Saturday 27 January 2018

Holocaust Memorial Day

An extract from Primo Levi's If This is a Man.

(from pages 165/6  Abacus edition, 2103)
The prisoners are marched onto the parade ground to witness an execution.

When all the Kommandos had returned, the band suddenly stopped  and a raucous voice ordered silence. Another voice rose up in the sudden quiet  and spoke for a long time into the dark and hostile air.  Finally the condemned man was brought out into the blaze of the searchlight .

All this pomp and ruthless ceremony are not new to us.  I have already witnessed  thirteen hangings since I entered the camp; but on other occasions  they were for ordinary crimes, thefts from the kitchen, sabotage, attempts to escape.  Today it is different..

Last month one of the crematoriums  at Birkenau  had been blown up.  None of us knows (and perhaps no one will ever know) exactly how the exploit was carried out:  there was talk of the Sonderkommando, the special Kommando attached to the gas chambers, and the ovens, which is itself periodically exterminated, and which is kept scrupulously  segregated  from the rest of the camp.  The fact remains that a few hundred men in Birkenau, helpless and exhausted slaves like ourselves, had found in themselves  the strength to act, to mature the fruits of their hatred.

The man who is to die in front of us today in some way took part in the revolt . . . . He is to die today before our very eyes: and perhaps  the Germans do not understand  that this solitary death, this man's death which has been reserved for him, will bring him glory, not infamy.

At the end of the speech, which nobody understood, the raucous voice of before  rose up again: 'Habt ihr verstanden?'  Have you understood? 

Who answered 'Jawohl?'  Everybody and nobody: it was  was as if our cursed resignation took body by itself , as if it turned into a collective voice above our heads.  But everybody heard the cry of the doomed man, it pierced through the old thick barriers of inertia and submissiveness, it struck the living core of man  in each of us.

'Kameraden, ich bin der Letz!'  (Comrades, I am the last one!)

We will remember them and him.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Galbraith and Freedland unfold the corruption of capitalism

"Private affluence and public squalor"  is perhaps the most famous phrase culled from James K Galbraith's seminal book, The Affluent Society.   It's a long time since I read it and can't remember whether Galbraith was describing the situation as it already existed in 1958when the book was first published,  or whether he was simply making a prediction if economics and politics were to continue of their established course.  As a prediction, we can see observe its accuracy  in spades when we compare, say, Grenfell Tower and the gated enclaves of such as Sutton Dittton.

A friend who keeps a backlog of newspaper cuttings has just passed on to me a review of  a later book by Galbraith, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, published in 2004.  The reviewer is Howard Davies, sometime director of the employers' organisation, the CBI, so no raving leftie, (nor a raving Liberal).  I haven't read the book but these are extracts from the review, which I assume are a fair reflection.

  1. Davies reminds us of Galbraith's long held theme that major corporations are run by their management, largely for their [the management's] own benefit and without effective public control or oversight. (Remains  a fair description of Carillion et al).
  2. The collapse of Enron [2001 ]and the related and unrelated stories of corporate fraud, unbridled greed and negligent auditing have given much support to [this] Galbraith thesis. (Now add Carillion, especially re negligent auditing)
  3. The phrase "the market system" [is] a meaningless construct coined primarily  to avoid use of the term "capitalism", widely seen as a weak brand in the political market. .(An illuminating point of which I hadn't thought, but then, I'm not Galbraith)
  4. Galbraith  complains of the blurring of the line between the public and private sectors and believes that much of the US's Treasury and Department of Defense have been under corporate control for some years.  Davies suspect that much the same is true of the UK, especially in relation to defence.procurement.
  5. Galbraith deplores the explosion of senior executive pay (and so say all of us) since these executives achieve their positions not by entrepreneurial skill but through success in climbing bureaucratic greasy poles.
It is clear that this situation has existed for all of this century, and a great chunk of the last, but nothing much has been done about it, in spite of 13 years of a Labour government with an unassailable majority in this country.  Rather, New Labour was conned into accepting the neo-liberal deception, as were we Liberal Democrats when we formed the Coalition in 2010

 More recently these two paragraphs for an article by Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday's Guardian confirm all that this blog has been banging on about for the past seven years:

....David Cameron and George Osborne  won and held power [from 2010]chiefly be declaring Labour unfit for government  becasue the deficit had increased on their watch. It was the Tories' success in searing this argument into the public consciousness  - "Labour crashed the car"; "a country must live within its means";"if we don't balance the books Britain will be the next Greece"- that cleared the ground for austerity.

