type of Love. Love always means commitment, of a type. A commitment you can't walk away from.  It  also means a whole lot more. It's true that you don't always even like the ones you love, sometimes you can even hate them too.

Family is a commitment. A commitment that we don't necessarily choose.  That usually means blood. The most common basis for that commitment and relation is a blood relation. The saying is "you choose your friends but your family you're stuck with". The nuclear and extended family are the historical basis of human society, the glue that holds society together, that cares for children, cares for people in their old age, and makes sure that almost everyone has someone who is obliged to care about what happens to them. It is the environment in which we are formed, and the original and most essential human social bond and organisation. It is not surprising our wider social, moral and religious ideas are widely constructed by expanding analogy to it.  Blood family bears the advantage that we share experiences and genetics, meaning we have a good chance of being quite like each other and having some sympathy for one another. Sadly it doesn't always work, but it is at least a start.

Family isn't just blood. The rituals by which we add to blood family have always been the most serious in human society. Marriage has always been considered so important because it means two people committing to becoming family to one another, and the traditional language surrounding marriage borrows overwhelmingly from our understanding of what family means. Adoption is another traditional means of grafting onto family, and the issues about the blood family, adopted family and identity of the person are so deep because family bond is crucial to our identity.

In the modern day nuclear families have become more complicated. In addition to the traditional archetype of husband, wife, children some families have single parents, unmarried parents, divorced parents, sometimes with new partners and step-children. A lady I know spends Christmas with her mother, step-dad, step-dad's ex-wife and step-dad's ex-wife's new partner and various respective children. Now these families may be as happy or unhappy as traditional family arrangements, but certainly they introduce complications that must be overcome because of their differences from the standard archetype introduces difficulty in defining who family is, and who bears the responsibility that brings.

Family does not just mean blood family, not even with all its various grafting and extensions through rituals like marriage and adoption.  There is also the family of choice. The families we make. The people we informally adopt as family throughout our lives. Often, and especially in the hectic modern world, we may find ourselves away from our blood family and unable to draw directly on the network of love, support and familiarity they offer. We may not even have a family that offers that. But people have the most wonderful capacity to build entirely new families for ourselves by adopting people as family and extending that bond of support and commitment. Unlike blood family these families carry no legal sanction or recognition, and are often not even explicitly stated, though those involved generally understand.  They are voluntary, but all the more wonderful for that, being a responsibility we choose and build for ourselves, rather than one merely given at birth. They may come about through an individual act of generosity, through some shared extreme experience, shared ideological or social association or just the enduring commitment of deep friendship. In their best moments they may be as permanent as blood family.  But even when they are more temporary they are defined by a depth of commitment and responsibility, which goes beyond whether you find a person useful in this or that particular moment. They provide support, rest,  belonging, understanding, and home. They give us people who will always care, always listen, always try to help, always be available (if at all possible), always say yes (unless there is a damn good reason to say otherwise).  And they are crucial to surviving in a difficult and complicated world cut off from the families we grow up in, and without them we will struggle, sometimes not even knowing the reason why.

These families we choose for ourselves often mirror blood family in many ways.  Someone is like a brother or sister, or even Mum or Dad to us. These families are still often based around people living together, through the way this throws people so closely together. These families of adoption are often more alike our blood family than we are prepared to admit. They are not entirely random or free. We are thrown together with certain people, with whom we may choose to build that bond or not. But generally who we come across is dictated by circumstances we do not control. On the other hand, really, all family is the family we choose.  Blood provides a strong motivation, and a social expectation, that we will treat certain people as family, but really nothing can force us to hold and to honour that commitment of compassion and respect, of Love and devotion, that defines people as family.  In the end that is a choice and a decision we make and hold to, whether consciously or not.  Our society is sadly littered with examples where people have not honoured that commitment, even to those who do share close relation, and the damage and hurt this causes can extend over entire lives.

Family being a choice we make brings me back to Christmas, where we traditionally gather as families, and hopefully remember that most special family of the Nativity. Because the Nativity very much was a Family of choice, of adoption, with more in common, in many ways, with the messy, modern arrangements of so many families today, than the neatness of the traditional archetype.  There was no blood between Mary and Joseph, only a previous commitment he did not have to honour, given the circumstances, and a duty of kindness and compassion. There was no blood between Joseph and the baby he adopted as family and raised as his own, only a choice that was thrust upon him to make that commitment for the rest of his life. There was blood between Jesus and Mary, but not the assurance the baby was shared and accepted by a human father, only the choice to accept a responsibility, and bear the distance of knowing the baby she bore was not just her son, but had a destiny and responsibility that would take him beyond her and from her as well. This was a family that was barely formed before it was forced into the life of political and religious refugees, forced to flee to a alien country, having given birth in difficult conditions far from family and home.

Nativity means a family that only existed thanks to the choice Mary and Joseph made in the strangest of circumstances, as they said Yes to the chance God had sent them, and the Love and commitment they put into making that family a reality from then on. The amazing things about the Nativity are not just the miracle of God become Man, but also that in placing himself physically in the hands of a young peasant girl and her uncertain fiance in a dirty, poor stable, God took on our aching vulnerability. Putting himself utterly in the hands of human weakness and fragility and relying on the choices they made. The fact the family of the Nativity was this uncertain, this mixed family of choice and adoption just increases the vulnerability and contingency around the coming of God into the world in flesh.  God took on not only the weakness of human flesh, and the danger of sinister human political machinations, but also the fragility of human emotions and the decision taken to build a family outside usual expectations. That God would show that trust in human nature and rely so utterly on the choices individual humans made, that is a miraculous affirmation of the human emotion & spirit, in the same way that God growing in human flesh is miraculous affirmation of the physical world we dwell in.

The most emotional illustration of this vulnerability of the Nativity in that distant stable that I have ever experienced came in an email I received on November 25th a few years ago. At the time I was a volunteer at a Night-shelter for homeless refugees in north Coventry. Refugees and asylum seekers generally can't access homeless shelters because these are funded by government welfare and refugees and asylum seekers can't access welfare. Usually without family or connections in the places they end up in, struggling with physical or emotional trauma, and without the legal right to seek work or access welfare, they often end up homeless. A lady called Penny ran a shelter in a previously abandoned North Coventry terrace house, providing a safe, dry, warm place to sleep and a free dinner and breakfast each day for homeless refugees and asylum seekers. The place ran on a shoestring and donations of food, and the support of volunteers from the local community and the University, where I got involved.  Volunteers were responsible for looking after the place over the evening, sleeping there overnight, making sure nothing went wrong, getting people up, serving breakfast and getting people out at the right time. It was pretty unpleasant throwing people out at 8 am, when it was cold and raining and you knew they had nowhere to go all day but wander round outside, but it was sadly necessary to keep the place running. The refugees were from Eritrea, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo and various countries across Africa.  They were mostly Male with the occasional woman, a woman usually from somewhere in Africa, and usually the most quiet, usually the most scarred by what they had experienced. In the many dirty conflicts across the world women are generally most vulnerable. Penny sent out a few emails every month to ask for volunteers and arrange a rota. One year in November in the email to prepare the next rota Penny left a note.

