Saturday, 1 January 2011

Back with a vengeance

I've been quiet for a very long time.
There are excuses galore. And they are all good.
But there is only one reason. And it's all bad.

I got sidetracked by work and travel and missed a week and then another. And by the time I had the opportunity to write there was so much to say. Too much to say. And I choked on my own anger

But really, I've had so much to say that I have been virtually silenced.
But as ever, something happens that is too much to bear. Too funny. Too ridiculous. Too bad.
In my case, it was a televised debate on pension reform on American TV.
The TV was on in the back ground while I was unpacking my bags during yet another business trip (and let me tell you, the glamour wears off fast).

Now normal people start dozing when pension reform is mentioned but not I. The geek within pricked its ears and I kept it on, half listening as I was settling in. The debate was civilised, considering, but I was struck by the single-sidedness of it all. 'no democrat on the panel' I thought to myself 'that's just ridiculous'. So clutching a pack of jumpers to my chest I stood trying to figure out how they could get away with having no democrat on the panel.

It is preposterous to expect to retire before the age of 75, said one panelist.
Republican, thought I, and put the jumpers away.
We should tax unearned income at the same rates as earned income, says another panelist. Ah finally, I think to myself as I pull out skirts and jackets, speaking of taxation as redistribution, not punishment.
Oh how wrong I was.
The unearned income the lady was referring to was not inherited millions and trust fund security. It was pocket money given to children for helping grandparents with the groceries and baby sitting money handed to a young cousin on a Saturday night.

I stopped dead on my tracks, shoe bags in hand.
Income? Did we really just refer to pocket money and an pretext for a bit of help being passed around families as 'income'?
Republican, I thought. Of the worst kind.
Assuming all money is fair game. As if money for bread and money for diamonds has the same value. As if 'taxing unearned income' in this context didn't just mean double taxing the poor. And the Mexicans.
Bloody racist, right wing, self-righteous pigs who always think that poverty and misery are diseases afflicting other people, I thought to myself.
Not my finest hour. Rather uncharitble. Not all that nuanced.
But give me a break. I was jet lagged. I was tired. I get all worked up about social policy. And things were only going to get worse.

As anger is bad for my karma, I decided I had had enough but as I reached out to turn the TV off I heard the offending panelist extolling the virtues of President Obama.
Oh the horror.
She is a democrat.
A. Democrat.
Unapologetic. Unaware.
I felt cheated. I got angry. Seething. And I stayed angry.
That was fun for my colleagues, let me tell you. But they got over it, whereas I didn't.

When exactly was it that we stopped believing that things can change? When was it that we, the human race, collectively resigned ourselves to the fact that the way things are is the way things will always be, apart from the times when they just get worse?
'We need to be realistic' said the panelists. And what they meant was: we need to give little, care little, change little.
'We need to be realistic' say the coalition of the damned in the UK. And what they mean is dare little, probe little, concede little.
'We need to be realistic' say the Greek authorities. And what they mean is we refuse to take responsibility for the violence that ravages our society and the misery that has come to define us.

Well sod that.
If realistic means resigned, cowardly, settled then count me out.
If realism entails ditching all your dreams and just sitting out the game then realism is the enemy.

I've said it before and I will say it again: citizenship is not a spectator sport.
Society is not other people.
The future is not written.
Citizenship is made up of caring, acting and turning up.
Society is you.
And the future is what you make of it.
And if we are to stand a chance, people, 2011 had better be the year of unrealism.

We need not be realistic any more – let's face it, we've been realistic for so long now and look where that got us? We need to dream, we need to hope, we need to dare.
2011. Brand new year. As good a time to start as any.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

New Year's Resolution

Dear Readers. Dear Friends.
You have faith. You have patience.
I have no excuse.

No that's not right.
I have many excuses.
But no reasons. None good enough anyway.

So thanks for bearing with me. Thanks for waiting for me.
I will be back in the New Year. I shall blog.
With the same anger and renewed intensity.
With the same indignation and increased frequency.