That policy was as economically illiterate as it was morally unsustainable, insisting that the best way to breath life  into an economy gasping for air  was to strangle it tighter.  It failed to understand the basic, if counterintuitative, Keynesian truth  that it's in the tough times that you need to spend  to kisckstart the economy - in the sound expectation  that restored growth will bring in the revenues  to pay back the money you've borrowed. 

Opposition parties, and, it would be nice to think, the Tory government as well, should be getting their teeth into educating the public about the true state of economic affairs and publicising plans to put things right.  Sadly 90% of political effort goes into the details of self-harming Brexit.  and the dysfunctional  economic system staggers on to the benefit of an undeserving few rather than the rest of us, deserving or otherwise. f

Friday 19 January 2018

Liverpool's squalid prison

A couple of years ago I was invited to a posh lunch held in a prison in Surrey.  I can't now remember its name but it ran a training scheme to enable its inmates to qualify for work in the restaurateur industry. The food was good, served very civilly (though the "waiters" had an astonishing number of tattoos on their arms) and I understand the scheme was and still is reasonably successful

In the entrance hall of the prison was a plaque quoting these words by Winston Churchill:

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. 

The quotation is from a speech made by Churchill in 1910, when he was Home Secretary of the Liberal government.   More details of the speech can be found here.

I've no means of knowing whether the UK's prison conditions in 1910 would have qualified us as civilised - I suspect not- but at least the recognition and intention were there.

Today's  report on the conditions in Liverpool prison (identifying prisoners living with "rats, cockroaches, damp, dirt, damaged windows with jagged glass in the frames, and filthy or leaking toilets".) demonstrates that, a century and more later, we should certainly fail now.

It cannot be said too often and too loudly that the punishment of prison is deprivation of liberty and that is all.  It does not include bullying, beating-up or living conditions so squalid that they would be  below the minimum standard acceptable "outside."

Some figures given in an article by Chris Tilbury in the January 2018 issue of Prospect show that these unacceptable conditions are not confined to Liverpool, and that overcrowding is a significant, perhaps the most significant, factor

Prison numbers in the UK have increased as follows:

Mid 1950s..................20 000
Late 1980s...................40 000
1997...........................60 000 (this was the year Labour won the election and remained in office for 13 years) 
2010...........................88 000 (almost a 50% increase on 1997 - Blair et al being "tough on crime." )

England and  Wales have the highest per capita incarceration rate in Western Europe:  about 150 per 
100 000 population, more than double the Scandinavian rate  Along with overcrowding this has led to a   staff : inmate ratio of of 1:30 rather than the recommended ideal of 1:10  

The local prison for my area, Leeds, (locally known as Armley,)  is the third most overcrowded  of the prisons in England and Wales, at 169% of capacity.  The most overcrowded is Swansea at 175%.

Such overcrowding is almost certainly a contributory cause to some of these statistics (for England and Wales,) comparing 2010 and 2016.

                                                                   2010                                 2016

Suicides                                                           58                                   199  
Recorded incidents of self-harm                  26 979                              40 000  
Recorded assaults on prison staff                  2 848                                6 844
Recorded inmate-on inmate assaults            11 244                              19 088

Tilbury's article is entitled "I predict a riot."

Clearly something pretty drastic must be done if we are to enter, or re-enter, the ranks of civilised society.  University Departments of Criminology are presumably brimful of suggestions.  My own, inexpert, ones are:

  • drastically cut down the numbers sent to prison.  There is little point in sending someone to prison who is not a danger to society if at liberty.  
  • abolish mandatory and minimum sentences.  Expert judges and informed jurors are in the best position to make decisions appropriate to each individual case.
  • beef-up the Probation Service, (and take it back into the public sphere, along with the privatised prisons.  Profit-maximisation should have no place in the sphere of personal liberty)
  • reverse the 22% austerity cut in the service, enabling both keeping the physical facilities in decent condition and  pay rates to attract and retain qualified and experienced prison officers.
  • spend lavishly on the prison education service.
  • and just as lavishly on the medical services, especially on mental health.
Any extra money spent now will reap benefits in the future.   

It was a Tory minister who said that "prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse." 

 It is estimated that re-offending at present costs between £9bn and £13bn a year.  So we need to spend now both to reduce future costs and pass "one of the  most unfailing tests of the civilisation of [our] country." 


Tuesday 16 January 2018

Carillion - some layman's questions.

I am neither an accountant nor a lawyer - just a jobbing teacher of economics - so these questions may appear naive, but I haven't as yet seen them answered adequately in the media reports so far.

