Thursday, 25 February 2010

Why there will be no re-run of 1982

Sorry to all those who have campaigned so hard for another war with Argentina, it's not going to break out this year. The flaring up of the dispute over the Falkland Islands has raised important questions, and I think I should chip in, in my own way, by using my knowledge of international relations to try and present a serious case as to why there will be no war.

States tend to avoid war. Clausewitz once said that "war is a continuation of politics by other means", but the politics you must traverse before you can reach this point is wide, deep and extremely thorough. Both the UK and Argentina are members of the United Nations, and this is critical at this juncture. First, though not foremost, both are required to abide by Article 33 of the UN Charter, which reads:

1)The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.

2)The Security Council shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle their dispute by such means.

The UK and Argentina have engaged in talks before to try and settle this matter, and I would not be surprised if they repeated this gesture in the near future to try and secure a peaceful outcome. They have both talked about referring the matter to the UN, though as the UK holds a veto on the Security Council, this may prove to be a politically difficult process to engage in. The UNSC can - and may well decide - to refer the matter to the ICJ, which both slows down the dispute and would allow for more neutral arbitration. I can't really see an outside power without enough of a vested interest to be acceptable to both sides. The UN system itself is replete with means to help solve this discussion. But it's important for other reasons.

The UN system represents an underlying set of values and beliefs in international society. Among them is the idea that states can no longer use force as a means to settle disputes. As outlined in Article 33 above, states have to exhaust all non-violent means to settle disputes. Even then, they can only use force if authorised by the UNSC (Article 42, unlikely owing to the UK veto) or through means of self-defence (Article 51). Though 51 has been read very broadly, in particular by the US over Iraq, where self-defence was associated with clairvoyance, it is extremely unlikely that Argentina - not a great power, let alone a super power - could get away with such a manipulation of the text.

Beyond this, states do not recognise the forceful occupation of the territory of another, it sets a very dangerous precedent for international relations. It is why Northern Cyprus is only recognised by Turkey (who occupied the territory) and is referred to as the 'Stimson Doctrine'. You cannot build an international society on principles around non-use of aggressive force and then recognise the forceful seizure of territory. Argentina is, again, not a great power and does not have either the means nor the norm innovative capacity to overturn this norm. Venezuela's backing is telling - they lay claim to a large portion of Guyana, and any change to this norm allow Chavez to try to seize this. However, it's very unlikely that a majority of states, certainly a majority in terms of power and norm considerations, would back an end to this new norm. Weaker states would object to the loss of a norm that protects them from attack, and stronger states would object - because they'd end up being dragged into the disputes of neighbours and allies.

War is expensive - coercion is seen as the least efficient means of enforcing new norms, or indeed achieving a result in foreign policy terms. Not only does the norm protect states, it also releases them from the costs of having to maintain a defence against all potential threats.

Argentina has nothing to gain from forcing its way into the islands, but the UK should not (and is not, I should stress) countenance an excessive response, as many of its less-able citizens have been urging. There is no need to make a great enemy out of Argentina, only to defend the islands against the unlikely event of an invasion and to reinforce the norm that you use enough force to defend yourself, but not so much that it becomes a matter beyond the purview of Article 51. The current normative structure suits both the UK and Argentina far more than an alternate system would, though some of Argentina's backers may be itching to get their hands on some of their neighbours through force. Nevertheless, the overall system is safe.

In summary, there will be no war. The UN system provides plenty of means to resolve the dispute peacefully and effectively, and the underlying norm structure suits both states enough to mean that they won't try to overthrow it. War is a very inefficient means of solving a dispute, even one involving lucrative resources, and would challenge deeply engrained norms in international society. Argentina has far more to gain from keeping the current norm structure than overthrowing it, and doesn't have the capacity to do so in any case.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


When a policy is broken, you do not re-apply that policy more strictly to try and make it work. You ask "why isn't it working?" and work from there.

