Archive for the ‘Social decay’ Category

Fixing Brazil

23/09/2016

A piece in Foreign Affairs looks at how to fix Brazil, “Brazil has rarely had it so bad. The country’s economy has col­lapsed: since 2013, its unemployment rate has nearly doubled, to more than 11 percent, and last year its GDP shrank by 3.8 per­cent, the largest contraction in a quarter century. Petrobras, Brazil’s semipublic oil giant, has lost around 85 percent of its value since 2008, thanks to declining commodity prices and its role in a massive corruption scandal. The Zika virus has infected thousands of Brazilians, exposing the frailty of the country’s health system. And despite the billions of dollars Brasília poured into the 2014 World Cup and this year’s Olympic Games, those events have done little to improve the national mood or upgrade the country’s urban infrastructure. Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s long-standing problems have proved stubbornly persistent: half of all Brazilians still lack access to basic sanitation, 35 million of them lack access to clean water, and in 2014, the country suffered nearly 60,000 homicides. But Brazil’s biggest problems today are political. Things first came to a boil in the summer of 2013, when the police clashed with students protesting bus and subway fare hikes in São Paulo. Within days, some 1.5 million people took to the streets of Brazil’s big cities to protest a wider set of problems, including the government’s wasteful spending (to the tune of some $3.6 billion) on the construction and refurbishment of a dozen stadiums for the World Cup. In the months that followed, when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared on television to soothe the unrest, Brazilians across the country drowned out her voice by rattling pots and pans from their balconies. In October 2014, after promising to increase public spending and bring down unemployment, Rousseff managed to win reelection by a thin margin. But she quickly backtracked on her major pledges, announcing a plan to cut state spend­ing and rein in inflation. The public’s anger mounted”.

He writes that the coalition led by Rousseff’s party collapsed with impeachment proceedings against her that were later successful. He adds that Brazil’s constitution allows the president powers to break gridlock between executive and legislature through decree as well as “dislodge pending legislation from congres­sional committees, force Congress to vote on urgent measures, and veto bills in part or in whole. Those powers have long helped Brazil’s presidents avoid deadlock and pass many needed reforms. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Brazilian presidents are all-powerful. To the contrary: their ability to avoid gridlock comes at a high price. Because Brazil’s Congress has more than two dozen political parties, it’s nearly impossible for a single one to win a majority. That forces Brazil’s presidents to form coalitions in order to govern effectively. And that’s where the problems start. Brazil’s political parties lack coherent ideological agendas; instead, they are loosely knit alliances whose members have no qualms about forming or dissolving coalitions at any time”.

The author goes on to mention how “Brazil’s electoral rules allow candidates to switch parties relatively easily, undermining any chance of ideological unity within coalitions. And candidates are elected to Congress based not on the number of votes they receive individually but on the total number their party pulls in. That creates an incentive for politicians to change allegiances on a regular basis: jumping ship for a party led by a popular candidate can often boost less popular aspirants to office (or keep them there). Brazilian politicians thus tend to ride on the coattails of powerful allies instead of focusing on party loyalty, ideological consistency, or the details of policy”.

He also cites numerous inefficiencies, which pale “in comparison to the other big problem engendered by Brazil’s flawed political rules: endemic corruption. In many cases, the pork and patronage doled out by presidents prove insufficient to win Congress’ support; presidents therefore often sweeten the pot by allowing legislators to appoint their allies to plum jobs in Brazil’s powerful state-owned companies and regulatory agencies. Once in these posts, the new officials gain a say over which companies will receive lucrative government contracts. And many of them have proved all too happy to make those decisions based on bribes, which they then share with their patrons in Congress”.

He goes on to mention that “Unlikely as it may seem, Brazil’s current troubles might just have a silver lining: business as usual has become so costly that many Brazilians have finally accepted that the system has to change. Operation Car Wash has laid bare the misdeeds of the country’s political class, and for the first time, dozens of politicians and business leaders have gone to jail. In the past, officials were able to shrug off corruption investigations by relying on a lenient justice system, a weak congressional ethics committee, and a public that seemed inured to graft. That is no longer possible. The judges, investigators, and prosecutors running Operation Car Wash represent a new generation of civil servants, with new values, and they are using a new set of rules and tactics, including the threat of serious sentences and the carrot of leniency deals, to break the silence that politicians and businesspeople have maintained for decades. Just as important, according to public opinion research by the polling group Datafolha, most Brazilians now believe that corruption is their country’s biggest problem. And whereas the protests in 2013 were mostly about irrational government spending, more recently, Brazilians have taken to the streets specifically to protest official corruption. For all his shortcomings, Temer seems to understand the need for change. He is pushing for Brazil’s first-ever cap on public spending, a measure that would limit government expenditures to current levels for the next 20 years, thereby forcing interest groups to compete for a fixed amount of resources instead of pushing for tax hikes or bigger deficits. He has introduced measures that will allow the government to reward efficient bureaucrats across the vast expanse of the Brazilian state. And crucially, he has raised the possibility of constitutional reforms that would reduce the number of political parties and restrict their ability to merge their electoral lists. Both measures would make it easier to get things done in Congress without graft”.

He goes on to suggest that “In short, lawmakers must rewrite the rules of the game so that elected officials stop working only for their backers and start focusing on good governance for the majority of the population. Academics, policymakers, and pundits have offered a number of ideas for how they might do so. One radical proposal would have Brazil drop its presidential system in favor of a parliamentary one akin to the United Kingdom’s. By fusing Congress and the executive, that change would make legislators directly responsible for the success or failure of the government, and since lawmakers would be threatened with fresh elections if they challenged the government’s major decisions, such a reform might reduce corrupt dealmaking and encourage the development of stronger political parties. Other experts have argued for a semi-presidential system, in which a prime minister accountable to the legislature conducts day-to-day politics and a president retains the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections. Shifting to such a system could make lawmakers more accountable for the results of policy decisions while preserving the president’s status as a national figurehead. Yet another proposal would keep Brazil’s current presidential system intact but reduce the number of existing parties to between six and eight and push them to commit to coherent policy platforms, in part by abandoning the open-list proportional representation that defines today’s electoral system”.

He concludes “It is too early to say which of these proposals would be most effective. What is certain, however, is that Brazil’s political system will remain dysfunctional until the country’s president and legislators can work together effectively—in the name of party platforms, not clientelistic bargains. To get there, Brazil must reduce the number of parties in Congress and empower them to discipline their own members. Operation Car Wash, Rousseff’s impeachment, and the overall economic decline have created an opportunity for Brazil to pursue just this kind of reform. Now the country’s politicians must seize the rare opening these cascading crises have afforded them”.

Brazil after the Olympics

01/09/2016

A piece notes the problems of Brazil after the end of the Olympics, “The Olympic torch was extinguished Sunday night in a carnival of song and dance, the good times rolled. But it is too early to determine whether or not the games were a success or just a muddling through difficult days. Swimming pools turned green. Some 85,000 soldiers and police were mobilised to provide security, but instances of muggings,stray bullets, and petty theft made headlines. The pollution in Guanabara Bay sickened at least one athlete. And, of course, six-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte and three of his fellow swimmers embarrassedthemselves. But the enthusiasm of many Cariocas — as Rio de Janeiro’s residents are called — partially compensated for the long lines to enter venues, food shortages, and challenging transportation delays. However the games will be remembered, it has at least been a temporary respite for Brazilians from the ongoing political and economic crises that have gripped the nation”.

More importantly it mentions “As the games end, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff will move to closure with Aug. 25 cited as the day the last phase of the process will open. Rousseff faces charges of violating budget laws by authorizing credit lines without congressional approval. That is the formal indictment. But there are many other elements involved in the accounting of her very public national downfall. Rousseff, by most accounts, was a terrible politician. Brazil is a multiparty political system, and the only way to get legislation approved is to constantly build short-term coalitions in Congress; instead, she refused and played to her base. Even worse, she was often petty: In particular, she sought to prevent the re-election of Eduardo Cunha as the speaker of the lower house. In retaliation, it is said, he initiated the impeachment process. Many blame her government for the economic and financial crises that now plague the country. By most accounts, she appointed mediocre functionaries to important cabinet posts. And her Workers’ Party (PT) never encountered a welfare program it didn’t like. As a result of massive public sector spending, the economy overheated. Inflation increased, as did unemployment. Foreign direct investment fell”.

It adds importantly, “the hallmark of the current crisis was the discovery that the state oil company, Petrobras, had become a major source of bribes and kickbacks that were used to finance party politics. Most of the country’s major construction companies were involved, and a host of political leaders across the party spectrum have been implicated in the scandal. It did not help Rousseff’s credibility that she served as the minister of mines and energy and chair of Petrobras while many of the crimes were committed. Of course, she denies any knowledge of what occurred. But the scandal is so large as to deem that defense laughable. A new generation of federal prosecutors have arrested or indicted many of the alleged participants of the conspiracy. Dozens of senior politicians and private sector officials sit in jail. Some are involved in plea bargains; most will serve some time in prison. For economic and political elites who believed they could act with impunity, the new reality that crimes will be punished is a shock — but one that will serve Brazil well in the future. The cozy, often crooked ties between the private sector and the huge, inefficient public sector have been dealt a serious blow”.

It goes on to point out that “though the sins of an economic giant are being laid bare, the country’s finances are still in great distress. A decade ago, Brazil was seen as a rapidly emerging economy — one of the skyrocketing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that would own the future. Those were heady days, especially for Brazil. A sharp increase in demand for Brazilian raw materials and commodities, particularly from China, provided an ever-increasing amount of foreign exchange. Investment flowed in. Brazil was upgraded by all the rating agencies. But the PT didn’t understand that the economy was actually neither productive nor competitive globally. Priorities such as physical infrastructure were overlooked. Rigid labour laws, many on the books since the 1930s, made it difficult to fire unproductive workers and hire new ones. Skills were subpar; both technical training and general education languished. Public health, while universal, was substandard. Social security coverage extended benefits to both public sector employees and the private sector, but deficits ballooned and reform was postponed. Brazil’s tax collection was in disarray — leveed at the union, federal district, state, and municipal level, the burden surpassed 33 percent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, government grew bigger and bigger as the PT sought to employ as many of its party members as possible, often with little thought to their competence”.

The author mentions that “The acting president, Michel Temer, if confirmed at the end of August as the new chief executive, apparently wants to undertake a reform program. The first priority is to rein in government spending, cutting pensions and workers’ benefits. As might be imagined, the unions are outraged; there will be massive protests if the government decides to move forward”.

He points out its rising debt, partly due to an aging population, “Compounding the problem of a stable social safety net is Brazil’s profound inequality. There is a tremendous gap between the very rich, a struggling middle class, and the poor. The Olympics captured that disparity: As sweeping aerial shots panned from the beachfront condos of Ipanema to the mountainside favelas, or slums, the media didn’t shy from reports on the inability of the favelados to afford tickets for the events. Many of the favelas lack sanitation — a major cause of the pollution in Guanabara Bay, since raw sewage runs directly into the water. Promises to install processing plants have been on hold for decades. Security was frequently highlighted in the media coverage. While tourists and middle- and upper-class Brazilians cheered in the Maracanã Stadium, the favelas were home to the ongoing drug war between the gangs and the security forces”.

It concludes “As the games end and the impeachment process terminates, probably with the dismissal of Rousseff, the grim questions that mark Brazil’s present predicament will resurface. Can public education and health facilities be reformed to give security and opportunity to those in need? Can a corrupt, inefficient, and immense federal government be downsized? After decades of out-of-control growth, are there too many political interests at play to allow for meaningful reform? Can Brazil reinvigorate industry to provide new export products in a world where commodity prices will probably be flat for some time? The short answer is that changes are possible — but not without government reforms first. Most observers agree that much of the gridlock in Brasília is due to the dysfunctional political party system. Remarkably, ideology isn’t the problem: Politicians move from party to party with little regard for loyalty. But changing the system — creating electoral districts and reducing the number of political parties — will require congressional approval. Few analysts believe that there is a broad enough coalition in Brasília that will forgo perks and patronage to make selfless decisions for the good of the state”.

It ends “Local elections are scheduled for October of this year; the results may provide some insight into the impact of the current situation on the average voter. The expectation is that Rousseff’s PT will do poorly at the expense ofpersonalist parties. National elections will take place at the end of 2018. Temer has already said he will not be a candidate. The PT’s former two-term president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, looks increasingly like a liability — and he may well be indicted as part of the ongoing scandal. Will new reform-minded candidates emerge? That is the hope — but there is no guarantee that fresh faces will be able to successfully address the reform agenda. Some argue that economic growth will begin to return in late 2017 or in 2018. If Temer becomes president after the impeachment, he has promised to work with Congress to approve much needed fiscal reforms. Brazil would also be helped if global commodity and raw material prices recover. Surely, Brazil’s working and lower classes will cheer, but the welcome relief may only delay the inevitable reckoning with the painful realities that need to be addressed”.

 

“Overly positive spin on the progress of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State”

30/08/2016

An article notes the benefits for Trump in a recently released intelliegence report, “A new congressional investigation has concluded that senior military officials presented an overly positive spin on the progress of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, but its initial findings stopped short of explicitly charging the Obama administration with cooking the books. The White House shouldn’t break out the champagne: The findings could still be a lose-lose proposition for both the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton just as Donald Trump appeared to be on the ropes amid plunging poll numbers and sharp attacks from members of his own party”.

The piece adds “Trump’s primary attack on Clinton’s national security credentials centers around his accusations that she and the president whom she served deserve blame for the spread — if not the very birth — of the Islamic State. The mogul has stepped up his rhetorical attacks on both Clinton and President Barack Obama in recent days, deriding Obama as the “founder” of the group and labeling Clinton its “co-founder.” As with so many of Trump’s attacks, it’s a wholly inaccurate claim. The Islamic State grew out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, an extremely violent Islamist group that battled U.S. forces after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, five years before Obama even took office. The president made an early series of remarks downplaying its capabilities, but has since launched an expansive military campaign that officials say has dramatically shrunk the size of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Still, the new evidence that the U.S. war against the Islamic State may not be going as well as the administration has claimed makes it easier for Trump to accuse Obama of intentionally misrepresenting the facts on the ground or to argue that the president was so incompetent that that he didn’t even realize that he was being misled by his commanders”.

The piece mentions that “Trump has already begun rolling out variants of that line of attack, part of the concerted Republican strategy to persuade voters that Obama bears responsibility both for losing Iraq by prematurely withdrawing American troops and for creating a vacuum that ISIS stepped in to fill. The president, Republicans argue, was also slow to grasp the severity of the new threat as evidenced by his tone-deaf and inaccurate description of the Islamic State as the “JV team” of international terrorism. Offered a way to back out of the clearly incorrect remarks on Thursday, Trump instead doubled down to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. Hewitt pushed back, saying the president is trying to defeat the group, but the New York businessman gave no ground. “I don’t care,” Trump replied. “He was the founder.” Now Trump’s efforts to attack Obama’s — and Clinton’s — handling of the Islamic State’s spread are getting a boost from the House report, which could be used as rhetorical ammunition in the GOP push to diminish the counterterrorism gains of the entire administration. The Republican chairs of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, formed the task force to investigate allegations that the U.S. Central Command, in charge of the war in the Middle East, had manipulated intelligence in 2014 and 2015″.

It adds that “the House panel concluded, was yes: CENTCOM leaders approved intelligence that “typically provided a more positive depiction of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts than was warranted by facts on the ground and were consistently more positive than analysis produced by other elements of the Intelligence Community.” It also corroborated claims by CENTCOM whistleblowers that “superiors were distorting their products” or pressuring them to do so. The findings were first reported by the Daily Beast. The House report found no evidence that administration officials implicitly or explicitly pressured senior CENTCOM officials to cook the books, but Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and one of the task force’s leaders, hinted that political motivations might ultimately explain the skewed intel analysis. The Democratic minority on the House Intelligence Committee, which conducted its own review, agreed with the majority’s conclusions about the faulty assessments but repeatedly emphasized that neither probe found administration involvement”.

It ends noting that “Trump and his allies haven’t shied away from alleging just such a connection, even though even Republican investigators couldn’t find one. Kelly Ayotte, a vulnerable Republican senator running for reelection in New Hampshire and one of the Obama administration’s loudest critics, was one of the first to weigh in on Thursday. “A successful strategy to defeat the scourge of radical Islamist terrorism must be based on facts — not rosy assessments manipulated to support a political narrative,” she said. Still, Trump’s ability to capitalize politically on the Obama administration’s track record in the war against the Islamic State may be complicated by inconvenient realities in his own record, including inaccurate claims that he initially both opposed the Iraq invasion (he supported it) and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces (he backed that, too).

The press, democracy and Brexit

29/07/2016

An important article notes the decline of the British press, “There is a conceit among many senior editors in the U.K. that Britain has “the best journalism in the world.” At its best, certainly, British journalism is very good indeed. From the sober analysis of the Financial Times and the Economist to the tub-thumping of the tabloid press to the BBC’s worldwide reputation for accuracy and impartiality, the British public has access to a healthy mixture of domestic, foreign, and investigative reporting. On many occasions, democracy has been well served by journalists who make important stories accessible and hold power to account”.

Correctly he notes that “At its worst, however, journalism in Britain can be truly awful. Five years ago, much of the world was rightly shocked by revelations of phone-hacking on the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday tabloid News of the World. The subsequent judicial investigation into the culture, practice, and ethics of the press, led by Lord Justice Leveson, exposed the tasteless practices on which some British tabloids had come to rely: the invasions into personal privacy, the gross intrusions into private grief. At the time, it seemed like a new low for the industry. If the Leveson inquiry revealed the tawdry side of the media business in the U.K., however, the Brexit campaign has featured a different kind of journalistic abuse: contempt for basic norms of truth and accuracy”.

He points out that “In the lead-up to the June 23 European Union referendum, British mainstream media failed spectacularly. Led, inevitably, by the viscerally anti-EU Daily Mail, Sun, Daily Express, and Telegraph papers, most of Britain’s national press indulged in little more than a catalog of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies. It was a ferocious propaganda campaign in which facts and sober analysis were sacrificed to the ideologically driven objectives of editors and their proprietors. The interests of readers, much less the interests of British democracy, were barely considered. Three days after the vote, I spoke to a Labour Member of Parliament who represents a constituency in northern England with one of the lowest proportions of immigrants in the country. Despite this, a majority of her constituents had voted to leave the EU. Why? Mainly, she said, because they were convinced that waves of immigrants would soon overwhelm their communities, take their jobs, and undermine their way of life. They were particularly concerned about the looming massive influx of Muslims, given the imminent European debut of Turkey – a country that stands no chance of joining the EU in my lifetime, let alone in the next few years”.

He questions, “How did things get so bad? In part, you can blame the internet, which has gutted traditional business models of journalism around the world. British journalism has been particularly vulnerable: For historical and geographical reasons – partly due to early industrialization and partly due to efficient distribution networks in a small country – Britain has long enjoyed the largest national press in any mature democracy. Nine national newspapers (10, until March, when the Independent went online-only) still battle furiously for eyeballs. This is, in many ways, for the good. But this frantic competition for a diminishing pool of readers and shrinking ad revenue, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, partly explains why some publications have been willing to sacrifice basic journalistic norms of accuracy and respect for privacy. But a second, equally powerful reason is unique to the United Kingdom — the passionate right-wing ideology that drives many of those newspapers. The country has a long history of explicit partisanship in its journalism. While there has always been a predominance of right-wing papers (at times, very right wing: the Daily Mail famously supported pro-Fascist groups during the 1930s), in the past, this was partly balanced by the mass circulation of the Mirror newspapers. But the Mirror’s decline has been precipitate; the Mails online dominance, on the other hand, driven by its embrace of celebrity news and pictures (mostly of young women in various states of undress), has enhanced its popular and political influence. Led by the Murdoch-owned Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Telegraph, with the Times (also Murdoch-owned) in a supporting role, the partisan right now overwhelms the comparatively insignificant presence of the Daily Mirror and Guardian on the left, especially with the left-leaning Independent now relegated to an online-only presence. During the referendum campaign, this toxic combination of uncompromising devotion to a political cause and contempt for the truth played a major role in leading Britain down the Brexit road”.

He mentions that “In a June 18 blog post, journalism blogger Liz Gerard compiled a montage of front-page headlines in order to demonstrate how the constant reiteration of words such as “migrants” and “borders” in large, bold font systematically ramped up the xenophobic message. “Turks, Romanians, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, Albanians: millions of them apparently want to abandon their homelands and settle in the English countryside — and only leaving the EU will stop them,” Gerard wrote. “No claim was too preposterous, no figure too huge to print.” The tabloid campaign against the EU itself — its faceless pen-pushing bureaucrats, its absurd regulations, and how much it costs the U.K. as an institution — lent itself perfectly to the oft-repeated Leave mantra of “Take back control.” Perhaps the most egregious example was a front-page Daily Mail headline on June 16 (inevitably repeated by the Sun) claiming that a truckload of migrants had arrived in the U.K. demanding, “We’re from Europe – let us in!” The story ran despite video footage that clearly demonstrated the new arrivals had informed officials that they were, in fact, refugees from Iraq and Kuwait. In a futile attempt to demonstrate that they aspired to some notion of journalistic integrity, the following day’s paper carried a “correction” consisting of 54 words at the bottom of Page 2″.

The article goes on to point out that “This was a much-repeated pattern throughout the referendum campaign: Journalist Hugo Dixon, who founded a pro-Remain fact-checking site called InFacts, drew attention to both the number of inaccurate stories and the chronically inadequate “corrections” relegated to inside pages. The problem was compounded by the sheer weight of anti-EU press. According to a Loughborough University study, once newspaper circulation is taken into account, just 18 percent of media coverage was pro-Remain compared with 82 percent pro-Leave. It’s difficult to prove conclusively that this constant drumbeat of headlines directly influenced voters’ decision-making. What is clear, however, is that it influenced the national conversation and, in particular, played an agenda-setting role for broadcasters, which in the U.K. (as in most of Europe) are bound by strict impartiality rules and are therefore more trusted by consumers to provide a nonpartisan approach. Remain campaign strategists were confident that the message of economic risk would succeed – as it had in the Scottish independence referendum – but they did not factor in a deeply hostile press whose slogans served as an echo chamber that broadcasters could scarcely resist”.

