Dead Men Left

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Irish and Bangladeshi

I know you don't read the Telegraph opinion pages in the expectation of enlightment, but this drivel from Rosemary Behan is more than usually irksome. The argument, in summary, to save you reading the thing: my dad was Irish and he didn't blow himself up, so these Bangladeshis must be refusing to integrate.

I wonder if it might be worth reminding Behan of just how Irish immigrants were greeted when they started arriving in Britain in numbers, because - curiously - the welcome offered was not universal. Many unpleasant things were said. They had a suspicious foreign religion; they were idle, feckless and workshy, lurking in groups on street corners; they had huge families of dependent children; they sponged off hard-working Britons - and later, they were terrorists.

It's a strangely familiar list. Playing migrant top trumps is profoundly wrong because of it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Golden Rule and New Labour's political economy

Wynne Godley on the Golden Rule - Gordon Brown's grand commitment to only borrowing to fund investment, and keeping government finances in the black over the course of an economic cycle. Godley points out that, given the way national income is distributed between consumer and government expenditure, investment, and net exports, the maintenance of the Golden Rule depends on significant assumptions about how consumers and businesses respond to different incentives:

More fundamentally, the budget balance is equal to the difference between the government's receipts and outlays, but it is also equal, by definition, to the sum of private net saving (personal and corporate combined) plus the balance of payments deficit.

If the private sector decides to save more, the government has no choice but to allow its budget deficit to rise unless it is prepared to sacrifice full employment; the same thing applies if uncorrected trends in foreign trade cause the balance of payments deficit to increase.

A sensible target for the budget balance cannot be set unless it is integrated into a view about what will happen to autonomous trends and propensities in private net saving and foreign trade. Moreover, as those trends and propensities change, it will never be possible to determine viable targets for the deficit that are fixed through time such as, for instance, that it should never exceed some number such as 3 per cent of GDP or that it should on average be zero.

This all seems quite correct. I wonder, though, how far the Golden Rule has acted precisely as a means of leading (and even disciplining) the major private financial institutions that largely determine savings and investment behaviour. The actual "autonomy" of "trends and propensities in private net saving" may be miniscule relative to the influence of, say, consumers' access to credit and financial instruments. Elsewhere, Godley has rightly picked up on the huge change in private saving behaviour that the deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s brought about. There no compelling reasons to suppose that institutional influences on saving and borrowing have become weaker since then.

Maintenance of the Golden Rule, in other words, is not only a problem of economic management, as Godley points out, but of political economy: of the attempt to organise large institutional blocks so they work in a certain direction. Under a relatively free market capitalism, this central organisation can only be performed somewhat indirectly, with the central bank and financial ministries attempting to give a lead. Devices like the Golden Rule matter in so far as they credibly commit the government to acting in a certain way and managing the economy under relatively clear parameters. This, in turn, signals to private financial institutions how they are expected to behave.

It's a sort of bargain between the two parties, and it's why both the Golden Rulen and the independence of the Bank of England have been so critical for New Labour. Both have enabled the government to maintain its relationship with private capital in a certain form - one best suited to the low-saving, low-interest economic environment that has secured successive New Labour governments.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Since I'm here... something on the tensions inside the Left Party:

With the Linkspartei’s initial success a debate has arisen. We want a new left — but what should it look like? How should it differ from the old left?

The process of forming the new party has brought together very different political forces—former SPD members, trade union officials, activist from the anti-globalisation movement, the revolutionary left and now the PDS.

These forces are united in their opposition to neo-liberalism, but they have different outlooks on the political tasks ahead. A majority, including Oskar Lafontaine, wants to follow a strategy of “reclaiming our party” — albeit outside the SPD. This would involve forming a new SPD, standing on the vision of the welfare state the SPD had during the 1970s.

I'd tend, at this point, to see these arguments as evidence of a healthy dynamic within the organisation rather than its degeneration. That dynamic tension depends on maintaining some relationship to a working-class base; no doubt many fresh debates will erupt immediately following the election, but at the moment the Left Party is storming along.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Busy. Seriously. Again. Posting probably a bit sporadic for the next fortnight. Try Lenin's Tomb. Meanwhile, Jamie at B&T catches Blair (Ian variety) in a revealing moment.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Democracy and free-market not linked (therefore bomb Iran)

Direland flags up a study in the forthcoming Foreign Affairs:

It's a finger in the eye for the likes of the Times' Tom Friedman and other prophets of the beneficial effects of globalization: a new study of 150 countries, to appear in the September-October issue of the archi-establishment journal Foreign Affairs (published by the Council on Foreign Relations), demonstrating how the conventional wisdom which says that free market economies inevitably bring democracy in their wake is a myth.

There's a preview of the article, by de Mesquita and Downs, in the International Herald Tribune. I'm not so sure about an unconditional thumbs-up, however. What de Mesquita and Downs present will be read as support for a neo-conservative argument: the free-market alone isn't enough: we have to reinforce its beneficial effects with deliberate "democratization", by force if needed. The happy way in which the authors throw Hugo Chavez in alongside Vladimir Putin is one indicator; but only by decoupling economic questions from the strictly political is it possible to confuse the two. Bat has more on democratic revolutions, over at Lenin's Tomb.

Punctured souffles

The "second Edwardian summer of globalisation":

Here in the UK, the government boasts proudly about its stewardship of the economy, when all the evidence is that activity collapses like a punctured souffle as soon as action is taken to restrain property speculation. Britain's manufacturing sector is a hollowed-out shell, claimant-count unemployment has risen for six months in a row, the Bank of England is at war with itself over whether interest rates should be cut, and the only person who believes there is not a gaping black hole in the public finances is the chancellor of the exchequer, of whom very little has been seen or heard since the election.