Paedophilia draws serious news coverage in the UK. The tabloids love nothing more than a good 'paedo hunt', whipping up the hysteria into terrible proportions, leaving innocent men and women suffering under the assault of misguided, or plain ignorant, people. Two cases to evidence this - a recent one, of an elderly man wrongly accused of paedophilia suffering a heart attack after being at the centre of a campaign based solely on lies told by two girls, the other being an older case of the paediatrician harassed by the ignorant followers of a campaign. Politicians, judges, police officers and social workers are all under pressure to be tough on paedophiles, as though they were the demons possessing communities, the totemic symbols of much of what is wrong with Britain today.

This supposed malady, however, is founded on a moral fallacy of cosmic proportions. I am going to draw a very clear line in the sand here - those who try and argue against me must remember this definition. Paedophilia - that is, the sexual attraction to children - is not, in itself, 'wrong'. It is when paedophiles try to carry out their fantasises in real life that it, necessarily, becomes illegal, because the age of consent is a vital legal concept, designed to protect the very youngest of us from accusations of committing acts they do not truly understand. But this critical definition - the line between the mind and the actualisation - has been neglected.

I do not condone the behaviour of paedophiles who have carried out any act driven by their fantasy that breaks the law. But I cannot stand this current climate of driving them out of communities, isolating them, listing them, treating parents, school teachers, even popular authors as paedophiles until they can prove otherwise. We are not helping ourselves on this - in fact, we're compounding the problem.

A recent BBC article on female sex offenders has an interview with a lady who manages a group that helps former sex offenders after prison makes an important point - social exclusion of paedophiles increases re-offending rates. If these people are excluded and driven underground, it becomes very hard for us to keep subtle tabs on them. Worse still, any underlying psychological issues that they may have will probably be compounded by such treatment and, I believe, help drive up the chance of them re-offending, potentially in a much more harmful way.

There needs to be a two-fold approach to dealing with this problem. Firstly, the government must push for measures that help paedophiles become integrated into communities. If they feel safe, and that they have somewhere to turn to to help them deal with their desires, friends and neighbours who will support them and help them find professional help if needs be, if they feel they place value in the communities in which they live, then I firmly believe that they are much less likely to offend, and more likely to be caught if they do. Stricter punishments for those who start and persecute campaigns against paedophiles, better public information for communities, work with social services and NGOs to encourage communities to accept paedophiles in, to offer them help rather than hostility, all can work together to achieve this sort of aim.

Secondly, the government must act to reduce the 'paedo around every corner' culture endemic in its' own legislation. The registers for everyone who goes onto a school site - which seems to be set in the principle that you're a paedophile unless you can prove otherwise, should end. Each individual should have one CRB check for themselves, not one for every job they do. The costs of CRB checks should be met by the government, not by individuals or the voluntary sector. Instead of endless 'agencies' to deal with this, the government should subsume it all into a "National Sex Crime Agency", which works with the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, police, courts and social services to deliver one approach to sex offenders and the multiplicity of problems they bring and they have. Above all else, it should aim to treat paedophiles and others as human beings in need of help and careful monitoring, not villification.

I am aware that many victims of sex offenders or paedophiles may object to what I am saying. I am also aware that this is a proposal to be enacted over the medium term, not a quick fix. But I stand by it - we need a longer-term policy than the one we have currently have, aimed at producing a system wherein sex offenders are no threat because they feel they have something of worth in the society in which they live, reducing their incentive to break the rules and putting them in easy reach of those who can help them, or keep them from hurting others. That, truly would be a successful policy, in my belief.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Democracy and democrats

This morning, anyone who walked into a newsagents was greeted with a barrage of print about last night. For a few minutes on national television, we had the leader of a legitimate party with elected national and local representatives on our screens. This morning, reading the papers, watching the television and browsing the net, you might as well think that we had had Joseph Goebbels on.

In the midst of all the finger pointing and name calling, people are trying to do something very strange, but in a way, very understandable. They're trying to ascribe 'blame' for this act. Peter Hain would have us blame the BBC. The protestors outside would have us blame 'the system'. Nick Griffin would have us blame his projection of Islam. Fingers point everywhere, names are being hurled and the whole thing resembles a great farce.

