Monday, 27 March 2017

Utopia for realists..and how we can get there

This well-argued account puts forward a blueprint for radical change, offering a real program for mobilisation and action.

The bold premise of Utopia for Realists is that by implementing the Universal Basic Income (UBI), cutting the working week to 15 hours and opening borders to migration that poverty can largely be eradicated.

Rutger Bergman builds his argument steadily, quoting for example of UBI from an experiment in the City of London in 2009, when 13 men living on the street were given £3,000 a year.

The result was not that they spent it all on alcohol and drugs but on accommodation. After 18 months, seven had a roof over their heads, with two about to move into apartments.

The men had joined classes and reconnected with families. What was more the experiment saved money, with the total cost working out at £50,000, rather than the £400, 000 per annum it was previously costing to keep them on the street.

The UBI case is strengthened with examples from Canada and the US where experiments were conducted in the 1970s, on giving out free money. One particularly intriguing case is how President Richard Nixon endeavoured to get UBI adopted in America, being thwarted finally in the Senate.

The central thrust of Bergman’s argument is that the evidence shows that when given a basic amount of money people act sensibly, they don’t stop working but do have more time for their families and education. Basically, that people are on the whole well intentioned, not lazy and always seeking to cheat the system.

The author goes on to argue for a shorter working week, bringing in the effects of automation in removing much paid work going forward.

The arguments are familiar for those who charted the economic developments of the 1970s. ~Then it looked like the shorter working week and earlier retirement was on the agenda.

Enter the neo-liberalism creed enacted under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which threw everything into reverse. Since that time people have worked longer for less, with requisite increases in levels of stress, mental illness and general unhappiness with life.

Bergman covers a lot of ground in what is a short book but his arguments are well put together and lucid. Too many economic accounts lose the reader in the detail, Bergman’s light touch keeps the reader engaged and up with some new exciting ideas.

Criticism of the book would centre on possibly trying at times to sew together too many ideas at one time, thereby sometimes losing the reader.

There is certainly a lot of ground covered from the inadequacies of Gross Domestic Product as a 21st century measure of international well-being to the effects of automation.

One of the many sobering statistics comes from an Oxford University study that suggests 54% of jobs in Europe are likely to be done by machines in the next 20 years. The figure is 47% for the US.

Bregman attacks what he calls “bullshit jobs.” These are jobs like HR managers, social media strategists and PR advisors who effectively create nothing and could be done without. Indeed, such work is often creating problems. Such jobs are compared unfavourably with valuable jobs like dustmen, farmers and teachers.

Bergman’s answer to the world’s problems is a massive redistribution of wealth, moving from the present grotesque inequalities that sees eight people owning as much of the world’s wealth as half of its population (3.5 billion). The means to achieve such redistribution will be implementation of UBI, a 15 hour working week and taxes on capital and not labour.

He also calls for an opening up of borders, arguing that if developed countries let in just 3% more immigrants that would provide a boost of US$305 billion for the world’s poor. The author notes with some irony how ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; governments around the world have been putting up walls and barriers to stop people moving around.

The program offered by Bergman is a radical challenge to the left. He criticises the left for acquiescing in neo-liberalism, simply being prepared to manage the system better.

He claims the left has now been so beaten back that it only talks in negative terms about what it is against rather than what it is for.

The programme outlined in this book has much to recommend to the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party. Indeed, some of the ideas like UBI are already being considered as central planks of policy. Although, concepts like open borders, might take a bit more selling in the present febrile atmosphere.

Published by Bloomberg,  £16.99

Saturday, 18 March 2017

West Ham made to pay by Leicester, after giving away early goals

West Ham 2-3 Leicester City

Leicester City continued their recent revival with this narrow win over West Ham in a highly entertaining game at the London Stadium.

Manager Craig Shakespeare emphasised his team’s work ethic. “We scored the goals at the right time and knew that hardwork was paramount to success,” said Shakespeare, who confirmed his side had started on the front foot, where they left off against Seville in midweek.

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was taken aback that his side had come away with nothing, having played some of the the best football they have all season in the last half hour. “There were a lot of negatives in the first half, positives in the second,” said Bilic. “We deserved something from the game, we created enough chances.”

In reality, West Ham were always playing catch up having given away a couple of soft goals in the opening minutes before pulling one back, only to once again  let revived England poacher Jamie Vardy nip in for a third in the 37th minute.

The game was a mere four minutes old when a hopeful Riyad Mahrez shot came through a group of players to finish up in the net. The ball bounced and alluded the unsighted home keeper Darren Randolph.