1.  What is the involvement of the accountancy firms (KPMG in this case I believe)   Somebody presumably audited the annual accounts and should have been able to give ample warning that the conglomerate  was heading for insolvency if it continued to trade in its current fashion.

2.  Why is the ousted chief executive to continue to receive his £660 000 annual salary  until  the autumn of this year?  Surely if Carillon is unable to pay what it owes to its myriads of sub-contractors it shouldn't be allowed to continue lashing out vast sums to a failed executive?

3.  Carillion paid a dividend to its shareholders quite recently*  How much would this be in total?  I suppose that there's no chance of "clawing back" this money, but should not the Directors who authorised the dividend be arraigned for criminal negligence, or for deliberately deceiving the public?  "Somebody ought to be summonsed," as "was decided upon"  in Albert and the Lion. (Stanza 15)

4. What's the role of the Competition and Markets Authority (successor to the Competition Commission, in turn successor to the  Monopolies and Mergers Commission) in all of this?  Why have multi-tasking conglomerates, not just Carillion, but also G4s, Serco, etc been allowed to expand their range of activities so that the choice for  issuing public service contracts becomes severely limited and the firms themselves effectively become "too big to fail."

5.  How can it be that the pension fund has a deficit of half a billion pounds or more?  Surely funds put into pension funds are, or should be, ring-fenced so that unscrupulous takers-over cannot get their hands on them. Abuse of this nature goes back at least to the 1980s and the affair of Robert Maxwell and the Mirror Group Pension Fund. There's been ample time to sort it out..

In addition to  these questions I willingly subscribe to the bewilderment  expressed in parliament and elsewhere as to way the government continued to award  contracts to Carillion after three public  profit-warnings indicted that the company was in trouble;  to question why such conglomerates continue to be given contracts after spectacular failures (G4s on security for the Olympics, Virgin on the East Coast railway, to name but two); what companies such as Carillion are supposed to know abut managing schools, hospital beds and operating theatres, providing school and hospital meals,as well as their core function of building and construction?

And why the profit-maximising private sector should be involved at all in personal services such as prisons, care of the elderly and public medical care
And above all, why the powers that be, in spite of all the evidence, continue to assume that the private sector is more efficient (however defined) than the public sector.  Not to mention the contribution that could be made by mutuals, co-operatives and not-for-profit organisations.

Post script (added  17th January) 

*There's some information on this in today's Guardian.  Recent dividends to shareholders have amounted to £80m (2015); £82.7m (2016) and £83m (2017)  Not all together enough to plug the hole in the pension fund, now estimated to be £580m, but would reduce it by getting on for a half.

To this could be added the bonuses which the directors awarded themselves..  I haven't yet seen a figure for this: just that the directors altered the company's rules so that the bonuses could not be clawed back  as a result of financial failure.

In my upbringing such behaviour would be imagined only in so-called Banana Republics.  It is shameful that it now seems to pass for normal behaviour among businessmen here.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

UK's Conservatives emulate Ko-Ko

In Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Mikado, Ko-Ko, the rather timid Lord High Executioner, explains the fact that he hasn't actually executed anyone as follows:

It's like this: When your Majesty says, 'Let a thing be done,'  it's as good as done - practically it is done - because your Majesty's will is the law.  Your Majesty says, 'Kill a gentleman' and a gentleman is told off to be killed.  Consequently that gentleman is as good as dead - practically he is dead - and if he is dead, why not say so?

Our government is following the same technique and, sadly, getting away with it.

The latest example is the much trailed cabinet reshuffle  in which Mrs May  would  re-assert her authority, strengthen the government and bring in vital new blood.

Informed opinion regards the whole exercise as somewhere between a fiasco and a shambles, with the new chair of the Conservative Party after all not being  the new chair of the Conservative party,  the major Brexiteers (Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox) remaining in post along with Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, holders of two of the four "major offices of state,) the consummate failure, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, remaining in place and has his powers extended, and probably the most reasonable cabinet minister (for a Tory) comprehensive-school educated  Justine Greening,  gay Secretary for Education, who is unenthusiastic about grammar schools, kicked out.

Yet one spokesperson  after another comes on the airwaves to say, as though butter wouldn't melt in their mouths,  that the whole thing is a great success, the government is refreshed by oodles of new talent and much better reflects demography of the UK.

Ongoing over Christmas has been the crisis in the NHS (see previous post for more details) with ambulances queuing for hours at Accident and Emergency departments, patients without beds told they can have chairs and those with often painful conditions waiting for elective surgery told they can wait another month.  The minister in charge (see above), loudly predicted to be sacked, has his powers extended to include housing, and again spokesperson after spokesperson assures us that more money is being spent on the NHS than ever before, and anyway there isn't really a crisis becasue the government planned for it.

