Boris Johnson is a charming, intelligent eloquent man. He is also ambitious, dangerous and wrong, and we must be careful that we do not let our admiration for his cheeky tousled locks blind us to his many egregious faults. Were he ever to become Prime Minister he would make us long for David Cameron.
Today’s speech – celebrating extremes of inequality – is tripe of the highest order. I hope that it turns out to be a political misjudgement and will alert us all to the sort of man he is and the sort of views he holds.
It is tripe because it is an egregious example of a commonplace fallacy I shall call the drunk’s fallacy. This is the fallacy that if a little of something is good, more of it must be better – and there is no such thing as “too much”. If a little wine is good, more wine is always better…
Almost no one actually advocates total equality of income. It would, as Boris correctly concluded, remove all incentive to work and to take risks. If I were to earn the same by staying in bed as by getting up and putting in a full day’s work in my business, I’d stay in bed. (Actually, in my case at the moment, that’s a very bad example, because I would earn nothing by staying in bed and I am earning nothing by working fourteen hours a day at my business…. But I digress).
We need an economy where people can earn more by working harder and more productively: a measure of inequality is thus both necessary and inevitable. It does not follow that extremes of inequality are better. In an earlier post I argue that excessive income inequality has an adverse effect on growth, mainly because the rich save more and spend less, thus driving down aggregate demand and yields on investment.
What we need is a fair society. One which pays a fair wage at the top and the bottom of the market. One where people can be valued for their contribution to society, not just the size of their bank balance. Boris’ unbridled Thatcherism repeats many of the claims of the 1980s. It was during this period, under the regime of the late unlamented lady, that we money – earning power – became the main metric of merit. Professions such as teaching and medicine suffered. We stopped admiring teachers for their dedication and began regarding them as much less worthy than bankers, because they earned less.
Boris, your notion is both bad economics and bad politics. Admiration is due to people not for the size of their wedge, but for their achievements, and if the banking crisis has shown us anything it is that we cannot measure achievement only via money.
I am prompted to write this after listening to Rory Bremner’s entertaining One Question Quiz this evening. I will leave to another post my riposte to James Burke’s dystopian view of a future of universal abundance enabled by nanomachines.
Yes, dear reader, I am a Radio Four listener.
Satire asks important questions and stimulates the listener’s imagination to political answers.
Democracy as an ideal towards which all governments and systems of government are an approximation, some closer than others, is doing OK. Democracy as implemented in so-called democracies is not and is in danger of bringing disrepute upon the ideal.
The cancer upon democracy is its corruption by money. While the result can be so strongly influenced by those with deep pockets, it disaffects those who should vote and the turnout falls.
The cure, for this particular cancer, is simple but painful. Democracy must cut it out.
There is a radical solution and a slightly less radical one. The truly radical is to eliminate money altogether; and I shall ignore it for now but it might be germane to Mr Burke’s dystopia.
The less radical one is to forbid political parties to receive any donations at all other than the subscription of their members. Thus, to govern, instead of soliciting donations and returning favours from corporations, they will have to do so from people.
This rule should be enforced by the simple expedient of making the parties publish their accounts in real time.
It’s right that we’re not going to bomb Damascus, despite the continued heart-rending news from there.
Western diplomacy has played a disastrous hand over Syria. From the start, it has focused on Assad as the problem. He isn’t: the problem is the killing.
The world clearly doesn’t agree with the view that Assad is the problem, although I’m pretty sure that he’s at lease partly responsible. So focusing sanctions and action on him, and his regime, will always get a veto.
If, from the start, the West had pursued a peace conference with no preconditions, we might be getting somewhere now. But it’s got itself into a mess – no preconditions, but Assad must go. That’s not ‘no preconditions’. If we’re sure of our ground - that Assad is a butcher – then we shouldn’t be afraid that the truth would out at a peace conference. The peace conference is where the people concerned should decide whether Assad, or one of the rebels, is the right leader for Syria.
There’s some nasty regional power games going on, with Saudi Arabia as so often the villain no one dare blame, seeking to establish regional hardline Sunni hegemony. The people of Syria are the sacrificial pawns. Iran is the less-guilty villain, but unpredictable and scary nonetheless.