Two minutes later the visitors went two up, after Marc Albrighton nodded on a Mahrez free kick that was then met by the onrushing Robert Huth who headed home.

West Ham struck back in the 19th minute, with the inspiring Manuel Lanzini driving home a free kick from 20 yards, after Michail Antonio was fouled.

Then came Vardy’s goal, meeting a corner in the goal area to ram home.

In the second half, West Ham took almost total control but were constantly thwarted by the outstanding Kasper Schmeichel. Another Lanzine free kick was pushed round the post by Schmeichel at full stretch.

West  Ham reduced the deficit in the 62nd minute when Andy Carroll nodded a corner onto Andre Ayew who headed home.

Schmeichel though stood firm against any further encroachment, denying a Carroll header on the line then a point blank stop as the big striker unleashed a shot in the dying minutes.

So West Ham were once again denied but the fans certainly had good entertainment value for their money out of this match.

Monday, 13 March 2017

How ironic to see the actions of the Tory Party destroying the Union – as Nicola Sturgeon’s call for another Scottish independence referendum makes Brexit look a whole lot less likely

How amusing it is to see the actions of the Conservative and Unionist party systematically dismembering the Union that it allegedly holds so dear.

First, David Cameron carries through on his reckless decision to hold a referendum on EU membership. The arrogance of the man, that history is likely to judge to be one of the worst individuals to ever hold the office of Prime Minister, saw the leave side triumph.

Now, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has called for another referendum on Scottish independence – premised in the main on the sovereignty of the Scottish people in deciding they want to remain in the EU.

Sturgeon would seem likely to win such a referendum, given the narrowness of the defeat last time and the role that the then powerful Labour Party in Scotland played in securing a no vote. Let’s not forget the important role played in Scotland by leading Labour figures like Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling in securing the no vote. Labour saved the day for Cameron back then. He failed to learn the lesson though, blundering on to defeat on the EU referendum.

If Scotland goes ahead with the referendum this must stop UK negotiations to leave the EU in their tracks. Leaving the EU is already complex enough but will become a whole lot more so if Scotland becomes an independent country wishing to stay in the EU. The EU will simply refuse to negotiate until the Scottish referendum is complete.

The Brexit vote has also helped push the cause of Irish unification, bringing the north and south of Ireland together again in a desire to remain in the EU. And surely it can only be a matter of time before the penny drops with the Welsh – as those EU subsidies disappear – and they realise that too that it maybe better in the EU than outside.

So what a fine old pickle the Tories have got into over the Union. Cameron set the wheels in motion but Theresa May’s arrogant refusal to take on the concerns of those who want to remain in the EU – across Scotland, Ireland, London and some of the north - has helped make a bad situation a whole lot worse. Though for remainers, the actions of Sturgeon in calling for a new referendum must make the chances of ever really leaving the EU a bit remote.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Deceptively comfortable win, as Chelsea dismiss West Ham enroute to the Premier league title

West Ham 1-2 Chelsea
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was probably being over generous when he suggested if West Ham had scored their consolation goal in the 85th rather than the 92nd minute his side could have been in trouble.
Always the perfectionist, Conte was disappointed that his side had lost the clean sheet at the death, to Manuel Lanzini’s late goal. However, this should not take away from the dominance that Chelsea displayed for the whole of this match at the London stadium.
The game started off evenly with the two sides largely cancelling each other out in the middle of the pitch.
This all changed though in the 24th minute, with West Ham losing the ball to N’Gola Kante just outside their penalty area. The speed of counter attack of the visitors was breath taking, with Kante feeding Eden Hazard whose one-two with Pedro saw him set free to round keeper Darren Randolph and score.
West Ham almost hit back in the 40th minute when Robert Snodgrass put Lanzini through but he shot over.
Chelsea could have doubled their lead just before half time but for a double block from first Winston Reid and then Randolph.
The momentum though remained with the visitors after the break,  Diego Costa stealing in unchallenged to knock home Cesc Fabregas’s corner.
West Ham were then unlucky to see Sofiane Feghouli’s drive saved by Thibaut Courtois and a possible hand ball against Marcos Alonso denied.  
The clear difference between the sides was the speed and direction of counter attack from Chelsea. West Ham tended to be predictable passing the ball across the field, always looking to get Snodgrass or Sofiane Feghouli down the flanks to cross for Carroll in the centre.
Notably, the Chelsea centre backs were able to deal with Carroll, which severely reduced the West Ham threat.
West Ham boss Slaven Bilic was pleased that his team were getting in the crosses. “We wanted more players in the box though, not just Andy,” said Bilic, who believes that Chelsea will win the Premier league. “They will finish on top. If you compare them with other title contenders, Chelsea are more solid than Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.”
Conte believes that his team will retain their 10 point lead at the top of the table until the end of the season. “This league will be tough to the end, it won’t be easy. I trust my players to show commitment and work hard,” said Conte.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Is Theresa May really as economically illiterate as her immigration based stance on Brexit tends to suggest?

