23 November 2011

Is there in Truth no Beauty?

Continuing the theme of Posts with Star Trek episode titles, my attention was brought by blog progenitor Hal Berstram to an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian this week. Normally based on 'the Great Moonbat' (as he is known in Climate Change Sceptic circles) and his previous outpourings I would have readily dismissed it as the usual half-baked Socialist waffle, most likely being funded from one of two South East Asian countries. However, proving the old adage 'even a blind squirrel stumbles across the odd acorn' true, it's an impressive argument, one of the best I've ever seen from a Guardian journalist.

The central point, and it's pretty hard to argue, is that what the financial sector, especially has become bears only the most passing resemblance to 'Free market capitalism'. Taking aim in his first few paragraphs at one of the easiest targets amongst the so-called '1 percent', Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, Monbiot lays bare the level of subsidy given to Formula One, both globally and in the UK. Avid readers of this blog may have seen mention of my passion for Formula one racing, but whilst admiring the spectacle of such advanced technology and the drivers' skill, Formula One has been a political football since really the Early 1970's, and the scandalous decision by Blair to campaign for an exemption for Formula One from an EU ban on tobacco sponsorship, laid bare the links between Ecclestone and senior politicians of both Parties. For anyone thinking the Conservatives were any better, the funding of the Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire was the subject of some very murky 'offshore tax planning' which it used to effectively run at a loss and gain sole proprietorship of the British Grand Prix amid rising safety concerns which eliminated rival Brands Hatch from the picture from 1987 onwards.

Monbiot then hits out at another sitting duck, James Purnell's Private Finance Initiative or 'PFI', a device whereby Private Sector companies would invest in much-needed infrastructure projects. First touted at the fag end of the Thatcher administration (I think the idea was a Keith Joseph brainchild in the 1970's but it took until 1992 for its first implementation), the idea was that the 'more efficient' Private Sector would be able to deliver services and infrastructure more efficiently than if they remained in the Public Sector. Despite opposing it under Smith, Labour under Blair became an enthusiastic user of PFI in the next thirteen years, most pointedly because PFI liabilities could be disguised 'off balance sheet'. I admit that my source for much of the PFI information is satricial magazine Private Eye, whose continued exposure of this scandal remains one of the greatest journalistic public services of our age. Suffice it to say, to be 'enticed' into these deals, all the risk had to be transferred from the Private Sector provider to ultimately, in the last resort, the taxpayer. Current PFI liabilities, according to Government figures released in November LAST YEAR stand at £267 billion with that figure likely to rise.

Continuing his them of shooting fish in a barrel, Monbiot then exposes Free market advocate Matt Ridley, a former Telegraph journalist whose admirable 'Acid Test' columns sit proudly in my cuttings file. One in particular 'Dihydrogen monoxide - there's a real killer' exposed how just by changing a substances name, single issue campaigners can create a storm in a teacup. Turns out he's less then keen on the rigours of the Free market when they apply to him, as Northern Rock, of which he was the nominal chairman had to be baled out by the taxpayer, his risky strategy of going after NINJA homeowners provoking the first run on a UK bank in over 120 years. I have often maintained this was a political decision by Brown (to shore up Labour support in the North East) and that had the bank been called 'Southern Rock' and based in say, Guildford, it would have been thrown to the wolves. Nevertheless, the fact that such rank hypocrisy has been exposed by Monbiot is wholly admirable.

Arguably not such much a sitting duck, as a tranquilised flock of geese, the EU's CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) is a scandal of such long standing it often escapes attention. Suffice it to say, I don't know anyone, of any political persuasion, who supports its continuance in its current form. The level of fraud is so great as to almost defy calculation, and the truth is the last estimate were that its cost to the taxpayer equated to around £2400 per head per year. Furthermore, a looming deadline of 2013 for Poland's full admission to the CAP on the same terms as the French, which due to the Polish agricultural sector's surprising resilience is estimated to increase that figure by nearly £1700, will also lead the EU to face imminent bankruptcy. (assuming the Euro crisis doesn't finish it off)