So we’ve got ourselves into a proper mess. Red lines have been crossed which means the Americans think they’ll have to send a Tomahawk which will have one, certain effect: more Syrians will be killed.
It would not surprise me if there’s been a breakdown of control within the Syrian Army. I very much doubt that Assad or his top advisers ordered the chemical attack. If it is proven then, even if he does see out the civil war, he’ll go to The Hague – which is the right place for it to be tested in any case.
The outcomes look worse by the day.
Andy Burnham says you have until next Spring. Wrong. The next election is barely 18 months away.
If, next month, in fact, at the Party conferences you don’t come out with a powerful, credible message I think we’re fucked. We the people are depending on you to get your shit together, because if you don’t we’ll be faced with another five years of this diabolical government. Possibly, if such a thing is imaginable, one even worse – rampant right-wing, Europhobic Tories hell-bent on finishing the destruction of the NHS.
Your task isn’t difficult, but you have to have the courage of your convictions and be prepared to ‘fess up to some of your own misdeeds during the 97-10 period. And being too soft on immigration wasn’t one of them, by the way. Don’t try to out UKIP the Tories: do you really want to alienate the progressive, urban majority of the country? The next election won’t be won by Worcester Woman; the balance of power is shifting and while it’s still only the swing voters in the marginal seats who get to decide the next government, who they are is changing.
You need a simple message for the next twenty months. It’s easy and it’s easy for you to remember – three H’s. Housing, Health and Heroes.
Attack the government on rising house prices. They’re not a sign that the economy is recovering, they’re a sign that its old addictions haven’t been cured. That after five years of austerity we’ve still not balanced the economy. We’re building up to another housing bubble because of this Government’s policies. Housing bubbles are like heroin highs – you feel great (if you own a house) while the prices go up, but when they crash – it’s cold turkey. We’ve had five years of cold turkey, and now the government has decided to make it better by giving us another shot with its crazy Help to Buy scheme. What we need is more houses, not more cheap money to push up the price of existing houses. But how to build more houses without breaking those budgetary rules? Some easy (and mostly Tory) villains to attack.
Landbanking developers – they buy land and sit on it, not building houses until the last possible minute. They make a profit without doing anything, and if they build houses to meet demand, price rises will level out. So let’s tax them for doing nothing. Once outline planning permission has been granted, give them six months to start building and two years to get the plot occupied. That’s houses built and people living in them. If not, tax them at a punitive rate – not less than ten percent of the capital value of the land with planning permission. Every year after the two year deadline that the land is still underdeveloped.
Buy-to-let landlords (particularly non-UK-resident ones). Let’s reform the taxation of rental property and get rid of the loopholes and tax holidays. Introduce a fixed allowance for expenses and stop making mortgage interest allowable against tax. Tighten up on “flipping” – it’s not just a game played by dodgy MPs, landlords often flip their homes to avoid capital gains tax when they sell rental property. And don’t be afraid when the landlord and letting-agent lobby starts saying that increasing the tax on rental income will drive up rents. It won’t. Show me a landlord who doesn’t charge as much rent as the market will bear already and I’ll show you one whose letting agent isn’t doing their job. Buy-to-let landlords keep first-time-buyer properties out of reach of the first-time-buyers and they’re helping to keep a whole generation off the property ladder. The least they can do is pay their fair share of tax on the rent.
Then there are two policy changes which will help that mythical group “hard-working families”..
Reform ASTs - Assured Shorthold Tenancies. The introduction of these in the late 1980s utterly transformed the private rental market. Until then, rents were controlled (you could apply to the Rent Tribunal to get your rent fixed at a ‘market rate’ ignoring the effect of any shortage of housing). You also had security of tenure. Result, no landlord let, no mortgagees permitted it because a sitting tenant would wipe the value off the property. ASTs were, frankly a boon to young people looking for an intermediate step between living at home, or flatsharing, and getting on the Ladder. But now, the bottom step of the Ladder is somewhere above tree-height, so many families are living in private rented accommodation for much longer. The two-year limit on ASTs doesn’t fit with the need to plan continuity of schooling, for example.
