...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Day 5347: DOCTOR WHO: Don’t Care Was Made to Care


As the new season of Doctor Woo approaches, I thought we might warm up by reviewing one that we missed last year.

Of course, this was on in the running up to the Wedding of the Century™ when daddies got very busy sorting out their big day. Which is NO EXCUSE. Still, it certainly didn’t help that this one’s a stinker!

There’s a school that enjoys “The Caretaker” as a fun romp that advances the character’s story arcs.

I don’t. I loathe this episode. It’s full of people being horrid to each other. And has a really rubbish monster.

This is the episode where we find out what Danny Pink is really like. And it turns out he’s a monster too. Controlling, manipulative, and keeping his emotions buried beneath secrecy, he’s already half way to becoming a Cyberman. Maybe it’s that affinity and not that he’s so so special and wuvs Clara so so much that’s going to let him retain control in the (spoilers) season finale.

He protests that Clara has kept secrets from him, when he’s not telling her about his own past, he’s buried his own name and is staying buttoned up about the child he killed. He is outraged that she has lied to him, right at the moment when he has lied to her so that he can sneak around the school to find out about the Doctor. He unjustly accuses the Doctor of being the man to send you into a burning building when running into a burning building is almost literally what he caught the Doctor doing. His uncontrollable need to demonstrate that he’s the man means putting down Clara’s bravery and saying she ought to have been scared (like a girly), undermining her and trying to force her to be dependent on him. Not something that the Doctor ever does. By the end, he is possessive, jealous and possibly psychotic when he makes Clara give him an unkeepable promise to run to him when the Doctor steps over the line. The first thing Clara needs to do is run to the Doctor to tell him Danny has stepped over the line.

Clara though is far from perfect here either. The opening montage showing her rushing from adrenaline fuelled adventure to date to adventure to date, eventually almost breaking down but telling herself she can have it all… she’s showing every sign of addiction, including lying to everyone including herself. Her worst moment comes when she betrays the Doctor’s trust (not for the last time, either, this season) by stealing the invisibility watch and, faster than you can say Ring of Gyges, gives it to Danny so he can abuse its power to snoop on the Doctor. She too has almost psychotic breaks: snapping at the Doctor about space boglins when he leans through her classroom window to correct her on Jane Austin’s dates; and again when she starts to free-associate the most ludicrous lie yet about the very obvious alien incursion being a surprise school play. It is cringe-making to see her embarrass herself like this. But worse, no one cares: the Doctor and Danny are both expecting her to make them feel better – which indeed she ends up doing – rather than trying to help her when she so clearly needs them to.

So it’s just about possible that the Doctor is actually being the least unpleasant and irrational person this week.

When he tries to lure the monster into the school – as he explains it himself, the largest empty building – he’s trying to do the responsible thing. Is he responsible for the danger being there in the first place? He does say that it’s all the artron energy – presumably from all those TARDIS landings – that has attracted the threat. But then arguably he’s trying to clear up after the mess he’s made. And what responsibility Clara, when it’s all for her benefit that he keeps coming back here again and again?

The monster-of-the-week in question (other than Danny) is the Skovox Blitzer rolly-toy: armed to the teeth; capable of destroying the planet; and, as usual, unable to hit the broadside of a barn.

Why wasn’t it a Dalek? Functionally it’s a Dalek. It’s got the same shape in the plot as a Dalek… in fact come to think of it it’s got roughly the same shape as a Dalek in the physical sense too. And it’s not like they haven’t been actually in Coal Hill School before. (That would be the last time the Doctor was offered the position of school caretaker. Though he was a bit overqualified for the position.) It could even have been a white-and-gold Imperial one left over from “Asylum of the Daleks” the Shoreditch Incident in 1963 (“Remembrance of the Daleks”).

And the Doctor could have pointed at a Dalek and said: “That is a soldier. That is the ultimate in soldiers. And they made me be a soldier. And on Christmas they made me be a soldier all over again. For a thousand years. And then I died. So that, Clara, THAT is why I hate soldiers.”

Because seriously sometimes you really do need to make the subtext the text.

And of course, Danny beats the Blitzer monster with… P.E. That ludicrous look-at-me spring jump. Given the way it talks – all sub-Mechonoid numbers mixed with language – would it have been totally beyond the wit of man for the writer (TV’s Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat) to have him distract it with maths? (And of course you could not have done that to a Dalek!)

It’s not that the episode is without merit, or moments. That opening montage, if it weren’t so emotionally troubling. Capaldi’s wicked glee when schoolgirl Courtney says she’s a disruptive influence and he shakes her by the hand. And his “I may have a vacancy” line. And that she does get to travel in the TARDIS. Chris Addison as the unctuous afterlife receptionist Seb, and our little glimpse of Missy this week. Oh my god… she’s a bit busy.

Incidentally we get confirmation in passing that Missy’s heaven is the Promised Land mentioned in “Deep Breath” and “Robots of Sherwood”, even though the robots who’ve been trying to get there don’t really seem to fit with that once we find out that it’s a… but I’m telling you the plot.

And there’s an intriguing moment when the Doctor reveals that he thinks that he and Clara look the same age. And given that Clara is wound all around the Doctor’s timeline, then from the Gallifreyan point of view, it’s not impossible that that is exactly what they do look like to him.

But these are like glimpses into another – better – story, possibly some kind of black comedy assembled from these parts but… funny.

There are a lot of times where – and I may be totally misreading it here, in part because one of the writers is Gareth Roberts who is famously witty and the other is award-winning comedy writer Steven Moffat, – we appear to be being invited to laugh at these people, as though emotional distress is supposed to be funny. Chunks of this have the shape of a farce – Clara running down corridors; the mistaken identity of Clara’s boyfriend; the whole “hilarious” parents evening and the monster must never meet. And then they do the thing that farce cannot do and “drop the plates”, have the thing that mustn’t happen happen, i.e. have Danny actually collide with Clara’s other real life. And instead of hilarity ensuing, we just get spikes of raw pain.

