15 February 2012

The main "religiously oppressed" people in the UK are kids who happen to be the wrong religion for their local school

In the months since the May 2010 election and the formation of the ConDem government, it has often seemed like every day is "silly season" in the media. There are a number of Tories - both ministers and backbenchers - who specialise in trotting out loony right-wing theories taken directly from the US Christian right, eugenicists, far-right libertarians and other unsavoury sources. One of the worst offenders is Lady Warsi, who yesterday said that "militant secularisation" was taking hold of society.

On the face of it, this is a statement so ludicrous that it is hard to take seriously. Warsi's argument appears to be based on two recent court rulings:
  1. Bideford Council, which was told it can't hold prayers as a formal part of council meetings (councillors are of course free to hold prayers before the meetings start should they so wish);
  2. the Christian B&B owners who weren't allowed to turn away a gay couple.

It's hard to see either of these judgements as evidence for secularisation, militant or otherwise. In the Bideford Council case, it is very hard to see what prayers have to do with council business. In the case of the Christian B&B owners, if the judgement had gone the other way it would have been tantamount to a ruling that anti-gay Christians should be exempt from laws outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. If that were allowed to stand, one might as well say that Nick Griffin should be exempt from laws outlawing discrimination on the grounds of race. But this has nothing to do with religion versus secularism. It's to do with whether the law should be applied consistently or not. Lady Warsi appears to be suggesting that anti-discrimination legislation amounts to "militant secularisation"; the corollary of this argument is that we can only have "religious freedom" if we allow the oppression of gay people, ethnic minorities, women, or other groups. In which case... give me militant secularisation over religious freedom every day.

There is one area in which an element of our society is discriminated against on a regular basis: school choice. But, as Dr Evan Harris (the greatest Lib Dem leader we never had) pointed out on Channel 4 News last night, it is children from non-religious families (and the "wrong" religions) who are discriminated against, not children from the "correct" religious families. A faith school - for example, a C of E school - can refuse an application from a child whose parents are of a different faith, or no faith, solely based on that reason. This is blatant religious discrimination of a type outlawed in most other areas of public services and the private market. For example, a supermarket can't refuse to serve you on the grounds you're an atheist. An employer can't refuse to employ you on the grounds you're from the wrong religion (except, I think, in the case of teachers at faith schools - once again, blatant discrimination). If I have a criticism to make of the National Secular Society, it's that they are picking the wrong targets. Prayers at council meetings is a niche issue at best. Discrimination in the school sector affects millions of children, and could probably be stopped via a test case if a school was taken to court (and if necessary to the European Court of Human Rights). Having said that, disclaimer: my legal knowledge is pretty much zero so I could be talking complete rubbish here.

As things stand, the Mickey Gove education reforms are going to hand over huge chunks of the school system to religious organisations, making an already big problem worse. If I have kids in the next few years, home schooling - or one of the "progressive" schools like Steiner - may be the only viable option. At this point I'd say "God help us" but that would just be playing into Lady Warsi's hands.

13 February 2012

Greece: taking the long and painful road towards default

It's often been said that socialism is the long and painful route to capitalism and in the case of Soviet-style state capitalism that is probably right (although equally one could say that capitalism is the long and painful route to environmental catastrophe, followed quite possibly by socialism - if anyone is still alive long enough to enjoy such a state of affairs). But the economic torture which the EU and the IMF is putting Greece through in the name of "fiscal responsibility" is the long and painful route to bankruptcy and default. There is not a hope in hell of the savage austerity measures insisted on by the "troika" - including minimum wage and pension cuts - delivering budget balance; instead, they will deliver an ever-shrinking economy and a need for yet more savage cuts a year or so down the line.
The sheer insanity of the economic policies being followed in Greece at the moment is painfully obvious. This story ends in one of three ways:
  1. fiscal union in the Eurozone. If the EU had a central budget and fiscal transfers between higher-income and lower-income states (like the US) for example, the Greek debt would be a relatively minor issue. The EU would be able to issue "Eurobonds" at relatively low rates of interest to fund the Greek deficit. This is unlikely to happen because Germany doesn't want Eurobonds. It wants a "fiscal compact" to bind member states into austerity but this is not at all the same thing as fiscal union; rather, it's a measure to outlaw "structural deficits" which, if anything, will exacerbate economic depressions by making Keynesian counter-cyclical spending harder.
  2. Greece as a technocratic colony. This is the option that Germany and the IMF want - bypassing the Greek electoral system and putting "yes men" in place who will enact austerity measures for "as long as it takes" - perhaps in perpetuity - in a (probably futile) attempt to meet fiscal targets through spending cuts and tax rises.
  3. Greece in default. I think this is the most likely option now. It's no longer a question of if Greece defaults, but rather, when it does.
I would be very surprised if plans were not afoot behind the scenes for a Greek default and the return of the drachma. (The return of the drachma is not inevitable - it is possible that Greece could default and stay in the Euro - although that raises a host of issues, for example regarding contagion, and how to stop the same thing happening again to Greece a few years down the line). But being kicked out of the Euro is more likely than defaulting in it.

It is important to make clear that although default is the best available option for Greece it is by no means an easy option. The drachma will collapse in value in the short run and Greece is likely to experience high inflation as the cost of imported goods rise. Much of the debt held by Greek consumers and businesses (as opposed to government debt) will be Euro-denominated and so its value relative to Greek GDP will increase greatly in the event of the drachma reappearing. This will most likely lead to a wave of secondary defaults in the business and household sectors.

However, readopting its own currency would give Greece the necessary flexibility to work its way back to economic health. Tourism would boom hugely as Greece would suddenly become a very attractive cheap holiday destination. The reduction in the wage and price level relative to the Euro would make Greece a much more attractive location for foreign direct investment by foreign-owned businesses. Greek exports would be much more competitive than before... and so on.

So, for me, given that a US-style European fiscal union is off the table, default followed by economic rebuilding from a vastly lower exchange rate looks like the best option for Greece.