Funny Friday (7) Monty Python’s Fruit Sketch

October 29, 2010

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally working through the Monty Python DVDs my brother bought me last Christmas.

This is one of my favourite sketches that I’ve seen so far:

Not only funny, but educational too.


Child benefit, sofa government and the principle of universalism

October 28, 2010

Philip Hammond defended the decision to remove universal child benefit as showing that the Conservatives are the natural party of government. The basis for this questionable logic was that the Tories were happy to take tough, correct but unpopular decisions “in the national interest”. If Philip Hammond really does believe this, Paperback Rioter would like some of what he has been smoking.

All through the election Tories stressed that universality of benefit was an important principle that needed keeping. It was, er, Philip Hammond who said as much on Newsnight back in April. The principle reason given is the need to reduce the budget deficit, and we have said plenty on the government’s policies on that regard.

The decision to remove universal child benefit now, and the process by which it was announced, has many disturbing aspects.

The first is that the policy is obviously a back-of-an-envelope job. When one family where one person earns £44,000 does not receive child benefit, but a family where two people earning £43,000 does is blatently absurd. All this does not inspire confidence in the coalition’s other economic plans.

Second, it seems that the cabinet was not consulted about the decision. Theresa May was asked nine (!) times by Paxman, by my count, on what date she was told about these plans. She would only reply that changes to benefits were a matter for the DWP and the Treasury, and that she didn’t first hear about the plans on breakfast TV.

One must therefore concur with Peter Oborne’s inference that cabinet was not consulted about the plans on the Thursday before they were announced by the Chancellor at the Tory party conference.

This is the most disturbing revelation from the awful mess that the government made of this announcement. Much was made in opposition of David Cameron’s “sofa government” and the fact that he made decisions based on talking to a small group of key advisers. It would be hoped that coalition government would necessitate an end to such methods of making policy, but apparently not. The fact that cabinet is not being told of plans that are this important before announcing them is very depressing news indeed.

What is also depressing is that the left is finding it difficult to articulate a proper response in opposition to the policy. The line from Cameron and Osborne runs something like: “Why should those on lower incomes pay taxes to subsidise children of those far wealthier?” Which is a specious argument anyway, because that’s not how tax works. It’s called “general taxation” for a reason. Anyone would think that the tax money from those earning under £15,000 per year was being earmarked specifically to be given to the rich.

To properly understand why universalism is such a cornerstone of the welfare state, we must look to recent history. This is what Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land has to say about universalism. (I’ll be quoting from this book in future too, because it’s now my favourite book of all time. You must buy it and read it):

Moreover, it was with social democracy and the welfare state that bound the professional and commercial middle classes to liberal institutions in the wake of World War II. This was a matter of some consequence: it was the fear and disaffection of the middle class which had given rise to fascism. Bonding the middle classes back to the democracies was by far the most important task facing postwar politicians – and by no means an easy one.

In most cases it was achieved by the magic of “universalism”. Instead of having their benefits keyed to income – in which case well-paid professionals or thriving shopkeepers might have complained bitterly at being taxed for social services from which they did not derive much advantage – the educated “middling sort” were offered the same social assistance and public services as the working population and the poor: free education, cheap or free medical treatment, public pensions and unemployment insurance. As a consequence, now that so many of life’s necessities were covered by their taxes, the European middle class found itself by the 1960s with far greater disposable incomes than at any time since 1914.

This is why universalism was such a key principle of the welfare state, and it must remain a key principle of any welfare state. For the coalition to attack it, in such a bungled way, and meet so little resistance, is very worrying indeed.


Guest Post: The Guardian’s Tea Party blogger

October 27, 2010

I asked Danielle Blake to write something on Lloyd Marcus blogging for the Guardian ahead of the November mid-term elections. The fact that it’s been so late in being put up here is because of my uselessness, not hers. Danielle blogs at Neither Here Nor There, and tweets at @DCPlod. Enjoy!