If we truly, however, wish to ascribe blame, then we must look no further than ourselves. We are the process that helped create this party that so many of us now turn against. We are its' genesis and its' continuance. How is this so?

We are participants in a democracy - yet many of us fail to participate. Barely 60% make it to vote at a general election - and never mind the 30% who go to vote at local and European elections. There are more members of the RSPB than of the three main political parties combined. Our democracy is in trouble.

The threat is not the BNP, however. The threat is ourselves. Mrs Thatcher worked to create a Britain where - rightly or wrongly - the individual was in charge. We are now consumers in this world, we are its' centre - yet, in our heads, we have never left the 1970's. We still ascribe responsibility to others, we still defer as long as possible on making crucial decisions. To a student of politics, like myself, this is maddening.

If we want to 'stop' the BNP, then we should look at ourselves. How have we allowed the politicians we elected to become the reviled figures they now are? How have we managed to disengage seemingly the entire white working class, leaving them to be chased by parties like the BNP? How have we failed to act as the responsible global citizens that are needed to address the problems that our lifestyles create? We should ask ourselves these questions, and engage in some real soul-searching.

Yes, this will require hard work. But we live in this individual-orientated society and we need to work to keep it. We have to work hard to keep our democracy, our economy, our way of life. Else, as the rise of the BNP illustrates, those who would take them all away, can rise and rise unchecked. All we do, in the meantime, is stand to one side, wringing our hands and decrying the failure of the others - the other politicians, the other voters, the other people. We must look in our mirrors and ask "What have -I- done in this process?" If the answer is "Not enough" - and for most people, it will be - then we must work harder.

This all sounds like so much preachy nonsense, and to merely reinforce the media feeding frenzy over the BNP. The BNP are not the be-all and end all of the problem facing our democracy - they are one symptom, one issue of many. I choose them because they are salient right now. As to those who think me preachy - before you decry my willingness to speak out against the wrongs that I see, ask yourself only this - how willing were you to speak out, never mind act?

We have a great tradition in this country - one of a liberal, trading, democratic country tied to the sea and the world that that sea carries us to. It would be a shame to let it go to waste because of pure indolence.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Poundland Politics

David Cameron says he wants to raise the price of MP's salads and give Minister's a 5% pay cut. The Liberal Democrats want to scrap Trident. Both Cameron and Clegg want fewer MP's. Alistair Darling speaks of "cutting costs". Yes, with the backlash from years of Labourite fiscal prolifigacy finally biting deep into the rump of every politician, the language of financial self-mortification is bubbling thickly from the halls of Westminster.

Cameron admitted that his proposals - which as far as I can see, from the figures I can glean, would save at most £120 million per annun - would barely dent the vast £175 billion deficit that sits around the government's neck like a millstone. But by combining two fashional public pursuits - dismissing MP's as fat cats and demanding that money be saved without harming the person demanding the savings - Cameron is, again, moving slickly to broaden his appeal. Yet, he and every other politician in Westminster know that spending has to come down, and hard.

When McKinsey came out the other week and called for the NHS to cut it's staff by 10%, there was the predictable outburst of NIMBYism from NHS staff, the BMA and it's kin and 'concerned' politicians. But such numbers should be seriously contemplated - leaving the budget without a heavy pruning with the coming 'grey surge', as the baby boomers retire, would invite fiscal disaster as rising health and social care costs and falling tax receipts combine to put the Treasury into a deadly vice.

We must act now if we are to create a strong, but small, state capable of dealing what is coming. This means ending public sector final salary schemes, and pegging them down at a level comparable with the private sector. This means raising the retirement level towards 70 far more quickly, and changing the law to make it far easier for people to stay in work as long as they desire, and indeed seek new employment if they retire and then decide to go back. This means merging offices and departments, stripping out layer upon layer of bureaucracy and targets to thin down, speed up and strengthen the Civil Service - if this is done at the expense of political appointees, so much the better. This means returning to local councils much greater power to decide how they will spend the money they're allocated, and encouraging public sector bodies to move money around within themselves more thoughtfully - not spending up to the limit because they have to, and moving money from areas with a surplus to others with a deficit.

