Friday, 15 June 2018

Exposing the Affordability Con

Whenever people are made to think society cannot afford to support what is important, but accept costly policies that mainly benefit the wealthy elite, the ‘affordability con’ is on.

Ever since irresponsible bankers utilised the vastly expanded scope handed to them by reckless deregulation to gamble away billions of their savers’ money, the public have been told one simple story. Money is in short supply. Therefore, ‘everything’ has to be cut back – help for people who cannot get a job, support for workers whose job does not pay them enough to live on, funding for the health service, for tackling homelessness, for education at every level, and the list goes on. And whenever anyone points to the desperate need to finance these services better, there will be those who faithfully repeat the mantra, “but we can’t afford it”.

So why is it that we can afford to hand billions over to bankers, despite the atrocious problems they have caused? Moreover, that money is given to them with no strings attached. They can pay themselves vast bonuses regardless of whether or not they are now lending more responsibly. And the deregulated financial system remains in place for them to exploit.

That is not the end of it. If billions are to be spent on sending bombers and missiles to attack a foreign country, that will go ahead without even a public debate in Parliament or Congress. Is there a serious threat to the lives of Britons or Americans if such costly action is not taken? No, if anything, it would just add fuel to the flame of twisted resentment against the West and raise the level of terrorist threats. It certainly does not compare with the threats and violence unleashed on ordinary people in the UK and the US as a result of growing economic insecurity and rising levels of hate crime. Yet domestic protection is unreservedly scaled back by the Conservative Government’s cuts to policing numbers in the UK, and the US Republican President’s de-prioritisation of all threats other than ‘Islamist’ terrorism.

What about the argument that money is needed elsewhere? Perhaps there are vital actions that have to be paid for to help society as a whole. So what do those cautious custodians, who tirelessly warn us about the need for austerity and deficit reduction, think our precious money should be put aside for? In the UK, the Conservative Government’s priority was to prevent losing votes to UKIP, and while both David Cameron and Theresa May (successive Tory Prime Ministers) had been unequivocal that they believed the UK was better off in the European Union, they would hold a referendum on the issue, and when that was lost, their government would spend endless amount to push ahead with Brexit even though it would make trade, jobs, standards of living, all worse off for the vast majority of Britons. In the US, the Republicans’ priority was to reward their superrich donors and friends. The federal deficit would be escalated to around a trillion dollars to pay for tax cuts that would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest few.

To compensate for such drastic losses to the public purse, the Conservative Government in the UK has taken an even more resolute stance on cutting back on expenditure in other areas, for example, by reducing the staffing level of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) team tasked with tackling tax evasion by those with most to gain from evasion.

Finally, on the point about there being no money, it should be noted that a defining feature of any sovereign government is its power to oversee the flow of money in the economy. If it deems it necessary, it can issue more money. Under the guise of ‘quantitative easing’, a lot of extra money has been injected into the economy in the UK and the US. But it was not designed to help people in need. Indeed it is widely acknowledged that by far the biggest beneficiaries of quantitative easing have been the wealthiest who own shares and assets, and of course the bankers, for whom, affordability is always someone else’s problem.

Friday, 1 June 2018

The Political Wing of Bad Business

Think of those businesses which make their money from activities that are harmful to millions of people. If governments were left to develop policies to serve the public interest, these inherently anti-social corporations would be tightly regulated, and their callous profit-making would be much curtailed. To make sure that does not happen, many of them have adopted the strategy of ‘donating’ funds to those politicians who would prioritise their profiteering over the protection of the common good.

The political wing of these corporate marauders is then positioned as the party of the ‘free market’. In the name of promoting ‘economic prosperity’, it will do all it can to keep any unhelpful legislation off the table, and bring in changes that will make it even easier for irresponsible companies to ride roughshod over ordinary citizens.