The pronouncements of Prime Minister Theresa May on Brexit are at face value economically incoherent.

Can the Prime Minister be seriously contemplating cutting links with the single market – Britain’s largest trading area – because she really believes that “securing the borders” is a more important priority?

The need to secure the borders, a hardly concealed code for keeping out migrants, is a total nonsense. The borders are secure or if they aren’t a lot of public money is being expended on the Borders Agency and a myriad of private supporting companies charged with attaining that goal.

The whole Brexit vote it seems was increasingly prefaced on a number of lies. Foremost among these was the migrant myth, namely that migrants were all flocking in for benefits because Britain is an easy touch. Among the migrants were criminals and wrongdoers.

Now to leave the la la land of Express and Daily Mail story telling, the reality is somewhat different.

Migrants come to the UK predominantly to work or study. It has been their contribution among other things that has led to the buoyancy of the UK economy. If the work were not here neither would the migrants be.

During the EU referendum debate the good news story on immigration rarely surfaced. If it had people would understand that migration was not the cause of growing levels of poverty across the land.

Some facts. 17% of the workforce is made up of non-British born workers (that is 5.4 million of a 31.6 million workforce). This has increased from 8% in 2000.

Some 19% of NHS workers are foreign born. The IPPR think tank has warned that the NHS would “collapse” without its EU workers.

Education is a major growing sector for the UK economy, with foreign students estimated to contribute £11.8 billion.

A study by University College London found that European migrants made a net contribution  of £20 billion to UK public finances between 2000 and 2011.

Many of the migrant workforce is made up of single people who work here for a while but then go home. They pay taxes for which they do not receive the requisite public services in return. Net winner the British tax payer.

Migrant labour is also needed to meet skills shortages, that become particularly stark when the reducing ratio between the young (under 16s) and the old (over 65s) are taken into account.

If UK citizens want to retain their present level of public services then the revenue generated by migrant workers - as well as those workers themselves - are desperately needed.

The fact there has been free movement over recent years is a major factor in the buoyancy of the British economy. Ironically, it has been the high level of migrants coming into the UK over recent years compared to other European countries that has contributed to the strength of the economy here compared to elsewhere.

Given, all of the aforesaid, how incredible to hear the Prime Minister welcoming the news that there are now fewer EU nationals coming to the UK, post Brexit. This PM seems to hang onto the ridiculous ideal of the former occupant of the office that it is a good thing to reduce net migration down to the tens of thousands. This is an economically illiterate position for any leader of a political party to adopt.

The one way to really reduce migration is to destroy the economic base. An economy in recession will not offer the jobs , so migrants will not be coming. This position in reality is the one the PM seems to be saying she wants above all else, when she puts controlling immigration above trade with our neighbours.

All of that said migration has not been handled well over the past couple of decades, Migrants have been allowed to come in and used by unscrupulous employers – including private householders wanting work done on the cheap to their properties – to undercut the pay and terms and conditions of the indigenous workforce. This effective use of migration as an unofficial incomes policy has led to some of the grievances that helped to build the anti-migrant atmosphere.

These problems could have been addressed by having a higher minimum wage, that was stringently enforced. Also, no undercutting of terms and conditions, whilst ensuring the migrant labourers joined trade unions.

The problem with the EU referendum debate was that people were fed a pack of lies to the effect that all of their problems were due to migrants and the EU. The reality was most of their problems emanated from the banking crisis of 2008 and the austerity policies that followed.

The result has been large numbers of people across the country seeing their wages flatline or reduce. The banks have got away with ripping off the tax payer for huge amounts of money and continue to do so.

The direction of anger toward the scapegoats of migrants and the EU has largely resulted from a number of unscrupulous MPs lying to the electorate and the cacophony of xenophobic ill informed racist coverage of issues like immigration in the right wing media.

The great irony of the result of the referendum is that the mass of the people who voted to leave the EU together with everyone else stand to become poorer. Wages will not rise but prices will courtesy of the falling pound.

The attacks on migrants are making this country seem like a hostile place, so fewer are coming = this will have huge implications for the economy as a whole and the education sector in particular. It is reported that the number of foreigners looking to attend further education institutions in the UK is plummeting.

The net effect is less money for public services, like education, health, care and transport.