Back in Moffat’s first season we had a roughly parallel arc for Amy and Rory. Amy ran away with the Doctor for “secret” adventures behind Rory’s back, but also kept secret from the Doctor that she had a boyfriend (whom she loved); halfway through the season we had a turning point – “Vampires of Venice” – where the Doctor and Rory collided, and Rory got to tell the Doctor a few home truths. And then Rory evolved. Okay, maybe he got killed a couple of times too many along the way. But he became a person who held his own in the TARDIS crew, and supported Amy’s choices and was worthy of her.

“The Caretaker” is no such turning point. Danny rejects all the choices that Rory takes, rejects all the wonders that are on offer in the Doctor’s magic box, and never grows into a better person.

Of course Danny is free to reject those things. That’s his choice. That doesn’t make him a bad person.

But what makes for poor storytelling, why this is poor in comparison with season five, is that “Doctor Who” – always seen as transformative – has no such effect on Danny.

(What does make Danny a bad person is that his tries to reject those choices for Clara and the Doctor too. He knows best. So he needs to control the Doctor by labelling him “an officer”, putting him into a box. He needs to control Clara by putting her into a “relationship” where only she needs make promises to him and he need make none to her (because he’s the boss). That’s why Danny’s a monster: because he will do anything to control other people. That’s what has always defined the villain in Doctor Who.)

At the time of broadcast, we didn’t know that that was the way the series would go; we could have hoped that this was a – deliberate – low point and that the characters’ behaviour here would be seen to be mistakes from which they learned and put things right. Instead, everyone will carry on making the same mistakes and worse lying and covering up so as to stop others seeing they are making the same mistakes.

People do behave like that in the real world. But they are not healthy and happy people. And “Doctor Who” has a responsibility to say to the audience: treating other people like this is not good.

Nobody wins today. When this happens in “classic” Doctor Who – in “Warriors of the Deep”, say – the Doctor sees that it is a disaster and at least has the grace to decry the carnage with a “There should have been another way”.

“Warriors of the Deep” is better than this.

Next Time… Do not get your hopes up for ALL the missing episodes… last time I said I’d try that the diary entries fell off a cliff again. But IF we manage it, next time we discover the ultimate Kinder Surprise and face the ultimate moral dilemma… without the Doctor. Another episode that divides fan opinion. Which way will I vote? And will Clara choose to “Kill the Moon”?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Day 5335 (again): A Song for Jeremy aka Labour’s White Flag


My Lords, Labours and Gentlebeans, please be upstanding for THE SONG:

The People's BEARD is sort of WHITE,

And gives the PARTY such a FRIGHT;

It looks like AUTHENTICITY,

But it's economic FANTASY!

      So raise the BEARD and SANDAL here,
      With policies of YESTERYEAR;
      And CRASH the economy AGAIN!

We'll tax the WEALTHY for their GREED,

And PRINT the money that we NEED;



      So raise the BEARD and SANDAL here,
      To Facebook LIKE and Twitter CHEER;
      Will DROWN out anybody's MOANS!

But if you choose to DISAGREE,

We'll throw abuse and shout "TORY!"

We sneer at TRAITORS in our RANKS,

And make the BLAIRITES walk the PLANK!

      So raise the BEARD and SANDAL here;
      The GREAT and GOOD all quake with FEAR;

When 2020 comes round at last,

You'll find us focused on the PAST;

We'll Ban the Bomb and Stop the War,

And vote to reinstate CLAUSE FOUR! (Or not!)

      So raise the BEARD and SANDAL here,
      Election chances DISAPPEAR;
      Emblazoned with our silver FUZZ,
      Though NO ONE wants to VOTE for US!

Day 5335: The Corbynite Manoeuvre


For those of you who don't speak "geek" (are there really such people reading my diary?!) "The Corbomite Maneuver" is that episode of "Star Trek" where Captain Kirk threatens to blow himself and his ship to bits rather than admit that he can't win.

Of course, it's really a BLUFF, as the miracle element Corbynite does not truly exist…

(It ISN'T one of the ones where they travel back in time to the Nineteen Eighties… but it COULD be.)

On the other fluffy foot, the enemy captain, the balloon-headed Balok, turns out to be an empty sock puppet too. It's all WEIRDLY TOPICAL!

A load of Balok

Hard Labour appear to have discovered a completely new corner to paint themselves into.

Mr Jeremy Corbyn, previously self-effacing standard bearer of the left, presently discovering – like all potential revolutionaries – that he really, really wants to be able to order people about is leading the polls to be the next Labour Loser.

EITHER, he will win and command the support of less than a tenth of his Parliamentary Party (as even fifteen of the people who nominated him have since recanted; bet Labour are SO pleased to have put SO much effort into replacing Lynne Featherstone with a Corbyn-nominating useful idiot)…

OR he will come substantially first in the first round of voting and only be beaten by a centrist/Blairite/neoliberal fascist running-dog (choose your insult of preference) candidate, potentially Yvette "the snooper" Cooper having come from THIRD and overtaken Andy Crash-and-Burnham with transfers from Liz Kendall Mint Cake and then overtaking Corbyn with transfers from Burnham.

This, it has to be said, at the very least would make Mr Milipede's last minute crown-snatching from his brother look FAIR and LEGITIMATE.

(Which, Daddy Alex points out, is clearly why Yvette and Andy are trying so hard to persuade Liz that she should bail out; they will have a better PERCENTAGE in the first round if she's just not there, which will look better when – they calculate – they win on transfers.

Plus they probably reckon they've a better chance of picking up support from people who would have put Liz Kendal "1" – Liz and her campaign manager, by current polling – if voting for Liz isn't an option. If you've got a vote you are more likely to use it, and so pick either Yvette or Andy; if Liz is on the poll, then you might just stop voting after giving your first preference to her.)

The rise of Mr Corbyn has been compared (whether it is fair or not) to the current pole position in the polls for Dame Donald of Trump in the Replutocratic Primaries in Americaland. Just as the Prima Donald is a throwback to the land before treating people with respect, so Uncle Jezza, the new Santa Clause Four, is a throwback to the land before treating people's choices and aspirations with respect.