As part of its US midterm election coverage, The Guardian now has a Tea Partier blogging for it. That itself is hardly worth mentioning. What is worth mentioning is that Lloyd Marcus is black. The vast majority of African-Americans vote Democratic for a couple of reasons: since the Civil War it’s the Democrats who’ve done the most to guarantee black people equal treatment, and secondly, the Republicans have, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act, used what has become known as the “Southern Strategy”; wherein they pandered to the disgruntled white racists in the South which solidified virtually the entire region as a reliable GOP voting bloc. So for an African-American to be a conservative is highly unusual.

Anyone who’s seen photographs from the several Tea Party rallies that have taken place around America will know that they are so monochromatically white that the only colour is to be found on their signs. Signs which frequently have subtle or blatantly racist overtones. 

Then we had the actual leader of one group (the Tea Party is a patchwork quilt of factions rather than one organisation), Mark Williams, calling the NAACP a racist organisation for advancing black people’s rights,  saying he won’t ask racists to leave protests and writing an incredibly racist open letter from ‘the coloreds’ to Abe Lincoln asking him to revoke their emancipation because they’re dependent on white people (you have to read it to believe it), amongst many, many other things.

All in all, not the most welcoming or attractive group for black people. So why is Lloyd Marcus a conservative Tea Partier? Using the same blinkered reasoning behind the principle of ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’, he saw that his family made it without help, so he believes everyone can or should be able to. He was fortunate enough to have a solid family and father who had a good job, and fails to realise that not everyone is as lucky as he was. 

Sympathy and empathy are not Marcus’ strong points, as is made clear here:

So, my early experience living in the government project taught me that some folks simply have a ghetto mindset. I also witnessed the trap of government welfare. And why were so many around me angry and violent – despite getting free housing, food and healthcare?

 

 

 

Marcus says later in his post that in ‘the late 50s’, after they saw their rent rise to $72 when his father gained a new job as a firefighter, he and his family left the projects. From that we can infer that these ‘angry and violent’ black people witnessed the following: the Civil Rights Movement only began properly in 1955 with Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in refusing to move to the back of a bus; the necessity of the Missisippi National Guard, the US Army, and Border Patrol personnel to ensure one black student, James Meredith, enrolled in the state university in 1961; in 1963 four black children were blown up and peaceful protesters and bystanders were brutally attacked with fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, Alabama; the South maintained the Jim Crow laws of 1876 which enforced segregation and reduced blacks to second-class citizen status, and some were still in force as late as 1965 (it took the Voting Rights Act of that year to finally end discrimination at the polling booth); the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination was finally passed in 1964, however segregation in schools continued (and indeed continues) to be a serious problem in America. You’ll notice of course, that it was the much-demonised government, together with immense pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, that secured these measures.

And yet Lloyd Marcus actually has to ask why so many blacks were angry, some to the point of violence during the 1950′s, when blacks were still years from achieving full equality? For a black man to be that ignorant of the history of both his nation and his race is, if I’m honest, shameful. It goes without saying that during that period many blacks would have been ‘trapped in welfare’ due to still widespread racism. Unemployed whites would have been preferred to unemployed blacks. Marcus continues:

So, when I hear politicians, such as Barack Obama, pandering to the so-called poor of America, it turns my stomach. I’ve witnessed the deterioration of the human spirit, wasted lives and suffering that happens when government becomes “daddy”.

“So-called poor”? Marcus would’ve undoubtedly said ‘welfare queen’ there if that term didn’t have obvious racial connotations. Even a black guy who’s been spitting on his own race throughout his blog post has his limits, I guess. There’s a reason people are on welfare, and it isn’t because they’ve forgotten the details of their Swiss bank account. And Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill of 1996 changed the landscape entirely – since then, welfare has no longer been an entitlement. People who are able-bodied now have to work for their payments. 

In short: Lloyd Marcus is, despite his race, indistinguishable from any other Tea Partier – he uses welfare recipients as convenient punching bags, and hates government though he and his have personally benefited from it. And he even shares their attitude towards blacks.