A slight change in tune from "Brown is the first Chancellor to make Keynes work", but fair enough. Not quite sure if Larry Elliot's predicting a cataclysm on the scale of 1914, or if he's just getting a bit carried away by the French "no" vote.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Euro, Keynesianism, and all that

Incidentally, the combination of the French no vote and a significant left presence in the German parliament would put a huge amount of strain on the Euro:

HSBC said Germany might choose to leave in order to cut real interest rates, regain control of fiscal policy, and fight deflation by resorting to the sort of "unconventional" monetary methods in vogue in Tokyo and Washington - but denied by EU law to the European Central Bank.

That major banks are talking about countries leaving the single currency, even if only as a very minor possibility, gives some indication of how rocky life could become for the principal European institutions. What the Germany economy needs is a good bit of old-fashioned Keynesian pump-priming - a big increase in government investment to make up for sluggardly consumer demand, in combination with controls on capital movements. It's not rocket-science: if people aren't buying anything, no-one can sell anything; if they can't sell, they won't invest - and unemployment goes through the roof.

The last thing the banks and the ECB want, however, is anything like Keynesianism, and the consensus amongst the major German parties is read off the same script: perversely pushing for cuts in government expenditure and real wages, in a deflationary situation. It's the same dubious logic that helped prolong the Great Depression, the hope being that at some point, prices and wages will have fallen so far that the glorious unfettered dynamism of the free-market will re-appear. Whether unemployment needs to be 5 million or 10 million is, of course, a minor issue relative to the rescue of the market economy.

If you've not seen it already, go and have a look at Tempestua's guest-blogging at Bionic Octopus on OutRage! and al-Qaradawi. Tatchell's freakish post-colonial trip continues, and he's got himself into a mess over this one; it's sad to see the degeneration of a militant gay rights group into liberal wog-bashing.

More doom-mongering

Slightly by way of a public service announcement, here's Morgan Stanley's chief economist bewaring the ides of March (2006):

The reason to worry, in my view, is that the cost of [the US economy's] cyclical resilience in the face of an energy shock is not without serious consequences for an unbalanced world. In particular, it has pushed the asset-dependent American consumer to a new state of excess. At first blush, there seems to be little reason to worry -- according to our US team, personal consumption growth is tracking a 5.5% gain in the current quarter. But consider the costs of that stellar accomplishment -- a personal saving rate that has finally hit the “zero” threshold, debt ratios that continue to move into the stratosphere, and asset-led underpinnings of residential property markets that are now firmly in bubble territory. Courtesy of surging oil prices, these costs are now at the breaking point, in my view.

...there can be no mistaking the precarious position of today’s US consumer. In the face of an unprecedented shortfall of labor income -- with real compensation growth in the 44 months of the current expansion running $282 billion below the path of the typical cycle -- consumers have not even flinched. Reflecting a new asset-dependent spending mindset -- first arising out of the equity bubble of the late 1990s and more recently supported by the property bubble -- US households have been more than willing to draw their income-based saving rates down into unprecedented territory.

While this penchant for spending may make sense in normal periods, it is the height of recklessness in the face of an energy shock. In the two oil shocks of the 1970s, the personal saving rate averaged about 9.5%, whereas in the oil shock just prior to the Gulf War of early 1991, it was around 7%. That means that in each of those earlier instances, US consumers had a cushion of saving they could draw upon in order to maintain existing lifestyles. Today’s “zero” saving rate underscores the total absence of any such cushion. The only backstop available to support the spending excesses of American consumers is the saving that is now embedded in their over-valued homes. Yet with the housing bubble now in the danger zone, that’s not exactly a comfort zone.

The UK's not in quite the same position, the housing bubble (thus far) deflating rather slowly, but the same low-savings, high-credit consumption has been fuelling growth for most of the current decade - proppped up, more recently, by high government spending. Despite a lower oil-dependency than the US (compensated for partial by higher natural gas-dependency), the situation here is precariously similar. If consumer spending slides, for whatever reason, the rest of the economy goes with it.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A spectre is haunting the FT opinion pages

Hooray, hooray, hooray:

In less than give weeks, Germany will make an important political choice - probably the most important it has made since 1969, when it first embraced the politics of social democracy. It is essentially a choice of whether to confront the future through economic reforms or seek refuge in the illusions of a dysfunctional social-market system...

[Oskar Lafontaine's Left Party's] rating has gone up to 12 per cent nationwide - and more than 30 per cent in east Germany, where it is the largest single party. A grand coalition [of the SPD and CDU] would elevate Mr Lafontaine to leader of the opposition, representing both the left and the east. This is a constellation that serves no one except Mr Lafontaine [and, presumably, the left and the east.]...

...there is a small but not insignificant chance that the German electorate will replace Mr Schroeder's government with one that is more to the left, dashing any expectation of reform. What separates us from this nightmare scenario is a fraction of a percentage point in the opinion polls, combined with more-or-less credible pledges by both the SPD and the Greens not to enter into a coalition with Mr Lafontaine.

Now, my guess is that the petty differences currently separating the SPD leadership and the CDU on the big issues would disappear entirely if compared to chasm currently lying between Lafontaine and Schroeder. Even so, the merest hint that a left coalition might be in the offing is causing all the right bowels to spasm in terror. And frightened pit-bulls know only one way to respond:

Germany's opposition conservatives have been split by a row over the country's unemployment-plagued east after a senior party figure dubbed the region's inhabitants "stupid calves" who wanted to vote for "their own butcher" during next month's general election...

Mr Stoiber's criticism was aimed at the 33 per cent of east German voters who have thrown their support behind a new radical "Left Party" which is currently the strongest political force in the region.

"Have you all gone mad?" Mr Stoiber asked voters at campaign rallies in the east. "Only the most stupid of calves vote for their own butcher," he added. His remarks followed similar attacks last week when the Bavarian leader claimed that east Germans voters were "frustrated" and "not as clever" as his native Bavarians.

The ungrateful minority population, turning to the left as a result of their own malign stupidity... it's a familiar rhetorical device.

(Just as an afterthought: some more good news from the Scotsman.)

