Friday, 21 December 2012

Who’s Afraid of Father Christmas?

[Sir Reginald Pratt, one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the world, and widely known to his friends in the City as ‘Father Christmas’, has once again agreed to be interviewed by ‘Question the Powerful’. When we met, he had recently returned from abroad.]

Q: You’ve been away for nearly six months. Have you missed Britain?

R: Terribly. I can’t tell you what it’s like not being able to look in on my estates or catch up with old friends in the City. But the tax system here is dreadful. It leaves me no choice but to spend a lot of time in my other homes around the world.

Q: What kind of changes to the tax regime might entice you back to these shores?

R: Funny you should say that. I was just talking to young Osborne the other day about it. Basically, the scale of tax rates should be reversed. So the more you earn, the lower % you pay.

Q: You mean anything above, for example, £150,000 should be taxed at a lower rate than 20%?

R: No, no, at each higher threshold, the tax rate for your entire income should be reduced. I would say that once you’ve reached an annual income of, say, £1 million, you shouldn’t pay any tax at all.

Q: You’re serious about this?

R: Don’t you see, it would be a splendid incentive for people to earn more money for themselves. And people on low income paying high taxes would only have themselves to blame. Osborne loved the idea, wished he had thought of it himself, but poor chap, hasn’t quite got it up there.

Q: Wouldn’t that impoverish the state? Who would pay for our public services?

R: Well, that’s where Britain is showing some signs of improvement. You let brilliant entrepreneurs like us keep our money, the state has to cut back on everything, and before you know it, 90% or more of the population will be without proper healthcare, job security, not even basic fire or policing service. They would be completely dependent on the charity of the rich. Then finally they would learn to respect us, defer to our better judgement, and learn to do as they’re told.

Q: You think charity will be sufficient to help all the sick and feed those going hungry?

R: That’s not the point of charity. Charity is about feelings. For the riffraff, it’s that desperate feeling in hoping that some kind soul might rescue you. For us benefactors, it is a noble feeling in sensing that we can do something for these wretched people.

Q: But don’t you think more people would suffer when we displace public support by private charity?

R: ‘Suffer’ is a relative term. The real problem is that people don’t appreciate they have it so good. They should learn to complain a little less, and be thankful for what we let them have a little more.

Q: And what are you letting them have once you stop paying your taxes altogether?

R: Charity, my dear fellow, gifts freely given. Talking of which I must be off - got to go to an event in some inner London borough where there are lots of poor people. My office elves are coming along with me to give out the best present they will ever have.

Q: Blankets, food parcels, a job with one of your companies?

R: Better than all those combined – they will each get a signed copy of my autobiography, Who’s Afraid of Father Christmas? A wonderful book about how I’ve always managed to persuade the regulators not to fret about my business activities. It really is quite an unbelievable story.

[For observations between QTP posts, go to my Twitter account (@HenryBTam) and click ‘Follow’.
For our interview with ‘Father Christmas’ last year, see: http://henry-tam.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/santa-city-xmas-special.html]

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Tune into UN 194: the Sound of a Beautiful Resistance

Last month the UN voted overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as the world’s 194th state. By an apt coincidence it was UN Resolution 194 (passed in 1948) that recognized the rights of Palestinian people to return to their homes after they were forcibly removed to make way for what would then be converted into the state of Israel. But 64 years on, they have not been allowed to return.

Many Israelis empathise with the plight of the Palestinians. They understand all too well what it means for a people to be told at gunpoint to leave their homes, and transported to camps to which they would be confined to their dying days. But their voices are blocked out by others who are oblivious to the cruel irony of telling Palestinians to put up with being permanently expelled from where they had lived all their lives.

In the face of such intransigence, what can Palestinian people do? What the media focus on is invariably where anger, frustration, resentment have reached boiling point and erupted in violence. Such violence then fuels stories about Palestinian threats and attacks on Israelis, serving as the backdrop for Israel’s military operations. For example, between 2000 and 2012, the media reported over 1,000 Israelis killed by Palestinians (during that time, 6,600+ Palestinians were killed by Israelis; see:
http://www.ifamericansknew.org/stats/deaths.html)

Tragically, the taking of innocent lives can only lead to a spiral of bloodshed. It is therefore all the more remarkable to find in this seemingly hopeless situation a path to what has been fittingly called acts of ‘Beautiful Resistance’. In 1998 Dr. Abdelfattah Abusrour set up the Alrowwad Cultural & Theatre Society (http://www.alrowwad.org/) to give young people in the Palestinian Aida Camp a chance to express themselves through the non-violent channels of art and drama.

Young people are not told to ignore the injustice that daily confronts them. Instead, they are guided to reflect on and show their feelings through a variety of aesthetic activities: dancing, taking photographs, and acting in plays. Neither they nor the outside world should forget what has happened to them, but there is no need for guns or explosives to remind people of what had gone wrong. In place of the counter-productive outbursts of violence, which would only beget more injuries and deaths, political energy is poured into a potent form of resistance.

You probably won’t hear about it in the mainstream media, but in March 2013, Alrowwad will be celebrating their 15th anniversary. They have kept going with the help of volunteers and donations. And they need help to carry their work forward.

This Christmas when ‘Bethlehem’ is whispered along with a gentle soundtrack, think not just of one child being born away from home, but of thousands – born, growing up, stranded in camps remote from the homes of their parents and grandparents.

To find out how you can support the Beautiful Resistance, go to:
Friends of Al-Rowwad (US): http://alrowwadusa.org/home;
Friends of Alrowwad (UK): http://www.friendsofalrowwad.co.uk/donate.html; or
Société des amis d’Alrowwad (France): http://www.amis-alrowwad.org.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dreaming of a Dark Christmas

As Christmas approaches, the contrast between luxurious display and bleak poverty intensifies ever more.

Could things be otherwise? At this time of year, there is no shortage of dramatic imagination to show up possible alternative endings to human misery. In one or another version of ‘A Christmas Carol’, you will see that if only selfish people like Ebeneezer Scrooge became kind and generous, all would be well. And if you tune in to the inevitable screening of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, you will find that George Bailey should just keep faith in the goodness of other folks, who would inevitably come to the rescue of the less fortunate.

Are these the best stories we can tell? What about the systemic inequality that concentrates power in a small elite, enabling them to exploit the rest, leaving those at the bottom of the pile crushed and humiliated? Why can’t we draw on tales that will show up the real causes of suffering in society, and what changes are actually necessary beyond the fluff of feel-good movies?

This Christmas please help spread the word about a dark fable that is has been acclaimed as “an unmissable page-turner” (President, the Independent Publishers Guild); “original, engaging … [with an ending that is] astonishing” (Fantasy Book Review); and “a tour de force … full of plot surprises and layers of deeper meaning” (Director of Education, WEA). Kuan’s Wonderland is a novel that takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of suspense and surreal adventure, and at the same time paints a vivid picture of what lies beneath the unjust and callous treatment of the vulnerable in society.

Kuan’s Wonderland has been selected for inclusion by the Equality Trust (see their review: http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/node/696) in an Equality Education Project it will be taking forward in 2013. I am working with the Trust to produce learning resources to aid discussion amongst readers and teachers about its ideas, allusions and relevance to contemporary politics.

The novel can currently be downloaded as an e-book from Amazon for just £0.77 (but there will be no charge at all during the limited period of 7-11 December). If you do not have a Kindle, you can get a free app from Amazon to enable you to download the book to your iPad, laptop, desktop, or just about any type of computer device.

If you’re in the UK, go to:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kuans-Wonderland-ebook/dp/B008144G9I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1336413074&sr=8-1

If you’re in the US, go to:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008144G9I

[Feedback from readers would be of great help to me in developing the learning resources for schools. If you would like to be involved or find out more about this equality education project, you can contact Henry Tam, Cambridge University at: hbt21@cam.ac.uk]

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Biggest Co-op of All

Human association takes many forms. At one end of the spectrum we have organisations firmly under the control of a leadership unaccountable to those they give orders to. At the opposite end there are loose networks where individuals act as they see fit without any collectively binding command structure. And in the middle we have the cooperative model that enables all concerned to have democratic control – with each having an equal vote, and all bound by the outcome of their shared deliberations, in steering their joint endeavours.

The evidence from participatory learning in schools, cooperative business performance, community development, citizen engagement in public service, and restorative conflict resolution, consistently points to the positive impact derived from organisational forms and practices that empower those involved to solve problems cooperatively as partners. The solidarity built from equal respect and mutual support is an unrivalled force in sustaining morale and driving improvements. (For a more detailed exposition, see ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: what it means in theory and practice’, available for free download from Cambridge University: http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/academicgroups/equality/forumyouthparticipation/CoopPSpaperHBT121101.pdf )

So why is it that in every sphere of human association, democratic cooperation remains a minority undertaking? If we remember that the establishment of any structure for cooperation on equal terms requires the redistribution of power, the answer becomes clear. The idea that the government of any country should be democratically controlled by all members of that country, was fiercely resisted for centuries. People who have grown accustomed to exercising unaccountable power over others tend to be reluctant to concede to cooperative forms of power sharing. The resistance from rulers of states has been echoed just about everywhere else – especially amongst businesses.