"Hi everyone,
   
I hope you are all have a happy festive season, Christmas, new year, winter solstice. Here is the rota for January. Please can you arrange a swap if there is a problem with the date. PLEASE LET ME KNOW YOU HAVE RECEIVED THIS ROTA, it saves me making lots of phone calls. If you know anyone else who would like to volunteer, I am doing some training for new people on Wednesday 17th Jan at 6.30pm. Please ask them to let me know they are coming.
   
And to finish on a Christmas note, we currently have a woman who has just arrived from Nigeria staying the week-end before she goes to
claim asylum in Croydon on Monday. Her name is Mary and she is 8 months pregnant. That's true.
  
best wishes to you all,
Penny"

What world was that baby born into? And what opportunity did the world offer that baby and its mother: Single, far from home, refugee, homeless, destitute? How similar to that world Jesus was born into in a stable far from home. But there is one crucial way that it it is a different world, and that is the fact that Jesus was born into our world two thousand years ago. Because that Nativity wasn't just the birth of one family of adoption of a teenage peasant girl, her fiance and the unique baby that God had given to them. Nativity also means that we all, all humanity, become family to God by adoption in its deepest sense. Through his birth and then life, death and resurrection that came from it he covered us over with his Holiness, washed away our Sins and folded us in with his Holy Spirit.  We became children by adoption, with God as our Father, and a relationship of the enduring Love and consistent commitment that defines family. We become family to one another, us to God & God to us, and brothers and sisters in Christ with the duty and responsibility to one another that comes with that.

The story of the world has been the gradual moral expansion of Love from family to clan, tribe, nation eventually to theoretically encompass all mankind, and even our duty to other species and the environment. Moral commands like 'Do not murder' have been present across all forms of human society. But they have always historically been limited within certain communities, while those outside, whether of a different nation or race or religion, could be killed without moral sanction. Most originally hunter-gatherer communities would have lived in separated extended families, each with their own hunting and gathering lands. Slowly those standards were applied more widely, as human society expanded from family to clan to tribe to people (the words for tribe and clan themselves are literally derived from words for family) and even more expanded human societies: nations, countries, Empires have historically been scattered with symbolic references to family.

The expansion of moral prescriptions (like do not kill), the commitment of Love, and the idea of family, from blood family to clan, tribe, nation and then the whole world, have gone hand in hand.  The development of the great Universal Empires of the ancient world, Hellenistic, Roman, Chinese, Indian brought the first idea of the whole world as one universal community. But although these communities expanded the idea of  'Do not Murder' they were only shadows of the true fulfilment of what family should mean. They had negative moral boundaries on behaviour, like forbidding killing or stealing, but without an idea of filling in the positive commitment of family.

But it was the Good News of Jesus Christ that for the first time transformed the idea of a global community based on law and order into that of a Family based on love and commitment. The Gospel tells us to love our neighbour, and tells us our neighbour must be whoever is in need; it tells us to love our enemies, as well as those who do us good.  It tells us to give, to lend, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, without boundary or restriction and practice radical forgiveness, forgiving the seventy times seven times that any family will tell you is necessary when imperfect people are glued inseparably together and know they have to make things work. We are called to love one another as God has loved us, as a father to a child, and to love one another as Brother and sister and spread that message and community to the whole world, with the simple practical acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving thirsty people a drink; that go with that radical message, as they must do for any family to be real. We are called to build a worldwide community, Church, that should be a well of support in the same manner as those families we choose. This is nothing less than the expansion of our notion of Family, in its true meaning of a choice of Love and continuous commitment, to the whole world, to all of creation, to reflect the Love God has for us all and the duty we all have for each other. It is building a complete world where nobody gets left behind, and all are looked out for and cared for, because we each take it as our positive commitment to do so. So that child born in north Coventry in Winter to a refugee mother would also have a family.

And this is not just an ideal; it is a promise through God's Spirit and power.  Sometimes it may seem distant and unimaginable, but through the power of God's spirit, the birth of God as man as Jesus Christ, the family of adoption of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Good News of radical Love that Jesus lived and taught it becomes not just a possibility but an eventual certainty.  God's Holy Spirit gives us the power to extend Love to all humanity, despite our deep personal fallibility; the instruction of what that means in our individual lives and choices; and a vision of what that could achieve if we  make the choice and commitment to join that family the same way Mary and Joseph did in Nazareth a long time ago.  

And that is what, for me, family means and Christmas means.  Through gathering together and sharing gifts and hospitality, the tokens of the love, commitment and patience, the fundamental meaning of family; we celebrate the bonds that give meaning to our lives, through the choices we make whether due to blood or experiences we have shared. We remember the unique family of the Nativity, forged in the choice of Mary and Joseph, and the wonderful birth of the Christ-child; and we remember how that birth  means we are all adopted as family of God, children of God and brother and sister to Christ and one another, if we choose to make that commitment. And through God's power we have the chance and duty to make that bond real for all mankind, building a complete family of all mankind where no-one is forgotten or left behind.

Something worth remembering.

Friday, 11 November 2011

We will Remember them . . . . .



We Will Remember Them.

Since the War to End all Wars there has been:

The Russian Civil War, the Soviet-Polish War, the Turkish-Greek War, the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War, the Chinese Civil War, the Italian-Ethiopian War, the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese-Japanese War, the 2nd World War, the Arab and Zionist Rebellions, the Guerrilla War resisting the Soviets, the Greek Civil War, the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, the Kashmiri Conflict, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Invasion of Tibet, the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, the Guatamalan civil War, Angolan War, the Rhodesian War, the Namibian War, the 6 day War, the Cambodian Civil War, The Northern Irish Troubles, the Naxalite Insurgency, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Yom Kippur War, the Ethiopian Civil War, the Lebanese Civil War, the East Timor War, the Chad Civil War, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the Chechnyan Conflict, the Salvadoran Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Falklands War, the Ugandan Bush War, the Sri Lankan Civil War, the first Intifada, the Afghani Civil War, the Gulf War, the Yugoslavian Wars, the Somali Civil War, the Nepalese Civil War, the War in the Congo, the Kosovo War, the Liberian Civil War, the 2nd Intifada, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Ivorian Civil War, the Sudanese Civil War, the Lebanon War, the Mexican Drug War, the Somali Civil War, the Gaza War, the Libyan War, the Syrian Civil War, the war on ISIL.

We Will Remember Them.