Friday, August 12, 2005

Interview with Left Party "international co-ordinator"

Shortish piece in the Guardian. Sample:

Only a few weeks ago, Angela Merkel's conservative opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) and their allies seemed assured of an easy victory. But the latest polls show the Left party winning up to 60 Bundestag seats, which would make it Germany's third-largest political force.

And it could deny an outright majority to Ms Merkel while further weakening Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's ruling Social Democrats (SPD).

Mr Scholz accepted his party was unlikely to win. But he pledged there would be no backroom deals to keep the SPD and Greens in power.

"One reason for the Left's support is that voters feel they were wrong to trust Mr Schröder in 1998 after 16 years of Helmut Köhl," he said. "The Red-Green coalition managed a change of power but not a change of policy ... The ridiculous continuation of neo-liberal policies obviously contributes to today's opportunity. We will help them correct their policies. But there is no chance of a coalition."

The article also details a few of the Left Party's policies: an "overhaul of industrial and taxation policies" to address the recession, especially in the East; opposition to benefit and welfare state cuts; and, most drastically of all, given the Federal Republic's history, a review of "Germany's Nato membership and its troop presence in Afghanistan." On current opinion polls, this lot are going to be Germany's third party come September. Fingers crossed.

Edinburgh Festival disrupted by horrid selfish economic illiterates

Oh, how my heart bleeds:

This is an absolute disgrace. The only people that this really affects are passengers who have done nothing whatever to deserve being stranded. I have a group of friends who are due to go to the Edinburgh Festival by flying out from Heathrow. This screws up their plans and wastes a day of their time just because some people cannot grasp the concept of basic economics.
Andrew Male, London, UK

"...cannot grasp the concept of basic economics": sack this arsehole, then.

Failing gods, tragedies and farces

Justin's sent me the link to an electronic version of Isaac Deutscher's review of The God that Failed, a selection of de la mode essays from Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender and other ex-Communists published back in 1949. Deutscher makes his notorious remark about retreating to the "watchtower" in the course of the review; apart from that, he notices, for all the alleged novelty and blistering revelations these turncoats hawk, they're following a familar path:

But, whatever the shades of individual attitudes, as a rule the intellectual ex­Communist ceases to oppose capitalism. Often he rallies to its defense, and he brings to this job the lack of scruple, the narrow-mindedness, the disregard for truth, and the in­tense hatred with which Stalinism has imbued him. He re­mains a sectarian. He is an inverted Stalinist. He continues to see the world in white and black, but now the colors are differently distributed. As a Communist he saw no difference between fascists and social democrats. As an anti-Communist he sees no difference between nazism and communism. Once, he accepted the party's claim to infallibility; now he be­lieves himself to be infallible. Having once been caught by the "greatest illusion," he is now obsessed by the greatest disillusionment of our time. His former illusion at least implied a positive ideal. His disillusionment is utterly negative. His role is therefore in­tellectually and politically barren. In this, too, he resembles the embittered ex-Jacobin of the Napoleonic era. Words­worth and Coleridge were fatally obsessed with the "Jacobin danger"; their fear dimmed even their poetic genius. It was Coleridge who denounced in the House of Commons a bill for the prevention of cruelty to animals as the "strongest instance of legislative Jacobinism." The ex-Jacobin became the prompter of the anti-Jacobin reaction in England. Directly or indirectly, his influence was behind the Bills Against Sedi­tious Writings and Traitorous Correspondence, the Treason­able Practices Bill, and Seditious Meetings Bill ( 1792-1794), the defeats of parliamentary reform, the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the postponement of the emancipation of England's religious minorities for the life­time of a generation. Since the conflict with revolutionary France was "not a time to make hazardous experiments," the slave trade, too, obtained a lease on life--in the name of lib­erty.

In quite the same way our ex-Communist, for the best of reasons, does the most vicious things. He advances bravely in the front rank of every witch hunt. His blind hatred of his former ideal is leaven to contemporary conservatism. Not rarely he denounces even the mildest brand of the "welfare State" as "legislative Bolshevism." He contributes heavily to the moral climate in which a modern counterpart to the Eng­lish anti-Jacobin reaction is hatched.

Deutscher was quite wrong, back in 1950, to think that the decisive political choice, anywhere in the world, lay between Washington and Moscow: the events of 1956 and subsequent years at least put paid to the idea that either one failing god or another had to be slavishly obeyed. In creating this false opposition, Deutscher mirrored exactly the position adopted by the ex-Communists he excoriates. It is hard, however, to read of the "most vicious things" Deutscher's ex-Communists were willing to do without thinking that the historical wheel has turned again.

Known for his patterned socks

Jeremy's back from his extended absence, and his blog, My Way of Thinking, returns with him, as fearsomely angry as ever.

Jeremy has noticed that David Bonderman, the billionaire owner of Texas Pacific, the private equity group that in turn owns Gate Gourmet, hired the Rolling Stones for his 60th birthday party. Gate Gourmet have just sacked their entire 500-strong Heathrow workforce as part of a cost-cutting exercise, leading to a "magnificent" series of strikes in solidarity. I know this marks me as unsuited to the cut and thrust of modern business life, but you'd have thought someone who can afford Mick Jagger crooning Happy Birthday in his ear can afford not to screw his employees around like this.

T&G members work as catering assistants, earning around £12,000 a year, and as drivers, earning just under £16,000 a year.


Known for his rumpled shirts and patterned socks, Mr Bonderman shuns publicity but is said to have amassed a $6 billion fortune.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

"...this is a community we cannot work with..."

From the Guardian:

British Airways today suspended all outgoing flights at Heathrow airport as it became embroiled in a dispute with a catering company.
BA halted all flight check-ins at Heathrow after some of its loaders and baggage handlers stopped work in sympathy with sacked catering staff.

Union leaders had warned that a dispute that started yesterday could escalate if it was not resolved quickly. The row began when Gate Gourmet, a US-owned firm, sacked 800 staff over plans to restructure the company.

