The trouble with billionaires (book review) by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks

Left Central Book Review 

Image© Andy Mitchel

I am indebted to the British Welfare state; the very one that Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, the safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major`s government, was there to break the fall…J.K. Rowling… Cited in `the trouble with billionaires`

This book is a fusion of rigorous academic analysis and sharp, witty journalism. The humour a necessary antidote, given the unconscionable economic detail outlined. Facts linked to the rapacious appetite of the super elite, gorging on tax avoidance. Aided and abetted by supine legislators in the UK and USA. Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks explain how the political right, adroitly undermined the post-war consensus of Beveridge and Keynes in the UK, the same result achieved in the USA with the gradual destruction of the New Deal consensus. Criticism articulated by Frederick Von Hayek who feared that benevolent government intervention would lead us down the road to serfdom. A ridiculous idea, predicated on the notion that social security; full employment, legal aid, economic growth and an NHS somehow reduced liberty. As this book points out, when Hayek required assistance from the social security system, he was not shy about utilising its collective provisions. It is indeed a strange sort of serfdom, which provides a hospital bed for the sick, a bizarre understanding of liberty that disregards the need of a safety net, when boom turns to inevitable bust. All those tens of thousands of post-war Higher Education students benefitting from free education in the UK or through the GI Bill in the States – hardly resemble serfs. But their counterparts today do; a bizarre twist on the Hayek model. The exchange of correspondence between Hayek and Charles Koch outlined in the text, makes for illuminating revisionist reading. Read more of this post

Parliament Channel: Harold Wilson Night (Conference Speech)

LeftCentral Review

© Image The Prime Minister`s Office photostream

The BBC Parliament channel, dedicated last Thursday evening to Harold Wilson, a set of programmes which included a broadcast of Wilson`s final 1975 Conference speech as Prime Minister. The speech with its valedictory tone is worth watching for reasons summed up by Ben Pimlott as Wilson appears to forecast the tough times ahead for the Labour movement. Pimlott reminds us that by 1975 the Party was on the cusp of tearing itself apart, in the early stages of an existential crisis. Wilson`s speech is delivered in a perfunctory manner to a morose audience, a conference of beleaguered looking delegates. If only they knew what was around the political corner, perhaps then they would have been grateful for the deliverance of Labour`s 1974 manifesto. A programme which if not socialist, was certainly socially responsible, in the speech Wilson describing the 1974 manifesto as promoting a fairer, more democratic and socially just society, an agenda transforming Labour into the natural Party of government.  In the turbulent years ahead Labour would struggle to hold on to its position as the main party of opposition due to the threat posed by the newly formed SDP. It was interesting to hear Shirley Williams defend the Wilson legacy with such vigour last Thursday. One wonders what her `Orange Book` Liberal colleagues thought of her performance? Read more of this post

Ed Miliband Leader of the Left?

Nora Connolly 

Ed Miliband on the mic

Copyright archived Department of Energy

Ed Miliband is the leader of the Left, a revelation made recently in a broadcast with BBC/Independent journalist Steve Richards. Although, Miliband appears more interested in identifying himself with Conservative politicians, concepts and with Mrs Thatcher`s legacy – obsequiously describing her as a conviction politician. In his early thirties we discover that Miliband`s summer reading was Iain Macleod’s biography, Ed Milibands`s `One Nation` agenda clearly has had a longer gestation period than cynics might have thought. The Disraeli citation highlighted in the broadcast was further evidence that the philosophical underpinning of Miliband`s big idea is a Conservative/reactionary one. The only left-winger mentioned during the programme was Ralph Miliband, the father of the Labour leader, a brilliant Marxist thinker who sadly died in 1994.

Miliband`s position was considered analogous to Mrs Thatcher`s period in opposition, a correlation that allowed for a comparison with Miliband by Charles Moore. Richards returned to Thatcher`s legacy indicating that she developed a strong populist message, a political outsider who produced a critique of the former government led by Ted Heath in which she served. A politician who overturned the Keynesian post-war consensus, whose populist message was based on the notion that the state needed to get off peoples backs.  Read more of this post

The Strange Death of Liberal Europe

John Curran

Image © BrotherMagneto

The Greek electorate have spoken and, borrowing a phrase from former US President Clinton, it is not clear what they have said. Although we have a decision, can it be described as a mandate? New Democracy winning by a mere 3% ahead of anti austerity socialist party Syriza, the majority party automatically gaining fifty extra seats thus placing them in the driving seat of a coalition government.

 As in the UK after the 2010 election, conservative politicians in open necked shirts make electoral agreements with minority parties with phoney liberal credentials. The political horse-trading in Athens was conducted in the Greek language but the narrative is one shaped by London, Berlin, and Brussels.