I shall blog.
In the meantime, merry christmas everybody.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Economics for dummies aka us

I don’t know why we bother with government and the IMF in Greece.
The sort of policies we end up with could have been devised by a 7-year old who read the back flap of an economics textbook while waiting for his mum to take him to school.

Ignoring the complicated charts, omitting the long words, leaving out the hard bits involving money supply, employment statistics, growth, sustainability and other such luxuries that Greece has no time for anyway, our industrious 7-year old understands the basics and proceeds from there.

The first idea he grasps is that governments need cash and cash comes from taxes so let’s increase those because we need loads of cash. And since he’s only 7, he can’t be expected to come up with convoluted systems for establishing how taxation is to be calculated and collected. He can’t be expected to assess equitable burden sharing or sensible collection timings. He can’t be expected to ponder on the free rider problem or tackle tax evasion. He’s 7 for crying out loud. He has realised taxes are needed so he shall collect taxes by extraordinary collections. It’s simpler that way. I need, I take.

The second idea he grasps from the blurb at the back of his ‘economics for dummies’ book is that any economy needs people to spend money in order to keep going. Stimulating consumer spending is indeed a vital parameter in overcoming a recession so our 7 year old has done well here. But how can you make sure people spend? Especially when times are hard, salaries low, basic goods expensive and the financial insecurity of the job market is exacerbated by 7 year olds imposing extraordinary tax collections?

Well, how does mum make sure you brush your teeth before bed? She makes you.

So, our 7 year old has sensibly concluded that, if you need people to spend in order to stimulate the economy, then you make them spend. And if they don’t spend enough – ‘enough’ here being determined on the basis of what the state believes you make and what the state believes you should be able to ‘spare’ – then you get fined.
It’s neat, it’s simple, it works. And if you are 7, it also shows rare acumen.

Only the Greek Prime Minister is not 7.
And he should know that increased taxation, extraordinary collections and fines on under-spending based on income assumptions made on the basis of tax return figures simply squeezes one segment of your population dry: The ones who pay taxes already. The ones who declare their income already. The ones that are doing what they can already.
In a country where tax evasion is an epidemic, the government’s tax policy penalises those who fail to tax evade. The government is punishing the good guys.

What would my 7 year old have to say about that?
He’d say that if you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, then you might as well not and at least stand a chance of not getting caught. But he’d also tell you that his mummy never taught him that. His mummy taught him to be good. His mummy taught him that being good is never punished.

And although, given his age, he’s doing a decent enough job at understanding the bare bones of economics 101, which is all he is going to need if he chooses to go into government, his mummy is really doing a lousy job preparing him for his subsequent career as a Greek citizen and taxpayer.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Citizenship is not a spectator sport

Let me start by outing myself: the title is not mine. The line is Robert Putnam's but it's so good, so succinct and so, well, true that I am stealing it and stealing it with pride. I dare say he'd approve.
Democracy. Citizenship. Voting. And we are done till the next time. Right?
Right. If what you want to end up with is Greece.
No? Didn't think so.

So here's the low down.
Greece has a mammoth fiscal crisis and a deep economic crisis. Money supply issues collide with the net deficit in economic outputs across the board; add to that financial mis-management, corruption and the almost total absence of industry and manufacturing, the decline of agriculture and tourism and the untouchability of shipping and you have Greece in the year of our Lord 2010.
And yes our governments are to blame. All of them, since 1974.
And, of course, citizenship does come in, in as far as we voted for them but really what choice did we have? Lesser evil at best. Devil you know at worst.
Citizenship in representative democracies is not all it's cracked up to be. And whatnot.
Political corruption, venality, patronage, complete lack of transparency and accountability all conspire to make politics a sordid occupation anyway. Good people don't run for office and citizens know better than to take the whole damn mess seriously.

