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.

Hang On Harman

Harriet Harman was in the Sunday Times yesterday, telling us all that the Labour Party should always have a woman in either the leaders' or deputy leaders' job. According to Ms Harman, men "cannot be left to run things on their own".

I'm not surprised that Ms Harman, of all the members of the current government, has come up with this. Her reputation for what I would describe, without a touch of irony, as overbearing feminine statements, long precedes this article. Yet it only makes that reputation all the more deserved.

The Labour Party should no more reserve a top spot for a woman than schools should reserve one drinking fountain for Afro-Caribbean students and another for White British students. Does Ms Harman seriously believe that people are more qualified for a position based solely on their gender? Or is she simply out on that age-old adage, that it's time to take an eye for an eye, and that women have to be given a 'leg-up' through legislation and actions such as this to enable them to get on an equal footing?

Personally, I can see no logical reason why one should reserve such posts for anyone based on purely personal characteristics. The focus of the governments' equal rights legislation should be on creating a truly level playing field, not trying to tip it one way or the other in the name of righting past wrongs. Simply because my ancestors were sexist to her ancestors does not mean she should be sexist towards me, any more than it means I should pay for the slave-holding practices of my descendants. I find both such things intolerable, horrible and frankly thoughtless, but I am being told that I must pay the price for their existence.

I am sorry that Ms Harman has come to the stage where she looks down on men as being incapable of managing anything larger than a small whelk stall. I sincerely hope that the House of Lords butchers the Equality Bill and removes all the clauses that people like Ms Harman cling to dearly. Its' time to write some truly Equal Rights legislation for this country, not something tainted with the endless yearning of the left to take an eye for an eye. Perhaps they should remember what another socialist once told the world, a long time ago:

"An eye for an eye will only end up making the whole world blind." - M. Ghandhi.