The intellectual comparison is, of course, laughable. But they ARE both, in their ways, a SYMPTOM of our troubled politics and economic hardship, with the people to whom they appeal reaching out for a comfort blanket of NOSTALGIA, for the certainty and ideological purity even that a SUPERFICIAL view of the past suggests existed there and no longer does.

It is what you might call the CATHOLIC view of political history – we lived in that ideological EDEN before the millennial FALL. Lord Blarimort cast here as the SERPENT. (And like the Catholic view of ORIGINAL INNOCENCE and the FALL into SIN (or indeed SPIN), it is based on MYTH not truth; politics was ALWAYS dirty and compromised.)

In a way, Mr Corbyn is the completely logical outcome of Hard Labour's problem with their own history and the economy. They've spent five years in denial about the events that led to the crash, their spending record – and record spending – running a deficit during a boom, stoking the boiler of an already-overheating economy with cheap borrowing while taking their eye off the banking regulation ball.

Many in Hard Labour won't or can't admit that the Coalition by implementing austerity budgets took the only possible course of action – as did every other government on the face of the planet; as in fact, Labour would have done themselves (as they even SAID until the day they lost the 2010 election and with it any direct accountability or sense of responsibility).

Corbyn's rejection of Liberal Keynesian economics – of balancing the books over the cycle, automatic stabilisers in the downturns and surpluses in boom time – in favour of old-style Statism and the Command Economy appeals to everyone who wishes that there was a better, purer way.

(I don't believe in "there is no alternative"; but I don't believe that the failed policies of the past ARE that alternative.)

Again and again the same zombie arguments keep shambling out from Labour and their supporters: Labour's overspending didn't cause the crash. Or more simply "blame the bankers", "blame the Tories", "blame anyone… in fact… other than ourselves".

Failing to take responsibility is at the heart of Labour's failure to move on from 2008, and their failure to develop a new programme based on credible economics. Corbyn is NOT about taking responsibility and moving on; quite the reverse, he's all about saying we were never wrong in the first place, reassuring them that the Satanic Blairimort was an aberration (for not spending ENOUGH money!), and making them feel better about themselves (and never mind all the people they will fail by putting their own feelings first).

The World that Corbyn wants to take us back to, one of full employment in mass industry – reopening the coal pits, for heaven's sake – DOES NOT EXIST. If fact it's only going FURTHER AWAY! Full employment will get less and less plausible as more and more jobs become automated – self-driven cars mean robot lorries and no more truck drivers (and the tube drivers will strike once too often and go the same way too). And that's merely the beginning.

We need to plan NOW for an economy where we all share the proceeds of innovation and growth, not just those with the capital to buy themselves a secure income from robot labour, before we all end up serving coffee to the 0.0001% in branches of Trump-Branded EvilCorp.

The #LibDemFightback is the place to start.

But we NEED the Official Opposition to get their act together too.

But when the response of Labour activists to THEIR OWN ELECTION POST MORTEM is to call it "Bull…", they might just not be in a place to do so.

Right now, the Tories are running rampant, blaming victims of wars (often ones Great Britain is complicit in starting) for threatening their home comforts, selling off banks to the advantage of their friends and doing unspeakable things to education and health, and all the while shredding the Constitution, probably tearing the Country apart, for their shoddy advantage.

They are behaving like they believe there is no tomorrow. Probably because they know that for them there isn't one. They are acting like they think they will never win an election again. And quite probably – in spite of all the column inches saying they cannot lose in 2020 – they are right, they can and they will. The chances of May's election fluke being repeated are vastly reduced by the Liberal Democrats simply refusing to lie down and die.

The only thing that might save them, in fact, is that this Leadership contest is making Labour LESS electable than in 1983.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Day 5326: My Fair Ladies (and Lords)


The Conservatories seem to have discovered a previously-buried passion for democratic "fairness". They say something like this:

"The Lib Dems only got 8 MPs, but they have 101 Lords, that's so unfair."

And of course they are RIGHT.

We believe in Proportional Representation. There are 1432 Westminster Parliamentarians, and so to represent the 7.9% of the electorate who voted for us on May 7, we should have 113. So we are owed 4 Peers.

I look forward to Mr Balloon firing 29 of his more egregiously stupid followers so they can achieve the "fairness" that they say they want.

Lords Reform aka Night of the Living Clegg

*I've heard this line several times now. See also: Lib Dem Voice. So clearly our erstwhile Conservatory "friends" are being heavily briefed to repeat it. They are trying to set the agenda, make the story before they gerrymander even further and clearly want to hammer the legitimacy of the revising chamber before anyone notices that the practically-in-name-only-elected chamber is far more WILDLY lacking in legitimacy.

**No, I'm not calling for the creation of 176 UKIP Peers; or even 54 Green Peers – the Liberal Democrats pushed very hard to REFORM the Lords during the Coalition; reform that was blocked by the usual unholy reactionary alliance of Conservatory and Hard Labour. But it's a bit rich of them complaining now that the unfair system they insisted on produced an unfair outcome!

***yes, I did just call the Conservatories "a bit rich". I'm experimenting with UNDERSTATEMENT!

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Day 3502: Budget Summary – Conservatory Vote to Lift Ban on Shooting Labour's Foxes*


Master Gideon's it's-not-an-emergency emergency budget will be hailed as a triumph by all the usual suspects; the "living" wage announcement feted as a brilliant coup.

They'll love the Inheritance Tax cut; they'll delight in raising the Personal Allowance that goes to the well-off (and goes against everything the Coalition did); they'll relish the allowance for dividends (favouring unearned income once again); they'll thrill to the grinding oppression of the working classes.

It's a budget for rent seekers, not workers.

It's a budget for the old, not the young.

It's a budget for the dead rich, not the poor living.

In the Treasury, the Chancellor reviews those final Budget figures

The big flashy "rabbit from hat" moment was that introduction of a compulsory £9/hour "living" wage (by 2020), which – along with action on Non-Dom status taxpayers – was pinched straight from Hard Labour's 2015 manifesto. (In fact Mr Milipede was promising only £8/hour by the end of the decade, so that fox was well and truly shot).