This cannot, and will not, and should not, happen over night. There have been too many years of target-obssessed governments in this country, driving public sector workers into a corner with targets, plans, schemes, drives, incentives and all the rest of the senseless political jargon. If we want to make this country's public sector the best in the world - the smallest, the quickest, the strongest - then we must, absolutely must, encourage it to think for itself. We must invest in creating a system that responds to users before it thinks of it's own needs, and which treasures efficiency as much as it does impartiality.

But simply shuffling a few civil servants will not be enough. Here, Labour must take a full broadside - all this talk of 'reassigning resources to frontline services' to paraphrase the Chancellor yesterday - is so much hogwash. I may find many of the things that the Conservatives are proposing at the next election either dangerous or laughable - scrapping the Human Rights Act is a clear example of the former - but here they have me onside. They have the guts to talk of cuts, real cuts, in public spending, and take the heat for it.

Labour have decided it is better to wash away the worries about the deficit with soothing talk of 'preserving' frontline services by mysteriously making money move from a million parasitic backrooms, it would seem, to classrooms, wards and job centres up and down the country. Yet, by simply moving the same resources around, by 'reassigning', surely one isn't actually reducing what one is spending, merely moving it elsewhere? This lack of appetite for fiscal reality makes me extremely wary of the party and their plans. They've already shown they don't like to stir the waters by delaying tax rises until after the next election. So much for 'tough' decisions, Mr Brown.

A really tough decision would be to decide which public sector jobs -have- to be cut, which services -have- to be reduced and who takes responsibility for this mess. All the scapegoating of bankers by Labour MPs won't remove the fact that it was they who spent the country into a deficit during the good times, then hurridly picked up the mask of Keynes when the going got rough - even though Keynes would probably have spat teeth at them for ignoring the vast bulk of what he said. They were the ones who let the government carry through financial regulation which effectively gutted the system of responsibility. They have failed to make the government actually make the tough choices it speaks so highly of, and they should pay for this by loosing the next election.

He says.

Friday, 4 September 2009

High on Love

A recent story on the AP news wire caught my attention. Mexican drug gangs, who remain in a vicious struggle for influence with the government and other actors within Mexico, have taken to attacking drugs rehab clinics, in an effort to scare people into continuing to consume their 'merchandise'.

The Mexican government has thousands of troops out on the streets to fight the drug gangs, and the violence continues. The US government, and especially state and local authorities on or near the border, must surely also fear the impact the violence will have on them, and how easily it might spread to their local areas. So a radical solution is needed. Mexico needs to shrug off the violence, and contain the effects of the gangs. It also needs to deal with other problems - the health issues caused by drugs, the damage to the economy that comes from the violence and the addictions, the costs incurred by combatting it.

The answer lies on the other side of the Atlantic, some 5,000 miles away. Portugal's drug policy is a brilliant example of how to handle drugs well.

Clearly, repression has failed. If banning drugs has failed to get them off the streets, and indeed has re-inforced the position of the drug gangs, then a new angle is vitally needed. Clearly, banning drugs is making drug policy more difficult - if the users and the suppliers and the dealers are all forced underground, then it costs time and money to locate and deal with the criminal elements, and those who find themselves trapped because of drug use find the social stigma attached to them debilitating. They may not wish to seek treatment because they fear they will be arrested. Then they end up in prison next to the dealer and the supplier, and they find themselves trapped even behind bars. The system is failing.

So Portugal has tried a new angle - by decriminalising every drug, in 2001. Marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, meth, even heroin. Drug users no longer face prison - instead, they are taken before a panel of experts (a lawyer, a psychologist and a social worker) who assess each case and assign treatment as needed (not jail) as well as community sanctions if needed.

