Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Why sacrifice the planet for the war business

Few noted the irony when in making his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, US President Barack Obama defended the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
The speech came the day after the UK government allocated funding in the pre-budget report to a number of green initiatives aimed at helping tackle, global warming, the most severe threat facing the future of the planet.
Among the measures announced was an extra £200 million to people to make their homes more energy efficient. There was £50 million invested in wind turbines development and an exemption for electric cars for five years from company car tax.
Sounded good, that was until £2.5 billion was announced for the war in Afghanistan bringing the total annual budget for the conflicts in that country and Iraq to £4.4 billion. This revealed the true priorities.
The world faces the biggest threat to its future in the form of global warming, yet instead of seriously addressing this with the sort of investment needed to tackle the problems a derisory amount is thrown in that direction. In comparison there is no limit to what can be spent on war and armaments.
This approach of allowing arms spending and war to trump all other needs is something that has been evidenced for more than a century.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a reforming Liberal Government under the Premiership of Herbert Asquith and Chancellorship of David Lloyd George sort to bring in welfare support, including the state pension. This was to be largely funded by national insurance. But as the decade wore on the demands of the military for the funds being used for the welfare reforms grew ever louder. The military wanted armaments in the build up to the First World War. The welfare budget was swallowed up.
Move forward 35 years to the post war Labour Government. This administration further built on welfare reform and put in place the National Health Service. But it was not long before the world of conflict came knocking again with the arrival of the Korean War. Much of the funding needed for the NHS and other welfare reforms was siphoned off to pay for this war.
Military spending has remained high ever since that time. Sceptics argue that the whole Cold War was largely a fa├žade created to support the arms industry. The over hyped threat and the falsified missile gaps.
The premiership of Margaret Thatcher represented an important period of development for what has become known as the military industrial complex. This amounts to a cabal of interests from government, finance, the intelligence world and the arms trade coming together to promote weapons sales. As the Arms to Iraq inquiry demonstrated there were large commissions to be had out of arms dealing. The Thatcher premiership was marked by a series of major arms deals the biggest of which was the Al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia. The client in this multi-billion deal was BAE Systems. The terms of the deal are highly secret and set alarm bells ringing whenever raised.
Arms spending generally took a bit of a dip in the 1990s following the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the hypnotic power of the arms industry to capture domestic budgets was evidenced by the limpet like attachment of the British Government to the Trident nuclear deterrent. The country maybe in the depths of recession but the government will hit the low paid and other suffering groups long before it would consider getting rid of this long outdated system.
The latest bonanza for the military industrial complex came with the attacks on America of 11 September 2001. Arms spending orbited in America and Britain to meet the needs of the war. The arms industry was delighted doing good business and with live theatres of war to show off its wares. The Americans and British it should not be forgotten are among the biggest sellers of arms in the world.
The grip that the military industrial complex holds was best summed up by another American President, Dwight Eisenhower. Speaking in the 1950s he said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children...”This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
Surely it is time to come down from that iron cross and start devoting the mass of resources to development and countering global warming. It is time to start serving the real needs of the people rather than the vested interests of the military industrial complex.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Time to free the world from war and counter global warming

As US President Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize justifying the war in Afghanistan and the UK government allocated billions to that conflict in the same week as world leaders discussed the threat of global warming in Copenhagen, the question arises as to why war always triumphs over development.
It is surely time to recall the words of a former US President President Dwight Eisenhower who declared that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children...This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” When will humanity come down from this cross and start dedicating resources to development and countering the real threats that face our planet like global warming?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Time to stop bailing out the bankers

The bankers it would seem continue to make merry with in the words of London Mayor Boris Johnson the “great stonking bonuses” while the rest of us pay the price for their appalling recklessness.
Two events over the past week underline the failure to bring any accountability to the sector. First came Sir David Walker’s report, conducted for the government by a banker into bankers. Not surprising perhaps then that the most dramatic recommendation that Sir David could come up with was for all of those earning £1 million plus to have their salaries published – well that will make us all feel a whole lot better.