Is this an unfair exaggeration? Let us look at the political parties in the US and the UK that have historically obtained a larger share of the contributions from big businesses. And for both the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK, their leading backers come from four notable sectors:

Finance: the largest donations overall come from the sector that gamble with their savers’ money (while counting on public bailouts if they end up losing), and also includes hedge fund management, insurance, payday lending, and distressed-debt acquisitions (these last two particularly rely on minimising regulatory protection of people living under precarious social and economic circumstances).

Fossil fuel industry: for those whose profits come from the sourcing or utilisation of fossil fuel, it is vital that protection of the public from local environmental degradation and wider climate change damages be minimised. Fracking in the UK, for example, was supported by changes in the law that were opposed almost unanimously by the public.

Private healthcare businesses: in the US, any attempt to improve public healthcare provision that may reduce the profit margins of private health insurance providers is strenuously opposed; in the UK, the demand is for handing over much more NHS money to private healthcare companies; and in both countries, pharmaceutical companies want public funding support with research but private autonomy to push up profit margins.

Property developers: public investment in infrastructure is sought, but private profiteering must trump requests for housing that is affordable or development that enhances rather than destroys local jobs and enterprises. One US developer indeed described affordable housing quota as “immoral”.

Two additional sectors feature in the US, namely, casinos and information technology. Any business model that relies on people gambling when the odds are against them needs lawmakers to stand aside as much as possible, and the casino moguls have built their empires with the support of ‘free market’ champions. As for information technology, the capturing, passing on, and exploitation of personal data have been seen increasingly as a key threat to privacy and democracy, but tech companies’ mantra remains fixed on wanting to be left alone to do what they regard as ‘beneficial’ (and profitable).

Perhaps it is time responsible business leaders join forces to curb the dubious financing of the political wing of their not-so-responsible counterparts. There can be no level playing field when the unscrupulous few can keep bending the rules to suit themselves. The only way to end what by any name is blatant corruption, is for the majority to take a stand.

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Notes:

For more on how to tackle the undermining of democracy, see my book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics, from Policy Press in the UK: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy , or Amazon in the US: https://www.amazon.com/Time-Save-Democracy-Ourselves-Anti-Politics/dp/1447338243

For more information on the donations referred to above, see:

Bloom, D. (2018) ‘Revealed, how a third of Tory donations come from a tiny group of rich men who enjoy lavish dinners with Theresa May’, Mirror: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/revealed-how-third-tory-donations-11798246
Cahill, H. (2017) ‘Party donors: Here are the biggest names bank-rolling the Conservative campaign’, City A.M.: http://www.cityam.com/264987/party-donors-biggest-names-bank-rolling-conservative
Pilkington, E. & Swaine, J. (2017) ‘The seven Republican super-donors who keep money in tax havens’, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/07/us-republican-donors-offshore-paradise-papers
Reeves, J. (2016) ‘Top 10 list of corporate donors to political parties reads like a most-hated-companies ranking’, MarketWatch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/these-10-companies-could-influence-the-presidential-election-again-2016-06-16

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

What Should Citizens Believe?

In order to have an informed discussion about what should be done to protect individuals and advance the common good, we need reliable evidence and sound arguments. Yet all around us, charlatans are not only spreading lies, but also conning people into rejecting what have been put forward with good reason. Citizens often end up not knowing what to believe, or buying into false and dangerous narratives. But what can be done?

Following the publication earlier this year of Time to Save Democracy (Policy Press) with detailed proposals to reform our system of governance, the ‘Question the Powerful’ project is now bringing out a new book, What Should Citizens Believe (published in association with Citizen Network), to help anyone interested in promoting democracy to engage others in exploring how disputes over rival claims ought to be resolved in society. It contains five sets of ‘Explorations’ that will, in diverse ways, assist teachers and students of politics in discovering how to establish what merits belief.