They were told drug use would soar, that by being soft, they would encourage drug tourists and that organised crime would flourish. Instead, quite the opposite. Now, 10% of people over 15 in Portugal have used marijuana at some time in their life, the lowest rate in the EU and far lower than the US rate of 32.9% (people over 12). During the first five years of the policy, according to the Cato Institute, teen drug use fell in young and older teens, even among hard drugs like heroin. Other figures trend to the bright side - HIV infection rates among drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003. More people came onto treatment programmes.

These are impressive figures. Despite a very liberal drugs policy, Portugal's drug use rate is even lower than that of the US, which has a very strict drugs policy. The central concession being made in this debate is simple - that decriminalising drugs does not increase their use among the population.

Perhaps we should go further. Perhaps legalising drugs - all drugs - would change things for the better. Then, the cost to society imposed by peoples' use of drugs can be recouped through taxation on the drugs they consume. Law enforcement can focus on other issues, such as people smuggling, violent crime and the like. If people have to go to a pharmacy or GP's office to get their fix, then they will come into contact with the services that can provide them with help and social care to undo the damage to their lives.

Organised crime will suffer - not only will drugs users find themselves able to choose who they go to, but big pharma and commercial agriculture can out-produce any illegal activity, in terms of sheer scale and price difference. Regulated drugs will be free of the many impurities - flour, talcum powder, bugs, mouse droppings, rat poison - that currently end up in the drugs on the streets, thereby reducing the health damage from them.

However, this will not be a cure all. It will need a much stronger, more pro-active social service sector in this country, able to move out and identify problems while small. Investment will be needed before tax money comes in, and major opposition from 'hard line' campaigners has to be overcome. Much work will be needed to tailor drugs rehab programmes to make sure they are as well-supplied and open as possible. Organised crime will doubtless try and either fight back, or move into other areas.

Yet, it will help address many underlying issues in society at large. For a country like Mexico, it may make the state less unstable, and weaken actors who would threaten it and its' citizens. It would be a bold step for Mexico to make. But if one Catholic, socially conservative, country can do it, why can the rest of us deny that we have the ability to try the same? After all, our current course seems to be making little impact.

Thursday, 13 August 2009


I love the NHS. I'm a free market kind of guy - I like my regulations light, my taxes low and my support nets smaller. But I know that the market doesn't always work, and when it doesn't, something has to fill that gap. Today, in America, the free market has failed to provide healthcare to many Americans, and indeed has become distorted and damaging to the US economy.

The lies that the anti-reform campaign have come up with regarding the NHS are astounding. From talk of 'death panels' to 15-year old statistics to claiming Stephen Hawking is an American, or at least not British. These aren't misquotes or forgetful moments, these are systemtic lies created to cloud the air. America needs healthcare reform like the UK needs financial regulation reform - without it, the economy will throttle.

Here are some numbers from the National Coalition on Health Care, which they collected from a series of studies:

  • The US spends 17% of its' GDP on health, and this may well rise to 20% by 2017. This is almost double the average among OECD countries (OECD figures).
  • Some 46 million Americans have no health insurance, around the population of Ukraine (UKRSTAT estimate). Studies show the main reason they have no cover is that it is too expensive.
  • Premiums for employer-based health insurance are rising fastest for the smallest firms, those with fewer than 24 workers found their health care costs rise by 6.8% in 2008.
  • Health care costs are now the fastest growing cost component for employers.
  • Around 1.5 million families foreclose on their homes every year due to healthcare costs.
  • Conservatively, many experts believe a retiring couple will need $250,000 in savings to meet basic healthcare costs - though $300,000 may be a more realistic figure.
  • According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the US has $480 billion in excess spending each year - the same as the GDP of Sweden (IBRD) - on healthcare as compared to equivalent Western European nations with universal health insurance.
Now tell me the healthcare system in the US works. The market has become distorted and corrupted by the desire to make more money, instead of providing health care to the masses. The gaps that have opened are therefore in need of infilling with something, and the current health care bill would go a long way to doing this. It outlines a requirement for all Americans to have healthcare insurance, and lays down reforms to the US healthcare market to help acheive this, and drive down the cost.

