Neoliberalism is Dead

And good riddance to it.

A criminal investigation into the fire at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 is now underway. This can only be the right thing to do. It'll cancel out the problem of delay that an exhaustive public enquiry produces, and the advantages that responsible parties can accrue from such delays.

Like nearly all disasters this one has multiple strands. First, there is the creation of higher and extra risks produced by deregulation. Second, is the issue of cuts to public services in multiple domains, not just in the emergency services that have to respond to the disasters as they occur, but also in the development and enforcement of what little regulation there is left to try to prevent the disaster occurring in the first place. Third is the regular appointment of political overseers for reasons of fealty rather than expertise, which invites cynical exploitation of circumstances in the present which have potentially disastrous outcomes at a future time, when the appointee has already fled the scene. Fourth, is the incentivisation of businesses to cut corners to generate enhanced profits for cynical operators. Fifth, is the negative outcomes that extreme levels of inequality can produce in both lack of access to a decent quality of life and, when even that is not available, lack of voice when risks become obvious. Sixth, is the law of unintended consequences, which is iron-clad where the above five are in full working order and combine together. There are probably more ...

One thing that is starting to emerge (number seven?) also, is the role of the media throughout. The ways in which particular media organisations intervene to drive the processes of deregulation, reductions in public resources, and cynically exploit circumstances for economic and political gain in the UK is scandalous. I hesitate to call for more oversight and regulation, but the idea that four fifths of the UK's national press is owned by people who are ordinarily resident overseas, or who do not even hold British nationality, produces obviously negative outcomes in our society.

But for the devout muslims returning home from midnight prayers, who saw the fire and managed to wake some residents and get them out of the building, the eventual death toll would have been considerably higher, and certainly much higher than the press is currently prepared to report (Lily Allen has been brave enough to challenge the current 'managed' interpretations we are being fed so far).

The overwhelming public reaction to this disaster so far - in addition to the shock, horror and sadness at the fire itself - has been revulsion of the circumstances that have led up to this event, and of some of the media and political responses to it. Is this revulsion indicative of a rejection of neoliberalism and its normative principles, with those being deregulation, unfettered markets, inequality, and more? Maybe so; I hope so.

For the moment we must sympathise and grieve; but the time will come for a public reckoning on this terrible fire and the ideologies and practices it exposes.

Note: This Blog post is an amended and expanded version of a Facebook post which references the Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June.

Brexit: Is it Worth the Price?

London could stage 14 Olympic Games for the cost of Brexit to the public finances

Brexit is going to cost the British people at least 58 billion pounds, says Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. Taking figures provided by the Office for Budget Responsibility, Hammond also announced that government borrowing will have to rise as a result of Brexit, by 64 billion pounds.

The final figure, when all is done and dusted, is likely to be very different, however. Given that experts tend to err on the side of caution with their projections, the real cost will probably be higher than the 122 billion pounds calculated thus far.

It’s difficult to comprehend, or imagine, the meaning of huge numbers such as these. Looking at those figures, is Brexit going to be an expense too far, or is it cheap as chips and worth the gamble? 58.7 billion sounds like a lot of money, but, given what Britain spends on infrastructure or public services, or on the EU, is it really?

During the Brexit referendum campaign we heard from the Leave side what they thought the EU cost Britain and how much we as a country might benefit from leaving. They said Britain could benefit to the tune of 350 million pounds a week, and suggested we should spend that money on the NHS – a worthy goal indeed. However, they abandoned that idea shortly after the referendum result was known.

To their discredit, the Remain side didn’t come up with a convincing counter to Leave’s very persuasive meme. All Remain did was argue over how much EU membership really costs. But, looking only at the figures themselves, who can really understand the difference between 16 or 10 billion, for example? So the Remain argument got lost in picky arguments over the details, and they appeared pedantic, negative, and boring. Leave were able to capture the high ground by making the more positive general point.

So, just as Leave were able to make the money we spend on EU membership 'real',and to introduce a bit of balance, I'm going to visualise what Brexit is going to cost the British people with this handy little guide. The figures below are calculated simply by dividing 122 billion by the actual cost of various public ‘goods’, and rounding up or down as appropriate to the nearest sensible number. It’s a fun method of understanding the cost of Brexit more clearly, and a slightly serious contribution to rebalancing the continuing argument over whether, or how, the UK should remain a partner in the European Union.

What could Britain get for the cost of Brexit to the public finances?

So, do you still think Brexit is worth the price?

Should Britain Leave the EU to Regain Democratic Control of Our Lives?

Some people in Britain argue that the EU is undemocratic, or that it undermines democracy at the national level, and they use this as reason to want to leave the EU. Here's my take on this question.

The European Parliament has 733 members elected directly by the citizens of the member states. It legislates all EU laws. Importantly, the results of European elections, which take place every five years, are decided by proportional representation. The EU Commission is the executive branch of the EU. Commissioners are all appointed by the heads of governments of the member states. The President of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament after negotiations between the elected heads of government of the member states. There are three other 'Presidents', who head up the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council of Europe, but the President of the Commission is the titular head and most powerful EU official. He answers to the heads of government of the EU member states. No EU representative has their job as a result of birthright.

The UK Parliament in Westminster is divided into two chambers. The House of Commons has 650 members elected directly by British citizens. Results are decided by a First Past the Post system, which means it is possible for the party with the most number of votes to win fewer seats than the eventual winning party. It also means that smaller parties may win large numbers of votes but gain few seats. The Prime Minister is the head of government and is appointed by the Queen, and is nearly always the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. There is no direct election for the post of Prime Minister. The second chamber is the House of Lords. It shares the task of making and shaping laws as well as challenging the House of Commons. None of the members of the House of Lords are directly elected by the citizens of the UK. All are either hereditary peerages, or are appointees by the Queen on the recommendation of Prime Ministers past and present. The Queen, of course, is a hereditary monarch and is the Head of State of the UK. She was not elected by anyone.

An important issue is the role of unelected officials. The EU employs about 55,000 unelected officials to administer a population of 508 million people in 28 countries, and the UK government employs approximately 393,000 unelected officials - the Civil Service - to administer a population of 64 million in 1 country (or four countries if you take an alternative view). The EU's unelected officials are selected in a similar way that the UK Civil Service selects its employees; through open and fair competition administered by EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office. These officials are answerable to the elected members of the European Parliament or the European Commissioners. Similarly, members of the Civil Service in the UK are answerable to Parliament and the government of the day.

So, what does all this mean? Well, my understanding is that the EU is not really less democratic than the UK, and there is validity in arguing that it might be more democratic. For example, the issue of heredity and birthright is not an issue in the EU. The EU administration is, nevertheless, more geographically distant from citizens than the government in Westminster, but I think that it fulfils a vital role in tacking difficulties that national governments would have trouble tackling as effectively. Pollution or climate change, for example, don't respect national borders and need effective international cooperation which the EU can provide.

Moreover, and this is the important issue for me, the great majority of British people consent to Civil Servants - unelected officials - making decisions about our lives every day of the week. I don't see much difference if EU officials are doing the same thing, about issues and problems that are important to us and are additional, or supplementary to what the British government and local authorities also provide on our behalf. In summary, therefore, I don't think remaining in the EU presents Britain and British people with a democratic deficit. If anything, I think it enhances our democracy and provides more in the way of political methods and opportunities for resolving our common concerns. But more on that another time.