Introductory Explorations

What Should Citizens Believe will introduce you to the problem of belief evaluation with ‘Fallacies Unmasked’, which flags up sleight-of-hand arguments that are liable to obstruct rational judgements; ‘The Justification Challenge’, which highlights various pseudo-defences against critical scrutiny that should be overturned; and ‘Experimenting with Cooperation’, which explains how a cooperative approach to problem-solving has evolved over time to help us navigate through contested claims.

Practical Explorations

You will next be involved in considering the practical implications of the approach being put forward, with reference to four key sets of issues: ‘The Impact of Cooperative Problem-Solving’ will demonstrate the positive difference that can be made; ‘Empowerment Matters’ will outline the developmental support needed to advance the cooperative approach; ‘Crossing Institutional Barriers’ will review the obstacles that should be overcome; and ‘Reflective Leadership’ will set out how the necessary changes can be taken forward by those in leadership positions.

Civic Explorations

You will discover what kind of civic outlook and arrangements are required to sustain cooperative problem-solving in ‘Communities of Thoughtful Citizens’, which explains what should be done to advance the nurturing of thoughtful members of overlapping communities. The key implications relating to the three types of civic thoughtfulness to be cultivated are then elaborated in the chapters on: ‘Mutual Responsibility & Empathic Thoughtfulness’; ‘Cooperative Enquiry & Cognitive Thoughtfulness’; and ‘Citizen Participation & Volitional Thoughtfulness’.

Philosophical Explorations

A number of philosophical issues will be shared with you in exploring how the ideas underpinning cooperative problem-solving can stand up to epistemological scrutiny. A historical perspective of the debate is given in ‘The Baconian Revolution’; the notion that we should settle for nothing less than absolute certainty is challenged in ‘God & the Cartesian Quest for Certainty’; a classic paradox is critically reviewed in ‘Inductive Reasoning & the Grue Paradox’; and the nature of reasoning itself is put under the spotlight in ‘Wittgenstein & the Tortoise: a philosophical fable’.

Novel Explorations

In the final part of the book, you will explore aspects of anti-democratic manipulation through the prism of dystopian fiction. You will encounter extracts from three novels (Kuan’s Wonderland; Whitehall through the Looking Glass; and The Hunting of the Gods) that have been recommended by the Equality Trust, the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association), and others for promoting wider interest in what should be questioned in society, along with instructive discussion topics derived from those works.

Conclusion

Whether you want to acquire an extensive overview of the problem of belief evaluation in society, have access to a selection of materials to engage people with different interests in ways to settle disputed claims, or be better equipped in facilitating discussions on how to expose fallacious arguments, you will find What Should Citizens Believe a handy primer. It may not have all the answers regarding the legitimacy of different beliefs, but it will help to fortify minds in combating those who seek to thrive through lies and misdirection.
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What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society, is available in e-book format: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07CSYRF8H and in paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1548183105

For more about Time to Save Democracy and the political reforms it puts forward, read ‘The Vote is Not Enough’, posted with the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics: http://www.crickcentre.org/blog/vote-not-enough/

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Society’s Identity Crisis

How people see themselves has always been a key factor in the political struggle for a better society. For reactionaries, their arbitrary dominance over others can be more effectively preserved if most people identify with their assigned position in a highly unequal hierarchy. For progressives, by contrast, the challenge to overturn neglect, oppression and exploitation, becomes stronger as people view themselves as fellow citizens united in pursuit of their common good. In recent decades, the reactionaries have gained the upper hand because a range of identity problems have, inadvertently or deliberately, been stirred up – undermining the civic solidarity that is vital for the progressive cause.