Why Ginsters pasties prove that the spending cuts won’t work

October 26, 2010

Two seemingly trivial stories that appeared in the newspapers a few weeks ago actually could be of profound significance given the CSR (Comprehensive Spending Review) last week. The first involves clotted cream taking a 340-mile round trip to end up in a supermarket 2 miles away from where it was originally made. The second is a similar story involving Ginsters Pasties: despite being made in a factory that is walking distance from a Tesco supermarket, it takes a 240 mile round trip, via Bristol, to end up back in the supermarket in Cornwall.

The main point here is to highlight that there can be as many different anomalies, diseconomies of scale, and good old-fashioned “waste” in the private sector as well as in the public sector. Over the past thirty years, governments of all stripes have been arguing that “private sector = good, public sector = bad”. This dichotomy is inherently misleading. There are some things that the state is better at providing; others are best left to the free market. Government provision of health, education, street lighting and even transport is the most just way of providing essential services for all, regardless of location or ability to pay. On the other hand, government provision of tomatoes, for instance, would be ludicrous, and this is best left to private companies.

To simply have a Manichean divide between “private” and “public” sector is intellectually dishonest. Yet this is what the coalition has been attempting to do with its spending cuts. The cuts are founded on this logic, and this logic is misguided, as I hope to show below.

Ideology and cuts

One cannot criticise the cuts simply because they are ideological. This would mirror smears that New Labour drones like Hazel Blears would make of the Labour left, who dismissed any complaints they had of academies, ID cards or killing foreigners as “ideological” complaints that were not of any concern. I would welcome politicians using “ideology” more. Of course the cuts are motivated by a certain ideology, and you could equally argue that those arguing against the cuts are also motivated by a different ideology. The key point is not that the cuts are “ideological” per se, but that the ideology that motivates them has been tried before, and did not work. Johann Hari, in his excellent article on the CSR, had this to say:

When was the last time Britain’s public spending was slashed by more than 20 per cent? Not in my mother’s lifetime. Not even in my grandmother’s lifetime. No, it was in 1918, when a Conservative-Liberal coalition said the best response to a global economic crisis was to rapidly pay off this country’s debts. The result? Unemployment soared from 6 per cent to 19 per cent, and the country’s economy collapsed so severely that they lost all ability to pay their bills and the debt actually rose from 114 per cent to 180 per cent.

George Monbiot wrote another excellent article that is worthy of your attention, comparing the spending cuts to the “disaster capitalism” written about by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine. This is what he has to say about Chile, where Pinochet implemented a rather, um, radical free market economy after his coup:

By 1982, Friedman’s prescriptions had caused a spectacular economic crash. Unemployment hit 30%; debt exploded. Pinochet sacked the Chicago economists and started re-nationalising stricken companies, whereupon the economy began to recover. Chile’s so-called economic miracle began only after Friedman’s doctrines were abandoned. The Chicago School’s catastrophic programme pushed almost half the population below the poverty line and left Chile with one of the world’s highest rates of inequality.

Hari summed it up best: “George Osborne has just gambled your future on an extreme economic theory that has failed whenever and wherever it has been tried.”

The alternative ideology

It is also fundamentally dishonest of the right to label those opposing the cuts as “deficit deniers”. Our problem is not that the deficity does not exist, but that the deficit is not such a drastic problem to justify cutting spending in some government departments by as much as 25%. From http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk, here is a graph showing Britain’s deficit as a percentage of GDP since records were kept in the late seventeenth century. The deficit doesn’t look like such a massive problem in this context, does it?

As Hannah has pointed out, our economy depends on debt to some extent. If you don’t like it, then you have a problem with capitalism generally. Don’t we all? Thankfully there’s something called social democracy. You should give it a try.

And before anyone mentions the G-word, here’s Larry Elliott:

Britain is not Greece. Ministers have not been cooking the books to disguise the true state of the budget deficit. At 14 years, the average maturity of Britain’s debt is one of the longest in the developed world. And the fact that the UK has its own currency provides policy freedom in London not enjoyed in Athens. 

