Notes from the Green Party MEP for East of England. Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Monday, 6 April 2015

Any nuclear dumps coming to your neighbourhood?

This article in the Guardian informs us of new legislation that's been rushed through parliament in the last hours before it closed for the election period. Now the Secretary of State for Energy will have power to decide where to have a nuclear dump. In your back yard, if he/she likes. And it's not for you to protest, nor your local authority planning authorities. Probably because neither you nor they want it.
Well, this is hardly less than inevitable, is it? I mean if you want nuclear power you want nuclear waste, or at least you have to have it. And if there's no where to put it you will be in trouble. And no one actually wants it anywhere in this country, not surprisingly.
There's only one solution, and that is to stop using nuclear power. And to achieve that we need a government with the will to invest in research into the best possible range of renewable power facilities, and with the will to override local planning opposition to get those in place, not to override local planning opposition to put in things that are really horrible and permanently polluting.
We've just had a government that is way out of touch on this, and has encouraged a stupid attitude towards wind and solar power as if they were a threat to the environment, when they are the least of all evils to have on your doorstep.
Let's not do that again!

Tax loopholes

At the end of March, a number of people wrote to me about the so-called "Mayfair Loophole". Or rather they wrote to the current MP in South Norfolk who is Richard Bacon (Conservative), and copied me in to see what my view was. This is what they wrote:

The Mayfair loophole gives special treatment to private equity bosses. They shouldn’t be allowed to dodge up to £700m of tax a year. It’s money which should be going to our NHS, education and public services.
Will you vote to close the Mayfair loophole - by voting for amendment 3 in today’s Finance Bill? It's being tabled by Caroline Lucas MP. If the vote happens, please explain to me how you voted.
I'm sending this email to the other MP candidates for this area, to find out how they'd vote if they had the chance.
Here’s the report into the loophole, for more information:

The Link provided there (to a section of the 38Degrees site) gives more information about the loophole and the proposed amendment due to be tabled by Caroline Lucas.

In the event the proposed amendment by Caroline Lucas was not debated, due to time limitations. So no solution has been endorsed as yet. But the Green Party has committed itself to closing this loophole, which currently loses the country an estimated £700 million a year in tax revenues. You can find the Green Party position explained here.

Richard Bacon gave his constituents the following reply:
I have been concerned about this issue for many years and have been campaigning on it together with my colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee for many years.  Indeed, it is largely because of our committee’s campaigning work that the whole question of “tax and who pays it” is now much higher up the political agenda, where I think it needs to be. Tax is not a simple issue.  Having said that, there is a growing public sense that the tax system is “not fair”; that is – to put it crudely – that it offers one set of rules for ‘the rich’ (including rich individuals and big multi-national corporations) and another set of rules for everyone else (including normal people and small businesses); and I believe there is some truth to this general public view, even if it needs to be qualified here and there. Public anger found its most visible expression after Starbucks, Google and Amazon all gave evidence to our committee some while ago, when people started to boycott Starbucks and buy their coffee elsewhere. You can watch our Public Accounts Committee hearing with Starbucks here. I was highly critical of the use of personal service companies by over 2,000 senior civil servants in order to minimise their tax liability.  Top civil servants were paying corporation tax at 20—26 per cent, rather than income tax at higher rates.  I discussed this matter on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in an interview that you can watch here. I quizzed HMRC’s Tax Assurance Commissioner Edward Troup earlier this week, when we discussed the status of people who live here permanently but are non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, which you can watch here. The way in which the question of tax is sometimes presented in the media actually hinders rather than helps understanding.   For example, the very phrase ‘tax avoider’ can be deeply misleading.  If you go into a building society to invest in an ‘ISA’ – which is a tax-exempt savings account available to everyone – you are being a “tax avoider”.  That is to say, you are avoiding tax that you would otherwise pay.  There is nothing wrong with this.  Actually, the government wants you to be a tax avoider and has said so clearly.  Successive governments of all political parties have backed the idea that there should be tax-exempt savings accounts. Why?  Because all governments have reached the conclusion that our society needs people to save more – and that offering tax relief on the returns which people get from their savings is a good thing to do.  In the same way, if you take out a pension you are a tax avoider.  Why?  Because the government wants you to be a tax avoider – it wants you to have a pension and therefore offers substantial tax relief against the cost of taking out a pension. One person’s ‘tax avoiding’ is another person’s ‘sensible tax planning’. The phrase ‘tax avoider’ has become a ‘swear word’ which describes not only activity which is ‘normal and fair’ but which also describes activity which is ‘undesirable’. Years ago, it used to be widely understood that tax law broadly covered two kinds of activity: i) the avoiding of tax which you did not need to pay if you planned properly, which was perfectly legal – and, indeed, if you were the director of a company, your legal duty under company law to avoid; and, on the other hand, ii) the evading of tax, which is simply illegal and a criminal offence.  The distinction between these two activities – avoidance and evasion – used to be much clearer.  A very big ‘grey area’ has emerged in which taxpayers such as large companies ‘twist and turn’ to achieve outcomes which were certainly not intended by Parliament but which appears to be ‘legal’ and which would survive a legal challenge in the courts. This has happened for two related reasons. First, it is now much more common than 30 or 40 years ago for companies to become global, which means that they operate in many different tax jurisdictions.  Second, different governments around the world offer many tax reliefs for a wide range of different reasons.  This combination of i) worldwide economic activity and ii) huge numbers of tax reliefs provides almost limitless possibilities for creative accounting.  The obvious ways to eliminate these problems are i) to stop global trade and ii) to have the same tax everywhere in the world, but plainly neither solution is in the slightest realistic. The great enemy here is complexity.  The more complex the system, the easier it is for highly paid tax lawyers and tax accountants to dream up entirely new ways of achieving an outcome not intended by Parliament. Every attempt to create more rules to solve the problem actually makes the problem worse. The only way to make serious progress is to make the tax system much simpler and get rid of all tax reliefs, but the trouble is, of course, that for every person who would like to say ‘Get rid of the tax reliefs’, there are others who benefit from the tax reliefs. You will quickly see the point by imagining how you would feel if you had an ISA or a pension, and the government suddenly said ‘We are abolishing all the tax reliefs on ISAs and pensions’. I discussed these issues on BBC Radio 4's 'Today programme' which you can listen to here or here.  You can read more about my work in ensuring that our tax system applies to everybody equally on my website here, here and here.   Please do take the time to visit the links above and to listen to what I have said on this subject on behalf of my constituents and taxpayers generally.  I hope you will see that I have been active in defending the interests of the vast majority of people who pay their taxes on time and in full. Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. Yours sincerely 

