Linklog entries in October 2015

Thursday, 29 October 2015

David Graeber explains a simple truth – Money is Debt 

Anthropologist David Graeber:

I’d like to talk today about the greatest taboo of all. Let’s call it the Peter-Paul principle: the less the government is in debt, the more everybody else is.

You may be objecting at this point: but why does anybody have to be in debt? Why can’t everybody just balance their budgets? Governments, households, corporations … Everyone lives within their means and nobody ends up owing anything. Why can’t we just do that?

Well there’s an answer to that too: then there wouldn’t be any money.

Money is debt.

Pounds are either circulating government debt, or they’re created by banks by making loans. That’s where money comes from. Obviously if nobody took out any loans at all, there wouldn’t be any money. The economy would collapse.

The whole article is worth reading in full. If you’re familiar with these facts then you’ll be delighted to see them so clearly expressed. If these ideas are new to you, then I recommend reading Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 years. I’ve previously written about the Bank of England explaining how money is created and what was said when parliament debated the topic.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Battle over tax credits gets constitutional 

Some politicians and commentators are claiming that the House of Lords’ refusal last night to pass the government’s planned cuts to tax credits amounts to a ‘constitutional crisis’.

That is nonsense for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as the journalist Peter Jukes observed on Twitter:

Osborne’s line about “unelected Lords” stopping #taxcredits is fatuous. Had he got his way “unelected Lords” would have approved them.

The real constitutional outrage here is the abuse of Statutory Instruments. As I reported back in 2013, the government used a Statutory Instrument to open up England’s NHS to unprecedented levels of competition through its Section 75 regulations. It’s a devious tactic to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny. I’m glad the House of Lords called the government out on it this time.

It is also a bit rich for the government to cry foul on democratic process when they’ve gone about implementing this policy in such an undemocratic fashion.

Lords generally respect manifesto commitments, but these cuts to tax credits weren’t in the Conservative manifesto before the election. Furthermore, David Cameron said that he had no plans for such cuts when challenged on the subject.

This point was forcefully made in the Lords debate yesterday by Labour peer Lord Campbell-Savours when he said that Cameron:

deliberately misled the British public and the British public would regard what he said now as a lie. A lie to win a general election. The British public are fed up with politicians who tell lies on that scale.

I believe that those lies trump all the constitutional niceties, whether they be financial privilege or the fatality of amendments.

Shocking conditions of pig farms 

The Daily Mail have published harrowing photographs of a pig farm that show pigs crammed into tiny wire cages and pregnant sows trapped in small farrowing crates where they don’t even have space to turn around.

Pork produced from this farm displays the Red Tractor logo.

As George Monbiot has previously pointed out, the Red Tractor logo shouldn’t assure any consumers that they’re buying quality meat products. The animal welfare standards required are minimal.

Viva’s website has filmed footage from the pig farm which makes distressing viewing. Yet the key point is that these nightmarish conditions are completely legal.

As Monbiot asked:

How is it that we, who regard ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, accept such terrible standards of meat production?

David Cameron’s former adviser Steve Hilton took issue with consumers of meat and dairy products being misled on a daily basis. Writing in his book More Human, he asked:

Why is it acceptable for my milk carton to feature images of cows meandering on grassy hills when they’re actually confined inside and fed unhealthy diets of corn and soy? Why is it acceptable for chickens certified as ‘free-range’ to be held captive indoors for half of their lives?

He proposed the following policy as a solution:

Any food product must have a reasonable proportion of its packaging devoted to showing the precise conditions it was made in. A pack of frozen chicken nuggets would have a photo of the actual farm the chicken came from.

He added the requirement that:

Every part of every facility of every factory farm and every food factory be live-streamed on the internet so people can see exactly what’s going on and track their food if they want to.

It’s only our blindness to the horrors of factory farming, and our disconnection from its reality, that allows the horror to continue. Honest and clear labelling could kickstart a consumer revolution.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Jamie Oliver’s sugar labels should be leading the campaign 

While media headlines have concentrated on the idea of a sugar tax, it’s Jamie Oliver’s proposed sugar labels that should really command our attention.

The most powerful part of Oliver’s presentation to the Health Committee last week was when he passed around bottles of soft drinks with his own clear labels attached showing how many teaspoons full of sugar were in each bottle. A 500ml bottle of Ribena? 13 teaspoons. Pepsi? 14 teaspoons.

You can see Oliver’s excellent stickers on this Instagram post.

Oliver’s argument to the committee was simple – if you present people with clear, honest information, then they tend to make good choices, or at least better choices. If parents could quickly and easily see how much sugar was in soft drinks, they’d probably change how many they bought for their kids.

As Oliver said to the Committee:

If that was on every pack in the country, you wouldn’t need a tax!

The British public understand teaspoons. They’re a tangible measurement. As Oliver argued:

If you want something that gives you good, clear information in half a second that is the only way to do it on sugary sweetened drinks.

When I talk to the general public at large I have not yet met anyone who does not want that information now.

Oliver acknowledged that the industry hates the idea, which in itself ‘paints the clearest picture that clarity is something that they don’t wish us to have.’

Information is essential for markets to work properly. The power of consumer choice only works when informed.