Alongside their COMPLETE CAPITULATION on the Benefit Cap (caving in to the Conservatory rhetoric about "benefit street" culture, even though it's total Boss Hog Wash) leaves the Far Too Loyal Opposition floundering.

Even the "spending someone else's money"-ness of saying "Business must pay for a compulsory living wage!' is tres Milipede. But by foreswearing mere 1% pay rises for the public sector, isn't he saying: "Do as I say, not as I do"? (Clue: yes!)

The living wage according to the Living Wage Foundation should be £9.15 in London and £7.85 everywhere else.

So that £9 is does not sound too bad. (We cannot assume that inflation will be nothing forever, but even if it gets back on the 2% target from next year those figures are likely to be around a £9.90 and £8.50. So still okay for those not in the Capital, if a bit more squeaky for That Londoners.)

There's a sort of circularity to it all.

At the moment the (Tory) reasoning goes: the Government collects tax and then pays it back to people as Tax Credits thus subsidising jobs that do not pay a "living" wage – now they take away the tax credits but will force companies to pay more, and raise the personal allowance so that the income tax on that is well who knows more? Less? The same? All of the above?... but George will cut the companies' Corporation Tax rate to the lowest in Europe... so we are still subsidising the same companies to pay those jobs.

(Of course, I would usually point out that "not taxing" is not the same as subsidising… and that's true here too! If the companies lay off the "living" wage workers… they still get to keep the tax cut! Trebles all round!)

It's certainly not that I'm an enormous FAN of the Tax Credits system. Mr Frown invented it as a fix so that he could count it as "negative" taxation (while also Empire-building, so he could control a share of benefits from the Treasury). They ARE somewhat redistributionist, gathering up tax and giving it to lower income earners.

My main objection is that you have to fit into the right categories, you have to be deemed "worthy" by the Chancellor, in order to qualify and that strikes me as dangerous, handing largely unaccountable power to an office in Whitehall (and all the minions of the bureaucracy, with no offence to the Hon. Lady Mark). Mr Frown gained a moderate amount of infamy from the way that each year his budget would change who the "good" people were in a way that ENTIRELY COINCIDENTALLY reflected his own changing life circumstances – new baby = child trust fund; off to school = extended child tax credits and so on. That's moderately quaint. And also obviously massively corrupt.

(On top of that, I don't like that they're too complicated for anyone to understand, resulting in them going wrong all the time and causing hardship when the Government comes round to snatch back the money they've already given you.)

So I don't think there'd be anything terribly wrong in allowing the Tax Credits system to die a natural death by RAISING WAGES so much that Tax Credits became unnecessary.

What I don't think is a good idea is putting the cart as it were before the horse. And then flogging the horse to within an inch of its life.

As I said about Greece: making poor people poorer does not magically make them richer.

And the cuts to tax credits are a bit EYE-WATERING: currently there's a taper set so that you lose 41% of each pound you earn over £6,420; Gideon has upped that taper to 48% and almost halved the starting point down to £3,850. So – for those who jump through the hoops to qualify – that's an effective marginal tax rate of 48% on earnings at the bottom end, and you start paying it on a much lower wage. Compared to 45% on earnings over £150,000.

How all in it together are we?

And don't even THINK about trying to get out of poverty by working or educating yourself. In a calculated DOUBLE-SNUB to younger people, the living wage ISN'T going to apply if you are under 25 AND he's abolishing maintenance grants – adding another twenty-five grand to your student loans.

It would be TERRIBLY easy to say: "those students who wanted to punish the Lib Dems over tuition fees – how's that working out for you?".

But in truth this is just desperately COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE, undoing the GOOD that the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition tried to do for increasing social mobility, and undermining the ENTIRE COUNTRY by reducing the incentive to educate our workforce to higher-paying jobs.

Similarly, freezing all benefits for five years – billed without irony as "to allow salaries to catch up"(!) – goes against every effort that the Liberal Democrats made in Coalition to protect the most vulnerable. And slashing the Employment Support Allowance that enables people with disabilities to participate in the workforce is just going to damage not just their lives but the amount they contribute to the country.

Oh and he's chopped the cap on welfare payments from £26,000 to £20,000. For what can only be described as "reasons", we happen to know that finding an extra £500 a month is, ahem, "quite difficult" even when you're on Daddy Richard's salary. So goodness only knows how you're supposed to manage when you're on a low income and in-work benefits or no income at all.

And of course his TOTAL COWARDICE of making the BBC decide whether or not to cut the benefit of free TV Licences to the over-75s. (They decided to take the hit.) A kicking for Auntie Beeb always proving a real crowd-pleaser with the rabid right on the backbenches – not to mention the dead tree media barons.

"Hello, I'm George. Pwease can I be leader next!"

So them's the LOSERS; who's the WINNERS?

There are substantial tax giveaways… to the favoured middle-classes. The rise in the Higher Rate threshold on top of the rise in Personal Allowance is a complete reversal of the Coalition years' policy that NARROWED the band so that ALL of the benefit of raising the Personal Allowance went to Basic Rate taxpayers. Now, Higher Rate taxpayers will get TWICE the benefit of basic rate payers, plus extra ON TOP. (Combined I think they're worth about £200 a year.)

Master Gideon has also done a thing with dividends – pretty much making up a whole new tax, in fact, "Dividend Income Tax", separating the taxation of dividends from other income and giving it its own Personal Allowance. He toasted himself for saying that it would be possible to receive up to £17,000 in income without paying any tax, but a lot if not all of that would be from UNEARNED income – so it promotes "rent seeking", rather than working to or investing in creating wealth.

(On the good side, this may have slightly restored the tax credit for pension funds that Mr Frown raided back in 1998; that's good for me – or anyone with a pension – as there a better chance of them not going BUST before we retire. And it's good for City pension fund managers. But less so for the economy more widely, as money that is saved in pensions – i.e. sunk into the stock market – isn't circulating in the wider economy generating profits).

And of courses there's a million pounds free of Inheritance Tax.

It's almost as the though the Baronet doesn't WANT people to earn money. Why bother when he can get it for nothing from daddy?

