Saturday, 15 July 2017

Isn’t Profit a Tax on Workers?

The people of a country generate its Gross Domestic Product with the support of the nation’s infrastructure, judicial protection and public services, and a part of the overall revenue is channelled to fund the maintenance and development of the state’s capability to discharge its duties to the people. That is taxation.

The people in a company generate its turnover with the support of those in charge of the company putting in place effective systems and investment, and a part of the returns is diverted to cover what those who own/run the corporation believe are necessary to keep them doing what they do. It is their profit from the enterprise – it is in essence also a form of taxation.

Taxing people to pay for important support that would not otherwise be forthcoming – be it a deduction for the work of the government, or one for the input of corporate chiefs – makes sense, so long as the deductions are set at an optimal level.

Obviously if the people in charge are taking too much from those with whom they are meant to be working as a team, misspending the money on ill-conceived projects, or keeping large amounts for their own gratification with scant regard for those they have taken the money from, then the arrangements need to be challenged.

In the case of a country’s government, the closer we get to a democratic system of accountability, the more likely citizens can scrutinise how much is being taxed and choose through electoral contests the tax/spend options that make the most sense to them.

In the case of companies and those who control them, despite parallel arguments having been made about democratising corporate governance, most workers have no say at all how much of the revenue they generate together is taken away as profit. And if the amount taken away satisfies those with power, but leaves the company in question less viable or the workers more insecure, not much can be done under an autocratic regime.

It is ironic (though hardly surprising) then that the plutocratic elite complain incessantly about being taxed by a democratic government that citizens can freely play a part in electing, scrutinising, and removing; while at the same time they tax the workers of organisations they preside over without any form of democratic input from those workers to ensure that the proportion taken out as profit is fair and good for the business’s own future.

Of course, there’s the familiar retort that workers can move to another firm if they’re not happy with too much money taken away from them as profit for those in charge, whereas citizens cannot escape from their country and its taxes. In reality, economic conditions make all the difference. Workers, with unions’ negotiation powers curtailed and social security slashed, have little choice but stick with companies that treat them with scant regard. Wealthy citizens, by contrast, can set up a few homes abroad or hide their money off-shore, and avoid paying taxes.

But the plutocrats will no doubt point out, it’s their company, they can take out what they want as their profit, and they can’t see why anyone else should have a say about it. Just as the autocratic rulers of old used to say, it’s their country, they can take whatever they want, and they laugh at the thought that anyone else should have a say about it.

Let’s see how long the reign of corporate dictatorship lasts.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

From Russia with Brexit & Trump

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the threat of a military attack from Russia was diminished. Many in the West were nonetheless concerned with two aspects of the successor regime. The democratic critics believed that, despite its move to multi-party elections, Russia still retained many illiberal traits in how it treated dissidents, the media, opposition leaders, and neighbouring countries such as Ukraine. The plutocratic detractors, by contrast, were mostly worried about the extent to which Russia might continue to get in the way of big businesses from the West making money there because in place of anti-capitalists, they were now facing oligarchs who also wanted to make money by all means necessary for themselves.

Putin had a choice. He could fight on both fronts, or he could flip one set of opponents and get them to inflict damage on the other. Given his illiberal nature, it is hardly surprising that he chose to woo the plutocratic-minded. It did not take him long to work out that those who would be most susceptible to his overture would be those with three core characteristics: (1) illiberal with little respect for human rights; (2) wanted money for their own ambitions; and (3) enthusiastic about promoting a brand of ‘nationalism’ that targets immigrants, refugees and Muslims, but not antagonistic towards Russia.

As to the specific individuals he would get on side, that was determined by the thorns he wanted to remove: first and foremost, the US-EU alliance that was on his back about his support of Syria, invasion of Ukraine, oppressive treatment of dissidents, and cyber intrusion against the West. To achieve that, a systemic weakening of the EU, coupled with the rampant destabilising of the US would be the priority.

Against this backdrop, moves were swiftly made on the geopolitical chessboard. People who could seriously damage the EU by promoting its disintegration and a candidate who would threaten the democratic foundation of the US if elected President (i.e., Farage, Le Pen, Trump), all came out in unison to say how reasonable Putin was, why they could all do business with him, and no one should criticise his foreign or domestic policies [Note 1].

In return, they were all helped, by one means or another, to pursue what they (and Putin) wanted. Investigators will in time tell us more about the widely suspected Russian interference in aiding the Brexit vote [Note 2], and helping Trump win the US Presidency [Note 3]. In the case of Le Pen, the chaos engendered by Brexit ironically persuaded the overwhelming majority of people in France to back the pro-EU Macron, irrespective of what Putin could do to help the Front National [Note 4].

The question is not what favour Farage or Trump would do for Putin, but how the destabilisation they have caused has already played to Russia’s advantage. The EU has to divert attention to negotiate with the UK over Brexit. A united front to challenge Russia’s oppressive stance at home and abroad is less likely with Trump’s unilateralism and the UK unsure what position it should take with its imminent departure from the EU. The US, instead of having a consistent, critical stance against the illiberal and corrupt practices of Russia, has itself come under an administration that is proudly illiberal and increasingly sued for corruption [Note 5].

