Friday, 20 January 2017

Preparing for change

Benjamin Franklin claimed that the only two certainties are death and taxes, but I think there’s a third certainty as well, and that’s change.  The nature of that change is far from predictable, of course; and even those changes which are planned and controlled tend to have unforeseeable effects.  Those effects mean, in turn, that we can have quite different perspectives even on changes which are entirely foreseeable in themselves.
Yesterday, there was an item on the BBC news previewing the new presidency in the US, and asking which of his promises Trump could or could not implement quickly.  Specifically, there was a reference to his promises to return jobs to the ‘rust belt’ of America.  The reporter pointed out that one of the problems he faces is that these jobs haven’t been moved overseas, and native workers haven’t been replaced by immigrants; in large measure the workers have been replaced by robots.
Last month, I blogged on the probability that machines and computers are going to replace humans in many spheres as technology continues to develop.  That such a change will happen appears to be certain to me – the questions about how we react to it and what the effects will be are far more open.  Our response to the threat hinges on whether we believe that the change will create a myriad of new opportunities for businesses and work, or whether we believe that it will mark a permanent shift away from the idea that anything resembling full employment is possible.
The default position for most of those leading our society at the present is to adopt the former position – to assume, in effect, that there will be plenty of new opportunities (albeit ones which we can’t fully define or envisage at present) and do our best to position ourselves to take advantage of them.  The new AM for Llanelli, Lee Waters, wrote a piece along those lines for ClickonWales just before Christmas.  I understand – as I noted above – that the precise nature of any opportunities which will arise is inherently unpredictable, but I still found this piece by Lee to be disappointing.  It read to me more like a series of sound bites and slogans rather than an acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge facing us. 
In fairness, perhaps that’s the best we can hope for from politicians, stuck as they are in the current paradigm and having no real influence on what is going to happen, whilst trying to pretend that they are managing events.  But I tend to the alternative position; the one that expects this shift away from a requirement for human labour in a huge range of fields to be a permanent one.  I wouldn’t argue that there will be no new opportunities; but the numbers are likely to be much smaller than the numbers of jobs lost, and the work highly specialised – and there’s a whole world out there competing for them.  Even if some countries (possibly even Wales) are successful in attracting those new jobs, that’s at best a local solution; the global problem would still exist.
We tend to forget that the idea of work as the definition of what we are as individuals and the central purpose of our lives is, in human terms, a relatively recent one, and a direct result of the move to a capitalist system of production.  Certainly, that paradigm has increased the material well-being of the developed world’s population, but there is no necessary reason why it should be any more permanent than those paradigms which went before.  What if the logic of increasing automation does indeed permanently replace the need for much human labour?  Where does that leave our whole sense of identity and purpose?
The idea that automation would ultimately replace human labour is hardly a new suggestion; Marx was talking about it 150 years ago.  But the fact that previous predictions about the demise of human labour have proven premature doesn’t mean that it won’t happen at some point, and it may be nearer than many are assuming.  Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic (or optimistic – it depends on how we see the change and respond to it; Marx certainly saw it as a liberating possibility); perhaps it won’t happen this time either.  But little or no thought has been given to this by most people – and especially by those who need to take the decisions if we are to adapt. 
We can’t simply blame ‘immigrants’ (although no doubt some will try) for a change in the mode of production which the economic system itself has driven.  What would a society with enough work only for a minority look like?  Is it even possible to share that work out – can everybody be trained for the increasingly specialist roles?  How would we share the product of such an economy?  There are choices; we can share the available wealth more equitably or simply accept the growth of an increasingly large underclass of unemployed people, and there are degrees of sharing between those extremes.
If we don’t start to imagine a different type of economy and shape its development, it will happen anyway – but not necessarily in a controlled way which reflects the needs and wishes of the majority.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Tradition and nostalgia