Much of what Bacon says here is wise and clear in explaining in general terms what tax avoidance and tax dodging are. I am sure that Bacon cares about these things, and especially about ensuring that people don't muddle up tax avoidance that is deliberately encouraged (like ISA schemes), tax dodging that is exploiting unintended consequences of allowances designed for others, though still within the law, and illegal tax evasion. But for all that, it does not seem that Bacon has done anything to crack down on the illegal or unintended kind, or indeed has actually had any effect whatsoever.
Well, of course, we in the Green Party have not had any effect as yet, but then we are not in government yet, and are not the sitting MPs. We do have one sitting MP, and she has actually done something, by bringing the tabled amendment that was frustrated by the time rules.

So my answer to the question? Here is my response to those who wrote to me about it:

Dear ...... 
I’ve now seen the response that you’ve probably had from Mr Bacon, and I am impressed because his diagnosis of the problems and of the need for a solution seem to me very sound and wise. Nevertheless. I do wonder how much he can achieve, given his party’s record in this parliament. I find myself appalled at the blind eye that this government has been turning towards the loopholes and wriggle room built into the tax revenue system, and it seems suspicious that these practices serve to protect some of the wealthiest among Tory donors. 

Naturally I’m with Caroline Lucas in her attempt to address this. I would be really proud of the South Norfolk voters if they were willing to follow their wish for honesty and integrity, and elect an MP who’s prepared to stand up with Caroline Lucas on this and other matters. Let’s hope!

These things matter to me as a Green Party candidate because we need a society that works towards greater equality and a fairer distribution of resources. Tax avoidance schemes that favour the wealthy and lead to the wealthy paying a lower rate of tax than the poor are unjust and unfair, and prevent us from providing the public services that a civilised country needs, from health provision and care for the elderly to museums and libraries, schools, roads and railways.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Defending the NHS and reversing privatisation and marketisation in the NHS

Today I have answered hundreds of e-mails received over the last few days from constituents concerned about protecting the NHS and alarmed by the way in which it is being sold off to private companies, and contracts signed for supply of services from private care organisations. I paste in here my reply to these worries, explaining where I stand on these issues.

If I were elected, I would support the inclusion of a Bill in the first Queen’s Speech after the election that would reverse 25 years of marketisation in the National Health Service, abolish the purchaser-provider split, re-establish District Health Authorities and other public bodies and fully restore the NHS in England as an accountable public service. This Bill is known as the NHS Reinstatement Bill, and you can find the proposal here: 

I would support inclusion of a Bill such as the one described there, without delay, to halt all the privatisation and marketisation of all parts of our crucial public infrastructure, and especially the NHS; and to initiate the quickest possible reversal of all the private finance initiatives and other market driven schemes. This is exactly the kind of thing that I shall be supporting with all the efforts I can muster, should I be elected in 2015. 

Indeed, I am already campaigning as a private citizen to prevent further marketisation in the NHS. But without a seat in parliament, there is only so much one can do. So please, if you care about a public NHS, vote for me in the coming election and encourage others to do so. The Green Party stands a chance of carrying some weight in the new parliament, if everyone who believes in these things votes sincerely for what they believe in.

To be frank, I cannot myself see how anyone who cares about these things could do otherwise than to vote Green in most constituencies in England, since there is no “least bad alternative” among the main parties available to us here. All three of the main parties seem either to support privatisation and marketisation of our public institutions or to have been complicit in it during the last five years of coalition. Let’s not be deceived by the promises of “x number more nurses”. This is just a cover for cutting costs in all sorts of other ways. I see no grounds for entrusting those other parties with this most precious part of our welfare state. We need a party that is promising to end the cuts and reverse the austerity programme: to develop a country we can be proud of where everyone is cared for and we are not taking funds from the weak and the vulnerable to feed the greedy and powerful. That’s the Green Party through and through.

There is absolutely no reason to change to a cumbersome, costly and unkind insurance system instead. The free NHS, without questions asked and without means tests or contributions requirements is the crowning glory of our welfare state, and is an essential tool in ensuring that we have healthy able-bodied mentally healthy working people to produce the resources we need, and create the society we can be secure and happy in. It is a nonsense to suggest that we can’t afford to give this free to all. We can’t afford not to. Do we want dying drunkards or sick refugees bleeding on our streets while millionaires drive by in their Porsches bought from their Swiss Bank accounts? Not for me a country that could do that. I will fight to the death to prevent any such thing.