So the economic crisis comes with a deep stateness crisis, profound legitimacy deficits and endemic institutional malfunctioning that is never addressed so it only gets worse with time.
And when real problems hit, delays, poor decision-making and finger pointing are the order of the day. Even though real lives may be at risk.

Take this week, for instance.
Our national outstanding debt to medical suppliers and ill-advised attempts to bring down the cost of medications by 35% meant that the pharmas are simply redicrecting supplies away from Greece leaving the country with a serious shortage in, among other things, insulin.
While the government are negotiating down, stalling and scribbling out figures a suspended death sentence is hovering over the country's 800,000 diabetics. There are no two ways about it. The government is failing us. And there is nothing we can do right now.

So we are victims, really. Of our circumstances and our governments. Of our own choices and our own powerlessness. There is nothing we can do. There is nothing we could have done.
We 'called' it, you know. We saw it coming. We shook our heads at the television screen.
But what can one person do?

The answer to that is unequivocal and simple. One person can do everything. Anything. All of it. Or none of it.
You make your bed and you sleep in it.
Of course our governments are to blame. But so are we.
Not because we voted them in. But because we decided that once that was done, citizenship was over till next time.
So we lived within our concentric circles of home, family, clan and patronage bonds. Never feeling responsible for the butterfly effects of our choices and actions. Never thinking that people we don't directly know matter. That we should matter to them. That community is only real if enough people act like it already exists. And unless you act like it exists then it doesn't. Simple as.
Never stopping to think that 'it's no skin off my nose' is the sort of attitude that sustains dictatorships, allows environmental destruction to go on unchecked and breeds the perfect environment for abuses of all kinds.
We are to blame for everything, because we did nothing. Nothing to stop bad stuff from becoming endemic. Nothing to make good stuff part of the picture.

And before the cynics call me naïve, please do some reading.
Civic engagement and civil society participation are statistically positively correlated with economic prosperity, political stability, personal health and well-being, crime reduction – and the list goes on. Engaging with the community builds trust in human interactions and faith in other people. It creates a shared purpose and the conviction that change is possible. It makes corruption seem less of a necessary evil and more of an unacceptable and unaffordable transaction cost. It makes inefficiency seem less unavoidable and failure less inevitable.
Civic engagement teaches people that the personal is the political and back again.
And it teaches people to take responsibility for their actions and expect others to do the same.

I just heard of someone being mugged at needlepoint in front of the National Theatre in the heart of Athens. Junkie, used needle and fear.
Who's fault is that? Who's responsibility? Who's problem?
No-one's, everyone's, yours. Mine.

Greeks were never ones for civil society.
Civic connectedness outside the home, caring and contributing outside the family, protecting and nurturing outside the clan, that's not how we roll.
And now that our streets are full of the homeless and desperate, every street corner crowded with prostitutes and every step shadowed by beggars, now what do we think of social connectedness? Nothing. We think nothing.
We think foreign mafias are to blame for the increase in crime rates and prostitution. We think the influx of immigrants can explain the rising numbers of rough sleepers. We think successive corrupt governments and continuous bad governance explain the state of affairs.
We think we are victims. We think there is nothing we can do.
So we do nothing. We watch and wait and despair.
Because we are convinced there is no other way. Because we have forgotten that citizenship is not a spectator sport.
Because we have forgotten one basic fact of life: if you want change, you need to make it. If you want things to get better, you need to get up, roll your sleeves up and join the fray.

If you want a future then there is only one way to look at this whole damn mess:
Our country. Our community. Our problem.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Back in business - and it's business as usual all round

About time I broke the radio silence, don't you think?

You will be pleased to hear – one hopes – that I am not dead and neither have I given up blogging. But despite the obvious raw material over the past few weeks, I have found the situation in Greece too overwhelming to write about and the UK election too underwhelming to write about.
So radio silence it was.

Not because I've lost my interest in politics, not because I've lost my sense of profound engagement with, well, everything but because my usual outrage has recently been replaced by stunned disbelief and an ever-spreading sadness.

