Tuesday, 27 September 2011

What Governments say, and what Traders say

The video below is well worth watching, if only to highlight what kind of reality traders -and the rest of the financial sector - inhabit. Forget "education, education, education." What we now need more of is "regulation, regulation, regulation."

You have to admire his candour/arrogance, but I'm pretty appalled, and slightly terrified, that these people clearly have such a sway over our economy. Every government in the world should be forced to watch this clip; so that they can probably shrug their shoulders, tell us how much the private sector contributes to the economy, and then do nothing.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Barack Obama and those Liberal Democrats

Being a Democrat supporter recently has probably involved much gritting of teeth, a certain degree of anger, and at times, a sense of bewilderment.

Many believe that President Obama has been too ready to cave in (or “reach a compromise,” if you prefer) to the demands of the Republican Party, as they themselves, infected by a virulent strain of extremist politics, otherwise known as the Tea Party, become dragged further and further to the right, and away from the more moderate mainstream.
There was at least some comfort to his liberal base on Monday, with President Obama’s call for a "Buffet Tax" which would see earners of over $1m being taxed at a higher rate, and the clamping down on loopholes, which currently sees some of the wealthiest Americans paying a lower rate of tax than the considerably less well off.
But this policy proposal has come off the back of some pretty dispiriting headlines if you find yourself aligned to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Firstly, last year, they would have had to witness Barack Obama agreeing to extend deep tax cuts for wealthy middle-class Americans, an initiative first introduced under the previous Bush administration and due to come to an end last December, until Obama’s intervention.
One could reasonably argue that the ‘Buffet Tax’ has been used as a way to nullify the effects of this.
Then came Obama’s deal this summer to end the US debt crisis. It involved (after heavy bargaining and eventual Republican agreement) committing the country to raising its debt ceiling, whist slashing public spending by a mouth-watering $2.5tn over the next 10 years, much of it expected to come from welfare benefits.
What the economist and Nobel Prize winner, Paul Krugman, described at the time as ‘an abject surrender,’ on the part of the president. Going further, he added that:
 “…Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats.”
MoveOn, a progressive grass-roots organization, boasting 5 million members, called the deal “grotesquely immoral.” Michael Tomasky, a leading liberal commentator, believed this to be: “…the lowest moment of Obama’s presidency,” without him getting a single concession in return. Tomasky asked whether:
“…just as Bush and Rove helped revived liberalism, it now seems plausible that Obama is ushering in a conservative era.
And just a few weeks ago, Obama delivered a huge snub to environmentalists by postponing [until 2013 at least] new rules on tackling air pollution, as put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency. Rules, which would have:
“…saved up to 12,000 lives [by 2020] and 2.5 million working days and school days lost to the toxic effect of ozone on American lungs each year.”
A move which had MoveOn’s executive director, Justin Reuben, wondering:
“…how they can ever work for President Obama’s reelection, or make the case for him to their neighbors, when he does something like this, after extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and giving in to tea party demands on the debt deal. This is a decision we'd expect from George W Bush.”
There are then the various opinion polls which reflect liberal frustrations. One, jointly carried out in July, by The Washington Post and ABC News found worrying levels of disengagement among liberals, with those who approved of Obama’s handling of the economy falling dramatically from 53% in 2010 to just 31%. Concern over his record on jobs creation was also cited.
Obama’s capitulation to the right, especially over the way he handled the debt ceiling, is an often heard criticism.

As viewed from the outside, it is puzzling to know why, rather than confronting, exposing and taking on his opponents, in particular the Tea Party – a group which would be dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe movement in many other countries - he seems to have pandered to them, continuously giving them the upper hand, and in the process, making himself look weak.
The film maker, Michael Moore, pertinently argues that:
“…each time the president moves to the right, he picks up no votes and loses many.”
This seems to sum up what many Obama supporters have been thinking. The need to look bipartisan on certain crucial issues, and try to appeal to a more moderate America, hasn’t won him many more plaudits, especially amongst independents. A New York Times/CBS News poll out last week showed that 59% of this critical electoral group still disapprove of his performance.
A key to resurrecting some of this support may lie in a shift to the left. An intriguing CNN poll released over the summer found Obama’s approval rating down to 45%, with 54% disapproving of his record in office. But, as CNN’s Polling Director Keating Holland explains:
“…drill down into that number and you'll see signs of a stirring discontent on the left. Thirty-eight percent say they disapprove because President Obama has been too liberal, but 13 percent say they disapprove of Obama because he has not been liberal enough - nearly double what it was in May, when the question was last asked, and the first time that number has hit double digits in Obama's presidency."
Putting it another way, of the almost one in four Americans who disapprove of Obama attribute this to him not being liberal enough. This should make sobering reading for the president.
It is probably surprising that despite the feelings of betrayal, and in contradiction to other polls carried out, Obama can still manage to command huge loyalty amongst liberals.
A Gallup poll last month found, despite everything, 72% of Democrats still backing him, significantly higher than the country as a whole, and rising to 83% amongst those who identify themselves as both liberal and Democratic.
There must be a belief amongst some that the president hopes he has done enough to convince the public that he is able to appeal to a wider audience, not just Democrats, and seek compromise wherever necessary. That he is able to move beyond party politics when the national interest demands it.
The hope must be that Obama is able to cling on for that second term, and free from the shackles of reelection, he is able to get on with pursuing a more progressive agenda.
According to Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, Obama should have no worries about re-energising his followers ahead of next year’s general election:
"He will have a base problem until the time when an opponent emerges, and then 90 percent of the problem will disappear...[and] people will consider the opponent and then he'll look awfully good."
For liberals the world over, let’s hope he is right.