In the World today conflict continues in Nigeria, Colombia, India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir, Yemen, Mexico, Congo, Sudan, Burma, and Syria.

We Will Remember Them.

And that is only the instances of major armed conflict.  It does not begin to list all the one-sided 'wars' across the world fought by states and governments against un-armed civilians, often with more force, more equipment, more ferocity (and the loss of more lives) than conventional wars. Because of greed, because of race, because of politics or religion or language or power or fear, or for no reason at all.  A few of the names are well-known to us: Holocaust, Armenian Genocide, Cambodian Killing Fields, Rwandan Genocide, Holodomor, Sarajevo. Many more are not.

And we remember all those wars fought by governments or terrorists or criminals or a single bully who uses force to crush scattered people, or a few people, or just one person alone, with bombs or secret police, or torture, or camps, or prisons, or bullets or threats or fists.

We remember each individual who gave his or her life for freedom or dignity or to save another whether soldiers or civilians. Raoul Wallenberg, Witold Pilecki, Józef Adamowicz, Janusz Korczak & countless, countless others, whether known to the World, or known to one or a few grateful or heartbroken souls, or known only to God. Even if we cannot, we rest in the faith that God remembers them.

We remember them. Those who gave their lives to defend our peace & freedom  and those who gave their lives to defend our Brothers and Sisters in countries around the world.

"For no greater love has a man than this, that he should lay down his life for his brother" John 15:13.

And we remember those who had their lives taken, despite the best efforts of so many to defend them.  We remember each individual, and the millions of individuals known only as a place and a people. Though we cannot save them now, we can honour their lives and their sacrifice as we can through simply remembering them. And by giving our all to build a better world, in our own hearts, in our homes, in our own countries, and across the world, so no more names and places are added to the list that must never be forgotten.

We will remember them.

Amen.



Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Reality of 'Ethical Experience'

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Good & Evil, Right & Wrong, Morality, Ethics; these make up a huge part of what it means to be human, to be a thinking, rational & emotional being. From the rules of politeness and decency in our small personal interactions with others, in the struggle between good guys and bad guys that fills our entertainment and our view of history, in our personal ethical choices or lack of them as consumers, our political discussions dominated by arguments about fairness and social justice, to our awareness of great moments of good and evil in our world. Considerations of morality make up a huge part of our mental landscape, our daily lives and our culture and we all have a keen sense of right and wrong, even if we only deploy it in reference to the good we do and the wrong other people do to us. And moral judgements and issues range from the almost entirely trivial to the most unbelievably important issues in the world.

We almost all understand morality, and the basic nature of right and wrong, even if we disagree about some details. Ethics is an immensely practical affair; as universal, commonplace, and often feeling as fiercely real as the physical rocks and trees and other things of the world we live in. The way we 'work out' morality is also equally practical. We see 'moral' value and right and wrong in the world around us in the same way we see colours. We don't reason it out from logical first principles like abstract mathematics. Even small children or the makers of children's TV can be better people and teach clearer moral lessons that the most wise of moral philosophers.  There is no connection between how much you have studied Ethics and how ethical you are.

Despite this though too much reasoning about Ethics and Morality seems to approach the subject as though it were abstract mathematics or metaphysics. Starting from first principles and abstract definitions philosophers work out ethical systems and then apply them, fully formed, to real experience; often finding real experience a disappointment when it does not measure up to the neatness of theoretical vision. But this is the totally wrong way to do it. Maths has some very particular features. We all understand very basic mathematical notions like space and number, but once we go into almost any detail quite precise study is needed to go any further to even be able to imagine the possibility and understand the concepts of more advanced ideas. No-one, or almost no-one, just trips over the ideas of group theory or set theory, or differential equations unless they have them painstakingly explained. In complete contrary to this, one meets and experiences the ideas of good and evil everyday without the need for much explanation.  These ideas are given and transparent in a way that experience of our ordinary world is, and experience of morality is, but Mathematics, Metaphysics, and even the abstractions of Science are not.

Like I said, there is no such connection with studying philosophical Ethics and experiencing Morality, or even knowing what is the moral thing to do. All we can say is that people who study ethics have a better grip of the principles and 'laws' behind every-day moral awareness and decision making, but they are certainly not generally any better at doing it.  This is totally unlike Maths, but there is something it is very like.  And that is the relationship between ordinary experience of the world and natural science. In the ordinary living world we act, we live, we see, we hear, we feel, we experience and do a whole host of other things entirely competently without understanding the physical principles behind them, and neither do we need to have their concept explained to us to experience them.

Even if we talk about studying natural Science what this gives you is an understanding of those principles that lie behind such experience, but you don't in any way need it to live and experience the world and even amass knowledge about it.  Understanding physics doesn't make you a good walker, understanding optics doesn't help you see better, understanding Newton's laws on gravity isn't essential for bungee jumping. (Note this is definitely not to say that understanding those scientific laws cannot help with these activities. Considering our analogy that would make studying ethics particularly pointless if true.) But there is the same fundamental relation between Ethics and moral experience as there is between experience of the physical world and Physics, Chemistry, Biology.

At this point the obvious counter-argument to my analogy to the natural sciences is that objective scientific principles can be read out of nature, tested, measured, confirmed, whereas moral principles are less accessible. This is obviously true. I certainly don't claim that moral and physical knowledge are the same, but neither are they as different as they perhaps appear. We are so used to knowing so much about every facet of our world, but not so long ago this was not the case. Going back further than a few centuries the physical world, as much as the moral, was a confusing mass of phenomena, in which for a very long time it proved impossible to latch onto any firm principle, before light began to truly dawn in the 16th Century. Coming from the opposite direction there is a surprisingly widespread and accepted consensus on fundamental ethical truths and values (if often wildly differing applications) both across our society and all human societies. These two facts belie attempts to establish a crude dichotomy between the idea of a physical world from which one can read off, objective confirmable laws and a moral in which we have only subjectivism, relativism and personal opinion.      

What I think this all means is that the reality of 'Ethical Experience' has to be put right at the centre of any investigation into morality. We can deny whether Ethics and Morality has any fundamental and essential reality.  We can argue over the details of our moral intuitions and experiences, like ten people giving their ten different eye witness accounts of the same car crash.  But we cannot deny the reality of that ethical experience, of the experience of value we 'see' in others, of our intuitive reactions to ethical situations and new ethical ideas, and the, again, different feelings and judgements that come through learning of great moral heroes or villians, or of the way people have morally acted in extreme situations.

Ethical Experience, the basic substance of moral intuition and experience is given to us, it is something that forces itself on us as we go about our ordinary lives, whether we want it or not, and as such it bears a totally different relationship to us and our understanding than rationalist abstractions like Mathematics or most philosophy. And it is this basic ethical experience in every part of our lives that must be at the fundamental basis of any attempt to understand morality, good and evil, or our concepts of meaning, Good and value in the world in general, in the same way that our experience of the physical world must always lie at the basis of our scientific theories.