One notable strand of this societal identity crisis is the antipathy shown towards any pluralist conception of ‘belonging’. Under primitive conditions, people may well feel that belonging to their tribe is the be all and end all of their lives, and their assigned role in the tribe encapsulates their identity. As a result of social evolution, however, each of us can now identify strongly with different groups, institutions, characteristics, cultures, and rituals, and still recognise our shared citizenship in a sovereign state. But the fashionable rejection of pluralism means that people are expected to immerse themselves in one monolithic identity – defined by a narrow ethnic profile, religious affiliation, some parochial accent and customs, plus whatever other arbitrary features picked out by those promoting their version of ‘true Brits’, ‘real Americans’, etc. This outlook blatantly ignores the fact that multicultural development is at the heart of all our identities. Those who hark back to ‘their’ Anglo-Saxon roots forget that Angles and Saxons were different tribes that not only in time integrated with each other, but also with Celts, Normans, Danes, and others from the Mediterranean and the many different Commonwealth countries.

Another strand flows from the formation of exclusionary group identities that in effect divert efforts from tackling perpetrators of discrimination and abuse, and channel them instead towards divisive generalisations. Ethnic minorities are rallied to stand up against ‘Whites’, while white people who are themselves badly treated are urged to direct their frustration against ‘Minorities’. Women are encouraged to see ‘Men’ as the aggressors, while men who have suffered injustice themselves are goaded into regarding ‘Women’ as being unfairly favoured at every turn. Such crude, and often manipulative, divisions into rival camps can also be found in relation to religion, sexuality, age, class, nationality, and numerous other factors. Their net impact is to corrode common civic bonds and leave individuals more susceptible to siren calls to detest/resent/oppose the ‘enemy’ group.

Furthermore, the obsession with having an absolute identity fuels demands for stringent demarcations. Instead of focussing on battling those who mistreat others because of the latter’s biological, cultural, or some other characteristics, people have their attention directed towards protecting their ‘identity’ from being diluted by ‘interlopers’ who must never be allowed to become one of them. Thus people who rejoice in celebrating a culture not traditionally associated with their ethnic lineage are castigated for trying to appropriate something that ‘belongs’ to others. People who undergo gender reassignment are warned that their previous biological history render them unacceptable to be members of whichever gender they have sought to transition to. Such rigid delineations end up pushing aside issues that deserve serious consideration, and leaving behind immovable obstacles to any cooperative quest for solutions.

Progressives have too often in the past hesitated in promoting the value of civic identity, and supporting its teaching to raise awareness and understanding of how citizens are to unite to secure the common good, their mutual respect, and protection for their diversity. The resultant vacuum has drawn in both misguided demarcations and malicious divisiveness. To cure society’s identity crisis, we must revive our civic identity and champion a pluralist culture that brings together the best in all outlooks and traditions, as the only sensible foundation of long-term solidarity.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Real Political Divide

Political commentators see the causes of social fragmentation everywhere. Localists are supposedly at odds with the cosmopolitan minded. Women and men are split into warring factions. Traditionalists can find no common ground with progressives. Ethnicity or religion is turned into a permanent dividing line. Advocates for diplomacy and rehabilitation are confronted by champions of force and punishment.

But is society so irreparably splintered? Or is our attention being diverted from the real divide that is threatening us?

On closer examination, we can see that the one true conflict exists between those who are determined to get whatever they want at the expense of others, and those who are unwilling to put up with such aggression. The former comprises people who want to enrich themselves by deceiving consumers, exploiting workers, and squeezing suppliers; and individuals who have no compunction about treating various categories of people as subordinate or inferior even though nothing warrants it on moral or rational ground. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, a political alliance has developed that brings these people together to secure more power to get their own way.

In staunch resistance against them are people who take reciprocity seriously. They support business that is conducted fairly; they do not want to demean or subjugate others as they have no wish to be so demeaned or subjugated by anyone else; and they are content for diverse customs to flourish so long as there is no encroachment against interpersonal respect or the public good. These cooperators do not accept that their antagonists have any right to mistreat others, and they do not buy into their lies that such behaviour is necessary for economic prosperity, national pride, or upholding the most precious traditional values.