And while for much of the 20th century, particularly the middle third of it, governments in the UK and the US moved the state in a much more democratic and cooperative direction, plutocratic opposition has been resurgent for the past three decades. Now the UK government routinely deploys the rhetoric of community involvement to mask its plan for dismantling what is potentially the biggest and most powerful cooperative organisation, our democratic state. A lot of what we previously owned has already been asset-stripped, with only liabilities left for us. Large corporations run away with rich pickings, and we lose out without any kind of public recourse.

What we need from those in government is sustained help to make more organisations, including the state itself, become more, rather than less, cooperative in the way they engage with their workers and the public they serve. The last thing we want is the breaking up of the public sector (in which all citizens have an equal stake) to hand over to private interests shielded from the vast majority of citizens. That would just be a flagrant act of demutualisation.

Other related posts:

‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’: http://henry-tam.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/cooperative-problem-solving-key-to.html

‘The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving’: http://henry-tam.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/case-for-cooperative-problem-solving.html

Monday, 19 November 2012

A Bomb for an Eye

Imagine a group of superpowers (USA, China, Russia, and the European Union [without the withdrawn UK]) agreeing amongst themselves that the Celtic tribes wrongly pushed out of their ancestral homes in England centuries ago by waves of Anglo-Saxons, should now return.

The Celts would take control of all English territories, while the native English who have settled there for over a thousand years would be rounded up and sent to a series of camps in the Midlands and a narrow strip of land by the North Sea. Some of the English managed to escape to the continent or America, but soon no one wants to take any more English refugees, who begin to see no prospect but indefinite confinement.

Many amongst the English plea with the outside world to end the injustice inflicted on them. Whatever wrongs were previously done to the Celtic people, they argue, could not be made right by depriving the English of their land here and now. But no one would listen, and soon some militant extremists decide to vent their anger by seeking to hurt the Celts. They throw stones at them. From time to time, they hurl explosives at them.

But every time a single Celt is killed, the Celtic army which now occupies England does not just hit back at the terrorists responsible, it sends in tanks and fires missiles to blast ‘targets’, killing scores of civilians, many children included, who have had nothing to do with attacks on the Celts.

The group of superpowers declare that both the Celts and the English should seek to work things out peacefully, though in the meantime the Celts are entitled to defend themselves against any threat.

Let us be thankful that the animosity between Celts and English that caused so much bloodshed centuries ago has not resulted in the mad scenario depicted above. But the madness of bombing innocent families in retaliation for terrorist killing is all too real in our world today.

Of course, any terrorist attack which maims or kills is to be condemned. Just as any forcible removal of a people from their homes to indefinite confinement is to be condemned. Above all, the massacre of defenceless people, wherever it may take place, must be condemned. In Libya and Syria, the ruling regimes’ ruthless use of force in killing civilians in retaliation against the violence of insurgents was widely condemned, backed by international focus on how to prevent any more slaughtering of civilians. There is no reason why the same should not apply across the Middle East.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Crude, the Mad & the Ugly

Progressives everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief now that President Obama has secured a second term. But the vicious onslaught from anti-progressive forces will soon enough commence again. Rather than deluding ourselves with wishful thinking that our antagonists are now in complete disarray, it is time to take stock and prepare for what may happen next.

Ever since the progressive drive for democracy and equality began in 18th century England, America, and France, the anti-progressive camp has not ceased to attack every attempt at reform as a terminal threat against all that is good and sacred. Furiously denouncing ‘Levellers’, ‘democrats’, ‘Jacobins’, ‘atheists’, ‘commies’, ‘socialists’, they want to conserve the golden status quo that gives them a privileged position overlooking the downtrodden. But their motivation is not always the same. There are three virulent strains with quite distinct characteristics, and we need to understand them if we are to contain them.

First, there is the Crude strain, which is manifested by a basic desire not to lose one’s considerable disadvantages to those less fortunate. For example, someone with extremely wealthy parents or rampant money-making skills don’t want any government to tell them what to do, least of all to share more of what they lay claim to with others.

Secondly, the Mad strain is filled with a rabid hatred of anyone who dares to challenge the established order of the world. Harking back to the pre-18th century Church-backed hierarchical system that privileged the white, heterosexual male ranked in order of wealth, it is contemptuous of feminism, race equality, secularism, inclusive sexuality, and any form of multicultural outlook.

Thirdly, the Ugly strain is to be found amongst those who feed off a sense of dominance, of amassing vastly more power over others. Through money, military superiority, and market manipulation, they aim to maintain a total hegemony over others who must do their bidding.

What most observers have said following Romney’s defeat is that, in essence, the Republican Party has allowed itself to be taken over by the Mad strain. If the Republicans get rid of its anti-progressive stance on social issues, they would no longer alienate Hispanics, African-Americans, gay people, women etc so much, and could take on the Democrats again. Interestingly, Cameron’s mission in the UK has been to shift public perception of the Conservatives as the Nasty Party by distancing them from the Mad strain. And criticisms of Cameron from within his own party are notably directed at him being for too soft on their traditional objections of derision – e.g., diversity, aid for people in foreign countries, gay marriage.

What progressives must beware is that while any curtailing of the Mad strain is to be welcome, anti-progressive offensive can still be highly damaging if the Ugly strain remains active. To polarize society between a respected clique of white heterosexual males and an excluded zone of ‘others’ is obnoxious, but it is also repugnant to split a country into a wealthy elite who can shape organizations, laws, and media coverage to suit themselves, and a majority whose lives can be ruined at a stroke by corporate irresponsibility and savage cuts to public protection.

Mad haters of scapegoats are easy to spot, but Ugly plutocrats manipulate the legal and political system to maximize their gains while staying out of the limelight. For example, billions of pounds will be leached out of the NHS into the hands of private profiteers as a result of Cameron’s anti-progressive legislation. But there has been little effective mobilization against this and other similar moves because the nauseating transfers of resources from the many to the wealthy few are masked by a calm corporate exterior.

Progressives can always negotiate with the Crude hoarders of privileges. With them, it is a matter of time and degree of moving towards a fairer society. One Nation Tories and moderate Republicans are prepared to share what they and their friends have got hold of, just not too quickly, not too – from their perspective – drastically. But we can work with them in a spirit of bipartisanship, so to speak. With the Mad, it is difficult to have a dialogue. With the Ugly, they would smile and talk with you even as they do everything in their power to turn society into even more of a pyramid. They would have no problem welcoming blacks, Latinos, women, gays into their elite boardroom, so long as the vast majority of citizens and workers have to bow down to their commands.

Anti-progressives are rarely complacent. They are constantly reviewing their strategies. And should they ease off on their Mad strain, that is when you must look out more than ever for the Ugly tricks they have up their sleeve.

[Follow Henry B Tam’s updates on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HenryBTam]

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Message to America

Picture an American President seeking re-election. He inherited a devastated economy and a demoralised society left to him by the previous regime. He has made a start to repairing the damages, to rebuilding the nation. But he needs more time. Meanwhile, his enemies line up to crush him. His supporters waver. What is he to do? 76 years ago today, as he approached what pundits predicted would be a tightly contested election coming at the end of his first term of office, President Franklin D Roosevelt, gave this message to the people of America:

“We have not come this far without a struggle and I assure you we cannot go further without a struggle.

[For] years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. … Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master. …

Here and now I want to make myself clear about those who disparage their fellow citizens on the relief rolls. They say that those on relief are not merely jobless – that they are worthless. Their solution for the relief problem is to end relief – to purge the rolls by starvation. To use the language of the stock broker, our needy unemployed would be cared for when, as, and if some fairy godmother should happen on the scene.

You and I will continue to refuse to accept that estimate of our unemployed fellow Americans. Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.”
Amen to that.

[FDR’s message is as relevant today as when it was delivered on 31 Oct 1936, for anyone, anywhere, combating those forces of organized money who indulge the rich and disparage the poor. He went on to triumph in the 1936 elections by winning forty-six states to his opponent’s two. For the full text of the speech, go to: http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3307]

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Powerful Can’t Hide (by Ann Walker)

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.

The wrongdoing of the powerful always seems beyond the reach of moral challenge – until the people stepping forward to condemn it tip the balance in favour of justice. The UK is now witnessing the Savile moment, with influential people taking turns to excuse themselves for seeming to tolerate Jimmy Savile’s decades of abusing vulnerable people. Many more will be squirming as more questions are being asked.

The avalanche of revelations causes all sorts of reactions but perhaps we can find some hope in this and other current news.