But I will confess that I have been perking up recently.
Things in Greece are stable for the time being, which is the best one can hope for; this United Kingdom of ours has a government and it's not an all-blue one (thank god for small mercies) and the World Cup is about to kick off. What's not to like?

Although the French Open is keeping me from switching back to the news channels as frequently as my natural proclivities would demand, there is no avoiding the fact that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is still not off the headlines, with six weeks of recriminations and environmental horror pushing us inexorably towards a criminal investigation, empty talk and an as yet unknown impact on our life and health as a species.
At least BP's shares plummeted by 13% yesterday. As I was saying. Small mercies.
According to the Guardian this was the worst one-day fall for 18 years for what was once Britain's most valuable company.

But have the mighty fallen?
Will Obama ban BP from operating in the US? For a time? For ever? Will he take the whole industry to task? Will he find scapegoats and allow the industry at large to proceed in a business-as-usual fashion?

Business-as-usual is a powerful motivator.
Keep things ticking over, restore public confidence, avoid dips in the stock-market, work-force contractions and costly regulatory adjustments.
Of course it all makes sense.
Until the next time we fail to prevent bad things from happening because we focused more on functional continuity than systemic soundness.

Big words, fancy talk and yada yada but it's not just oil spills I'm talking about.
We seem to be living in a chicken-and-egg, told-ya-so universe where nothing gets fixed for fear of missing a beat.
Issues big and small don't get dealt with until they explode and then all they get is a band aid.
If Britain had a different electoral system, legitimacy would not be such an elusive concept for its elected representatives but to achieve electoral reform you need to disrupt government business-as-usual for at least 5 minutes and we can't be having that.
If Greece streamlined and cleaned up its state sector then you wouldn't need to worry about having to bail them out again in 10 years or this current bailout going off track. But cleaning up the public sector will delay the implementation of the bailout and we can't be having with that.
And on and on, business-as-usual.

And forgive the cynicism when I say this, but what was Israel's raid on the aid shipment to Gaza other than business-as-usual? They do their thing, counting on the world's obsession with moving on and going back to normal.
Bullets, zodiacs full of soldiers and submarines. Outrage. Riots, Diplomats shaking their heads and the threat of an investigation.
Oh no, now the Israelis are shaking in their wee boots.

Are we missing something?
With at least 9 dead and insane confusion around what exactly the Israelis were thinking, the explanation that Israel is a big bully isn't quite enough to cover the 'what the hell?' moment we all had when we heard the news a couple of days ago.

And my overwhelming sadness threatens to return.

What sort of a world is this?
So we'll get an investigation. And Israel may even get a slap on the wrist. While everything will be moving back towards business-as-usual. And we can't even hope for small mercies.
Hilary Clinton described the situation in Gaza as 'unsustainable'. At last she noticed.
Now what Hilary dear? Now what?
Now nothing. Now, it's business as usual.

And the cherry on the cake of world madness?
Snazzy, cuddly, pretty Apple had to deal with the embarrassing news of a string of worker suicides allegedly linked to horrible working conditions at the Chinese factory where iPhones and iPads are assembled. Oh the irony.
Steve Jobs must be hating the job now, having to comment on the intimation that cuddly Apple is using sweatshops for fabricating its fancy toys.
And nothing. Apple is selling like mad, overtaking Microsoft as the world's largest technology company by market value and iPads are selling like hotcakes. And although the US justice department is making preliminary inquiries into whether Apple unfairly dominates the digital music market through its iTunes store, it's business-as-usual for Apple despite it all.

If it's business-as-usual for everyone; if all we can hope for is small mercies; if I-told-ya-so is the best we can do, then it better be business-as-usual for me too. Because I may not be able to change a damn thing but I can roll my eyes at the newspapers and shake my fist in anger.
In short, I'm back. Yeah yeah, small mercies indeed.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Greece riots on every TV screen.
3 dead.
And I have no words.
Only silent despair.
And tears.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Election special: vote to change how you vote

Election-time in the UK is fast approaching so get your party hats on and sing a happy song, for it is election time and we have all fallen into the trap of watching the leaders' debate and reading the rankings as if they mattered.
Don't they? You ask.
Of course they don't, I reply – and not, for once, just to be controversial.

