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.”