No one responded sympathetically to solitary girls’ reports of Savile’s predatory behaviour. Some girls were even punished for speaking out. Eventually though, their stories were pieced together and we’ve seen the rapid destruction of Savile’s reputation along with his pretentious headstone. Examining his behaviour is shining a spotlight onto a number of celebrities as well as some of the institutions that are central to the British establishment. These include the BBC, the NHS and the police.

We can set this story alongside the vindication of bereaved Hillsborough families who have fought tenaciously for decades to reveal the truth. In sport, Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace after years of bullying and cheating. Now there are investigations into public allegations that ex-officers from the armed services may have broken rules to lobby ministers over the procurement of military equipment.
All this reminds us that influential people can be held to account. Citizens who have been resolute in questioning the powerful are seeing the results of their collective campaigning.

Causes can sometimes seem lost or hopeless but when people join forces to question the powerful, we can root out corruption and do something to rebalance the inequality of influence that has let people abuse their positions in all sorts of ways. It would be naïve to suggest that there’s been a major shift in power structures in recent weeks, but there is undeniable progress.

Tackling inequality of influence is a massive task, but we should draw on the inspiration of what people can achieve when they keep up the pressure for justice and change. Adopting a cooperative problem-solving approach is very timely.

[Ann Walker is Director of Education, WEA]

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society

[On 12-13 September 2012, a group of academics, students, and leading figures from the cooperative and community sectors met at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, to discuss why and how cooperative problem-solving should be more widely understood and utilised. We agreed to issue the following position statement, to provide a basis for collaboration between educators, civic activists, and policy makers.]

1. There is a growing awareness that many problems in society cannot be adequately dealt with by relying on a few to make collectively binding decisions without involving others, leaving poorly resourced individuals to tackle them on their own, or asking people to vote on options without any informed deliberation.

2. Evidence built up over decades from cooperative management, participatory engagement, and restorative practices have shown that better outcomes (e.g., business success, community safety, environmental enhancement, education attainment, social cohesion) can be secured when the people affected are enabled to cooperate together on equal and reciprocal terms to decide how to solve the problems they face.

3. The increasing acknowledgement of the value of ‘cooperative’, ‘mutual’, ‘co-productive’ approaches, however, is not always backed by sufficient appreciation of what the essential elements of cooperative problem-solving really are, or what it takes to implement them effectively. Therefore, decision makers, irrespective of the sectors in which they operate, should ensure that any verbal embrace of cooperative working is matched by a genuine commitment to apply cooperative problem-solving without leaving out any of the following four key features:

4. First, all those affected by the problem in question and any proposed solution should have the opportunity, with the help of a facilitator, to express their concerns. Under conditions of openness and equal respect, everyone who has a relevant point to make should be given a hearing, and no one who is abusive or seeking to dominate discussions should be allowed to disrupt proceedings.

5. Secondly, those involved should be enabled to hear from and question witnesses, experts, and anyone else currently assigned a specific responsibility to deal with the problem under discussion. This is to ensure relevant consideration is given to what possible solutions there might be, the pros and cons of going along with them, and what constraints there might be to taking any other courses of action.

6. Thirdly, participants should be encouraged to contribute any suggestion of their own, discuss with each other how conflicting positions can be resolved, and explore the implications of mutual concessions and support, before giving their backing to a set of collectively ranked priority actions.

7. Finally, responsibilities and resource implications are to be agreed for taking forward the prioritised actions and for reporting back on their impact in practice. The feedback will then form the basis of a review of the effectiveness of the action plan, and inform whether further changes need to be considered.

8. It is not easy to incorporate all four elements that have just been outlined. Efforts are required to ensure marginalised voices are not ignored. Attention is needed to identify, and if necessary train up, facilitators who can be both firm and empathetic. Tension and conflict have to be sensitively resolved, not suppressed, to bring about consensus. Where large numbers are involved, representative selection or proportionate election may have to be used to obtain groups wherein meaningful deliberations can take place. Above all, power differences have to be managed so that no participant can have an unfair advantage over others in securing support for their preferred position.

9. Whatever the difficulties, the costs of overcoming them are likely to be outweighed by the benefits, because the solutions produced are shaped by people’s needs, unlikely to require expensive corrections, serve the common good rather than the interests of just a few, and are more sustainable because people take ownership of them.

10. To share the lessons on how the approach outlined above can help us deal more effectively with diverse social, economic and environmental challenges, we are committed to promoting learning and research in the development and application of cooperative problem-solving.

[This statement is supported by representatives of the British Youth Council; Community Development Foundation; Community Matters; Co-operative College; Co-operatives UK; Equality Trust; Locality; National Children’s Bureau; National Council for Voluntary Youth Services; Speaker's Corner Trust; Student Voice; Take Part; UK Youth Parliament; Workers Educational Association; Young Advisors; along with academics from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education; London University’s Institute of Education, Goldsmith’s College, & Royal Holloway College; University of Lincoln; the Royal Docks Community School; Rutger University’s Graduate School of Education (USA); and Waikato University’s Faculty of Education (New Zealand)]

Follow Henry B Tam’s updates on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HenryBTam

Monday, 1 October 2012

Who are the Wealth Creators?

People who create wealth in the sense of beneficial resources rarely refer to themselves as ‘Wealth Creators’, let alone pontificate about how uniquely important they are. They teach, they provide care, they protect the vulnerable, they grow food, they make what people need, but they don’t pretend they are superior or merit special attention from society.

By contrast, self-styled ‘Wealth Creators’ strut around and tut-tut incessantly about how they are held back by too much constraint. Liberate them from regulatory red tape, let them keep more of the money they make – so their argument goes – and they would create even more wealth. But supposing that is to happen, the question remains: would it be a good thing?

For these Creators, ‘wealth’ is simply money they are able to appropriate for themselves out of any deals they put together. On this amoral definition of wealth (which underpins the dubious measures of GDP and shares index), owners of factories exploiting child labour working under hideous conditions; bosses who intimidate their workers into handing over to them the vast majority of the proceeds they generate together; executives who make a fortune by peddling harmful and addictive substance; business leaders whose stocks rise with the growing sale of weapons of swift destruction; or corporate chiefs helping to accelerate planetary degradation – they are all successful Wealth Creators.

Hang on a minute, cry the Wealth Creators and their plutocratic chorus in governments everywhere, it is unfair to lump them together with shameless exploiters of slave labour, drug pushers and irresponsible polluters. But what exactly is the distinction we are meant to keep in mind?

The distinction, apparently, is that what they do is LEGAL. But what is legal or not depends on what is set out in law. What one Wealth Creator gets away with while another is held back comes down to statutory controls. And here we reach the crux of why the so-called Wealth Creators want the law off their back.

‘Deregulation’ means they would be left to do as they please. ‘Tax flexibility’ means they are given endless scope to avoid paying their share to support the public good in return for what they have taken out of society. In short, they want to pursue any ends, by any means, regardless of the consequences for other people, and without anyone being able to seek redress through the democratic state.

Next time you hear so-called Wealth Creators muttering in the shadows that they should be left alone, turn the spotlight in their direction. Draped in naked greed, these shameless petty emperors should be seen for what they are.

[Follow Henry B Tam’s updates on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HenryBTam]

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Help Us Question the Powerful

Question the Powerful’ has for the past six years been putting the spotlight on ideas and practices which undermine the equality of citizens. Those who through their wealth and status seek to expand their power at the expense of others should be subject to sustained democratic challenges.

So if you would like to get involved with questioning the powerful, have a think about doing one or more of the following:
First, spread the word by letting others know about ‘Question the Powerful’, encourage them to bookmark the page, or post a link to this site.
Secondly, send us information on important issues other concerned citizens should hear about.
Last but not least, you can submit draft contributions directly. If the draft is broadly ready for inclusion, it would be printed with your name in the byline (anonymity can be agreed under special circumstances, but transparency is our default position).

If you are considering writing an article for ‘Question the Powerful’, please bear in mind these specifications:
• The topic should be of broad concern relating to how political power is or is not being exercised to help the public, and protect them from neglect or unjust treatment by powerful interests.
• Keep it to between 200-400 words (don’t exceed 500)
• Give URL references for any link to source information or further details that would be of interest to the reader (but not exceeding five if possible)
• Once submitted, all contributions may be edited and posted on ‘Question the Powerful’, while each contributor will retain your respective copyright to publish your article elsewhere with an acknowledgement that it was first featured on ‘Question the Powerful’.

[To find out more, email Henry Tam: hbt21@cam.ac.uk]

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Unsure about the Start Our Children Get?

To prevent our lives from being blighted by crime, we need an organised police force, not just in the poorest areas of the country, but everywhere. We need them to be properly funded and well motivated. And if a particular force is not as effective as it should be, far from getting rid of the police service altogether, we want to see actions taken to improve the force in question.

