Cameron, Clegg or Miliband – whoever you vote for you’ll get further cuts

5932703853_fcc39ae1f2_n

Published on The News Hub on 31st March 2015 & Campaign for the North on 1st April 2015

There’s a cross-party acceptance of the need for strong austerity measures among the so-called main parties. It’s not an election issue like it was in Greece and other countries in the EU. Why is that? Why have we accepted government austerity measures so easily in the UK without a proper debate and without giving other solutions full consideration?

Austerity is an attempt to address the government’s fiscal imbalance: the difference between the present value of the government’s commitments to cover its outgoings (such as state pensions and running the NHS) and the present value of its tax revenues. This difference is undoubtedly significant, at close to six times our national income.

Contrary to popular belief though, there are several options available to deal with this imbalance. The deficit isn’t caused by immigrants stealing our jobs and claiming our benefits as UKIP would have you believe or by lazy people on Benefit Street as Ian Duncan Smith clearly suggests. It’s a consequence of public spending pressures that we face as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age and life expectancy continues its upward trend. Many other countries are facing similar problems, although the UK deficit is high relative to our US and European counterparts.

Despite the cause being largely linked to changes in demographics, we can probably dismiss the idea of increasing the retirement age again and increasing immigration of young people in order to increase the number of workers paying tax. Both of these options would be deeply unpopular and come with their own issues – not least being the lack of available job vacancies. However, this still leaves two clear choices. On the one hand, we could increase income taxes, National Insurance contributions or consumption taxes such as VAT and fuel duty. On the other, we can take the currently favored option of cutting public spending.

What this really comes down to therefore is which groups in society should bear most of the burden – low-paid workers and the unemployed who rely most on the welfare state, the NHS and other support services provided by any decent modern society, or should the wealthy bear more of the cost by paying a little more tax, or at least by paying some tax. Let’s face it, we lose billions in revenue from tax dodging corporations and high net worth individuals every year.

The problem here is the cost of enforcing tax collection. If enforcement could be improved significantly at relatively low cost, the government could take more in tax revenue, but if enforcement is very costly then the extra tax revenue collected might fall short of the cost of enforcement, leaving the government finances in a worse state. You would expect HMRC to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to decide how much of its resources it should put into enforcement, but one wonders.

The other thing that those of the right of the political spectrum like to remind us is that movements towards higher corporation tax or tougher enforcement would likely deter investment in the UK, even by those corporations who are willing to pay their fair share, as it might be interpreted as a signal that further regulations will follow in the future, making it more difficult to do business in the UK.

So government takes the easy option of cutting spending instead, though this doesn’t explain the level and pace of cuts in public spending. Why try and balance the books in just 5 years as Osborne set out to do? How quickly we reduce the deficit is a trade-off between current and future generations. The fast pace of fiscal adjustment that George Osborne has instigated (and Ed Balls doesn’t oppose) doesn’t aim to spread increases in taxes and reductions in spending over a long period of time and therefore spread the pain. They want instant results, or at least within a 5-year term of office, because that’s how politics works. It’s short-termism. How else can you take credit for re-balancing the books? The result is that the burden per person is much larger, and the economic pain for individuals correspondingly greater.

But does it work?

It hasn’t worked in Greece where austerity policies have led to unemployment rates of 28% nationally, without reducing the debt or providing the economic growth it promised.

So, what should be done?

At the very least we need to have a public debate about how to deal with this issue, rather than simply accepting the path chosen by the three main political parties. The Green Party at least have a different approach. They want to see about 45% of GDP being spent on government services; the same as Germany. They don’t want to roll over for big business or give up because it’s too hard. Instead, they want to see rich individuals and multinational companies paying their fair share of taxes.

Thomas Picketty suggests that a tax on capital instead, or as well as, income could not only provide fiscal returns, and hence reduce the fiscal imbalance, but would have other benefits also. The tax burden would fall heaviest on the “super rich” – those most able to afford the tax and who, some could say, are the sector of the populace that has benefitted most from the economy. The tax, depending on what tax rate is selected, would also go some way towards reversing the polarity of wealth which has been such a feature of recent decades.

The concept of taxing capital fills the richest 1% with horror and has prompted an outpouring of misleading arguments against Picketty, and regrettably these arguments hold sway to our political leaders who are under the control of the 1% by virtue of their control of the media and the lobbying groups.

