It’s getting clearer and clearer we’re in an inequality crisis – so why am I optimistic?

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We are not living in an age of austerity. We are living in an age of brutal inequality. Millions struggle to feed themselves and their families – even in Europe. But the men who caused the financial crisis are better off now than they were the day before the crash. Five years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the firm’s former bosses are back running Wall Street. Amazon, apparently, can’t afford to pay tax where it makes its profits, can’t afford to let its workers take too many toilet breaks, but can afford for its boss to buy the newspapers that might have criticised it. We are back to the “bauble economy”.

The 300 richest people have the same wealth as the 3 billion poorest. Zambia has become a middle income country, but the number of poor people in Zambia has increased. Russia, China and India have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. 5% of Indians own 50% of the country’s wealth. In the US, President Obama has acknowledged, “nearly all income gains of past 10 years flowed to the top 1%. This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.” In the UK, inequality is set to grow faster than it did in the 1980s.

There are so many reasons why rising inequality is a bad thing that it’s hard to know where to start. One reason, as Andy Sumner has demonstrated, is that “we find in our number-crunching that poverty can only be ended if inequality falls.” Another is that healthy, liveable societies depend on government action to limit inequality: “In physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries,” note Wilkinson and Pickett. It is also a question of voice, and power. In the words of Harry Belafonte, “The concentration of money in the hands of a small group is the most dangerous thing that happened to civilization”. Or as Jeff Sachs has noted: “Corporations write the rules, pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”

So if inequality is so damaging, and if it’s getting clearer and clearer that we’re in an inequality crisis, why I am optimistic? Because we are talking about it. Because people are saying it’s a problem. Because in a counterpoint to how the neoliberals of the 70s and 80s changed the conversation from community to individualism to break the post-war consensus that had limited inequality, so now the conversation is shifting back to community. People are challenging the idea that “economic shock treatment” cures when it literally kills. They are speaking out against the profit maximisation mantra that corporations should behave in ways which we would call psychopathic in normal human interaction.

When problems are invisibilised they cannot be fixed. It is only when we look eyes wide open and say frankly that our emperors are naked and that we do not want them as our emperors any more, that we have a chance of putting things right.

In short, I am optimistic because it is getting clearer to the majority that unrestrained inequality is bad for us all. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I see change as inevitable, only in the sense that I see it as possible. It is not that now we needn’t campaign against inequality. It’s that now, when we do, we might win.

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The first law of politics

From Janan Ganesh in the FT:

More than any profession, politics suffers from the myth of strategy. Its practitioners and pundits tend to attribute electoral success to a compelling “message” or “narrative” backed by a “ground game”, a media “operation” and something to do with the internet. There is almost nothing that cannot be achieved if you politic hard enough, it seems.

This is, of course, a fantasy. The first law of politics is that almost nothing matters. Voters barely notice, much less are they moved by, the events, speeches, tactics, campaigns or even strategies that are ultimately aimed at them. Elections are largely determined by a few fundamentals: the economy, the political cycle, the basic appeal of the party leaders. The role of human agency is not trivial, but it is rarely decisive either.

How the Snowden saga will end

This thoughtful post on Hacking Distributed is a must-read, arguing that the endgame on the Snowden saga will be determined by the relative strength of three forces: military / political (“whose aims are to keep social movements in check”), commerce (“this force vector consists simply of the collective economic interests of companies that fund elections … and points in the direction of making the internet a ‘pay-for-play’ environment”), and the public:

This force vector consists simply of the collective human interests of the people who use the network. It is by far the most powerful force, but has a number of shortcomings: it is slow to awaken, not technically sophisticated, and easy to derail and divide into factions over trivial concerns. But once the giant is awake, absolutely nothing can stand in its path.