There has always been a liberal dilemma at the core of the European project. This is evident in the decision making process which is undemocratic and dominated by the Council of Ministers and the Commission. However, since 1979 the Parliament has grown in authority via the ballot box and the Single European Act. Despite this there is a problem in the governance of the EU, a quandary now thought key to understanding the crisis.  A predictable debate has begun with calls to abandon the EU project or establish a Federalist system.

The unprecedented interference from external influences in the Greek election is a worrying intrusion into the democratic workings of a sovereign state, justified by the ‘memorandum of understanding’ made on the cusp of the first Greek election this year. A document that binds future administrations to adhere to cuts of billions of Euros.

The interference in the Greek election are numerous, springing from comments made by European leaders such as Angela Merkel in Germany and George Osborne in the UK. Larry Elliott in the Guardian on 16 of June reported on comments made by Jean-Claude Juncker:

If the radical left wins [in Greece] – which cannot be ruled out – the consequences for the currency union are unforeseeable.

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Greece and the euro

Osmi Anannya

Image © Yiannis Baboulias

Greece has been entangled with large-scale debt, for many months now. Off late, prominent voices in the European Union have stated that it’s looking increasingly likely that Greece will leave the Euro zone. Some have added that it’s probably in the best interest of the country to in fact do so. This is because all those in favour of the exit believe there is a possibility Greece could reach a time when long-term of interdependency on foreign nations and banks is widely active; significant shares of the nation’s finances and economy are already under the reign of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Commission, and the European Central Bank [3].

If Greece does choose to exit the Euro zone, it could then start the journey of recovery by having its own currency, the drachma, once more. The currency could then be devalued to make way for cheap exports and high rates favouring imports [1]. It is quite difficult to grasp, however, how expensive imports are going to be beneficial for the country, because an increase in the rate of import stands to most likely increase the prices of goods, merchandise or commodities available in the country.

In an economic crisis it would be an unwelcome request to ask people in Greece to spend more on their daily purchases. Widespread problems in the Greek political system have already left the nation’s people frustrated about daily life, about the lack of jobs available tailored to their skills, about the inefficiency of many public services, for months on end now. This has given rise to a growing lack of faith in the government, cumulating to the recent riots and revolts and protests in Greece, one after another in a locomotive fashion.

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Ireland’s Referendum: Aye’s have it, but apathy wins the day

Daniel Crump 

Image © Foreign and Commonwealth Office

We now know that Ireland have officially endorsed the European Fiscal Pact. It was a hard fought campaign with both the ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ camp sketching out the worst case scenario if voters did not listen to them. It will be to the benefit of Ireland in the long term that the ‘YES’ camp have won the day. Ireland is still in an incredibly fragile position economically, and the last thing they needed to do was spook the markets even further by rejecting tighter fiscal discipline.

The saddest part of the whole affair is not that it was such a close run contest, but that it almost seems fitting to commend those who actually formed an opinion at all. Figures suggest that fewer than half of the 3.1m registered voters turned out to make their decision. This makes turn out, at best, 50% in some regions and, at worst, below 30% in others.

In the end, the right camp won out. This is Europe’s second chance at imposing coordinated oversight of fiscal policy and setting workable and imposable limits on structural deficits. Even Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe and the champion of efficiency, broke the original rules set out in the 1992 Maastricht treaty on state borrowing. Whilst this has been a popular argument against the fiscal pact, not least in the southern economies, this is not the time to look back in anger, but to acknowledge that something must now be done to shore up the single currency for the future.

For Ireland, a No vote would have effectively denied them all future bailouts from the troika of the EU, ECB and IMF. If Ireland is serious about returning to the bond markets in 2014, as is their stated aim, they may well need to continue on life support for the time being. Turning off the supply would leave this already ambitious target in serious jeopardy.

Having said that, one can certainly see why the ‘NO’ camp was tempting some voters to their way of thinking. Out of the so called ‘PIIGS’ economies of Southern Europe, Ireland have been courting the approval of the financial markets and their European neighbours. They have won praise by implementing deep austerity measures, cutting into their enormous budget deficit and recapitalising a near collapsed banking system. When they look across to their fellow strugglers and the possibility of Eurobonds writing off yet more Greek debt, it is not unreasonable to ask what all the hard work was for. Read more of this post

It wasn’t supposed to be like this

Daniel Crump 

Image © Que Comunismo

Initially, South America’s near continent-wide economic expansion meant great advantages for the rest of the Western world. In the opening decade of the century, with Argentina largely at the mercy of the IMF, South America was led mostly by governments that the West could do business with. For better or worse for the people of South America, this meant that the West had stronger trading partners, a decline in drug related violence and yet another example of liberal, free-market economics becoming the default setting for any nation that wished to exist within the international community.

This was also a time when we knew how to differentiate the good guys from the bad. Across the border from Colombia, and 90 miles off the coast of Florida, lay Latin America’s answer to the Axis of Evil. With the menacing prospect of further international terrorism following September 11th, US President George W Bush was able to maintain a healthy distance between Pro and Anti US Latin America. Nowhere was this more evident than between neighbours Colombia and Venezuela. The Bush administration was able to manipulate this relationship by placing US military bases on Colombian soil which were, in the US’s own words, designed as a launch pad for military operations against Anti US Latin American Governments.  South American politics seemed to fit so neatly into the US world-view.