But as well as reducing inequality we need to live sustainably and our current requirement of needing the resources of three planet Earths is already causing massive disruptions that will rapidly reach catastrophic proportions. If we really want to talk about fairness, the truth is that we need to take a look at what our fair share of the Earth’s natural resources is and set ourselves on course to really live within our means. The deficit exists because we’ve had more than our fair share of the spoils already. We need to recognize the need to live within our own resources at a lower level of consumption and stop worrying about GDP and growth.

Yemen is a proxy war between the Iran-supported Shi’a Muslims and the Saudi-led Sunnis

Wounded_civilians_arrive_at_hospital_Aleppo

Published in The News Hub 27th March 2015

There is little doubt that the insurgent movement in Yemen is backed by Iran in its continuing power struggle with Saudi Arabia, but the influence of these two regional powers has been widespread and significant for some time, with disastrous consequences.

On the one side of this power struggle is Iran along with her close strategic partner, Syria. Islam is the religion of 98% of Iranians and 89% of Iranians are Shi’a. Syria however is mostly Sunni, but Bashar al-Assad, like his entire family and the ruling military elite of Syria, is an Alawite. Alawites are a prominent minority religious group who describe themselves as a sect of Shi’a Islam.

Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests. In the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran was said to be providing Syria with technical support based on Iran’s capabilities developed following the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012. In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Assad, allowing it to make advances on the opposition. By December 2013, Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria.

Iran also backed the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Al-Maliki, who began his political career as a Shi’a dissident under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He spent 24 years in exile in Syria and Iran, building relationships, before returning to Iraq to take up office following the 2003 invasion and is largely blamed for ostracising the Sunnis in northern Iraq, which acted as a catalyst for the spread of Islamic State (ISIS) throughout northern Iraq and much of the northern and eastern parts of Syria.

On the other side of this regional axis of power is Saudi Arabia. In the 18th century, a pact between Islamic preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and a regional emir, Muhammad bin Saud, brought a fiercely puritanical strain of Sunni Islam first to the Najd region and then to the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the 15 to 20 million Saudi citizens today are Sunni Muslims.

The Saudis have many allies in the region, all dominated by Sunni Islam. It’s the dominant religion in Egypt with around 80 million Muslims, comprising 94.7% of the population. Almost the entirety of Egypt’s Muslims are Sunnis. The recent air strikes in Yemen were led by the Saudis, but Egypt, Sudan and Jordan confirmed they were supporting the operation and were discussing sending air, navy and ground forces to support their Saudi allies and financial backers. Al-Arabiya television station, which is close to the Saudi authorities, said that besides the internationally recognised Yemeni government loyal to Mr Hadi, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain had also joined the coalition and sent planes.

Of course, Yemen isn’t the only country in The Middle East being torn apart by sectarian violence. The Muslim population of Iraq is approximately 60-70 percent Arab Shi’a, 20-30 percent Arab Sunni and 10 percent Kurdish. Syrian population is 74% Sunnis and 13% Shi’a.

The Iraqi insurgency, which followed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq later joined other Sunni insurgent groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council, which in October 2006 proclaimed the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Under the leadership of al-Baghdadi, ISI sent delegates into Syria in August 2011 after the Syrian Civil War had begun. This group named itself al-Nusra Front and established a large presence in Sunni-majority areas of Syria. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi announced the merger of his ISI with al-Nusra Front, and announced the name of the reunited group was now Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In June 2014, the group renamed itself ‘Islamic State’ or ISIS.

All this happened partly as a result of what was happening in Baghdad and Damascus – the influence of Iran and Syria and the ruling Shi’a governments, but the Saudis played their part too by supporting the anti-Shia jihad in Iraq and Syria. Sir Richard Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004, doesn’t doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.

Dearlove, drawing on past experience, sees Saudi strategic thinking as being shaped by two deep-seated beliefs or attitudes. First, they are convinced that there “can be no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of their Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam’s holiest shrines”. But, perhaps more significantly given the deepening Sunni-Shia confrontation, the Saudi belief that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth leads them to be “deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom”.

The former head of MI6’s view that Saudi Arabia was involved in the ISIS-led Sunni rebellion attracted surprisingly little attention when it was expressed in July 2014. Western governments traditionally play down the connection, but consider the fact that 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Laden and most of the private donors who funded the operation.