I expect that you’re also concerned about TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) which is being cooked up in the EU, and poses a major threat to this country if our health service is undergoing privatisation, and would be bought up by American health care providers, with the risk of major legal action against the UK if we ever took them back into public hands or enacted legislation to keep costs down. The Green Party (including myself) is totally opposed to the whole of TTIP of course, and if it goes through (over our dead bodies), will definitely fight with white knuckles to keep the NHS and all other public services fenced round with impenetrable ring fences! No other party is coming out against TTIP, though they are making every effort to bluff their way into your hearts as though they cared about the NHS and would protect it. If they are not against TTIP, and not keeping the NHS out of it, they are not protecting the NHS at all. I trust you will not be deceived by the lies of other politicians who don’t want you to know what they are selling to the USA.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

What's to fear about TTIP

Several dozens of my prospective voters in the South Norfolk constituency have written to me to ask me for my commitments regarding TTIP, which is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, being debated in secret by EU officials.
I record here a generic version of my thoughts on this topic which I have been sending over the last few days to these voters:

I believe that TTIP is among the great threats that we face, and this one is from within our own EU—not some aggression from Russia or foreign terrorists. This is our own politicians, entrusted with the care of our interests, and they are betraying us in secret. The episode is symptomatic of the complete disregard for democracy, and for the interests of the country as a whole, or for the common good. It’s a deal that stands to benefit no one but the largest corporations and multinationals. Its effects on small businesses in the UK, on farmers and producers and on workers wages and rights will be devastating, and the government will lose more in falling income from import duties and greater costs due to falling wages/increased poverty at home than it stands to gain in trade.

This is not just about the NHS (though that is a worry anyway, with or without TTIP: we in the Green Party are in favour of keeping the NHS public and getting rid of existing PFI systems and privatisation schemes, but much of the evil has already been done and will take years to unpick)—but is about the whole structure of the modern neo-liberal consensus across parties and across Europe, which is generating ever greater inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. I know why the EU is working on the TTIP: because the austerity programme in Europe has ruined the EU's trade and prosperity from within and created a long and unprecedented period of depression, because all the markets are affected together by the coordinated austerity programme. The solution is not to sell out to the US (or anyone else) but to stop the programme of austerity that’s causing the problem, and look for an economic system that can cope with stability instead of growth and a long-term self-sufficiency that does not involve exploiting the labour force and the planet. Let’s face it: we have immense wealth in this country, or would have, if it were not siphoned off to tax havens for the millionaires, but it’s not being fairly or gainfully used to support the right investments in the right projects to benefit the working people or the planet. Thankfully Greece has started a move to resist the old consensus and ask the difficult questions.

Only the Green Party offers a coherent solution to this combination of issues. As was evident in the debate in Norwich, the other parties are all fudging it, because they are all (including Labour) committed to the TTIP (even UKIP have not come out against it but have been voting for it insofar as they vote at all in Europe, though Stuart Agnew seemed to be trying to erase that truth or make some virtue of it). Only the Green Party is explicitly *against TTIP*, and in favour of reforming Europe to be more democratic. The Green Party favours an in/out referendum on Europe. It favours ending the austerity economics that is causing the downturn in trade in Europe and worldwide. It favours investing in making Britain and Europe energy-self-sufficient and sustainable on a slow to zero growth basis for the future without fossil fuels, so that prosperity can return and wages can rise to a level at which no one must beg for loans and food parcels. This is a new look Europe and a new look Britain, fit for a planet which is overheating and becoming too unequal and unkind.

This is my Party, and my position, and if you vote for me I will not compromise these principles.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

I've pledged my support for local pubs and real ale. If any pub in South Norfolk would like to invite me to come and meet the locals, or help behind the bar, please contact me :)

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Response to the "Philosopher Kings?" lecture by Andy Haldane at UEA on Tuesday 17th Feb 2015

I start by displaying a slide of William Blake's "Laocoon annotated". William Blake is my flavour of the month, and if you don't like what I have to say here you can amuse yourself by deciphering the slogans that Blake has inscribed all over the page, round his engraving of the famous Hellenistic sculpture known as the Laocoon Group.  Blake's work is from 1820, and he is reflecting on (among other things) the devastating effect of the industrial revolution on the quality of life and on the life of the imagination. In the light of the graphs that we have been shown about the growth in GDP from the same period, this forms a good background to thinking about what we might have gained or lost from the change from a period of no-growth to a period of growth, that has continued from Blake's time to now.
Among the slogans that Blake has inscribed here, you will find (for instance)
Where any view of money exists art cannot be carried on, but war only; Art is the tree of life, science is the tree of death; The eternal body of man is the imagination.

I have four main points to make briefly in response to Andy Haldane's analysis of what has facilitated growth in productivity and the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. They fall under the following headings:

  1. What's wrong with a flat economy, with no growth in GDP?
  2. If there has been any increase in achievements in the best and most valuable things known to mankind, has this been due to the growth in GDP and the material prosperity or has it been due to the good conditions that facilitated that growth?
  3. Is there a problem about growth on a finite planet with finite resources? Does growth depend upon mining those resources and depleting the supply to a limit beyond which not just growth but life itself will be unsustainable?

