Tuesday 28 February 2012

Mario Draghi, austerity lover

Do you know who this man is? 

If you live in Europe you should have. He is Mario Draghi, the unelected Italian head of the European Central Bank and one of the key players of the neoliberal "austerity lovers" movement, that have handed out over €1 trillion in ultra-low interst loans since November 2011 in order to save European private banks from the consequences of their own reckless gambling, whilst insisting that the ordinary working people of Europe pay for these handouts through harsh socially and economically destructive "austerity measures".

Monday 20 February 2012

Richard Dawkins and the slave trade

Prologue: Mentioning Dawkins on the internet is a surefire way of provoking internet traffic and below the line comments. If anyone does care to comment on this piece, please take care to look up the definition of Ignosticism before you accuse me of taking sides on the "God debate". I have even provided a link to the definition, so there is no excuse.

Richard Dawkins, descended from slave owners.
In February 2012 the Daily Telegraph printed an article pointing out that Richard Dawkins, the icon (some would even say the godhead) of the modern atheist movement is descended from a family of slave owners and inherited some of their wealth.

Given the predominance of the slave trade throughout the early British empire and the sheer number of 18th Century ancestors each and every person might have, it is unsurprising that one of Britains leading celebrities has such shady ancestry. The probability is that most of us have few rogue ancestors from 7 generations ago (slave traders, pirates, smugglers, spies, unscrupulous capitalist factory owners, genocidal maniacs, child employers, press gangers.....). The fact that Dawkins has retained the family name of his disreputable ancestor is pure chance, a 64-1 shot (if Dawkins own figures are to be trusted). This inherited name coincidence probably made the "story" much easier to find.

That the Torygraph chose Dawkins as a target is no surprise at all, the man is literally adored by the readers of their historical broadsheet rival The Guardian. Check out the abysmal standard of the below the lines comments on any CiF article about Dawkins, Atheism, Religion or (most annoyingly) pure factual science articles. The Dawkins inspired "atheist ranters" come out in force on Guardian pages. They hate organised religion with a zeal, they deride the faithful as mentally retarded, they gibber on about spaghetti mosters and sky pixies as if such talk actually added anything meaningful to the debate, they debase Dawkins own arguments through grotesque simplifications and they adore the man almost reverentially. It is easy to picture these sycophantic drones smugly typing their intolerant bile, glowing with inner pride at their own rebelious contrariness. I'm faily sure that there is no group on Earth that Telegraph hacks would enjoy pissing off as much.

I'm about as left-wing as Englishmen are made, so it pains me to share the glee of the hacks at one of Britain's foremost Tory neoliberal mouthpieces, yet the accusation "you may have inherited a slave supporting gene" is actually very funny when it's aimed at an eminent evolutionary biologist. 

To me, the fact that Dawkins ancestors profited from slavery is neither here nor there and has little bearing on Dawkins as a person. Had he been ignorant of the facts about his ancestors (as many people are) he could hardly be held liable and even though he did know that the weatlh of his forefathers was amassed through the disgusting exploitation of other human beings, and that his forefathers voted against the abolition of slavery in Parliament to protect their own financial interests, he can hardly be blamed for not publicising these facts. I mean would you tell all your friends, acquaintances and potentially millions of other people about it if you knew that some of your ancestors were utterly evil bastards and you had inherited a share of their wealth?

I'm fascinated by history and genetics, my own forefathers range from an eminent biologist who was more familiar with Kew Gardens than Professor Dawkins ever will be, to seafarers who involved themselves in the smuggling trade. I'm actually rather proud of both branches of my family, they made their contributions to history and the case that I should be held liable for the unpaid import taxes of my distant seafaring ancestors would be as unlikely as an award for my inherited genetic contribution to the biological sciences.

During my time in Argentina I met many people who's families had been part of the military junta and others who's distant forefathers participated in the "conquest of the desert" genocide aginst the native American tribes. It was impossible to blame these people for the crimes of their predecessors, yet to see people proudly displaying portraits of their genocidal great-grandfathers was still quite shocking. I also know British people who were born into wealth and privilidge thanks to their forefathers grotesque exploitation of hundreds of men women and children in unimaginably horrific factories during the industrial revolution. Are they to be blamed for the inhumane ethics of early industrialised capitalism? Holding Dawkins liable for the crimes of his forefathers is akin to blaming German toddlers for the fact that their great-grandfather may have earned his salary as a concentration camp guard during the Nazi occupation of Europe.

The thing that really does bother me about Dawkins' response to the article is the way he casually dismisses the value of his families 400 acre estate (allegedly built with slave money) as "peanuts". He certainly seems to have lost his grip on reality since he started raking in the cash as one of the world's leading celebrity god-killers if the value of his family's profitable rural estate  is "peanuts" in comparison to his income as an icon of the anti-god brigade. To many of his countrymen, atheist or not, ownership of a "small working farm" would be a financially impossible aspiration, not snackfood.

If the property now has such limited intrinsic value to the man as to be compared to common legumes, perhaps his family could dispose of the assets and donate the proceeds to an anti-slavery charity, after all, the estimated global slave population today far exceeds the size of the slavery industry that his forefathers built their wealth and privilidge upon.