As far as studying Ethics goes this means that we must attempt to clarify our ethical and moral understanding by studying closely the vast quantity of data that reveals itself through this reality of ethical experience, in its many forms from the trivial and everyday to the vast and truly profound. I think that what this means is that it would be wise, instead of adopting the rationalist, abstract and systematic approach of Mathematics, to approach Ethics with more of the empirical, practical and even piecemeal spirit of natural science. By analysing the structure and nature of Ethical experience we will not at first give a conclusive yes or no answer to the massive moral issues that plague our society but, like with natural science, by advancing over the world we experience inch by inch with a fine tooth comb we should be able to build up our knowledge in a more secure manner, as on a sure foundation, rather than racing to build our house only to find it rests on sand.

I believe that a piecemeal, one bit at a time, approach could give a better hope of understanding each individual and differing part of our ethical experience in its own right. We need a descriptive approach to Ethics that looks at our lived ethical experience and from that attempts to describe and understand what morality is like, and only from that builds up to the abstract laws that define and explain that moral reality. Rather than a prescriptive approach that starts with a particular metaphysical bias, whatever that may be, and attempts to force our experience to conform to that, discarding bits where they do not fit. Only the first, bottom up approach, can do justice to the messy, real nature of ethical experience.  The second, top down approach can only ever whitewash over the beauty, detail, richness and colour of that Ethical experience that makes up such a large part of our human life, whatever the particular metaphysical bias it chooses to start with. And hence only the first approach can be a complete basis for any truly thorough attempt to understand the role morality plays in human existence.  And examples of the second, despite their undoubted wisdom in this or that instance, should be generally rejected as insufficient.
       

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Giant Blind Spot of Human Rights NGOs - By Ziya Meral

The Persecution of people on the basis of their religion is one of the largest, most serious and most widespread forms of Human Rights Abuse in the World.  But it receives far too little attention from Human Rights campaigners because these campaigners and organisations are overwhelmingly European or North American and hence are overwhelmingly secular. They are either ignorant of religion or just don't particularly care, compared to almost any other cause. This blinds them to the suffering faced by hundreds of millions of people.

Ziya Meral says it much better than I could . . . .

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ziya-meral/the-giant-blind-spot-of-h_b_991304.html

The one thing that he doesn't say explicitly (though he does hint at it through his examples)  is that it is overwhelmingly Christians being persecuted, hundreds of millions of them. This is something we should all be aware of, and something that gets even less exposure than religious persecution generally.  This is because most Christian or Christian-heritage countries have strong religious freedom, while most Non-Christian countries, whether Atheist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other, don't.  And even in the 'Christian' countries where persecution does occur, it is generally authoritarian governments persecuting Christians and churches who they view as a threat to their control.

(By saying this I don't mean to detract from his main point that we ALL are biased towards carrying more about human rights violations against people like us, and ignoring ones against people unlike us, rather than on the objective basis of how bad things are. And this is something we should all be consciously aware of.  Christians are just as bad at this as anyone else.  But it is right to note the largest actual real-world example, the collective blindness among almost organised human rights advocates towards persecution on basis of religion, and the fact that by far the largest real-world example of this is the frequently horrifyingly violent persecution of Christians around the world. )


Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The UK Needs an Economic Growth Strategy . . . . so here it is! (2nd half)

This is a continuation of Part 1, found below. Basically, it's widely admitted that our economy is faltering and the government needs to do more to boost growth. I think it needs to do this, but in a manner that stays within the plans for cutting the deficit that is current government policy, the so-called Plan A. I've tried to cover every major area the government could act on to boost and secure long term growth in our economy, to give the (also so called) Plan A+. If there's anything I've missed or where you disagree with me, let me know.  What do you think?  


6) Radical Tax Reform.

Spending money efficiently is one side of the equation. Raising it efficiently is the other.  40% of UK GDP goes through the tax system every year. With £600 billion a year going through the tax system how efficiently this is done makes a difference of many billions of pounds a year. Because tax rates are so high their application to some economic areas but not others can have a powerful effect, distorting price structures and skewing economic activity on no particular rational or even deliberate basis. Almost all other public services in the UK have been thoroughly critiqued and over-hauled numerous times over the last 50 years.  Our tax system, on the other hand, has not. As it is not something that is tangible, and because it so directly involves money, which means with any change the losers shout a lot more loudly than the winners, there is a powerful incentive to not look at it too closely, and to not change it. This is the so-called tyranny of the status quo. This means our taxation system is a mix of what is practical with layers of historical accident and political expediency plastered on top.

This is not necessary though. IFS, the renowned think tank, has conducted a comprehensive assessment of the UK tax system, recently published as the Mirrless Review, looking at how the tax system could be designed to raise revenue with the minimum distortion to the economy while still retaining most of its traditional structure, and while achieving objectives of redistribution most efficiently. It outlines significant changes to Income Tax, VAT, Corporation Tax, Council Tax, Business Rates, Capital Taxes and the taxation of savings and financial services. These would remove numerous distortions thus saving the economy several billion pounds and raising billions more in additional revenue. They would also cohere remarkably with many of the other measures I have mentioned. Changes to Income Tax and NI would complement deregulation saving businesses hundreds of millions in costs; the over-haul of council tax and business rates would complement planning reform driving more efficient use of land and property; rationalisation of green taxation would cut the cost of Green Policy; a Financial Activities Tax would cut the cost of finance for businesses while making it more expensive for individuals to get into debt. In fact the possible effects of these changes are so considerable, especially with our current deficit crisis, that I mean to go over them in detail in a future article.        

7) Secure Radical Banking reform.

The ease of access to money makes a huge difference to the real economy and in a modern economy the circulatory system that disperses the supply of money is the banking system. The global recession was begun by a credit crunch that unsurprisingly most badly hit the heavily indebted developed economies. This disaster was compounded by the necessity of investing vast amounts of public money 'bailing-out' some of the major banks. To secure a reliable stream of finance for businesses, to ensure a healthy financial sector (a significant part of the economy), and to ensure that the disastrous bailouts are never repeated, radical banking reform is an essential pro-growth measure.