On top of it all, his target for getting the budget into surplus has slipped another year (since March!) which suggests this really wasn't the time to be throwing tax away. Growth predictions are down as well – not a lot he can do about Greece or China, to be fair – but slashing capital spending on his "Northern Poorhouse" and withdrawing cash from the people most likely to spend it and giving it away to people to put in non-productive investments point very much the wrong way for growth and much more towards a repeat of 2011's short sharp STOP.

Does make you wonder where from his hat he plans to pull the EIGHT BILLION QUID he promised for the National Health Service. Again. And – in another multi-billion bung as a sop to those wingnuts on the Conservatory right – the 2% of GDP he's guaranteed to spend on guns and bombs. Maybe the RABBIT ate it?

On the whole I think it was a flashy and "clever-clever" budget, but lacking in any real substance, biased towards people who already have capital (in large supplies) and with the potential seriously to undermine the country's recovery by prolonging austerity and cutting the money being spent.

As an advertising feature called "What Did the Liberal Democrats Ever Do For Us?" I think this is a work of crazed genius. As a programme for recovery… well, I hear Yanis Varofakis is looking for a job

The proof of the pudding will be in how we all feel in a year's time when we'll know if he's killed growth stone dead. Again.

Or in 48 hours' time if it implodes the way his "Omnishambles" budget did.


*Yes, they tried to bury an announcement on lifting the hunting ban too.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Day 5301: Speaking Out Against Extremism


As a member of an ethnic community (namely white people*), it has been brought to my attention that we're in danger, as a community, of "tacitly condoning" extremist language from my fellows because they are "people like me".

These people prey on young British men and women, trying to persuade them to travel to foreign countries thousands of miles away, to perform acts of terrible violence with high explosives.

I mean, of course, people like Mr Michael Fallon, Secretary of the so-called Ministry of Defence (by which we mean Attack) who thinks we should be exploding things in Syria.

There seems to be something about Syria that EXEMPTS politicians from remembering what actually happened. If it's not Mr Milipede claiming he "stood up to President Obama" (when in fact he and Mr Balloon basically cancelled each other out with very similar "let's bomb Syria" motions) then it's Mr Fallon saying we should "think again" about attacking people who we were never thinking of attacking and defending the people who we WERE thinking of attacking!

I think there's a name for how this happens: it's called "lazy journalism" – "Oi! Newspapers! Look at the record and CHALLENGE people when they MAKE this STUFF UP!"

Of COURSE things are more COMPLICATED than just "bombing people bad".

Our history – in the last ten years, or a hundred years, or a THOUSAND years(!) – is one of sticking our fluffy noses into the Middle East and making a mess. So we've got RESPONSIBILITIES and AMENDS to make.

And the Not-Islamic Not-a-State terrorists (should we call them NINAS to keep the Prime Monster happy?) are, as far as I am able to judge from their actions, among the most horribly evil people on the face of the planet, and if they come anywhere near us then we would be quite right to fight them off with the full might and power that the West could deploy.

But they AREN'T anywhere near us. And we certainly do not seem willing to deploy enough might and power to defend the people in the region that we say are our friends. And deploying only the tiny fraction of the full might and power that we can be bothered to send – while still fully capable of flattening large areas of any Middle-Eastern country – doesn't half badword off the survivors!

If you want to intervene, then (a) get a UN mandate and (b) send enough troops actually to do the job. Lobbing bombs in the general direction of people you don't like just so you can feel better… that's what TERRORISTS do!

We have in the West an "ultimate weapon" that for all the undoubted impressiveness of all that might and power is INFINITELY more successful than ANY amount of ordinance: it is called PEACE. Sometimes it is called prosperity.

It is why Ukraine is willing to stand up to Vlad the Bad. It is why hundreds of thousands are willing to throw themselves in leaky boats to cross the Mediterranean.

So I KNOW it's COMPLICATED, but can we at least START from a position of HUMBLY accepting that we keep messing up and that SWAGGERING around THREATING to EXPLODE people is, to say the least, not helping.

Today is "7/7". We should remember. And we should do BETTER.

*white ELEPHANT people, thank you.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Day 5295: Making a Drachma out of a Crisis


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The badly-wounded Greek economy lurches between survival and final total collapse.

When the Greek Syriza Government – elected on an unfulfillable promise to end austerity AND settle with their creditors – hit the brick wall of reality, they abdicated responsibility, punted it back to the people in a referendum where not even Nobel Prize-winning Economists understand the choice, and seemingly killed any chance of a last-minute rescue.

But now, as he's already over the brink, Prime Minister Tsipras appears to accept the demands of the people trying to save him.

Update: or would he rather his people voted no, and carried on into the abyss?

How can this rescue the Greek economy?

How much does a Greek... oh, you've heard it

This is what a taste of Economic Armageddon looks like: their banks are closed; their Euro lifeline is suspended; they've missed a payment to the IMF – though the IMF, obviously unwilling to pull the trigger, declares that they're "in arrears", rather than "default"; and they've managed to piss off most of their neighbours by apparently playing silly-beggars over this referendum…

There appear to be two – equally heartfelt – responses to the crisis unfolding in Athens and engulfing the Greeks.

The first is: Why should we (or at least Europe) continue to throw good money (raised from EU taxpayers) after bad when Greece has already been treated with incredible generosity – more than half of their debt was written off and the rest was effectively nationalised by the EU in the immediate aftermath of the global meltdown – while they have failed to do their part in reforming their pensions, government or tax collection?

The Greeks are seen – largely legitimately – as the authors of their own downfall:

  • their now notoriously-generous pensions (retire at 55, receive £1000 a month for 14 out of 12 months a year… it seemed too good to be true, and guess what… it WAS!); a welfare system that appear to involve generously paying grannies to make sure their kids are all right: Greece has a population of 11 million, 2.6 million (24%) of whom are receiving their pension. No wonder the system is still going bust!
  • their kleptocratic government (who fibbed their way into the Euro, and, with the help of Goldman Sachs, were hiding some rather substantial "off-balance-sheet" debts until they were uncovered as the whole sub-prime derivatives market unravelled in disarray);
  • their cripplingly-expensive loss-making 2004 Olympic vanity project that left Athens bedecked with new ruins of abandoned stadia;
  • and their basic unwillingness to pay taxes (with tax evasion estimated to run at 40%-50%!); their spending has gone up with their post-Euro-entry GDP, but they are still collecting roughly the same amount of tax as they were in 2001.