The game-changing moves coming up? Special Prosecutor Mueller’s investigation, and UK’s Brexit negotiation. Either Trump continues to wreak havoc and UK goes into self-destructive ‘no deal’ mode, to Putin’s delight; or the Russian links are fully exposed, the UK reaches a sensible agreement with the EU, and Putin’s advance would at last be checked.

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Note 1: On Trump’s, Farage’s, and Le Pen’s admiration for Putin, see: http://www.france24.com/en/20161115-why-west-right-wing-admires-putin-le-pen-farage-trump

Note 2: On Brexit and Russian interference, see: http://uk.businessinsider.com/labour-mp-ben-bradshaw-suspicious-russian-interference-brexit-2017-2?r=US&IR=T

Note 3: On Trump and Russian money, see: http://uk.businessinsider.com/trump-russia-probe-follow-the-money-mueller-2017-6?r=US&IR=T

Note 4: On Le Pen and Putin: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/24/putin-welcomes-le-pen-to-moscow-with-a-nudge-and-a-wink

Note 5: On Trump’s use of the Presidency for his own financial gains, see: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/14/trump-ushering-kleptocracy-why-being-sued

Sunday, 11 June 2017

National Alliance for Brexit

If Theresa May persists with an exclusive deal with the DUP and continues to keep other party leaders in the dark about her approach to Brexit, then she has clearly learnt nothing from her failed attempt to win a large majority in Parliament. She has been rightly criticised for making vital strategic and tactical decisions within a small, closed circle. The result is there for all to see. She shuts out others who are then unable to point out her errors, and when things go wrong, she is left floundering and isolated.

And when it comes to Brexit, it is not just about the ramifications for one political party, but the serious effects on the whole country. Brexit is inextricably linked with British people’s concerns with getting jobs with decent pay, ending austerity, and having a fair and sustainable economy. If the Brexit plans adopted actually make things worse on all these critical issues, they would spell disaster for the country. To get it right, a different approach is urgently needed.

Why

It is time political leaders accept that the Brexit challenge calls for a national alliance. Just as leaders from different parties came together to steer the UK through the First and Second World Wars, a cross-party approach for Brexit is essential. May, flanked by a DUP supporter, waving a document that is supposed to give us ‘Brexit for our time’ will not do.

At this juncture, we need a shared strategy to deal with the challenges posed by Brexit. The 2017 election results tell us that the people are not willing to give the mandate to any single party to reach an agreement with the EU.

What

The National Alliance for Brexit should comprise the Prime Minister (Conservative), Leader of the Opposition (Labour), and the Commons leaders for the SNP, Liberal Democrats, DUP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, plus the First Minister of Scotland (SNP), First Minister of Wales (Labour), and (given power sharing) both the First Minister (DUP) and Deputy First Minister (Sinn Fein) of Northern Ireland. When the group meets, both the Brexit and shadow Brexit Ministers should also be in attendance.

The emphasis will be on consensus building, and decisions will not be taken on a majority vote basis. If no agreement can be reached, the Prime Minister can decide if an issue is to be parked for a revisit later, or take the decision after others have expressed their views. Members of the alliance will meet to discuss what they should prioritise, what concessions may be considered, and what suggestions or reservations they may have about on-going tactics and long term strategies. They will decide on the frequency of their meetings and how the agenda for each meeting will be shaped. All discussions will be confidential to those present, and can only be shared with specific personnel on the unanimous agreement of the whole group.

How

The alliance can be convened through an invitation from the Prime Minister; or if the invitation is not forthcoming, the Leader of the Opposition can request the Prime Minister to initiate the process. Once it has been set up, the group should operate on a collaborative basis. The Prime Minister must not regard the others as merely being present to get updates and provide the appearance of unity. The others for their part must recognise that they are not there to put numerical pressure on the Prime Minister but to help inform discussions with wider perspectives, advise on pitfalls to avoid, and point out opportunities that may otherwise be missed.

In negotiation with the EU, the Prime Minister and the Brexit Minister, knowing where they stand with the other political leaders of the UK, will be able to speak confidently and authoritatively. With the UK Parliament, instead of adopting a ‘take it or leave it’ confrontational approach, they can assure MPs and members of the Lords that while they cannot share with them the evolving details, a consensus approach for the interests of the whole country, and not just a single party, is guiding how the deal is to be reached.

Once the Brexit deal is concluded with the EU, the alliance can ensure that, rather than being shocked by the revealed deal or getting bogged down by political point-scoring about what should have been done differently, all parties can rally behind the deal and work with the British people so that it can be implemented as effectively as possible for the sake of our United Kingdom.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Gambling with the UK’s Future

To lose one gamble may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness; but to lose three is surely utter incompetence.

In June 2016, the Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared that the best thing for UK’s prosperity and stability would be for the UK to remain in the European Union. He had a mandate to run the country and that was his considered judgement. But instead of running the country accordingly, he opted to tackle the party political threat from UKIP by arranging for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. He thought a victory would minimise future challenges to Conservative seats from UKIP candidates. By his own admission, he was convinced that withdrawing from the EU would be bad for the UK and cause serious uncertainty. But for the sake of securing party political advantage, he gambled with holding the referendum anyway, with no contingency plan, and he lost.