Build more social housing. The real scandal is that for three decades we haven’t recycled the money from right-to-buy sales to build more social housing. Right-to-buy was Thatcher’s most potent electoral bribe and it’s not a bad thing if the money raised is used to build more houses – appropriately managed, it should recycle the public capital tied up in housing stock so it’s not being used to provide housing for people whose circumstances have changed.
‘Fess up guys but you started it. Privatising the NHS, that is. Private money is messing up the health service. It’s still, predominantly, a care-driven service, but it’s getting to be a cost-driven one. Look at the forms hospital doctors have to fill. A few years ago, they were about recommended treatment. Now, there’s a whole extra layer of bureaucracy – cost recovery and charge-backs. More boxes for doctors to tick, more administrators to check the boxes and more private companies to take the profit away.
Letting private firms into the NHS was a terrible mistake for Labour to make, a gross betrayal of Labour’s principles, and the wrong way to modernise the service. Not that it doesn’t need continuous modernisation – we want a health service that’s state of the art, and we can have one if we spend the money on health instead of on chasing the money around. Private companies aren’t the answer, dedicated care, research and scholarship are. They’re what has kept the NHS the most cost-effective health-care system in the world for so long. PFI has been a disaster which left us with expensive unwanted hospitals that we’ll be paying over the odds for for for the next thirty years and led to ridiculous situations like Lewisham where successful hospitals get closed down to meet the costs of bad PFI deals. Diverting money from health to capital. If the health service were run economically and rationally for health reasons, these daft decisions wouldn’t happen. And don’t believe the propaganda – sure, Stafford was a bad case. But do you really think that private companies will stop that happening again? With their constant pressure to cut costs to pay their owners’ profits? It might stop us hearing about it, because the private companies will pay expensive lawyers – with our money – to work gagging clauses in the name of commercial confidentiality. The only confidentiality that matters in the health service is patient confidentiality. Everything else should be open and transparent. Let’s not imagine that the privatisation agenda in the NHS is about getting private money to pay for public services. It’s about getting public money to pay private companies (Tory donors, mostly) a profit. With our taxes.
End-of-life and Social care
This is absolutely part of the health message. Yes, health is getting more expensive, because we are living longer and older people need more of it. Keeping two separate systems for health and social care means neither works very efficiently. For older people, they’re part of the same thing and they need to be provided in the same package. We need to integrate modern compassionate social and end-of-life care into the health service. It’s inefficient and undignified to keep acute hospital wards full of people at the end of their lives just to discharge them into inappropriate accommodation until the next fall brings them back in again. Sorry for the cliche but we need joined-up thinking about social care, and if that means creating a new, integrated health and social care service built on the traditional care principles of the NHS, let’s do it. We owe it to our heroes.
Labour shouldn’t be afraid of highlighting heroism. Time to ditch the tired cliches of “hard-working families” and “The British People”.
The generation now reaching the end of their lives, in their eighties and nineties, are the last wartime generation. They were young adults in the war. They served in the desert and the jungle, in convoys, on the barrage balloons, in the mines and munition factories. They were the generation of ’45, the heroes who helped save the nation and then came home to vote Labour and build our NHS. They are our heroes whom we are shutting away to die undignified in homes and hospitals. We need to treat them properly, just as we need to treat properly all the other heroes who have helped our country.
The gross betrayal of Afghan interpreters shows how little Cameron cares for heroes of any generation. What the old people in cost-cutting private care-homes and the Afghan interpreters left to the mercies of the Taleban have in common is that they are heroes being stitched up by Cameron. Cameron and his conservatives have their own heroes – the bankers and financiers who bankroll their party and who helped stuff the country in 2008. They’re fattening us up so they can do the same
There are heroes all over this country, local heroes and national heroes, people whose contribution to our society is measured in much more than money. They’re the people who make us a great nation, not the bankers with their seven-figure bonuses. People like Jimmy Rogers, the basketball coach in Brixton who coached Luol Deng – threatened with eviction because of cuts. Caring heroes who give up careers and independence to look after their relatives and whose work could be better done by a professional. These are heroes under siege, heroes to whom we as a nation owe far more than money can count.