1.   What's wrong with a flat economy? 

As Andy Haldane strikingly showed us, from time immemorial for thousands of years of human civilisation, there was no economic growth. The graphs were flat from prehistoric times, throughout all the great civilisations of the past, both in Europe and elsewhere, and right through the Middle Ages. Year on year growth in GDP, or in per capita productivity, is a peculiar feature of the last three hundred years. In the ancient thinkers whose economic and political thought I study, there is no concept of growth and no ambition to build any such thing into the proposals for improving society or establishing the ideal city-state or republic, with a view to enabling people to live life that is as good as it can ever be. Whether they are seeking to establish a society with slaves, in which only the privileged classes can live freely and well (as in Aristotle), or a society without slavery and with equality for women, in which all can realise their best ambitions (as in Plato) increasing productivity or raising living standards or disposable incomes is not part of the picture. This is not because they did not think about economic issues. They did, but they did not take any interest in growing the economy.
So why should we think much hangs on it?
The Ancients were more interested in developing a society in which autonomy, decision-making, agency and intellectual enquiry were the goals of human life, and they were trying to provide the institutions that would allow those things to flourish. They did not envisage that additional material resources or more work in production were the main requirements for that. Indeed one might think that driving the work force to focus more on production and less on action and thought is likely to detract from achievements one might make if the people have more leisure to take part in the life of the mind, and time to devote to becoming autonomous responsible decision-making human beings. An obsession with acquisition of more stuff for the sake of accumulating wealth is an attitude the ancient Greeks associated with a certain kind of enslavement, characteristic of foreign monarchies who made their people into slaves, and thought only of how much gold they might be able to get from extending their empire to enslave yet more. And as Andy Haldane pointed out, increasing the productivity is associated with increasing inequality in wealth and education and all other aspects of life, which leads to instability and social unrest, or dependency.
Perhaps we might be glad that there has been an improvement in the material quality of life, at least superficially, in terms of sanitation, housing, transport, heating and a number of other creature comforts, which make a return to the mediaeval or ancient conditions unattractive. But is there any reason to think that *further* growth will make things better, or that without further growth things will not be as good as now? If we flat line from now, and maintain current standards of health and housing and infrastructure (or preferably the standards that we had before the decline in infrastructure investment undertaken in the name of "austerity") and went on for thousands of years like this without further rises in living standards, what would be so bad about that exactly?
Furthermore, supposing that the rise in living standards has indeed been facilitated by growth, we must ask whether it has led to greater happiness and well-being, and greater achievements that we might be proud of, in a broader sense than just material comforts? Up to what point, if at all, is increased material prosperity accompanied by becoming better at being human and doing the kind of things that have real worth? If we start to associate worth with monetary worth, have we not lost track of what human achievements are most admirable?
Several studies have shown that beyond a certain point, increases in wealth do not correlate well with increases in well-being, whether that is measured as subjective feelings of contentment/happiness, or in other measures of well-being such as safety, security and achievement. In fact, people with much lower incomes and standards of living often turn out to enjoy a better sense of quality of life than those in developed countries. More significant is the fact that no matter what the absolute level of wealth, well-being and happiness correlates more directly with equal distribution of wealth and standards of living, rather that inequality. And as Haldane has shown in his presentation, growth tends to be associated with increasing inequality, and his analysis of what leads to growth and its effects on different groups in society confirms that this is highly likely to be a causal link, and not just random association of two effects of something else. Growth brings inequality, and inequality brings unrest and a range of serious social ills that themselves inhibit productivity and growth. There is a self-destructive motif in the pursuit of growth, even before we turn to the environmental issues.

2.   If there has been any increase in achievements in the best and most valuable things known to mankind, has this been due to the growth in GDP and the material prosperity or has it been due to the good conditions that facilitated that growth