Old-fashioned solidarity: fair warms of the cockles of your heart. But look at what, according to the union, Gate Gourmet said about its workforce:

The company has told us that 'this is a community we cannot work with'. The employees concerned are almost all low-paid Asian workers, and such an approach is utterly unacceptable.

But how many have publicly condemned 7/7, eh? Eh?

(Socialist Worker for updates.)

Our "progressive, reforming" government and health inequalities

The more sheeplike of New Labour's devoted herd are prone to saying things like:

For all its deficits and cowardice, for all its disappointments and missed opportunities, this Labour government remains the most redistributive in my lifetime.

As DML has hammered on about this quite a bit, I'll spare you a lengthy rant right now.

It still staggers me, however, that there are commentators of the liberal-left prepared to make such huge claims for a government that has, for example, presided over a very significant rise in the "health gap".

The Department of Health-commissioned report found the gap in life expectancy between the bottom fifth and the population as a whole had widened by 2% for males and 5% for females between 1997-9 and 2001-3.

The shift means the life expectancy in the wealthiest areas is seven to eight years longer than the poorest areas.

The gap in the infant mortality rate was 19% higher in 2001-3 between the poorest and general population, compared to 13% higher in 1997-9.

This isn't some dramatic new revelation, either, since other researchers from Bristol University have drawn exactly the same conclusion:

The health gap remained stable between 1992-94 and 1995-97 but has been widening since. It is now wider than it has been since Victorian times, the authors say, and reflects increases in the gap between rich and poor.

The reasons for the wealth-health link are obvious:

The researchers claim this directly reflects increases in inequality of income and wealth. The rich have access to private health care, live in areas of low pollution and limited road traffic, and can save for their retirements.

Those outside of this happy situation must rely on underfunded NHS hospitals, live in worse housing in more polluted areas and have little hope of retiring either early or in comfort.

As a result, they die younger. The bigger the gap in income and wealth, the more pronounced this effect becomes.

Even without Iraq, this government would be a sore disappointment.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Brand loyalty

Home Office Minister Hazel Blears today backed down from her controversial proposed policy of “re-branding” British Muslims, claiming that she had been misunderstood.

“I never mentioned ‘re-branding’” she said. “What I said was ‘branding’. We’re going to brand British Muslims.”

Read the rest...

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Late capitalism's ranking fetish

Another stupid bloody list:

The 10 best and worst places to live in the UK are to be named - and in some cases, shamed, on television tonight.

Candidate towns, cities and districts have been based on criteria including their rates of crime, unemployment, educational standards, hours of sunshine and average life expectancy.

This isn't quite as bad as the interminable top 100 jazz-funk ukelele covers lists that are slowly devouring the entire TV schedule, because no-one seems to have voted on them - a recipe for utter, utter disaster on these things: democracy be dammned, it's always Bohemian sodding Rhapsody at number one, Imagine at number two and whichever boy-band is on SM:TV this week at number three, thus demonstrating that "British culture" is sorely overrated at present. God knows what hideous weighting system has been applied to the towns, however, because any system that places Ashford and Guildford as amongst the best places to live in the UK has clearly been devised by someone with a very warped view of humanity, or an estate agent. Presumably they're exactly the sort of places that people who watch television programmes based on property prices aspire to live in.

British values: pah

George Monbiot, on Tristam Hunt:

Hunt argues that Britishness should be about "values rather than institutions": Britain has "a superb record of political liberalism and intellectual inquiry, giving us a public sphere open to ideas, religions and philosophy from across the world". This is true, but these values are not peculiar to Britain, and it is hard to see why we have to become patriots in order to invoke them. Britain also has an appalling record of imperialism and pig-headed jingoism, and when you wave the flag, no one can be sure which record you are celebrating. If you want to defend liberalism, then defend it, but why conflate your love for certain values with love for a certain country?...

To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others. It is impossible to reconcile this with either the evidence of your own eyes or a belief in the equality of humankind.

Monbiot draws attention to a list of ten "non-negotiable" "core values" of "national identity" that the Telegraph published recently. Predictably, this has little room for "public spheres open to ideas" and "intellectual inquiry", but much to say about "the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament" and "private property".

This always happens. What starts out as a pleasant selection of platitudes concerning British "fair play" and "decency" opens the way for more sinister lists of very definite commitments, as the Telegraph commends, to "stable families" and recognising the Queen as "supreme authority in the land".

Monday, August 08, 2005

Mitterrand and Keynes

I haven't seen The Last Mitterrand, although I very much want to, but it's inspired Will Hutton into making some very silly remarks:

The break-up of the Mitterrand coalition is complete. The No vote in the referendum on the EU constitutional treaty could not have been won otherwise. The only political debate that matters is on the right...

The "Mitterrand coalition" Hutton refers to is that of his later years as President: the French left, rallied in defence of European capital. Hutton blames Mitterrand for failing to bequeath a "modern left of centre ideology" in French politics, and writes that "to blame globalisation for the plight of the French left is wrong". As Hutton knows full well, or as he really ought to know, the "non" vote was won because of the Left's campaign against the "Europe of capital" that the proposed constitution was written for. To suggest the Left "no" campaign was the product only of "fatalism" and disarray is to ignore the central elements that ensured its success: its ideological coherence, in a critique of globalisation as applied by the EU; and its high degree of unity, built around local mobilising committees.

It is disingenous for Hutton to claim that globalisation had nothing to do with Mitterrand's failure, and still more so to write out Europe's role in that collapse. The collapse of Mitterrand's original socialist vision is covered by Hutton in a single sentence, "Then followed a big Keynesian reflation which ended in disaster." This is assumed to follow, in some unstated but vital way, from the presence of an "ideologically intact" Communist movement in France.