Let me start by saying that I think that Jane Austen is a barely-acceptable choice to replace Darwin on the back of the tenner. It should have been Emmeline Pankhurst.
The abuse heaped on Miss Austen’s champion via Twitter is however despicable.
The question becomes how do we police social media? Does Twitter need a “report abuse” button? I can’t help thinking that it would have many undesirable unintended consequences. It will just become another weapon in the troll’s armoury.
But I do have a better answer than any I have heard on any of the endless expert discussions on the subject.
Twitter already has a system of “verified accounts”. They’re mainly available to celebrities, so you get to know that it’s the real person tweeting (or their official PR office….). These need to be made the norm. Not compulsory, but the norm. That is, when signing up for Twitter, you get a verified Twitter account if you go through a few extra steps to verify your identity to Twitter and thus lose your anonymity.
The next thing there needs to be is a “block all anonymous accounts” setting. Again, optional. So Caroline Criado-Perez would – at the first hint of abuse, if not before – activate the block. Then, the only abuse that could get through would be from verified accounts. Since the abusers are pathetic cowards, it’s most unlikely that they would want their real-life names associated with their nasty little games. And, if they did, since their threats are illegal in any case, it’s straightforward to police when it comes from a verified source.
Crucially, however, you don’t cut off anonymity entirely. Anonymity is important to help the voice of oppressed people be heard. Not everyone will block all anonymous tweets; some people will play a crucial role in re-tweeting the anonymous tweets that need to be heard. But the retweeters don’t retweet anonymously. I’d retweet a tweet from someone in Syria or Turkmenistan or China or Zimbabwe about their political repression; I’m safe here from their oppressors and by retweeting I give some credibility to their position. Not much, but some. And should anyone choose to retweet an offensive tweet from one of the childish young men who seem to revel in this sort of thing, they bear the responsibility for retweeting.
So we come to value tweets that are retweeted by trusted and identified real people, and generally to disregard – if not actually block – anonymous tweets.
This makes the Twitterati responsible for policing Twitter – so that they become an active filter or gateway. No need for complex technical solutions or armies of staff in Twitter HQ trying to decide which tweet is offensive and which isn’t – a value judgement that will in any case vary according to local standards.
I’ve caught snippets of the excellent series of programmes on Radio Four, chaired by Steve Hewlett of the Media Show. I know, I should listen to the full whack of all of them .
Anyway, I was struck this morning by a familiar transatlantic divide. There were four participants in the discussion, Lord Carlile (the Lib Dem peer and former Government security adviser), the consistently wonderful Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, Simon Jenkins the former editor of The Times and Jeff Jarvis, an American academic. Three British and one American.
It was noticeable how Jarvis, the sole American voice on the panel, was much less worried about corporate misuse of his private data than he was about Government misuse, while all three of the Brits were just as concerned about the likes of Google and Amazon as they were about the state.
This is not surprising. American suspicion of state authority is ingrained. The foundation of their nation lies in a revolution which we never shared, against peremptory executive power. Their constitution and Bill of Rights is built on the principle of managing and mitigating these excesses; while corporations (which American law does not really distinguish from individuals) are considered to be free citizens. We, on the other hand, have learned to distrust corporations and actually, rather more to trust the state. We see the state as being an essential balance to the excessive power of corporations, while Jarvis considered that the power of the market, of choice, was enough to control corporate excess.
I share with Jarvis a deep distrust of state agents, but I share with the Brits a distrust of corporations. Indeed, I think it is a fatal weakness of US jurisprudence – highlighted in the Supreme Court Case Citizens’ United vs. FEC – that corporations have essentially the same rights as individuals. They do not, yet, have the right to vote; but Citizens United implies that they do have the right to bear arms as well as to unrestricted speech and hence political spending. This will, I think, be the undoing of America. But I digress.
States and corporations are, in my opinion, just two classes of organisation. In connection with states, the relationship of citizenship comes with little choice (although there is a growing modern elite which manages by judicious planning of births, marriages and jobs to accumulate multiple citizenships, particularly of developed nations), but we are free to choose whether or not to use Google, Amazon or Facebook. However, states are accountable to their citizens; Google is accountable only to its shareholders. It has a virtual monopoly on search because its search engine is so good.