As far as I can see, there has not been a massive increase in great achievements in art, imagination, literature, architecture, philosophy or morality over the period in which we have seen a growth in productivity and living standards. Granted there have been some impressive achievements, but compared with the incredible flowering of spectacular achievements in Europe in the Renaissance and in the Middle Ages, in the Greco-Roman world in the classical period, in Egypt and the Euphrates valley back into the mists of time, in India and in China way into the distant past, has the period of industrialised growth been matched by any significant growth in artistic or intellectual achievements. Has this been what we might call a period of civilisation, to be proud of? All of those magnificent civilisations of the past seem to overshadow the achievements in the period of the railways and the iron bridges and the telephones and aircraft and space travel, not because these more recent things are not impressive, but because they are achievements of a different kind. The technological gains have mostly been in ways to overpower and suppress nature and the human spirit of spontaneous creativity, in the interests of efficiency, utility and productivity, while the achievements of the classical ages were ways to celebrate nature and pour out the human artistic imagination in joy at its own creativity. It is not clear that this is an improvement in providing more of the things that are of genuine lasting value. And it is not clear that it is accompanied by any improvement in our attitude to our fellow citizens.
But supposing, for the sake of argument, that things have got better, and that among the good things have been some really splendid things of which mankind might be proud, we should ask now whether this has been because of a growth in GDP and in material prosperity, or due to something else? What I have in mind is the convincing evidence that Andy Haldane showed in his presentation, that the factors that allowed innovation and development in science and technology to occur started before the period of growth. Literacy, for example, lays the foundation for a wave of innovation. Growth is a result of a situation in which literacy improved, education improved, the arts were sponsored, learning from the ancient world was recovered, enquiry flourished in the monasteries and in schools and the newly founded universities, and scientific enquiry was increasingly pursued and valued. But these things happened before the period of rapid growth in GDP, and are not a consequence of it, as Haldane showed. That these conditions facilitated innovation and growth is plausible. But is it not also plausible that they are the things that have made life better, if life has got better. That is, we should be delighted with a world in which the arts, literacy, science and free enquiry are possible. This is a good world. But it is valuable in itself, not for the growth that followed, which did not so much add to these improvements as depend upon them. We should do well to check which thing we think has enabled us to live well: is it the arrival of education and open minded discovery, or is it the material resources that we then used that education to develop? My answer would be that it is the former, and we shall be no worse off, in the things that really matter, if we stop chasing the latter. Perhaps we might be better off, in fact?
Haldane spoke of the importance of what he called "human capital" which is the citizens of our state. He is obviously right that it makes good economic sense to nurture one's citizen body, to keep them healthy, well-educated and able-bodied, and to ensure that structures are such that this valuable resource does not go to waste, sitting in front of a TV screen with nothing to do, and no way of getting to where there is something to do. Human capital is as important to a capitalist system as other kinds of expensive and high value capital, and this provides a reason even from within such a system to halt the damaging effects that arise from the unbridled pursuit of growth in a free market economy without controls or redistribution, such as the increasing inequality and poverty that we are seeing now in the UK.
But the very idea of "human capital" is alienating. We are invited to think of citizens as a resource to be exploited. Idle citizens and uneducated citizens are seen as a "waste", a "drain on the society", like unoccupied buildings or uncultivated fields. This instrumental way of thinking is far removed from the idea of human beings as having a potential for their own self-fulfilment, or of measuring the worth of a society in history by its achievements in justice and freedom, knowledge, literature, art and music and other fine things that will be remembered with admiration and not disgust. For this purpose, human beings, including the poor, are not just stuff to be educated enough to be profitable so as not to be a loss-making enterprise, but beings with the capacity to take a part in the creative cooperative endeavour that is a civilised society. If they have become just stuff in the minds of those who exploit them, then that is already a failure. And since no one is made happy by discovering that they are valued like a slave, to be exploited if they bring in a profit and discarded if not, this attitude is a direct source of unrest and de-motivation.
This is one of the reasons why the introduction of impact criteria in the REF is alienating to researchers who value their inquiries for the intrinsic importance of the knowledge they deliver. To find that the researchers are a capital investment whose worth is to be measured for its contribution to gross domestic product and marketable exports from which the in terms of how much the research has added to the GDP, and whether this represents a good return for the pennies invested in the researchers' time.

3. Is there a problem about growth on a finite planet with finite resources? Does growth depend upon mining those resources and depleting the supply to a limit beyond which not just growth but life itself will be unsustainable?

Some thinkers have suggested that there is a problem in pursuing a policy designed to promote growth because the resources of the planet are finite. Perhaps we need a no-growth economy if we are to live within the resources of our finite home. 
I suspect that this is accidentally true of our post-industrial world, because the increase in per-capita productivity was due to mechanical extraction of resources, fossil-fuel-based power and transport, and other technology-based improvements, that allowed the same number of people to produce more with less effort. But there seems to me to be no necessary connection between growth in production and denuding the planet of resources. 
If we're talking about per-capita growth, of course it will automatically slow if improvements in health and welfare lead to population growth, while the overall production stays the same. So one would need to increase production to match the population growth, even to stay on the level. But does the productivity need to consume finite resources, other than human resources which are increasing anyway? Cultural production such as literature and performance art do not intrinsically require any non-renewable stuff. Traditional products such as wool, paper, linen and wood are produced from resources that are not exhausted but regenerate in the natural cycle, and in the process contribute to maintaining the balance of nature. Similarly there are plentiful energy resources that are not finite and will never run short. The argument against growth therefore should not be made on the basis that long term growth is harmful to the planet due to depleting finite resources, since this seems as though it is a contingent result of our current industrial practices, lifestyles and technologies. What this shows is that if we are to continue living well, we need to reassess what kinds of technologies, farming practices, forestry practices and industries we promote, if we are to feed an maintain a healthy long-lived society. We should not move away from the old methods of growing sustainable crops on a well-maintained soil with a healthy bio-system that regenerates naturally. We need increased government control of the built infrastructure and transport systems, and institutions that support sustainable practices. This can't be done by free market systems.
But let us suppose that in this ideal world we can achieve a successful balance between needs and resources that could be sustainable indefinitely and needs no non-renewable materials: is there then any reason to think that we must also add growth? If so, for whose benefit? Who says we need growth? And why? Is this not just an unexamined assumption that is driving an outdated political ideology, leading to a permanent sense of dissatisfaction with the good things that we have, and a constant expectation of more? It isn't so much that growth is impossible, or unattainable, or unsustainable. It's that it is basically irrelevant, and that while we go on measuring that as if it were a proxy for what is worth having, we are all the time missing what we most need and want. 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Renewing Trident? Nuclear weapons? Do they make things safer?

Like other election candidates, I have been approached by CND for my response to a series of questions about Trident and Nuclear Disarmament. I thought I would post my response here as well as on the CND website, so that it is easy for people to find. Also the version currently showing on the CND site has an incomplete version of the answer to question 4 and I don't know whether that will get corrected. So here is the finished one.

At the time of writing, nine days after the e-mail request came, no other candidates in South Norfolk have bothered to respond to this survey. Which is interesting.