The government's program of banking reform has three branches.  The Bank Levy to raise extra tax from the financial sector, to disincentives the riskier forms of funding in  major institutions. The 'Merlin' agreement to go some way to reigning in bank bonuses and securing lending to the real economy, and the Vickers Report to reform the structure of the banking industry.  This report has recommended the 'Ring-fencing' of major banks, separating retail banking from investment banking. Retail banking is storing saving and lending money from and to individuals and businesses, what most of us think of as banking. Investment banking is the more high-octane, esoteric end of banking, investing in funds, shares, Derivatives, CDO's, currency and commodity speculation etc, often involving large amount of money being bet for very brief periods to secure very low margins of profit, but done over and over again making vast amounts of money very fast. Separating investment and retail banking will remove the risk of having to bail-out investment banking in order to secure the essential retail functions they are attached to. It would also incentivise major banks to shift emphasis onto retail banking and away from investment banking, due to the implicit government guarantee attached to retail and not investment banking and thus should increase the flow of funds to retail banking and thus reduce the cost to customers, i.e. the wider economy. It is essential these measures should be pushed through and implemented.  There is also a possible argument that more needs to be done to reform accountability and transparency in pay and bonuses in the wake of the decidedly mixed impact of 'Project Merlin', but I don't have anything particular to say about that.      

8) Secure Greater Investment: Including Green, Big Society and Regional Investment Banks.

One of the issues consistently raised as holding bank the economy is the difficulty small and growing businesses face gaining finance and investment, especially in developing industries and more deprived areas. Various proposals have been made to help rectify this problem by setting up various small, dedicated investment banks that would be commercial banks, initially funded by the state, that would be focused on leveraging funds to invest in certain industries or areas. The government has already committed to establishing a Green Investment Bank and a 'Big Society' Investment Bank.  The first would be focused on investing in green technologies, especially for power generation, and the second would focus on investing in social enterprises and socially responsible projects.

Various think tanks have suggested setting up regional investment banks to help fund private sector growth in particular regions. They would focus on financing sustainable growth in their particular region, with the suggestion that people in those regions would be more willing to place their savings with such a bank, knowing it went back into financing the economy in their own region. This would follow a similar model used with success in various European countries such as Germany. One question these ideas bring is how would these banks be initially financed? There has been considerable discussion among government about whether the Green and 'Big Society' Banks should be true Banks, able to borrow and lend and leverage their initial capital. There has been reluctance to let them do this for fear these debts would be added to general government debt. This seems a slightly odd objection though. When the bailouts occurred the government and ONS started quoting (for the first time) a figure for government debt specifically excluding financial interventions, and this figure has been used as the 'proper' national debt ever since. There's no obvious reason why such a distinction couldn't be made for these targeted investment banks, assuming they would pass into mostly private ownership as their success occurred.

Quantitative Easing has been suggested as a further, more radical solution for funding. The Bank of England has already run £200 billion of Quantitative Easing, basically printing money electronically. The BoE's previous scheme involved buying government bonds from various banks. There are question marks as to whether this actually worked though. Banks largely took the money to bolster their assets, rather than actually increasing lending, a phenomenon Keynes called 'pushing on string'. With the economy struggling so much again there have been calls for further QE. The problem with QE is that it also raises inflation, which is already high at 4.5%. One possible proposed solution is to engage in more limited QE but aim it more directly at the economy. A £50 billion QE program could be lent directly to businesses through a government investment agency, either a new fund or the government's existing network of regional development agencies, or more radically using it as original capital for the 'Big Society Bank', 'Green Bank' and a network of regional investment banks that could then leverage out that money to raise further finance. This would hopefully have a greater economic impact but because of the smaller over-all amount of money a considerably smaller impact on Inflation.          

9) Boost Government Investment +£5 bn
(Possible Business Investment +1£bn. Possible Science Investment +£1bn).

The measures so far outlined involve cutting costs to the economy, boosting the efficiency of public sector spending, boosting the supply of finance and lending to the economy and loosening monetary policy. All possible within the confines of the spending cuts and tax rises of the Coalition's Plan A, without any problem. Slightly more difficult policies that start to scrape up against the edges of that plan are also possible though. It is widely agreed by economists that government Investment is by far the most economically efficient from of government spending when it comes to boosting the wider economy, both in the short term and in improving the long term capacity for growth. In particular most of the loss of output in the recession came from a collapse in private Investment. If the government is going to undertake any financial stimulus at this point as the economy struggles then it makes a lot of sense to do it through boosting Investment.

The government's original spending plans contained some £17 billion of cuts to investment, about a 25% cut. This is somewhat understandable politically, as people don't tend to complain about possible future construction projects not happening, compared to schools and hospitals having their budgets cut. But economically it's silly. The government is already talking about straining every sinew in Whitehall to bring forward infrastructure projects to begin as soon as possible. But it's still rejecting boosting the spending available. This makes no sense. If there are identified projects that would boost the economy, in transport infrastructure, power generation, etc, then they should be begun now, especially if it makes the difference to the economy falling back into self-reinforcing recession. The government could increase investment by £5 billion each year to 2015, boosting the economy now and our capacity for growth in the years to the future.

Obviously pulling back on spending cuts threatens to break the confines of Plan A. But not directly. The government has two 'Plan A' fiscal targets that it has committed to meeting.  Firstly, balancing the structural, current budget; And secondly, debt falling as a percentage of GDP, both by 2015-16. The structural, current budget is the budget excluding 'cyclical' spending (the result of short term increases in unemployment caused by economic slump), and excluding investment. In other words the government can increase Investment spending without affecting this target. Obviously increasing investment spending risks missing the target for debt to be falling as % of GDP. But if the extra spending boosts growth and hence GDP, especially if the economy is teetering on the brink, then it may actually help hit that target both in year and through boosting the capacity for growth in each year to come.

There are other possibilities for boosting our core capacity for growth. Instead of, or in addition to, boosting state investment the government could take measures to boost private investment, such as increasing the generosity of tax credits offered for investment, in the hope this would encourage cautious firms to invest. Another suggestion has been boosting the Science budget, regarded as key to future innovation, development, research etc. Currently it has been protected in cash terms, meaning a roughly 10% real cut to 2015. It could be protected in real terms (a relative boost of £800 million) or increase it further (by say £1 billion). Both of these measures would possibly boost long-term growth, but they are more difficult because they are both current, rather than investment spending and hence risk both of the government's targets, unless they contribute a significant boost to GDP over the next 4 years.  

10) Rush Increase in Personal Allowance to £10,000.

If increasing Investment spending is not enough there are one final group of possibilities for boosting growth, and that is increasing government spending or cutting taxes. But obviously this goes straight against the confines of Plan A. But there are ways of minimising the danger of missing those essential government targets while supporting demand and confidence in the short-term. Research indicates that the most effective forms of stimulus are investment and tax cuts directed at poorer workers, as the poorer you are the higher proportion of your income you spend rather than saving and hence the more money actually spreads into the economy.