I choose to use Gmail for my mail. I know that Google’s servers read my mail and target ads at me; it’s part of the deal. I’m not really worried about that because it is an open part of the deal. Neither do I care that Amazon might know my reading habits. Facebook is a useful utility which I’d probably pay for, and I’m happy to let it pitch ads at me (I have never seen one which seems remotely relevant to my interests). But Google also knows my search history, going back eighteen months at least. I have a Google account and it’s quite possible for Google to link my search history with my profile. It’s much less transparent about this than it is about scanning my emails.
As it happens, I don’t mind Google having this information. It’s mostly pretty dull. It helps to pay for what is now something I couldn’t imagine doing without; I am certainly old enough to remember going to the library to look things up, and Google is much better. But I think they need to be clear what it is they’ve got, how long they’ll keep it, and that they’ll delete it if I ask them to. Despite its lapses, Google is still a relatively benign corporation, but it won’t do that.
Let’s take a more complex case, a pharmaco. Pharmacos have a somewhat chequered history and are not above manipulating the truth. They have been known to suppress research that casts doubt on the safety efficacy of their products. But I take their medicines and we will all live longer because of their work. I’d like them to have access to as much of my private medical data as they need to do the sort of cutting-edge research – particularly in genetic science – that will help them make better medicines. But I’d rather they didn’t share it with the public, or my insurers.
“True, liberal transparency is asymmetrical. As a citizen, I should know everything my government is doing on my behalf, and it should know nothing — beyond those things we have as citizens agreed to share with it — about what I am doing. Public means public, open and transparent, and private means as private as anyone wants to be. In a tyranny, it’s the other way round. The government is secret and private lives are open to government scrutiny.”
I said that. A few posts ago; and it’s still what I mean.
That’s why I admire Edward Snowden’s courage and applaud his flight.
It doesn’t matter that the places he’s fleeing through and towards – China, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela – are all at different stages along the continuum between tyranny and a transparent liberal democracy. Hypocrisy is an easy accusation to make, but is not germane. Snowden, (and Manning), are living martyrs: they are playing in the history of the struggle for transparency, the role slain martyrs have played in other struggles for faith, freedom and conviction. (Assange, one feels, is pursuing martyrdom for its own sake, but now looks like a rather tawdry prophet. He is in danger of doing for the movement what those TV pastors who get caught with their pants down did for televangelism).
The essence of history is to understand the struggle for liberty from tyranny. The course of English History that Mr Gove wants to form the spine of the history curriculum is about that struggle. From the brutal rule of absolute monarchs, gaining concessions through Magna Carta, the reformation, the Civil War, the revolution of 1688, the Napoleonic wars, the abolition of slavery, the Great Reform Act, universal suffrage, the twentieth century’s hot and cold wars against Teutonic imperialism, fascism and Soviet tyranny, the lesson of history always is: do not trust the people in power – whatever colour flag they are carrying. Acton summarised it in less than a Tweet.
In letting technology take over, in allowing the activities of GCHQ and the NSA, we are tiptoeing towards tyranny. Transparency is our best weapon against that tyranny; unless we know what our rulers are doing in our name, we cannot exercise our democratic duty. Public knowledge of their practices lessens their potency, which is why they wanted to keep it secret. We now know all about the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, but at the time their very existence was kept secret because had the enemy known what we were doing the flow of life-saving information would have dried up. Many lives were sacrificed through the use of misinformation to conceal our tenuous grasp on the Enigma code. But times are different now, and we are living in powerful peacetime democracies. The rules that applied during the war can no longer apply, our servants in government must play by tougher ones.
We understand that the people that GCHQ and the NSA target do not share our aspirations of liberty. We applaud the intelligence services’ success in tracking down and preventing attacks on us, and because we know that there are many people who would move us backwards, to different tyrannies, we are willing to give them some latitude, to allow them to snoop a little – even, sometimes, to snoop on us. But it cannot be absolute latitude.