One of the important issues exercising the minds of our MPs at the moment is the little problem that the building in which they debate is in danger of falling down around their ears.  This story appeared in a number of sources this week, outlining some of the problems and issues, of which there are many.
(As an aside, one of them is that the Palace of Westminster is apparently seriously infested by rats and mice.  Who’d have thought it?)
In most walks of life, the fact that a building which is not fit for purpose is crumbling away would be seen as an opportunity to take a long hard look at the requirements and even the location, and consider a range of options.  A legislative chamber which does not contain enough seats for all its members (even after the proposed reductions) is clearly not fit for purpose, the confrontational layout with its lines on the floor to ensure that members remain at least two sword lengths away from each other is quaint but more than a little dated, and the approach to decision-taking which involves the members standing up and walking through doors to be counted is antediluvian.
In any rational world, structural problems on this scale would be seen as an opportunity to create a legislative chamber which facilitates efficiency and the making of good legislation.  But no chance; the debate about options is limited to whether the building should be evacuated whilst it is repaired, or whether they should continue operating whilst the work is carried out around them – perhaps by making those doing the repairs work around the clock.  Tradition – in this case, working in the same way as their predecessors worked in the past – is more important to them than efficiency and effectiveness.  But then, as we’ve seen on so many other issues, looking to the past is what they do best.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

There's oldspeak, newspeak, and mayspeak

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone.  "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."  Theresa May has clearly been reading her Lewis Carroll.
Yesterday, she declared in her speech to her assembled minions cabinet members, diplomats and reporters that the UK would be a country open to the world.  That’s ‘open’ in the mayspeak sense of ‘closed’, of course; with strict border controls preventing any foreigners from getting in.  Still, perhaps we can expect a major recruitment campaign for the UK Border Agency – see, Brexit does create jobs after all.  Or then again, perhaps not.
It wasn’t the only example in the speech of words not meaning what they appear to mean at first sight.  Take her comment that no deal is better than a bad deal, for instance.  It’s a nice sound bite, and makes her sound like a tough negotiator – but what does it actually mean?
We know by now that the worst case in any possible trade arrangement with the EU27 is that the UK falls back on WTO rules.  It’s surely obvious that even the maddest of EU negotiators wouldn’t seriously try to put anything worse than that on the table; any negotiation at all (and therefore any deal resulting from such negotiation) will, by definition, be better than that, because we're negotiating up from that point.  But what she has, in effect, said is that unless she considers it a ‘good’ deal she will reject it and walk away with the WTO option.  Unless they give her what she wants, she’ll walk away with something even worse – like all good mayspeak, it’s the exact opposite of what the words seem to mean when first heard.
Putting a gun to your head and threatening to shoot yourself unless the other side backs down is an approach which works well in a comedy film, but only because the script writers can decree that the audience are sufficiently stupid and credulous to fall for it.  Someone needs to explain to her that, in this case, she’s not writing the script.
It gets better (by which, obviously, I mean worse).  Having said for months that she couldn’t even spell out what she was aiming to get because that would betray her negotiating hand, she’s now told the other side, in very plain terms, that she’s quite happy to walk away with nothing.  It’s going from one extreme to the other.  Why even bother negotiating?
There are people arguing that a vote for Brexit didn’t necessarily imply a vote for leaving the single market, and that she’s therefore going beyond the mandate that the electorate gave.  Strictly speaking, that’s true – leaving the single market wasn’t on the ballot paper.  But once you interpret the referendum outcome as being first and foremost a vote for controlling borders (although that wasn’t actually on the ballot paper either), then the decision to leave the single market necessarily follows.  For all the talk since 23rd June, it has been clear from the outset that abolishing freedom of movement and remaining in the single market were incompatible.
I was surprised, at first, that the pound bounced back up as she spoke – until, that is, it was explained that the part of her speech that caused the bounce was the part referring to giving MPs and peers a vote on the final terms.  The currency traders believe, apparently, that that leaves open the possibility of parliament voting to reject the terms of any deal.  It’s a theoretical possibility of course; but the government will control the terms of any vote, and it’s more likely to be about the terms on which we leave rather than whether or not we leave.  And even if it were to be on the principle, does anyone believe that the parliamentary majority in favour of staying would actually vote according to their consciences?
Overall, the speech has left me upbeat and optimistic.  In mayspeak terms, anyway.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