What makes the public stand up and take a stance? No one knows. The Arab Spring was precipitated by a street salesman whose cart was taken away by the police, who got so depressed that he decided to put himself on fire, and before we knew it, dictators across many continents were spinning up their chopper blades. The Turkish uprising was precipitated by a couple of trees in a park. Second wave of Brazilian uprisings were over a 10 cent hike. This makes this force terrifying, because when the giant shows signs of awakening, when his eyelids flutter and he’s asking questions trying to get his bearings, it’s too late.

No apologies: the President of the UN General Assembly rocks with Bon Jovi

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Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia, is coming to the end of a year in the very important job of President of the UN General Assembly.  His tenure has been anything but dull.  He organized a concert which featured a Serbian choir singing a song “associated with massacres carried out in the 1990s against civilians who were under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers.”  He convened a thematic debate on criminal justice that the U.S. claimed was “trying to discredit the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”  And last week… he went to a Bon Jovi concert. Continue reading

The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI. Continue reading

This is a panacea

A powerful new paper, “This is a panacea” by Swift, J.,  has broken new ground in the field of development and social science research. A paper like no other.  I’ve obtained an advance copy of the Abstract, below…

Abstract

This is a panacea. Whilst recent discussion has described a complex series of inter-relationships, our research concludes that it is much simpler and more linear, with only one cause and very easy attribution.

We found no shortage of data, and no need for further disaggregation. There is no need for further research. The time we spent investigating it was excessive.

This is the magic bullet. Interestingly, it works it every context and one size fits all, with no nuance.

We encountered only identical perspectives. Debate, up to now quite fierce, will cease raging.

Readers interested in further reading on this topic would be wasting their time on the bibliography which is necessarily much too long for reasons of space.

Obama’s big shift on climate messaging

Chris Mooney picks up an interesting point about Obama’s climate change speech last month:

If you watched President Obama’s major speech on climate change, you may have noticed a recurrent phrase: “our children.” The president said the word “children” fifteen separate times in the speech. He also spoke repeatedly about “future generations” and how a sweltering planet imperils them. The threat of climate itself, meanwhile, garnered considerable scientific detail in the speech, replete with references to dangerous and destructive impacts that are already occurring—from rising seas to parched land and torched forests. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” the president said.

When you stop and think about it for a minute, the messaging change here is pretty extraordinary. After all, four years ago the administration’s central talking point on climate change did not mention climate change. Rather, the idea was that greening our economy would confer a major benefit in the form of a profusion of green jobs. “It’s ironic that the administration, which helped launch ‘don’t talk about climate change, talk about economics and jobs,’ has flipped to ‘let’s talk about climate change and frame it in moral terms,'” says Joe Romm, a former Clinton administration clean energy official and editor of the leading climate blog Climate Progress. Meanwhile, as a Google Trends search shows, interest in “green jobs” peaked early in Obama’s first term and has been declining ever since.

It’ll be interesting to see whether a similar shift starts to become evident in Labour’s climate change messaging here in the UK (let’s not pretend that messages from the ‘greenest government ever’ have any relevance other than a certain bleak amusement value).

I quizzed Ed Balls on this at a Labour dinner last week, and his messaging was still firmly about how climate change could support the economy, both through green jobs and contributing to growth more generally. This was also very much the key message of his Statesman article to coincide with his appearance on a Green Alliance panel on 10 July; coverage here.

But while there’s undoubtedly much that Balls will need to do to get the Treasury to a better place on low carbon investment – see John Ashton‘s excellent speech on this – Labour will be missing a trick if it frames its climate messaging primarily in green economy terms.

For one thing, the ‘green jobs’ story doesn’t altogether stack up, as I argued in this blog post ages ago: “doing anything effective on climate will create both winners and losers – and the losers will tend to be noisier and more visible”, at least in the short term.

More fundamentally, though, messages about safeguarding our kids’ future are simply more resonant. Balls wants Labour’s key message going in to the next election to be “you’ll be better off under Labour”. Fair enough. But as Obama’s new stance emphasises, he should also set out why their kids will be better off under Labour too.

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