Fast forward to the present day and something rather unexpected seems to have taken place; South American governments are increasingly beginning to think for themselves. Last month’s Organisation of American States (OAS) Summit was the biggest indication yet of the diverging paths taken by South and North America. At the discussion table were measures such as the legalisation of the drugs trade, British claims over ‘Las Malvinas’ and Cuba’s absence from the summit talks. With better relations between Colombia and Venezuela and an increasing desire to settle internal matters through UNASUR rather than the OAS, South America is speaking with its own voice and making its own decisions. The most significant development of South American integration is surely the growing contribution of the Continent’s left-wing bloc.

South American Integration

During the Bush Administration it was clear that the OAS took the majority of decisions affecting the American region. The Organisation was largely designed to satisfy North American goals such as the fights against terrorism and the illegal drugs trade. Cuba was suspended from talks between 1962-2009 and there appears to be no pressing need to reinstate them.

Since then, both the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) have gained a more influential voice. ALBA stands for a rejection of trade liberalization and free trade agreements, preferring to project a vision of mutual economic aid transfers, bartering and social welfare. UNASUR is becoming ever more effective at curbing the influence of the US in South America by resolving the Colombian Venezuelan conflict and agreeing to prohibit US military bases in Colombia being used for military purposes outside of Colombian soil. Read more of this post

A message to President Santos: If it ain’t broke…

Daniel Crump 

Image © The Christian Science Monitor

Despite high approval ratings, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was constitutionally barred from running for a third term in office in 2010, leading to his Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos being voted in off the back of a largely Pro-Uribe mood, nationwide. After an initial period of continuity, time seems to have polarized Colombia’s once popular political double act. A former Aide of Santos has even accused the President of camouflaging himself as an ‘Uribista’ to get himself elected and describes the last few months of the Presidency as a ‘great betrayal.’

It cannot be denied that Alvaro Uribe’s security drive, spread over his eight years in office, helped to transform Colombia from an almost failed state, riddled with civil war, drug cartels and regular kidnappings, into an international player experiencing huge economic prosperity. Uribe’s uncompromisingly tough stance towards the Left-wing FARC rebels paved the way for his pro-market economic policies and investor-friendly reforms, which helped reduce overall poverty in Colombia by 20% and unemployment by 25%. As a result, he has enjoyed approval ratings of between 70-80% making him the most popular Latin American leader of the 2000’s. The effects of Uribe’s tenure are still being felt today. The IMF forecasts Colombia’s GDP growth rate to be 4.5% for 2012, three times that of the US.

There are obvious differences, in both personality and political hue, between President Santos and his predecessor. The former, arguably less media friendly than the folksy former President has reversed a handful of Uribe’s measures, including the cancellation of tax breaks for companies designed to encourage investment and a move to de-criminalise the possession of personal amounts of recreational drugs. Santos is also one of many Latin American leaders leading the debate around de-criminalising the entire drugs trade in the region, a stance never adopted by Uribe.

Yet, it is in security that Santos’ reforms might touch closest to the nerves of many Colombians. The Presidency of the last six months can be described as an attempt to lay the groundwork for further peace talks with FARC. Santos has proposed the decreasing of prison terms for any FARC member who agrees to peace negotiations. He has also directed the Colombian army towards more mid-level attacks on guerrilla field units rather than directly attacking high level FARC commanders, a policy preferred by Uribe. A bill that aims to offer reparations to victims of violence at the hands of the Colombian security forces as well as the FARC has broken an eight year tacit agreement to frame Colombia’s troubles as a ‘terrorist threat’ rather than an ‘internal armed conflict.’  Read more of this post

Global Justice and the Future of Hope

Rajesh Makwana

Image © Niklas Sjöblom

Would it be easier to create a sustainable global economy if the world more closely resembled the demographics and geography of Iceland – a volcanic island with a manageably small population and a unique abundance of renewable energy? This was among the many questions raised during a panel discussion at Tipping Point Film Fund’s UK premier of Future of Hope, often referred to as the Iceland documentary.

Since the Nordic country experienced the systemic failure of its entire banking sector in 2008, a number of Iceland’s senior banking executives have been arrested, sacked or sued. Grass roots organisations, including the Ministry of Ideas that was featured in the film, have since hosted a National Assembly of unprecedented scale. The government-backed Assembly was designed to focus specifically on the nation’s next steps; to agree on a set of collective values and to establish a clear vision for how to rebuild their economy from the ashes of the old. While the film did not focus on the Assembly itself, progressives would not be surprised by its outcome: participants emphasised the importance of robust public services, establishing an environmentally responsible and sustainable economy, and ensuring equality and transparency in the country’s future renaissance.

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