An edited version of this article was first published by Liberal Conspiracy on Saturday 24 September 2011

Friday, 16 September 2011

The UK's Role in The Arms Trade

It’s business as usual in the murky world of the arms trade. This week, ahead of the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition, Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, delighted in telling us just how “proud” he is of the UK’s arms manufacturers.

Despite its huge controversies, it still had a “key role” to play, particularly in “enlightened international engagement.” This ‘engagement’ sees Britain exporting arms to some of the world’s most repressive and authoritarian regimes.
Many of whom were present – including representatives from Bahrain, fresh from killing its own citizens in a crackdown on anti-government protests back in the Spring -  and showing off their fighter jets, missiles, tear gas, drones and other weaponry, all on display at the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands.
Trailing well behind the US, the UK is home to the world’s second largest defence and security sector. A report out this week by Aerospace Defence and Security, a UK trade organisation, showed why, irrespective of their political leanings, governments see it as a cherished industry. It revealed that in 2010, the defence sector was worth around £22bn to the UK economy, of which £9.5bn was made in exports. It provided jobs for some 110,000 people.
Saudi Arabia - number 160 (of 167 countries) in the Democracy Index -, is the biggest buyer of UK weapons, with its contracts bringing the latter £300m last year. According to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), earlier this year, Saudi Arabia: “sent scores of UK-made armoured personnel carriers into Bahrain to aid the government’s bloody suppression of pro-democracy protestors.”
Arms destined for Bahrain, as well as Libya, were suspended in February. Commenting at the time, Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt, said:
“we will not authorise any exports which, we assess, might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”
In April, a report by MPs, hailed as ‘ground-breaking’ by its committee chair, and issued at the height of the Arab uprisings, spelled out the bleeding obvious:
“both the present government and its predecessor misjudged the risk that arms approved for export to certain authoritarian countries in North Africa and the Middle East might be used for internal repression.”
It highlighted the fact that in the months and years leading up to the uprisings, the UK had approved £2.3bn worth of deals in arms exports to countries such as Egypt and Yemen.
In particular in Libya, another report showed that licences had been granted for the sale of items used for ‘crowd control,’ such as smoke canisters, stun grenades and anti-riot/ballistic shields. Indeed, these weapons were being sold to the Gaddafi regime right up until the end of last year.
Yet in July, the government themselves concluded that “there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom.” But in response to these claims, an incredulous Sir John Stanley, chairman of the arms controls committees said:
I am not surprised by the Government’s stated outcome of its review. Given that there has been, understandably, an almost total absence of official observers in close proximity to the violent internal repression that has been taking place, and given also the fact that the UK Government approved arms exports including machine guns, sniper rifles, combat shot-guns and ammunition as detailed in Annex 4 of our Report were not emblazoned with Union Jacks, it is hardly surprising that the FCO could safely conclude” [this].
Depressingly, things continue as before. Liam Fox’s strong support for the defence sector merely sits neatly alongside a previous quip by the Defence Equipment Minister, Peter Luff, that:
"there will be a very, very, very heavy Ministerial commitment to (arms sales). There is a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There is no such embarrassment in this Government."
Or by Gerald Howarth, the International Security Strategy Minister:
 “this Government has been clear from the outset, and so have I: we are proud to support the biggest defence exports drive in decades.”
And of course David Cameron, who used his chance as the first world leader to visit Egypt following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, to take along a delegation of some of Britain’s leading figures in the defence industry.
No doubt the UK will continue to play lip service to human rights concerns when exporting weapons, suspend trading if and when a controversy arises, wait for the dust to settle, and recommence sales as soon as it possibly can. To do otherwise would be, in the Prime Minister’s words, “at odds with reality;” a reality that puts money and a supposed ‘national interest’ above all else.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Friday 16 Setpember 2011

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Civil Liberties and Human Rights After 9/11

As far as some of our Western leaders were concerned, the aftermath of September 11th was not a time for reflection or debate; little room was afforded for complexities.

If you couldn’t unconditionally offer your support for whatever course of action came next, you were as good as an apologist for terror. 