Question 1: Trident replacement and New Nuclear Weapons
The UK's submarine-based Trident nuclear weapon system is approaching the end of its operational life.
The MPs elected next year will be asked to vote on constructing a replacement nuclear weapon system for Trident that will operate into the 2060s.
To what extent do you agree that the next government should scrap its nuclear weapons rather than replace them with a new system?
Answer: 5, Very Much agree.
I think we should never have had Trident and that it is overdue for scrapping. In addition we should not be diverting money to replacing or renewing such outdated war machines. Military advisers themselves have noted that these weapons have no use, and cost more than the conventional defence resources that are needed in the current climate. Nuclear weapons are a status ornament, of no more use than the crown jewels.

Question 2: Trident and the Strategic Defence and Security Review 
The next government will conduct a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) following the election.
To what extent do you agree that SDSR should consider the possibility of non-replacement of Trident and a UK without nuclear weapons?

Answer: 5 Very much agree.
Indeed, this should be the most urgent ambition, and the feasibility considerations should include a wholesale investigation of the underlying sources of any external threats, such as our dependence upon supplies of fossil fuels and the increasing evidence of a war for energy supplies. It should also look into the nature of the terrorist threat from Islamic extremism and consider whether diverting resources to maintaining nuclear weapons has any relevance to that problem, and to what extent cultural and imperialistic interference might be causing, rather than resolving, the radicalisation of the Islamic world.

Question 3: Trident and the Non-Proliferation Treaty
The next government will need to attend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York in May 2015.
To what extent do you agree that the next government should support a nuclear weapons convention or ban, similar to those for chemical or biological weapons?

Answer: 5 Very much agree.

Question 4: Trident and Austerity
The current government has carried out significant public spending cuts and planned for them to continue through the next parliament.
With so many other services being cut, to what extent do you agree that the next government can not afford to replace Trident at an estimated cost of £100 billion?

Answer: 4 Somewhat agree.
I think that spending £100 billion on nuclear weapons while cutting other services is irresponsible and immoral. It is also pointless, and indeed increases our vulnerability, since modern warfare always takes place with conventional weapons, while the very presence of a nuclear arsenal on British soil increases the risk of setting it off by accident, or in a panic, or generating a mistaken counter-strike from elsewhere due to panic or false intelligence.
On the other hand, the need for cutting is actually premised on misunderstood economics. In principle we could have both an NHS, full benefits system, free care for the elderly, a substantial standing army, AND nuclear weapons, and be better off. The idea that it is an either-or choice is based on assuming that things need to be cut. We are wealthy in this country and our wealth comes from the things we invest in, not from cutting back on everything we do so that revenues fall; we do not need to put services at risk as though we were a household with a low income and no prospect of a salary rise. So the argument against nuclear weapons is not primarily about saving money, but about whether this is a good thing to spend money on and a good industry to incentivise. Isn't energy self-sufficiency based on renewables, not nuclear or fossil fuels, surely a better way to stay clear of wars?

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Are you enslaved? Is your country enslaved? Here's why it feels like that, and why it's true.

Sometimes it can feel like you're trapped. Trapped so that you have to go to work, and no matter how unpleasant the work is, you can't not go, or throw in your job, or tell the employer to be more reasonable. You have no power, and no freedom to say no, no matter how bad the conditions. Indeed sometimes it seems as if you are subject to a kind of bullying. 

And yet you are not enslaved to your employer. You applied for the job, and you signed a contract voluntarily. So why does it seem as if you are enslaved?

Part of the reason is that most people are enslaved, but not to their employers (though the employers may also be taking advantage of the situation). People are enslaved not directly to the people they work for, but to the banks and other financial institutions, as a result of which their labour is not free but is bound over to the institutions to whom they signed away the rights to the fruits of their labours, usually by so-called "buying" a house. Mrs Thatcher thought it was a great idea that the council house tenants would "never pay rent again but instead would own their own home." Doubtless many thought that she meant that they would not be paying for the house they lived in any more, because they would own it and need pay no rent to anyone. Sadly, in fact they would have had to take out a loan, and for the rest of their working life they would not just be repaying the loan, but interest too. In fact many would only be able to pay interest and never expect to repay the loan, unless they had also paid a premium to guarantee a lump sum at the end. But in reality that lump sum for which they had saved so much would often be too small.

A case in point, for example, is the sad story of the first owners of 39 Amersham Road, the flagship council house sale where Margaret Thatcher went to tea to celebrate with its new owners in 1980. The story, as told by the Telegraph on 9th April 2013, is a telling one:
Having lived in the property for 18-years, the Pattersons qualified for a 40 per cent discount and, after putting down a deposit of just £5, they purchased the house in August 1980 for the sum of £8,315. The Patterson’s marriage broke down amid the financial pressure of meeting the mortgage payments, which were rocketing due to high interest rates. Mrs Patterson, who was working at an old person’s home, struggled with the bills for sometime on her own, before eventually being forced to sell up and move into a mobile home. Speaking in 2002, she said: “If I’d foreseen the end of my marriage I’d never have bought. I got trapped there without enough cash to cover bills. “The mortgage was about £250 a month and after my husband left I survived only because my sons gave me board-and-lodging. I was desperate in a house I couldn’t manage and wished I’d never bought. “It broke my heart when I had to sell. It went for £57,000 and when I’d paid off the mortgage I had only enough left to buy a mobile home so I’m back down the property ladder.
"Owning a home" was not owning a home. It was assigning your entire working life to paying interest on an impossible debt, which meant you would never own your home and could lose it at any time. The mortgage company had bought your home and your life's savings and your labour. You might  be working for someone else, but it was to pay interest to the bank. That is why you feel trapped, because however bad your job, the threat to your home is too great to risk leaving it, unless jobs can be had two a penny. But since everyone is desperate, being in the same boat, everyone is insecure, and no one can stand up to the employers or threaten to leave if the job is unpleasant, or the pressure too great. Exploitation of the labour force becomes easy. So not only is the so-called home owner's labour enslaved to the mortgage company, but the employer for whom the labour is demanded is also able to increase the demands, and provide inadequate pay , because the employee lacks freedom and is powerless to demand better conditions (unless there is a trade union... but that is another story).