Next came a Supreme Court decision allowing the banks to go on helping themselves to customers money in the form of overdraft charges. The Office of Fair Trading had been seeking redress in this area. The ruling resulted in one commentator questioning whether the state had taken over the banks or the other way around.
Let’s not forget that in the UK the government owns Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock and most of Lloyds/HBOS, while in Ireland the state took over Anglo Irish bank. There seems little doubt that the mass of tax payers in Britain and Ireland are continuing to pay the price for restoring bank balance sheets and funding the continuation of the bonus culture.
While interest rates have been cut, the banks have failed to pass this on with cuts in mortgage rates. Nor have they lent out money to get businesses going again. On the other side they have passed on the interest cuts to savers, forcing some pensioners in particular toward poverty.
Somewhat ironically there seems to have been far more public opprobrium poured on the MPs for their relatively minor expenses misdemeanours compared to the incredible rip off undertaken by the bankers.
There have though been some initiatives coming up from different groups seeking to redress some of the balance between bankers and tax payers.
One such move comes from the community based London Citizens. It comprises promoting the living wage, a cap on interest rates of 20 per cent for lending, a responsible lending charter, investment into local and mutual banking and a programme for financial literacy.
The present living wage level set in London by Mayor Boris Johnson is of £7.60 an hour has helped many individuals and families get above the poverty line. The level of the living wage is set to enable individuals and families to live above the poverty line in a defined area. So it could be lower in other parts of the country. However, in most cases it will be above the minimum wage which is £5.80 an hour.
In tough times unscrupulous lenders prosper. Many people get themselves in trouble going to loan sharks for credit. A report from the New Economics Foundation titled Doorstep Robbery: why the UK needs a new lending law points out that nine million people in the UK don’t have access to bank credit, so their only choice is to turn to “rip-off lenders.” Three million don’t have bank accounts. The idea of a 20 per cent cap on loans is aimed at addressing some of the injustice if this situation.
The London Citizen’s programme also wants some funds transferred via a levy to local and mutual banking so getting things going in the poorer communities.
The three political parties gave qualified backing to most of the proposals with the Conservative Treasury spokesman Greg Hands saying they would enact the lending rate cap while Liberal Democrat Vince Cable said they would implement the living wage but go further by taking anyone on minimum wage earnings out of income tax.
At the other end of the spectrum comes the suggestion from the left of centre think tank Compass that there should be a High Pay Commission. This would highlight and regulate high levels of pay in a similar fashion to that now done by the Low Pay Commission that sets the minimum wage.
Another major step forward would be to create a Postbank based at the 11,500 post office branches across the country. The network could be extended by say adding the state owned Northern Rock and National Savings and Investments (NSI) to the Postbank. This would be a state owned and run bank. It would be guaranteed by the state and offer credit at reasonable rates to customers. These could be individuals or small businesses. Such a bank could be run on social as well as economic criteria, so there could be a push to get those who do not have bank accounts into the system. The Postbank would be run on a not for profit basis.
A coaliton of groups including the Communication Workers Union, Federation of Small Businesses, National Pensioners Convention, New Economics Foundation, Public Interest Research Council, Unite the union, the Federation of Sub-postmasters and the Coutryside Alliance are campaigning for the creation of a Postbank. The government has put the idea out to consultation.
It is this type of initiative that is needed from government. . The approach of simply sitting on the side lines waiting for market forces to sort out the problems is not an answer. It is a denial of responsibility. It is high time that those in government started acting for the mass and not the few. People expect government to take responsibility. It can do so with initiatives like the Postbank and by making some real moves to regulate the financial sector. Failure to do so will ensure that the burden for the present economic debacle is paid by the poorest in our society. It will also help ensure that the same problem recur again in the not too distant future.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Leaders must act to save planet in Copenhagen

The devastation caused to parts of Britain and Ireland by the recent floods came just weeks before international leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss how best to combat climate change.