This is nonsense on stilts. The "big Keynesian reflation" - a massive expansion of public spending and public control over the economy - "ended in disaster" because, when faced with a choice between fulfilling his manifesto, and bowing to the wishes of European capital, Mitterrand buckled: to reflate the French economy whilst other European countries were set on deflation placed an intolerable strain on the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the system of partially fixed exchange rates that preceded the Euro. The choice was either to break the ERM and break election promises: under significant pressure from other European powers and French business interests, Mitterrand's government entirely reversed its programme of reflation. Globalisation, as applied by Hutton's beloved European institutions, finished "Mitterrandisme".

Friday, August 05, 2005

Omens, portents, dark clouds gathering

Good, short piece by John Butler in the FT today. Two bits stand out, both pointing to crucial, longstanding failures on the part of New Labour's economic policy:

An interest rate peak of just 4.75 per cent continues the pattern in which successive rate cycles have peaked at lower and lower levels. Surprise or no surprise, this latest move is still untypical of the Bank's past moves. That is because it was not associated with a fall in inflation expectations; nor was it in response to a global shock, as in past years. This cut was quite simply a direct response to worsening domestic news.

(See also.) The other bit relates to persistently low levels of investment expenditure by British businesses - something New Labour's wheedling and pampering has been unable to cure:

The level of interest rates is not a major constraint on corporate activity, where the problems seem more deep-rooted. Companies are cash rich, yet the proportion of nominal investment in gross domestic product is at a 40-year low. The legacy of the late 1990s is that companies associate higher risk and lower priority with investment spending. The previous investment surge left behind excess capital and disappointing returns, therefore shifting corporate focus towards rewarding shareholders and reducing pension shortfalls rather than seizing new investment opportunities.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Also from Ed, some chunks from Richard Gott, in the New Left Review, on Blair:

Blair’s many biographers have pored over his life’s choices to reveal the figure of a grey and essentially conventional lawyer, with little aptitude for management, poor inter-personal skills [I'm not sure about this bit; most accounts I've heard have Blair down as personally charming, if utterly shallow - not that it matters] and deep ignorance of the outside world, who frequently evokes religious faith as a substitute for rational thought. This is one of his two most unusual characteristics. Blair is not an ordinarily religious man; he is by many accounts a ‘religious nut’, a ‘New Ager’, a man who obeys his own inner voices and takes scant notice of religious authority. He had to be rebuked by the principal Catholic archbishop for taking Catholic communion when nominally a Protestant, and cautioned by the chief Protestant archbishop against moving too close to Rome. He consistently ignored the warnings against the invasion of Iraq made by the Pope and the Anglican archbishop, both of whom were outspokenly hostile to the eventual war...

His swift rise to the top was an indictment of the Labour Party’s recruiting capacity over the previous thirty years. Tony Blair might have been no great shakes, as some people recognized at the time, but he was all there was. The intelligent and the ambitious in Britain had abandoned the attempt to work their way up through the major political parties as long ago as the 1960s. Many of them had chosen instead the loucher, and more immediately remunerative, worlds of commerce, culture and the media. An honourable career in government service, as an elected politician or ill-paid bureaucrat, had little appeal for the British elite in the late 20th century. The electorate has taken note of this defection.

The Labour Party that chose Tony Blair as its leader in 1994, and the New Labour Party that first presented itself to the voters in 1997, was already a pale shadow of the historic Labour Party of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. The progressive institution in which middle-class intellectuals once rubbed shoulders with the working class, in government and in local party organizations, was a thing of the past. The members of Blair’s cabinet could hardly scrape up a first class degree between them, while the decimated ranks of labour itself were scarcely represented. New Labour was a bourgeois party that had shed its working-class trappings and lost its intellectual edge. Its task now was to represent the aspirational middle class constructed during the Thatcher years, picking up the relay of Thatcherism while giving neoliberal policies a more human face. Some Labour Party supporters might have perceived Blair as a cuckoo in the nest, but most people saw that he could talk the talk and walk the walk—and do so better than most.

The voice of the "Decent Left"


TRAITOR George Galloway has been condemned for a crazed attack on Tony Blair which puts British troops in danger.

The MP plumbed new depths by branding the Prime Minister and US President George Bush as “sick” terrorists who were “raping Baghdad”.

And Galloway hailed Iraqi suicide bombers who kill troops and civilians as “martyrs”...

You know, during the election, you'd get the odd person saying that they liked Galloway and all that - but what was one MP going to do? All things considered, I reckon they've been answered in the four months since May 5. Top stuff.

Punk, wood adhesive, capitalism

Ed at International Rooksbyism flags up Ben Watson's piece on "post-punk" in Radical Philosophy.

...Simon Reynolds’s Rip It Up has been flying off the shelves. With 126 fresh interviews with the protagonists, pictures researched by Jon Savage, and 550 dense pages written by a blogger ‘too young’ to have witnessed the Pistols, it promises to register what things felt like for the groundlings – those excluded from the scene-setting events in London, ‘too late’ but fully participating in punk as a mass phenomenon nonetheless. Those who cite 1976–77 as the ‘real’ moment of punk are those for whom it was a springboard to TV celebrity. Genuine punks – ‘losers’ from the spectacular point of view – actually lived punk between 1978 and 1984.

Jon Savage's own, excellent England's Dreaming: the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock does touch, in its closing chapters, on the localism and DIY attitude punk fostered: closet punks in faraway lands like Northampton clipping together fanzines; their braver comrades in Grimsby, hair spiked with PVA glue, braving the NF. But being focused on the Pistols, and taking the pro-McLaren line also pushed by Julian Temple's The Filth and the Fury,[*] Savage left these sadly misplaced and belated punks as a footnote to the main event. That they are being rescued from the enormous condescension of posterity is to be lauded; culturally, the history of punk cannot be understood without looking at the scatterings from its wildly freewheeling, centrifugal force.