A similar observation can be made about the need to prevent our children’s lives from being blighted by problems in their early years. Even those who defend ever widening wealth gaps are reluctant to come out openly against giving children an equal chance at the beginning of their lives. But every effort to move us closer to a common starting point, such as the Sure Start scheme introduced in Britain in the late 1990s, is beset by moves to reverse it.

The principles behind Sure Start are well established. Parents who have ready access to friendly support, expert advice, and a network of caring parents can give their children a more reliable foundation for their mental and physical development. Problems and potential can be spotted early, assistance is readily sought and provided, and the needs of each child are viewed as a whole and not in separate compartments. In practice, some Sure Start children’s centres are more effective than others. The key is to ensure they learn from the best and not lose precious resources to sustain their work.

Unfortunately what we have is a relentless cut in resources since 2010 while the tax rates for the richest are reduced. To deflect attention from this, we hear calls to limit children’s centres to just the “most deprived” areas, and drastically reduce their admin costs. While wasteful costs, be they in admin or any function, should be eliminated, admin is not something that can be simply discarded without consequence. Staff responsible for liaising with parents, organising activities, supervising maintenance, learning from service performance, all do a vital job. Getting rid of them means care and advice providers have to cover admin duties, and service quality suffer.

The argument about shrinking the reach of children’s centres relies on the superficial attraction of concentrating dwindling resources in the “most deprived” areas. But it is flawed in two respects. First, to save money, the “most deprived” will be defined in such narrow terms that many parents and children who need this service would be denied it. Secondly, as a consequence of turning the service into one for the extremely poor, the majority of people would see it as irrelevant to their own needs, becoming indifferent to it being further cut in the future.

We would not want police forces to be retained for just the “most deprived” areas, or to have schools or NHS provisions available for only the extremely poor. Neither should we confine the support provided by children’s centres to just a few stigmatised areas of “greatest need”.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Political OCD: is there a cure?

In politics, those afflicted with Obsessive Cuts Disorder cannot distinguish between what should be cut back and what should be increased at different times to ensure society as a whole can thrive. All they think about is repetitively cutting taxes for the wealthy minority and cutting public support which would hurt the not-so-well-off majority.

Political OCD tends to affect the extreme right side of the brain. The most common symptom is blindness to evidence, often accompanied by a crushing anxiety that can only be eased through intensive draining of resources from the poor to the rich. If it is not swiftly dealt with, it will lead to severe depression. One of the best known examples concerns a succession of political OCD American Presidents who through the 1920s and early 1930s choked demand so excessively that it brought on what is clinically termed the Great Depression. The masses were deprived of a decent income to spend on anything much, while the rich either hoarded their money or blew it away on speculative bubbles. It rapidly pushed the entire world to the brink of collapse.

On that occasion, it was the careful injection of public investment into the economy, such as the New Deal in the US and the Welfare State policy in the UK, which eventually restored the health of those countries. Unfortunately, individuals prone to political OCD often succumb to prolonged memory loss.

In 2010 when the irresponsible actions of the under-regulated banking sector had left us in the most unenviable state, politicians were split as to what should be done. Those who remembered the past, like the then Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, suggested a phased approach to spending cuts, backed by higher taxes for the richest to help fund public investment to stimulate the economy. Under those policies, the British economy began to grow again. But Conservatives like George Osborne, gripped by Obsessive Cuts Disorder, insisted there must be rapid and radical cuts to public spending, while the tax rate for the richest 1% must also be cut as well.

More than 60 of the most eminent economists (Nobel Laureates amongst them) backed the more balanced approach favoured by Darling (see The Financial Times, 10 February 2010: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9fe18c22-1cdc-11df-8d8e-00144feab49a.html#axzz24f6ZLKLe) Osborne ignored them on the basis that he could find 20 other economists who would support his approach, and having won the 2010 elections, embarked on his relentless cuts. But over two years later, growth has completely vanished in what is now a shrinking economy, and of those 20 economists Osborne claimed to be on his side, just 3 still stand by their original assessment (The Telegraph, 19 August 2012: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/9486536/Chancellor-George-Osborne-must-tax-and-go-for-growth.html)

So will Osborne change course and adopt a more measured approach? Cut taxes like VAT to help the majority, but not cut elite taxes which only help the wealthiest? Cut waste by all means, but invest in public services that will boost confidence and demand? The signs are not good. And distressingly, despite all the problems caused by his Obsessive Cuts Disorder, some Tory backbenchers actually want to see Osborne’s troubling condition get even more out of control. And over in America, the Romney and Ryan team appears to have learnt nothing from their own country’s history or Britain’s current experience, and promises an unmitigated outbreak of political OCD as the future for America.

Once they are in power, those with political OCD will remorselessly cut until there is nothing left but a tiny oasis of wealth in the middle of a desert of desolation and unemployment. Ultimately, the only cure is in the ballot box.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Targeting of ‘Troubled Families’

One way of explaining the UK Government’s policy on ‘troubled families’ is to ask people to think about the trouble extremely wealthy families must have – how to keep up their stratospheric status, manage their tax returns, stop relatives fighting over their inheritance. Conveniently, the Sunday Times Rich List identifies the 1,000 families most troubled by these problems.

Next think about the troubles caused by families responsible for crime and anti-social behaviour such as fiddling taxes on a massive scale, speculating with other people’s savings, or running businesses that harm the economy and the environment. These families protect their own and persist in their wrongdoing regardless of the consequences for the rest of society. Most of these families are likely to be rich, and since we do not have any reliable data on who they are exactly, we could just use the top 1,000 families on the Sunday Times Rich List as a proxy and target ‘interventions’ at them. The Government would dismiss such an approach as wrong-headed, mixing up the use of the term ‘troubled’. Yet this is what the Government has done with poor families.

They have used data relating to 120,000 families which were troubled by five or more of these conditions:
a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) family cannot afford some food/clothing items

There is nothing here about criminality. We don’t know if 50%, 25%, or 5% of these families have been more or less involved in any form of undesirable activities compared with the average population (whereas we at least know, for example, that 25% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List donate to the Conservative Party).

Yet the Government insists that they are concerned with these 120,000 ‘troubled families’ because, in the absence of any evidence apart from interviews with 16 selected families, it claims that their “children are not at school and family members are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.” And they will target them to make them more responsible.

Instead of targeting criminals, this approach fires blame indiscriminately at poor people. But should poor people complain if the Government is prepared to spend nearly £450 million to help those classified as ‘troubled families’? Apart from wondering what ‘help’ is forthcoming on the basis of being branded criminals, poor people’s abilities to hold their families together are severely undermined by the Government’s decision to place the greatest burden of public service cuts on the poorest in society. The tax credit changes alone would deprive working couples with children (earning less than £17,000 a year) £848 million a year: http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/apr/05/tax-credit-changes-bleak-friday-poor-families. Overall, the poorest 10% in the UK will by 2012-1013 lose 30% of their household income as a result of the Government’s policies (that is 15 times more than the richest 10% who would lose just 2%: http://falseeconomy.org.uk/cure/how-cuts-will-make-britain-more-unfair). In that sense, they really are in trouble.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Your Power, Your Government

Power is not evenly distributed in society. And history provides a constant reminder that those who manage to get away with amassing ever more power over others will have growing opportunities to take unfair advantage over the rest. Power struggles between individuals only perpetuate the structure of dominance.

The only way to break out of the cycle of arbitrary control by the powerful is where society invests its collective power into a government over which it exercises democratic control. Through their government, citizens can then ensure no individuals or groups can be so powerful as to harm others without being held to account by a public authority to which they must submit.

Unfortunately in practice, not all those who bid for political power will necessarily serve the common good. Some have an impressive command of rhetoric, matched only by their lack of competence in tackling real problems. Others are adept at deceiving the public when their goal is to exploit the reins of government to help themselves and their friends. But sweepingly curtailing the power of government would hamper those who have an effective plan to secure a just order for all, and unwittingly help private oppressors who can only be deterred by a robust state.

To live in freedom, we have to shoulder the responsibility for distinguishing between contenders for political office – between those who will maintain a balance of power that will enable all to interact without fear or inferiority; and those who will accentuate power differences by handing even more power and resources to the already strong to lord over their fellow citizens.

We need to expose self-defeating cynicism that dismisses all government activities, and increase public understanding of political words and deeds. If you would like to help ‘Question the Powerful’ by writing about political leaders and the impact of their actions, get in touch and we will send you a simple set of specifications for your contributions. Whatever country you live in, your government exists to exercise collective power on your behalf. The more is known if that power is actually used for the common good, the less likely would it be misused for private gains.

[If you want to get involved, email Henry Tam: hbt21@cam.ac.uk]

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Can the NHS Stay in the Race?

In the wake of the heartfelt celebration of the NHS at the Olympics opening ceremony in Britain, it is vital to remind everyone that the goal posts for the survival of our public health service have been moved to favour private competitors.