Then last month, after an emergency flight to Brussels, Mrs May was hailed in heroic terms for  concluding the first stage of the Brexit negotiations and enabling the discussions to proceed to the next phase.  The agreement was actually reached by the government caving in on each of its "red lines."  We are to remain "aligned" to the rules of the single market; we have agreed that the "divorce bill" should escalate from zero (Boris Johnson "they can whistle") to €20bn to €40bn,; and the jurisdiction of the ECJ over the UK is to continue at least for the time-being. (For more details see this post.)

Amazingly , is spite of these crass failings, and many others (I am fed up of hearing, against all the evidence, that Free Schools and Academies are driving up educational standards) the official opposition remain only neck and neck with the government in the opinion polls and we Liberal Democrats bounce along the bottom  with a pathetic 7%.

The sycophantic press has a lot to answer for, but more-so, the Labour Party, which  is offering no real opposition.  Rather, and shamefully,  they are actively supporting the destructive Brexit programme, and are too cowardly to propose, for example, an increase in personal taxation to enable the NHS to be adequately funded. Cravenly they are following what they imagine to be public opinion rather than attempting to lead it

Given the Liberal Democrats sad, and I hope temporary, lack of credibility, and the failure of the Greens, full of vitality and good ideas, to take off, we desperately need the Labour Party to grasp the opportunity  and put put some real fight.

Like Arthur Greenwood in his time, Jeremy Corbyn needs to get off the fence and "Speak for England."  (well, the UK actually.)

Thursday 4 January 2018

NHS, Crisis(?) and Lord Kerslake

This week "crisis" measures have been announced to enable the National Health Service to cope with its  now annual near collapse..  The British Red Cross declared last year's situation a "humanitarian crisis" and this year's is said to be even worse.

The measures imposed to cope with the increasing number of "black alerts"  (hospitals admitting officially that they cannot cope with the demands on them) include:
  •  outpatient appointments cancelled
  • day surgery cancelled
  • non-urgent surgery planned for this month postponed to February (or later)
  • penalties for having mixed wards suspended.
The minister responsible, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, explained on BBC 2's Newsnight last night that there was no crisis because he had planned for the situation. He then went on to repeat his mantras of  how much more each year the government is spending on the NHS and how this is much more than Labour used to spend.

Yes, of course the government is spending more, but it doesn't need  a degree in statistics or economics to understand that, with a growing population, more effective but more expensive drugs and procedures, and most of us (including me) living longer than expected,  there needs to be even more expenditure.

I'm surprised that the resignation of Lord Kerslake as Chair of the King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (part of London's NHS provision) last month has not received more, and more prolonged, publicity.  Kerslake resigned becasue, he said,  " hospitals are being asked to agree to meet unrealistically demanding savings targets."

This is not just any old resignation by the chair of a large organisation who is out of his depth.  In his former manifestation as Sir Bob, Lord Kerslake was head of the Home Civil Service and as such the UK's top Mandarin, most experienced and skilled bureaucrat, the Sir Humphrey of all Sir Humphreys.  If he says that the tasks to be performed cannot be achieved with the resources available then they can't.

For years we have been deluged with tales of bureaucratic waste, possible efficiency savings, and organisational reforms which will enable  enable our public services to do "more with less."  Kerslake's resignation reveals the falsity of these claims.

As usual the price to be paid for this mendacity is borne by the poorest in society.  Those who can afford it (including me, though I haven't done so yet) can evade the shortage by "going private."  It's those without spare resources who have no option but to suffer.

And in this case much of the  suffering will  be literal rather than figurative.  Elective surgery involves such things as hip and knee replacements.  I've not so far  had or needed either, but understand that those who do are in constant pain.

OK says our government, you can endure for another month so we can implement our ideological policies of cutting back the state.

There is absolutely no need for the sufferers to endure this.  For most of my working life the standard rate of income-tax was around 33%.  It is presently only  20%.  A relatively minor tax increase, intelligently implemented, will enable us to afford all the resources the NHS needs to maintain an acceptable standard.

Actually finding the money is probably the least of the problems.  Brexit has so unsettled many skilled  practitioners from other EU countries  presently working in the NHS that they are leaving in droves, and recruitment  from the EU is becoming increasingly difficult.  And it will take time to educate and train suitable replacements form within the UK.

 But that's two other stories.