This offers an obvious solution to stimulate the economy in a manner that coheres with the Coalition's already stated aims. That is raising the Personal Allowance for income tax to £10,000. Now there is no space in the financial calculations, but the government could still push on with this extremely popular policy. They inherited an allowance at £6,500 and they've already increased it to £8,000, but they could announce in the Autumn financial review that immediately from 2012 the allowance will go up to the £10,000 target. They could also use the mechanism, used before, of reducing the 40% rate threshold by an equivalent amount so the top 15% (in income) don't benefit. This would give a £400 tax cut to millions of working households and cost about £9 billion. (Or if they don't think they can afford that raise the allowance by £1000 giving everyone a £200 tax cut and costing £4.5 billion.) I would also suggest at the 2012 budget following this cutting the top rate of tax from 50%->45% (assuming the forecasts for its revenue are accurate), in order to remove the possible damage caused by this uncompetitive rate of tax.

This would give a roughly £10 billion stimulus to UK consumption, which could give consumption the shot in the arm it needs to avoid collapse and, due to its crucial role to supporting the economy in general, the wider economy as well. The question is how this can be justified without breaking apart the essential constraints of Plan A. Firstly, the government currently has some leeway on this. Last estimates state that the government will hit its target a year early in 2014, and by 2015-2016 will overshoot it by 0.6% of GDP, about £8 billion. The government could formally abandon this aim to hit the target a year early, shift its aim to 2015, and spend that putative £8 billion overshoot now. It could also commit to making up the £10 billion committed now through the proceeds of the radical tax reform already outlined; immediately beginning the preparations needed to merge NI and Income Tax and bring in new House Value Taxes, A Business Land Tax, and Financial Activities Tax in 2014; to replace taxes currently on land, property and financial services, boosting revenue in time to hit the government's targets with new, economically efficient, rationally designed taxes, replacing the rubbish we currently have. Other moves could include looking again for cuts to such areas as generous benefits for the elderly that have so far escaped the axe.

All this would act essentially as not so much a genuine fiscal loosening but only a net shift of tax rises, from the start/middle of the Plan to nearer the end 2014 or so, when hopefully the economy will be in better shape to supply the tax revenue necessary, and doing so in manner that coincides precisely with the Coalition's already stated promises and objectives. These calculations also ignore any hoped for stimulus effect. If the economy is on the edge of decline these measures may be enough to hold it steady, and in that case the £10 billion (hopefully temporary) fiscal damage would do much less damage than a genuine second economic slowdown.  The government has made much of denying charges of economic dogmatism, claiming there is 'flexibility' in its plans.  Well, if that is true now is certainly the time to use it. Some government spokespersons have characterised this flexibility by saying the government would allow the natural stabilisers, rising welfare spending due to unemployment, falling taxes, etc, caused by a slowdown to occur.  But this is to have everything backwards. What point is there spending more money to slow the economy's descent once it has started falling? Surely it is better to spend the same money now to try to stop it from falling in the first place? (If we are currently convinced that we will have to spend the money one way or the other.)

11) One final thing: Co-ordinated International Action.

This last heading is so obvious that it almost doesn't need mentioning.  The major threat to our economy currently doesn't come from our own spending cuts but from the poor state of the world-wide economy.  A rising tide lifts all boats. A receding tide leaves everyone stuck in the mud on the bottom.  The largest cause of instability in the world economy today is the Eurozone debt crisis. Since the initial bold moves in May 2010 there has been no solution worthy of the name to come out of the Eurozone as the crisis deepens and deepens. Either Greece must be allowed to default, or it must be given the money it needs for as long as it needs it until it can restore growth. There is no 3rd option, and the failure to whole-hearted commit to one or the other, or indeed both, is what is doing the most part of the damage. Markets are forgiving of a good plan or a bad plan. What they scare at is prevarication, hesitation, being told things that everyone knows to be unsustainable nonsense, or the obvious sight of no coherent or credible plan at all. And bits of each of these is precisely what the EU has given them to the point where it is actually threatening the entire world economy.

So, firstly, the Eurozone nations need to get off their backsides and commit absolutely unequivocally to one of these solutions f they want to protect the Euro, or they must eject Greece as soon as possible. Secondly, the USA's politicians need to come down to planet earth, admit that the fear that the USA will be unable to repay its debts is the biggest threat to their recovery, whether that comes from future unsustainable spending, or madmen bringing their country to the edge of default in the here and now. Agree a serious long-term deficit reduction plan that includes both major tax rises and spending cuts and start to take a systematic look at the economic health of their country, rather than promising simplistic, magical solutions whether of one off stimulus bills or pointless tax cuts. To be honest in both cases politicians need to admit that it is their incompetence that has allowed things to get so bad, and that they need to massively shape up.

If that wasn't enough miracles to be hoping for at once: thirdly, Global leaders should agree a massive global, selective stimulus, re-balancing plan, whereby surplus, or low deficit, fiscally stable countries boost spending and their deficits and high-deficit, fiscally unsustainable countries cut theirs. Ideally by sufficient amounts to equal the reduction in demand in countries like the US, UK, Greece, Ireland, Portugal etc; or if this can't be achieved, by as much as possible. Now obviously the UK government does not get to decide whether these do or do not occur, so it is perhaps slightly unfair to file them under the heading of a growth plan.  But it can certainly throw its considerable international weight behind calling for them, and hence perhaps offer some of the global leadership that has been so sorely lacking recently.

Conclusion

With that I think that I have covered about every single major area of policy that the government could and should cover.  In fairness in many of these things are stuff the government is already trying or considering doing, but many are not. None of these things are particularly esoteric, but they will all annoy someone and involve fighting political battles, but the government cannot afford not to.  If the economy tanks again they will go down with it, and so will we all (to a degree). But follow through on all these areas and the government will put us in the best economic shape to face the 21st Century we can be in, for better or worse. But what do you think? Do you agree or disagree? And do you think there are any obvious areas I've missed?

Monday, 26 September 2011

The UK Needs a Growth Strategy . . . . so here it is! (Part 1)

It's pretty widely accepted that the UK economy is in trouble again.  There's been no 'double-dip' recession so far, but the economy is flatlining.  We've had growth of only 0.2% over the last 9 months, and the forecasts are equally grim for the next months. Inflation remains high at 4.5%, consumer and business confidence is rock bottom, consumer spending is flat and the mini-manufacturing boom of the start of the year has vanished. Internationally the world is in even worse trouble. The EU is still neck deep in a sovereign debt crisis that it seems incapable of getting itself out of, the US has downgraded its previous growth since the recession, and even China and the other leading emerging economies are struggling. Having blown their reserves getting through the first crisis they are fighting even higher Inflation than us and, with eerily familiarity, the first signs of credit drying up in economies become dangerously dependent on cheap money.

All is not yet lost though. The British economy is not yet going backwards, but it is barely moving forward . It's like a car whose engine is grinding away but doesn't quite have the power to push it up the hill. But it hasn't stalled entirely.  The reason growth has ground to a halt is the over-hang of the incredible levels of debt that built up until 2008. Businesses, the financial sector, households have all been plowing money into paying off debts rather than increasing output, for the first time in 20 years.  And the government has been straining every sinew to cut the deficit, and bring the explosion of public debt under control. This is important, and indeed essential to future prosperity.  We have had a debt crisis, we need to reduce our debts.  But underlying growth is needed so we can pay off our debts.