It's all about trust

The buffoon and his nemesis have both recently returned from their pilgrimages to the great man and his team in New York, although only the nemesis actually got to talk to him, and then only by pretending to be a reporter rather than the full-time politician as which we pay him handsomely.  Both bring similar glad tidings from the mountain, although not only is this particular message not written in tablets of stone, it doesn’t appear to be actually written on anything. 
Still, they’ve heard the message and we just have to trust them to have both understood the mind of the great man and interpreted it correctly.  And we must believe that the great man has a settled opinion, uniquely, on this one particular issue, despite having reversed or revised his opinion on almost everything else. 
He wants to do a deal on free trade with the UK, we’re told, and he wants to do it quickly.  They also want us to believe that there’s no scintilla of inconsistency between his desire to rip up the US’s existing free trade deals and his intention to negotiate a new one specifically with the UK.  In fairness to both the buffoon and his nemesis, I can see that that would make eminent sense to them.  After all, they see no inconsistency between ripping up the UK’s free trade deal with its 27 neighbours and starting again with everyone else; why should the US be any different?
The detail of the proposed new detail is conspicuous by its absence.  But again, for people who can tell us little more than that Brexit means Brexit, why would the mere absence of detail be any sort of problem?  We can trust Trump and the US more than we can trust those pesky Europeans that we’ve been trying to deal with for the last four decades, because the US is special (although not quite as special as ‘us’, obviously), and according to the Prime Minister last week they even share our values (do try and keep up – those are the uniquely British values that she was talking about the previous week).
The future is safe as long as we trust Boris, Gove and Trump.  No problem there, then.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Trading freely

The UK Government’s approach to Brexit is at last slowly being spelled out.  The objective is for the UK to once again take its rightful place ruling the waves at the heart of the world’s trade network, in free trade arrangements with all countries across the whole globe and being subject only to rules made in the sovereign parliament of these islands, and not to any other jurisdiction, especially if there are any foreigners involved. 
The strategy for achieving this is firstly to remove the UK from the world’s largest and most successful free trade area sitting on our doorstep, with which we conduct around half our trade, and subsequently negotiate free trade arrangements on a bilateral basis with a host of other countries further away. 
It’s certainly an ‘interesting’ approach, but it’s being driven by an absolute determination to do something called ‘controlling our borders’ which apparently means that foreigners will not be allowed in, unless they’re doctors, nurses, bankers, plumbers, builders, fruit pickers, or in any other way essential for the UK economy.  But ‘we’ will have control.  Honest.
In other news, the minister for exiting the EU, David Davis, writing in the Sunday Times, has said that “It is absolutely in our interest that the EU succeeds”.  It turns out that the EU is a damned fine idea after all for those European chappies; just not for we British.  And we don’t want it to fail at all. 
It’s funny though – I must have imagined all those stories before and since the referendum when the Brexiteers told us that the EU was a failing project which was going to fall apart anyway, let alone those stories which had Brexiteers rubbing their hands with glee at the thought that other countries would follow the UK’s example and hold their own exit referendums.  Like this one for instance by someone called David Davis who described the EU as “a crumbling relic from a gloomy past”.  I wonder what became of him?