An NHS-style system would clash with America's culture of independence and individualism. Yet, at the same time, her economy would be much improved with the addition of massive health care reform. The NHS came about in this country after a long political battle, and because of a world war. When the poor of the country came from the cities into middle- and upper-class homes, these voters suddenly found that poverty wasn't in their papers or the colonies. It was in their front rooms, it didn't know what a bath or a toilet was, it had never seen a cow or a sheep or a green field, it was sickly and thin and it was right there, for real, in the flesh. Maybe this is what America needs to shock it into action. It worked for us.

I don't agree that we should do away with private healthcare forever, nor that the state is the best tool. But, as I said before, when the market fails to work, something has to step in and make up the difference. Healthier workers work more, and work better. Companies can pay taxes relatively easily as compared to healthcare insurance programmes. The economy will benefit from better healthcare options. All they need is to get a hold of them.

Alan Duncan is right

Unequivocally right. As is Sir Patrick Cormack when he came on Today on Radio 4 this morning.

The expenses scandal is now leading to a 'Great Deterence' of people wanting to go into Parliament because they feel the press are now too intrusive and because the cost of doing so will continue to rise, but the means to meet those costs will not. All the hand-wringing columns and phone calls to Five Live of people who are outraged and disgusted by the scandal - and rightly so - have built up into an avalanche of apathy.

What is needed is for people to take a more active interest in their democracy. Too many British people do not vote, or join political parties, or take an active role in their democracy. If we had been watching our MPs properly, then this would simply not have happened. We have much to change in ourselves if we want the government we tell ourselves we deserve.

People who criticise MPs for being 'fat cats' and sat in their 'ivory towers', as the chair of Conservative Democracy did on the World at One today on Radio 4, are so out of touch with reality that it pains me. We need professors, not ploughmen, in Parliament. People who are experts, intelligent hard-working people. Professors aren't out of touch with the real world - they pay mortgages, they go out to the pub with their friends, they shop in Morrisons, their cars break, their children struggle to get the school they want and so on. But at the same time they have the qualifications and experiences needed to make a good job of being an MP.

No-one should ever be an MP as a first job, nor as a vocation - which is the same thing as Sir Patrick Cormack fears with his talk of the Commons being full of 'political anoraks' and 'very rich people'. MPs should be people with a genuine dedication to the cause of public life, with lengthy experience of working in the private or public sectors and compotently qualified to do what is required of them. I don't care if my MP is white, or black, nor gay or straight, nor female or male, nor into BDSM or vanilla, nor any other distinction. These are irrelavant to the end need to having well qualified people in the job. In the current climate, this will not happen.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Bear Stirs

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has issued a strong rebuke to the Ukrainian President in what appears to be a political manouvre coming up to next years' Ukranian Presidential election. Like most in the Kremlin, Medvedev hopes that the election will see a pro-Russian candidate elected and this will lead to better relations between the two nations.

Unsurprisingly, the EU has been relatively quiet on this matter. The pressure from several of the older members - especially Germany - to keep Russia happy has led to a shameful silence when it comes to the security of the EU's eastern frontiers and neighbours. Our ongoing dependence on Russian gas, as well as the sluggishness of the EU's response to any Russian aggression aimed at the member and candidate states on their periphery, is directly as a result of the EU's failure to directly confront Moscow.

A belligerent line would, of course, lead to relations cooling rapidly. Moscow is still seeking to secure itself in a world so recently turned on its' head, and would not take kindly to future EU expansion eastwards. Yet these are important states - both in terms of resources, but also in terms of spreading democracy. The EU should offer membership to these states - on the normal tough entry criteria, yes - but membership. To snatch Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and even Azerbaijan from under the nose of the Russian government would be intolerable to the Kremlin and a public relations coup for the EU.