The leaders' debate is interesting. It shows you how photogenic your new prime minister will be. How good a debater. How good at repeating or creating sound-bites. It may even give you a tiny little glimpse of what his politics will be like once elected, but let's not get over-excited. These guys are trying to get elected, not give you an insight on how realism and constraints on the ground influence policy-making in real life.

The numbers that we all pore over the morning after each debate are also interesting. But ultimately completely misleading.
So we know who the country, overall, would vote for if choosing a prime minister across the nation was how we voted over here. But it ain't so the figures we look at are no use at all in understanding what will happen with the election. They would and could be useful in another place, one with oh I don't know a proportional representation electoral system, perhaps? But this is not that place and looking at those figures is not simply a waste of time, it is a deeply misleading political proposition.

First past the post, folks.
That means you vote for your MP, not your PM.
Yes, yes I know you often actually just choose a party; often not even knowing what your local MP stands for – although you really should not be doing that because that is not how electoral responsibility works in this country but that's another conversation for another time. And yes you vote 'Labour' but you voting Labour doesn't necessarily help Labour get elected. Or the Lib Dems, more to the point.

Diffuse support all over the country is no good whatsoever for making it into government in this United Kingdom of ours. You need concentrated support in a winning number of constituencies. That doesn't even mean a majority in said constituencies. It just means more than the other guys.
An excellent system for choosing your MPs who will then go on to form a government. A pretty poor system for choosing a presidential-style Prime Minister or which party you want in government.

So cut back to the debates.
You look at the three of them and make your choice. 'I'll have Clegg. I like his politics, I like his wife, I like that he doesn't do God, he's my sort of guy'.
And now what?
In a PR system if you vote Lib Dem, you've voted Lib Dem. Your votes towards both your local MP and the government swing the same way. But what about here? You vote Lib Dem and maybe your candidate gets the seat and you are home free. But if not? You may actually be helping the bad guys (whoever you deem them to be) get into government.
Does that matter?
It depends. If you think you are choosing a government on polling day, it matters a great deal.
And our parties seem to want us to choose a government, to select a premier and only as an afterthought also choose our MPs on polling day.
Which is fine, it is how many countries successfully run their democracies after all. But their electoral system fits the way their election is being fought so at least the numbers add up. Most of the time. All things being equal.

So now what?
We are in the land in-between, where the way we are encouraged to vote by party political broadcasts, manifestos, debates and advertising has absolutely no connection to the way we actually vote, the way our vote counts or is counted. Voters in Wonderland and through the looking glass nothing is as it seems so you don't get what you bargained for.

Electoral reform is needed, my friends. Or a return to fighting a pre-election campaign that is suitable to our electoral system.
Eliminating the disconnect between the choice we are given and the way we can make it is the only way to help democracy remain vibrant and relevant in this country. So. If you want to give me presidential-style debates, if you want me to think of politics at party-level and in terms of sweeping national mandates, give me a voting system that allows me to make those choices without unwittingly helping re-elect the people I wanted out in the first place.

Democracy needs informed, responsible voters or it perishes.
So here we are .
Traditionally the main defense of the current system has been its empowering simplicity.
But the simplicity is outdated and its guardians are making the most of the disconnect between the way we vote and the way those votes are counted. Apart from Clegg. He's honest about the need for electoral reform – especially as he stands to gain from it most of all.
Actually, that's not true.
He stands to gain more than any other party.
But the real victor, that would be us. You. The voters. The people.
So power to us, damn it. It is a democracy after all.
And although we tend to forget all about participation between elections, let's at least remember on polling day.
And make it count.
If not in the grand scheme of things then let's at least make the numbers add up.