Cameron resigned, and was succeeded by Theresa May, who thought that the best way to endear herself to the ardently pro-Brexit xenophobic press would be to rush ahead by triggering Article 50. She had no plan for what agreement to seek or how to obtain it. But in March 2017, she went ahead anyway, knowing that once Article 50 was triggered, the UK would be out of the EU in two years’ time, and if no deal had been reached with the EU by then, the UK could be in serious trouble in terms of the negative impact on trade, security and scientific cooperation. The clock started ticking, uncertainty began to mount. May’s bet was that her pushing Article 50 would rally the country behind her as the trusted negotiator. As it was, it caused such alarm that more and more people became intensely concerned with her approach to Brexit.

So a year on from the EU referendum, Theresa May decided to double down and call a snap election. She had inherited a slim majority from Cameron, and thought she could win a landslide with the Conservatives far ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. Like Cameron, she did not for a moment think that the country’s stability should come before her party political gains. With an atrocious campaign, during which the self-styled tough talker refused to engage in public debates, May’s gamble fell flat. Instead of winning a much bigger majority, she ended up with no majority at all. Like an annual ritual, a Tory Prime Minister had once again sunk sterling and pushed the country into deep uncertainties and economic instability.

The Brexit process is still counting down. The country is more divided than ever as to what deal we should strike with the EU. But it is hard not to agree that the worst possible deal for Britons would be to leave our fate in the hands of clueless gamblers.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Rules-Freedom Symbiosis

For too long the rant against rules as barriers to ‘Freedom’ has gone unchallenged. Playing on people’s instinctive yearning to be free from restrictions, charlatans have manipulated public opinion and turned it against rule-setting in any arena that might have obstructed the pursuit of their own vested interests.

We hear of the ‘free’ market being held back by business legislation; the ‘freedom’ of the press being threatened by proposed regulation; or our country’s ‘liberty’ being constrained by rules imposed by the European Union.

But imagine a world without rules – people can cheat, rob, maim you and your family without any penalty. You have no safety, no prospect of building on anything because the unscrupulous can come along any time and wreck your life.

To be free to live a life without constant fear, we need rules to protect us. And to make sure those rules are appropriate, we need to be the ones in control of how those rules are set. Rules are not the enemy of freedom. The eradication of rules so the callous can trample on the rest, or the imposition of unfair rules that ignores our concerns, they are the nemesis of our liberty.

If we are to enable the Rules-Freedom symbiosis to flourish, we must be better aware of what kind of activities may affect us, what rules are necessary to safeguard our wellbeing from infringement by others, and above all, how we can have a reasonable say in the formulation and enforcement of those rules.

Activities by business organisations and other European countries are two major types of activity that can substantially impact on our lives. Even self-styled libertarians would concede that having no rules to govern these activities would open us up to deception, exploitation, and even enslavement by ruthless transgressors [Note 1]. Not surprisingly, there are rules put in place to deal with them. Unfortunately, many of these rules are being altered by plutocratic politicians doing the bidding of irresponsible corporations, or removed altogether at the expense of ordinary citizens. Worse still, those of us in the UK are being pulled out of the EU where cross-border rules are set. There will still be countless trade, scientific, and security activities that affect the UK and the rest of Europe alike, but the UK will no longer have any representation at the table where the rules governing these activities are drawn up.

Getting rid of rules, or giving up the opportunity to shape them, is not the way to secure freedom. Often such a move will only lead us to greater vulnerabilities, and we become much less free as a result of others not being constrained anymore from depleting our options in life. If we truly want to be free, we had better start engaging fully in the vital process of rule-setting at the national, European, and indeed global level.
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Note 1: Human trafficking and modern slavery are real problems that are still not sufficiently prioritised for government counter-action.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Left, Right, or Optimal?

Whenever a label causes more disagreement about what it is supposed to mean than helps to identify what is on offer, it is time to discard it.

‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have had a good run, but what do they really mean anymore?

Who seriously thinks that more nationalisation or privatisation is always a good thing regardless of circumstance? Is it more in line with the ‘Left’ to want to protect jobs in the nuclear or fossil fuel business, or to press for withdrawal from those sectors on environmental grounds? Won’t most people be concerned when they learn about vulnerable people suffering without help, or when they hear that the economy is faltering because businesses are hit by unfair competition and systemic instability?

Some on the ‘Right’ may still want to keep shrinking the state, but many are unhappy that the shrinking has gone too far, especially when it affects policing and military budgets as well. Meanwhile, few among those who champion freedom as the overriding value are at ease with being bombarded with demands to curtail the freedom of people on grounds of their race, religion, gender, or sexuality. Some feel that a nation should look to itself and ignore other countries’ conflicts, while others believe a strong country will always make its presence felt all over the world.

Instead of squeezing disparate outlooks into ill-defined boxes, would it not make more sense to see what people’s views are in response to, not one-sided presentations of an issue, but accounts of problems with the relevant facts?

For example, most people are inclined to agree that government should leave people to it if they are managing fine by themselves, but ought to step in when there are problems that will get a lot worse without state involvement. Few would object to the government using the necessary powers and resources to keep us safe from terrorism, crime, squalor, disease, and other forms of debilitating insecurity; provided there is democratic oversight and proper accountability. Hardly anyone believes that all must bow down to a single rigid code of worship and behaviour, and fewer still think that people can do whatever they want regardless of the harm they can cause to others.