Friday, 13 January 2017

Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul

We can’t go on borrowing indefinitely, according to the Labour-Tory austerity mantra, and we need to reduce the national debt.  One of the ways in which that is to be achieved is by getting private companies, or other countries, to fund infrastructure projects, because, of course, they have the money sitting in their piggy banks and don’t need to depend on borrowing.  Or do they?
I’m far from being a fan of the Wylfa Newydd project in any event, but I noticed recently that there’s something curious about the way in which it’s being funded, when compared with the mantra referred to above.  According to press reports, up to £12 billion of the construction cost will be funded by the Japanese government.  So where, exactly, will the Japanese government find such a sum of money?
According to this list, the country with the largest public debt as a percentage of GDP is … Japan.  (The link shows several different ways of assessing the level of debt – I’ve used the column showing the average of CIA and IMF data.  Using one of the measures, the first and second positions of Japan and Greece are reversed, but the basic point still holds.)  So a country which has a debt ratio of 90% of GDP (the UK) cannot afford to borrow more to fund its infrastructure development, but it will instead rely on another country whose ratio is 174% (Japan) to fund that development.  By borrowing the money, of course.
Borrowing is fine, apparently, as long as someone else is doing it.  It only brings about the end of civilisation as we know it when the UK borrows money.  And that brings me back to a common theme on this blog – the decision as to whether a government should borrow or not owes more to ideology than to economics.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Progressive access to privileges

I’m not sure that anyone knows any more what Labour’s position is as a party on immigration and freedom of movement.  It’s one of the few things on which Corbyn has actually been fairly clear and consistent; his argument that treating it as a numbers game is a silly approach is one with which I concur.  I also agree with him that tackling the way in which unscrupulous employers exploit migrants, and find ways of paying them less than the minimum wage would be likely to reduce immigration numbers in itself.  (Although I disagree with his apparent belief that controlling numbers of immigrants is a reason for doing that – I think ending exploitation is a sufficient justification in itself.)
But he’s regularly being undermined by Labour MPs who are so afraid of losing votes and seats that they are using UKIP language and policies themselves.  And as we’ve seen this week, some are desperately keen to ‘bounce’ him into changing his position.  In the process, of course, they strengthen the narrative that immigration ‘needs’ to be controlled.  But what has struck me is the extent to which Corbyn’s almost honourable stance on the issue has been described as vague and unclear, because he refuses to say what he will do to reduce immigration as a result of rejecting the whole premise of the question. 
It’s a classic example of the Overton window in operation, and the media – including the so-called impartial BBC – are restricting debate to a narrow band rather than accepting that there are opinions which lie outside it.  So, as far as those questioning Corbyn are concerned, immigration is a problem, it needs to be reduced and because he won’t say how or by how many he will reduce it, he’s being vague or evasive.  It isn’t that Corbyn hasn’t tried very hard to be clear and consistent; it’s rather that his views don’t fall within the narrow window in which debate is currently ‘allowed’ to take place. 
I’m sure that the UKIP/Tory/Labour mainstream/media consensus is more than happy to exclude any views which don’t fit their own preconceptions, but it doesn’t make for a debate in which the question is properly and rationally considered.  If only those who agree that immigration is a problem are to be given any credibility, no real alternatives will ever be heard.  And that, in turn, strengthens the boundaries of the window.  No surprise that immigration ends up being seen as a ‘problem’ even where in those areas where there is none.
Sticking with the Labour Party and immigration, I was well and truly gobsmacked listening to Kinnock Junior pontificating on the matter on the BBC on Tuesday.  He sat there, as a representative of the Labour Party – the self-proclaimed party of working people - arguing for a two-tier approach to the issue under which the high-paid would have complete freedom of movement whilst the lower orders would be subject to restrictions and quotas.  When Nye Bevan said that nothing was too good for the working class, he didn’t add a list of exceptions, or talk about a two-tier system of access to privileges; but his successors clearly believe that there are some things to which mere oiks should not aspire.  Still, it’s a timely reminder to those who keep banging on about a ‘progressive’ alliance of just what ‘progressive’ means to the twenty-first century Labour Party.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Overseas aid isn't the problem