Was the money borrowed from the mortgage company real money? No. The mortgage company does not need to have any money, in order to generate this life-long debt and interest payments. All they do is operate the right to write a certain number on your mortgage statement, to which you then put your signature. This number then gets transferred into your bank statement, and is then transferred to the bank statement of the previous owner from whom you are buying your house (or car or whatever else you are borrowing "money" for). What you are actually doing is signing up to pay interest to the company. They do not need to have any money to do all this. All they need is the power to manipulate their incoming and outgoing numbers to match up. And the more people they enslave in this way, the more interest is coming in, so that although they keep you enslaved, because you have never paid back the capital and never will (if they can help it) they have the right to take your daily income as interest payments, and this is what constantly drives you to work at the job you hate, so as to feed their demands. If you ever earn enough to have some left over, you will want to pay off the capital to get shot of this slavery, but this leaves nothing for actually spending on the good things in life. Slavery is where all you do is work, for someone else, and never get left with anything. And you depend upon your masters for even the accommodation you live in. So you can never tell them to get lost, and just go. You are in chains, when you thought you were being set free by "getting onto the property ladder". How different from the freedom offered by the council housing, where a good level of spacious and well -maintained housing was carefully provided with rents set at an affordable level and paid to the council. Once you were in your "own" house, the chances are you would then need to take further loans to repair it! 

Ownership of this kind is not a freedom "never to pay rent". It turns everyone into a bondsman, working to pay the feudal landlord his dues. Only it doesn't look like it, to the one who has been led into this ideology by the rhetoric of "ownership". The "home owner" is told that she should be proud to be the possessor of property. She is supposed to think of herself as free, so that she shall not notice the chains. And in many cases we are taken in. No one tells us what has happened, and we are puzzled that we find ourselves enslaved. As the Mrs Patterson (whose story is told above) said afterwards, when she had slaved all her life and lost everything including the house:
“But I don’t blame anyone. It was my decision to make that investment. I still remember the day Mrs Thatcher came to tea. I am still committed to right-to-buy.“She was an icon to me. She was a lovely guest. I gave her a guided tour and she said, 'This is not just a house – it’s a home’. I was so proud. She had Downing Street and Chequers but No39 was just as special to me.”
The reason for the feudal effect is because you take a loan from a private bank or credit institution whose purpose is to rake in money by lending money for interest, and the interest payments are going not to the state (as the social housing rents were) but to the bankers. So they do not then return in infrastructure and funding for civilised projects like museums and libraries and care for the elderly. The profits from the loans go to the bankers and their share holders. Private funding in the form of loans draws away the wealth from the poor, who can only work but never have the money, and it benefits the rich, who need not work but can draw the interest on money loaned, because the poor are working. And the same goes for private rents on privately owned property. And yet, because the poor have no money to spend, in this system, and there is not enough money coming into the state in taxes or rents, none of the important features of a civilised society can be afforded. And no one spends any money on the good things in life. So no businesses can thrive, and no income can be generated from private enterprise. So the middle classes get squeezed too, and more money ends up in the hands of those who take interest on loans.

Now this, roughly speaking, is also the situation that has been set up in Europe to manipulate the Eurozone. By running the Eurozone as a system of loans from one country to another, of from a central bank run not for but against the interests of the borrowers, with compound interest to repay, you can also enslave a whole country, and the more you dole out loans to "help" it, always for repayment with interest, the more you can enslave it. This is not a way of helping the country in question. It is a way of exerting power over it without declaring a physical war and without an invasion. This is the modern way of doing warfare in Europe: it is done by exercising financial control, imposing sanctions and conditions in return for "investment" or loans, and effectively by starving the people into submission and removing their will to resist, on account of the punitive destruction of their entire infrastructure. All this is done on the basis of apparent agreements and voluntary commitments, just as the mortgages seem to be taken voluntarily—only that when you are starving you sometimes sign for loans that you know you can't afford to repay or even pay the interest on. Anyone can sell themselves into slavery if they are led to believe that it is a kind of freedom, or if they are too hungry to care.  

Setting someone free from slavery is normally a noble and just thing to do. You don't expect the slave to pay the ransom. In fact, you expect the person who held them enslaved to pay them compensation, and let them off free, and return the property extorted from them, and preferably house them and give them enough to start back up in life. Nothing less than that is reasonable. And that is true even if, when they first entered the deal, they thought they were doing what was best for them. For getting you to sign your rights away is typical of the corrupt manipulator, and it is no defence to say that the person entered voluntarily into the enslavement, under the illusion that it was going to be for the best. Indeed you often need a certain level of intelligence to realise who is your friend and who is your enemy. 

You also need to be confident in your economic analysis. 

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Getting our heads round the economics of ANTI-Austerity.

Several recent media events have featured aggressive debates where some of the pro-austerity parties have tried to attack or rubbish the policies of the Green Party of England and Wales. This in itself is a good sign (because it is a sign that people are beginning to find the popularity of these policies alarming, and to see that they are winning support both here and in other parts of Europe, as most famously in Greece).