Considered as a business history, however, what punk shows us is the enormous rapidity with which even allegedly oppositional, allegedly subversive moments in pop music are swallowed and ingested whole by the industry: far from breaking the corporate hold upon pop music, punk was a crucial factor in strengthening its domination: even the sharpest of safety-pins could be safely ingested; even the most confrontational of postures could contribute to the bottom line. Punk, once safely accomodated, paved the way for the staggering concentration of capital needed to reproduce, globally, endless Coldplay singles, and the domination of pop music by four or five giant firms.

The technological breakthrough of the music video, and behind it, MTV, combined with the extremely tight interrelationships between mass media, the PR people, and the music labels turned "authenticity" into a reliable, and conventional product. (Of course, the McLarenesque/Situationist reading of punk would claim this was all part of the original "scam": Cash From Chaos, The Great Rock And Roll Swindle. Those more directly involved would beg to differ.)

Watson's review points up some of this, and touches on some the less digestible elements of the punk mix: specifically, the political battles fought on this cultural terrain: the National Front versus Rock Against Racism; and the irreducibility of the live performance. To grasp both is to break out of a weak and watery post-modernism that now passes for cultural studies:

Convinced that there is nothing relevant outside the text of the recorded product, Reynolds cannot explain the forces acting on the records he examines. In fact, he cannot interpret the records at all, and – paradoxically for someone who rarely acknowledges quirky, unofficial responses – emerges with something as arbitrary and subjective as ‘taste’. This is because he remains obedient to the priorities and perspectives of the capitalist pop industry, allowing the commodity to dictate what constitutes musical culture.

[*] John Lydon/Johnny Rotten's typically self-aggrandaising response is provided by his autobiography, Rotten: no blacks, no dogs, no Irish, which devotes an immense amount of time to McLaren's many "crimes" and misdemeanours.

Re: "...excuse makers..."

Another follow-up, of sorts. Here's Galloway in full rhetorical flight:

In one speech, the MP said: "These poor Iraqis - ragged people, with their sandals, with their Kalashnikovs, with the lightest and most basic of weapons - are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars, with 145 military operations every day, which has made the country ungovernable.

"We don't know who they are, we don't know their names, we never saw their faces, they don't put up photographs of their martyrs, we don't know the names of their leaders."...

He told Syrian Television: "Two of your beautiful daughters are in the hands of foreigners - Jerusalem and Baghdad.

"The foreigners are doing to your daughters as they will.

"The daughters are crying for help and the Arab world is silent. And some of them are collaborating with the rape of these two beautiful Arab daughters."

Perfectly reasonable, and all but identical to comments Galloway has made in the UK and elsewhere; but the BBC, now fully Hutton compliant, seem to think it newsworthy that a New Labour toady has voiced his querulous complaint.

Lenin, meanwhile, kicks a supposed "liberal" - someone who really ought to know better - into touch for demanding Galloway be locked up for his speech.

Re: "Would Michael Moore sign up to this?"

Following on from my post on the Democrat Leadership Council's conference last weekend, this report on the Green Party. In a dubious selection process last year, the Green Party nominated nonentity David Cobb as its Presidential candidate ahead of Ralph Nader. Cobb ran on a "safe states only" ticket, refusing to challenge the Democrats effectively, and thus supporting the ludicrous anti-war votes for pro-war candidates campaign Michael Moore was leading.

Things are coming to a bit of a head now in the US Greens, with the Cobbites (Cobbets? Cobblers?) pushing for an all-but open electoral alliance with "progressive" Democrats:

The Cobb wing of the party, which controls the national leadership based on the current undemocratic system, has developed a close partnership with liberals who created the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) in an attempt to corral third-party advocates back into the Democratic Party.

The other wing of the party, led by Nader’s vice presidential candidate Peter Camejo, initiated Greens for Democracy and Independence (GDI) to address the organizational and political problems that compromised the Greens’ challenge in 2004. Over the last several months, the GDI developed proposals submitted to the national committee to require proportional representation, delegates accountable to the will of the membership, and independence from the two corporate parties...

Camejo stressed the significance of building the Green Party as the political expression of mass social movements and argued for the importance of encouraging debate and allowing many tendencies to exist in the party. He called Green Party’s project of an independent challenge to the two party system “the spirit of the future.”

Cobb’s speech repeated many of Camejo’s points, but with significant differences. For example, he went out of his way to condemn what he called sectarianism--his label for anyone who opposed his “safe-states” strategy.

Greens for "more troops" Hillary, 2008?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

"...excuse makers are just one notch less despicable than the terrorists..."

Reproduced from the New York Times:

We also need to spotlight the "excuse makers," the former State Department spokesman James Rubin said. After every major terrorist incident, the excuse makers come out to tell us why imperialism, Zionism, colonialism or Iraq explains why the terrorists acted. These excuse makers are just one notch less despicable than the terrorists and also deserve to be exposed. When you live in an open society like London, where anyone with a grievance can publish an article, run for office or start a political movement, the notion that blowing up a busload of innocent civilians in response to Iraq is somehow "understandable" is outrageous. "It erases the distinction between legitimate dissent and terrorism," Mr. Rubin said, "and an open society needs to maintain a clear wall between them."

Perpetual war: vote Democrat

A few weeks back, Jamie over at Blood and Treasure was contemplating the possiblity of the Democrats running a "militant democractization everywhere" platform for the 2008 Presidential elections. (Two posts, one from me, one from him, follow this up a little further.)

The Democratic Leadership Convention held its annual conference in Ohio last weekend. Formed in the mid-1980s, the DLC has become the dominant force within the Democratic Party, pushing it sharply over to the right in the last two decades. In 2004, the DLC promoted a Presidential candidate so right-wing that divining any difference between John Kerry and his alleged competitor became an arcane ritual, best left to those adept in such black arts; the rest of us, led by Michael Moore, were to thank the gods that John Kerry was not, in a strictly biological sense, George Bush, and thus cast our anti-war votes for a pro-war candidate.