The government's original economic strategy was to focus on getting the deficit under controls, thus securing confidence in the UK's ability to control its debt and through that secure the low interest rates essential to our tentative recovery. Beyond that, Monetary stimulus would improve liquidity and lending, the devaluation of the pound would boost manufacturing and exports, and tax hikes on consumption and financial services would raise extra money while further encouraging the economy to rebalance away from consumption, debt and banking towards manufacturing and exports. Business investment and export trade would provide the fuel for the economy to steadily rebalance itself and pay off debt allowing it to move onto a more balanced and stable long-term footing.

'Expansionary fiscal contraction' hasn't quite worked out the way it was hoped though. International conditions have deteriorated dramatically and confidence has collapsed. With the whole world sinking Business investment and Exports just can't provide enough boost to push growth along. No growth risks the economy sinking back into self-reinforcing recession. It means no extra money to pay off private debts and not enough extra jobs and profits to increase taxes, cut spending and close the government's deficit. There are, thankfully, at last signs that the government is properly facing up to the reality that they need to do more to encourage growth and that deficit reduction alone, while necessary, is not sufficient to ensure recovery.  Especially with International conditions so poor. Plan A has proved insufficient.  So what is the alternative?  Well, there are two main points of view on that one. Either Plan B, Or Plan A+. 

Labour and left-wing sources have called for Plan B 'to support jobs and growth'.  Unfortunately what they mean by this seems to just be more government borrowing and spending, and more debt, rather than facing up to the more complicated issues slowing our economy. They blame the slowdown in the recovery on the government's spending cuts. I still think this approach is rubbish. Overall Britain has the 2nd largest private and public debts of any country. We need to beat this as fast as possible or we will never get back to truly stable prosperity. Devotees of 'Plan B' seem to have a belief in the almost magical power of government spending. They seem to think that what is in reality merely a slower rate of growth in nominal state spending is entirely to blame for all our economic woes; but the massive convulsions shaking the world economy in Europe, the US and elsewhere, not to mention rampaging inflation, and the drag caused by households and businesses ploughing money into paying off their own debts, is totally irrelevant. This is plain nonsense.

They also cheerfully ignore the reality that Britain could face rising interest rate and collapsing economic credibility. We have to worry about the supplying our deficit as well as the demand for it in the economy. Our struggling economy increases the case for a higher deficit to support private demand, but it also simultaneously increases difficulty in funding that deficit, cancelling this argument out. This is not just some right-wing scare story. We have almost the highest deficit of any country but yet thanks to our commitment to taming that deficit in the next 5 years we enjoy interest rates almost the lowest in the world for both public and private debt. It is correct that we were never in as bad shape as Greece or Ireland. Nor has our political system been as dysfunctional as America's. But when even countries like Spain and Italy are facing interest rates of 6% it becomes impossible to deny that Britain could have faced similar problems, if strong and determined action hadn't been taken. A higher deficit might have helped cushion the fall in growth thus far, but it may also have pushed interest rates up enough to counter any beneficial effects, or even worse.

In addition, regardless of its intrinsic merits, having committed ourselves to this plan to abandon it would hit confidence hard, as a frank admission of failure. Our current relatively privileged position rests on global confidence in our government's plans, whatever they may be.  To dramatically change direction would quite probably shatter that confidence, thus bringing about the result it was intended to avoid. There is another alternative to a Plan B of increasing borrowing and debt. That is what has been called Plan A+.  This regards Osbourne's program of deficit reduction as an essential basis for stability, but accepts the argument that deficit reduction alone is not enough and that it needs to be 1 wing of government policy complimented by an equal 2nd wing, a push for growth. A major drive across the entire range of possible government policy to improve the UK's supply side economic efficiency and productivity and thus improve growth through measures other than just crudely increasing demand.  So what would a full Plan A+ look like? 

Here under 10 broad headings I outline the steps the government could take to give the UK the boost to growth is so desperately needs. 


1) Complete Measures to ease Planning Restrictions.

One of the Government's key pro-Growth measures is a radical overhaul of the regulation surrounding getting planning permission for new construction and development.  Business leaders have long identified restrictions on planning and development as a major brake on growth in the UK. Official guidance on planning decisions now spans thousands of pages and it is reportedly slower and more expensive to gain planning permission for major projects than in almost any other European country.  According to some reports between twice and ten times more expensive.  The government has committed to massively cutting down regulation, from thousands of pages to 60, while simultaneously localising decision making and abandoning central targets and planning quotas.  For the first time a presumption in favour of (sustainable) development is being introduced.  It is estimated that our slower and less responsive planning system costs the economy £3 billion a year relative to the average of our competitors. If reform could deliver benefits of even a part of this figure it would be a significant economic boost.

2) Even-handed Business & Employment de-regulation.

The Labour years from 1997-2010 saw a vast explosion in the quantity of regulation surrounding Businesses and Employment. From the Social Chapter to the Equality Act the government imposed a vast range of new requirements around environmental issues, health and safety, employee rights, anti-discrimination measures, etc.  All these impose costs on businesses and especially small businesses that lack the capacity to spread the costs across a large turnover. Labour never found a problem they thought they couldn't regulate into submission, often in a haphazard and expensive way. The government should hold a wide-ranging review on all regulations on Business and Employment seeking to save the economy Billions of pounds a year through time and expense saved by reducing this burden.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do this though. Some right-wingers figures have recently campaigned on this front against the introduction of the latest Working Time Directive, which extends employment protection to temp workers. This is to take the wrong approach though. We don't need one class of workers who are cossetted and one group that lack even basic protections, whether that's between permanent and temporary workers in employee rights, or between public and private workers with the issue of pensions. What we need is comprehensive approach that works out what is a decent minimal level of protection and support that should apply to all workers, but which minimises the cost in time and expense to employers. Some amount of regulation and worker protection is an essential feature of a decent country and economy, but too much of it can backfire. Regulation that makes it very difficult to fire permanent workers will also reduce the willingness and likelihood of hiring workers, thus protecting those in a job at the expense of those without one, and encouraging employers to hire temporary staff with more flexible conditions. On a large scale this may even have detrimental social effect, introducing division between those workers who are so secure and those who aren't, as has actually happened in some European countries. Another argument is that extensive regulation does give protection we would like to have, like good services and lower taxes, but when the country is broke we accept that this may require paying more taxes and getting less services than we'd like, equally it may mean having less regulatory protection for a while as a cost of getting our economy back to a stable position.    

3) Reign back on and re-target 'Green' Polices.