He notes how “This echo chamber was particularly evident on the vaunted BBC, which, by an unfortunate coincidence, is immersed in negotiations with the government about the renewal of its 10-year charter, always a tricky and delicate task. As a result, its normally self-assured journalists have been obsessed with “balance”: Any argument that receives airtime is accompanied by a counterargument, however patently absurd. This silliness was on display, for example, during a broadcast on the highly influential Radio 4 Today program, which featured an eminent scientist on the huge scientific research risks of Brexit. She was then “balanced” by a marginal and wholly unrepresentative cancer specialist who had previously stood as a candidate for the anti-EU UK Independence Party. Overall, the BBC’s EU referendum coverage was much more inclined to follow rather than lead. Film director Lord Puttnam, the former deputy chairman of Channel 4, a competing broadcaster, memorably described the BBC’s journalism during the campaign as “constipated.” In her post-referendum media roundup, the Guardian’s Jane Martinson revealed that, within an hour of Leave’s declaring victory, Sun editor Tony Gallagher told the Guardian: “So much for the waning power of the print media.” There was a further twist a few days later, when, on one of the most dramatic days in British politics, prominent Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, long considered the most likely next Conservative leader, abandoned his leadership bid. A leaked email suggested that, among other obstacles to a successful bid, he didn’t have the support of Murdoch or Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. Even in the age of social and digital media, which so many commentators believe will democratize communications, old-fashioned media proprietors and editors still serve as political kingmakers in Britain”.

He concludes questioning if anything can change, “In the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal, Parliament did, in fact, accept Leveson’s key recommendation: that the press’s efforts at self-regulation should be periodically scrutinized by an independent body in order to ensure that it is abiding by its own Code of Conduct – whose first rule is that newspapers should “take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. A Leveson compliant system would include regulatory sanctions for errant publications, such as equal prominence for corrections and fines for systematic code breaches. Had such a system been put in place, perhaps Brexit coverage would have been different. The kind of deliberate distortions that featured repeatedly across most of the tabloid press may have, at the very least, been discouraged by a regime that would oblige newspapers to print a front-page headline correction to counter a front-page headline lie. In any event, the new Conservative government, under huge pressure from the same press barons who undid Johnson, has stalled on implementing Leveson’s recommendations, and the British press today therefore feels free to break its own industry code with as much frequency and impunity as before 2011. To deflect criticism, it has established a “new” regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which is owned and run by the major publishers. As the referendum campaign demonstrated, IPSO has been ineffectual in holding its newspaper members to account. Those same commentators who preach the revolution of social media also like to cite new media like BuzzFeed, Vice News, and other online outlets as examples of greater plurality and more opportunities for journalists. These are all welcome additions, but so far they have been unable to compete with the legacy of traditional news brands, which are extending their online presence. According to some sources, the entertainment-focused Daily Mail website, which attracts upward of 200 million global visitors every month, is the most popular English-language site in the world. Perhaps that will gradually change. Meanwhile, broadcast journalism still aspires to the highest standards of accuracy and impartiality, and another hope lies in detaching those broadcast newsrooms from their mind-numbing dependency on agenda-driven newspapers”.

 

Trusting Trump with security?

13/06/2016

Some U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that Donald Trump’s “shoot from the hip” style could pose national security risks as they prepare to give him a routine pre-election briefing once he is formally anointed as the Republican presidential nominee. Eight senior security officials told Reuters they had concerns over briefing Trump, whose brash, unpredictable campaign style has been a feature of his rise as an insurgent candidate. Despite their worries, the officials said the “Top Secret” briefing to each candidate would not deviate from the usual format to avoid any appearance of bias. Most of the officials asked for anonymity to discuss a domestic political issue. Current and former officials said that the scandal over Hillary Clinton’s use of emails also raises concerns about her handling of sensitive information. The likely Democratic nominee is facing an FBI probe into whether security was compromised and laws were broken by her use of a private email server for government business while she was Secretary of State.

Rothkopf on Trump

07/06/2016

David Rothkopf writes about Trump, “I’m not going to spend much time here presenting the case that Trump represents a threat to the U.S. political system and to American values unlike any significant presidential candidate since, perhaps, George Wallace, Alabama’s racist governor who ran in 1968. That case has been made frequently and well elsewhere, most notably and more recently by the estimable and thoughtful Bob Kagan. Rather, I want to address the issue of how the media has covered Trump and notably why I refer to Trump as I do. No doubt some of his supporters will consider my references to him thus far in this column to be biased. My view is the opposite. My view is if a candidate who runs for president is racist (see: his express views on Mexicans and Muslims here), misogynist (see: his history of disrespecting women here), and is someone who has no experience in government, no experience or understanding of foreign policy, and a business track record that is checkered at best, then objectivity dictates that those with platforms in the media must report and comment on these facts as they are. Donald Trump does not get a pass because he has millions of supporters. He does not get to argue that the statements he has made are somehow protected from judgment because they are offered in the context of a campaign“.

Rothkopf goes onto argue “If we rely on honest, unbiased reporting to guide our views on Trump as a candidate, then we are allowing him to be defined by a clear record — one he has created for himself in the public eye. And if we use that record, then it’s impossible not to characterize him, objectively, by his reckless would-be policies and his displays of ignorance and hatefulness, qualities in a president that would be dangerous to America and the world. It is dishonest to present an impostor as the real thing, a poseur as a statesman, a buffoon who plays to the cheap seats as an artist or an innovator. The great error of the media in its coverage of the 2016 campaign has been and continues to be its attempt to legitimize someone who is inherently — in each and every strand of his DNA — illegitimate”.

He adds “The examples of Trump’s recklessness — including his failure to understand nuclear policy in Asia, the role of NATO in Europe, and, especially, his lack of understanding as to why Mexico is such a vital friend of the United States — are manifold. Do you feel that past presidents with experience got us into trouble? That’s certainly true. But here’s a cold, hard fact: Those situations would only have been worse with an arrogant, know-nothing, loose cannon like Trump in the Oval Office. In fact, here’s an interesting thought experiment supporting the case that not just experience but experience in the White House matters to be a successful foreign-policy president. Pick the best foreign-policy presidents of the past century from both parties and then ask yourself, what was the one background factor they all had in common? Go on, try it. Let’s start with a few presidents: George H. W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt. Each had a very high level of experience and regular contact with the White House on foreign-policy issues before he became president. Four of them were vice presidents. One was supreme allied commander. And one was a top official in the Department of the Navy in the days when it was absolutely central to U.S. defense. There is no substitute for high-level experience in or with the White House, and it is the only reliable preparation for a commander in chief and architect of U.S. foreign policy”.

He makes the point that “It is impossible to know anything about foreign policy or care anything about America’s interests in the world and support a man like Trump. To suggest that just because many in the establishment are corrupt or dysfunctional, therefore, someone from outside the establishment automatically deserves a chance and must be better is a logical folly. The odds are, given that experience matters, the person without experience will be worse. If, as it happens, that person has, throughout his adult life, seemed dedicated to exercising serial bad judgment — in his business affairs, in his associations with mobsters and other dubious characters, in his treatment of women, in his public statements, in his private behaviour — then the case that he might be the answer rather than an even worse problem is made even more ridiculous. So, what is a responsible voter to do when presented with a candidate like this? There are several options, but voting for such a man is clearly not one of them. A vote for Trump is a vote against women, Mexicans, Islam, and America’s national interests”.

Correctly he proclaims, “Democracy is not a spectator sport. You cannot opt out. Apathy or inaction has an effect. It strengthens those who act. So, at the very least, you have to actively support whichever opponent he might face that actually has a chance of beating him. In this case, that is Hillary Clinton. Whether you love her or are tepid about her, the only way to actively play a role in stopping Trump — which is, as I view it, a patriotic duty — you must support her. There is no alternative. In fact, if you recognize Trump as the monumental threat he is, you should actively support her campaign — and help her defeat him. As it happens, Clinton is not just the only viable alternative to Trump. She is an extraordinarily gifted woman who would make an excellent president. She would come to office with more foreign-policy experience than any president since George H. W. Bush (and would be the first secretary of state to become president since the middle of the 19th century … despite the fact that prior secretaries of state-turned-president have included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams). She has extensive White House knowledge and was an acknowledged thought leader during the presidency of her husband. She has been a leader on a wide array of domestic issues from health care to advocacy for first responders. She showed a great aptitude for management during her tenure as secretary of state, winning widespread respect across a massive, far-flung, complex global organization”.

He goes on to note that “Moreover, since her earliest days as a lawyer and advocate, she has been known and respected for her brilliant mind, her studiousness, her mastery of her brief. She is known to engender great loyalty among her staff. She is a listener, an empowerer, someone who has a reputation for wanting to be told the truth. I have met with her many times and have cultivated this view over years of writing about her and the administrations in which she has served. I can honestly say that she may be the most impressive candidate for president and one of the most impressive public figures I have ever met. If she were running against the best of the Republican Party, she would deserve to win. But she is not. She is running against a menace who must be stopped”.

Rothkopf ends, “In fact, in the midst of this very dark and disturbing campaign year, there is, in fact, a bright prospect. Due to the wisdom of the American people (and the arithmetic of our electoral system … not to mention the odiousness of Trump), Hillary Clinton is likely to be elected the first woman president of the United States in November. We dare not — we must not — take that for granted. But were it to happen, it will produce a watershed in U.S. history that will send an important message to our daughters and sisters and mothers and to all the rest of us. We will have elected a woman president. And we will have done so because she was one of few people in the country best qualified for the office. Which raises an interesting prospect. In 50 or 100 years from now, when historians look back on this period, with some luck, Trump will be forgotten or seen as an oddity or, better yet, a cautionary tale. But the big story will be that in 2008 American voters elected a black man and that in 2016 they elected a woman. That is to say, in the future, there is a good likelihood that people will look back on the current American electorate and, rather than see the depressing shit show that we lament daily, they will see us as perhaps the most progressive and enlightened in U.S. history. Of course, that will only happen if voters from both parties have the courage to recognize the unprecedented threat posed by Trump for what it is and see the necessity in taking action against that threat and the manifold benefits of doing so. The action needed is supporting Hillary Clinton to be the first woman to be president of the United States of America — the kind of experienced candidate this country and the world need for the fragile and complex times in which we live”.

 

“Britain has proved especially willing to look the other way”

28/05/2016

A relevant article notes the links between London and corruption, “British Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on video describing Nigeria and Afghanistan as “fantastically corrupt” and “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.” Many Nigerians were outraged by his comments, which came on the eve of an anti-corruption summit in Britain to be attended by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Some demanded an apology from Cameron. But Buhari was phlegmatic. “I am not going to demand any apology from anyone. What I am demanding is the return of assets,” he said, referring obliquely to the tens of billions of dollars in stolen Nigerian money thought to be squirrelled away in London bank accounts. “What will I do with [an] apology? I need something tangible.” It’s no secret that corruption is a problem in Africa. Some $50 billion in illicit finance flows out of the continent every year, according to the United Nations. In the first 40 years of independence alone, Nigeria’s leaders stole or squandered an estimated $400 billion. But as the barbed comments from Buhari imply, these leaders had accomplices in the West. Britain and other developed countries are not the cause of Africa’s corruption, but they are certainly an impediment to its eradication. Cameron didn’t loot Nigeria’s coffers himself, but his government has provided thieves financial getaway vehicles to ferry stolen riches out of Africa”.

The report goes on to note “Buhari knows better than most how this white-collar mugging goes down. Back when he ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the 1980s, he went after former ministers and civil servants from the previous administration in a wide-ranging anti-corruption probe. Some of them fled to Britain — in itself an indication of the benevolent treatment they expected to receive there. The response of Buhari’s government was to send agents to kidnap former transport minister Umaru Dikko from his home in London. They got as far as snatching him off the street, drugging him, and stuffing him into a shipping crate. But the plot was foiled at the last minute by British security forces as the agents prepared to load Dikko onto a flight back to Nigeria. The episode resulted in a major diplomatic crisis during which Britain refused multiple extradition requests from Nigeria, leaving the former minister to grow old with his allegedly ill-gotten gains. It’s understandable, if not excusable, that Nigeria resorted to kidnapping former ministers on European soil. At best, legal avenues for repatriating stolen wealth from abroad are infuriatingly slow. At worst, they are dead ends that come with hefty legal fees”.

It adds “This is sadly typical of African efforts to recover stolen wealth. Some have argued that African governments bear some responsibility for not aggressively prosecuting offenders at home. One oft-cited example is the so-called chickengate scandal in Kenya, where British companies paid bribes – codenamed “chicken” — to Kenyan officials to obtain contracts to print election materials. British authorities prosecuted their country’s offenders, but Kenyan authorities did not. What can Western countries do if their African counterparts lack the political will to root out corruption? This argument obscures the fact that African governments are fighting a battle on two fronts. Even when they successfully prosecute corruption at home, they often have to restart litigation in foreign countries to have any hope of accessing the stolen funds. In other words, they must litigate every crime twice: domestically to secure a conviction, and abroad to recover the money. This all but ensures that the stolen funds won’t be repatriated in full, since foreign lawyers typically collect a percentage of the money they recover. For African governments, illicit financial flows are lose-lose. But for Western firms, they’re win-win: There are profits to be made whether or not the money is eventually recovered and returned”.

Not supursingly the piece mentions “Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Program, described these flows as “integral to the economies of” recipient countries. London’s booming housing market, for example, has been artificially inflated by money laundered from abroad, according to Britain’s National Crime Agency. Not surprisingly, Western enforcement of international anti-corruption treaties has been lax. As Cameron admitted at the summit last week, “When it comes to tackling corruption, the international community has looked the other way for far too long.” Of the 41 industrialized countries that are signatories to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention, only four actively enforce it, according to the Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.  Britain has proved especially willing to look the other way when foreign officials arrive with suspiciously large sums of money. Although British banks are supposed to conduct anti-money laundering checks when receiving funds from foreign politicians, a 2011 report from the country’s Financial Services Authority revealed that many had repeatedly failed to do so. For example, former Nigerian Gov. James Ibori managed to deposit more than $2 million over several years at a single British bank branch, largely in over-the-counter cash deposits, before anyone raised an eyebrow. He was eventually convicted of money laundering in a British court in 2012, but the fact that no one caught on sooner speaks to the absurd laxity of the system”.

The piece ends “After last week’s summit, Cameron announced the formation of a Global Forum for Asset Recovery that will convene next year to discuss returning corruptly acquired funds to four countries, including Nigeria. He also announced that he would introduce new regulations that will make it more difficult for foreign shell companies to launder money in Britain by forcing them to declare their holdings in a public register. All this talk of cracking down on illicit finance is commendable, but unless Western governments get serious about enforcing anti-corruption regulations — remember, there are conventions in place that many signatories simply disregard — it won’t lead to anything. One way to improve enforcement would be to internationalise it, removing the fox-and-henhouse-like incentive structure that prevails when nations are expected to prevent illicit funds from flowing into their own pockets. This could be done either by empowering existing international enforcement bodies, such as the International Court of Justice, to prosecute transnational corruption or by establishing a stand-alone international anti-corruption court. Sadly, I don’t see Western countries leading the charge to do either”.

The Western hating left

14/12/2015

Given the beginning of UK bombing of ISIS a interesting piece in the Economist argues that the Left must reject anti-Western notions prevalent in among its members ““DO WE have Syrians?” interjects a woman. A brief silence. The gathering in Manchester’s Central Library is pondering who might take the microphone at its upcoming protest against plans to bomb Islamic State in Syria. On the list so far: Labour Party MPs, MEPs, councillors, the Green Party, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, musicians, poets, trade unionists and “definitely a student of some sort”. Phone messages have been left, e-mails fired off and brains racked for names of old-time peaceniks”.

The piece adds “Only now has the idea of asking a Syrian arisen. “There’s a big Syrian group,” murmurs one. “But they’re not anti,” continues another, disgusted: “They were lobbying for Britain to bomb Assad.” Those present sigh as one. On to the logistics of the event. It is decided that stewards should guard the mic, poised to fend off any “pro-war Syrians or imperialists”. After all, notes the chairman: “We know what we’re talking about here.” Would that BBC Manchester possessed such discernment. The station is interviewing pro-war Kurds tomorrow, to the group’s distain: “They dig ’em up.” “Amazing how they find them!” Such is the eye-swivelling world of Stop the War, the organisation that, though not the same as the anti-war movement (dominated by decent, mild-mannered types), is its main organising force and has a record of sidelining the very peoples in whose interest it professes to act”.

The piece goes on “Rethink Rebuild, the Syrian society in Manchester, requested a speaking slot at its Don’t Bomb Syria meeting there in October, but was ignored. It claims: “The Syrian voice was marginalised throughout the event.” Other Stop the War gatherings have followed that pattern. At one in Westminster Syrians criticising the unrepresentative panel were jeered at and the police called; in Birmingham a Syrian invited to speak was disinvited and branded a supporter of imperialism for backing a no-fly zone. This knack for alienating its notional beneficiaries goes all the way back to Stop the War’s foundation in 2001 by (among others) the Socialist Workers Party, an authoritarian far-left outfit. At one of its first conferences Iraqi and Iranian delegates quit when their motion condemning “Islamic terrorism” was defeated”.

Worryingly, though not surprisingly it  continues “That is the thing with Stop the War. It is not anti-war so much as anti-West; a permanent howl of relativist anguish at NATO and its members. For example, the group could hardly be more indulgent of Vladimir Putin’s wars. It defended the invasion of Georgia as a reaction to “the ambition of the USA to exercise global hegemony”, called many of the Maidan protesters in Kiev neo-Nazis and excused Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Tellingly, at its “anti-war” demonstration in London on December 1st a poster emblazoned with Syrian flags and the slogan “Support For Bashar Al-Assad” was brandished above the crowd”.

The piece adds “The phenomenon has precedent. In 1941 George Orwell described part of the left as “sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British.” In 2007 “What’s Left?”, a book by Nick Cohen, charted the latter-day manifestations of the same instinct: cozying up to Milosevic’s Serbia, blaming America for the 9/11 attacks and, in debates on the Iraq war, conspicuously overlooking Baathism’s horrors. The book was part of a push by those lefties dismayed by their Stop the War-ish comrades to remake the case for Western engagement in the name of egalitarian and Enlightenment values. Another was the Euston Manifesto, a call (so named as it was devised in a pub on the Euston Road) for the left to make “common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not”. The election of Jeremy Corbyn, Stop the War’s chairman, as Labour’s leader in September confirmed the manifesto’s marginalisation”.

Interestingly the writer notes “Corbyn has handed over the reins of Stop the War, but to say he remains close would be an understatement. He declined to condemn it or pull out of a fundraising event when, after the Paris attacks, the group inevitably proclaimed: “Paris reaps whirlwind of Western support for extremist violence in Middle East”. One of his shadow foreign ministers appeared to suggest that Labour would consult Stop the War ahead of the parliamentary vote on air strikes. The organisation has also engaged with Momentum, the pressure group created out of Mr Corbyn’s leadership campaign. The two bodies collaborated in the run-up to the vote, inviting each other’s speakers to events and promoting each other’s efforts to lobby MPs. Together they form the institutional hub of the Labour leader’s inner circle”.

It mentions that “And this is just the start. When Mr Corbyn, under pressure from his shadow ministers, decided on November 30th to offer his MPs a free vote on Syria, Stop the War condemned the move and sent its march past Labour’s headquarters. With moderate Labour MPs under threat of deselection by new, Corbynite party members, the impending publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report on the Iraq war (which unravelled into a disaster on Tony Blair’s watch) and the ongoing battle against Islamic State, this group—“a madcap coalition of Trots, Islamists and anti-West fury chimps”, as one former Labour MP puts it—will continue to play a central role in the politics of Britain’s main opposition party. This is a dismal state of affairs”.

Correctly he makes the point that “Britain’s left has a rich tradition, dating to the Spanish civil war and beyond, of treating tyranny in one country as a crime against all; of heeding the bell that “tolls for thee”. True to that tradition, some Labour MPs used a Commons session on the Paris attacks on November 17th to decry Stop the War and its influence. “Does the prime minister agree that full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists?” asked Emma Reynolds. Such pointed comments were a good start, but only that. Now, this wing of Labour must assert itself: providing cover for MPs targeted for deselection, a platform for those denied one by Stop the War and an emphatic rebuttal of its anti-West rhetoric. It is time for the left to return to Euston”.

 

The dangers of lobbyists

01/07/2015

A piece in the Economist discusses the dangers of lobbying as both bad for business and bad for America.

It opens “IN 1971 Lewis Powell, an American lawyer who would go on to become a Supreme Court judge, wrote a memorandum for the Chamber of Commerce. Business was the victim of a “broadly based and consistently pursued” assault, he argued. There were few elements of American society that had “as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders.” It was time for companies to change all this—and acquire political power. “Such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that, when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination.” Powell has been granted his wish. In 2012 corporate America accounted for more than three-quarters of the $3.3 billion spent on lobbying in Washington, DC. General Electric was the market leader, spending $21.4m, and Google came second, with $18.2m”.

The author goes on to note “And this is just lobbying in the strict sense defined by American law—ie, the work of registered lobbyists, employed to make direct contact with congressmen and officials. Businesses also employ innumerable other people, in areas such as “government relations”, “public affairs” or “corporate communications”, whose job, in plain English, involves lobbying for or against changes in public policy. Then there are the countless business-funded outfits that say they are simply providing information about a particular industry, and the army of friendly, corporate-sponsored academics, who are all indulging in a subtler form of lobbying”.

The article adds that “A big American firm may nowadays have a dozen or more full-time registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill, while also employing the services of a couple of dozen lobbying firms from among the 2,000 or so based around K Street. At a moment’s notice, Gucci-clad glad-handers can flood the halls of Congress, and retired politicians on a retainer can be summoned up to “make a call”. Overworked, underpaid officials find there is always a sympathetic lobbyist on hand to help them draft new regulations”.

The writer mentions that “In a new book, “The Business of America is Lobbying”, Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation, a think-tank, demonstrates that in recent years companies have gone from using lobbying simply to protect themselves from politics (by seeing off such things as tax increases and regulations) to using politics to help them become more profitable. They set the terms of the debate by funding Washington’s innumerable talking-shops; and then work on the politicians and officials to ensure that the legislation locks in their advantage. Mr Drutman’s book complements a 2013 one, “The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite”, by Mark Mizruchi of the University of Michigan. It argued that whereas companies once lobbied for public goods such as better roads, they are now more inclined to press for company-specific, or at best industry-specific, benefits”.