Kerry lost. The obvious conclusion was that George Bush would make a better (and more popular) job of being George Bush than a hang-dog has-been from Massachusets, no matter how often Kerry "reported for duty", how many Vietnamese he shot, and how many extra troops he would commit to Iraq. Rather than chasing the Republicans onto the terrain they knew best to be slaughtered at their leisure, the Democrats might perhaps have been better served to concentrate less on "homeland security" and gay marriage, and a little more on the state of the US economy and the failure of the Iraq war.

The DLC think otherwise. Here's the outgoing DLC chairman, Evan Bayh, on what the Democrats need to prioritise:

Democrats, he argued, must win public trust on security issues. While there is a right time and a wrong time to use military force, Bayh lamented: "We don't even get to have that discussion because too many of our fellow countrymen out here in the heartland have concluded -- inappropriately, but they've concluded nonetheless -- that we don't have the spine or the backbone to use force even in the face of the most compelling circumstances. And that must change."

Vilsack criticized Bush for misleading the nation before going to war in Iraq and for failing, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to promote a shared sacrifice among all Americans. Noting the sacrifice paid by those who have lost their lives in battle, and their families, he asked: "Is it right, is it fair, is it the American way, to ask a small sliver of our society to bear full responsibility? Is that really affording a sense of community? I think not, and I think it's time for change."

The last quote is, if anything, the most sinister. Hillary Clinton was appointed as chair of the DLC's "American Dream Initiative", with the brief to "shape a positive agenda for our country and the Democratic party". Clinton, from her conference speech, thinks these platitudes translate into the vision of a future in which

...We've put more troops in uniform, we've equipped them better, and we've trained them to face today's stress, not yesterday's. We've actually recognized that having the strongest military in the world is the first step, but we also have to have a strong commitment to using our military in smart ways that further peace, stability, and security around the world. I was talking to Mayor Coleman, whose son is currently with the Marines in Iraq, and I told him that I'd spent a lot of time talking to young Marines and soldiers both in Iraq, where I've been twice, and back home, and listening to them. There has never been a better generation of young people who are volunteering and committing themselves to serve our nation. We have to make sure that we do everything possible to give them the resources, the respect, and the strategy they deserve.

It is, apparently, "...our faith in God and our shared values give us the strength to conquer our fears of one another and the unknown." By-the-by, Clinton offered her unbending support for Wall Street ("fiscal responsibility"), her husband's healthcare "reforms", and a reduction in abortions.

If Clinton's rhetorical brilliance is all a little too much at this early hour, Al From and Bruce Reed, respectively the DLC's CEO and President, offer their more sedate version of the same in a lead article for the DLC's magazine, Blueprint:

We don't need false promises, petty fights, and partisan bickering. American politics must find a higher purpose, because America has a higher calling: to be the engine of opportunity and freedom, at home and throughout the world...

We believe that the Sept. 11 attacks changed America forever, and defeating terrorism is the supreme military and moral mission of our time. To win the war on terror, America needs more troops and more friends. We believe that running the country deep into debt is economically dangerous and morally wrong. Economic and military might go hand in hand, and victory can only be assured when all Americans, including our political leaders, not just soldiers and taxpayers, sacrifice...

Less than four years ago, the attacks of Sept. 11 united Americans like no event since Pearl Harbor. For a brief, shining moment, country -- not party -- was all that mattered. The entire world -- save the terrorists and their sympathizers -- was on America's side.

Four years later, we have won some important victories against terror and tyranny, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. But the duty we owe to the victims of Sept. 11 -- and to the cause of freedom -- has not been fulfilled... Worst of all, our leaders have failed to arm us economically and militarily for a war that could go on for decades...

We believe America's security challenge is quite clear: to preserve our freedom and our way of life, we need to prevail in Iraq and in the greater war on terror.

First, we need more troops. This year, the U.S. Army is failing to meet its recruiting goals. In Iraq, our forces are stretched so thin that soldiers have served extended tours of duty, and reservists have carried a load far beyond what they signed up for.

We challenge Washington to increase America's Armed Forces by 100,000 troops. Iraq isn't the last war we'll have to fight, and we need a bigger army. We need to challenge more Americans to serve, and give them the means to do so...

..we need more patriotism and less politics. President Bush missed a historic opportunity to change the tone of American politics after Sept. 11. Yet even though he failed to rise to that challenge, Americans are still hungry to put country ahead of partisanship once again. Winning the war on terror is too important for either side to spend all its time pointing fingers at the other. We're Americans first, and we should approach this war the way the American people do: They don't care which party wins, as long as America wins.

Wonder if Michael Moore will sign up to this one?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Taking up the white man's burden (Bono has much to answer for)

What has Africa ever done to deserve this dire threat?

Mr Burton added: "He has a great love of Africa and trying to improve Africa. I wonder whether he would get involved in that."

Bit like a gap year, then. He could dig some wells for the natives, and tell us all about their simple, but happy and - you know - less materialistic lives when he gets back.

Rates and circles

The Indy's really been going for it with the economic doom-mongering of late. Here they are on HSBC's reported rise in bad debt:

The banking giant HSBC has added to fears over worsening credit quality by unveiling a 20 per cent rise in provisions for bad debts worldwide, with the UK the worst hit. Yesterday's figures provided the latest evidence that the tough consumer market is hurting Britain's major banks...

The comments echoed those made by Lloyds TSB last week when it reported a 21 per cent jump in losses on retail loans to £416m. With big increases in bad debts expected from Britain's other major banks in coming days, the only bright spot this week looks to be the widely anticipated cut in interest rates on Thursday, which could provide some relief to hard-pressed consumers.

...except the cut in interest rates is a "two-edged" (?) sword:

The explosion in consumer debt to record levels has staved off a recession in the UK but may prove to be a poisoned chalice for the Bank of England when it comes to setting interest rates...

With the stock of debt bursting through £1 trillion (£1,000bn), the rate rises appear to have put the brakes on the economy more effectively than in the past.