The UK has a relatively large budget for foreign aid compared to other countries (although still not large enough), and it should surprise no-one that not all of it is particularly well-spent.  Last week’s story about an Ethiopian girl band allegedly receiving a sum of £5.2 million for their “branded media platform” was a case in point.  I’m not sure that we’ve been given all the details here, but even taking the story at face value, it does little more than underline the fact that any detailed analysis of how money is spent would throw up apparently unjustifiable examples. 
Part of the problem with the aid budget is that those running aid programmes have a strange desire to receive proper credit for the aid given – they prefer to give the money to something on which they can then stick a Union Jack so that people know where the money has come from.  And if there’s a photo-op for a politician as well, then all the better.  A girl band ticks the right boxes.  It’s not dissimilar to the Welsh Government’s approach to projects which it funds – they have the same preference for projects which can be badged and used for ministerial PR.  The result, in both cases, can be that the visibility of the expenditure is more important to the politicians than ensuring that the money goes where it’s most needed.
But accepting that the aid is not always being spent in the best or most effective way is an argument for better control and targeting, not for a reduction in the amount being spent.  The fact that a girl band may not need £5.2 million doesn’t mean that people in Ethiopia don’t need that £5.2 million.  And it certainly isn’t any sort of excuse for the argument being put forward by some of those drawing attention to this sort of spending that we need the money more in the UK.
In this specific case, we had some Tory MPs arguing that the money should instead be spent on “funding adult social care in the UK”.  It’s an utterly false choice.  It isn’t just Tory MPs, of course – how often have we all heard the line about ‘charity starts at home’, or ‘why are we sending money abroad when there’s so much poverty at home?’.  Just scan the letters columns of any daily newspaper over a period.  But is inadequate funding for adult social care really the direct result of the way the UK spends its foreign aid budget?
At its basest, this attitude is based on an assumption that we can’t tackle poverty in the UK (or fund mental health or social care - insert here any pet project of your choice) because we’re spending our money on foreign aid instead.  And the ‘conclusion’ which is drawn from that is that the way to help the poor is by taking aid away from the even poorer.  There is a massive level of inequality in the UK but, according to this view of the world, what keeps people in their current state isn’t that the richest in our society are accumulating an ever greater share of total wealth, it is that a tiny proportion (0.7%) of UK GDP is spent on overseas aid, and an even tinier proportion of that might be being misspent.  And of course it has nothing to do with decisions to spend money on other things within the UK (such as a new laser weapon system, with a price tag of £30 million – it makes that £5.2 million look like a very wise investment).  One has only to put it in those terms to see the complete fallacy of the argument.
So how do they get away with it?  Why is it that people are so ready to believe that the problem isn’t with the richest siphoning off the country’s wealth, but with the attempt to provide a minimum of assistance to the world’s poorest?  Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves who controls the content and direction of public debate - and whose interests are served by convincing the poor that the problem is the even poorer.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Choosing the right scenario