The UK Conservative-led coalition Government has been telling voters that although they had previously promised they would not subject the NHS to another costly top-down reorganisation, they had changed their mind because they had come to believe that the NHS was too inefficient in saving lives and it would only improve if the private sector was given a much bigger role in delivering health services as it does in the US.

However, voters may have serious doubts about the government pressing ahead with reforms estimated to cost between £1.3 billion and £2.5 billion (Dept of Health and Treasury’s estimates respectively) when they learn two key facts.

First, Professor Colin Pritchard, whose research has been praised by the government, has undertaken a study (with his colleague, Mark Wallace), ‘Comparing the USA, UK and 17 Western countries’ efficiency and effectiveness in reducing mortality’ (published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Short Reports). Out of the 19 countries examined, the UK with its NHS system came 2nd in terms of cost effectiveness in saving lives. The US with its heavy reliance on the private sector came 17th. The UK has in fact a much more efficient health service when it is far less dependent on the private sector like the US.

Secondly, the Government’s insistence that injecting a much greater dose of profit-motive into the NHS would have positive rather than negative effects becomes less convincing when the widespread suspicion that profit-seeking would undermine healthcare is being confirmed. In its report, ‘Private hospital told doctors to delay NHS work to boost profits’, The Independent newspaper [http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/private-hospital-told-doctors-to-delay-nhs-work-to-boost-profits-7962582.html 22 July 2012] revealed the practice by a private hospital of deliberately delaying operations it has been contracted to carry out for the NHS in order to nudge patients towards signing up for private healthcare which would give the hospital a bigger profit.

As the Government pushes ahead with steering NHS hospitals to do much more private work, the profit-motive would spread faster and wider, and hospital administrators would increasingly weigh money-making opportunities more and more against caring for patients who do not pay. The only prospect of halting this is for the Government to have a change of heart, or for the UK to have a change of government.

[For a report on the unlikelihood that the substantial reforms costs would lead to any long term savings, see: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/23e48198-e845-11e0-9fc7-00144feab49a.html#axzz21NdPGcFo; for a PDF version for Pritchard and Wallace’s study: http://shortreports.rsmjournals.com/content/2/7/60.full.pdf+html]

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Pyramid Hockey

Welcome to pyramid hockey. The rules are simple. One team permanently occupies the top of the pyramid and hits as many balls as they please down the sides. The other team based at the bottom half has to try to stop the balls hurtling down with nothing but a teaspoon. If just one ball reaches the ground, then all those below lose and have to do the bidding of the winners. If anyone on the lower reaches should exhibit the rare but otherwise useless skill of catching a ball with a teaspoon, carrying it up the slippery slope, and throwing it through a 2 square inch goal, then that individual, not their team, would be rewarded with being moved to the top.

You may wonder who apart from those granted a top position would agree to play such a game. Wouldn’t people refuse to accept these patently lopsided arrangements? The odds are stacked against them, and however hard they try, the great majority of them would remain humiliated losers.

But the organisers of pyramid hockey have a few tricks up their sleeve. They tell the losers that the whole pyramid would collapse and crush them if they do not abide by the rules of the game. They impress on those low down that they should always defer to the winners who deserve all their advantages. And they encourage the lowly occupiers to play a mini-version of the game where they can easily defeat the even more marginalised groups stranded at the very bottom, who would then be at their mercy.

If the delusion takes hold, the majority of people will come to accept it as the only game in town. Many of them will form a deep attachment to it as ‘their’ tradition. They find it odd, if not irritating, that some people should question the basis of the game. Some may even become immensely hateful towards anyone who dares to try to replace pyramid hockey with some fairer sport where, on a level-playing field, the winner does not take it all.

Judging by the vitriolic attacks on the efforts of progressive reformists everywhere, the spirit of pyramid hockey is alive and well across the world (not least in the US in the run-up to the Presidential Elections). For people fearful of not having a mighty elite in whose reflected glory they bask on bended knees, and even more in dread of being denied victims below them to tread on, there could be nothing worse than the prospect of being deprived of their favourite game. Yet for their own sake, not to mention those who have already seen the outrageous rules for what they are, it is time for it to end.

Let us remind them that in every sphere of life, today and throughout history, allowing anyone to get away with having too much power – as military, political or business tyrants – is bound to end up with arbitrary commands subjugating everyone else to their whims. The only remedy is to share power out more evenly, democratically, cooperatively.

With wiser rules, we can produce more sustainable outcomes, and share the fruits of our labour in line with criteria everyone has signed up to. A better future awaits all, except for the few who want to hang on to their winnings in the unapologetically nasty game of pyramid hockey.

[Follow Henry B Tam’s updates on Twitter]

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Democracy's Debt to Young People

We’ve heard plenty about the nation’s financial debt (which in the UK the richest 5% can pay off by parting with just 5% of their wealth). What we never hear about is the democratic debt we owe young people.

Each new generation is told the story of the Second World War – how authoritarian oppression was defeated to make it safe for democracy to thrive. No more subjugation of the weak and vulnerable by anyone possessing such power that their commands were irresistible. All citizens would be equal. All would have the opportunity to work and earn a decent living. Where businesses fail to deliver, the democratic state would provide a safety net. Dignity is guaranteed for everyone, from cradle to grave.

The implication is that in far off countries where there is no democracy, people might have to resort to uprising and revolution to secure an equal say in how their life-chances are determined. But in an established democracy like the UK or the US, the young should be grateful for what has been put in place for them – a democratic system under which each counts for one and no more.

But has the promise of democracy been fulfilled? In the post-war period, there was for a time a sense of collective endeavour. A guarantee of the basic wellbeing of all was a universal badge of civilization, not a target of vilification by the ‘I’m alright Jack’ brigade. The needs of woefully neglected groups – women, gay, ethnic minorities, the disabled, etc – were addressed in the name of equal respect, not derided as a fringe obsession. But as plutocratic forces regrouped, power was once more concentrated in a tiny elite.

From the late 1970s on, the wealthiest 5% set about buying and exercising more influence over who would be elected to government; what laws would be passed or repealed; how an ever greater share of society’s resources would flow to them; how urgently required environmental actions would be held back to protect their profits; and how public services would be handed to profit-seeking bodies subservient to the priorities of those with the most money.

Democracy, far from becoming an integral part of our society, has been pushed further away from the reach of citizens. Most young people have no say about the key decisions affecting them in schools or universities. If they were fortunate enough to get a job, unless it is with a worker cooperative or partnership, they would have to go along with whatever their employer chooses. Their local government continues to lose power to large commercial interests (through privatisation and deregulation). At the level of national government, corporate wealth ensures candidates supportive of their agenda are more often elected than those who are opposed. And when the rich won’t pay their taxes, their friends in government respond with plans to scrap housing benefits for the under-25.

Plutocratic politicians never tire of telling young people they must be ‘work ready’ and eager to serve business goals. But if we are ever to have a true democracy, young people must be given what is owed them: the power and responsibility to have an equal say about decisions that affect them – one citizen, one vote, at school, the workplace and every level of society, with no distortion by wealth or status.

[Follow Henry B Tam’s updates on Twitter]

Friday, 15 June 2012

What kind of people are we?

[Having been repeatedly told that we must re-examine our cultural identity, perhaps it is time we put forward a few questions to help ascertain what kind of people we really are.]

Do we gaze upon the rich and mighty, and rejoice that all is splendid and well?
Or do we see the weak and deprived, and decry injustice gross and obscene?

Do we bow down to people with money, happy for them to buy control wherever they go?
Or do we insist all citizens are equal, livid that so few have a real say over how their workplace and country are run?

Do we crave to cut the benefits of the sick and the poor, suspecting most claimants of fraud?
Or do we want to tackle above all the wealthy tax dodgers, knowing they cheat us out of billions more than anyone else?

Do we blame immigrants for taking low pay jobs others reject, and for diluting our traditions?
Or do we object to people not being paid a living wage, and welcome immigrants for enriching our culture?

Do we seek to dismantle public services so the corporate elite can make more money at the expense of others?
Or do we aim to build collective provisions so that none would end up at the mercy of the affluent few?

Some say we need to define who we are as a people,
Some say we should just be free to have fun.
Some say one religion should characterize us all,
Some say to each their own worship of god, moon or sun.
Some say ideological differences should matter,
Some say ‘Right/Left’ are mere labels to be spun.
But when at last we’ve had enough of navel-gazing,
When all has been proverbially said and done,
We are either creatures who stand aloof from the common good, or
A people who stand in solidarity as one.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Kuan's Wonderland: a political fable

Can popular fiction engage parts of the citizenry that dense political arguments have not been able to reach? In Kuan’s Wonderland, a mirror is held up to the absurdities that dwell behind the façade of 21st century civilization, with the help of “a fantasy universe unlike any that has come before” (President, the Independent Publishers Guild).