The piece notes “A classic case of selfish lobbying wrapped in a cloak of selflessness was the Medicare Modernisation Act of 2003. Thanks to the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbyists, this brought new prescription-drug benefits to millions of older Americans, but without any attempt to control costs through means-testing or bulk-buying. John Friedman, an economist at Brown University, estimated that as a result the drugmakers would gain benefits of $242 billion over a ten-year period—a healthy return on the $130m the industry spent on lobbying in the year the law passed”.

The author notes that “There is plenty of other academic evidence to demonstrate that every dollar big business drops into the Washington wishing-well repays handsomely. Mr Drutman’s book notes studies showing, for instance, that the more companies lobby, the lower their effective tax rate; and that firms which lobby are less likely to be detected for fraud than comparable non-lobbying ones”.

Worryingly he makes the valid point that “There is equally abundant evidence that corporate lobbying is bad for society as a whole. The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which began as a measure to cut export subsidies, ended up being stuffed with handouts to big business at the behest of lobbyists. This added to the burden on other taxpayers and helped frustrate efforts to simplify America’s Byzantine tax rules. The infestation of lobbyists special-pleading for their clients contributes to Congress’s gridlock, which means that important business like fixing the tax code, and improving America’s infrastructure, does not get done. Ironically, businesses are themselves among the victims when government seizes up. The tax code is so complex that companies and citizens spend 6.1 billion hours and $163 billion preparing their tax returns each year. Bad infrastructure damages the competitiveness of American firms”.

Realistically the piece ends, “Drutman dashes any hopes that the growth of lobbying can be reversed. He notes that it is “sticky”: once companies have made an initial investment in lobbying they almost never give up. They find that the more they do of it, and the better they get at it, the more they get out of it. American companies succeeded in recovering from the slough of the 1970s by overcoming enemies who were outsiders—over-mighty trade unions and anti-business campaigners. Today they have a much trickier problem on their hands: they have to wage war on themselves”.

Francis ousts Neinstedt

16/06/2015

Rocco reports on the scandal from the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis. He opens “After two years of damning charges and revelations on several misconduct-related fronts, the Pope has moved on the beleaguered Twin Cities church with a historic wipeout of its top leadership”.

Rocco goes on to write that “the Holy See announced that Francis had accepted the resignations of both Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis (above) and his senior auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché, an unprecedented joint ouster coming just ten days after Minnesota’s lead diocese was hit with six criminal charges of child endangerment in the case of Curtis Wehmeyer, a laicized cleric who admitted to abusing three boys in 2012 after years of concerns raised to archdiocesan officials over his conduct. With Rome unprepared to name a new archbishop immediately, the Vatican likewise revealed that Coadjutor-Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Newark – Francis’ first top-level US appointee, and a figure widely admired for his mix of administrative skill, pastoral heart and an unimpeachable integrity – had been named apostolic administrator of the 825,000-member archdiocese, entrusted with the full powers of the archbishop until a permanent successor can emerge. Among other imminent challenges the archdiocese faces include the fallout of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, another year remaining in the Minnesota “window” law which has suspended the statute of limitations for the filing of civil sex-abuse cases, the court process for the criminal charges and a state of morale among priests and people”.

Rocco adds that “In brief statements released upon Rome’s announcement, both Nienstedt, 68, and Piché, 57 – who became the archbishop’s top deputy shortly after Nienstedt’s 2008 succession – spoke of a need for the archdiocese to move forward. ‘My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of [the] Church and those who perform them,’ the archbishop said”.

Rocco goes on to mention that “For his part, Piché – a Columbia graduate who, before serving as auxiliary and vicar-general, was Wehmeyer’s pastor in the abuser’s first assignment – conceded that ‘the people of the archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis need healing and hope. I was getting in the way of that, and so I had to resign.’ Notably, the move comes as the Twin Cities presbyterate begins their annual convocation in Rochester, some 90 miles south of the archdiocese’s hub. In a letter to the priests obtained by his former canonical Chancellor, Jennifer Haselberger – whose whistle-blowing on the Chancery’s handling of cases in late 2013 sparked the long-simmering tumult – Nienstedt relayed that he ‘would have preferred to share this with you in person, but the desire of the Holy See to announce this made it impossible to wait until [the Rochester gathering] to tell you.'”

The report then mentions that “it is unclear what drove the Vatican to determine that the positions of both the archbishop and his lead auxiliary had become untenable. Beyond the corporate charges and the ongoing civil litigation over the abuse cases, Nienstedt – whose outspoken conservatism made him a polarizing figure in the archdiocese since his 2007 arrival – was likewise the subject of a Chancery-sponsored probe last year by a private law firm over allegations of misconduct with adult males. No conclusions of the latter process have emerged”.

Interestingly he writes that “a top-tier push to bring a resolution to the situation became apparent last week at the USCCB June meeting in St Louis, as several senior officials – including the Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and the conference’s general secretary, Msgr Ronny Jenkins – were seen huddled in conversations late last Tuesday with the Twin Cities’ junior auxiliary, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, while a relaxed-looking Nienstedt (in shirtsleeves without his clerical collar) holed up across the Hyatt lobby with the bench’s vice-president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, whose longstanding close ties to Hebda from their days as priests of Pittsburgh would indicate his role as a likely architect of the striking arrangement that’s seen the Jersey archbishop shipped in to begin containing the fiasco”.

Rocco writes that “Currently the chair of the bishops’ committee on canonical affairs and church governance, before his 2010 appointment as bishop of Gaylord in northern Michigan, Hebda served as the #3 official at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the Holy See’s clearinghouse for juridical questions. Known universally as “Bernie” and just as well-regarded among clerics and layfolk alike, the incoming administrator’s easygoing, unpretentious style conceals a considerable CV: degrees from Harvard, Columbia Law and the Gregorian, a chaplain to Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity as well as a years-long assignment as the lead canonist guiding the global Caritas federation of the church’s charitable agencies through the recent daunting revision of its statutes. In 2013, the new Pope shocked most observers by tapping the then 54 year-old as archbishop-in-waiting of the 1.4 million-member Newark church, one of the US’ ten largest, amid controversy over Archbishop John Myers’ handling of the case of Michael Fugee, a priest found to be working with young people despite a history of misconduct”.

He goes on to write that “Keeping to his usual earthy ways, Hebda chose to live in a chaplain’s room in the dorms at the diocesan-owned Seton Hall University, where he regularly celebrates the 10pm Sunday liturgy for students. As one colleague of the archbishop’s from Hebda’s former side-role as a spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College recently said of the prelate, “Our Lady of Humility” – the NAC’s historic patron – “has her arms wrapped all around him.” While Hebda could theoretically be tapped as the next Twin Cities’ archbishop, such a move would ostensibly be unlikely, even if it would hearken back to the early 1990s strategy (employed in Atlanta and Santa Fe) of initially “test-piloting” a potential successor as administrator of a scandal-scarred archdiocese before giving him the permanent appointment. If anything, with the coadjutor perceived as being largely kept to a backseat role in the operations of the considerably larger Newark church, the Twin Cities arrangement allows Hebda a role for his gifts to be employed to their fullest extent over the remaining 13 months before Myers reaches the retirement age of 75 in late July 2016″.

Crucially Rocco notes that “In a signal of the rapid execution of the move, the newly-named administrator was not present at a morning press conference outside the Twin Cities Chancery, which was instead led by Cozzens, 47, who has handled the archdiocese’s public messaging over recent months given the scrutiny facing both Nienstedt and Piché. In his own statement as a nearby bell tolled, the auxiliary said that the long season of scandal “has been a painful process. A change in leadership provides us an opportunity for greater healing and the ability to move forward”.

Later reports note that “Ramsey County authorities are investigating personal ties between former Archbishop John Nienstedt and the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a former priest now serving time in prison for sexually molesting two boys in his parish, say sources familiar with the investigation into the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The inquiry is part of the county attorney’s ongoing probe into the archdiocese’s alleged lax handling of Wehmeyer, a priest known for sexual misconduct and alcohol problems. The criminal complaint filed earlier this month against the archdiocese cited multiple examples over years of Nienstedt’s failure to act on troubling information about Wehmeyer”.

The piece goes on to add, “Jennifer Haselberger, a former chancery canon lawyer who warned Nienstedt about Wehmeyer, said she was interviewed Monday by the county attorney’s office “regarding their ongoing investigation into potential criminal charges against Nienstedt, [former bishop Lee] Piché and/or other Chancery officials.” She said she was asked about any connections between Nienstedt and Wehmeyer, in particular about the questions she may have been asked by the Greene Espel law firm. The firm was hired in 2014 by the archdiocese to investigate allegations of sexual improprieties between Nienstedt and seminarians and priests before he became archbishop”.

Economist 2015:Cuts and savings

24/04/2015

Continuing the coverage of the Economist of the UK general election. It notes the differences of the parties on the economy. It begins “ALL the big political parties agree: Britain badly needs to get its public finances in order. The country probably borrowed about £90 billion, or 5% of GDP, in the 2014-15 fiscal year—more than Italy, France or even Greece. Yet the parties do not agree in the slightest on how much further borrowing ought to fall, or how to bring it down. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010 declaring that deficit reduction was “the most urgent issue facing Britain” and that it should be achieved mostly by cutting spending, not by raising taxes. Barely a month into his new job, the flinty Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, laid out a bold plan to do this. It turned out to be considerably more flexible than he implied”.

It goes on to mention “Osborne set out two targets. First and most important, the structural current deficit—that is, the deficit adjusted to reflect the economic cycle, and excluding investment—would be forecast to be in balance five years in the future. Second, national debt would fall as a percentage of GDP by 2015-16. At the time both targets sounded like a plan to finish the job of deficit reduction in one parliament. A euro crisis and sluggish growth quickly messed it up. The Treasury brought in less tax revenue than it had expected and had to spend more on benefits. As a result, borrowing stayed high”.

The author seems to think that this was all out of Osborne’s control. He could have easily borrowed less or taxed more but instead he was too afraid to do either of these as it would cut against his narrative of “fixing the country”. The result was the worst of both worlds.

The writer does admit that “ever more of the output lost to the recession was written off as gone forever, making more of the deficit look structural. Mr Osborne could have got back on track by cutting spending more deeply or raising taxes. Instead, he quietly allowed the completion date to slip. As long as the job was still forecast to be completed five years in the future, he had not missed his main goal”.

The piece goes on to mention that “Beyond the protective “ring-fence” the coalition erected around the NHS, schools and international aid, departmental budgets have been slashed by 21% on average. Local government is getting by on two-thirds of its pre-austerity budget. Public-sector employment has fallen from 6.3m to 5.4m. Civil servants’ pay was frozen for three years and then rose by only 1%. The government saved about £25 billion from the welfare budget, mainly by limiting annual increases and means-testing child benefit, a previously universal handout. (Other welfare reforms grabbed headlines without saving much money.) But an ageing population and generous increases in the state pension—which accounts for 40% of the welfare budget—have offset these savings. Overall, welfare spending has barely changed since 2010”.
This means that the cuts inflicted were worst on areas like defence, where the UK still insists on thinking of itself as a great power when it is really nothing of the sort. The refusal to cut the international aid budget is laughable but seems to be based wholly on polling data. The refusal of both main parties to cut it and transfer the money to defence or have smaller cuts elsewhere has not been countenanced. At the same time the savage cuts to welfare and the refusal to tax the richest in society has made this “rebalancing” not only immoral but in the long run dangerous. It has transferred vast amounts of wealth to the richest in society in the wrong belief that it will “trickle down” and all of society will therefore somehow benefit.

The piece adds “If the Tories win, Mr Osborne must do it all again. Provided the recovery is sustained, the chancellor wants a £7 billion overall surplus by the end of the parliament in 2020. Current government plans imply a further cut of 16% to departments outside the ring-fence, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank. That will be tough, for three reasons. First, the easiest cuts have been made. It is hard to see local government repeating the big savings made during this parliament, for example: councils will soon run up against their legal obligations to provide services. Reforms to university funding, which provided the bulk of the business department’s savings, were a one-off. Second, holding down public-sector salaries will become harder as private-sector pay rises. Third, the population is older and needier. The NHS says a freeze in its budget will not do—it wants an £8 billion boost”.

He goes on to note that “Labour promises only a surplus on the current budget, excluding investment—which on current plans will be £30 billion in today’s money (or 1.4% of GDP) in 2019-20. The party has not specified when exactly it would achieve this. By contrast, both coalition parties want current balance in 2017-18, which would demand deep cuts for two years. From then on, the Lib Dems would borrow about half the investment budget, putting them, as so often, in a middle ground. The SNP does not want to cut at all, and instead suggests a 0.5% annual boost to departments’ budgets. That would leave a small current budget deficit in 2020”.

The piece concludes “The gap between Labour and the Tories is huge—£30 billion amounts to about a quarter of the entire health budget. The IFS reckons Labour could, as a result, make no cuts and instead raise departmental budgets by 2%. The two parties have not been so far apart on fiscal policy for at least five elections. Labour does not emphasise this difference, for fear of looking spendthrift. But the choice facing voters is stark”.

UKIP expenses scandal

29/03/2015

Allegations of a “serious financial nature” against a UKIP MEP and general election candidate “couldn’t look worse”, Nigel Farage has said. Janice Atkinson, MEP for the South East, was due to fight the Folkestone and Hythe seat on 7 May. She was suspended after a Sun newspaper investigation into an apparent expenses claim by a member of her staff. Kent Police said it was investigating a fraud allegation. Party leader Mr Farage said: “It looks very bad – it couldn’t look worse and I’m astonished by it.”

Intervention of Cardinal Nichols

09/03/2015

A report from the Telegraph details the intervention of Vincent Cardinal Nichols in British politics, urging justice. It opens “The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has condemned the Government for presiding over “shocking” levels of poverty and deprivation. Cardinal Vincent Nichols called on Tuesday for Catholics to judge candidates in this year’s General Election by what they intend to do to improve the lives of the poor. He said: “I’ve commented before on what I believe to be some of the unintended consequences of social welfare reform we see. I repeat; it’s shocking that in a society that is as rich as our there are people, even people in employment, dependant on food banks and hand-outs.” The Cardinal was speaking at the launch of a leaflet being sent to all Catholic parishes in England and Wales, urging members of the church to become actively involved in the political debate in the run up to May’s election”.

The report mentions that “He emphasised that it was the duty of Catholics, and other citizens to engage in discussion, cast their votes and ignore commentators such as Russell Brand, who claim there is no point voting because ‘all politicians are the same’. Cardinal Nichols said: “I’d ask them to pay more attention to me than to him [Brand]. We are citizens and we are called on to take part in society. Stir yourself”.

The piece goes on to state “The Cardinal’s call for more to be done to help the worse off follows a letter issued by the Church of England’s bishops last week, attacking the effect of the coalition’s policies on the poor. In their letter Anglican bishops condemned the legacy of Thatcherism and its emphasis on consumerism and individualism. The 52-page letter was attacked by Conservative politicians as being a ‘shopping list’ of left-wing demands.  Although the Catholic bishops’ letter to parishioners neither attacks nor endorses any party by name, it urges voters to decide on the basis of where candidate stand on the issue of poverty”.

The article adds “In its letter the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales urges Catholics to ask “where does your candidate stand on directly helping the poorest and most vulnerable people in the UK and also helping to transform their lives”. Addressing education policy it says politicians should be trying to “ensure the best outcomes for the poorest children.” The four-page letter, 700,000 copies of which are being sent to parishes up and down the country, bemoans the fact that “rising inequality, increased loneliness for older people, job insecurity and over stretched community services” has made life more difficult for many and calls for business and the private sector to do more to meet people’s needs. “The market economy exists to serve humanity. People are not merely economic units to be exploited,” it states”.

The report rightly ends “The Cardinal repeated the Catholic church’s strong support for the living wage, saying that party candidates should be quizzed on their attitude to fair pay. He said that all Catholic organisations and charities tried to ensure not only that they paid their employees the Living Wage, and – in the case of those working in the capital – the London Living Wage, but that the church’s suppliers and contractors did so too.”

 

 

Another Westminster scandal

26/02/2015

Another political scandal has broken, just months before the 2015 General Election.

The report begins, “Two former foreign secretaries are exposed for their involvement in a new “cash for access” scandal. Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for payments of at least £5,000 per day. Mr Straw, one of Labour’s most senior figures, boasted that he operated “under the radar” to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which pays him £60,000 a year. He has been suspended from Labour following the disclosures, described by the party as “disturbing”. Mr Straw claimed to have used “charm and menace” to convince the Ukrainian prime minister to change laws on behalf of the same firm”.

The article adds that “Mr Straw also used his Commons office to conduct meetings about possible consultancy work — a potential breach of rules. And he suggested that his Commons researcher had worked on his private business matters, raising further questions. Sir Malcolm, who oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies on behalf of Parliament, said he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador in the world because of his status. He has told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “quite unrealistic” to think MPs could live on “simply £60,000” a year without looking for extra income. The senior Conservative told undercover reporters from this newspaper and Channel 4’s Dispatches, to be broadcast on Monday night, that he would submit questions to ministers on behalf of a paying client, without revealing their identity”.

Such arrogance shows the level of disconnect between MPs and people, most of whom earn about £20,000 a year. In fact Rifkind’s basic salary is 67k and this excludes the array of directorships that take is salary to the hundreds of thousands of pounds. One could almost be forgiven for voting for UKIP out of sheer rage.

Worse, the piece reports that Rifkind only dug himself deeper, “Sir Malcolm also described himself as “self-employed” and had to “earn my income” — despite being paid £67,000 by the taxpayer for his work as an MP. The disclosure that two of Britain’s most senior politicians are embroiled in a new “cash for access” scandal highlights Parliament’s failure to address the issue which has plagued British politics for a generation”.

The report goes on to mention that “More than five years ago, David Cameron warned that lobbying was the “next big scandal” and promised to tighten the rules — a pledge which has not been properly enacted. Over the past few months, reporters approached 12 MPs asking if they would be interested in joining the advisory board of a Chinese company. They were chosen because of concerns about their business activities. Six of the 12 did not respond and one said his contacts were not “for sale”. Mr Straw and Sir Malcolm agreed to enter discussions with the fictitious Chinese company looking to expand its business interests in Europe. Last year Sir Malcolm registered earnings of £69,610 — more than £1,600 an hour — from his work outside of Parliament, while Mr Straw earned £112,777 from his outside business activities”.

To have to arrogance and greed, or as is more likely, lack of self awareness to think he is self employed while the British state is paying him almost £70,000 is simply stunning behaviour. Cameron was right to warn that lobbying was the next big scandal but in his five years in office has been either too incompetent or too spineless to do anything about it. The only other alternative is that he seems to think there is no problem which only shows how warped his own worldview has become.

The report adds, “Analysis by this newspaper of MPs’ overall earnings showed they made more than £7.4 million from outside work in the past year. The Chinese “company” wanted to form an advisory board. Undercover reporters met Sir Malcolm at the fictional firm’s Mayfair office in January. Sir Malcolm, who served as foreign secretary under Sir John Major, described the access he could offer. He said he could meet “any ambassador that I wish to see” in London. “They’ll all see me personally”, he added. “That provides access in a way that is, is useful”. In a second meeting, Sir Malcolm suggested that he would be willing to write to ministers on behalf of the company without declaring the name of the firm.  Sir Malcolm’s offer to write to ministers without “nam[ing] who was asking” is likely to cause concern because of the rules governing interests when communicating with ministers or officials”.

As if it could get any worse the piece goes on to mention that “During a discussion about the former minister’s availability, he disclosed that he had a lot of “free time”. The undercover reporters met Mr Straw at his office in the House of Commons”.

This comment is not only stupid but dangerous. As well as being an MP where he is meant to scrutinise government legislation, Sir Malcolm, was chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. This committee has the job of holding the security services to account. Having lots of “free time” is a bad sign both for Sir Malcolm and the committee which he is meant to oversee.

The report turns to Straw “The MP explained how he had helped ED&F Man, a commodities company with a sugar refinery in Ukraine, change an EU regulation by meeting officials in Brussels. He also claimed that he had overturned a law in Ukraine that would have hindered the commodities firm operating a factory they had recently refurbished. The law made their activities “completely uneconomic” and so Mr Straw took company representatives to see Mykola Azarov, the then Ukrainian prime minister, in September 2011. “It’s a combination of sort of charm and menace … I mean he [the prime minister] understood.” On Sunday night it was reported that Mr Straw will refer himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner”.

In an attempt to backtrack the article notes that “The spokesman said Mr Straw’s use of the phrase “charm and menace” would have been “colloquial and a purely conversational description of the approach he had adopted”. Asked about Mr Straw boast that he operated “under the radar”, his spokesman said: “This was a reference to his preferred strategy of affecting a change to regulations by discussion and negotiation, rather than conducting a high-profile public campaign.” The spokesman said Mr Straw used his parliamentary office to hold the meeting “to save time” because of his “busy schedule”. The spokesman added that the work carried out by the researcher for ED&F Man “is not paid by the public funds”. Mr Straw said that when he mentioned the £5,000 fee he was giving it as an example and not as part of a negotiation”.

The result of the disclourses was predictable, “Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Conservative MP embroiled in cash for access allegations, is to step down as an MP at the General Election and has also resigned as chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. Sir Malcolm was suspended by the Conservative Party pending an internal investigation on Monday after telling undercover reporters from The Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches that he would use his position as a politician to help a fictitious Chinese company. His decision to stand down as the Conservative MP for Kensington means there will be a contest for one of the Conservative Party’s safest seats. In a statement he said: “I had intended to seek one further term as MP for Kensington, before retiring from the House of Commons. I have concluded that to end the uncertainty it would be preferable, instead, to step down at the end of this Parliament. “This is entirely my personal decision. I have had no such requests from my constituency association but I believe that it is the right and proper action to take. As regards the allegations of Channel 4 and the Daily Telegraph I find them contemptible and will not comment further at this time”.

Pointedly the piece adds “He will also stand down as chairman of Intelligence and Security Committee, the body which oversees the security services, ahead of the publication of a major report into the balance between privacy and security. In a statement, about the committee, he said: “None of the current controversy with which I am associated is relevant to my work as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament”.

The Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband lead the way on this when on Wednesday he said “Ed Miliband has accused David Cameron of failing to live up to “big” commitments in opposition about limiting the outside earnings of MPs, after the government rejected a Labour proposal to ban MPs from having paid directorships and consultancies. In one of his most confident performances at the dispatch box, the opposition Labour leader offered to amend his party’s plans to accede to a demand by the prime minister to ban MPs from acting as paid officials. But Cameron declined to accept the Labour proposal, which is due to be put to a Commons vote late on Wednesday”.

 

 

 

 

 

“A clever scheme that is also doomed”

26/02/2015

An article from the Economist notes that the GOP are playing dangerous with issues that they hold dear, just to score points against President Obama.

It begins “WITH terror threats on every side, how did Republicans—by tradition the party of national security—find themselves pondering a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)? The quick answer involves political calculation, and a desire among conservatives to be seen fighting President Barack Obama over his plans to shield millions of illegal immigrants from deportation with a few strokes of his pen”.

The author goes on to note that “A longer answer involves political weakness. In publicly contemplating a partial government shutdown—the first since the autumn of 2013—Republicans in the House of Representatives are pandering to their party’s angriest grassroots supporters, who have convinced themselves that Mr Obama is not just mistaken in his policies, but is a constitution-trampling tyrant. Calling the president a serial law-breaker helped power Republicans to a thumping win in the mid-term elections last November, handing them control of both chambers of Congress. Since then, Republican leaders have united their fractious party by assailing the constitutionality of Mr Obama’s moves to grant temporary legal papers to more than 4m foreigners living in the country unlawfully, who were either brought to America as children, or who are the parents of citizens or legal residents. The charge has been led by John Boehner, the Speaker of the House—a man who, not so long ago, was derided by hardliners as an establishment squish”.

The writer says that Boehner is using the power of the purse to fight the executive, but the author goes on to mention that “Alas for Mr Boehner, the same Founding Fathers made sure those budget powers are both potent and hard to use. House Republicans have passed a bill that amounts to a precision attack on Mr Obama’s immigration agenda, surgically cutting money for what they call his “executive amnesty” from the funds that flow through the DHS, while ensuring that billions of dollars are available for border guards, immigration agents, counter-terrorism units and other voter-pleasing things. It is a clever scheme that is also doomed”.

Thankfully he reports that “It cannot pass the Senate, where the Republican majority is too slim. The party is even further from the super-majorities needed for Congress to overcome a presidential veto. As a result, Republicans face some ugly choices. They can either let current funding for the whole DHS expire; or, if that does not appeal, they can surrender, or pass a short-term bill to postpone the crisis a while longer”.

The result of all of this bickering is “Ahead of a February 27th deadline to renew DHS spending, Washington folk have turned to a favourite game: guessing who will be blamed if funds dry up. Some House Republicans aim their fire at party colleagues in the Senate, grumbling that they should re-write their chamber’s voting rules in order to ram the House-amended bill past Democrats. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a pugnacious right-winger, has an elaborate explanation as to why Democrats will be blamed. If Democrats decline to vote for a spending bill with riders added to destroy Mr Obama’s immigration policies, he says, they will be irresponsibly defunding homeland security in an “extreme” bid to protect the president’s “lawless amnesty”. The DHS stand-off was complicated on February 16th, when a federal district judge in Texas agreed with a complaint filed by 26 states and temporarily blocked the most recent of Mr Obama’s immigration actions, finding that the president had exceeded his powers. The wrangling may yet end up in the Supreme Court”.

In the long term it is the American people and the reputation of America that will suffer, “the shutdown threat raises larger questions about divided government in the Obama era. Mr Boehner and his allies have kept House members content by adopting a staple of Tea Party rhetoric: presenting a policy dispute with Mr Obama as a battle to defend the constitution itself. Once made, that is a hard argument to back away from. If that sort of dogmatism is applied to future budget disputes, gridlock will only worsen. Government shutdowns in modern times have often involved disputes about abortion, welfare and even nuclear-missile funding, with Democrats questioning Ronald Reagan’s strategy for avoiding a third world war. But all sides typically accepted that the constitution obliged them to negotiate and make divided government work. Today, too many Republicans hear the constitution telling them to dig in and seek Mr Obama’s surrender”.

He writer ends the piece “The Founding Fathers did worry about overweening presidents trampling the constitution. They might even have been alarmed at the scope of Mr Obama’s immigration actions. That is why they created independent courts as a check on the executive and—for when that failed—gave Congress powers of impeachment. Today’s Republicans fear even to use the I-word, remembering the backlash that followed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. As a result, they seem tempted to use their budget powers as a sort of impeachment-lite”.

Of course what the Founding Fathers did not bet on was a group of unhinged Republicans bent of destroying the entire US government to please their own insane “ideology”.

He concludes “More pragmatic Republicans, notably in the Senate, are appalled by renewed talk of shutdowns. A rare House moderate, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, says a number of his Republican colleagues “are tired of being driven into a ditch by bad tactics”. He disagrees with Mr Obama’s executive actions on immigration, but says their legality “will be settled in the courts, not in the halls of Congress”. Meanwhile, with Islamic State fanatics on the march, Congress should do its job and fund the DHS. If after that Congress still dislikes Mr Obama’s actions, Mr Dent concludes, it should take up its own immigration legislation. He is right. Alas, many of his colleagues prefer to be seen fighting Mr Obama’s plans, not fixing them”.

Welby poses some questions

21/01/2015

An article in the Daily Telegraph has reported on a new book launched as the 2015 General Election campaign begins, informally at least.

The piece starts “Britain under the Coalition is a country in which the poor are being “left behind” and entire cities “cast aside” because politicians are obsessed with Middle England, the Church of England says today in a damning assessment of the state of the nation. In a direct and unapologetically “political” intervention timed for the beginning of the General Election campaign, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, warn party leaders are selling a “lie” that economic growth is the answer to Britain’s social problems”.

Yet the same newspaper defends the fact that the Church of England is a state church. At the same time they moan that the Church of England has a voice in politics. Which is it to be? The other alternative interpretation is that they are against those with religious views having a say in the public sphere at all.

The real reason for the paper’s reaction was the questioning by the Church of England of a bankrupt economic theory that has destroyed the world and brought misery to millions, while making a small elite even wealthier. This is the true reason for the reaction of the paper to the comments by the bishops.

The report goes on to note that the prelates were “Questioning David Cameron’s slogan “we’re all in this together” they condemn inequality as “evil” and dismiss the assumption that the value of communities is in their economic output as a “sin”. Britain, they argue has been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era, while the Christian values of solidarity and selflessness have been supplanted by a new secular creed of “every person for themselves”. And while London and the South East forge ahead, much of the rest of the country is still “trapped in apparently inevitable decline”, they argue”.

It is true that the South East has been almost recession proof, apart from the parts that are already deprived which will soon be filled with wealthy people and push those who have been living there for years out, but this is not the fault of Cameron per se but is more down to geography and other long held factors that he has chosen not to fix. In reality the point of the bishops is correct. A toxic individualism has prevailed and is bearing its rotten fruit in the form of societal decay and sin.

The piece adds that “The challenge to politicians and voters alike is contained in a new volume of essays to be published next week, edited by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, and including lengthy contributions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, the former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Adonis and others. It sets out an excoriating critique of a country “ill at ease with itself” amid a widening “gulf” between rich and poor, between the capital and the rest of the country and between politicians and voters. The book, entitled “On Rock or Sand?”, explicitly invites comparisons with Faith in the City, the Church of England report published 30 years ago which was attacked by Conservatives as “pure Marxist theology””.

Yet this is exactly the kind of thing Rush Limbaugh said about Pope Francis. All this has done however is made fools of those who attack the Gospel and its values while they try and defend greed, sin, gross inequality, materialism and excess.

The article ends “The book characterises the welfare state as the embodiment of the Christian command to “love thy neighbour” and warns that people should not rely on what the founding father of free-market capitalism Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market to create a fair society”.

It closes “Archbishop Welby provides a bleak assessment of the economic recovery in Britain claiming that “entire towns and regions” have been excluded and “trapped in an apparently inescapable economic downward spiral”. “Our economy appears to be, in one sense, a tale of two cities – one being a growing and constantly improving London (and the South East generally), and the other being most, but not all, other cities, alike in that they are each trapped in apparently inevitable decline,” he writes. Spending cuts have, he adds, helped widen that gap. “The hard truth is that many of these cities are in what appear to be lose-lose situations”.

The report concludes “But the archbishops go on to reject what they characterise as an obsession with economic growth as the solution to social problems. “There is a general social assumption that the economy has the power to dictate what is and is not possible for human beings,” Archbishop Welby writes. “We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow. “That is a lie. “It is a lie because it is a narrative that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story.” Dr Sentamu adds that a post-war vision through which the welfare state and NHS developed has “given way to an individualist and consumerist vision, with public goods such as health … and education … increasingly becoming privatised, where society has become a market society, with everything going to the highest bidder and the poor being left behind in the unceasing drive to increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.” Setting out his own vision, Archbishop Welby adds: “Our human journey is not a journey of individuals, it is a journey held in common, and no individual can safely be left behind”.

In a related article, though hardly a surprise, David Cameron defends a system based on radical inequality, mass poverty, unemployment, deprivation and greed, “David Cameron has said that he “profoundly disagrees” with the leaders of the Church of England after they accused the Coalition of creating a country in which the poor are being “left behind”. The Prime Minister pledged to speak “vigorously in defence” of his Government’s economic record after the Archbishops of Canterbury and York accused him and Britain’s other political leaders of selling a “lie” that economic growth is the answer to social problems”.

The sad fact is that all the figures say that Cameron is wrong. They all point to the fact that poverty levels are rising and people are being punished for being poor with all the ignorance that comes with this. They are accused of being lazy but politicians in safe seats with half a dozen directorships to top up their income are in no way fit to judge in such harsh terms the lives of others.

The report mentions that “Cameron insisted that the Coalition has is successfully tackling poverty and that improving people’s lives across the country can only be done when the economy is strong. He said: “Also, we are tackling poverty by giving 1.75million more people a job in our country. Actually under this Government inequality has fallen so I don’t think the picture they paint is accurate. “I look forward to debating and discussing it with them. They have a right to speak out as long as they don’t mind when I speak pretty vigorously in defence of the excellent economic and social record of this government. “The fact is you can’t do any of these things in terms of tackling poverty, growing opportunity, rebalancing the economy unless you have a strong economy and we have restored or are restoring the strength of the British economy.” The Archbishops said that Britain has been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era”.

Francis = Benedict

04/12/2014

John Allen writes that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are very alike. He begins “During a brief press conference aboard the papal plane yesterday, returning to Rome from a day trip to Strasbourg, a French journalist asked Pope Francis if he’s a Social Democrat. The question was based on a line from one of the pope’s speeches in Strasbourg in which he took a shot at multinational corporations. If you don’t follow European politics, the Social Democrats are the main center-left party, so it’s a bit like an American asking the pope if he’s a Democrat. Francis actually laughed out loud, and then said: ‘Caro, questo è un riduzionismo!’ The Italian basically translates as, ‘My dear friend, that’s an over-simplification!’ Francis went on to talk about how he tries to follow the Gospel and the social teaching of the Catholic Church, not any party line, and ended by thanking the reporter, Renaud Bernard of France 2 TV, for cracking him up”.

Allen goes on to make the point that “In truth, the idea of Francis as a Social Democrat in Strasbourg — and, therefore, as a repudiation of the Catholic Church’s perceived drift to the political right under Pope Benedict XVI — depends entirely on listening to only part of what Francis had to say. Yesterday’s trip was not only the shortest foreign trip in the papacy’s history, less than four hours, but it also set a record for the ratio of words spoken to time on the ground. His speech to the parliament topped out at 3,500 words and the one for the council came to 3,100, which means Francis pronounced 28 words for every minute he spent visiting Europe’s most prominent political institutions”.

He goes on to argue “In many ways, they were the closest Francis has come to the kind of rhetoric associated with Pope Benedict XVI, starting with lofty and abstract principles and then working down toward specific conclusions. The comparison with Benedict is even more apt at the level of content, because both of the speeches Francis delivered yesterday were ones it’s easy to imagine Benedict having given. Aside from the use of certain stock phrases associated with Benedict, such as ‘dictatorships of relativism,'”.

He continues citing the need of Europe for God, the examples of abortion and the treatment of those who are terminally ill as well as the idea, as Allen puts it “Secular Europe is running out of gas. Francis said that the world today has become ‘less and less Eurocentric,’ that today, Europe ‘gives the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard,’ and that it’s ‘less and less a protagonist.’ In part, the pope implied, that decline is due to an aversion to reproduction”.

Allen ends the article “Benedict XVI said similar things, but the difference is that media outlets today believe Francis means it and so such utterances draw wide play. In truth, Benedict had a social agenda every bit as populist as Francis. Benedict’s great uncle on his father’s side, Georg Ratzinger, was one of the towering Bavarian figures of the 19th century, a Catholic monsignor with a strong track record of engagement on behalf of the poor. He was twice elected to the Bavarian and the federal legislatures, and helped found a political party, the Bauerbund, which represented the interests of poor farmers against large capitalist industrial concerns. Its chief goal was a system of social supports that would insulate poor farmers and small traders from “boom and bust” cycles. As a result, Benedict had a strong streak of scepticism about free-market capitalism. When he traveled to Brazil in 2007, he defined both communism and capitalism as ‘failed ideologies,’ the kind of language Francis routinely invokes”.

Allen concludes “Still, the contrast between Francis and Benedict is only one part substance, while it’s every bit as much about perception. Never has that been clearer than Francis’ trip to Strasbourg, when he gave two speeches eerily reminiscent of his predecessor and still had to face questions about whether he stands on the political left. Had it been Benedict who journeyed into the heart of secular Europe and said the exact same things, the question likely would have been: “Holy Father, are you on the far right?” The difference has little to do with what Francis actually said, and everything to do with how the narrative dictates he should be perceived”.

Inequality as national security problem

19/11/2014

David Rothkopf, in an unusual article lessens the risks of ISIS but rightly warns of the dangers of inequality. Taken with the problems in American democracy, if not corrected in the long term, American decline will occur.

He begins “the Islamic State is also an example of a threat that, if not overstated, has been largely misconstrued. It is, after all, only an organization of perhaps 20,000 to 35,000 fighters. It has very limited resources. Its hold on the cities it has claimed is tenuous and to a large degree desperate, depending more on threats than on the active support of the majority of local populations. It is not a major threat to the residents of the United States and certainly not anything like the existential threats Americans faced in the last century. We, however, have applied the transitive property of terrorism to elevate its status: We have come to see the Islamic State as the new al Qaeda, and al Qaeda, despite being a relatively small organization with limited capabilities, had previously been elevated to the role of America’s new Enemy No. 1, occupying a position once held by a real existential threat, the Soviet Union, which had inherited its root-of-all-evil mantle from the Nazis”.

He rightly conceded that ISIS is a threat “Yes, of course, a serious one. But it’s not as much of a threat at least for now to Americans and their way of life as it is to American interests and America’s allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Were the Islamic State to establish a permanent radical state in the Middle East, that could be destabilizing for years. Further, such a state could serve as a petri dish for global mayhem, a place where the other real risk associated with the group — that of its growing army of foreign fighterscould be cultivated, made more dangerous, and released on different corners of the region or the world”.

He goes on to expand on a section on the future geolpolitical threats, including Pakistan and Russia, climate change, cyber threats but rightly taking an expansive view he argues “those associated with another global economic crunch or the growing risk of cyberconflicts, the consequences of which we barely understand and are ill-prepared to grapple with. In each case, these threats are simmering like that proverbial frog sitting in a pot of increasingly hot water. They may reach a boiling point before we know it and can jump out to save ourselves”.

He adds to an argument that has been noted before but that there are threats in the United States that will undermine the long term power of the country and, if not addressed, will lead to American decline, “They have to do with the fact that despite steady job growth rivaling the gains of the Clinton years, and despite a booming stock market and a rising GDP outstripping those of the world’s other major developed economies, wages are not rising and the quality of the jobs being created is disturbingly low. We are, in fact, seeing America’s first major post-recession recovery that has bypassed its middle class. Ninety percent of the gains have gone to the top 10 percent of the population. Something is broken.Something is badly wrong”.

He goes on to bloster his point “The most grotesque element of this existential threat to the American dream, to America’s sense of itself and to its fundamental social cohesion, is growing inequality. In fact, it is inequality at historic levels. Asreportedin the most recent issue of the Economist, the top one-tenth of 1 percent of America’s population is about to achieve a level of wealth equivalent to that of the bottom 90 percent. That’s just over 300,000 people with holdings equal to that of some 280 million. Those wealthy few will control 22 percent of the wealth. The bottom 90 percent, everybody essentially, will also have 22 percent. This in turn means that the top 10 percent of the U.S. population will control 78 percent of America’s wealth. Almost eight out of every 10 dollars of net worth”.

He strikes a note of balance noting that “This is not a uniquely American problem. The World Economic Forum, having conducted a survey of almost 2,000 global leaders, reports that they view rising inequality as the most threatening trend facing the globe in 2015. In all 44 countries polledby the Pew Research Center, majorities believe that inequality is a major problem in their countries, and in most of those countries (28 of them), they consider it a very big concern. The global numbers are pretty gut-wrenching too: Just 0.7 percent of the population controls 41 percent of the wealth. Roughly 70 percent have just 3 percent of the wealth. But the American case is special no matter how you slice it. It is because, for example, wage disparities between average workers and CEOs are greater in the United States than in any other place in the world — by a lot, more than five times than in the next-worse nation (Venezuela). While U.S. workers, according to a recent articlein the Harvard Business Review that analyzes a new study appearing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, think the difference between average wages and those of the boss should be about seven times, in fact it is 354 times. An analysis by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers puts the situation in further relief”.

Rothkopf argues that the level of inequality is becoming so bad that it will be a large part of the next presidential election, “Inequality is creeping steadily upward. In fact, the situation has become so bad that the American political party that has in recent years been seen as the champion of Wall Street and fat cats, the Republican Party, scored many of its 2014 election victories by emphasizing the gaps in the flawed economic recovery (which the Republicans, of course, blamed on President Barack Obama.) According to a Slate articleby William Saletan, “Republicans won big in the 2014 elections…. But they didn’t do it by running to the right. They did it, to a surprising extent, by embracing ideas and standards that came from the left…. I’m talking about the core of the liberal agenda: economic equality.” This is a harbinger of things to come”.

Crucially he argues “For candidate Hillary Clinton (who will certainly be the most well-versed and competent of any in the field in terms of national security and foreign-policy issues by virtue of her tenure as secretary of state), there will be a special challenge. She will have to offer an economic approach that is seen as something new, focused more on these issues of inclusion, opportunity- and quality job creation, rather than the message of growth and placating Wall Street that marked her husband’s tenure as president. (Note: I served as a senior economic official in Bill Clinton’s administration.) She will need a new team because those associated with her husband and Obama are too closely associated with Wall Street and bailouts and policies favouring the few, even if that is, to a large degree, an unfair oversimplification. Indeed, her biggest challenge over the next year will be convening a group of new faces with new ideas to tackle this greatest of all threats to the United States”.

He closes “Her competition will likely focus on the same issues — whether that competition consists of centrists like Jeb Bush or relative renegades like Rand Paul. Because at the end of the day, despite the din of media alerts and the flashing lights of government terrorism warnings, the real insecurity that haunts Americans late at night as they contemplate their futures involves not terrorists or rogue nations, but political and financial institutions at home that have been captured by the self-interested few and that are seeking to squeeze the hope out of Americans as no terrorist could do”.

 

The wonders of the free market

18/10/2014

Let’s say you are someone who has recently returned from traveling in West Africa. You have visited an Ebola-ravaged country. You are understandably worried about contracting the disease during this worst-ever epidemic and, upon returning home, you catch a fever. You might then go online to try to find information about the disease and to assess whether the crippling fear you are experiencing is, in fact, well placed. That search might lead you to Ebola.com, but little do you know that that site is nothing but a moneymaking ploy. In today’s information economy, there are few more useless money-grubbers than domain squatters, and that is exactly who owns Ebola.com. Blue String Ventures, the company sitting on the domain, is asking for a mere $150,000 to transfer ownership of the site”.

Sources of dysfunction

13/09/2014

Francis Fukuyama writes in Sources of Political Dysfunction in Foreign Affairs that the problems faced by America at this moment in history are a result of how the political institutions were created and have been made worse by worsening polarisation. He argues that the decay is likely to continue and be a real threat to democracy.

He opens “The creation of the U.S. Forest Service at the turn of the twentieth century was the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration. Today, however, many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools. It is still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission, but it has lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot. It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims. The service’s internal decision-making system is often gridlocked, and the high degree of staff morale and cohesion that Pinchot worked so hard to foster has been lost. These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether. If the Forest Service’s creation exemplified the development of the modern American state, its decline exemplifies that state’s decay”.

He goes on to write “The belief that public administration could be turned into a science now seems naive and misplaced. But back then, even in advanced countries, governments were run largely by political hacks or corrupt municipal bosses, so it was perfectly reasonable to demand that public officials be selected on the basis of education and merit rather than cronyism. The problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists of the day occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes in a big way. And unfortunately, this is what happened to the Forest Service with regard to what ended up becoming one of its crucial missions, the fighting of forest fires”.

He adds “The Forest Service’s performance deteriorated, in short, because it lost the autonomy it had gained under Pinchot. The problem began with the displacement of a single departmental mission by multiple and potentially conflicting ones. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, firefighting began to displace timber exploitation, but then firefighting itself became controversial and was displaced by conservation. None of the old missions was discarded, however, and each attracted outside interest groups that supported different departmental factions: consumers of timber, homeowners, real estate developers, environmentalists, aspiring firefighters, and so forth. Congress, meanwhile, which had been excluded from the micromanagement of land sales under Pinchot, reinserted itself by issuing various legislative mandates, forcing the Forest Service to pursue several different goals, some of them at odds with one another. Thus, the small, cohesive agency created by Pinchot and celebrated by scholars slowly evolved into a large, Balkanized one. It became subject to many of the maladies affecting government agencies more generally: its officials came to be more interested in protecting their budgets and jobs than in the efficient performance of their mission. And they clung to old mandates even when both science and the society around them were changing”.