It's a truly searing critique. What we have is nothing I, or any advocate of a free market capitalism would recognise as a capitalist democracy. Call it what you like, kleptocracy(government for the benefit of the ruling class), plutocracy (government of the wealthy) or Oligarchy (government by a ruling class) - one thing it for sure as hell isn't is a democracy. The problem with his diagnosis, is what is the overarching issue for the British Left, because the one group omitted from the analysis is highly paid Council Officials, European Commission servants (for example) and other bureaucrats who also need to be exposed as basically a parasitic 'rentier' class above and beyond the ordinary people of the UK. Perhaps, what's needed is a coming together of the dispossessed from both sides of the political spectrum to unite and smash the cosy alliance of both Private Sector plutocrats and their Union Baron and Senior bureaucrat counterparts from the Left. I look forward to it....

20 November 2011

In the Shadow of Zuccotti...

Echoing my erstwhile co-author's comments regarding a lack of posts - Acting as a 'de facto' Tour guide for vistors to New York City seems to be taking up an inordinate amount of my time, so have been off the radar, even with a number of issues that really do cry out for attention. Arguably one of my all-time favourite Television Series of any genre is the Science Fiction Saga, Babylon 5 , a multi-layered self -contained Universe which ran, despite not really having anything like the financial backing of it's Paramount financed Rivals in the Star Trek franchise, for five years in the 1990's. The chief antagonists of the series first three years are a race known as the Shadows, whose basic philosophy appears to be that strength and progress come through conflict. Without doubt my favourite character from the entire run of the series was arguably the main villain, the Shadows' human emissary Mr. Morden , whose Wikipedia description bears repeating:

'Although outwardly polite and courteous, he represents a dangerous hidden agenda'

His first question to anyone he meets is the simply phrased: 'What do you want?'

This came back to me in my consideration of the ongoing protests at Occupy Wall Street and Occupy LSX, as well as, it has to be said the around 70 other protests ongoing across the globe. I am particularly admiring of the doughty group of protestors who have chosen to occupy a square in that famous centre of off shore finance, Newport, Isle of Wight, but I digress. I have to ask the protestors 'what do you want?' because one of the issues facing the movement is that it's demands seem so desperately unclear and unfocused. Whilst some see this as a source of strength, for me, if they are to move beyond first base (using American parlance) in offering what my colleague Hal Berstram calls 'a new paradigm' it's imperative that they get a coherent list of goals. On Twitter, where arguably much of the energy that should be put into this blog is now dissipated, the much disparaged 'astroturfing right-wing trolls' pointed me out this link which lists the latest minutes of Occupy LSX's loftily entitled General assembly. When I stopped laughing, I took the time to examine more closely this document, to gain some greater insight into what motivates these protestors. In spite of their failure to remove the Soviet banners from their encampment, I am continually informed that recreation of the defunct USSR is not the true agenda, so let's see if we can find out what it actually is.

'Well established. Working Groups can have a room each down there. National Occupy conference will take place at OLSX on Saturday and BoI on Saturday. Want books to start library, food, paint, tools, people, lamps / lighting equipment.
Most probably know building is owned by UBS. They were subject ot $60bn bail-out from Swiss government. Evidence of corruption. They gambled millions of pension money. It’s appropriate that we open this bank'

So the invasion of Private property goes on - a repudiation of one of the fundamental building blocks of human freedom. Quite what business the policies of the Swiss government is of these people is anyone's guess, but nevertheless, I am assuming they object to UK firms using UBS as a Pension fund manager? The lack of understanding of basic finance again shows through. There is no such thing as a 'risk free investment' I'd argue any Pension fund manager who invested in low risk deposit accounts with interest rates at 0.5% and even instruments like Guaranteed Equity bonds paying post-tax returns below inflation was being negligent but that's again a moot point.