Epilogue: As I mentioned in the prologue, I am an ignostic. This means that I view the "does God exist debate" as essentially meaningless (and utterly tiresome when debated by people without the slightest regard for the basics in analytic thinking or ethics). Without a concise definition of what the word "God" means, the debate is futile. To a fervant atheist the question is as meaningless as "does a thing that doesn't exist, exist?" To the faithful adherents of religious dogma it is also a meaningless question, they have no choice but to believe in their specific definition. My justification for assuming the ignostic position is that if "God" is defined as infinite and all powerful, then by definition God is utterly unknowable to the finite mind. Therefore any definition from a finite human perspective must consequetially be flawed, meaning discussion of the subject is rendered meaningless.

See also

Sunday 19 February 2012

The case for UK childcare reform

As an economic recovery strategy "austerity" is not working. Defenders of the "orthodox neoliberal" response to the ongoing economic crisis often demand to know what the alternatives are to their favoured cut-now think later strategies. In this series I'm going to explore what some of these economic alternatives could be.

Percentage of net family income spent on childcare in 2010.
The UK Labour party has been publicising plans for a Scandinavean inspired childcare system, where those that choose to work have an entitlement to free or affordable childcare. As it is UK childcare costs are absurdly high, the highest in Europe and in the English speaking world too. Labour like to boast about the fact that the Tax Credit system allows families to cover up to 80% of their childcare costs, however to my mind free childcare to working families would probably work out as a much lower burden given the redundancy of the vast redistributionist beurocracy needed to administer Tax Credits.

Anyone who has ever experienced the spectacularly overinflated cost of childcare in the UK should support progressive reform however I still expect to see plenty of people that are delighted to see their fellow citizen take a huge shafting, piling in to the debate to criticise any kind of progressive childcare reform. Not that I have much faith in this corporatised Labour party to deliver anything resembling a well considered, sustainable, economically viable or even sane "progressive childcare strategy.

Imagine the double boost to the economy if costs could just be brought down to match the (still well above average) costs in the United States. A reduction like this would create an average 14% boost in a significant number of UK family budgets helping to massively increase family spending and saving power, stimulating the economy through incresed consumption and deleveraging the financial sector through increased savings deposits.

Sadly it would never be allowed to happen though, with the financial sector, all the major political parties and the vast majority of the mainstream media riddled with self serving, "austerity loving" anarcho-capitalists, who would fight tooth and nail to prevent any measures that could improve the financial autonomy of ordinary working people.
UK childcare needs progressive reform and as pleasing as it is to hear Labour even considering it, the party still need to have more than one "big idea" if they want to win the next election.

Here are a few other "big ideas" for them. 
  • Housing policy reform, regulation of the virtually unregulated Buy-to-Let Housing benefits siphon. Buy-to-Let properties should meet the same standards as social housing, introduce some kind of empty property tax and draw up some ambitious housbuilding plans. Regulation of the housing sector is an absolute must since the origins of the ongoing meltdown of the neoliberal economic model can be clearly traced to over-leveraged property speculation.
  • Tax transparency, introduce a simplified tax system and register of tax transparent companies. Individuals and companies that continue to use loopholes to avoid paying taxation on their profits or executive renumeration to be excluded from bidding for government contracts, recieving government subsidies, financing lobbying activities, standing for election or donating to political parties in the form of contributions or through secondment of staff. Companies that remain tax transparent could be offered tax reimbursments and low interest loans (to encourage developmental reinvestment).
  • Reform of the Financial Sector, the financial sector would feel the effects of a housing market gradually deflating back to a sustainable level and a much tougher tax collection regime however the sector needs to be fundamentally reformed. The unregulated, untaxed shadow banking casino is destabilising the global market. The whims of the market are capable of bringing ruination to entire nations. That London is the very epicentre of a global derivitives market that vastly dwarfs the GDP of the entire World in size is absolutely nothing to be proud of.
  • An alternative to neoliberalism, I have serious doubts that there is anyone near the top of the Labour party capable of devising an alternative strategy, so they need to go back to the previous functional model, the Post War Consensus mixed economy, I mean it wasn't called "the golden age of capitalism" for nothing. They should also at least attempt to educate themselves in the basics of economics (monopolies, oilgopolies, cartels, subsidy handouts, tax avoidance schemes, prohibition inflated black markets, information assymetry and price fixing are never good). next they should seek out economic advisors amongst those that were at least on the ball enough to forsee the neoliberal economic crisis and brave enough to endure the hailstorm of criticism for publicising their ideas (while the majority of their peers were happy getting fat on the biggest speculative bubble in history).
Of course there would be plenty of Buy-to-Let slumlords, tax avoiders, corporate fatcats, professional lobbyists, owners of overinflated property portfolios, bankers, traders, PFI spivs, property speculators, exiled oligarchs and media organisations to campaign vigerously against any ideas that go against the neoliberal "greed-is-good" ideology. However the biggest obstacle to a progressive economic policy for the Labour party to champion is the fact that throughout the Neo-Labour years the party has become riddled with neoliberal corporatists. A hoard of self serving, wealth workshiping, expense fiddling gits, who only ever went into politics for their own self interest. People that show more loyalty to the corporatists promising campaing donations, seconded staff, expensive junkets and a very well paid seat on the board/"advisory role" than they do to either to the electorate that pay their wages or the Trade Unions that still provide the majority of Labour Party funds. As long as these impossibly comprimised individuals are embedded in the upper echelons of the party, Labour will never even consider offering a viable alternative to ideologically driven neoliberal corporatisation of the entire economy.