As people borrow more, it makes sense for them to become more sensitive to interest rates. However, they might well be not just sensitive to rates now, but sensitive to rates in the future. There's a point at which interest rates become so low, they can only plausibly be expected to rise: people will borrow and spend huge amounts now, in the expectation that rates will rise again later. The trouble is, every time they do so, inflationary pressures increase; in response, the MPC whacks up interest rates. In the expectation that they will fall, borrowing and spending by consumers grinds to a halt. A vicious circle develops, with upswings and downswings in interest rates and rates of borrowing becoming more pronounced on each turn. At every cycle, however, the total stock of private debt is larger; the risk to the economy as a whole is greater; and the situation moves further beyond anyone's immediate control.

The West Wing is unspeakable foul pollution

Grinding molars with irritation.

Although if I ever meet Tony Blair, I also hope to do so wearing nothing more than my underpants and a cheeky smile.

(via. On the West Wing, see Joe Queenan: "if you want to know why Kerry lost, tune in to this sanctimonious blather next week.")

Monday, August 01, 2005

On the other hand, hurrah!

Bastards bastards bastards bastards.

Sorry. Just catching up with the news.

Nick Cohen: he passed his eleven plus

It's good to see things haven't changed too much. Here's Nick Cohen, applying lefty gloss to right-wing idiocy:

That Britain is becoming an aristocracy of wealth is undeniable. The simplest measure was devised by Jo Blandon and her colleagues at the London School of Economics. You might assume that a child born in 1958, when Harold Macmillan ran the country and stuffed his cabinet with dukes, would have been far more hamstrung by his class origins than a child born at the end of the swinging Sixties in 1970. Not a bit of it. The LSE found that on average a boy born to a well-to-do family in 1958 earned 17.5 per cent more than a boy born to a family on half the income. The son of an equivalent Mr and Mrs Moneybags born 1970 will be earning today 25 per cent more than his contemporary from the wrong side of the tracks. Far from decreasing, class advantage has grown.

Ok so far. Written about it myself, donchaknow, under an even more foolish pseudonym. (Blogged about it here.) He's also correct to point out that the expansion of higher education has also expanded inequalities in education: new university places have been allocated disproportionately to the children of the rich, thanks to the significant financial barriers to entry poorer households face. Onwards:

In practice everyone knows that the grammar schools, which at least selected by ability, have been replaced with private and comprehensive schools which select by parental wealth. If you are rich and have a bright child, he will go private and although he will have to pass exams, he won't face competition from children whose parents can't afford the fees. If you are rich and have a dunce, you select by house price and move into the catchment area of a good school or get your nanny to drive your child to a good school in another borough or lie to vicars and send your child to a good church school. Again, you know your child won't face competition from brighter children whose parents can't afford to buy houses in the right area or don't have the knowledge to play the system. The result is that in the inner cities we don't have comprehensives but a universal system of secondary moderns.

Also correct. Alas, Cohen then ruins everything with a stirring call for a return to grammar schools. It's a cunning rhetorical trick, this, to lead his readers down a familiar left-liberal path - before sharply lurching over to the right when their attention starts to wander.

Grammar schools were, it is true, introduced by a Labour government after 1947 as a means of improving social mobility: it was hoped that children could be accurately sorted, at age 11, into those with an academic bent, and those without, irrespective of their upbringing. In the more idealistic imaginings of the scheme's left-wing promoters, it was believed that no great distinction would be made between those going to the grammar school, and those attending the secondary modern: the distinction would simply reflect different types of (presumably innate) abilities.

It was a foolish idea back then; to repeat the same arguments, nearly sixty years later, and after their foolishness have been revealed, requires a vigorous stupidity. Given the way society rewards certain kinds of work, it was inevitable that a huge gulf would grow between those "passing" the 11-plus exam and learning Latin at the grammar school, and those "failing" and being herded into woodwork at the secondary modern. Given the laziness of employers when selecting employees, it was inevitable that a failure at age eleven would act, quite unfairly, as a permanent mark of ability. Given the wherewithal of some parents to pay for - and immediately perceive the advantages of - extra tuition, it was equally inevitable that the system would be biased in favour of wealth.

(Incidentally, I failed my eleven plus. I had the misfortune to end up moving, aged eleven, into one of the few counties that still insisted on running a grammar school system; I sat the exam, and ended up at the local comprehensive. The after-effects weren't nearly as bad as detailed above, however, since most places do not run the eleven-plus, and so it can't act as any sort of signal in later life. "It never did me any harm," etc, and presumably neither did it hurt the grammar-school swot Cohen. The tantalising possibility of attending what was considered to be an excellent school did, however, mean that pushy middle-class parents tutored their kids to pass the exam; some real dopes ended up at the grammar school as a result, something that pleased me at the time.)

In other words, the situation was all but identical to that which exists now, with the added disadvantage that, whilst no-one now will particularly care about which school I went to, not attending a grammar school could be a life-long stigma.

There is a more fundamental issue, however. Education produces a return for the individual who received it: you will earn more, on average, as a result of having been educated. The more education you receive, the more - on average - you will earn. (Until you start doing a PhD, of course, at which point the returns to your further education become negative. Anyway.) These returns are not evenly distributed: importantly, they are biased in favour of income: if you are rich, education will produce higher returns than if you are poor. In recent years, the gap between the returns to education for the richest, and the returns to the poorest - after years of shrinking - has started to open up again. (See, for example, this study, from the Centre for the Economics of Education - fig 2.4, PDF file.) In other words, the education system exacerbates an existing inequality.

What this suggests is that to focus, like Cohen, on social mobility alone is redundant, since the institutions designed to break down social barriers are, in fact, reinforcing them. We have to see the problem of social mobility as tied to the problem of social equality more generally. We are forced back to the old issue of redistribution. Dodging this entirely, Cohen lurches over to the right.

Back again. Note to self: must resist urge to run at armed police screaming YAAAAARRRRGH, though can't imagine it'd be any more dangerous than, eg, just getting the tube.