So is the PM really as daft as a number of her recent pronouncements on Brexit  suggest? Or is it all window dressing for a new deal with the EU that can be to the benefit of all. We all have to hope it is the latter. But given the positive reaction to the news of reduced numbers of migrants coming to the UK and begging bowl approach of British ministers seemingly trotting round the world looking for whatever trade deals the likes of the US, Australia and New Zealand will offer I would not bet on it.

Published New Internationalist - 2/3/2017 -

Tribune - 11/3/2017

Monday, 20 February 2017

City of London Corporation can't event fix the toilets in Wanstead Park, so what hope is there for the other work that needs doing?

At a recent public meeting about open spaces, the Superintendent of Epping, Forest Paul Thomson assured that problems in Wanstead Park are being dealt with but it will take time. Some of the more cynical in the audience saw this as another case of jam tomorrow, with the City of London Corporation constantly kicking problems down the road. The water emptying out of the lakes was one example raised - it was suggested that as well as restoring water supplies that the debris now clogging up the waterways could be removed. To date, nothing has happened.
On another level, there is the issue of the shut toilets at the Temple. The toilets were vandalised a few months ago and apparently this means the toilets now remain permanently shut. We now have the bizarre situation of dog walkers running around clearing up after their animals but having nowhere to go to the toilet themselves. Newsflash for the Corporation, human beings need toilets too.
This is but another example of the negligent approach to our local park. A local builder could have sorted out the toilet problem in days but no better to leave it and do nothing. How much longer are the City of London Corporation going to get away with this ongoing failure to manage our precious open space?

Published Wanstead & Woodford Guardian and Wanstead & Woodford Recorder - 16/2/2017

Friday, 17 February 2017

Neo liberalism has brought huge inequality, Trump and Brexit ..surely the time has come to roll back this damaging idealogy

The operation of the neo-liberal economic system for the past 40 years has brought the country (world) to a situation of growing inequalities. A small group get ever wealthier, whilst the huge mass of people remain relatively poorer.

This situation is a complete reversal of the way things operated under the post war economic settlement, when there was a gradual closure of the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

It is not coincidental that in the 1970s, when the inequality gap was narrowest people were at their happiest.

The continuation of the post war Keynsian inspired settlement was moving toward shorter working weeks, more leisure time and earlier retirements.

Then came the neo-liberal governments of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan et al which slammed this progress into reverse. Inequality grew,  people worked longer for less and are now retire later and later.

Only now are the real fissures of the neo-liberal way of operating beginning to become apparent.

The first tremor came with the banking crisis of 2008, however, this was dealt with by the elites, effectively ensuring that the mass of people paid for the bankers recklessness. The uber rich once again came out very well.

In Britain, the austerity narrative was sold better than soap. In a strange way the British seemed to want to believe it. The reality was that the deficit continued to grow, whilst the excuse of austerity was used to justify the privatisation of public services.

More recently the dissatisfaction of the masses has been evidenced in the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in the US. Many people are unhappy because they have become the victims of this unfair, unequal system.

The trouble is another fairy tale, courtesy of a supine media, has been sold. Brexit, no matter what the left in Britain might say was sold on the back of anti-migrant xenophobia. The electorate was lied to, resulting in many believing that their problems were due to immigration and the EU. There are valid reasons for leaving the EU but they were not the ones on the basis of which people voted in June.

A similar feeling of disenfranchisement by the elites occurred in the US, resulting in the election of Trump.

The weakening of the trade union movement has also contributed to this unequal society. Unions play a key role in ensuring a more even distribution of wealth. The legalistic restrictions continually pursued by Conservative governments and not rolled back by Labour ones have contributed to weakening the trade union movement.
The only way to start rolling back the present unequal system is to create a new economic system. Some suggestions to get us on the way would include taxing the rich and corporations more heavily. It is a scandal that while tax payers pay to educate the workforce, corporations then employ that workforce but often pay little tax by way of recompense.

The implementation of  a higher living wage and bringing in a universal basic income (not at the cost of the welfare state) would also help.

Trade unions need strengthening and basic labour standards need enforcing, so that those in work cannot be undermined by bringing in other labour from outside the country.

These suggestions are a very basic start, what is required is to build a whole new alternative model, drawing on some of the better elements of policy in the last 70 years. Failure to do so will see inequalities and discontent continue to grow, resulting in more Trump like scenarios, and when these are also seen to fail, a more violent and sporadic outburst  of frustration on the streets. It is in everybodies interests from the rich to the poorest that a new more equal justice system is developed.

*published Morning Star - we have to end this inequality - 22/2/2017