The headline in yesterday’s Western Mail was about a report from a think tank claiming that there is little to fear from a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit.  It reminded me of two thirds of the oath required before giving evidence in a court – it looks like the truth, and nothing but the truth, but not exactly the whole truth.
On the basis of an assessment of the likely impact of tariffs in the event of no deal on free trade, the report concludes that the Treasury will actually collect more than it will have to pay out – some £12.7 billion compared to £8.8 billion.  I haven’t gone through the detail of the calculation, but I see no obvious reason to dispute the figures.  The problem that I do see with them, though, is that they assume that we continue to buy and sell the same products and services to and from the EU27, and apply the likely tariffs to that trade.
In reality, exiting the single market is likely to change the nature of the trade between the UK and the EU27, and to do so significantly.  Whether it does so in ways which are damaging to the UK economy or in ways which benefit the UK economy is harder to judge.  I tend to suspect the former is more likely in the short to medium term, but I accept that the effects may be mitigated in the longer term by trade with other countries outside the EU if the more optimistic projections of the Brexiteers are to be believed.  (If they were honest, they could legitimately describe it as a gamble on short term pain for the possibility of long term gain; but instead they’ve been relentlessly and unrealistically optimistic and dishonest in trying to pretend that everyone will gain immediately, rather than accepting that there are going to be some losers, in the short term at least.)
There are a number of reasons why I tend to believe that the former scenario is more likely.  One of them, just as an example, is EU rules on tendering for work.  Under those rules, for contracts of a specified size, public sector purchasers are obliged to give fair and equal consideration to any tenders received from anywhere within the single market.  It’s part of what makes it a single market.  However, there is no such obligation for tenders received from a country outside the single market, with such tenders subject to additional tariffs as well.  That does not, of course, mean that UK companies cannot or would not tender for such contracts, but it does raise a question about the likelihood of success for such tenders.  And, in the same way, it might well mean that UK-based tenderers win more contracts in the UK if EU competitors’ bids are subject to tariffs.  On the basis of that, and other, factors, it is surely valid at least to question the assumption that the pattern of trade would remain unaltered.
The report also suggests other ways in which the UK could take action to mitigate the impact, once it is free of EU rules.  One of those is that: “Freed from the EU rules on state aid, the UK will be able to operate a more extensive regional aid programme.”  Again, that’s entirely true, and the argument was a regular feature of the Brexit campaign.  The problem, though, is that there is a not insignificant difference between “will be able to operate” and the much shorter “will operate”
Of course, it’s not down to the think tank to set UK policy in this area, they can only suggest.  But given the history of UK regional policy, I’m far from being alone in my scepticism as to whether any conceivable UK Government would actually implement such an approach.  And they do have, as ‘cover’ as it were, the fact that in rejecting the EU, the UK (and Welsh) electorate have implicitly rejected the concept that richer parts of the union should contribute to the development of the poorer parts.  Isn’t that a major part of that elusive £350 million per week that ‘we’ (i.e. the UK Treasury) were allegedly going to get back?
So, the report gives one view on the results of Brexit, but it is just that, one view.  As the Western Mail’s reporting demonstrated (by quoting a Welsh government spokesperson and Andrew RT Davies), its findings will be rejected by those who believe that full access to the market is the best outcome, and revered by those who are looking for some level of backing for their belief that the EU has more to lose than the UK does, who, despite Gove’s infamous comment, are quite happy to quote any ‘expert’ who will give them the answer that they want to hear.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Serving whose interests?

Our First Minister seems to have had a nice little jaunt to Norway to see how they cope with being outside the EU but inside the Single Market.  A small oil-rich country on the fringes of the EU sounds almost similar to Wales – apart from the ‘oil-rich’ bit, which is pretty central to Norway’s economic success and is economically more important than any apparent similarities.  Oh, and the bulk of their exports to the EU consist of oil and gas delivered through pipelines rather than goods which need to be physically checked to ascertain their true origin.  Whatever, the basic model of being in the Single Market but outside the EU is certainly one deserving of some consideration, even if not immediately obviously relevant to Wales.
The response of the Tories’ leader in Wales was entirely predictable: Norway might be interesting, but what we need to concentrate on is a uniquely British solution, a unique relationship with the other EU countries of a type which no-one else enjoys.  The implication is clearly that it will be not only unique, but ‘better’ - after all, if an existing model was considered good enough, it would be a lot quicker and simpler to replicate that than to create an entirely new model.  It might even be achievable within the fabled two year timetable.
The other 27 will give the UK that unique and better deal, because …?  Well, because they’re all foreigners and the UK is unique and special.  Obviously.  And of course, countries such as Norway which have already negotiated deals will be more than happy for the UK to come along and get a better deal, because …?  Well, because they’re foreigners, not special and unique like the British, and they know their place.  Again, obviously.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the First Minister’s reference to retaining freedom of movement, but only to go to a pre-identified job.  (And sadly, Plaid has been making very similar noises.)  It’s as though they see freedom of movement as something which applies only to other people, forgetting – or more likely deliberately ignoring – the probable reciprocity of any such arrangement.  But in the real world constraints on ‘them’ coming ‘here’ also mean that the same constraints will apply to ‘us’ going ‘there’. 
So, in effect, politicians talking about limiting freedom of movement, in the case of nationals of other EU states, to those who have jobs to come to are also telling us that our own freedom of movement should be limited to that which primarily serves the interests of capital and employers rather than being considered as a right of ordinary people.  Yet still they claim to be ‘internationalists’, ‘socialists’, and ‘progressives’.  Their definitions of those words seem to owe more to Orwell than to Marx.