The floods devastated Cockermouth inCumbria and more than a dozen towns and villages in Ireland, including the centre of Cork. The River Suck burst its banks in County Leitrim, flooding the town of Ballinasloe and cutting off major roads to the northwest. About 40 families had to be evacuated by boat
The British and Irish army were deployed in their respective countries to save people from the worsening weather conditions. A policeman, Bill Barker, lost his life in Cumbria when a bridge he was standing on collapsed.
Britain’s Environment Secretary Hilary Benn claimed the flood was a one in a 1,000 year occurrence, compared to the one in 100 year ferocity which the Cumbria area had fortified to withstand. This was no doubt very reassuring to all those who lost their homes. There were some recriminations over whether adequate provision is being made for these types of natural occurrences in both countries.
Whether these were freak storms or not it would seem such occurrences are getting more commonplace. Floods have hit Ireland in each of the last three years. Two years ago in the UK it was the Midlands that was hit with floods in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Previous to that Cornwall was flooded.
There can be little doubt that these climatic changes are due to the effects in some way of global warming. Water levels are rising and the weather conditions are changing.
Another sign of rapid change comes with the news that the Thames Barrier has been raised 64 times in the last 10 years up to 2007. This compares to 10 times in the first decade of its existence. Interestingly, it would take a one in a 1000-year occurrence to overwhelm the barrier – not very reassuring given the same ratio applied in Cumbria.
All of this devastation and statistical evidence ought to be enough to focus minds at the Copenhagen summit. Yet there seems to be little urgency from world leaders. US President Barack Obama will show up briefly.
The British Government to its credit does seem to recognise the need to take international action to combat climate change. Prime Minister Gordon Brown will attend Copenhagen and has warned of the consequences of failure to act decisively. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband has also been actively lobbying in European capitals to ensure some coming together on a united agenda.
The inconsistency with the British Government comes when matching words and actions. There are moves to combat global warming but comparing say the £800 million put into flood defences with the billions pumped into the disastrous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan gives some idea of policy priority. Indeed, David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the government warned that climate change was a far bigger threat to the future of the nation than terrorism.
If world leaders are to seriously address climate change they need to recognise that the devastation being caused is intricately linked to the current economic model. If things continue as at present there is no doubt that the world will be devastated by ever-greater catastrophes. Whether these are dismissed in piecemeal style as one in a 100, one in a 1000 or one in 10,000 occurrences it will get a lot worse.
Damage done to the environment must be reflected in economic indicators. So for example, air travel should come to reflect the damage it does to the environment. Similarly, train travel would get cheaper because it is sustainable.
Take the journey to Copenhagen by way of example. Travelling by train costs £320. Taking a plane costs £72. If environmental factors were taken into account, the train would cost £70, the plane £600.
Other moves can be made to promote sustainable living. Why not take all tax off electric cars and offer incentives to businesses that operate fleets of company cars to go electric? There is an argument for making environmentally friendly forms of travel like rail free. No new house should be built in the UK or Ireland that is not carbon neutral.
Why not invest heavily in green technology? This is a new area that the UK and Ireland could major in, creating the new products and exporting to the rest of the world. There has been some investment but nothing like that undertaken in say Germany.
Britain and Ireland are uniquely placed to take advantage of energy devolved from the wind and waves.
There also need to be technological transfers to growing economies like India and China in order that they can develop sustainably.
The third area in need of addressing is people’s own lifestyles. It is not good enough to simply recycle a bit more and use the car a bit less. This crisis is such that it does genuinely mean a return to a more basic, less damaging style of living. The consumer lifestyle developed over the past few decades has brought the world to the brink of destruction. For everyone to live like the US and Europe do at present would require five planets. We have just one, so the maths says that lifestyles will have to change dramatically.
It is not too late but time is running out. To really address climate change requires sustained action at a number of levels – individual, community and government. Let’s hope world leaders recognise the very real dangers and act accordingly at Copenhagen.