The cuts are an over-reaction, pure and simple. Gary Younge put it as not letting a broken leg heal, but amputating it instead. I prefer to use the analogy of Monty Python’s “restaurant sketch”. The deficit is the dirty fork, and the coalition are the kitchen staff. You’ll get the picture:

Also, the deficit was not caused by a crisis in the public sector, but by a crisis of the private sector, which led to the banking bail out. This happened because of inadequate state intervention, not because of excessive state interference! As Paul Krugman has noted, in the US the deficit has increased because of tax revenues dropping, not because of exhorbitant government spending. Instead, in Britain we are cutting the welfare budget whilst making 500,000 more people unemployed. To quote Johann Hari again, surely it is obvious that:

When an economy falters, ordinary people – perfectly sensibly – cut back their spending and try to pay down their debts. This causes a further fall in demand, and makes the economy worse. If the government cuts back at the same time, then there is no demand at all, and the economy goes into freefall.

This is just basic Keynesian economics. Caroline Lucas was making the point very well on QT last week. You make people unemployed, you lose their tax revenues and have to pay them benefits, the deficit goes up. Straightforward really, isn’t it?

Job creation

The coalition, of course, claim that these cuts will create jobs. Rolling back the state will allow the “good” private sector to invest, new businesses will start, and umemployment will fall. The CSR estimated that although 500,000 public sector jobs will be lost, 1.5m jobs in the private sector will be generated. The obvious question is from where? Here’s Flying Rodent‘s typically irreverent take on it:

Still, the news isn’t all bad.  As George Osborne himself has said, cutting government expenditure will create space for several million jobs to be created by the Magical Ponies of Fuckadoodle.  I paraphrase, but the meaning is the same.

The problem that has to be emphasised again and again is that private companies also rely on government expenditure. Cutting government jobs will have a knock-on effect on private businesses. The axing of the Building Schools for the Future programme is an obvious case in point. On QT last week an audience member said that she was trying to start up a small business, but could not get any money lent to her from the banks to get started. The whole situation is baffling.

I hope I am wrong, but I am not sure that I will be. The cuts won’t work, they’ll just make it worse. Those who don’t want cuts are not “deficit deniers”, but are unconvinced that making 500,000 people unemployed will make our economic situation any better.


More proof, if any were needed, that we are awesome

October 25, 2010

I entered Channel 4′s Britain’s Best young blogger competition, and Paperback Rioter got highly commended.

Really chuffed at this. Thanks to everyone who reads this blog, and especially Hannah, who writes some pretty awesome stuff for it.

I suppose this means I need to write something now, doesn’t it?


Your indispensable tool for coping with the spending cuts

October 20, 2010

If you think today was a tough, depressing day, just think how gruelling the next few years will be when these hypothetical cuts become reality. I therefore propose that whenever you get too stressed, angry or upset about the spending cuts, you visit this page and look at the puppy.

Look at it sleeping there, very, very peacefully. How could any harm possible befall the world when there are extremely cute, sleeping puppies?

Not even George Osborne can ruin life for this puppy. Although you know he’d try.


Thank you all

October 20, 2010

I can hardly not blog on today, of all days, if I am to call myself a political blogger. But there’s so much noise going on about the spending review, there seems little point in adding my voice to it. Yet. Give it a couple of days.

For now, I want to announce some good news! From being 18,490 a couple of months ago, Paperback Rioter is now 340th most influential political blog in the UK, according to Wikio. This makes us extremely chuffed, so thanks to all who read and recommend us. It means a lot.

Hopefully the only way is still up!


Seriously Browned Off

October 12, 2010

If more evidence were needed that the word “progressive” should be expunged from political discourse, look no further than the government’s response to the Browne review. Both senior Tories and Lib Dems have said they agree with the thrust of the report’s recommendations, summarised here, emphasise that they must be just because they are “progressive”. For instance, here’s what David Cameron said today:

I am heartened by the fact that whether it is Conservative colleagues or Liberal Democrat colleagues we all want to achieve good universities, social mobility, fairness and a progressive system.That is exactly what I think we will do.