This is obviously the most significant item of transparency news over the last few weeks, and it’s a little remiss of me not to have blogged about it earlier.
I certainly admire Mr Snowden’s courage. I’m not sure I’d have done the same.
But there has been a lot of hysteria about snooping by the NSA; equally, in this country, there’s a lot of concern about the “snooper’s charter”, for which the security services are agitating.
It seems that what the NSA has done is pretty much what the security services want to do here, but which is being blocked by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition.
Let’s try to understand what it is they want. They don’t want to be able to read our emails, but they do want to know who we’ve been emailing. If you stop to think about it, you can see why this is very useful intelligence. If you’ve got a suspect – a young lad behaving oddly at the mosque, say, and you put him under surveillance, then you’d like to know who he’s in touch with. Putting him in a network of connections is clearly very useful intelligence, and I’m not totally averse to the security services being able to do that. Smart use of intelligence is an important tool to combat the effects of terrorism.
Now the NSA would clearly rather we hadn’t known that they were able to do this, and again we can understand – because once the enemy knows what you can find out, he’ll take evasive action. But Edward Snowden thought that it was important that we (and therefore, the enemy) did understand what was being done. I’m sure he’s right. I don’t think the damage to intelligence-gathering, understanding the networks of individuals and organisations concerned, will be that severe. Modern communication tools are too useful for people to do without, and the alternatives are too cumbersome. In any case, if you disrupt the enemy’s communications, by forcing him to use other channels, you make life harder for him.
Slowly but surely the world is coming round to our point of view.
David Cameron is beginning to realise that the problem with tax havens (and their attraction for those who use them) isn’t their low tax rates, it’s their secrecy laws. So the news that he’s managed to persuade the British Crown Dependencies to move towards transparency is very encouraging. Of course, it doesn’t go far enough. But it is a step in the right direction, even if it is one that is likely to have some unintended consequences for the economies of many small Caribbean states.
“Transparency” must not become just another word in soundbite bingo, but for all my interest in the matter, it isn’t the most important thing the G8 has to address.
Obviously, it is Syria.
And there is an opportunity to do something about it, because it is also the most important thing for Mr Rohani. Instead of bickering amongst themselves about which of the raggle-taggle Syrian opposition groups, most of whom are Salafist armed and influenced, we should arm, the West should join Russia and push hard for a serious peace conference. With Mr Rohani and Mr Erdogan at the table.
No preconditions. We must say, clearly, that it doesn’t matter who runs Syria, so long as there is peace. We may think, perfectly reasonably, that it can’t therefore be Mr Assad; but the Russians, equally reasonably think that it can therefore only be Assad. That is what the peace conference has to decide round the table in Geneva rather than over the corpses of yet more Syrians.
The Syria crisis is the most serious Middle-Eastern war yet. More serious than Iran-Iraq or Israel-Egypt. At every level it’s a dangerous conflict. On the ground, Saudi-funded salafists are pushing their noxious genocidal doctrines, the same doctrines that drive the bus-bombings in Quetta and the iconoclasms in Timbuktu. A seventh-century schism over a prophet’s inheritance is being exploited as two oil-rich totalitarian states vie with each other for influence over a diverse and global ummah. The West is being sucked in to supporting the bad guys yet again on the mistaken premise that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. And we all still need the money and oil that comes from Saudi, where the ascetic idealism of an eighteenth-century scholar has been turned into a vicious dogma that, unless confronted, will lead to fulfilment of the twisted prophecies misinterpreted by nutty Americans from the bizarre imagery in the Book of Revelation. Russia’s support for Assad is based partly on old loyalties, partly on a general objection to intervention in the internal affairs of any state, however vile – its own hands being dark-stained with the blood of its own Salafist insurgents, brutally suppressed in Chechnya.
The G8 is nowhere near as influential as it would like to think itself to be. But with Russia at the table, it can present a united front, not about the outcome but about the next step. Everyone has an interest in preventing the further spread of the conflict; and everyone bar a few lunatics funded by the Arab fringe also has an interest in curtailing the spread of Salafism. These two goals are much more important than who’s in charge in Syria.