The novel opens with a ten-year old boy being captured and sent to the strange realm of Shiyan, where no one is what they appear to be. Threatened with torture, Kuan is told to reveal a secret he does not even know he possesses.

At birth he had been taken away from China by his father to live in a remote part of the world. Oddly, every now and then he would show signs of intelligence far beyond his years, but to his father’s immense disappointment, most of the time he behaved simply like an ordinary child. But life could not go on as before once he was snatched from his home. As he waits in vain to be rescued, he begins to wonder if he will have to make his own way back if he is ever to reunite with his father.

As Kuan struggles to flee Shiyan, he has to make sense of the many ambivalent characters who may help or hinder him. He discovers that the agent who interrogated him has a dark secret of his own. He desperately wants to trust the red-haired doctor working for his captors even though he knows nothing about her. He is brought before the enigmatic Chairman, the most powerful figure in Shiyan, whose intentions towards him remain uncertain. And there is the mysterious being called Amo, also caught up in Shiyan against her will, but capable of leading them both to safety if she manages to keep herself alive for long enough.

Like a set of Chinese Boxes, as more plot-twists are unpacked, more are revealed within Kuan’s Wonderland. Through the disturbing experiences he endures with Blessing, Elephantium, the Purgoratory, and the dreaded Potokans, Kuan edges ever closer to a confrontation with the real enemy in Shiyan. Finally, he realises what he must do, even if it means facing up to the secret about his father that has been kept from him all those years.

The dark fable concludes its journey as the soothing illusions of the prevailing world order fall away, revealing the grotesque treatment of the vulnerable perpetrated in the name of peace and prosperity.

It leaves us with a choice: find escapist comfort and pretend that all is well; or escape from unjust acts by rallying opposition to end them.

[Kuan’s Wonderland, by Henry Tam, is available from Amazon.co.uk; or Amazon.com.
Customer reviews can be found at: Kuan’s Wonderland (Reviews)
The Kindle edition can be downloaded to any device including PC, Mac, iPad, Android, provided it has received a free Kindle reading app. The Amazon page for the book will indicate how to obtain the app.]

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Friends, Romans, lend me your Euros

No one should forget that the fragility of the Euro is a symptom of the real financial crisis facing us, namely the global crisis of mismanaged lending.

This crisis is, in turn, not a one-off, but part of a repetitive economic disequilibrium that breaks out whenever the plutocratic model of monetary distribution predominates without being effectively held back by regulation.

How does this plutocratic model work? Its ruling assumption is that money is to be lent to the rich on soft terms to help them get richer, but lent to the poor on stringent terms to keep them poor. Indeed the vast majority of corporate banking institutions following this model leave those with the most desperate needs with nowhere to go but resort to unscrupulous loan sharks. In general, any sign of failure to pay back will trigger off harsh interventions – poor individuals would have to lose everything, and poor countries would have to savagely cut their basic provisions for health, education and social security.

The approach towards lending to the rich is just the reverse. Lending often takes the form of investment, so that failure to produce returns would be written off as a loss-making transaction. The richer you are the more you are begged to borrow huge sums to fuel speculations which undermine economic stability. And any inability to pay back would be treated with deference in direct proportion to the quantity in question. Rich executives are rarely thrown into abject destitution by unsympathetic banks, and rich nations such as the US could for decades pile up debts, which in the case of poor nations would have long ago led to stern castigation.

The net result is that the rich are readily lent money to make even more money, while the poor are told to make up for their falling standards of living (despite their increased productivity) by borrowing more regardless. And when the rich have squandered their borrowed sums on failed gambles, and the poor’s real earnings are cut back so much they cannot keep up their debt payment, the alarm bells are raised and the stick comes crashing down on those with the least.

This model of lending led to the 1930s’ Great Depression. When the lessons from that crisis were forgotten, and the necessary regulations were later swept away by the rising tide of Thatcher-Reagan politics, it opened the floodgate to irresponsible lending which has brought us another wave of economic woes.

There is of course an alternative. The cooperative model of lending replaces exploitative divisions by the pooling of resources for the common good. We can all learn from cooperative finance institutions, mutual societies and credit unions. Money borrowed for high risk speculative gains should be subject to tighter terms that would protect against undesirable consequences for vulnerable members. Global financial deals should be taxed to provide ballast for economic stability. Financial support for the poor should be treated as investment, maintained to boost their ability to build up their own wealth, and written-off where necessary when circumstances beyond their control rob them of their ability to pay. The rich should be held to the same intensity of credit control that has been directed at the poor, while all borrowers should be treated with equal respect.

When applied consistently to individuals and countries, economic wellbeing as well as social justice, will be more readily restored than the disastrous prescription of “laissez-faire-for-the-rich, but austerity-for-the-poor.”

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving

When faced with problems we cannot effectively tackle on our own, one might think it obvious that we should join forces in aid of each other. Yet throughout history, many of those in a powerful position have sought to stop others from coming together to steer collective action for the common good. Opposed to any possible diminution of their own power, they do not want others to gain strength from organising themselves into a cohesive unit. So they denigrate democratic collaboration as cumbersome and unreliable, and insist that important decisions should be divided between those best made by the few at the hierarchical apex on behalf of everyone, and those that ought to be left to people to resolve individually.

In practice this means that where universal compliance (in a country or a corporation) is required to achieve what the powerful elite want, collectively binding decisions tend to be taken by the few; and where the outcomes are inconsequential to them, laissez faire is preferred and individuals are left to their own devices. For example, in politics, plutocratic interests frequently use government institutions under their influence to obtain policy decisions to help the wealthy minority; while maintaining that decisions to support the poor and vulnerable should be left to individual conscience and private charities. Similarly in business, many top executives, concerned with their own status and remuneration, take decisions that the rest of their firm have to accept though few others would have any say about them; yet at the same time they are ready to dismiss matters relating to the wellbeing of lower paid members of their organisation as something extraneous to their core enterprise.

If this false and pernicious dichotomy continues to take hold, then the many problems we urgently need to address (e.g., environmental degradation, economic turbulence, exploitation of the weak, neglect of the poor, neighbourhood to global conflicts, criminal disorder, spread of drug-resistant disease) would worsen in the absence of concerted efforts to find equitable solutions for all, while the collectively binding decisions that are taken are routinely designed to serve the narrow interests of the powerful minority at the expense of everyone else.

Against this background, it is vital for civic educators everywhere to make it their priority to increase citizens’ understanding of cooperative problem-solving – a tried and tested form of democratic collective action which is economically, politically, and above all, morally, more conducive to the common good than the calculated mix of top-down diktats and selective free-for-alls promoted by the plutocratic elite.

Cooperative problem-solving is exemplified in the development and operation of worker cooperatives, and inclusive organisations such as the John Lewis Partnership and the Semco Group; in a variety of democratic community engagement arrangements like Planning for Real and Participatory Budgeting, which empower citizens to make informed decisions on shaping priorities for public action; and in reconciliation processes from community mediation to restorative justice, which enable even those divided by conflicts and resentment to find common grounds to resolve their differences.

There are three key features common to these examples. First, they recognise that the reliability of any claims cannot be determined by any infallible individual but has to be checked with a community of enquirers. Secondly, they embody true reciprocity in according every participant equal respect, and none can expect to receive concessions from others without making contributions considered commensurable by others. Thirdly, decisions are reached by the direct engagement of all concerned or through procedures that are accepted by all. Together they make it possible for people from diverse backgrounds to deliberate openly and reach consensus under procedures they have signed up to so that their combined efforts can secure better outcomes than they could have otherwise attained.

Far from relying on or imposing uniformity, cooperative problem-solving is premised on the need to find ways for people with contrasting views and outlooks to learn to collaborate. Instead of positing a doctrine that all must accept, it facilitates the finding of common ground to build relationship for the future, even amongst those divided by mistrust. And the outcomes may range from the same minimum guarantee for everyone to varied rewards for different levels of contribution, once such differentials are judged by all concerned to be meritorious and fair. The same applies to penalties for violations of the agreed rules.

Rejecting attempts by the powerful to limit the terms of collective action to what would promote their sectional interests, cooperative problem-solving is pragmatic in its insistence that the extent and method of cooperation is to be determined by people learning from their experience of cooperating with each other. It draws its inspiration not from a single exclusive faith or fundamentalist ideology, but from diverse sources such as the cooperative and communitarian tradition from Robert Owen to R H Tawney; philosophers like JS Mill, John Dewey, Paulo Freire and Jurgen Habermas; and many community development advocates, including Jane Addams, Mary Parker Follett, and Saul Alinsky.

The challenge for civic educators is to present cooperative problem-solving as a generic approach which can be adapted for different social and economic problems, and applied more widely and consistently in producing sustainable solutions. For all the praise given to John Lewis and cooperative enterprises, their business model is still denied to the vast majority of workers. For all the positive impact made through participatory democratic practices, citizens still rarely get the opportunity to truly engage with or shape public policies. For all the success achieved by restorative mediation, the prevailing assumption still rules out cooperative resolution of differences as impossibly idealistic.