Talking to my own friends and family, I haven’t spoken to anyone who isn’t shocked by the sugar content of the Ribena bottle. Nobody has guessed it correctly.

We deserve decent information. Let’s implement Oliver’s labels. Much change would flow from that.

Hands off the Freedom of Information Act 

It’s been ten years since the Freedom of Information Act came into force and the government currently has an Independent Commission reviewing it.

I share the fears of many journalists that the commission might lay the groundwork for the government adding new restrictions on the release of information, strengthening the ministerial veto and adding charges for requests.

Anticipating this threat, Press Gazette and others have launched a petition calling on the government not to weaken the FOI Act.

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford said:

The FOI commission seems intent on seriously weakening the act dealing a blow to the public’s right to know. This is not about saving money, or reducing the ‘burden’ on local authorities as has been suggested. It is about turning the clock back and putting us back in the dark. That’s why Press Gazette will be fighting against what appears to be a government plot to water down FoI.

Everyone who believes that we have a right to know what public bodies do in our name, and with our money, should sign the petition.

Lest we forget, Tony Blair said that bringing in the Freedom of Information Act was one of his biggest regrets. Heroic FOI campaigner Maurice Frankel wrote an excellent piece dissecting Blair’s thinking which is well-worth reading.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Lansley takes job with firm that promotes NHS privatisation 

Solomon Hughes has spotted that former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley – who pushed through the Health and Social Care Act and its pro-market reforms – has quietly taken a job with Bain & Company, a firm which promotes privatisation in the health service.

Documents released by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments state that Lansley’s new job involves:

leading a discussion on innovation in healthcare with Bain’s clients and consultants.

There goes the revolving door again. Another ex-minister profits as our health service gets sold off piece by piece.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Tribute to Sue Lloyd-Roberts 

Lyse Doucet honours Lloyd-Roberts’ courageous journalism, praising her ‘critical eye and compassionate heart’. Another colleague describes her as ‘fearless, like a teenager’.

BBC journalist Ian O’Reilly believed that Lloyd-Roberts was driven by:

her rage against the oppressor and the unjust and her absolute determination to expose and if possible humiliate the villain.

Newsnight also broadcast a short film showcasing some of her finest work.

Corbyn in the media 

Paul Myerscough says that Corbyn’s election has produced for the BBC:

[a dislocation] between the new state of party politics and the broadcaster’s entrenched conception of what constitutes impartiality. Because its notion of political balance between left and right is defined by the Labour and Conservative Parties, its spectrum of opinion has narrowed and its fulcrum drifted to the right in concert with New Labour. Corbyn has reopened the gap, but the BBC has not adjusted. So far as it is concerned, with his election the Labour leadership has put itself beyond the pale. Its norm remains a ‘balance’ between the Tories and the Labour right. By defining himself against the establishment, Corbyn becomes an outsider, an insurgent, who can be discussed ‘fairly’ by the BBC only in the way that, say, Radio 5 Live can ‘fairly’ cover England’s opponents at the World Cup, or the way the Today programme talks ‘fairly’ about Syrian refugees. One should be respectful towards them, but they remain irrevocably other.

Corbyn’s success will continue to depend not least on how effectively he can combine the oldest and newest forms of campaigning: digital networks with town-hall meetings. The mainstream media will remain stony ground.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Newsnight interview with Reza Afshar about Syria  

Reza Afshar, providing diplomatic support to the Syrian opposition, said:

The major driver now of the refugee crisis and indeed extremism in Syria is the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. So what needs to happen, the obvious policy choice here, is to try and stop the indiscriminate bombing of civilians as a first step to achieving anything.

We need a policy that stops those bombs.

When Kirsty Wark asked ‘If you were Barack Obama, what would be your next step?’, Afshar responded:

Step One: Condemn the Russian action unequivocally. I’ve heard no condemnation from the Americans. It needs to be clear, it needs to be unequivocal.

Step Two:

Start signalling about the need to protect civilians in Syria and the fact that we’re looking at options to do that.

Step Three:

Enforce a ban on aerial bombardment in Syria – they have the military capability to do it and they could do it without triggering air defences.

Everyone is talking about ISIS, everyone is talking about Assad, but actually the main driver of the problem is the 200 civilians that are getting killed every week by Assad’s airforce. We have the capability to stop that and it would create a whole new dynamic through which we could examine new policy options.

What I found striking about this interview was the clarity with which Afshar advocated a strategy with a humanitarian message: Stop bombing civilians right now.

The Syrian conflict is typically portrayed as a choice between Assad and ISIS, too complex to address, prompting futile responses of handwringing despair.

I attended a discussion about Syria at the Frontline Club last night which took place amidst photographs taken by Caesar documenting the death machine of President Bashar al-Assad. The panel emphasised the international community’s profound moral failing over Syria. Too many journalists have looked away. Nobody intervened to prevent the killing. The Syrian people have been abandoned for years. That vacuum has allowed ISIS to flourish, with civilians turning to extremists for protection and survival.

The panelists called for a No Fly Zone in Syria and serious action to protect civilians.

Hilary Clinton has recently expressed support for a No Fly Zone and John Kerry wants it to be seriously considered.