Unfortunately, the anti-cooperators are adept at deception and many people fall for their routine con that tricks people into supporting what is in fact at odds with their real interests. For example, people are rallied to march under the banner of ‘freedom’ when the actual policy agenda is to further the freedom to make money from selling harmful products, to intimidate and marginalise scapegoats, and to mistreat others because they have the power to do so. The flag is waved to summon ‘all patriots’, but in fact it is being used as a cloak to hide support for foreign dictators and initiate aggression abroad and repression at home. And ‘God’ and ‘goodness’ are notions stripped of gentleness and compassion, and turned into false labels to legitimise discrimination, abuse, and even violence.

Whenever the anti-cooperators and their con go unchallenged, the majority of people suffer economically while the few siphon off more to go into their offshore tax havens; minorities are threatened with worse treatment; women are told to comply with macho commands crafted in line with a medieval mindset; and force is deployed without adequate justification or accountability.

It’s time to put aside minor differences and unite around a shared agenda to protect ourselves from the anti-cooperators. We value freedom, and that is why we must not accept it being granted only to those who will restrict others’ freedom for the sake of their own profits and prejudices. We are patriots, and our conscience will not let us tolerate scoundrels projecting their selfish goals as the nation’s destiny. We believe in moral values and responsibility, and for that very reason we can never allow callous egoists to keep conning and exploiting others.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Brexit Con

Imagine a group of people who for decades have been getting increasingly resentful that they could not make more money because there are so many laws stopping them from selling unsafe products, deceiving the public, polluting the environment, and mistreating workers. They think back nostalgically to a time when they could bankroll a few of their own to go into politics and change the laws to expand their profiteering at the expense of the wider public, and lament the fact that since the UK has joined the European Union, where the consensus goes against their exploitative agenda, it is no longer enough to buy control of the UK government.

Then it occurred to them that all would be well again if they could get the UK to withdraw from the EU. Like his counterparts at the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, Rupert Murdoch dislikes the EU because it has powers to rein in business irresponsibility. It was reported that “when asked by the journalist Anthony Hilton why he was so opposed to the EU, Murdoch is said to have replied: ‘When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice’.” (Martinson & Mason, 2016).

So this group began to collaborate closely to run the ultimate political con. The objective from the outset is to pull the UK out of the EU, jettison good standards for trade and employment, and reset requirements relating to the protection of people’s rights, their safety, and the environment to such token levels that more easy profits can be made. It is not an agenda members of the group are afraid to own up to. Speaking to the Treasury Select Committee, “Jacob Rees-Mogg said regulations that were ‘good enough for India’ could be good enough for the UK – arguing that the UK could go ‘a very long way’ to rolling back high EU standards.” (Stone, 2016)

But speaking bluntly about lowering standards in a meeting which few members of the public would hear about is one thing. To convince enough people around the country that the UK should leave the EU is quite another. Here a two-prong strategy was adopted. On the one hand, attack the EU as costly and inefficient, even though it has provided far greater leverage to secure trade deals all around the world that benefit the UK, facilitated vital cross-border cooperation across every major industry and policy area with our nearest neighbours and partners, and is far leaner in terms of its staffing numbers/jurisdiction ratio compared with that of the UK government.

On the other hand, attack the EU indirectly as the reason why the UK is ‘flooded’ with immigrants and foreigners, who are to be routinely presented in a nasty, negative manner. As the Leveson Inquiry found in relation to the behaviour of the British press, “when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning” (Leveson, 2012).

As the UK’s Brexit negotiation continues to be mired in a mix of confusion, denial and fantasy, it is becoming clearer every day that there will be less, not more, money for our public services; protection for workers, food safety, the environment will be made more vulnerable; British based research, manufacturing, and creative institutions will suffer from loss of collaborative arrangements with others across Europe; the Good Friday Agreement is put at risk; and standards of living for the vast majority of people will plummet.