There is a growing focus in government on bringing in 'Green' policies that are aimed at reducing our Carbon emissions over the next 20 years to hit various targets to combat Global Warming. Largely this consists of subsidising renewable energy and attempting to raise the price of energy generally to make renewable energy competitive, and to spur investment and research into these fuels. Unfortunately this is forecast to lead to a significant increase in fuel and electricity bills, particularly hitting those most energy intensive businesses, generally manufacturing and industry, to the tune of billions of pounds. This obviously goes right against our need to rebalance our economy. It may also prove largely futile if our efforts merely lead to industry relocating to countries with cheaper energy. 'Greening' our economy, like a strong welfare state is something that relies on general prosperity to fund it. They cannot be opposed. The public will not accept green measures that cut their standard of living, and Green measures that hit the economy will not last past the damage they cause. Environmentalists must abandon any policy plan built on such a basis. But the public can and do embrace Environmentally friendly measures when these measures work with them and make life easier. The massive growth in recycling coincides with government taking steps to make recycling easy, not with people being threatened into it. Also environmental targets must be feasible. We are currently signed up to strong theoretical targets for emission reduction that look good but like almost every other country we are on the way to missing by a clear mile.

This is all clearly ridiculous. But the government can take action to change these features.  It could soften our targets for Emission reduction somewhat, leaving targets that are still strong compared to where we are at the moment, but which we have a cat's chance of hell of hitting, rather than just sounding nice, and then make sure we really hit them. It should cut the cost of Green policies by reducing ridiculous levels of subsidies on certain renewable energy sources, like feed in tariffs for solar energy that are more twice the general cost of electricity. It should abandon a restricted view of what is acceptable renewable energy, and concentrate on what is practical, embracing nuclear as a relatively cheap and non-carbon intensive source of power, as well as off-shore hydro and wave, while abandoning its Quixotic obsession (if you'll excuse the pun) with Wind energy, which is expensive, ineffective and a total eyesore, even if very Green. It should focus efforts on helping households and businesses save and reuse energy, through programs to insulate homes, like the 'Green New Deal' and re-use heat and energy in industrial processes rather than just raising the price of energy until no-one can afford it. These measures would cut the cost of green policy and focus it towards saving energy, and thus cutting costs for homes and businesses and increasing their efficiency rather than pricing them out of energy.


4) Continue pursuing Public Service revolutions in Justice, Health, Education, Welfare.

The current Coalition government is currently pursuing major reform in almost every one of our major public services. These reforms have the possibility of dramatically increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of our public services at the time we need it most. In our Justice system, the government is attempting a rehabilitation revolution.  If even moderately successful this could cut serious sums of money off the massive costs to our economy from crime, as well as the expense of locking up an ever expanding number of people.  In Education, Britain has slipped down the international league tables for basic Maths and English skills, and too many of our schools are average rather than excellent. Businesses frequently complain about the standards of basic skills of high-school and even university graduates. The government is expanding spending on apprenticeships and technical education, and attempting a revolution in Schools, giving many schools extensive freedoms to run themselves while nationally improving the quality and rigour of qualifications. In Welfare the government is transforming welfare to alleviate the welfare trap that many people find themselves in and incentivise employment and work.  These measures will hopefully cut welfare spending and encourage into jobs. In Health the government is transforming the NHS in order to help is make an unprecedented £20 billion of savings and improve productivity in one of the largest organisations in the world. Improving productivity in these vital services would be worth billions to the economy a year and with the continuing likelihood of there being little extra money to spare they are vital to driving improvement in these essential public services that our economy relies on so heavily.


5) Continue efforts to improve Public productivity: procurement, quangos, PFI etc.

The Public sector in Britain generally consists about 40% of our economy, and over the last 3 years since the recession it has made up 50%. How efficiently this money is spent makes a huge difference to our economic performance and our capacity for growth. It is estimated that if public sector productivity had grown at the same rate as private sector productivity over the last several years then it would add 0.5% to our annual growth. There are various the ways that government can boost the general productivity of public sector spending.

The current government has launched reviews of procurement led by Philip Green, to look at the opportunity to use central government's spending power to gain better economies of scale in procurement, and this has outlined £3 billion of savings that could be achieved by co-ordinated action.  There has been a 'bonfire of the Quangos', operationally independent but publicly funded bodies that Labour set up in vast numbers. Dozens of these bodies have been abolished or merged, or their functions returned to the relevant government departments, with the best estimate for savings at around £1.5 billion a year. The spending cuts themselves have led to a massive drive to save money in back-office functions, in attempt to make cuts while sparing highly visible 'front-line' services as far as possible. Both central and local government are making huge efforts to save money by merging and cutting back office functions between departments. This is estimated to save £6 billion a year by 2015. 

PFI has been another area the government has attempted to gain better value-for-money. PFI is a program where the private companies build major public infrastructure projects, like a school or hospital, and the public sector rents them back for a fixed period after which they become public sector property. It is possible for PFI to deliver good value for money, but Labour went at PFI like a drunk let loose in a wine cellar. A government investigation has suggested that the public sector got only £50 billion worth of assets for a £200 billion commitment and on average PFI were 50% more expensive than conventional government borrowing. In an attempt to recoup some of these huge costs there has been growing calls for a massive across-the-board re-evaluation of all PFI contracts. The problem is that these companies have legal contracts, so even if the government does decide the contracts were insanely generous then they cannot force companies to re-negotiate. If companies refuse one other option is to levy a windfall tax specifically on those companies deemed to have made excessive profits from PFI. This is still a remarkably complicated move though.  Either way it is done it is possible that serious drive in this direction could save £1-2 billion a year in costs on these projects.


(That's 1-5. I decided to cut it up for time constraints and to keep it short.  I hope to be posting entries 6-10, from tax reform to allowance rushing shortly, so please come back soon.)

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

God Bless you, George Monbiot. You've never been so right!

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George Monbiot does speaks a lot of total rubbish.  But, My God, when he's right, he's right.

On the Guardian website he's making a point I've thought true for years.

That academic knowledge and research is painfully restricted from the wider public by a high wall of ridiculous prices for books and journals.  
 
That academic discussion and research, much of it funded by every single taxpayer, is kept hidden and restricted for the benefit of journal publishers and academic institutions, locking that information within small and incestuous 'professional' academic circles, much to the detriment of our entire wider society.
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Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist
Academic publishers charge vast fees to access research paid for by us. Down with the knowledge monopoly racketeers

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/academic-publishers-murdoch-socialist
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Only he says it far more eloquently (and well informed) than I ever could!

It's good to see a mainstream journalist giving both barrels on such a nerdy and niche,  but I really think quite important, issue.  So Good on you George Monbiot, Guardian hack that you may be.  Keep fighting the good fight.


And if you're interested in the spread of knowledge and discussion in our society do give his article a read.