This desire to polarise was very quickly extended to the field of civil liberties: were the public prepared to sacrifice some of their civil liberties in return for greater security? The political rhetoric was blunt and unashamedly direct: the greatest liberty was the right to life, the right to live free from terror.
What then followed made human rights groups, campaigners, and anyone wary of an abuse of state power, aghast. George W. Bush’s America and New Labour’s Britain became privy to some of the most regressive and authoritarian legislation ever passed.
Centuries’ worth of rights were steadily eroded. The human rights of terror suspects outside the US and UK, when they came up against the “war on terror” machine, were treated with equal disdain.
In the US, dissenting voices (i.e. those asking the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions following the attacks) were slapped down. Those looking for any sort of explanation were demonised.
Thus, against this background, merely six weeks after 9/11, and with barely any chance to debate it, the absurdly named “Patriot Act” was passed. Unbelievably, most members of Congress later admitted to having never even read its contents before voting it into law. And of course to oppose it was to be unpatriotic, even traitorous, when your country is under attack.
Its powers were wide-reaching, and included the right for a government agency to go through any individual’s personal records, be it their bank or hospital records, or even checking what books they were taking out from the library.
Before 9/11, the government at least had to suspect someone of being a terrorist or spy. Now, any records deemed “relevant to an investigation” could be sought.
It also gave widening powers to email and telecommunication wiretaps, and the right for the government to enter its citizens’ homes unannounced. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, these measures were simply ‘unconstitutional.’
Outside of America, Guantanamo Bay went from merely being a harbour located in south east Cuba, to a place where America detained hundreds of men in orange jumpsuits, picked up from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and accused of being terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda. Labelled ‘enemy combatants,’ their status therefore fell outside legal protections offered to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
Secret US military files obtained earlier this year confirmed what many had suspected and reported for a while: detention without trial based on ‘the flimsiest grounds,’ the ill treatment of prisoners, and the use in certain cases of torture (or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to use its sanitised moniker) to extract information.
Since 2002 between 750 and 800 have been held there, yet only two have ever been convicted of a crime. Over 150 still remain, seemingly in a state of legal limbo.
The term ‘extraordinary rendition’ also entered the post 9/11 lexicon and applied to terror suspects being forcibly taken from one country and flown to certain locations around the world, where intelligence was gleaned using instruments of torture such as ‘waterboarding,’ something that both President Bush and his deputy were more than happy to admit took place.
All this against a backdrop of supposedly fighting to defend Western values and freedoms: for Messrs Bush and Cheney, the rule of law, habeas corpus and other enshrined human rights, were clearly not meant to be universal principles.  
Over in Britain, civil liberties were attacked with the same gusto by the Blair administration, as successive Home Secretaries sought to outdo each other for the title of ‘most authoritarian Secretary of State since…’
Even though Britain had only just passed the Terrorism Act 2000: “the first permanent counter-terrorist legislation in the UK,” aimed at combating terrorism in Northern Ireland as well as widening the definition of terrorism to cover both the domestic and international, after 9/11,  Labour felt compelled to pass a whole new swathe of anti-terror legislation.
We had the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism act 2006, and the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, to name but four.
Other pieces of legislation, such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, “while not aimed explicitly or primarily at countering terrorism” as The Guardian explained, “nevertheless had a significant impact on the powers available to the police and security services.”
The impact of these led critics to accuse the government of riding roughshod over a whole litany of civil liberties. The principle charge was that much of this legislation lacked proportionality and was indeed counter-productive.
The human rights group Liberty have regularly argued that much of the counter-terrorism legislation is: “dangerously broad and has affected vast numbers of people, in particular peaceful protestors and ethnic minority groups.”
In December 2004, the government’s policy of indefinite detention without trial of foreign nationals accused of terrorist offences was deemed illegal by the House of Lords, with one of the Law Lords, Lord Hoffmann, delivering his now infamous rebuke that:
the real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”
In response, egged on from the right wing press and fear of the dreaded charge of being ‘soft on terror,’ and for the need to try and outmuscle the Tories on issues of national security, pre-charge detention became another controversial tool in the fight against terror. Terror suspects faced the prospect of 28 days (up from 7) in prison without charge.
Research revealed this to be the longest detention without charge of any democracy, and yet the government had wanted this increased to a staggering 90 days.
‘Stop and Search’ was widened to gave police even more powers, but was deemed to be a completely ineffective ‘crude instrument.’ Figures revealed that it was used 101,248 times in 2009/10, resulting in 506 arrests, of which not a single one was for a terrorist-related offence.
Last summer it was deemed to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, and ditched by the present government.
We have also seen the right to protest and freedom speech treated with similar contempt. Legitimate and peaceful demonstrations have also come up against anti-terror laws, whether they be climate change activists, students or a lone protestor outside parliament.
The “encouragement of terrorism” became an offence. Whether somebody or a group says something that wasn’t intended to glorify terrorism, they still could face up to seven years in prison.
According to the international human rights group, Article 19, the definition of terrorism in UK law is ‘both vague and excessively broad in reach,’ with a potential wide range of acts criminalised.
In short, the years following September 11th have seen a betrayal of a whole raft of civil liberties.
Rather than standing up for these fundamental rights, the UK and US governments have abused them without pause. And they have managed to do this by playing on the public’s fear of that possible next attack, safe in the knowledge that - because of this fear - they are likely to retain their support almost whatever they do to restrict their liberty.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Sunday 11 September 2011