Why then is there still this unrelenting push for a hard Brexit that maximises the severing of ties with the European Union? Of course it makes no sense for anyone except for those who devised this con for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of their unscrupulous friends at the expense of everyone else. Then with their friends’ political donations and biased press coverage, they hope to form their very own basement standards, tax loopholes aplenty, plutocratic government that, if they should win a big enough majority, may go on to celebrate the handing over of the NHS to some private US healthcare company.

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References

Leveson (2012): https://www.ein.org.uk/news/leveson-report-finds-sensational-or-unbalanced-reporting-relation-immigrants-and-asylum-seekers

Martinson, J. and Mason, R. (2016) ‘Theresa May had private meeting with Rupert Murdoch’, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/sep/29/theresa-may-meeting-rupert-murdoch-times-sun

Stone, J. (2016) ‘Britain could slash environmental and safety standards “a very long way” after Brexit, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg says’, Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-safety-standards-workers-rights-jacob-rees-mogg-a7459336.html

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The ‘Public Money Protection’ Act

Unethical draining of public funds should not go unpunished. We pool our resources for the common good, and if anyone – through greed, malice, or sheer thoughtlessness – deplete those resources, then the law should take action.

However, no government to date has thought through how this ought to be done. Individuals who claim, say £100 more benefits than they should, are portrayed as public enemy number one, and an over-zealous system is instituted to root out such behaviour, even when that means many others end up being wrongfully deprived of desperately needed payments. On the other hand, generous deals and concessions are ever ready to be offered to those who evade taxes to the tune of millions, or pocket even larger sums from the public purse to cover their mismanagement of everything from banks to railways.

One suggestion the government should consider is to put in place a Public Money Protection Act, the purpose of which would be to empower the public to take action against people who have unjustifiably added to public financial burden without any corresponding public gains. Individuals who defraud on benefits or expenses claims would be covered, and so would those who cheat on their taxes, misspend public funds, make illegitimate claims for public subsidies, take irresponsible actions that require public bailouts to prevent wider calamities, order unlawful evictions that fuel homelessness-related public expenditure, pay under the minimum wage and add to the burden of public benefit payment, and anyone else whose behaviour leaves the government with a higher than necessary bill to pay (including irresponsible ministers in government).

A dedicated arm of the public prosecution service would be set up to bring cases to trial with a jury that will not only decide if the accused is guilty, but also in cases of conviction, determine what punishment is to be handed down, subject to judicial advice.

The punishment will have three components. First of all, it covers what must be paid back as direct compensation for the loss of public funds, and what additional fines should be levied as a deterrent. For offenders who are below the poverty line, pushing them further into unpayable debt would be counter-productive. But for people who cheat or misspend millions of public money, and think they can go on living the high life with their off shore savings, a substantial fine would be very relevant indeed.

Secondly, there should be various options for jail time. In some cases, weekend imprisonment over two or three years may be more effective than a six-month sentence. The jury should be able to take into account the pain and disruption the individual in question has caused others in society, and what may be needed to deter any repeat offence. The duration of any incarceration put forward would have to be proportional to the amount of public money involved, plus any knock-on damages caused.

Thirdly, we have what may be a supplement (or in some cases, an alternative) to a prison term, namely, the restorative process. The jury would consider what would be a fitting activity for the convicted individuals to carry out. For some, it could be that they should spend time helping those they have hurt through their financial misdeeds. For others, it could be having to carry out menial tasks in public. There may be options to take on specific assignments in the community where being remorseful and conscientious in repairing the damages caused are integral criteria for measuring completion of the rehabilitation programme.

The fines imposed will help fund this prosecution service, and it would be apposite if this arrangement incentivises it to prioritise cases where the financial damages are most serious. At the same time, for those who think even a hefty fine would be proportionately small change out of their holdings, having to perform duties they may consider beneath them in public on a regular and prolonged basis, and to have to make real efforts to connect with those affected by their thoughtless acts, may just get through to them that they need to change their ways in the future.