In making the case for cooperative problem-solving, we should set out its ethical values of reciprocity which are universally respected; how better outcomes for all are secured using the appropriate techniques in the right context; and why conditions of unequal power must be radically reduced to give genuine cooperation a chance to flourish. And the case should be made at every level of human association, from schools and universities, workplace and community organisations, to national and global politics.

Relevant previous posts for reference:
‘Much Ado About Cooperating’
‘Cooperative and Communitarian: a common heritage’
‘Can Democracy be Saved?’


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Where Next for Criminal Justice?

There is no criminal justice if society fails to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, between vicious crimes and petty offences, or between remorseless perpetrators and those who deeply repent their transgressions. To deploy force and punishment indiscriminately would not strengthen public safety. Ultimately, citizens need protection not just from those who seek to break the law, but also from those who act in the name of enforcing the law.

Unfortunately, with sensationalist crime reporting and politicians’ obsession with appearing to be ‘tough on crime’, misguided emotions all too often trump reliable analysis when criminal policies are argued over. The anguish of every high profile victim of crime is swiftly turned into another launch pad for a ‘robust’ response irrespective of the likely impact of the hastily formulated proposals.

Against this backdrop, a much needed antidote has arrived in the form of Where Next for Criminal Justice?, a new book by David Faulkner and Ros Burnett, (Bristol, Polity Press: 2012. http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781847428912). If anyone wants to have any serious credibility in putting forward solutions to criminal justice problems, a firm grasp of the facts and ideas set out in this book would be indispensable.

Faulkner and Burnett have drawn on substantial practical experience and academic research to produce a clear and cogent reminder of what the real issues are. They do not dispute that some can whip up public anxiety, not to mention outrage, to back all kinds of intervention. All they ask is for those who claim to want to cut crime to engage with the facts. For example, evidence tell us that changes to sentencing policy actually have a very limited impact on reducing crime; an increase of 15% in prison population might at best reduce crime by 1%; a 10% increase in number of police officers might reduce crime by 3%; and restorative approaches are not only generally welcome by victims, but have been found to reduce re-offending by nearly 14%. Furthermore, studies have confirmed that re-offending rates for those engaged in rehabilitative treatment compare favourably against corresponding measures for control groups.

When the government is daily insisting public expenditure must be more drastically cut, it is imperative that policy makers weigh intervention options in terms of their real impact and cost effectiveness. Prevention through education and social support so that people are not left to the margins of society with little self-esteem or too much pent-up anger is far more efficient than piling far more resources on crime fighting down the road.

At the same time, criminals who slip through current preventative measures need to be dealt with. Apart from the incorrigible minority who would not desist from causing harm to others – and who must therefore be detained for as long as necessary to protect others – the majority of offenders are likely to respond most to having someone who believes in their capacity for improvement and who acts accordingly to help them acquire better self-control and develop their life skills. Whether in prison or in the community, rehabilitative work should be guided by what evidence has uncovered as efficacious.

Reading this book, I was struck by the fact that since the resurgence of widening inequalities in the UK from the 1980s on, “new criminal offences have been created at the astonishing rate of about 150 a year for almost 20 years.” In these decades, the UK overtook Turkey in putting a higher percentage of its population in prison. Growing socio-economic disparity in our country has bred distrust and tension. The hysterical response of criminalising more activities, spreading the net of suspicion, disparaging rehabilitation, and accelerating the rate of incarceration, has only left many people still fretful of living in unsafe communities.

It is time for politicians, policy commentators, and criminal justice agents, to take a serious look at what the evidence tells us, and rethink what should really be done.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Free Speech Conundrum

Is there an absolute freedom to say whatever one wishes to say? And can it never be curtailed except when it is exercised to interrupt someone else who is already speaking? If so, it would follow that whoever manages to open his mouth first would be able to carry on speaking, with the knowledge that anyone interrupting him would be judged to be in the wrong and subject to punishment.

That would appear to be the rationale when a most venerated university in the UK informed a research student that he would be suspended for over two years for reading out a poem when a politician was speaking. But surely no one can expect to say whatever they want, for however long they want, regardless of what they are actually saying.

Of course the great John Locke declared that “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every particular man’s goods and person.” He illustrated his case by pointing out that while he would disagree with a Roman Catholic who claimed that a piece of bread was the body of Christ, he would be against any attempt to forbid him preaching or professing his belief, because it “does no injury thereby to his neighbour”.

Unfortunately, Locke’s distinction gets into difficulties when what is professed and preached contradicts what others may consider harmful. What if someone wants to tell his gullible congregation to embrace as holy water what we understand to be concentrated sulphuric acid? Or a person tells his young children that jumping off a tall building will guarantee their passage to heaven and eternal happiness? An orator who informs his listeners that anyone who fails to obstruct mix-race or same-sex relationships in their neighbourhood would burn in hell for allowing sins to spread?

Should all such people be allowed to speak without interruption? What if they manage to convince their listeners to act on the harmful falsehoods they propagate? Ultimately we cannot get away from the burden of verity. We have a responsibility to differentiate truth claims along a spectrum of justifiable beliefs – from those which unless strong contrary evidence can be clearly and consistently adduced have to be accepted as indisputable, through claims which on balance should be granted on current evidence, claims which are understandably contested without any clear-cut conclusion, to those which no one in a reasonable state of mind can be expected to embrace.

If we refuse to recognise that the legitimacy of speech has to be linked to an objective assessment of the truth of its contents, especially relating to what might protect or injure others, then tragically anything goes. Indeed it is this refusal that has led to public policies which enable parents with dubious views to bring their children up to harbour vicious hatred of other races, to consider the murder of one’s religious enemies as a passport to heaven, or to reject life-saving blood transfusion on the grounds that it is against the will of God.

A similar tendency in politics has paved the way for deception and distortion to spread in the name of the freedom of speech: denial of historical records of grotesque treatment of ethnic minorities, rejection of scientific proof of climate change being accelerated by human activities, pretence that the continued redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich is not harming the poor, or insistence that the prospect of unprecedented debt would not make many young people without rich parents think twice before pursuing higher education.

Peddlers of harmful lies, whether dressed up as religiously sincere or politically committed, should be rigorously opposed. Don’t let them hide behind the sanctity of ‘free speech’. Who are we to judge? As a society we are called upon to judge all the time – what is harmful, what is not? We may judge wrongly at times, but when we do, we know we can rely on others to challenge us. We then have to respond by examining the reasonableness of their case. What is patently unreasonable is to declare that any attempt to obstruct someone speaking in any forum must be wrong and severely punished. Sometimes an act of defiance deserves praise.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

I’m Super-Rich, Get Me into the White House

The super-rich, deeply anxious that another term for Obama might hinder their exploitation of the other 99%, are determined to win back control of the White House. We have obtained a copy of their five-point guide for all Republican candidates to follow in the race for the Presidency:

No.1: Let the Rich Pay Less – Make the Rest Pay More

Promise you will cut taxes on capital gains and corporate income, and insist this will lift the burden on everyone when in fact it would only benefit the wealthy. Deny such tax cuts would make the public budget deficit even worse, because you will more than compensate for the loss of revenue by slashing welfare support by billions of dollars. Remember to look sincerely into the camera when you say that it’s best for the poor to learn to take care of themselves.

No.2: Free Movement for the Rich – Tight Controls for the Rest
While the rich and their money must continue to go wherever they want, loudly proclaim that poor people will not be allowed to sneak into our country. Remind everyone that it’s not the American Way to let people from abroad build a new home here. Serving illegal immigrants up as scapegoats is the one promise you will make to our indigenous poor. Come up with whatever device you wish (electrified fence, drone planes, genetically modified dogs) to keep (poor) foreigners out.

No.3: Keep the Rich Healthy – Forget about the Rest
Dismantle Obama’s reforms, as they might broaden access to quality healthcare for people who are far from rich. Tell the voters that unlike socialist Europe, it is not the business of the American government to be concerned with whether poor and sick people live or die. If they haven’t got a job that gets them health insurance, they have only themselves to blame.

No.4: Preach a Pro-Mammon but Anti-Gay Gospel
Ignore what Jesus said about how unlikely the rich would enter the kingdom of heaven, do nothing about the irresponsible predilections of deregulated banks, but focus on the spiritual importance of opposing gay marriage and banning abortion. Drape yourself with an American flag at all times lest you sound too much like an Islamic fundamentalist (see No.5 below).

No.5: Play the Middle East Card

As the Bin Laden card has been neutralised by Obama, pick another Middle Eastern villain. Syria is killing its own citizens, so don’t make that your priority. Go for Iran, because it is utterly unacceptable for any country to have nuclear weapons in the Middle East (except for Israel). Scaring people about the Middle East deflects attention from how we treat the poor at home, and helps our rich friends in the arms industry sell billions more dollars worth of deadly weapons over there.