The scare tactics deployed by the aggressive interviewer typically include finding bogeys in the Green Party's policies on immigration, religious extremism and drug control. But the one that I want to consider today is the typical response to the anti-austerity policies, such as fully funding the NHS, raising the minimum wage, renationalising the railways, no tuition fees, and providing a welfare system that will enable everyone to live without fear of poverty or destitution.

The standard question is "But how will you fund this?", and the questioner then doesn't wait for an explanation of how the economics of a modern state works, but assumes that it works like a family budget in which there is a set income, and you decide what your priorities are for spending it. Responsible budgeting, they suppose (or they want their viewers to suppose), is like responsible budgeting at home. If you haven't got much money, and you've borrowed some money already, then you need to spend only that and no more. In fact, you should spend less, so as to repay some of your debts. This is the very muddled economic thinking that has encouraged people to vote for austerity, against their own interests and against the interests of the economy. This is what is now being questioned across Europe. And rightly so, because it is stupid.

That muddled economic thinking is what the politics of anti-austerity parties like the Greens is challenging. So the answer to the question "How will you fund this?" need not have an answer of the kind the aggressive interviewer is expecting (e.g. "we shall raise taxes", or "we shall abolish the armed forces", or even "we shall increase the national debt"). Because, actually it is austerity that leads to increased debt, and cuts to the armed forces, and ill-equipped armies, and a shortfall of income in relation to costs for health and welfare and housing. That is the problem, not the solution, so you should not expect an answer in that form to explain how the better welfare system and subsidised transport, and full public health service and education, will be paid for by the Green Party.

For sure, the Green Party does have a few ideas of things that are wasted expenditure, or immoral expenditure, but the reason for making savings there is not really because one must make cuts to cover the costs of the other good things that need money thrown at them. I mean, for sure, it will help not to be spending billions on out of date nuclear weaponry that is about as useful as the crown jewels but more expensive. But if we needed such things, we shouldn't do that instead of having a good railway infrastructure or accident and emergency treatment in hospitals. We should, in that case, have to do it as well.

So how are these things to be funded? How is the new government in Greece going to fund its new anti-austerity policies. How has it been able to restore free health care and give the cleaners a job again? The answer to this question requires you to stop thinking the way the austerity parties have taught you to think. They want you to think it is like a family with a fixed income to spend. But actually it is not like that. It is more like a business which makes an income by engaging in income generating activities, and inviting its citizens to invest their money in those activities and to make things happen. It's when things happen that money flows into the coffers of the state.

In fact there are two ways this happens. One is that when people (especially the poor) have some money they will spend it, often in local businesses such as the pub at the corner, or the betting shop or the hairdressers. The pub is less likely to go out of business, and instead will be paying rates, taxes and duty on the beer sold, and the people in the pub will be socialising and sharing ideas for things to do to, making connections for their businesses (You need a builder? I know one!) and looking after each other's mental health and welfare. The community is better off, there is less strain on the resources of the doctors and social workers, and the money gets back to the government in taxes to be sent out to the poor again. Similarly, if you give the students an income so that they don't have to work to live, they will spend the money they have on many things. The jobs they currently take will go to ordinary working families instead, who will need less support from the state and will pay income tax, council tax and all the rest. All this money goes round and round, because as business gets better (because there is money in the system) every business can afford to employ someone, or do renovations, or send out produce that employs delivery firms and other distribution methods. And every time the money is spent, tax comes in to the state coffers to be used in support of the welfare state. The system is like investing to get a return, not like spending a fixed income. The income is not fixed. It will go down if there is no productive activity going on. Which is what happens if you cut benefits and cut employment in public services, and cut wages and cut research budgets. You end up with nothing.

Where do you get the money to start this virtuous circle, if you have the situation that will be left by this government where the debt has gone up and no one has money to spend (except the very rich who have siphoned it off to tax havens or loopholes and are not spending it here)? Well, the answer is that you invite those who have some savings, and want to invest their savings in a secure scheme and for interest, to invest it in the government's own savings bonds. So the wealthy pop their money into your coffers, and you promise to pay them interest, or the money back when they need to withdraw it. That's fine. They need a place to keep their money, and you, the government, then put it to use on generating this active, healthy, well educated society. In due course, this will pay its dividends, in fuel duty, alcohol duty, income tax, council tax, business rates, VAT and so on. The private individuals' savings will have helped the state to get back onto the ladder of prosperity that can deliver a fully funded welfare state. And the fully funded welfare state is actually what prosperity depends on. Because you need educated healthy citizens, with an appetite for enterprise and a good environment in which they can expect their business to thrive, with a purchasing power sufficient to allow things to happen.

It is no good helping people to start a business by lending them money. Because if no one has any money to spend, the business will fail and you will never recover the investment. That's the wrong way round. Start with the people who need the services, give them money to spend, and then others will be able to start the businesses they need and make a living from them. Then you will get back all the money that went out to them, because it comes back in taxes and profits and increased spending power at every level of society.

The answer then? It should not really be "We plan to make savings here and here to fund this proposal" but rather "You don't understand: we are talking about making money, not spending it. This is the way you make money. Don't believe what they've told you in the past. That was a way of screwing money out of you to give to the rich. We don't do that. We give it to you so that it will come back to us, seven times over for every pound we spend on the poor and the sick and the aged and the disabled and the unemployed."