Saudi sympathy for anti-Shia “militancy” was identified in leaked US official documents too. The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

There are numerous other examples of Saudi military aggression or the financing of such. In March 2011, around 1,500 Saudi troops were sent across the causeway to the island kingdom of Bahrain, another Sunni ruling monarchy to the east of Saudi Arabia, to quash peaceful demonstrations from the majority Shi’a population, which they did with great brutality. Shi’a mosques and shrines were destroyed in the process.

So what about the Yemenis? They themselves are around 50-55% primarily Shafi’i and other orders of Sunni Islam and 40-45% Zaidi order of Shi’a Islam. The Zaidis of the northern highlands dominated politics and cultural life in northern Yemen for centuries. With unification and the addition of the south’s almost totally Shafi’i population, the numerical balance shifted dramatically away from the Zaidis. But the Houthis, the Zaidi Shi’a group sponsored by Iran, are winning back control of power and the Saudis and their allies don’t like it.

It’s hard not to imagine, given what has happened elsewhere, that Yemen will be yet another casualty of these two regional superpowers as they scrap it out with each other by inflicting death and destruction everywhere they turn.

Let’s stop feeling guilty and confront those in power

We need to rise up and demand real change if we want a better world. Big business can’t be trusted to save us from a crisis created by capitalism

Che

By Jon Crooks, published on The News Hub on 13 March 2015.

My wife will tell you, I’m a tortured soul. If you know me you’ll know that I can’t help wrestling with large-scale social and environmental dilemmas like inequality, the degradation of the natural world and climate change. I feel profound guilt over what humans are doing to each other and to the planet. And I know I’m not alone. As individuals, the primary way people like me deal with this guilt is as consumers – buying organic, locally-produced seasonal food or signing up to Green Energy. But, in the end, whilst these are important choices to make as individuals, for our own peace of mind, a minority of us making ethical consumer choices won’t change anything. What we really need to change is the system.

We need to target the architects and governors of the current system. We already do this quite well, but in my opinion too much of this is focussed on the private sector; we focus too much on the big corporations in particular. We’ve made the oil companies enemy number one in the war on climate change and big food producers, agribusiness, logging companies, big fishing corporations etc. the focus of our attentions.

Don’t get me wrong, they are the culprits and we must continue to pressure them and shame them, but in the same way that consumer choices won’t bring about real change, neither will pressuring big business alone be enough to stop all their harmful practices. We can’t expect a multimillion pound fossil fuel industry to simply wake up one day and decide “hey, all those trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels on our balance sheet that we keep being told can’t be burned…why don’t we just leave them in the ground and go and do something else”. Clearly that’s not going to happen.

This is because there are obvious limitations to targeting the big corporations. In simple terms, these companies exist to make a profit for their shareholders. Indeed, to maximise profits through continued growth. Whilst they engage in corporate sustainability programmes (some more than others), this is not usually through a desire to do good, or do the right thing, even if this is one of the companies stated values. Corporate social responsibility only exists in order to project an image or a suggestion that they are doing the right thing, in order to be able to continue to attract customers, deflect government regulation, and in order to continue to make money.

The idea that capitalism can save the world from a crises created by capitalism is a ridiculous notion. The change required from private corporations won’t happen on a voluntary basis. Even those who work in the fossil fuel industry acknowledge this.

Our governments are the problem. They act like they are powerless to act; almost bystanders. And that’s exactly what they are most of the time. Calls for action on climate change for example are growing among societies around the world, but government actions are still restricted to those that will not hamper existing business or potentially act as a drag on the growth-obsessed economic system.

The alternative ‘green’ approach is still considered too progressive, too left-wing. A green future is equated with returning to living in caves. It’s a very entrenched mentality and a huge challenge to promoting change. But is it true? Of course not. All the green movement are saying is let’s stop the obsession with growth and GDP and think about how we can develop a new green economy in a sustainable way and stop working in individual silos as nation states and start thinking more cooperatively. We need a narrative of positive change, in which our adaptation to climate changes does not just protect what’s already here, but also creates a more just and equitable world.

The time has come to demand real change.