[Note: All the Republican candidates have closely followed this five-point guide, with the exception of Ron Paul who doesn’t buy the anti-Iran stance of No.5, and of the remaining four candidates still in the race, he’s the only one who hasn’t won a single state in the Republican contest so far.]

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Much Ado About Cooperating

Amidst the angst and lament about social fragmentation, it is curious that the most tried and tested path of democratic cooperation should so often be overlooked for bringing people together to cultivate and pursue common goals.

Instead we get siren calls to submit to some arbitrary authority so as to end clashes and divisions. We’re told that all would be well if only people were made to abide by the exclusive demands of one privileged religion, comply with the views of some self-righteous moral minority, or accept the agenda set by the dominant economic elite.

If such prescriptions are destined to ferment resentment and stir up even greater resistance, the alternative favoured by seasoned relativists, claiming the differences that divide us are inherently irreconcilable, is no help either. For them, since there is no ‘universal truth’ to bridge the gap between opposing sides, we’ll just have to, so to speak, let fighting dogs vie.

But there is no need to accept imposed conformity or anarchic disintegration, provided we learn how to make room for democratic cooperation. By all historical and experimental accounts, cooperative working based on equal respect and shared deliberation has been highly effective in, not only enhancing the wellbeing of those who are willing to join forces, but resolving disagreement between those have not hitherto seen eye to eye.

The real reason why the cooperative ethos is held back from being more widely adopted is because too many people are unaware of its efficacy. This is compounded by prejudices, misinformation generated by those who seek to divide and exploit, and insufficient knowledge of how to engender productive cooperation.

To overcome such obstacles, we need a three-prong response. First, there must be a sustained and comprehensive rebuttal of the claim that we are all irrevocably divided by fundamental faiths and beliefs. The truth is that apart from a very few who have extreme psychopathic tendencies to totally disregard the needs of others, we share a common adherence to the golden rule of reciprocity, which runs through all historical religions and moral traditions. Cooperative mediation, grounded on the recognition that we ought to treat others as we wish others treat us, has helped people with contrasting backgrounds resolve their conflicts and work together.

Secondly, knowledge of the techniques and benefits of cooperative working should be disseminated much more than they are at present. In business management, conflict resolution, community-led regeneration, citizen-centred public policy development, case examples and practical guidance should be actively promoted so there is greater appreciation of why and how democratic cooperation should be adopted.

Thirdly, the damages inflicted by power inequalities, preventing cooperation on reciprocal terms, must be exposed and halted. The dangers of allowing some to amass much greater power in terms of wealth, status, or authority, over others should be systematically publicised to aid their removal. This applies to government institutions, and even more so to transnational corporate bodies that can coerce workers, suppliers, and timid politicians to go along with exploitative arrangements, which would never be tolerated if everyone affected has an equal say about them.

A campaign to clear away the obstacles to democratic cooperation should pave the way for further work to extend the cooperative mode of association to all spheres of life: to schools, community groups, public services, businesses and international relations. If we want to minimise destructive antagonism and build a sustainable solidarity, we need to ensure pupils and teachers, residents and activists, citizens and their representatives, workers and business leaders, nations and global organisations, learn to relate to each other under more equitable distribution of power and embrace democratic decision-making for their common good.

This is a demanding task. But there is no other alternative to being endlessly besieged by polarising demands and bitter confrontations, locally, nationally or worldwide. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. The WEA, the cooperative movement, the trade unions, mediation and reconciliation advocates, champions of citizen action such as the Community Development Foundation, Take Part and Involve, have all been advancing the case for greater cooperative working. With their support, there is the real prospect that one day democratic cooperation will become the norm everywhere.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Department for Wealth

It has been announced that a single Department for Wealth will be set up to replace both the Department for Work and Pensions (which has increasingly shrunk what it is supposed to promote) and the Department of Health (which will soon be privatised and run by a conglomerate of tobacco, alcohol and fatty food businesses).

At a press conference today, a Government spokesperson explained that the new department would provide a much needed focus on helping real wealth creators to make a profit out of any situation. For example, businessmen who run casinos, sell sugary snacks as well as slimming diets, or charge more with the help of confusing tariffs, will be praised and given incentives to generate even more wealth. But people who are paid for their hard work by the state are to be dismissed as a drain on the national resource. So nurses who save lives, teachers who raise aspiration, social workers who protect the vulnerable, so long as their work fails to make a profit out of those in need and is financed by the public budget, will all be classified as ‘unaffordable’.

When asked if payment from the state would automatically rule one out as a ‘wealth creator’, it was pointed out that the Government would draw a sharp distinction between those who merely earn a publicly financed wage (firefighters, care givers, benefit administrators, ambulance drivers, etc) and are thus NOT wealth creators, and those who concoct a massive profit out of state funded contracts (makers of land mines and missiles, expensive pharmaceutical drugs, or suppliers of overcharged IT services to public bodies), who would be celebrated (and most probably knighted) as wealth creators.

The Government wanted to stress that although historically many wealth creation activities have been hampered by unhelpful regulation, especially in those cases where they were branded illegal, the new Department for Wealth would be dedicated to sweeping away both social prejudices and statutory red tape.

Its first task would be to remove all hindrance to currently legal wealth creating activities by inviting true wealth creators to name any tax, inspection or regulatory intrusion that they would want to see removed. Removal would then swiftly follow unless anyone objecting could prove beyond reasonable doubt that the alternative would lead to harm substantially greater in monetary terms than the potentially higher profit to be made.

Secondly, it would review the many wealth creation activities that are at the moment stigmatized by the label of criminality. The dealing in narcotic drugs, the trafficking of weapons and people, the extortion of money from intimidation, etc all generate considerable wealth for their perpetrators and their employees. The Department for Wealth would take a fresh look at their role in a wealth-focused plan for national renewal, and ensure they are all presumed innocent unless evidence can be amassed to establish they should not be given the sacred economic freedom to pursue greater profit.

Republican strategists in America are apparently taking a keen interest in this development in the UK as some of them are considering putting forward, in the next Presidential elections, a proposal to replace the entire Federal Government by a single State Department for Wealth. It will underpin their campaign slogan: “We help those who help themselves … to other people’s money.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Welcome to the Premier League of Education

Having heard the latest league table results on schools’ ‘performance’, one leading pundit (known to some as the ‘Schools Minister’ in the game) said the results revealed a “shocking waste of talent”. He was flabbergasted that so many disadvantaged children, in care or on free school meals, were failing to get good passes compared with the better-off kids. He thundered that mediocre schools must not be allowed to “coast”.

But what are the heads of schools at the lower end of the league supposed to do to turn things around? According to one report, ‘How to succeed in the Premier League of Education’, recommended by many seasoned right wingers, there are three options to break clear of the relegation zone and start rising to the top.

First, the most effective way of cutting out failures is, apparently, cut out the failures by not admitting them to your school in the first place. By hook or by crook, get some form of selection in, and keep children mired in debilitating socio-economic conditions out at all costs.

Secondly, in some areas, even a crypto-selection process might not get you very far, because the quality of life is just too depressing all round. It’s a fact that schools which can count on a ready supply of well-off mums and dads win more A* trophies than their competitors. Heads must therefore learn to take all the blame themselves if they don’t move away from areas where the children come from poor families; where many of their parents have lost their jobs as a result of stringent cuts made by the government; and where their home life is further wrecked by rapidly diminishing welfare support.

Thirdly, since ultimately the Premier League is all about the wealthy winning (would City – in Manchester or London – win anything without having managed to grab a larger share of money than anyone else?), for those schools which are stuck in deprived areas, give them a chance of enjoying an injection of concentrated wealth. For the lucky few who are able to attract private money (from a kindly philanthropist, a born again creationist, a Russian oligarch, or an Arab sheik), they can rebrand and rebuild themselves, while others would lose more public funding – thus giving the minority even more of an advantage in beating the rest.

In the unforgiving Premier League of Education, the few who know how to get their hands on other people’s money will flourish, while the rest will struggle to keep afloat, with the constant threat of being relegated to the bottom of the heap and stigmitised as failures. That is no more than a reflection of the plutocratic society promoted by this Government of Millionaires, for Millionaires, by Millionaires (23 out of the 29 Cabinet members are millionaires).

At the end of the day, it’s not even a game of two halves, but a game of a tiny elite kicking the living daylight out of everyone else. Despite the huge disadvantages they are lumbered with, and all the problems exacerbated by government cuts, countless Heads, teachers, pupils and parents give their best in securing real improvements beyond the comprehension of ignorant pundits. Of course they cannot by themselves overturn the social and economic injustice foisted on their communities, but for what they have managed to achieve against all odds, they deserve our praise and admiration.