It's not that Greeks do not work harder than Germans – if anything, the reverse is true. It's not even that they all retire at 55 to sit on an Aegean beach. It's because Greece is a small country largely dependent on a service sector economy.

80% of the Greek economy is in service sector jobs. To be fair, so is Britain's! But unlike Britain, where high-value financial services are by far the biggest part of that sector (40% of service sector; 30% of the total economy – don't look smug; that's why our economy was nuked in 2008), in Greece those services are TOURISM and SHIPPING, both of which pretty obviously take a hit during a global recession (when fewer people can afford to take a holiday and fewer goods are being bought and sold and therefore moved about) and both of which are given a relatively low value (while huge banking hubs like London are RARE, there are PLENTY of OTHER places to go on holiday or OTHER boats to ship your goods in).

The pre-existing infrastructure for manufacturing in Germany (or for finance in London) put Greece at an inescapable disadvantage. Nor do they have the massive population of a China or an India or a Brazil and even if they did certainly not one willing to accept the low standard of living that lets those countries (currently) undercut on cost of labour. Hiking their minimum wage probably didn't help, but really they were never going to go low enough to be cheaper than places where people live on a dollar a day.

They wanted all the benefits (and some) of a Northern European economy. Without the Northern European economy to support it. So they elected Governments who gave them what they wanted but paid for it on tick.

And by electing Syriza, who were committed to spending even more money that they don't have (and have already made a start by re-hiring 15,000 civil servants), the Greek people have given a pretty obvious gesture to their creditors.

The other response is to see this as tyranny, even cruelty, an immoral "moral crusade" by faceless, foreign, unaccountable, "neoliberal" (see my button eyes roll), capitalist bankers overruling the sovereign wishes of a democracy. If it's NOT the Greeks fault – they are hardworking but geographically unlucky – then it must be someone else's, it must be the sinister cabal of capitalism!

This view says that the conditions imposed on Greece – in particular the demand that the Government slash spending to the point where they were able to run a surplus – were (indeed still are) not only utterly unachievable, but actually at the root of why Greece's recession has persisted for six years. Making poor people poorer doesn't magically make them richer.

Great Britain, they remind us – no matter how smug Gideon is about our superior growth rates – has moved out of recession while continuing to run elephant-sized deficits and thus stimulating not smothering our recovery (though that's largely thanks to Liberal Democrat amelioration of the more insane Tory austerity plans).

But Greece HASN'T been running a surplus either – they've just not run ASTRONOMICAL deficits the way Great Britain or Americaland have; with Greek debts already 175% of their GDP they've had no flexibility to do so.

There are a FINITE amount of lenders to go around, If EVERYONE is running deficits because of the recession, OUR deficit – looking like a safer bet – has probably sucked up international lending making it harder for Greece to attract another sugar daddy. In fact, their membership of the Euro may have actually SAVED them by forcing this role upon the otherwise-unwilling Germans.

Eurosceptics (and idiots) insist that membership of the Euro effectively locks Greece into an unsustainably high exchange rate that continues to draw money away from the Mediterranean countries and into Germany, and they should crash out and devalue to regain competitiveness.

These are usually the same people who celebrate Mr Frown's intransigence in keeping Great Britain out of the Euro, saying "look, look how badly Greece and Spain and Italy are doing!" even though – by their exact same argument – the huge financial centre of London would have sucked money into the UK making us huge winners from the deal.

There IS some truth in saying that single currency areas need to make revenue transfers back to their economic peripheries – in the UK (sterling single currency area) payments go from London and the South East to other parts of the country; in Americaland (US dollar single currency area) payments go from the coasts to the central States.

European debt-forgiveness has achieved something like this but in a half-hearted and haphazard manner.

However*, the REAL impact of Euro entry saw Greek GDP per capita go from $12,000 in 2001 (when they joined the single currency) to $32,000 in 2008 (when the market hit peak just before the crash) and has so far fallen back to $27,000. So anyone who says that the Euro has been a bad thing for the Greeks is totally talking out of their hat; and anyone who thinks that things there are as bad as they could get has wilfully blinded themselves to just how much further the Greek economy could fall.

The great fear of Germany (and everywhere else), apart from being stiffed with the bill for all this, is "moral hazard" or the "how many people can you pull into your lifeboat before it sinks and you ALL drown?" problem.

Greece may (still) end up defaulting. And if they DO, they may "get away with it", that is, see their way through to an economic recovery.

Iceland did something similar a few years ago. Their banks went bust and their government simply refused to pay up and when they refused to pay their debts it meant that somewhere else a lot of people's money ceased to exist. Iceland "got away with it", and have seen an economic recovery. That recovery was largely paid for by YOU, the British Taxpayer, because a lot of that money that ceased to exist was ours. Lured by ridiculously generous interest rates that, as it turned out, like the Greek pensions, really were too good to be true, lots of people had put their saving into Icelandic banks. And several councils had put really silly amounts of money there too. And the Treasury forked out to cover those losses, paid for from your taxes.

Those losses were a lot easier for sixty million Britons to bear than three-hundred thousand Icelanders.

If Greece defaults, European governments – mainly the German one – will fork out and eighty million Germans will find it easier to bear than eleven million Greeks.

But where does it end?

Because if Greece can "get away with it" – goes the worry – what's to stop Ireland or Portugal or even Spain or Italy defaulting? At SOME POINT we will HAVE to draw a line. So draw it here and now, they say.

So how do we get these two views? And how do we resolve them?

Well, I think (and it may seem perverse) that the first view is the OPTIMISTIC people, who think that Greece's problems COULD be solved (if they'd just do something about some of them!).

The second view is from people who think Greece's problems are UNSOLVABLE, and therefore want to bung the problem to someone else (someone with enough money to cope with it – meaning Germany… but… moral hazard…).