Rather than arguing what ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ position should be, perhaps we should just focus on working out what the most optimal approach is to dealing with the problems we face. Why assume benefit payments must be higher or lower, when the question is how can people get a job with at least subsistent pay, and what safety net would actually be adequate? Why insist on harsher or more lenient punishment, when the issue is what sentence would be proportionate to the injustice caused, protect society, and improve future behaviour? Why press for an arbitrary level of immigration, when the numbers allowed in should relate to the needs of existing residents? And why assume state regulation must be good or bad, when what matters is whether the proposed regulation will help or hinder our safety and prosperity?

It can be difficult at times to let go of tribal colours or totemic symbols. But when it comes to the wellbeing of our society, we’ll all gain if we can push aside unhelpful labels, and concentrate on finding out what the most optimal solutions are likely to be.

Monday, 1 May 2017

To Share or Not To Share

How is wealth shared out amongst the people who have worked together to produce it?

According to a survey of the FTSE 100 companies, the average pay gap between top and bottom is 262:1. In one company, a major retailer, it is in the region of 656:1 [Note 1]. No wonder the wealthy few keep getting richer while others are left further behind. Oxfam has found that the richest eight people in the world now have as much money as the poorest 50% of the planet’s population. The gap is widening ever more between those who have to endure hardships every day and those who have a hard job working out what to do with their vast fortune.

But is this because there is no alternative? Actually, better options are in front of us if we care to look. Worker cooperatives enable those who work in them to share more fairly the responsibilities and rewards associated with their collective endeavours. Everyone has an equal vote in making the key decisions. In hard times, they all take reduced pay rather than jettison those who are the easiest to make redundant. In good times, everyone has a say in how to divide the growth in revenue. Worker cooperatives have been found to be more resilient and more productive than conventionally structured companies. There are lower absentee rates, fewer internal disputes, and higher job satisfaction [Note 2].

Social democratic governance is another way to bring about healthier economies and more stable societies. For example, the cumulative impact of the ‘let the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer’ policies of three successive Republican Presidents that led to the Great Depression, were rectified by the New Deal approach of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The vast debts and gloom of post-war Britain were overturned by the Attlee Government that established the National Health Service, provided the welfare state safety net, increased affordable housing for all, and boosted people’s purchasing power to sustain a social and economic equilibrium. Such policies were pushed aside by the New Right since its ascendency from the 1980s on, but they can be re-formulated to meet today’s needs, provided they are effectively explained to the electorate and we back them with our votes.

One last point to note is that as technological advancement is accelerating, there is no reason to stick with the fallacious assumption that the rich owners of such technology must inevitably take an even greater share while more people are made redundant and left with nothing. The truth is that technological achievements can be made as an endowment for everyone, not just a privileged few. This is not a fanciful wish but a way of life for many of our greatest innovators.

Alexander Fleming’s research led directly to the discovery of penicillin and the development of antibiotics. Norman Borlaug invented new crop breeding technology that would substantially increase food supply, which has been estimated to have helped save a billion lives around the world. Tim Berners Lee devised the ultimate global information sharing platform we know as the World Wide Web. None of these people extracted any profit out of their discovery or invention. Instead they allowed the world to share the immense benefits that have flowed from them.

Next time we hear someone saying that sharing is for impractical dreamers only, we can start by sharing with them the above facts [Note 3].

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[Note 1] A Third of a Per Cent (2011), report published by the One Society.
[Note 2] What do we really know about worker co-operatives? (2016) by V. Pérotin, published by Co-operatives UK.
[Note 3] For practical advice on converting to a worker co-op, contact:
Coop UK: https://www.uk.coop/the-hive/buyouts-and-conversions/employee-buyouts ;
FairShares Association: http://www.fairshares.coop/

Saturday, 15 April 2017

5 Simple Security Tests

Whenever political leaders come forward with vital actions that must be taken for the sake of “our security”, here are 5 simple tests to gauge if they are actually concerned about anyone’s safety:

[1] Does carrying out airstrikes against a foreign country make us safer when that country is neither attacking nor posing a direct threat to us?
If the argument is that we should bomb regimes that launch military attacks against their civilians, should we not rethink when our bombs end up killing their civilians too? And if the safety of those civilians is the real objective, why do people such as Trump order airstrikes which endanger them, but deny asylum for refugees seeking sanctuary from their own government’s deadly attacks? Furthermore, airstrikes are not only far more expensive than humanitarian support, they fuel radicalisation and thus weaken our security.

[2] Should refugees from the Middle East be kept away from the West because they pose a genuine terrorist threat? Are there not real threats to our lives that require much greater attention?
Based on mortality figures, population data, and records of terrorist incidents in the US, it has been estimated that the chance of being killed by a refugee terrorist in the US is 1 in 46,192,893. By comparison, one is 260 times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning; 129,000 times more likely to be fatally shot in a non-terrorist related gun assault; and 6,900,000 times more likely to die from cancer or heart disease [Note 1]. So does it make sense for the US government to spend around $500 million to save one life through its anti-terrorism programs, but only $10,000 to save one life through cancer research? [Note 2]

[3] Must a policy banning visits by foreign nationals be supported just because it is put forward in the name of ‘security’, or should it be held back if its design has little to do with security, and more with personal business interests?
The Trump Administration has tried and tried again to block entry for people travelling to the US from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, even though not a single terrorist attack on US soil since the 1970s has been committed by anyone from these countries. By contrast, 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 atrocities were from Saudi Arabia, with the rest from the UAE, Lebanon and Egypt, and none of these countries was included in Trump’s proposed ban – what they do have in common in addition to their terrorist connections is that, unlike the countries targeted by the ban, the Trump Organisation has business interests in them [Note 3].