 “Progressive”, if it means anything, means telling others what they don’t want to hear refers to a system of taxation where the richest pay more than the poorest. As has been pointed out, those earning between £35,000 and £60,000 would actually pay back more than those earning £100,000, because the richest would pay less over a shorter period of time. The Social Market Foundation estimates that those earning £27,000 a year would actually pay the most back. Therefore these recommendations by Lord Browne are unfair and should not be accepted by the government.

These plans will make going to university about the ability to pay. Universities will have to charge at least £7,000 a year to make up for the money they will lose from government cuts. Removing the cap on fees will deter poorer students from going to university: this is simply common sense.

There are some decent recommendations in the review, such as allowing part-time students the right to pay fees after they graduate, and giving teacher training to academics. But even seemingly worthy plans such as the plan to raise the threshold at which fees have to be paid back are double-edged: as Browne recommends students are charged interest at 2.2% above inflation on their loan repayments, it just means the debt will keep on rising and rising whilst students don’t pay their fees back.

What is most disturbing is that Browne recommends:

There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create. (p25)

As the Guardian puts it, “Government given scope (sic) to remove funding for all but “priority” subjects – medicine, science, engineering and modern languages”. As someone who did a history degree, I’m obviously horrified by these proposals. As David Eastwood, one of the people who helped run the Browne review, put it in an interview five years ago:

But as one of a small group of historians-turned-vice-chancellors – others include Deian Hopkin (South Bank), and Rick Trainor (King’s College, London), he says the discipline can be a useful grounding for the job. “My interests as a historian were policy, power, political culture and how ideas influence politics. If you write about the history of government in the UK, you need to have some idea how Whitehall works. Both also require you to be numerate, to be able to rapidly assimilate information and to be capable of identifying what you don’t know and need to understand.”

That knowledge was invaluable last year as one of the vice-chancellors most involved in shaping and helping to pass the education bill. “A group of us played a considerable role, and I think we helped both to get the bill passed and make it a better measure. There were some extremely tough meetings with the government.”

And while Labour are laughing at the Lib Dems about-turn, we should remember that, as Dave Osler has pointed out, “Not even Thatcher had the political confidence to scrap student grants and introduce tuition fees. Only New Labour could be that right wing.”

As I’ve argued before, I don’t think a Graduate Tax is the best solution either. Social Democrats should make the case for university to be paid for by taxation, and encourage vocational courses for people who are not academically inclined. Instead, the government is using the deficit as an excuse to bring in neo-liberal policies. These recommendations by Browne make me very worried indeed. They can only increase inequality and lower social mobility.


Musical Mondays (7): Review of Phil Beer Live

October 11, 2010

I have talked before in Musical Mondays of Show of Hands, a truly marvellous folk duo (though really a trio now) from Devon. One half (third?) was playing a solo gig at the Rock in Maltby, which is a former Wesleyan Church that now plays host to a musical night every Friday.

It was great to see Phil on stage after spending some time in hospital earlier this year. He writes very few songs, and instead specialises in reinterpreting both English traditional folk songs and more modern American songs. These included Steve Earle’s The Devil’s Right Hand and this cracking version of Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown:

Beer is a child of the 1960s and lots of the music he played in two fifty minute sets are from that era. I really liked his version of the Hollies’ Bus Stop, for instance, while this short Tom Lehrer ditty was a favourite of mine. This song reminded me that I really need to listen to more of Tom Lehrer’s stuff, since I share his warped sense of humour.

He is best known for his fiddle playing, and the following video shows why:

Phil Beer is a very genial performer and a very talented instrumentalist. One review I read of his said that he could make a decent sound of a cheese roll. I don’t doubt that. He is touring now with Show of Hands for the next couple of months, so if you haven’t seen them live before, make sure you do.


My reaction to finding out Phil Woolas was in the shadow cabinet

October 11, 2010

Thankfully Sunny Hundal has written a far more sensible post on why he shouldn’t be there.

I’m saving my Woolas rage until after the court case is over.


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