The EU also needs to actively, and aggressively, seek out new sources of energy. A major nuclear power plant building programme, coupled with seeking gas routes and sources that avoid Russia altogether will be a good place to start. A more guarded approach to investing in Russia - which has already shown that it will interfere in foreign investments there for political gain - will certainly benefit the EU. We need Russian gas to keep the lights on - but Russia needs EU cash to keep pensions paid, tanks fuelled and all the rest of it.

But this line need not be adopted instantly. The EU should press on Russia in other ways - open up and fill it up with European cash and ideas. The soft power of the EU should be squeezed in wherever possible, and allowed to gently change the way Russia views the world. A good way to start would be to encourage European companies to buy whatever they can in Russia, and tie it inexorably to their new European owners. With cash locked up there, EU governments will sit up and take notice when trouble threatens, and will find it easier to influence Russian leaders.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Religious Tolerance

Since when did it become fashionable to flaunt one's personal dislike of organised religion as a fashion statement? It seems to be to be a rising tide among many of the people I know and talk with, both on and off the internet, and it frankly irritates me.

For many of these people, religion is the font of all ills in the world, be they murder, war, famine, plague and so on. Their Dawkinsian dismissal of it as little more than an ancient collection of muddled superstition betrays, however, not only a poor understanding of religion, but a poor understanding of the world.

All organised religions are based around a series of rules and structures which make them 'organised' as opposed to ... casual? Personal? Incidental? Whatever the antonym of organised is in this context. In any case, this system of rules and structures is often interpreted by these anti-religious zealots as a constraint on all society, a force against science and creativity, a reactionary force to be opposed at every turn and a fossilised remnant of an autocracy long dead.

Yet organised religions of all stripes have long been forces for societal change, scientific and creative engines, progressive leaders of change widely regarded as for the better and political agitators for democracy and freedom. Immediately, men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr come to mind. Without the support and the social structures provided by the Southern churches, would the civil rights movement been so well organised, or so blessed with such inspirational leadership?

What of Oscar Romeo, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who agitated for democracy in El Salvador and was ultimately gunned down whilst he celebrated mass in his own cathedral? Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's work with the German Resistance during World War II? What of Desmond Tutu's opposition to Apartheid, and continuing campaign for social justice for all South Africans? What about the role of the Catholic Church in working towards democracy in Poland, or the pressure from Non-Conformist Churches in the UK for social reform in the 19th Century? According to the atheist evangelists, these events were either negligible, or go against the grain.

If they were negligible, then what of human history is truly important? And if against the grain, what is there to stop me holding up men like David Lloyd George or Margaret Thatcher or Clement Attlee or Roy Jenkins as people who went against the grain and claim they achieved nothing? These are just the Christians that first come to my mind, with nothing yet said for those of other religions who have worked for justice and freedom for their people. Of course, this brings to mind first and foremost the Buddhist monks of Burma, but there are countless others who have been motivated by their religion to work for a better future.

History, though, is more than just great people. There must have been billions of people who did small acts of kindness, simply because their religion instructed them to do so. In Christianity, for example, Christ commands his followers (Matthew 25:31-46) that whoever helps even the "least of these brothers of mine, you did for me". Such commandments are often overlooked by those eager to get the first blow in in the name of their own intolerance. These little selfless acts cannot excuse the actions of those who have caused pain in the name of religion. But nor can the striving of socialists for social freedoms excuse the deaths of those under communist leadership. Every ideological construct suffers from elements and episodes that are less than palatable, yet we should remember that the world exists in shades of grey.

Religion has done much good. It has raised beautiful buildings in our cities, towns and villages. It has driven people to peacemaking and keeping. It has paid for hospitals and schools to nurture and care for the poor and needy. It has commissioned great paintings and pieces of music that even now echo down the ages. So to forget this because we do not share the beliefs of this faith or that faith and pillory all religion is as intolerant as we accuse religion of being. We must respect people of faith for their faith, as they should respect others for their own beliefs.