In a way this is because there are really TWO problems: lack of LIQUIDITY (i.e. no cash in the banks) v lack of SOLVENCY (i.e. expenditure exceeds – all possible – income).

What we NEED to do is SEPARATE the unsolvable problem (the ever-expanding debt that is soaking up all the money) from the (possibly) solvable one (the imbalance in the Greek economy).

So step one: quarantine the existing debts at zero interest. Postpone any further repayments by Greece.

Step two: rather than the random method of letting them borrow willy-nilly and then cancelling some arbitrary chunks of the debt, agree revenue streams from the EU that will allow Greece to BALANCE THEIR BOOKS in return for them implementing reasonable controlling of their spending (and tax raising).

Step three: be aware that every other country in Europe is going to want in on this scheme and immediately begin the work to create accountable democratic control, otherwise Germany will secede from the EU even before Britain manages to vote in Mr Balloon's daft referendum.

*Bite me, Michael Gove (the goft that keeps on goving)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Day 5289: Fluffy footnote: what IS this DEFICIT thingie, again?


I cannot emphasise the following enough: The Deficit is NOT the National Debt. The deficit ADDS TO our National Debt.

I'm sure that Tim Lord Tim (@timfarron) and Mr Norman Conquest (@normanlamb) get this. But too many politicians clearly DON'T.

So: Economics for Elephants 101…

The Government raises about seven hundred billion quid in taxes.

But they spend nearer to EIGHT hundred billion pounds on health, pensions, benefits, schools, guided missiles and Boris' hairdo and the rest.

The difference, the amount extra needed for that spending, about a hundred billion pounds last year, is what is called the DEFICIT and we need to BORROW that from somewhere.

(Mostly, actually, it's borrowed from pension funds more that international banks, but the boys in the City still get a nice cut).

I'll say it again because I really cannot emphasise it enough: The Deficit is NOT the National Debt. The deficit ADDS TO our National Debt.

As of March 2015, the total National DEBT amounted to ONE THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED BILLION pounds (£1,598.5 billion) or 86.6% of GDP*. That's SIXTEEN times (or SIXTEEN years of) the annual deficit.

And it's going UP.

The INTEREST that the country pays on the debt we owe already is forty-three billion pounds (£43 billion) or around 3% of GDP. Or about the same as we spend on the Department for Education or the Ministry of Defence.

Even if Master Gideon were to eliminate the deficit tomorrow – and the cuts to do THAT would be STAGGERING – we would STILL owe sixteen-hundred billion pounds, so we would STILL have to pay that forty-three billion pounds EVERY YEAR just to stand still.

(Like an interest-only mortgage, or just paying the minimum on your credit card – the debt NEVER GOES AWAY!)

And I'll say this YET again: running a deficit ADDS TO our total national debt.

Running a SURPLUS, on the other fluffy foot, (raising more than we spend; the OPPOSITE of a deficit) means reducing the total debt.

And it’s ONLY a surplus if you reduce debt

(*Or, in an extreme case, where you have NO national debt running a surplus would mean paying in to a sovereign wealth fund.)

– if you spend it on absolutely anything else then you are SPENDING, and NOT running a surplus.

Spending is still spending, even if it’s spending on things we’d rather wish away.

When people say "it’s BAAAAD to cut spending!" my Daddy often replies: "I want to cut the amount of spending that goes to international bankers. You want to give them more and more".

A surplus gives us a CHOICE. We can choose to run a LARGER surplus to build reserves – or rather, as our financial advisors usually advise us, to pay off debts first – OR we can to run a SMALLER surplus and spend a bit more (or even cut taxes a bit).

Though at some point – probably about 2018 – Master Gideon will say "…and now that we're running a surplus I can give you tax cuts…"

At which point, obviously, it STOPS being a surplus again.

IF we reduced the TOTAL debt, we could reduce those £43billion interest payments. And cutting down the amount that we have to pay in interest lets us spend more in future on other things, like schools, hospitals, soldiers, and hairdos.

Why do we not just run a surplus?

Well, as the man said when asked for directions to Tipperary, I wouldn't start from here.

There are a frustrating number of left-wing commenters who will say the likes of: "the Coalition borrowed umpty-billion more in 3 years than Labour borrowed in 13." Clearly without the slightest recognition that what they are saying is that they wanted the Coalition to not run a deficit, i.e the cuts to be a hundred billion pounds a year more savage. Often, and with no sense of irony, while saying that austerity is unnecessary.

The Government is committed to a great deal of spending – salaries for doctors, nurses, soldiers, teachers; building projects; aircraft carriers; £43 billion in interest… They cannot very simply just hit the "stop" button on paying those and many other things, any more than you could, say, cancel your rent or heating bill.

In 2008, tax incomes contracted very sharply. It was ALWAYS going to take TIME for spending to be brought down in line with the new fiscal (meaning how much money the government gets) reality.

i.e. in 2010, a deficit was INEVITABLE.

On top of that there is a question of POLICY. Overspending by the government when the economy is going down the tubes is supposed to HELP. At least that's what Liberal Economist JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES says, anyway.

The strength of the economy is (forgive the waving of fluffy feet) connected to the amount of money and goods moving about in it.

(You CAN get into an argument about there being too much money chasing too few goods driving up inflation, but go too far in that direction and you'll wander into controlling the economy by cutting the money supply through the hiking of interest rates and that way lies the failed madness of monetarism.)

Government raising taxes is taking money OUT of the economy.

(So is putting it in your piggy banks by the way, but that's not a lever the government controls.)

Government spending puts money back IN to the economy.

So running a DEFICIT is a BOOST to the economy because the Government ADDS more money (strictly, adds more than it takes away, or what we call adds "NET").

(And the FLIP side is that running a SURPLUS… or in fact ANY actions to cut a deficit – raising more from taxes or putting less back in spending – tends to SLOW DOWN the economy. As we saw in 2011, following the Coalition's first economic rescue remedies, raising VAT and cutting capital spends.)

So why not just run a deficit forever?