[4] Should we allocate public funds in proportion to the degrees of life-threatening dangers we face, or spend large amounts on what can be most sensationally covered in the media?
We are told that Western governments are under pressure to cut public spending on health and other safety matters (such as rough-sleeping or domestic violence), but they have spent a vast amount tackling terrorism since 2001 – the US budget for this area alone accounts for over two trillion dollars. In the UK, despite repeated government claims about austerity constraints, anti-terrorism measures continue to be expanded with financial and legislative resources. According to one report, the average annual deaths from terrorism in the UK was 5 compared with over 17,000 annual deaths from accidents [Note 4]. But aren’t accidents by their very nature unpreventable? Far from it, the UK has for decades had the safest roads in Europe with its excellent road safety initiatives. But since the government started cutting the budgets for police and traffic management, road deaths have risen by 4%, the first rise since 1997 [Note 5].

[5] Should we focus our resources and public warnings on atrocities committed by those drawn to Islamic extremism, and pay less attention to the greater number of killings carried out by other extremists?
For example, in the US, in the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, 26 people have been killed by self-proclaimed jihadists, but almost twice as many were murdered by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists [Note 6]. Does it make any sense to go along with the Trump Administration’s promise to change the government’s ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ program, and make it focus exclusively on threats from Islamic extremism, ignoring the violence and killings committed by other groups, to the extent that when a white supremacist murdered a black American in New York as part of a planned racist killing spree, Trump would not acknowledge, let alone condemn, the attack? [Note 7]

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Note 1. Source: http://uk.businessinsider.com/death-risk-statistics-terrorism-disease-accidents-2017-1
Note 2. Source: https://www.juancole.com/2016/03/30-americans-die-worldwide-from-terrorism-annually-while-130000-die-by-accident.html
Note 3. Another country that is not covered by the ban is Turkey, even though the state department has warned about “an increase in anti-American rhetoric [that] has the potential to inspire independent actors to carry out acts of violence against US citizens.” Trump has several business interests in Turkey, earning him up to £6 million a year. Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/muslim-majority-countries-donald-trump-travel-ban-immigration-entry-visa-three-main-countries-exempt-a7552526.html
Note 4. The only comparable cause of 5 deaths a year is being killed by stings from wasps and bees. Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/06/28/terrorism-bees_n_1633308.html
Note 5. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/25/deadly-terrorism-britain-roads-security-risk
Note 6. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/us/tally-of-attacks-in-us-challenges-perceptions-of-top-terror-threat.html
Note 7. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/28/white-supremacist-slew-man-manhattan-president-silent

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Art of Not Playing God

It’s a curious fact of life that those who are prone to tell others ‘not to play god’ have no problem with assuming the role of divine dictator whenever it suits them.

Perhaps they alone know the secret rationale of when godly powers may be taken up by mere mortals, and when it is forbidden. And the few blessed with eventual access to the promised land, will one day understand how seemingly absurd and arbitrary injunctions can somehow turn out to make perfect sense. Until then, who are we to question the genius behind instructions such as these:

Do not play god and withhold medical intervention to let someone exit a life of unendurable pain; but do play god and refuse to pay for a life-saving drug because, frankly, it is too expensive.

Do not play god and punish those who swindle others to enrich themselves, especially when they repent on television; but do play god and penalise those who are in love with someone of the same sex.

Do not play god and terminate a fertilised human egg even if the mother’s life would otherwise be at risk; but do play god and execute anyone a group of fallible mortals have judged to have taken someone else’s life.

Do not play god and make the rich take more responsibility for the plight of others; but do play god and tell the poor that unless they can get a job, they are to starve.

Do not play god and meddle with genetics and create new forms of organic life with no intelligence; but do play god and embark on endless advancement in the development of robots and artificial intelligence.

Do not play god and send aid to countries where the people have not sorted out their own problems; but do play god and bomb other countries if they do not sort out their problems.

It’s possible that we have not quite got the instructions stated correctly. After all, we have not been properly initiated into the art of not playing god. Maybe we should wait until we are chosen to be inducted. But when we hear voices in our heads, how do we know if that is the supreme benevolent being speaking to us, or some evil trickster or an inner delusion? Besides, would not any attempt to declare that one can absolutely tell the difference be bordering on playing god?

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Nationalism of the Puppet Kind

There’s much talk about a resurgence of nationalism. But are we all talking about the same thing?

There is the true nationalism of patriots that brings people together to defend themselves against a common enemy who, externally or internally, poses a real and serious threat to them.

And there is the false nationalism deployed by devious puppeteers to mask their manipulative control, so they can exploit a country for their own gains by directing public anger to convenient scapegoats.