We must, as Dr King said, "learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."

Monday, 3 August 2009

Long Road to Solvency

Timothy Geithner is right - America faces tough choices when it comes to dealing with her treble deficits. She must deal with them, or face being unable to deal with future massive economic shocks.

The federal budget deficit - currently running at more tan US$1 trillion a year - is feeding a growing slew of debt, currently worth over US$11.6 trillion. This debt needs to be cut far and fast in order to restore to the federal government freedom of action, and greater financial security to America as a whole. At the moment, the United States borrows 14 cents out of every dollar it spends, and the vast majority of what it spends goes on its' massive military commitments.

But the axe must fall, and where must it fall? There are some obvious ways to help trim the deficit, with minimal pain (arguably). A reformed procurement process, designed to break the iron triangles between Congress, the bureaucracy and special interests - especially in the area of defence - should help drive down the cost of contracts. As the war in Iraq winds down, then expenditure there should, ideally shrink - though this is likely to countered by rising costs emanating from a tougher fight in Afghanistan.

Big defence budget cuts, though, are both unpalatable and dangerous. The United States is not only effectively responsible for the security of large tracts of the world - including Taiwan, bolstering Europe against potential Russian threats, the Gulf States, Israel and South Korea - but the defence budget flows mainly into US companies, keeping factories open and skilled labour occupied. Neglecting the defence system would damage both these systems - but reform is essential, to encourage defence companies to be trimmer and quicker, and to help balance the budget up.

Elsewhere, though, there are big targets that need to be slashed back. The US spends $8 billion plus a year on agricultral subsidies. These go mostly to big commercial farmers, and benefit a bloated agricultural industrial sector before they help any small farmers. A massively cut, reformed farm bill system would help control spending and relieve rural poverty, whilst recognising the shrinking role that agriculture plays in the US economy. It would also help secure future free trade deals, strengthening the US economy further by deepening her trade ties.

The US's many agencies and departments can also be cut back, to help trim the federal bureaucracy. The many intelligence agenices represent a clear example of this - victims of neverending turf wars, divided and argumentative. There are at least 16 intelligence agenices in the US, with overlapping compotencies. Is it necessary to have all these agencies, with all the bureaucratic overlap that it entails? As the budgets are classified, we do not know how much could be saved, but surely a significant portion of the US$45 billion believed to be spent on intelligence every year can be clawed back through simple efficiency measures.

Healthcare reform can also deliver lower costs on programmes such as Medicare and Medicaid. The system needs to work towards emphasising 'better care' not merely 'more care', and this can be achieved through better seperation of the medical industry - big pharma, tool supplies and so on - from doctors and nurses, enabling them to use medical judgement before commercial pressure. With procurement reform, health costs can be brought back towards the OECD average, not at 15% of GDP, which represents a significant drain on US economic capacity. Government need not run healthcare - it need merely ensure that the special interests, bureaucracy and Congress are kept at arms length, and that a better ethos is allowed to govern how money is spent.

Taxes need to go up, as well. The Bush tax cuts were unpaid for with equivalent spending cuts, and they need to be rolled back. There is no point keeping them, if all they do is put pressure on the finances. They did not avert the current recession, and the data shows that strong economies can flourish with higher tax rates than the US. This is not a call for endless tax hikes - but it is a call for the end to a vast array of tax benefits, deductions and cuts. The end to breaks for constructing airports, for example, would not only ensure more revenue, but would work to help move commuters to less polluting forms of transport, preserve more green spaces and distance special interests. The US tax code can surely be trimmed down, made easier to read and easier to enforce. Thus, tax revenue can be more cheaply collected, and it will cost business less to fill out the forms. The notion of a VAT for the US should also be considered, but not before reform of the current tax system has been thoroughly considered.

These proposals only scratch the surface. But they are the kind of thing that the Obama Administration must seriously consider if it is to rein in the deficit and help restore America's financial position before the Baby Boomers retire.