Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Help Us Question the Powerful

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Unsure about the Start Our Children Get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Political OCD: is there a cure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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