'People’s assemblies are good because the the government has centralised everything. Everything on a local level would not have need for centralised government – we can achieve everything locally, through face to face contact with people – you’ll know people, they’ll be easy to contact and talk to – that’s where I will be hopefully'

This actually did intrigue me somewhat as ideally I'd be in favour of much greater 'localism' - one of the problems we see, though, is the inevitable ill-informed articles about 'postcode lotteries' in provision of such staples as old-age care and Health provision. these are stoked by the press on both sides of the political divide. Much centralisation under every government since Thatcher (and possibly arguably even prior to that there were tendencies) has been in response to such criticisms. By allowing real Local democracy, the risk is run that provision of services will be very unequal. Also, is there anything to stop say, Far-right or Islamic extremists implementing policies which to the Left would be distasteful in the extreme(banning on Eating pork or preferential housing for Whites) The proposal also shows a distinct lack of historical awareness. A number of Local authorities (most famously the GLC under Livingstone, but also Liverpool under , say Hatton) took it upon themselves to deliberately stoke up taxation and set themselves up in opposition to the then elected government. Much centralisation in fields such as education was a response to provocation from people whose extreme left wing ideology was signifcantly more important than their concerns for local ratepayers. Hence the eventual abolition of the GLC and widespread use of 'rate capping' during the 80's and into the 90's. How would such tendencies (And regardless of what Occupy believe I assume some Conservative councils would still exist? If not that's another matter entirely) be curbed under the dispensation proferred here?

'One way to spread the occupy movement is to bring in the trade unions, to appeal to as many as possible. On 20th November, 3 million public sector workers are on strike in support of their pensions. It’s an important day, you can really appeal to them. People should occupy workspaces so they can decide for themselves their conditions, working hours, benefits, and pay'

So, what I can glean from this is that workers should come in and 'Occupy their workplace' - fine. What happens then? As workers have 'decided for themselves their pay and conditions and their working hours' what will happen. I know a number of my former colleagues who would vote themselves a salary of 250K and working hours of zero, as well as a pension linked to the 2008 inflation rate in Zimbabwe. Whether any business that ran in that fashion would be able to stave off bankruptcy for even one hour would be questionable. As for enlisting the Trade unions, it seems astonishingly myopic not to recognise their agenda. UNISON and especially the RMT exist to promote the interests of their membership, not the wider society at large. Do you think Union poster boy Bob Crow gives two hoots about the commuters into all manner of industries (not just the LSX) when he calls his latest stoppage by his outrageously well-renumerated drivers over the flimsiest pretext? I'd argue not.

In fairness, a number of 'Occupy' supporters have pointed out these are 'minutes' - and I recognise that. But again we return back to the question I posed earlier in the post - 'What do you want'? The minutes read like a Student Union meeting, and if the Occupy movement want to be taken seriously, thney need to move beyond this initial stage and quickly. As New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica points out the naysayers dismissing these people as 'dope fiends and sex fiends' were lying from the start and that generalisation remains a lie. Nevertheless, he makes the point that their moving to blockade Subway (underground!- going native!) stations and block traffic for Commuter buses is unlikely to have any impact on Senior personnel at Citibank or JP Morgan, as I can vouch from a degree of personal knowledge, these guys don't take the bus or subway. On the other hand literally thousands of chefs and kitchen workers (for example) do and any sympathy they had for the movement will have been diminished by an already possibly 2 hour journey to the Outer boroughs being made an hour longer!

In short, 'What does the Occupy movement want?' remains the question, and rest assured, despite the protestations of my erstwhile colleague Hal Berstram, I remain 'outwardly polite and courteous' and there is no hidden agenda, just a willingness to perhaps find out what the 'real agenda' actually is!

17 November 2011

Lifted from CiF

In desperation over the last few days I've taken to reading the comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free again. Free is the operative word; few people would pay for the kind of rubbish you see below the line on CiF every day... particularly from the astroturfing right wing trolls.

However, this comment on the usual €zone panic story "Eurozone bond markets in turmoil" was a classic, courtesy of one 'boydungood':

So here we have it....

The radio this morning tells me how I can make a 9p sandwich with toast in the middle, with salt and pepper - the cheapest meal

I million kids between 16 and 24 out of work or training

An unelected government imposed in Italy (used to be called a coup)

And this papers poster boy Clegg silent on everything, and this paper silent on the Clegg

An all time classic there - and managing to work in Nick Clegg as well... sums up where this country has got to.

16 November 2011

Dropping off the radar

Sorry for lack of posts over the last few weeks. Just been far too busy... normal service should be resumed around next week.

In the meantime keep watching the Euro crisis for "entertainment."