 

 

 

Let’s Reframe the Debate on Climate Change

By Jon Crooks

Climate change is happening. It’s OK though, because when the chips are down, we’ll find a solution, probably just in the nick of time. Humanity always finds a way, right? And in the meantime we just have to accept it and hope that we can survive the effects by building flood barriers and new ways to tackle wildfires. Our agricultural land is already suffering the effects with falling yields in a world of rising populations. But don’t worry, there’s no rush. Besides, it would be a waste to leave all that coal, oil and gas in the ground.

No!! If you were an alien looking down on Earth you’d be astonished at our lack of action on dealing with this threat. We haven’t even agreed on how to go about it. There’s no global agreement. The truly astonishing thing is, we know what needs to be done, but despite this we carry on doing what we’ve been doing all along. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, but largely just carrying on with business as usual. It’s like rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.

The EU, for example, have agreed an emissions reduction target of at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. OK, but how many countries will follow this lead? The problem is that we are approaching this problem from completely the wrong end. Laurence and Alison Matthews have explained the problem like this:

“Suppose you had a garden hose connected to a sprinkler. If you wanted to save water, would you try to block up holes in the sprinkler? Of course you wouldn’t; you’d simply turn off the tap a bit. By controlling the fossil fuels coming into the system (the tap), we can automatically control the emissions created further down the line (the sprinkler). This would be simpler, cheaper and would focus attention on the root cause of emissions: the extraction of fossil fuels.”

Earlier this year, Nature published the most detailed scientific paper yet on how much fossil fuel should be left in the ground if we’re to have a chance of preventing more than two degrees of global warming. As George Mombiot pointed out in his article at the time, to deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2° of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel ‘reserves’ in the ground. ‘Reserves’ of course are just a small fraction of the total ‘resources’ (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The ‘reserve’ is just the proportion already discovered, quantified and ready to go.

The Nature paper estimates that a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. Two degrees is dangerous enough, but at present we’re on course for around five degrees by the end of the century.

The only sensible response is a global agreement to leave these these fossil fuels in the ground. Mombiot suggests that companies could buy permits to extract fossil fuels in a global auction. As a result, the price would rise, making low carbon technologies, such as renewables, much better investments. The energy companies would then have no choice but to start getting out of dirty fossil fuels and into clean technologies. The money from the auctioned permits could be used either to compensate poorer nations or help them survive in a world in which some dangerous warming – but hopefully no more than 2° – will inevitably occur.

But it’s not just that no such agreement exists, no such agreement has ever been mooted. Researching Don’t Even Think About It, one of the most important books published on climate change in the past few years, George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or paper on limiting fossil fuel extraction put forward during international climate negotiations.

No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part” – US President Barack Obama at the University of Queensland, Australia, 15 November 2014

Most people unthinkingly accept the viewpoint that sees the world as a collection of countries. Attention immediately focuses on national statistics, national commitments and negotiations between nations. Global policy becomes inter-national policy.

But what about a single, worldwide solution for the planet as a whole? Wouldn’t it be better if the Paris talks later this year were to ditch the national posturing in favour of a unified, transparent system that put an immediate embargo on any new exploration of fossil fuels and a cap and quota system in place for extracting what remaining fossil fuels we can afford to burn?

Almost every country around the world is pursuing the same policy: maximising the extraction of fossil fuels whilst paying lip service to the idea of minimising emissions. There’s no attempt to resolve this contradiction or even to acknowledge it. And let’s be clear, if the stuff keeps coming out of the ground, it will be burned, without regard to the feeble policies seeking to limit its consumption. National governments will resist global solutions, since each government wants to control what happens in its own country, but global emergencies need global action. After all, we’re not dealing with international warming.

If the climate talks in Paris in December are to have any meaning or purpose, the world’s governments need to regulate the source of the problem and abandon the approach of allowing each and every country to voluntarily set its own target of reducing emissions and we must stop companies exploring new sources of fossil fuels in vulnerable places like the arctic, the Virunga National Park in the Congo, where around a quarter of the last remaining gorillas live, or the Galilee Basin in Queensland, Australia where a massive new coal mine with a life of 35 years has been approved; or by fracking the hell out of our own green and pleasant land!

This should be the focus of our campaigns. Through groups like 350.org, Avaaz, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, we must drag our governments out of the clutches of the fossil fuel industry.