In general his point about lost autonomy is correct however it is very important that many of these organisations can become a law unto themselves and need guidance and structure. The problem that he identifies is correct in that organisations like the Forest Service need clarity which is not what is given to them either by Congress or the executive branch. Some of the problems are worsened by the supposed need for openness which more often than not is a way for lobbyists like loggers and real estate companies with money to influence things to their advantage.

He goes on to argue that “The story of the U.S. Forest Service is not an isolated case but representative of a broader trend of political decay; public administration specialists have documented a steady deterioration in the overall quality of American government for more than a generation. In many ways, the U.S. bureaucracy has moved away from the Weberian ideal of an energetic and efficient organization staffed by people chosen for their ability and technical knowledge. The system as a whole is less merit-based: rather than coming from top schools, 45 percent of recent new hires to the federal service are veterans, as mandated by Congress. And a number of surveys of the federal work force paint a depressing picture”.

In a section that he calls “Why Institutions Decay” he  notes “In his classic work Political Order in Changing Societies, the political scientist Samuel Huntington used the term ‘political decay’ to explain political instability in many newly independent countries after World War II. Huntington argued that socioeconomic modernization caused problems for traditional political orders, leading to the mobilization of new social groups whose participation could not be accommodated by existing political institutions. Political decay was caused by the inability of institutions to adapt to changing circumstances. Decay was thus in many ways a condition of political development: the old had to break down in order to make way for the new. But the transitions could be extremely chaotic and violent, and there was no guarantee that the old political institutions would continuously and peacefully adapt to new conditions. This model is a good starting point for a broader understanding of political decay more generally. Institutions are ‘stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour,’ as Huntington put it, the most important function of which is to facilitate collective action. Without some set of clear and relatively stable rules, human beings would have to renegotiate their interactions at every turn. Such rules are often culturally determined and vary across different societies and eras, but the capacity to create and adhere to them is genetically hard-wired into the human brain. A natural tendency to conformism helps give institutions inertia and is what has allowed human societies to achieve levels of social cooperation unmatched by any other animal species. The very stability of institutions, however, is also the source of political decay. Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform”.

Interestingly he makes the point “In theory, democracy, and particularly the Madisonian version of democracy that was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, should mitigate the problem of such insider capture by preventing the emergence of a dominant faction or elite that can use its political power to tyrannize over the country. It does so by spreading power among a series of competing branches of government and allowing for competition among different interests across a large and diverse country. But Madisonian democracy frequently fails to perform as advertised. Elite insiders typically have superior access to power and information, which they use to protect their interests. Ordinary voters will not get angry at a corrupt politician if they don’t know that money is being stolen in the first place”.

He adds that “liberal democracy is almost universally associated with market economies, which tend to produce winners and losers and amplify what James Madison termed the ‘different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.’ This type of economic inequality is not in itself a bad thing, insofar as it stimulates innovation and growth and occurs under conditions of equal access to the economic system. It becomes highly problematic, however, when the economic winners seek to convert their wealth into unequal political influence. They can do so by bribing a legislator or a bureaucrat, that is, on a transactional basis, or, what is more damaging, by changing the institutional rules to favour themselves — for example, by closing off competition in markets they already dominate, tilting the playing field ever more steeply in their favour. Political decay thus occurs when institutions fail to adapt to changing external circumstances, either out of intellectual rigidities or because of the power of incumbent elites to protect their positions and block change. Decay can afflict any type of political system, authoritarian or democratic. And while democratic political systems theoretically have self-correcting mechanisms that allow them to reform, they also open themselves up to decay by legitimating the activities of powerful interest groups that can block needed change”.

This is why the system of political funding in America, in Europe is of such importance. Whoever has funding and access to politicians will inevitably gain. The solution is obvious and has been stated before but the state must control all funding of political parties based on a proportion of how each party does at election time. All other sources of funding such be effectively banned, apart from small donations of 100 or 200 dollars or pounds or euros. The consequences of not doing this has been seen, so what is to be lost in doing it? This will only be done if governments can challenge and unseat vested interests but it is only likely to do this if the problem becomes so bad that there is no other alternative.

He mentions that “Modern liberal democracies have three branches of government — the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature — corresponding to the three basic categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and democracy. The executive is the branch that uses power to enforce rules and carry out policy; the judiciary and the legislature constrain power and direct it to public purposes. In its institutional priorities, the United States, with its long-standing tradition of distrust of government power, has always emphasized the role of the institutions of constraint — the judiciary and the legislature — over the state”.

He notes the “the apparently irreversible increase in the scope of government in the twentieth century has masked a large decay in its quality. This is largely because the United States has returned in certain ways to being a “state of courts and parties,” that is, one in which the courts and the legislature have usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient”.

He turns to the courts and writes that “The primary mover in the Brown case was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a private voluntary association that filed a class-action suit against the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education on behalf of a small group of parents and their children. The initiative had to come from private groups, of course, because both the state government and the U.S. Congress were blocked by pro-segregation forces. The NAACP continued to press the case on appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was represented by the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. What was arguably one of the most important changes in American public policy came about not because Congress as representative of the American people voted for it but because private individuals litigated through the court system to change the rules. Later changes such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the result of congressional action, but even in these cases, the enforcement of national law was left up to the initiative of private parties and carried out by courts. There is virtually no other liberal democracy that proceeds in this fashion. All European countries have gone through similar changes in the legal status of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and gays in the second half of the twentieth century. But in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the same result was achieved not using the courts but through a national justice ministry acting on behalf of a parliamentary majority. The legislative rule change was driven by public pressure from social groups and the media but was carried out by the government itself and not by private parties acting in conjunction with the justice system”.

Depressingly he writes “The explosion of opportunities for litigation gave access, and therefore power, to many formerly excluded groups, beginning with African Americans. For this reason, litigation and the right to sue have been jealously guarded by many on the progressive left. But it also entailed large costs in terms of the quality of public policy. Kagan illustrates this with the case of the dredging of Oakland Harbor, in California. During the 1970s, the Port of Oakland initiated plans to dredge the harbor in anticipation of the new, larger classes of container ships that were then coming into service. The plan, however, had to be approved by a host of federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as their counterparts in the state of California. A succession of alternative plans for disposing of toxic materials dredged from the harbor were challenged in the courts, and each successive plan entailed prolonged delays and higher costs. The reaction of the Environmental Protection Agency to these lawsuits was to retreat into a defensive crouch and not take action. The final plan to proceed with the dredging was not forthcoming until 1994, at an ultimate cost that was many times the original estimates. A comparable expansion of the Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, was accomplished in a fraction of the time. Examples such as this can be found across the entire range of activities undertaken by the U.S. government. Many of the travails of the Forest Service can be attributed to the ways in which its judgments could be second-guessed through the court system. This effectively brought to a halt all logging on lands it and the Bureau of Land Management operated in the Pacific Northwest during the early 1990s, as a result of threats to the spotted owl, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act”.

He argues that “A decentralised, legalistic approach to administration dovetails with the other notable feature of the U.S. political system: its openness to the influence of interest groups. Such groups can get their way by suing the government directly. But they have another, even more powerful channel, one that controls significantly more resources: Congress”.

He goes on to elaborate,”With the exception of some ambassadorships and top posts in government departments, U.S. political parties are no longer in the business of distributing government offices to loyal political supporters. But the trading of political influence for money has come in through the backdoor, in a form that is perfectly legal and much harder to eradicate. Criminalized bribery is narrowly defined in U.S. law as a transaction in which a politician and a private party explicitly agree on a specific quid pro quo. What is not covered by the law is what biologists call reciprocal altruism, or what an anthropologist might label a gift exchange. In a relationship of reciprocal altruism, one person confers a benefit on another with no explicit expectation that it will buy a return favour. Indeed, if one gives someone a gift and then immediately demands a gift in return, the recipient is likely to feel offended and refuse what is offered. In a gift exchange, the receiver incurs not a legal obligation to provide some specific good or service but rather a moral obligation to return the favor in some way later on. It is this sort of transaction that the U.S. lobbying industry is built around”.

He makes the point that “The explosion of interest groups and lobbying in Washington has been astonishing, with the number of firms with registered lobbyists rising from 175 in 1971 to roughly 2,500 a decade later, and then to 13,700 lobbyists spending about $3.5 billion by 2009. Some scholars have argued that all this money and activity has not resulted in measurable changes in policy along the lines desired by the lobbyists, implausible as this may seem. But oftentimes, the impact of interest groups and lobbyists is not to stimulate new policies but to make existing legislation much worse than it would otherwise be. The legislative process in the United States has always been much more fragmented than in countries with parliamentary systems and disciplined parties. The welter of congressional committees with overlapping jurisdictions often leads to multiple and conflicting mandates for action. This decentralized legislative process produces incoherent laws and virtually invites involvement by interest groups, which, if not powerful enough to shape overall legislation, can at least protect their specific interests. For example, the health-care bill pushed by the Obama administration in 2010 turned into something of a monstrosity during the legislative process as a result of all the concessions and side payments that had to be made to interest groups ranging from doctors to insurance companies to the pharmaceutical industry. In other cases, the impact of interest groups was to block legislation harmful to their interests. The simplest and most effective response to the 2008 financial crisis and the hugely unpopular taxpayer bailouts of large banks would have been a law that put a hard cap on the size of financial institutions or a law that dramatically raised capital requirements, which would have had much the same effect. If a cap on size existed, banks taking foolish risks could go bankrupt without triggering a systemic crisis and a government bailout. Like the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, such a law could have been written on a couple of sheets of paper. But this possibility was not seriously considered during the congressional deliberations on financial regulation”.

An example of this he argues is the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which, while better than no regulation at all, extended to hundreds of pages of legislation and mandated reams of further detailed rules that will impose huge costs on banks and consumers down the road. Rather than simply capping bank size, it created the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which was assigned the enormous task of assessing and managing institutions posing systemic risks”.

Under the heading, What Madison Got Wrong he writes “The economist Mancur Olson made one of the most famous arguments about the malign effects of interest-group politics on economic growth and, ultimately, democracy in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations. Looking particularly at the long-term economic decline of the United Kingdom throughout the twentieth century, he argued that in times of peace and stability, democracies tended to accumulate ever-increasing numbers of interest groups. Instead of pursuing wealth-creating economic activities, these groups used the political system to extract benefits or rents for themselves. These rents were collectively unproductive and costly to the public as a whole. But the general public had a collective-action problem and could not organize as effectively as, for example, the banking industry or corn producers to protect their interests. The result was the steady diversion of energy to rent-seeking activities over time, a process that could be halted only by a large shock such as a war or a revolution. This highly negative narrative about interest groups stands in sharp contrast to a much more positive one about the benefits of civil society, or voluntary associations, to the health of democracy. Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America that Americans had a strong propensity to organize private associations, which he argued were schools for democracy because they taught private individuals the skills of coming together for public purposes”.

He elobrates “Madison himself had a relatively benign view of interest groups. Even if one did not approve of the ends that a particular group was seeking, he argued, the diversity of groups over a large country would be sufficient to prevent domination by any one of them. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi has noted, “pluralist” political theory in the mid-twentieth century concurred with Madison: the cacophony of interest groups would collectively interact to produce a public interest, just as competition in a free market would provide public benefit through individuals’ following their narrow self-interests”.

He goes on later in the article to note, “Democracies must balance the need to allow full opportunities for political participation for all, on the one hand, and the need to get things done, on the other. Ideally, democratic decisions would be taken by consensus, with every member of the community consenting. This is what typically happens in families, and how band- and tribal-level societies often make decisions. The efficiency of consensual decision-making, however, deteriorates rapidly as groups become larger and more diverse, and so for most groups, decisions are made not by consensus but with the consent of some subset of the population. The smaller the percentage of the group necessary to take a decision, the more easily and efficiently it can be made, but at the expense of long-run buy-in. Even systems of majority rule deviate from an ideal democratic procedure, since they can disenfranchise nearly half the population. Indeed, under a plurality, or “first past the post,” electoral system, decisions can be taken for the whole community by a minority of voters. Systems such as these are adopted not on the basis of any deep principle of justice but rather as an expedient that allows decisions of some sort to be made. Democracies also create various other mechanisms, such as cloture rules (enabling the cutting off of debate), rules restricting the ability of legislators to offer amendments, and so-called reversionary rules, which allow for action in the event that a legislature can’t come to agreement”.

He makes the point that “the so-called Westminster system, which evolved in England in the years following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, is one of the most decisive in the democratic world because, in its pure form, it has very few veto points. British citizens have one large, formal check on government, their ability to periodically elect Parliament. (The tradition of free media in the United Kingdom is another important informal check.) In all other respects, however, the system concentrates, rather than diffuses, power. The pure Westminster system has only a single, all-powerful legislative chamber — no separate presidency, no powerful upper house, no written constitution and therefore no judicial review, and no federalism or constitutionally mandated devolution of powers to localities. It has a plurality voting system that, along with strong party discipline, tends to produce a two-party system and strong parliamentary majorities. The British equivalent of the cloture rule requires only a simple majority of the members of Parliament to be present to call the question; American-style filibustering is not allowed. The parliamentary majority chooses a government with strong executive powers, and when it makes a legislative decision, it generally cannot be stymied by courts, states, municipalities, or other bodies. This is why the British system is often described as a “democratic dictatorship.” For all its concentrated powers, the Westminster system nonetheless remains fundamentally democratic, because if voters don’t like the government it produces, they can vote it out of office. In fact, with a vote of no confidence, they can do so immediately, without waiting for the end of a presidential term. This means that governments are more sensitive to perceptions of their general performance than to the needs of particular interest groups or lobbies”.

He goes on to contrast the budget process in the UK “The Westminster system produces stronger governments than those in the United States, as can be seen by comparing their budget processes. In the United Kingdom, national budgets are drawn up by professional civil servants acting under instructions from the cabinet and the prime minister. The budget is then presented by the chancellor of the exchequer to the House of Commons, which votes to approve it in a single up-or-down vote, usually within a week or two” with that in the US which can and does take months, “The budget works its way through a complex set of committees over a period of months, and what finally emerges for ratification by the two houses of Congress is the product of innumerable deals struck with individual members to secure their support — since with no party discipline, the congressional leadership cannot compel members to support its preferences. The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity”.

He adds later that “In full perspective, therefore, the U.S. political system presents a complex picture in which checks and balances excessively constrain decision-making on the part of majorities, but in which there are also many instances of potentially dangerous delegations of authority to poorly accountable institutions. One major problem is that these delegations are seldom made cleanly. Congress frequently fails in its duty to provide clear legislative guidance on how a particular agency is to perform its task, leaving it up to the agency itself to write its own mandate. In doing so, Congress hopes that if things don’t work out, the courts will step in to correct the abuses. Excessive delegation and vetocracy thus become intertwined. In a parliamentary system, the majority party or coalition controls the government directly; members of parliament become ministers who have the authority to change the rules of the bureaucracies they control. Parliamentary systems can be blocked if parties are excessively fragmented and coalitions unstable, as has been the case frequently in Italy. But once a parliamentary majority has been established, there is a relatively straight-forward delegation of authority to an executive agency”.

He writes that the “obvious solution to a legislature’s inability to act is to transfer more authority to the separately elected executive. Latin American countries with presidential systems have been notorious for gridlock and ineffective legislatures and have often cut through the maze by granting presidents emergency powers — which, in turn, has often led to other kinds of abuses. Under conditions of divided government, when the party controlling one or both houses of Congress is different from the one controlling the presidency, strengthening the executive at the expense of Congress becomes a matter of partisan politics. Delegating more authority to President Barack Obama is the last thing that House Republicans want to do today”.

Thankfully he realises that “In many respects, the American system of checks and balances compares unfavorably with parliamentary systems when it comes to the ability to balance the need for strong state action with law and accountability. Parliamentary systems tend not to judicialize administration to nearly the same extent; they have proliferated government agencies less, they write more coherent legislation, and they are less subject to interest-group influence. Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, in particular, have been able to sustain higher levels of trust in government, which makes public administration less adversarial, more consensual, and better able to adapt to changing conditions of globalization”.

He concludes “The U.S. political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. In an environment of sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests and gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people. This is not the first time that the U.S. political system has been polarized and indecisive. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it could not make up its mind about the extension of slavery to the territories, and in the later decades of the century, it couldn’t decide if the country was a fundamentally agrarian society or an industrial one. The Madisonian system of checks and balances and the clientelistic, party-driven political system that emerged in the nineteenth century were adequate for governing an isolated, largely agrarian country. They could not, however, resolve the acute political crisis produced by the question of the extension of slavery, nor deal with a continental-scale economy increasingly knit together by new transportation and communications technologies”.

He ends, “Two obstacles stand in the way of reversing the trend toward decay. The first is a matter of politics. Many political actors in the United States recognize that the system isn’t working well but nonetheless have strong interests in keeping things as they are. Neither political party has an incentive to cut itself off from access to interest-group money, and the interest groups don’t want a system in which money won’t buy influence. As happened in the 1880s, a reform coalition has to emerge that unites groups without a stake in the current system. But achieving collective action among such out-groups is very difficult; they need leadership and a clear agenda, neither of which is currently present. The second problem is a matter of ideas. The traditional American solution to perceived governmental dysfunction has been to try to expand democratic participation and transparency. This happened at a national level in the 1970s, for example, as reformers pushed for more open primaries, greater citizen access to the courts, and round-the-clock media coverage of Congress, even as states such as California expanded their use of ballot initiatives to get around unresponsive government. But as the political scientist Bruce Cain has pointed out, most citizens have neither the time, nor the background, nor the inclination to grapple with complex public policy issues; expanding participation has simply paved the way for well-organized groups of activists to gain more power. The obvious solution to this problem would be to roll back some of the would-be democratizing reforms, but no one dares suggest that what the country needs is a bit less participation and transparency. The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action”.

“Almost $9 billion”

01/07/2014

French bank BNP Paribas BNPP.PA on Monday agreed to pay almost $9 billion over charges it violated U.S. sanctions against countries such as Sudan, and faces a one-year suspension of parts of its U.S. dollar-clearing business. The bank also pleaded guilty to two criminal charges. The bank’s general counsel, Georges Dirani, briefly appeared in New York state court to plead guilty to one count of falsifying business records and one count of conspiracy. U.S. authorities found that BNP Paribas had evaded sanctions against a range of black-listed countries, in part by stripping information from wire transfers so they could pass through the U.S. system without raising red flags. “Through a series of egregious schemes to evade detection and with the knowledge of multiple senior executives, BNP employees concealed more than $190 billion in transactions between 2002 and 2012,” the New York State regulator, headed by Benjamin Lawsky, said in a press release”.

 

Coulson found guilty

26/06/2014

Yesterday the British political world was rocked by the verdicts in the phone hacking trial. The two most infamous News International executives, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson have been tried for eight months. Brooks was acquitted while most damning of all, Coulson was found guilty and will be sentenced at a later date.

A report in the Telegraph writes “Andy Coulson has been beenfound guilty in the phone hacking trial, but his co-defendant, Rebekah Brooks has been cleared of all charges. Coulson, who edited the News of the World before becoming Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman, now faces prison after the jury returned a guilty verdict in dramatic scenes at the Old Bailey”.

It adds “Mrs Brooks, who edited The Sun and the News of the World before promotion to News International chief executive, was exonerated after being cleared of conspiracy to hack phones, conspiracy to corrupt public officials and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. She was overcome by emotion on hearing the verdicts and was taken away by the court matron”.

The report goes on to mention “The trial, which has been one of the longest and most expensive in British criminal history, heard allegations of how journalists working at the News of the World and The Sun, under the stewardship of Mrs Brooks and Coulson, routinely broke the law in pursuit of exclusive stories. Jurors were told how reporters at the News of the World hacked hundreds of public and private figures, including celebrities, politicians and even victims of crime”.

The report continues, “The court heard how private detective Glenn Mulcaire, who was paid more than £100,000 a year by the News of the World, also hacked members of the royal family including Princes William and Harry and Kate Middleton. Their arrests, along with other senior colleagues at News International, followed widespread public revulsion after it emerged that among those who were hacked was the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. Among those hacking victims who gave evidence at the trial were former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, the actor Jude Law and actress Sienna Miller. Retired managing editor Stuart Kuttner was also cleared of being part of a conspiracy dating back to 2000 and spanning six years”.

In what is obviously a weak attempt to repair the damage already done, David Cameron has apologised “Cameron has said that he is ‘profoundly sorry’ for employing Andy Coulson after his former director of communications was found guilty in the phone hacking trial. The Prime Minister said that he gave Coulson ‘a second chance and that was a bad decision’. He said that he takes ‘full responsibility’ for hiring Coulson, who edited the News of the World before becoming his official spokesman. Mr Cameron acknowledged that people would be ‘concerned’ at Coulson having worked for him in Downing Street both as leader of the opposition and Prime Minister, but stressed that there had been no complaints about his work in Downing Street. He said that before hiring Coulson, he had asked ‘questions about if he knew about phone hacking’ following his resignation from the News of the World”.

Yet it was George Osbourne that pushed for Coulson to be appointed despite Cameron being warned by Nick Clegg, Lord Ashdown, Lord Prescott as well as Andrew Tyrie and Alan Rusbridger. Still Cameron did nothing.

Coulson was appointed as Dowing Street Director of Communications six months after he resigned from the News of the World in the wake of the first phone hacking trial, which saw a private investigator as well as Clive Goodman, convicted of hacking phones of members of the royal household.

The report adds “Cameron said that Coulson had ‘said that he didn’t and I accepted those assurances and I gave him the job’. Speaking in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, Mr Cameron said: “I take full responsibility for employing Andy Coulson. ‘I did so on the basis of undertakings I was given by him about phone hacking and those turned out not to be the case. ‘I always said that if they turned out to be wrong, I would make a full and frank apology and I do that today.’ He added: ‘I am extremely sorry that I employed him. It was the wrong decision and I am very clear about that’  The Prime Minister added: ‘I would say that no one has made any complaints about the work that he did for me either as Leader of the Opposition or indeed here in Number 10 Downing Street, but knowing what I now know and knowing that those assurances weren’t right it was obviously wrong to employ him. I gave someone a second chance and it turned out to be a bad decision.’ George Osborne, the Chancellor, said: ‘We gave him a second chance but, knowing what we now know, it’s clear that we made the wrong decision.'”

