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...

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.