True nationalism originated in the late 18th and early 19th century when the infant United States and the First French Republic had to rouse their citizens into defending their newly established nations against those who were opposed to their existence. Soon, the approach was adopted in galvanising people in selected geographical areas to come together to form and protect what would become the unified countries of Germany and Italy in late 19th century.

But soon rabble-rousing political leaders cottoned on to the power of jingoism. And puppet nationalism became a go-to tool for devious tricksters who wave their country’s flag every time they want to deflect scrutiny of their dubious activities or to further their own ruthless ambition.

When Britain waged the Opium War (1839-1860) against China because the latter tried to stop British drug lords selling harmful narcotics to the Chinese people, it led no less a figure than Gladstone to declare, “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know.” But for Palmerston, who as Prime Minister ordered gunboats to China to destroy properties and civilian lives alike, it was time to hoist the Union Jack. When Members of Parliament disgusted with Palmerston’s behaviour tried to censure him, he excoriated them for their “anti-English feeling, an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to their fellow-countrymen, which I should hardly have expected from the lips of any member of this House. Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right.”

Palmerston’s puppetry would be replicated, under different national logos, by demagogues like Napoleon III who usurped the Second French Republic; autocrats like Wilhelm II who plunged Germany and the rest of Europe into the First World War; dictators in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and militarist Japan whose collective aggression ignited the Second World War; and the likes of Milošević who turned the break-up of Yugoslavia into genocidal conflicts.

International cooperation has always been sought by true nationalists, because the interests of the people are always better protected when external disputes can be peacefully resolved, and internal problems can get more attention without the distraction of security tensions or military confrontation. By contrast, false nationalists despise cross-border partnerships because these render them less able to paint foreigners abroad as enemies, or depict those at home as aliens. Deprived of the opportunities to set up scapegoats to divert public attention, it is so much more difficult for them to amass and abuse power to gratify themselves.

But alas, false nationalism is back with a vengeance [see Note 1]. Its leaders in different countries pull the strings of Islamophobia with a broader xenophobic backdrop, and the stage is set for the rabid denouncement of ‘foreign threats’, while behind the scene they plot to act unaccountably in pursuit of their own ambitions.

It’s time for true nationalism to take a stand, because we need to rally citizens to deal with this grave threat against us all – the creeping encroachment of our political space by nationalism of the puppet kind.

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[Note 1] For example, Marine Le Pen (leader, National Front, France); Geert Wilders (leader, Party for Freedom, the Netherlands); Nigel Farage (ex-leader UKIP, UK); Viktor Orbán (ex-Prime Minister/leader, Civic Alliance Party, Hungary); Nobert Hofer (President of the National Council/member, Freedom Party, Austria); Donald Trump, (President/Republican Party, USA); Frauke Petry (leader, Alternative for Germany, Germany); Mattias Karlson (group leader in parliament, Sweden Democrats, Sweden); Jarosław Kaczyńsk (leader, Law & Order Party, Poland); Vladimir Putin (President/United Russia Party, Russia); Matteo Salvini (leader, Northern League, Italy).

For more on contrasting forms of nationalism, see Chapter 6, ‘Liberal versus Tribal Nationalism’ in Tam, H, (2015) Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Business of Advancing Values

[A review of Values: how to bring values to life in your business, by Ed Mayo, Greenleaf Publishing: 2016]

Some businesses are only concerned about financial values. Some aspire to a wide range of values but do little to pursue them. But those who take seriously their own mission to advance social, economic and environmental values may turn out to be the most successful ones all round.

In his new book on values and business leadership, Ed Mayo, the Secretary-General of Cooperatives UK and former head of the New Economics Foundation, shows why values should not be treated as a public relations gloss, but ought to be integrated into every enterprise as the main driving force.

The book is a perfect antidote for any consultant-spiel about how to ‘do’ corporate values. It reminds us that Enron, that bastion of commercial deception on the grandest scale, once proudly proclaimed, “we work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely.” More recently, the board of Barclays Bank, having been at the receiving end of exposures of illegal practices, heavy fines and moral condemnation, replaced their CEO with someone appointed with the mandate to re-orientate the culture of the company towards better values. But when the new CEO (Antony Jenkins) proceeded to do just that, the board decided that his concern with business responsibility was getting in the way of making more money, more quickly, and gave him the push.

In short, if you’re not going to focus on values at the heart of your business, don’t waste time pretending. By contrast, taking values on board fully can deliver superior outcomes over time. For example, we learn that among young enterprises (those which have been in business between 2 and 10 years), those motivated strongly by their desire to make a positive difference socially and environmentally perform better than those operating with a narrow financial focus. Interestingly, 43% of the people running these young enterprises reported that the pursuit of broader values was a primary motivation for them.

In case anyone questions if we are jumping to too many conclusions based on the experiences of relatively new business ventures, Mayo draws on his considerable knowledge of the cooperative sector to confirm that, for well over a century, cooperatives of all shapes and sizes have been at the forefront of achieving more for their customers, workers and local communities by valuing their wellbeing as much as their own financial returns.

It’s a win-win situation since when the workers have a real stake in the enterprise they work in, they are naturally more dedicated to securing its success, and productivity is not surprisingly boosted by employee ownership. In fact, according to UK consumer research, cooperatives are among top third of ethical performers in 80% of the markets surveyed, and are the top performers in 23% of the markets surveyed.