Sensing a weak Cameron, as well as a chance to cover up for his own failings as leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband rightly lambasted Cameron, “The Labour leader launched a determined attack on David Cameron’s judgement after the Prime Minister’s former director of communications Andy Coulson was convicted of involvement in phone hacking while editor of the News of the World. Ed Miliband said that Mr Cameron had “brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street’ and his Government was ‘tainted’ as a result.’ In a televised statement, Mr Miliband said: “I think David Cameron has very, very serious questions to answer, because we now know that he brought a criminal into the heart of Downing Street. ‘David Cameron was warned about Andy Coulson, the evidence mounted up against Andy Coulson. David Cameron must have had his suspicions about Andy Coulson, and yet he refused to act”.

In a seperate report that is likely to make things even harder for Cameron further questions need to be answered, “When Coulson was hired as the Tory leader’s media adviser, in late May 2007, he gave assurances to Cameron and to George Osborne that there was nothing more that they needed to know about the scandal, which had ended with the jailing four months earlier of Clive Goodman as a “rogue reporter” who had hacked royal phones without the knowledge of anybody else at the News of the World. Detailed evidence that directly challenged that claim was already in police hands at that time. A clear hint was available on the public record in comments made by the judge who had sentenced Goodman. But, according to senior Tory officials, Cameron made no attempt to seek a police briefing or to check the court record, even when he became prime minister and took Coulson into Downing Street. Cameron has been accused of employing Coulson in spite of his past in order to build a bridge to Rupert Murdoch”.

That is not the only issue for Cameron however, “Downing Street has been asked to explain whether Andy Coulson is the only senior press adviser to recent prime ministers to have been spared high-level security vetting. Lord Justice Leveson, whose judicial inquiry is examining relations between the government and the media, in particular News Corporation, said he wanted to find out whether the issue represented “a smoking gun”. The former head of the civil service Lord O’Donnell also told the inquiry that the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, should have known if his special adviser was giving feedback to News Corporation on its controversial £8bn takeover bid for BSkyB. The judge requested a full breakdown of the security vetting status of recent top Downing Street media advisers following revelations that the former News of the World editor received only mid-level security checks before starting work for David Cameron in government. O’Donnell was responsible for security vetting when Coulson became the prime minister’s director of communications in May 2010. He oversaw the decision not to subject Coulson to rigorous “developed vetting” (DV) checks that involve testing whether there is anything in an individual’s background that might make him or her vulnerable to blackmail. The Cabinet Office saidon Monday it was preparing a full list for the inquiry. Downing Street sources conceded it was likely to show that most of the previous incumbents of the role were subject to DV, or its equivalent, under earlier systems. Coulson was allowed to operate with a mid-ranking “security check” level of vetting that allows only supervised access to the most secret documents. He told the Leveson inquiry last week that he nevertheless had unsupervised access to top-secret files”.

Lastly, the Guardian, in yet another scoop has reported that “Rupert Murdoch has been officially informed by Scotland Yard that detectives want to interview him as a suspect as part of their inquiry into allegations of crime at his British newspapers. It is understood that detectives first contacted Murdoch last year to arrange to question him but agreed to a request from his lawyers to wait until the phone-hacking trial was finished. The interview is expected to take place in the near future in the UK and will be conducted “under caution”, the legal warning given to suspects. His son James, who was the executive chairman of News International in the UK, may also be questioned. News of the police move comes after an Old Bailey jury found Murdoch’s former News of the World editor Andy Coulson guilty of conspiring to hack phones, but acquitted his former UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks on all charges. The verdict on Coulson also means that Murdoch’s UK company is now threatened with a possible corporate charge, while the media owner also faces the prospect of a dozen more criminal trials involving his journalists as well as hundreds more legal actions in the high court from the alleged victims of phone hacking by the News of the World. Also, the verdict revives troubling questions for the prime minister about his links with Murdoch and his hiring of Andy Coulson. Questions are likely to focus on why Cameron employed Coulson without making effective checks and whether Cameron gave misleading evidence on oath about this at the Leveson inquiry”.

 

 

 

“Opens a new spigot”

06/04/2014

In what may prove to be a fateful decision the Supreme Court re-inforced its infamous Citizens United decision. The Washington Post reports, “An elite class of wealthy donors who have gained mounting influence in campaigns now has the ability to exert even greater sway. A Supreme Court decision Wednesday to do away with an overall limit on how much individuals can give candidates and political parties opens a new spigot for money to flow into campaigns already buffeted by huge spending from independent groups. In this year’s midterm races, outside organizations financed by very rich donors, such as the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, have significantly shaped the campaign landscape with TV ads and other expenditures totaling in the tens of millions of dollars. The ruling by a sharply split court opens the door even wider for a narrow universe of donors to expand their giving by writing single checks for as much as $3.6 million that could flow directly to candidate and party committees”.

“Chinese corruption will remain pervasive and systematic”

27/03/2014

There has been much talk about the recent Chinese “crackdown” on corruption. However, an excellent piece allows the reader to understand what is truly happening and that China under President Xi will not alter course and implement any real anti-corruption measures.

It begins, “Anyone who thinks that the evident fall of Zhou Yongkang, the powerful former security chief and erstwhile member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the small group that effectively runs China, signals that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has taken steps towards fighting corruption in a systematic way — or that President Xi Jinping wants and is able to build a transparent government — fundamentally misunderstands Chinese politics”.

The writer, a human rights lawyer, goes on to argue that “Xi has said that his anti-corruption campaign, announced January 2013, would go after ‘flies and tigers,’ meaning that it would target corruption at all levels. Prime Minister Li Keqiang also declared on March 13 that there would be ‘zero tolerance for corrupt officials.’ They seem to be saying that before they took office, the party did not have a zero-tolerance policy — only small time ‘flies’ were targeted. The ‘big tiger,’ of course, is Zhou. Beginning in late 2012 after he left office, many high-level officials connected to Zhou have been charged with corruption, such as the deputy party secretary of Sichuan province and the former head of China’s largest petroleum company. Now many know about the investigation and house arrest of Zhou, even if the Chinese government has not officially acknowledged it”.

Crucially he goes on to add that “In Chinese officialdom, there is a saying: ‘If you make it to bureau head [a mid-level ranking], you will be spared the death penalty. If you make it to the PSC, you will be spared any penalty.’ There is almost nothing a PSC member can’t do. PSC members have the police, prosecutors, and courts in their pockets. They write the criminal laws, and even history. From Mao Zedong, to Deng Xiaoping, and all the way to Xi, every generation of Chinese leaders has launched high-profile anti-corruption campaigns: Mao began his by having the officials Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan executed for corruption in 1952; Deng began a ‘party purification‘ campaign in 1986. Under President Jiang Zemin, then-Premier Zhu Rongji said he had prepared 100 coffins, ’99 for corrupt officials, and one for myself.’ To the party, anti-corruption campaigns are very useful because they are popular with the masses and can help take out political rivals”.

He writes “But because they allow winners in a political struggle to consolidate their gains, the end result of these anti-corruption campaigns is yet more corruption among those lucky enough to remain in the system. A provincial-level official would probably be ashamed if he didn’t have millions of dollars’ worth of illegal income and a couple of starlets as mistresses. A race to the bottom has long meant that officials with real power have about as much luck keeping clean as porn stars do keeping their chastity”.

He ends the piece “corruption has become institutionalized, but anti-corruption is far from systematic. The anti-corruption “successes” are therefore the result of political infighting, not the rule of law. Without competition between political parties, real elections, checks and balances on power, judiciary independence, a free press, or a strong civil society, Chinese corruption will remain pervasive and systematic. Few corrupt officials are caught, a signaling function which invites yet more corruption. Foreign organizations like Bloombergand the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have exposed the assets of certain high-level officials and their families, but I believe those are but the tip of the iceberg”.

 

Influenced by big business

06/02/2014

A news report demonstrates the power of the food and drinks industry in modern society.

It opens “Ministers and senior government officials held dozens of meetings with the drinks industry before reversing plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing despite compelling medical evidence it would save thousands of lives, it has emerged. In a letter in Wednesday’s Telegraph, 22 health experts accuse the Government of ‘deplorable practices’ in allowing policy to be swayed by the interests of big business at the expense of the nation’s well-being. David Cameron made a personal pledge in March 2012 that minimum alcohol pricing would be introduced”.

This shows the toxic results that vested interests can have on society. In this instance the British Government has buckled under the pressure and ignored not only the obvious health evidence but at the same time the increased revenue that may come from such a measure.

The report adds, “in July last year the policy was abandoned despite evidence that a 40p minimum charge would save 900 lives a year and prevent 50,000 crimes. Now an investigation by the British Medial Journal has found that since the coalition came to power it has met with the drinks industry on 130 occasions, including two times after a public consultation on minimum pricing had concluded. In contrast health experts say they were barred from putting their case across and have accused the government of suppressing scientific papers which bolstered their cause”.

The article goes on to note that “The prime minister made a commitment to the policy in March 2012 and launched a consultation about what the minimum price should be. But Department of Health emails show that during and after the consultation the alcohol industry was still lobbying against the policy itself in a series of meetings with ministers from which health experts were excluded. ‘It is a dangerous situation to be in when the only people present at a meeting are those who are set to benefit from it not happening,’ said Prof Mark Bellis, of the UK Faculty of Public Health. On February 6, 2013, the day the consultation ended, public health minister Anna Soubry met with seven representatives of the industry to discuss their ‘deep concern’ about a regulation which they claimed would hit Treasury revenues hard”.

This blatant blackmail should not have been tolerated, let alone allowed to sway government policy. Much the same policy is used by bankers in the UK, and elsewhere, to threaten to leave if policies they disagree with are discussed, let alone implemented. The previous Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley and his successor the Murdoch stooge Jeremry Hunt seem unmoved by the crisis of not just below cost selling but also the effect of food advertising on people today. It should come as no suprise that Lansley has links with major food corporations.

The piece ends, “Professor Gilmore added: “The u-turn came just when the evidence for minimum pricing was getting stronger so there had to be some political machinations involved. ‘The drinks industry continues to have high-level access to Government ministers and officials while no forum currently exists for the public health community to put forward its case in an environment free from vested interests. ‘With deaths from liver disease rapidly rising and teenagers now presenting with advanced liver failure, the Government has a duty to realise its commitment to introduce minimum pricing.’ The investigation has also uncovered close links between the alcohol industry and MPs who belong to parliamentary groups which support beer, whisky, wine and cider manufacturers. The all-party beer group, to which 300 MPs belong, last year received in excess of £40,000 in corporate membership fees from eight drinks companies, including Heineken, Diageo and AB InBev”.

If the government ever stands up to such vested interests then the UK will be better off.

221 years ago

21/01/2014

On this day, Louis XVI was murdered. Let us not forget the violence that swept France and Europe and the effects that still haunt the world to this day.

More than half are millionaires

13/01/2014

It is hardly the kind of news that lawmakers in Congress would want to highlight during a week when unemployment benefits expired for more than a million Americans. But Congress has achieved something of a milestone. For the first time in history, more than half the members of the House and Senate are now millionaires, according to a new analysis of financial disclosure reports filed last year. The median net worth for lawmakers in the House and Senate was $1,008,767 — up 4.4 percent, according to the analysis, conducted by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which examines the influence of money on politics in Washington. Over all, at least 268 of the 534 current members of Congress had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, which is the year covered by the reports that each lawmaker had to file in 2013. The wealthiest member of Congress, as has previously been the case, was Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, who had a net worth of between $330 million and $598 million”.

A return to agonism?

13/01/2014

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the need for the social democratic left in politics to return to its roots, thus saving itself, and society with it.

It opens, When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, social democrats in Europe believed that their moment had finally arrived. After a decade in which European politics had drifted toward the market-friendly policies of the right, the crisis represented an opportunity for the political center left’s champions of more effective government regulation and greater social justice to reassert themselves. After all, it was thanks to center-right policies that deregulated financial markets had devolved into a kind of black hole, detached from the wider global economy but exerting a powerful force on all kinds of economic activity. When the financial services industry finally collapsed, the effects went far beyond Wall Street and the U.S. economy, plunging financial markets and economies everywhere into a deep crisis that has still not been resolved”.

The author writes crucially, “social democrats in Europe sensed a possible silver lining. For decades, they had argued for stiffer regulations to steady inherently unstable financial markets, to no avail. The crisis, it seemed, proved them right. Moreover, in the wake of a massive global recession, millions of people had to turn for support to the welfare systems that social democrats had built and sustained: yet another vindication, they believed. And yet five years later, Europe’s social democratic moment has yet to materialise. Social democrats have won victories at the national level in a number of countries, including Denmark, France, and Slovakia. But these relatively modest gains have been overshadowed by a sense that Europe has fallen into a period of political volatility, a permanent emergency of sorts brought on by the flaws revealed in the euro system and the European Union as the global financial crisis morphed into a eurozone crisis. Even though social democrats have not yet been able to fully capitalise on the situation, they still have a chance to do so, but only if they come to see how the mistakes they made during the previous two decades reduced their political capital and left them ill prepared to take advantage of a political environment that should play to their strengths”.

The writer argues for social democrats to return to thier old ways of challenging unfettered immoral capitalism and at the same time protect the welfare state that so many now rely on during these times. The piece adds that “From the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, they had suffered significant declines in electoral support in key countries, such as Germany and the United Kingdom. These declines prompted soul-searching on the European left, which took different forms in different countries. One common conclusion, however, was that as neoliberalism spread and economies around the world changed dramatically, traditional social democratic politics seemed outdated to many voters. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, the Democratic Party, led by President Bill Clinton, responded by shifting to the right, plotting a “third way” that accommodated market-friendly neoliberal policies”.

Of course what actually happened was that the so called “New Democrats” in fact adopted, almost wholesale, the GOP platform of mass privitisation and welfare cuts. Naturally other parties joined Clinton in ditching their values and jumping off the cliff. Part of the result of this was a decline in voter turnout. People saw little ideological difference between the parties and saw fewer and fewer reasons to vote.

As the writer says, “The key intellectual shift shared by the many different third-way currents that emerged in the 1990s was their application of pro-market policies to almost every area of governing. Third-way proponents saw social security systems not primarily as insurance against major life risks, such as unemployment, illness, and infirmity, but rather as a means of economic reintegration. Their goal was to transform the social safety net into a trampoline, focused less on addressing the immediate needs of the poor and disadvantaged and more on helping such people rapidly rejoin the economy. In practice, these reforms increased the risk that the unemployed would face permanent downward mobility, with the government subsidizing their reentry into the very bottom end of the labor market”.

The writer argues, correctly that “Still, in electoral terms, the third way worked well, at least for a time. By the end of the 1990s, social democrats led most of the EU states”, the piece goes on to say that “to many voters, the extent to which social democrats had changed their stripes represented an opportunistic betrayal of their core beliefs that left them almost indistinguishable from their political competitors. Such accusations took their toll, but the weakness of the third way became undeniable only after the financial crisis. Suddenly, traditional social democratic warnings about the inherent instability of markets — the kind of talk that third-way leaders such as Blair had left behind — seemed prescient, not old-fashioned. But because social democratic leaders had spent the previous two decades adopting, rather than adapting, neglecting to develop a true alternative to neoliberalism’s insistence on unfettered markets, the crisis found them intellectually unprepared”.

The writer continues, “Today, while they should be riding high, the social democrats appear overwhelmed by the rapid change that is taking place around them — just like almost every other group in the European political ecosystem”. She goes on to add later that “To accomplish those goals in the midst of a continent-wide political crisis, social democrats must abandon their recent obsession with short-term electoral tactics and return to their political and ideological roots, offering voters in their countries a vision of a “good society.” The core social democratic values of freedom, equality, and social justice should be the guiding ideals for a good society that recalibrates the relationship among citizens, the economy, and the state. A dynamic and sustainable economy must be not an end in itself but a means to improve the lives of all citizens, not just a few at the top. The allocation of income and wealth in many places today has little to do with people’s performance; it is mostly the result of power and influence. A good society would reinstate the performance principle”.

She gives the example of Apple. In an old fashioned and paternalistic way, though these are not inherently bad concepts she writes, “It should have come as no surprise that retrofitting the techniques of retail marketing to electoral strategy would not make for coherent politics — it rarely makes for good business, either. Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of Apple, understood this well. When asked by his biographer, Walter Isaacson, why he refused to rely on traditional market research, Jobs replied, “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. . . . People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Europe’s social democrats should heed Jobs’ advice and craft a new and convincing political agenda that reflects their core values, rather than trying to reverse-engineer a platform that just reflects what opinion research suggests the public wants to hear. An electoral strategy based on articulating core social democratic values would also offer a tactical advantage. As European societies become more culturally and socially fragmented, trying to target particular groups of voters with tailored messages means chasing ever-smaller segments of society with ever-narrower messages. This divide-and-conquer approach served third-way politicians well during the years of stability and prosperity. But during a crisis or a prolonged period of instability, it has prevented social democratic parties from putting forward broad-based platforms that could unite otherwise diverse social groups around a single economic and political vision”.

She ends the article, “if Europe’s social democrats are to have a real shot at winning office and governing successfully, they need to think big. Rhetorical adjustments will not suffice, nor will simply rebranding third-way ideas for the current situation. To finally seize the moment, social democrats need to return to their roots and offer Europeans a vision of a good society, one that can redeem the promise of social justice and a prosperous economy”.

Trust in America

26/12/2013

An article from the Economist examines the political polarisation in the United States. It notes “The network maps shown here look at the degree to which senators vote the same way. Each node is a senator. Links represent instances when senators have voted similarly on substantive legislation on at least 100 occasions during the same congressional session. Their placement is determined algorithmically, based on their co-operation with other legislators—which has the effect of pushing more bipartisan ones to the centre.

In a related article from the same issue examines the consequences that these deepening political divergence can have, and is having on American society.

 

“Grim findings have been coming thick and fast. Most Americans no longer see President Barack Obama as honest. Half think that he “knowingly lied” to pass his Obamacare health law. Fewer than one in five trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time. Confidence in Congress has fallen to record lows: in America, as in Italy and Greece, just one in ten voters expresses trust or confidence in the national parliament. Frankly straining credulity, a mammoth, 107-country poll by Transparency International, a corruption monitor, this summer found Americans more likely than Italians to say that they feel that the police, business and the media are all ‘corrupt or extremely corrupt'”.

Worryingly the piece reports that “Americans are also turning on one another. Since 1972 the Chicago-based General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking whether most people can be trusted, or whether ‘you can’t be too careful’ in daily life. Four decades ago Americans were evenly split. Now almost two-thirds say others cannot be trusted, a record high. Recently the Associated Press sought to add context to the GSS data, asking Americans if they placed much trust in folk they met away from home, or in the workers who swiped their payment cards when out shopping. Most said no. The press is full of headlines about an American crisis of trust. That is too hasty. Lexington spent years in Asia and Europe reporting from countries cursed by official corruption and low trust among strangers. America is not that sort of society”.

While this latter point is true the danger is that it will become a self fulfilling prophecy. America’s obsession with the free market on the one hand has made it competitive and wealthy, but the negative effects of this are now being felt. Unless a more communitarian approach is taken social decay will continue. The consequences of this over time would be a less competitive America but the benefits would outweigh any negatives in the long term.

He goes on to cite China, “In genuinely low-trust societies, suspicion blights lives and hobbles economies. In China, even successful urbanites distrust business and government, worrying constantly about the food they buy and the air they breathe. Yet those same successful Chinese have little confidence in the poor. Chinese friends used to urge Lexington never to play Good Samaritan at an accident scene, insisting that anyone rich who stopped to help would be blamed for the victim’s injuries and pursued for compensation”.

He goes on to argue correctly, “It is true that America faces grave problems. Congress has had an unproductive year: shutting down the federal government was a notable low point. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) confessed to subjecting Tea Party and other political groups to special scrutiny, enraging conservatives. But to put such antics in perspective, this year Italy’s richest media tycoon and its ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was convicted of tax fraud, of paying an underage prostitute and abuse of power. In genuinely low-trust countries, tax evasion comes naturally: when those at the top cheat, only dupes follow the rules. But America shows few signs of surging tax evasion. The most recent IRS “tax gap” estimates found no significant decline in the proportion of taxes paid voluntarily and on time”.

Again this point is correct but the reason that tax evasion rates are so low is that those at the highest income pay almost no tax at all with Mitt Romney confessing he paid 7% in income tax.

He ends the piece, “None of this justifies complacency. Americans are dangerously angry. But when they voice Italian levels of distrust for authorities, or sweepingly accuse fellow-citizens of being crooks, they are not describing reality. Here is a theory: Americans are instead revealing how deeply they are divided. Dig into headlines about “half of all Americans” thinking this or that, and large partisan or demographic divides lurk. Take that poll finding that half of voters think Mr Obama lied to pass his health plan. Look more closely, and eight in ten Republicans think he fibbed, but fewer than one in four Democrats. As for headline GSS numbers about overall trust between Americans, they conceal a big race gap: for decades around 80% of black Americans have consistently said that most people cannot be trusted. The bulk of the recent decline involves whites becoming less trusting, says Tom Smith, the survey’s director. Explaining that decline is a complex business, but over the same period society has become more impersonal and more economically unequal. Robert Putnam of Harvard University, a pioneer in the study of “social capital”, argues that Americans’ trust in one another has been declining steadily since the “golden” aftermath of the second world war, when civic activity and a sense of community among neighbours were at a peak. Trust in institutions has risen and fallen over that same post-war period in line with external events, plunging after the Watergate scandal, for instance, and during recessions. Yet something new seems to be happening. Anti-government cynicism is feeding on gulfs in society”.

He concludes the article, “Consider the crisis around Obamacare. Forget fussing about its useless website: websites can be fixed. The president’s headache is that voters see his plan as welfare for the poor rather than a better way of delivering medical care. That is exposing ugly divisions. Most starkly, a majority of whites think the law will make life worse for them, a National Journalpoll found, while most non-whites believe it will help people like them. That in turn tallies with a big change over the previous 15 years: a collapse in support among conservatives for government safety nets. This is America’s real problem with trust. The country faces a crisis of mutual resentment, masquerading as a general collapse in national morale. Sharply-delineated voter blocs are alarmingly willing to believe that rival groups are up to no good or taking more than their fair share. Polls describing America as a hell-hole of corruption are not to be taken literally. They are a warning. America is not a low-trust society. But it risks becoming one”.

“We have created new idols”

06/12/2013
“One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf.Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings”

“A crude and naive trust”

01/12/2013

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralised workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting”.