Some people actually suggest that we should! And they often point out that most governments for most of the time DO run deficits (and get away with it).

Let's just suppose we had a balanced budget. Don't laugh. If we knew the economy was growing, and we guessed that we would have, let's say, £20 billion more next year…

(As I said yesterday, the Bank of England expect growth to increase the economy this year and next, which will – everything else being equal – increase the Treasury's tax IN by about £20 billion.)

…then we could have two choices for next year's budget.

Number One: increase spending (or cut taxes) by £20 billion, keeping everything in balance. That would be the CLASSICAL economic approach.

Or, Number Two: we could say: "well, how much could we BORROW so that the INTEREST PAYMENT on that would be £20 billion…" and if interest rates are 2% then that's a TRILLION (a THOUSAND billion) pounds. Which would pay for a LOT of hairdos. So why not have that trillion pounds NOW.

(Though, you may observe, this is kind what we have actually already done!)

In theory, then, if the economy is growing, you COULD continue keep increasing the total borrowing, and with it increase the interest we have to pay, so long as the increase in interest keeps pace with the growth of tax revenues.

And indeed this is probably the thinking behind those people who say that thing about most governments running deficits most of the time.

But it doesn't work.

(If it did you'd have invented a perpetual motion machine, and that's impossible!)

It doesn't work because you are GAMBLING. Gambling in the biggest way. You are gambling that the economy will grow FOREVER. Not just that, that it will grow in every year forever, that it will NEVER, EVER NOT Grow.

Because in ANY year that the economy shrinks, then you cannot afford as much future payments of interest so you have to PAY BACK some of the TOTAL DEBT… and – as the man said in the note – all the money is gone, you've spent it. Go directly to the IMF, do not pass go.

And after 2008, do you REALLY REALLY REALLY believe in betting that the economy will grow forever? Can you with a straight face say you can "abolish boom and bust?"

(If you do, I have a perpetual motion machine I would like to sell you!)

Trickle-down economics, by MC Escher

So we shouldn't borrow at all?

Borrowing money that you spend on building your economy, that is borrowing for INVESTMENT, can WORK.

But a LOT of the time, it's borrowing just to SPEND, which is actually a PONZI SCHEME – a very famous kind of FRAUD.

It pays the REWARDS now (more spending) out of the money drawn in as investments (more borrowing) rather than as a return on those investments actually generating anything.

"Investment" is a word that has become very DEBASED since the time of New Labour, because they would SPIN things and used "investment" (because it sounded good) when they actually just meant "spending" (which sounded all "tax and spend" bad!).

It's the difference between borrowing money to buy a FARM, which then grows things so you can feed yourself and sell the extra which makes new economic growth, plus you've still got a farm; and borrowing money to buy FOOD, which you then eat and you're left with only the debts.

Things are slightly different for COUNTRIES than they are for PEOPLE. If people run out of money for food, they go to the food bank. If countries run out of money they go to the WORLD Bank…

What happens to countries in real life is that the more they borrow, the more EXPENSIVE it gets to borrow MORE.

Interest rates are (partly) to do with how much RISK a loan has.

(A "secured" bank loan like a mortgage has lower risk, because the bank can take your home back if you stop paying. That's why unsecured WONGA loans have much higher risk and so much higher interest rates than bank mortgages which are secured on your home. That and Wonga being EVIL.)

If you borrow a LOT, then the lenders start to think you are less likely to be able to pay them back. So the RISK is greater. So they charge you MORE in interest.

Eventually, you get to the GREECE-style position where more lending is SO risky that there's no way you can afford the interest payments let alone repay the original loans.

How are we supposed to bring balance to the force, then?

In the age of MR GLADSTONE, what we now call CLASSICAL economics taught that Governments shouldn't mess up the economy by interfering, so they should try to run a BALANCED budget (i.e. only take as much tax as they were going to spend; and only spend as much as they raised in tax).

But what Professor Keynes thought (remember him!), in the light of the GREAT DEPRESSION (aka Mr Frown) was that the economy would still go through cycles of BOOM and BUST.

So what the Government OUGHT to do was to try to act like a COUNTERWEIGHT: overspend during the recession years to add stimulus to the economy and speed up recovery; AND run a surplus during the boom years to try to reduce the overheating and make the next crash smaller when it came.

(Clue: Mr Frown OVERSPENT by OVERBORROWING during the BOOM years and we had the BIGGEST BUST IN HISTORY. This is NOT coincidental, whatever Hard Labour apologists may say!)

The REAL truth though, is just how POWERLESS people feel in the face of these enormous and sort of nebulous "economic forces". "Globalism" and "Austerity" have a huge impact on people's lives, often directly when it comes to Disability Living Allowance or Bedroom Tax, or pay freezes and redundancies, or immigration and off-shoring. But nobody really "gets" where all the money went, and so it feels as arbitrary and capricious as those old (ironically) Greek gods randomly smiting us mortals.

The old economy – the one where Labour and Conservatives are alike in only seeing one "good", which is to shackle yourself to one job – is entering a death spiral.

What we need to look at next, is how a Liberal economy would start to empower people against the "new economic gods", to share our resources better, freeing people both from poverty trap AND wage-slavery, and giving them back the power to change their local, national and ultimately global economies.

Fluffy footnote to the fluffy footnote: and GDP? What's that?

*"GDP" or "Gross Domestic Product" is a way of measuring the size of the economy; it is the total value of everything produced in the country, and is sort of like the country's "salary". It is a useful benchmark to compare against.

In 2014, the United Kingdom had a Gross Domestic Product of roughly one thousand, eight hundred billion pounds (that is about £1.846 trillion).

(This, incidentally, makes us the FIFTH largest economy on EARTH, overtaking France.)

The Government took about 37.5% of GDP in taxes, about seven hundred billion quid (£690 billion).

But the Government SPENT about 43.2% of GDP, or nearer to EIGHT hundred billion pounds (£795 billion).

The difference is the DEFICIT (about a hundred billion pounds in 2014).

Remember, in case I haven't mentioned it enough: The Deficit is NOT the National Debt. The deficit ADDS TO our National Debt!