Alas, even for those who believe that values are important in business, there is all often too big a gap between aspiration and action. But Mayo’s book has a few handy tips to bridge it. The one on testing the empathy of potential recruits is particularly pertinent as values have to be advanced by everyone in an enterprise. To succeed, a values-driven business must be sustained by people who care about improving the lives of others.

Egoists, in business as in politics, are the ones who should be kept at bay.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Attlee & Bread

Clement Attlee is indisputably one of the greatest leaders of the modern age. And in these times when politics is dominated by posturing and rigidity, it is worth looking back on the qualities that enabled Attlee to transform his country for the better, despite all the threats and obstacles he faced in the 1930s/40s.

Attlee was not one for setting out inviolable ideological principles, or for uncompromisingly refusing to work with anyone not signing up to those principles. His focus was always on what people actually needed, and how their unfair deprivations could in practice be remedied.

He praised charitable works. He appreciated intellectual critiques of an exploitative economy. But above all, he recognised that unless political power was obtained to bring in changes on a large enough scale, all that were wrong with society would persist with the attendant suffering.

His greatness came from his steadfast determination to use the power of government to implement what would genuinely help people. To defeat the Nazis, he would work with Winston Churchill in a coalition government. To rebuild Britain after the Second World War, he would defeat Churchill in the 1945 elections to establish a new state-citizens partnership that was to provide unprecedented security for all.

Against Conservatives who said the country was in too much debt to do anything for the people, he had the courage to put forward a programme that would pave the way for the prosperity to come in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite those to his right and left within the Labour Party worrying that he was doing too much or too little, he steered the post-war government forward to secure more for the British people than anyone could have imagined.

What we should remember most about Attlee is the fact that he never doubted that his actions as a political leader were to be judged by how much they improved the everyday quality of life for people, especially those who had to endure the greatest hardship.

Let us leave the final words to Attlee himself, with this poem he wrote in 1912, a decade before he became MP for the East London constituency of Limehouse:

“In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity,
The streets where men decay.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children who go to work or play,
Of children born of sorrow,
How shall they work tomorrow
Who get no bread today?

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor, tired mothers, trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love each other,
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Cult of Thoughtlessness

Has the spread of social media led to the deepening of prejudices and proliferation of groundless opinions? Or has it merely increased the visibility of irrational outbursts that were previously hidden from public view? What is certain is that a large number of people have no sense of impartiality, reasoned argument, evidence, or empathy in how they interact with other people. And while social media may have given them more opportunities to express their ill-considered views, it is the established media that have poured fuel on the cult of thoughtlessness that is now burning out of control.

It is the mainstream media that have given charlatans unprecedented air time to present themselves as clever mavericks, and turned them into prime-time celebrities. These scoundrels are allowed to say anything to boost their public profile, and make countless false and misleading claims without any debunking during their media appearances. Yet for all their flamboyant rhetoric, their basic agenda is little more than to deflect public attention from the irresponsible behaviour of the corporate elite (especially those in the fossil fuel business), and channel anger and frustration towards immigrants at home and foreigners abroad.

But this formula of duping the most easily deceived into becoming political fodder for illiberal leaders is hardly new. In early 20th century, thoughtlessness drove hatred and hysteria forward in support of people who for the sake of their own glory would callously destroy the lives of millions.

To avoid a similar trajectory for the 21st century, we need politicians who can organise themselves into winning back power and use that power to support job creation that will spread resources to the many and not line the pocket of the wealthiest few. As for those of us with any kind of educational influence, we have a role to play in raising political literacy so that more people develop the understanding that will guide them towards supporting what is truly good for them, their families and their country.

The key to political literacy is civic thoughtfulness – the antidote to mindless wrecking of social cohesion and human decency. There are three aspects to be cultivated through learning at every level.

First, we should enhance empathic thoughtfulness so that people are more responsive to others’ feelings, appreciate how they treat others is inseparable from how others will want to treat them in return, and learn to see beyond superficial differences and recognise the caring dispositions in others that merit reciprocation.

Secondly, we should improve cognitive thoughtfulness so that people can see through the lies and manipulation perpetrated by con merchants, grasp how important claims ought to be checked by a combination of experienced experts and public scrutiny, and understand what is involved in assessing the reliability of any belief.

Last but not least, we should promote volitional thoughtfulness so that people are better disposed to making decisions after they have taken into account the views and concerns of others, are more skilled at acting in partnership, and can contribute to group deliberations on what is to be done.

For more details relating to these suggestions, see my pamphlet, ‘Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness’, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, and available for free download from: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/type/pdfs/political-literacy-civic-thoughtful.html

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Livelihood Challenge: 10 actions to consider

What can people do to get what they need to live a decent life? The options of foraging across common terrain, or having your own land to grow food on, have long been closed off for the vast majority of us. Instead, people are told to find a job that pays them enough so they can afford to get by.

But it’s getting harder to get jobs that cover the everyday expenses, let alone the longer term needs for one’s family or one’s own old age. And all the time, entrepreneurs are considered ‘successful’ when they push up profits by relentlessly cutting labour costs. Slash jobs, shrink pay, and the few at the top get more from their efficiency drive, while others are driven ever deeper into despair and insecurity.