“A harsh critique”

27/11/2013

Pope Francis launched a harsh critique against “trickle-down” economics and an unrestricted free market Tuesday, as he lamented the growing issue of income inequality. In a new writing, the leader of the Catholic Church identified current economic conditions as a major challenge facing the globe. In particular, he argued that the “idolatry of money” in society has created a class of people who are basically disposable”.

Spineless Cameron

17/03/2013

Following on from the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, the attempt by the British Government to regulate the press, seems to have come to naught.

Reports indicate the the Conservative Party, bent on ignoring the facts as well as the common good, is attempting to legislate without the support from other parties. The article mentions “The Prime Minister called on Labour and Lib Dem MPs to back his plans for a Royal Charter for the press, which would avoid politicians becoming involved in regulating newspapers. He acknowledged that as the Conservatives do not have a majority in Parliament he may be powerless to prevent Britain taking the historic step of legally curtailing the free press. Until Thursday, Mr Cameron had been taking part in cross-party talks with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to draw up a new system of press regulation in the wake of Lord [Justice] Leveson’s inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson recommended a new system of press regulation, backed by legislation. However, the Prime Minister rejected this recommendation and is instead proposing that a Royal Charter — similar to those used to formally recognise the BBC and universities — underpins the new regulator”.

The writer betrays much when he says “the historical step of legally curtailing the free press”. Not only does this lessen the appalling acts that many in the lower press committed in the name of profits only attempting to justify their immoral actions as being in the public interest but it also blows the reasonable proposals by Lord Justice Leveson out of all proportion hinting at the end of free speech as it is known. Such talk is hyperbole and should be dismissed.

The article adds that the talks between the three parties in an attempt to get cross party agreement collapsed as a result over disagreement “over issues on which the Lib Dems and Labour oppose the Conservatives”.

The piece mentions, “These include the degree of control that newspapers have over the new regulator; the ability of people to make ‘third party’ complaints about articles which do not directly affect them, and the penalties for newspapers which do not abide by the new rules. In recent weeks, peers have sought to amend a range of unconnected pieces of legislation to introduce the Leveson proposals. In a hastily arranged press conference, the Prime Minister said that too many other pieces of law were being unnecessarily delayed by the ongoing row over press regulation and that he would call a Parliamentary vote on a Royal Charter next week. Labour is now expected to bring forward its own legally binding proposals — and which scheme the Lib Dems choose to back will be crucial”.

What Irish Catholics believe

01/12/2012

A survey has published recently about the religious beliefs of Catholics in Ireland.

The article opens “More than one in five Irish Catholics do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus or that God created the universe, according to the Ipsos MRBI 50th anniversary poll. It found also that 7 per cent of Irish Catholics do not even believe in God. When it comes to making serious moral decisions, more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of Irish Catholics follow their own conscience rather than church teaching (17 per cent). Almost half of Irish Catholics (45 per cent) do not believe in Hell while almost a fifth (18 per cent) do not believe that God created man”.

However, the writer, or even those who composed the questions obviously know nothing about Catholicism. In order to be a Christian the basic belief is Christ’s resurrection. Therefore to say “Irish Catholics do not believe” is an oxymoron. They are not even Christians if they do not adopt this article of faith. The same could be said for the figure of 7% who do not believe in God. Thirdly, it is a great shame that the lack of belief in Hell exists as this too is fundamental to Christian doctrine. Lastly, the Church has for at the very least 60 years taught that there is nothing wrong with belief in evolution and faith. Pius XII wrote on this topic in 1950.

The article goes on to add “On the other hand, 92 per cent of Irish Catholics believe in God, 82 per cent believe in heaven, 80 per cent believe God created man and 84 per cent believe Jesus was the son of God. Seventy-eight per cent believe in the resurrection of Jesus while 76 per cent believe God created the universe. When it comes to Mass attendance, the poll found 34 per cent of Irish Catholics did so on a weekly basis, with 16 per cent ‘rarely/never’ attending. Overall, the poll found 90 per cent of respondents described themselves as Catholic”. What is most interesting is that in a country as secular and “modern” as Ireland, Mass attendance is so high. While certainly not at American or Asian levels of attendance, Irish Catholics are still among the highest Mass goers in Europe. However, demographically these numbers are not sustainable.

The piece adds “Of those polled, 84 per cent believe priests should be allowed marry, with 7 per cent opposed, while 80 per cent believe there should be women priests, with 9 per cent opposed”, concluding “Only 17 per cent of 18-34-year-olds attend Mass weekly, compared to 31 per cent for 34-54-year-olds, 57 per cent for over-55s. Still, 87 per cent of 18-34-year-olds believe in God, compared to 93 per cent of 34-54-year-olds and 97 per cent of over-55s”.

A new British media?

29/11/2012

Having heard evidence from the victims of phone hacking, Lord Justice Leveson has produced his 2,000 page report and recommendations.

Lord Justice Leveson has recommended that a statutory regulator be established, “with the power to fine newspapers up to £1m or 1 per cent of turnover for breaching a new code of conduct” and that this regulator will have an “arbitration system to enable wronged parties to seek swift redress by way of a prominent apology and fines, if appropriate”. In addition to the the report recommends the establishment of a “Whistleblowing hotline for journalists who believe they are being put under pressure to breach the new code of conduct, and legal protection to prevent them being victimised for doing so” while at the same time allowing “Ofcom to carry out reviews every two years of how the new regulator is working and to act as backstop regulator if publishers refuse to sign up to new body”.

Regarding the relationship between the media and politicians, the report notes that there was “No evidence of a “deal” between David Cameron and News International to trade policy favours for positive news coverage” but it also criticises Labour “for introducing a culture of ‘spin’ in Government”. Leveson recommends that “Party leaders, ministers and Opposition front benchers should declare long-term relationships with newspaper editors and executives”. Indeed it is quite extraordinary that such regulations do not already exist. However, while there is an element of “after the horse has bolted” it is certainly a sensible move that should be implemented swiftly.  Leveson also recommends that “Details of all meeting with editors, proprietors and media executives to be published on a quarterly basis, with a summary of what was discussed”.

However, the political fallout from the report is just beginning. In the already highly charged atmosphere, reports mention that Leveson “said the press had caused ‘real hardship’ to members of the public as it chased stories and had been guilty of ‘outrageous’ behaviour at times. He recommended a new independent press watchdog, underpinned by legislation, but insisted that such a measure did not amount to state control of the press. In a lengthy televised statement which followed the publication of his report into media standards, he said that “press freedom in Britain, hard won over 300 years ago” should not be jeopardised. But he said that any system of self-regulation amounted to “the industry marking its own homework” and so a new system of independent regulation was vital”.

However Leveson’s language did not go far enough, the press, especially the tabloid press, ignored all basic morality and decency and destroyed families that were already suffering greatly, all for the purpose of selling more newspapers, and not for any “public good”.The article adds “On too many occasions, however, such as in the hacking of the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, which prompted the Leveson Inquiry, the press had treated the rights of ordinary people with ‘disdain'”. The piece adds that Leveson “pointed out that his Inquiry was the seventh time in less than 70 years that such issues had been addressed. ‘No-one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth,’ he added”.

Yet again however there is a split in the coalition government. Nick Clegg has called for greater rules while Prime Minister David Cameron has seemingly withdrawn from full backed of Leveson’s recommendations. An article mentions that Cameron “said he has “serious misgivings and concerns” about state regulation of the press, after the judge today said there should be new laws creating a newspaper watchdog. In a major divergence of views, Mr Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, said he believes changing the law is “the only way to guarantee” that the press is kept in check after the phone-hacking scandal. Their disagreement raises the possibility that the Liberal Democrats could team up with Labour to bring in a new press watchdog backed by statute. Despite the threat to the Coalition, Mr Cameron spoke out in the House of Commons against any regulation that has ‘the potential to infringe on free speech’. Of course, such language is ludicrous as it exaggerates and merely closes down debate.

The article notes that Cameron “said a new system that “complies with the Leveson principles should be put in place rapidly” but he does not believe laws are necessary to do so. ‘I’m not convinced that statute is necessary to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s objectives,’ he said”.  The article ends that Cameron “supported plans to record meetings between journalists, senior police officers and politicians. However, he said the whole House of Commons must think carefully before taking the ‘enormous step’ of bringing in laws setting up a new press watchdog”. Again Cameron either does not understand the gravity of what has occurred or worse, is ignoring the issue for the benefit of a tiny sector of the media.

The left wing Guardian takes a different line. The main article says “Cameron has rejected the central proposal of the Leveson inquiry, for a statutory body to oversee the new independent press regulator, warning that legislation could ultimately infringe on free speech and a free press. Risking the wrath of the victims of phone hacking, he said Britain would be crossing the Rubicon by writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. He said parliament had been the bulwark of democracy over the centuries and MPs should think very carefully before crossing such a line”. The paper here rightly highlights the plight of those affected by phone hacking instead of the quite reasonable proposals put forward that have been attacked on spurious freedom of the press grounds. Similar reports from the Guardian again note the response of the victims, “Cameron has been accused of “ripping the heart and soul” out of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and betraying victims of press abuse by rejecting the judge’s recommendation for a statutory body to oversee the new independent press regulator”. Finally, an article discusses the winners and losers from the report.

Death of the dream

23/11/2012

Confirmation has finally come after many years suspecting it, the American Dream is dead, and has been for decades.

An article in Foreign Affairs argues this and elobrates on this theme. She argues that during the recent presidential campaign both GOP and Democrats wanted to promote opportunity. She notes that “In remarks in Chicago in August, Obama called for an ‘America where no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what your last name is, no matter who you love, you can make it here if you try.’ The same month, he urged the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in public universities, putting his weight behind what has been a mainstay of U.S. equal opportunity legislation since the 1960s. Days later, the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, echoed Obama’s sentiment, saying, ‘We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.’ Romney, too, argued that whereas Obama ‘wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society,'”

She mentions that “one of the United States’ major successes in the last half century has been its progress toward ensuring that its citizens get roughly the same basic chances in life, regardless of gender or race”. She adds “women are more likely to graduate from college than men” as well as some other related statistics. Yet these results are mainly from the Great Compression in the 1950s and 1960s. However, since the 1970s and 80s worldwide inequality has risen sharply since the rise of neoliberalism and effectively zero regulation. She adds that “As gender and race have become less significant barriers to advancement, family background, an obstacle considered more relevant in earlier eras, has reemerged. Today, people who were born worse off tend to have fewer opportunities in life”.

The article goes on to add that ” there is general consensus among social scientists on a few basic points. First, an American born into a family in the bottom fifth of incomes between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s has roughly a 30 percent chance of reaching the middle fifth or higher in adulthood, whereas an American born into the top fifth has an 80 percent chance of ending up in the middle fifth or higher. (In a society with perfectly equal opportunity, every person would have the same chance — 20 percent — of landing on each of the five rungs of the income ladder and a 60 percent chance of landing on the middle rung or a higher one.) This discrepancy means that there is considerable inequality of opportunity among Americans from different family backgrounds”. She the goes on to mention, not suprisingly, that “The United States has less relative intergenerational mobility than eight of them; Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all do better. The United States is on par with France and Italy”.

She makes the point that education in America was greatly expanded in the 50s and 60s which raised living standards for people, yet she adds “The share of poorer children growing up with both biological parents has fallen sharply, whereas there has been less change among the wealthy. About 88 percent of children from high-income homes grow up with married parents. That is down from 96 percent four decades ago. Meanwhile, only 41 percent of poorer children grow up in homes with married parents, down from 77 percent four decades ago. That has hurt poorer children’s chances of success”.

Indeed this social and familial decay is becoming increasingly prevelant in more developed countries as the corrosive force of individualism eats into society. This both attacks the family as well as people seeking to start a family with the relentless drive for money which has now proven to be socially and morally corrosive.

She argues that “Low-income parents are not able to spend as much on goods and services aimed at enriching their children, such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp. Low-income parents also tend to read less to their children and provide less help with schoolwork” adding that this trend is seen again, “According to data compiled by Sean Reardon of Stanford University’s School of Education, the gap in average test scores between elementary- and secondary-school children from high-income families and those from low-income families has risen steadily in recent decades. Among children born in 1970, those from high-income homes scored, on average, about three-quarters of a standard deviation higher on math and reading tests than those from low-income homes. Among children born in 2000, the gap has grown to one and a quarter standard deviations. That is much larger than the gap between white and black children”.

The same is true for university, she argues noting “The share of young adults from high-income homes that got a four-year college degree rose from 36 percent in the first group to 54 percent in the second group. The share from low-income homes, however, stayed almost flat, rising only from five percent to nine percent. When it comes time to get a job, the story is no better”.

She writes that “A universal system of affordable, educational child care and preschool could help close the capability gap that opens up during the early years of life”, again she argues that education is key, “Among Americans whose family incomes at birth are in the bottom fifth but who get four-year college degrees, 53 percent end up in the middle fifth or higher. That is pretty close to the 60 percent chance they would have with perfectly equal opportunity. Washington needs to do better at helping people from less-advantaged homes afford college. The average in-state tuition at an American four-year public university exceeds $8,000. In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, attending four-year public universities is free”.

One of the simplest ways to begin to reduce the inequality is to raise taxes and a country that is clearly undertaxed.

Wen’s money

11/11/2012

As the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party changes at ongoing 18th Party Congress, a piece in the New York Times casts a light on the scale of corruption in China.

It opens noting Wen’s poor background but then states bluntly, that his mother, “became outright rich, at least on paper, according to corporate and regulatory records. Just one investment in her name, in a large Chinese financial services company, had a value of $120 million five years ago, the records show”. The article goes on to write “Many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, have become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership”.

It then notes that “A review of corporate and regulatory records indicates that the prime minister’s relatives — some of whom, including his wife, have a knack for aggressive deal making — have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion. In many cases, the names of the relatives have been hidden behind layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners”.

The fact that such wealth can be gained by someone at the very top of Chinese power gives an insight into how much money is being acquired lower down the scale, the report adds “the family’s ventures sometimes received financial backing from state-owned companies, including China Mobile, one of the country’s biggest phone operators, the documents show. At other times, the ventures won support from some of Asia’s richest tycoons. The Times found that Mr. Wen’s relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities”.

The piece explains “The holdings include a villa development project in Beijing; a tire factory in northern China; a company that helped build some of Beijing’s Olympic stadiums, including the well-known “Bird’s Nest”; and Ping An Insurance, one of the world’s biggest financial services companies. As prime minister in an economy that remains heavily state-driven, Mr. Wen, who is best known for his simple ways and common touch, more importantly has broad authority over the major industries where his relatives have made their fortunes. Chinese companies cannot list their shares on a stock exchange without approval from agencies overseen by Mr. Wen, for example. He also has the power to influence investments in strategic sectors like energy and telecommunications. Because the Chinese government rarely makes its deliberations public, it is not known what role — if any — Mr. Wen, who is 70, has played in most policy or regulatory decisions. But in some cases, his relatives have sought to profit from opportunities made possible by those decisions”.

Yet it is too much of a coincidence that such wealth has been acquired by the family of the premier without his knowledge or assistance.

It goes on to give examples, “The prime minister’s younger brother, for example, has a company that was awarded more than $30 million in government contracts and subsidies to handle wastewater treatment and medical waste disposal for some of China’s biggest cities, according to estimates based on government records. The contracts were announced after Mr. Wen ordered tougher regulations on medical waste disposal in 2003 after the SARS outbreak. In 2004, after the State Council, a government body Mr. Wen presides over, exempted Ping An Insurance and other companies from rules that limited their scope, Ping An went on to raise $1.8 billion in an initial public offering of stock”. The article notes that there are formal rules around high officials and business but at the same time ” no law or regulation prohibits relatives of even the most senior officials from becoming deal-makers or major investors — a loophole that effectively allows them to trade on their family name”.

The article goes on to describe how a web of companies keeps Wen and his family in control but out of the limelight from the companies, “Wen’s relatives have sometimes been hidden in ways that suggest the relatives are eager to avoid public scrutiny, the records filed with Chinese regulatory authorities show. Their ownership stakes are often veiled by an intricate web of holdings as many as five steps removed from the operating companies, according to the review. In the case of Mr. Wen’s mother, The Times calculated her stake in Ping An — valued at $120 million in 2007 — by examining public records and government-issued identity cards, and by following the ownership trail to three Chinese investment entities. The name recorded on his mother’s shares was Taihong, a holding company registered in Tianjin, the prime minister’s hometown”.

Of course Wen is not the only high official with money, as the article mentions “The apparent efforts to conceal the wealth reflect the highly charged politics surrounding the country’s ruling elite, many of whom are also enormously wealthy but reluctant to draw attention to their riches. When Bloomberg News reported in June” it was blocked by Chinese censors.

When asked by the New York Times to comment Wen and his family said nothing but some flimsy excuse was mentioned by, “Duan Weihong, a wealthy businesswoman whose company, Taihong, was the investment vehicle for the Ping An shares held by the prime minister’s mother and other relatives, said the investments were actually her own”.

The piece notes the role of Wen’s wife,  “Zhang Beili, is one of the country’s leading authorities on jewelry and gemstones and is an accomplished businesswoman in her own right. By managing state diamond companies that were later privatized, The Times found, she helped her relatives parlay their minority stakes into a billion-dollar portfolio of insurance, technology and real estate ventures”. Tellingly the piece goes on to mention “her lucrative diamond businesses became an off-the-charts success only as her husband moved into the country’s top leadership ranks”. Further to this Zhang enhanced her wealth because “jewellery regulators often decided which companies could set up diamond-processing factories, and which would gain entry to the retail jewelry market. State regulators even formulated rules that required diamond sellers to buy certificates of authenticity for any diamond sold in China, from the government-run testing center in Beijing, which Ms. Zhang managed”.

The article then turns its attention to Wen’s only son, Wen Yunsong, also called “Winston Wen”. The article mentions “Winston Wen and his wife, moreover, have stakes in the technology industry and an electric company, as well as an indirect stake in Union Mobile Pay, the government-backed online payment platform — all while living in the prime minister’s residence, in central Beijing, according to corporate records and people familiar with the family’s investments”. It mentions how “Wen’s earliest venture, an Internet data services provider called Unihub Global, was founded in 2000 with $2 million in start-up capital, according to Hong Kong and Beijing corporate filings. Financing came from a tight-knit group of relatives and his mother’s former colleagues from government and the diamond trade” adding that in 2005 he founded “New Horizon Capital with a group of Chinese-born classmates from Northwestern. The firm quickly raised $100 million from investors”.

In the space of seven years that article notes “the firm has returned about $430 million to investors, a fourfold profit, according to SBI Holdings”. The piece ends the discussion about Wen’s son, “In 2010, when New Horizon acquired a 9 percent stake in a company called Sihuan Pharmaceuticals just two months before its public offering, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange said the late-stage investment violated its rules and forced the firm to return the stake. Still, New Horizon made a $46.5 million profit on the sale”.

The response of Wen was to set up a probe. Apparently, he “sent a letter asking for the investigation to the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s equivalent of the Cabinet, according to the South China Morning Post. It is not known how the investigation will proceed, or if its findings will ever be made public, but the request was accepted, unnamed sources told the newspaper”.

Naturally enough the response of the Chinese government “The Chinese government swiftly blocked access Friday morning to the English-language and Chinese-language Web sites of The New York Times from computers in mainland China”. There is only so long this pattern will last for.

Greece, the new Weimar

20/10/2012

Referring to the harsh reparations and rampant inflation that brought Adolf Hitler to power – and which form the root of Germany’s instinctive opposition to debt pooling in the eurozone – Mr Samaras said: ‘It’s about the cohesion of our society, which is being threatened by rising unemployment, like at the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany.’ He repeated that Greece wanted more time, not more money. ‘What we need is more time for budgetary consolidation, but not necessarily more aid,’ he said”.

An eventuality

20/10/2012

First there was omnishambles, now there is plebgate which has ended in the only place it could. In an attempt to restart his flagging government David Cameron reshuffled his Cabinet bringing in Andrew Mitchell to enforce party discipline as Chief Whip.

A timeline of events reveals the drip drip nature of the scandal. Mitchell a wealthy ex-banker called a policeman a “pleb” in an altercation in trying to leave his office. The scandal would not fade partly as a result of the Labour Party but also more recently the “1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs” debated Mitchell’s future. There seems to have been little support for Mitchell among those who he was supposedly meant to control and discipline. As a result of this and the fact that the story had not died, Cameron obviously had had enough and demanded Mitchell’s resignation.

Reports note that “Mitchell’s departure from the Government will spark a mini reshuffle – just weeks after Mr Cameron promoted Mr Mitchell in a shake-up of the Cabinet in September. It threatens to call into question the Prime Minister’s judgement in staunchly defending Mr Mitchell for several weeks”. Although this is an exaggeration it is certainly an inconveience. He was replaced by Sir George Young, Bt who had been shuffled out of Cameron’s Cabinet only to be brought back in.

The report adds “In his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Mitchell said: ‘Over the last two days it has become clear to me that whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter I will not be able to fulfil my duties as we would both wish. Nor is it fair to continue to put my family and colleagues through this upsetting and damaging publicity.’ The resignation calls into question Mr Cameron’s decision to publicly and repeatedly defend Mr Mitchell for several weeks after details of his outburst were leaked. Senior ministers had privately concluded last month that the chief whip’s position was untenable as his confrontation continued to overshadow the Government’s political agenda”. The piece goes on to say “His promotion to chief whip appeared to seal his place at the heart of Mr Cameron’s team – despite Mr Mitchell’s position as campaign manager for David Davis in the last Conservative leadership contest. It is understood that the Chancellor recommended that Mr Mitchell be moved to the chief whip’s position in last month’s reshuffle”.

An opinion piece notes “Mitchell should have gone weeks ago, when it was still possible to salvage his reputation with a show of grace under fire, and spare the Prime Minister the damage he has endured. The Chief Whip, who trades on his keen understanding of the political arts, should have realised he was doomed”.

He goes on to write, “There are two wider points to consider tonight in the wake of Mr Mitchell’s resignation, and the farcical incident involving George Osborne and the train inspector. These episodes, coupled with Mr Cameron’s cavalier approach to energy policymaking, speak to an impression of careless arrogance. These guys made a lot out of the incompetence of Gordon Brown. But there are too many times for my liking when they appear to have learned nothing, to be deaf to the world around them, to be a bit to cocky. I wonder sometimes whether they are grown ups”.