So what are we to do? We need a plan that sets out actions that will deal with the main problems, command support from campaigners, and appeal to the public as a package of reforms that will improve their lives. To start the ball rolling, here’s a provisional list that, subject to further critical input and revisions, can be developed into a political manifesto for good work & decent pay for all:

1. To stop contract terms being imposed to the detriment of workers or their employers, mandate that a free, effective and binding arbitration service can be called on by either side in all cases where there is a dispute over contract terms (e.g., unreasonable shift demands, zero-hour contracts, externalising of workers as contractors).

2. To increase opportunities for worker participation as it leads to better and fairer outcomes for all involved, require all employers to put forward worker ownership & participation options for their workers to vote on, and ensure the options are honestly set out and the chosen ones are implemented.

3. To support the setting-up and consolidation of multi-stakeholder commons and cooperative enterprises, as they empower workers to shape their future and take into account wider societal concerns, set up an Open Cooperativist Development Agency, to create more sustainable jobs, with asset locks where appropriate to prevent future de-mutualisation.

4. To end the no-strings-attached handing over of billions to banks so they can continue with irresponsible lending, set priorities for banks to invest in and lend to those organisations that will create sustainable jobs, support local communities, and expand renewable energy.

5. To prevent firms from relying on invisible public subsidies to boost their profits by drastic cuts to their workforce, assess and arrange for the costs of training and securing alternative employment for redundant workers (e.g., by technology or production relocation), to be borne by the firms planning the redundancies.

6. To rectify the undervaluing of public sector work, set up a register of shortage of teachers, nurses, carers, police officers, and commit central and local government to report on a regular basis how it will invest to fund the establishment and filling of these posts to sustain the basic wellbeing of the people; and to set out remedial action to deal with the unemployment impact of any proposed cuts.

7. To reduce destabilising pay differentials which widen the quality-of-life gap, introduce both (a) a national minimum pay set at X% of the average pay of top 10% workers, and (b) a cap on the top pay in any company set at Y multiple of the lowest paid workers in that company.

8. To ensure every citizen has enough to live on regardless of their circumstances, provide a Universal Basic Income to all adults, and adjust the overall level in line with the cost of living. Everyone is free to seek to earn more without their basic income being deducted. Those with disability needs can apply for top-up supplements as they would have more basic costs to cover.

9. To help people obtain work with a longer term future, task the government with a legal duty to plan for job creation for workers whose current employment will come to an end because of factors such as: the closing down of businesses in declining sectors; leaving the military after serving in time-limited campaigns; or the switching from harmful industries to socially responsible businesses.

10. To anticipate the human-displacement effects of advancement in automation and artificial intelligence, convene strategic forums with leading tech proprietors and innovators to ensure there is a growing range of freely accessible benefits for all to compensate for the exclusion of majority of people from being to purchase what is only affordable to those who still have jobs in the high-end sectors.

These are just suggestions to kick-start discussions. Any eventual publication will look different, and the final set of proposal will be backed by more detailed explanations. For now, let’s have your thoughts.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2017: a precarious jobs odyssey

Why have we been landed with such a pessimistic start to the year? Because enough people voted for chaos last year. And why did they do that? Is it really because Eastern Europeans have taken over the UK, and Mexicans are saturating the US? The reason why so many people thought immigration must be cut down was that they thought with fewer immigrants, they would get the good jobs back.

But those jobs were long gone. The wealthy elite behind the Brexit and Trump campaigns have for decades been moving production plants and jobs abroad; weakening unions so those who still have a job at home feel insecure; squeezing out higher productivity from local workers and paying them less; and forcing them to borrow more while they pocket higher returns themselves.

As for the immigrants, they pay taxes, they buy locally produced goods and services, and help the British and American economies. But they also make for convenient scapegoats, so the wealthy elite, instead of admitting to greedily destroying good jobs and decent pay, stoke anti-immigrant campaigns and carry on exactly as they have done.

Of course destabilising the EU and throwing international relations under a cloak of uncertainty are hardly going to help the UK or US thrive economically. And when those jobs people desperately want fail to materialise, the pied piper will be playing the old ‘just too many immigrants’ song again. For some, racism is a handy diversion. But for many, it will ultimately ring hollow. Most people just want a job that will give them a sense of achievement and pay them a fair income.

But the wealthy elite who can now get the EU regulators off their back or whose friends have got a seat in the US administration, are not about to give up their exploitation of the 99%. So someone has to rally the resistance.

And the starting point of that resistance? Jobs, jobs and jobs. Don’t for a moment fall into the trap the grinning xenophobes have set. Focus on what people are really concerned about. Tell them that the encroachment on pay and working conditions must end. Tell them the resources of the nation will not be set aside to help rich bankers and owners of properties ad shares, but will instead be channelled to invest in sustainable industries that will have a long term future for everyone. Tell them they will have a democratic say about the remuneration in the companies they work in so pay differentials reflect the worth of what people put in, not the talent of those who know how to sneak money out.

There are many jobs that need to be done, and there are many looking for jobs to do. The wealthy elite will want to keep using the smokescreen of immigration to hide their self-serving deals. But they can be exposed. And when a real deal for jobs is put on the table, optimism will at long last return.