This is the ultimate insult, whatever about holding views that people disagree with, to be branded incompetent, with such strong evidence backing up the claim, is something else.

Looking for a new economic model

12/10/2012

The rising gap between rich and poor (and the fear of socialist revolution) spawned a wave of reforms, from Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting to Lloyd George’s People’s Budget. Governments promoted competition, introduced progressive taxation and wove the first threads of a social safety net. The aim of this new ‘Progressive era’, as it was known in America, was to make society fairer without reducing its entrepreneurial vim”. It adds “as our special report this week argues, inequality has reached a stage where it can be inefficient and bad for growth”.

LIBOR fixed

29/09/2012

After the LIBOR scandal a report by the UK Financial Services Authority has found that “the system is broken and suggests its complete overhaul, including criminal prosecutions for those who try to manipulate it”, among the recommendations are that there be “criminal sanctions for those who attempt to manipulate it”, “encouraging banks not part of the current group of 20 rate-setters to submit rates to Libor to make it more representative”, and “basing Libor calculations on actual rates being used, rather than estimates currently provided by banks”. Other reports mention that “Wheatley will recommend that responsibility for Libor is stripped from the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) and given to the new Financial Conduct Authority”.

Charged

07/08/2012

Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson have been formally charged with  phone hacking. The decison by the Crown Prosecution Service is uncomfortable for Prime Minister David Cameron as Brooks was a close friend and Coulson worked for Cameron, either though Cameron knew of his immoral activity.

Reports mention that the CPS “announced that the former News International staff and a private investigator will face court on a total of 19 charges”, the report goes on to say that “among those charged included Coulson, who went on to become the Downing Street head of communications and Brooks, the former News International chief executive. Also charged were the newspaper’s former head of news Ian Edmonson and Neville Thurlbeck, its former chief reporter, Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor and former executives Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup”.

Similar articles mention that Brooks and Coulson “are accused of conspiring to hack the phones of more than 600 people, ranging from survivors of the July 7 London bombings and victims of crimes to Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the Hollywood stars. Mr Coulson is separately accused of conspiring to hack the phone of Milly, the 13 year-old who was murdered in 2002. He is also accused of targeting two former home secretaries, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, as well as Calum Best, the son of the late footballer George Best. Mrs Brooks, who is already facing charges of perverting the course of justice in relation to the phone hacking investigation, is accused of specifically targeting Milly and Andy Gilchrist, the head of the Fire Brigades Union”.

The report goes on to state that “Coulson, who was forced to step down as Mr Cameron’s official spokesman over the mounting hacking scandal, said: ‘I will fight these allegations when they eventually get to court’. ‘But I would like to say one thing today about Milly Dowler’. ‘Anyone who knows me or who has worked with me knows that I wouldn’t and didn’t do anything to damage the Milly Dowler investigation. At the News of the World we worked on behalf of victims of crime, particularly violent crime, and the idea that I would then sit in my office dreaming up schemes to undermine the investigations is simply untrue.’ Mrs Brooks also rejected the allegations that she had been involved with the hacking of Milly’s phone”.

This shows a number of things. Firstly that Brooks and Coulson are either deluded and unable to see that their actions were not only immoral and sinful and therefore see no need to apologise for them. Or, alternatively, they and the others charged know that their actions were wrong but refuse to apologise and seek forgiveness. Secondly, Cameron loses much by being associated with such people of disrupte. The article concludes that “The allegations relating to Pitt and Jolie could potentially open up Rupert Murdoch’s New York-based News Corp to hugely damaging legal action in the United States. The FBI is already investigating claims that journalists from the News of the World hacked the phones of people while they were on US soil”. As was mentioned above, Coulson was formally charged with hacking school girl Milly Dowler’s phone. The hacking then allowed her parents to think their messages had been recieved and that Dowler was alive.

In related news other Murdoch directors and companies with US actions now seeming ever more likely. The report mentions that “US legislation is far tougher in dealing with corporate crimes”.  In addition to the other charges brought against her, Brooks it seems, is likely to face further related charges.

Perhaps these charges, and hopefully convictions, will go some way to redress the lack of morality in society, fueled, largely, though not exclusively by neoliberalism.

Watching the slide

23/07/2012

There has been much discussion about the revival of religion, especially in Europe. It has been noticed that where there is growth it is with demoniations that are conservative, or theologically orthodox, in their thinking.

An article in the New York Times questions this assumption and argues for liberal Christianity. He writes that the leaders of the Episcopal Church (Anglican/Church of England) have “spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States”.

He goes on to write that “today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes”. Of course, if Benedict ever did this there would be no end to the demands by the reforms, until almost nothing of value was left. Undoubtedly the first thing the “liberal pundits and theologians” would abolish it the Latin Mass which has rightly been restored to a par with the vernacular Mass.

He goes on to mention that “instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase”. However, it may to too simple to equate modern reforms with declining attendence.

He makes the point that “This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis”. Of course, not just the United States but “the West”, broadly defined. Indeed, it is these “values” of individualism and greed that societies are reaping now with the financial crisis and societal breakdown that Pope Benedict rightly attacks.

He writes that “if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves”.

He goes on to write, with a note of caution that “Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor. But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction”.

He concludes arging that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”. While the American Conservative commenting on the same article writes that “The various conservative Christianities may not be fully reconcilable, but they all point to a source of authority, or sources of authority, beyond individual experience and subjectivity. That gives them their force, and their staying power”.

All too easy

22/07/2012

One of the things that sets the United Kingdom apart from other nations is its lack of a single written constitution. In some ways this is something to be proud of. However, one of the main consequences is that it makes altering the constitutional makeup all too easy.

As has been noted here before, House of Lords reform is generally not needed.

Apparently Cameron “has told his own MPs that he is willing to reduce the number of elected peers to win their support. The concession came less than a day after 91 of his MPs mounted the biggest revolt since the Coalition was formed in 2010. The proposals caught Mr Clegg’s team off-guard last night, with one aide saying: ‘This is not something that has been put to us. We are going forward on the basis of a Bill as it is.'” The report goes on to say that ” If no deal is done by the end of the summer, he will withdraw the Lords Reform Bill entirely, putting the Coalition at risk”. While this might be taking it too far, the Coalition would certainly come under increased strain.

Cameron, in order to juggle both Lib Dems and his own backbenchers must try to please both camps. How successful he is will set the tone for the rest of his term in office. The piece adds that “Cameron said there would be no deal with Labour – who had threatened to vote against last night’s motion despite backing the Bill’s Second Reading – because they ‘cannot be trusted’. He told the influential 1922 committee of MPs in the Commons: ‘There is not going to be endless haggling with the Lib Dems either. We are going to have one more try to see if we can secure a way forward and achieve a smaller elected element'”.

Others have noted the lack of communication on the part of the government.

It has been argued by Peter Oborne that the “U-turn over House of Lords reform marks a decisive shift in the national political landscape. Old certainties are being dissolved, new working assumptions are emerging. The first of these concerns Ed Miliband, who was almost universally written off as a hopeless case 12 months ago. He is the overwhelming beneficiary of the recent series of fiascos. Were a general election to be held tomorrow, all opinion polls suggest that he would secure, if not a landslide, then certainly a very comfortable governing majority”. Tellingly he writes that “Cameron, who at first seemed so capable and sure-footed, is coming to resemble John Major after the economic debacle of 1992, or Edward Heath after his U-turns in the early Seventies: adrift and at the mercy of events”.

He goes on to distinguish three different groups “of Conservative MP overlapped in this massive and potentially government-destroying revolt. The first comprises those who detest David Cameron and have done so from the very start. Many of them are driven by class resentment, personal envy and disappointed ambition”. The second he says are “driven by dislike not of their leader, but of the Coalition. Well led and increasingly an organised block, they have come to convince themselves that the Liberal Democrats lie at the heart of the Government’s problems. The fact that there is very little evidence for this view does not deter them”. He adds that this group think that “once their beliefs are put into practice, the party’s electoral problems will vanish”, a view which is of course garbage. Lastly he describes “the Conservative intellectuals, of which an unusually large number entered Parliament at the last election – not necessarily a good thing. Many of these are fond of the Prime Minister, and wish him well. They are driven by the remorseless force of their own logic into opposing what they – correctly – perceive to be Nick Clegg’s intellectually catastrophic plans for an elected second chamber”.

He concludes that “the members of these three factions have little in common. But they are bound together by a shared rejection of the fundamental premise which lay behind the grand bargain that brought the Coalition together two years ago – namely that two great political parties with honourably divergent traditions should compromise and even on occasion act against their own most deeply held beliefs in order to serve the national interest at a time of economic emergency”. He says that the remedy for this is that Cameron “could speak out loudly and publicly for the Coalition, thus recalling the marvellous idealism when two warring parties came together after the last election. Mr Cameron has never sounded more statesmanlike than when he made his ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ to the Liberal Democrats in the fusty surroundings of St Stephen’s Club in May 2010. Never before or since has he so completely spoken for the nation as a whole, and I believe that the Coalition government is far more popular among ordinary voters than tribal Westminster activists understand”.

The Economist has argued that “big shifts in power within the Lords, such as the one that made Labour the largest party there in 2005, go largely unremarked on. Yet the House of Lords is powerful: it can delay legislation for longer than the upper houses in France and Spain, both of which are elected. Governments frequently cut deals with the upper house for the sake of speed. These trades are not trivial. But for the Lords, Britain would have abolished trial by jury in some terrorism cases and inciting religious hatred would be a criminal offence”. The piece gets to the numb of the point that “Fully 92 hereditary peers still sit in the Lords, together with 26 Anglican bishops. The remaining 700 are appointed in a process which often gives the prime minister huge powers of patronage. Tony Blair appointed 374 lords during his decade in office. David Cameron has packed the chamber at an even faster rate. This process is rightly distrusted”. The piece concludes interestingly that “the place works fairly well. The Lords often scrutinises legislation that the Commons has not had time to look at (it has carved out an important role examining edicts from the European Commission). It also has some virtues the Commons lacks. The Lords contains more people with impressive private-sector experience than the Commons. Members are astonishingly polite to each other”.

Yet, the logic of the Liberal Democrats is correct. An unelected second chamber is undemocratic. However, logic does not enter into large parts of the British government, thankfully. The problem is compounded by the fact that parties need a majority in the Upper House so are forced to create hundreds of peers after each general election. This demeans the peerage. Instead, peerages should be awarded for exceptional service to society with experts from all walks of life so honoured, as is currently the case, instead of the usual host of political apparatchiks from all parties. By limiting the peerages created, to a dozen or so a year, it would end any pretense of party politics and simply by a place for experts.

Alternatively, to please everyone, or perhaps no-one, tricameralism could be created. A properly elected senate and commons, and the expert peers of no more than 100-200. Of course this position would not have occurred if previous ill thought out tinkering had not happened, which may not have happened at all had there been a  single written constitution.

Empty words

06/07/2012

Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England now dragged deeper into the LIBOR scadal. Others have noted that “On September 3, 2007, Barclays’ directors were feeling jumpy. The credit crunch had been in train for the best part of a month and, having tapped the Bank’s of England’s standby liquidity facility twice in a fortnight, questions were being asked about Barclays’ financial health”.

Others have argued that “Much as David Cameron and his Chancellor, George Osborne, would like to load responsibility for this culture of light touch regulation on to their predecessors, many in their own Government are as guilty as Labour in this regard. At the time all this nonsense was building up, they were cheering on from the sidelines. Light touch was widely applauded as part of London’s competitive advantage”. Crucially he argues “All markets require regulation to function effectively. To recognise this is not to become some latter day socialist – free markets remain far and away the most effective and dependable route to growth, prosperity and jobs – but only to acknowledge that without adequate policing, rule of law would fast break down, and like the streets, become subject to abuse, protection rackets or outright anarchy. There is a sense in which capitalism, in order to survive, has to be constantly saved from itself by the application of appropriate checks and balances. Every now and again, we are reminded of this abiding truism by an almighty financial crisis”. He closes noting rightly that “No amount of regulation will ever completely get rid of bad, irresponsible and dishonest behaviour in finance. But if the right incentives and penalties are put in place, it can be made to work much more effectively than it has been. Fraud is a serious criminal offence in any other business. Why is it that there seems to be some doubt about this in banking? What’s happened to the zero tolerance of abusive behaviour you see in other industries? If this were a pharmaceutical company, it would by now have been stripped of its licenses, closed down and its officials had up for endangering the public”. Yet, the greed that has always existed in humans has been praised and legitimated with the consequences now been seen.

Not only does the Bank of England seem to have been complicit with Barclays but their relationship is worsening almost by the day. It has been noted by some that Barclays has said “A memo published by Barclays suggested that Paul Tucker gave a hint to Bob Diamond, the bank’s chief executive, in 2008 that the rate it was claiming to be paying to borrow money from other banks could be lowered. His suggestion followed questions from ‘senior figures within Whitehall’ about why Barclays was having to pay so much interest on its borrowings, the memo states. Barclays and other banks have been accused of artificially manipulating the Libor rate, which is used to set the borrowing costs for millions of consumers, businesses and investors, by falsely stating how much they were paying to borrow money. The bank claimed yesterday that one of its most senior executives cut the Libor rate only at the height of the credit crisis after intervention from the Bank of England”. It has been mentioned that Bob Diamond may keep his £20 million final pay package.

Some have tried to argue that a weak City of London is a bad thing. Perhaps the City was simply too strong and from now on will be given the attention that it deserves as a percentage of the UK economy.

Diamond, in what will be the first of many witnesses to give evidencebefore the Treasury Select Committee “said he had felt ‘physically ill’ when he first became aware of the emails that showed Barclays traders had asked the bank’s Libor submitters to falsify the lender’s borrowing rate entries”. Tellingly the report goes on to note that Diamond “attempted to distance himself from the scandal. He said he had become aware of what had gone on just days before the results of the investigation by US and British authorities were made public. ‘I don’t feel personal culpability,’ said Mr Diamond. Instead, the former bank chief said the Barclays treasury team – responsible for funding the bank’s operations – had been behind the so-called ‘low-balling’ of Libor submissions during the financial crisis. ‘There was pressure from group treasury,’ said Mr Diamond, adding that the division had wanted to ‘get in the pack’ as it felt the bank’s Libor rates were higher than those being published by its peers. The bank boss suggested other banks’ submissions were false: ‘Some couldn’t fund at any level.'” This shows obviously that there is little contrition from Diamond and his ilk who see the scandal as a minor irritation. Different report have mentionedhow “Diamond said he felt ‘responsible but not culpable’. The 14 traders who rigged Libor between 2005 and 2007 were to blame for the ‘reprehensible’ behaviour. He claimed he only found out about their actions last month and reading their exchanges made him ‘physically ill’. Mr Tyrie said Mr Diamond’s view of when he found out sounded ‘implausible’. Compliance also failed”. Related reports on Diamond’s evidence mention that “He was reminded that Barclays has recently suffered other scandals, including mis-selling deals to small businesses and using complicated schemes to avoid tax legally. John Mann, a Labour MP, claimed Mr Diamond presided over a ‘rotten, thieving bank’ and reminded him the bank’s Quaker founders lived by a motto of ‘honesty, integrity and plain dealing’.

The previous Labour government under whom most of the LIBOR fixing occured is also being dragged into the scandal. Now however, the Serious Fraud Office has stated that it has launched an investigation into the affair with criminal charges possible.

Immoral banks, again

29/06/2012

Barclays, just one of a host of banks that set interest rates to suit them to the detriment of their own customers and the common good. Yet another damning indictment of greedy, destructive neoliberalism.

A fitting response

21/05/2012

After the actions, or lack thereof, by Sean Cardinal Brady became apparent, reports notes that “Just 20 of 150 priests in the Armagh Archdiocese invited to attend a prayer gathering in support of Dr Brady actually showed up”.

Her true self

17/05/2012

Rebekah Brooks having given evidence at Leveson, has been formally charged. Yet, as befits her rabid, selfish individualistic relavtivism “Brooks angrily attacked police and prosecutors for dragging her friends and family into the phone hacking scandal as she said she was ‘baffled’ to face charges”.

“Detailed discussions”

16/05/2012

As the UK phone hacking scandal rolls on, former chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.

Brooks also served as editor of The Sun and other “newspapers”. Reports mention how she “‘had detailed discussion with David Cameron’ on phone hacking”, while others note how Brooks met Cameron 22 times. Related articles examine that “Cameron had a conversation with the News International executive to discuss the ‘story behind the news’ after Sienna Miller filed a legal claim against the media company. The actress’s legal action was pivotal because it proved that hacking at the News of the World was not restricted to a single ‘rogue’ reporter, as the company had insisted”. The article goes on to mention how “Brooks denied that Mr Cameron asked her for information because he was having ‘second thoughts’ about Mr Coulson, but said she had more than one conversation with him about phone hacking after the ‘rogue reporter’ defence fell apart. The Prime Minister is expected to insist that he was unaware of the significance of the Miller claim at the time of the conversation”.

Amazingly, the report goes on to mention that “a lobbyist for News Corporation emailed Mrs Brooks to say that Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, had asked him for advice on ‘Number 10’s positioning’ on the scandal. Mr Hunt’s office said yesterday that the email — the only document disclosed by Mrs Brooks — was ‘completely inaccurate’. However, previous close contact between the lobbyist and the minister’s special adviser, Adam Smith, led to Mr Smith’s resignation last month. The disclosures prompted questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment and his decision to become personally embroiled in the scandal. Mrs Brooks also alleged that Mr Cameron had ‘indirectly’ contacted her after she was forced to resign last summer to offer his support and tell her to ‘keep your head up’. This shows the obvious scale of the power of Murdoch with Hunt’s position looking increasingly tenous. Other articles also highlights the closeness of Cameron to Brooks.

Related articles mention how “email shows that News Corp was given an ‘extremely helpful’ tip-off by Mr Hunt’s office that he would refer to phone-hacking in a statement to Parliament. It was released to the Leveson Inquiry by Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, as part of her witness statement to the Inquiry. As well as dragging Mr Hunt further into the row which has already claimed the scalp of his special adviser Adam Smith, the email makes uncomfortable reading for David Cameron, as it suggests his response to the phone-hacking scandal was being guided by the owner of the News of the World. The email was sent by Frederic Michel, the News Corp head of public affairs whose emails to and from Mr Smith, previously released to the Inquiry by Rupert Murdoch, showed that News Corp was being given advance notice of key decisions in the Government’s scrutiny of its bid to take over BSkyB”.Worse still the news article mentions how “At the time the email was sent, the Metropolitan Police was six months into its ongoing investigation into phone-hacking at the News of the World, which later led to the arrest of Mrs Brooks”. Brooks response to the email has been noted as “In response to questioning about the message and what it may have meant, Ms Brooks simply offered: “I think it speaks for itself.'” Reports that former director of communications for Cameron Andy Coulson mention that “when asked if Mr Cameron sought further assurances he was in the clear over the issue after an article was published in the Guardian in 2009, which suggested hacking went far beyond ‘one rogue reporter’, Mr Coulson said: ‘Not that I recall'”.

This continues to show the depths to which people will sink to gain a “profit” at whatever cost to society but not to oneself. All this only makes Hunt’s hold on his job more tenous and the Cameron’s hold  on the top job weaker.

Defending the indefensible

01/05/2012

After the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband tabled an urgent question to ask Prime Minister David Cameron if he will refer Jeremy Hunt’s behaviour to the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan. Miliband argued that Hunt broke the code on three ways. Not to mention a poll which finds almost 50% think Hunt should resign.

Cameron consistently defended Hunt in his answer to the question. Media reports mention how Cameron “was using Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry as a ‘smokescreen’ to avoid a full investigation into the conduct of Jeremy Hunt, an irate Mr Cameron admitted that Lord Leveson did not have the power to adjudicate on breaches of the Ministerial Code. The Prime Minister declined to act now and said that he would wait until Mr Hunt had given evidence to the inquiry, rather than order his own investigation” This is in addition to the fact that Leveson has refused to let his inquiry be used to decide the fate of Hunt. The piece goes on to say “Cameron’s unscheduled appearance before Parliament – which was sanctioned by the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who granted an urgent question on the affair to the Labour leader, Ed Miliband – also incensed Tory backbenchers who are already at loggerheads with Mr Bercow”.

As this happened yesterday, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee released its report today on phone hacking. The coverage of the report highlights the fact that Rupert Murdoch, 81, “News Corporation chairman ‘turned a blind eye’ to what was going on at News International as it sought to ‘cover up wrongdoing’, the culture, media and sport committee said. The culture of cover-up ‘permeated from the top throughout the organisation’, the report says, ‘and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International’. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company,’ it adds, and together with his son James should take ‘ultimate responsibility’ for the scandal”. The coverage goes on to say that “James Murdoch, it says, showed ‘wilful ignorance’ of what was going on under his nose; Mr Hinton was ‘complicit in the cover-up’; the News of the World’s last editor, Colin Myler, and its former head lawyer, Tom Crone, ‘answered questions falsely’ when they gave evidence and Rebekah Brooks, the former NI chief executive, ‘should accept responsibility’ for what happened, even if she was unaware of how far it went”.  It goes on to mention how the “Metropolitan Police as a whole ‘had no interest or willingness to uncover the full extent of the phone-hacking which had taken place’, the report says”.

The media piece adds that “Nor is the report likely to be the end of Parliament’s bad news for the Murdoch empire; because of the ongoing police investigation and possibility of criminal charges against some of those who have been arrested, the committee will publish a supplementary report ‘when all criminal proceedings are finished’. Hence there is virtually no mention of Andy Coulson, the former NoW editor and ex-Downing Street communications chief, who is currently on bail, or of his evidence to the committee”. Though this is likely to be some time away it is certain to raise further questions as to Cameron’s persistent lack of judgement having been warned of Coulson’s less than legal activities on numerous occasions.

Cameron’s defence of Hunt is looking increasingly desperate and will only harm what little credibility he has left. Others have brought attention to the fact that “the committee was split six to four with Tory members refusing to endorse the report and branding it ‘partisan’. Conservative Louise Mensch called it ‘a real great shame’ that the report’s credibility had potentially been ‘damaged’ as a result, with the report carried by Labour and Lib Dem members backing it”

What is outrageous is that Tory members of the committee fail to see the gravity of the report and are implicitly defending the sinful acts that the Murdoch press has committed that would never have been committed 50 or 60 years ago.