Monday, November 29, 2010

Growth or no growth?

To QUB's Politics Department on Saturday for the well-attended inaugural seminar of the Centre for Progressive Economics: The Global Economic Crisis: analyses and responses.

The CPE is a new forum for progressive discussion on economics and social policy. As the web site says:

At this time of global economic crisis and the literal bankruptcy and socially negative impacts of ‘business as usual’ stimulus packages there is a pressing need for fresh thinking about our economic future. This is an alternative and the Centre for Progressive Economics will seek to provoke debate as to that future in the Northern Ireland regional economy and beyond.The seminar included three excellent speakers: Dr Andrew Baker from QUB, Andrew Fisher from the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) in England, and John Woods from the Green New Deal in Northern Ireland. Presentations will be available on the CPE web site.

Not being an economist, I learned a huge amount, which will contribute to the new lecture on the economic crisis which I’m preparing for my second semester property development class. I’m still coming to terms with the alternative approach, which was brilliantly covered by Dr Baker (although somewhat challenging for a Saturday morning after only one cup of coffee). He debunked the various statements that are becoming received wisdom (as is also done in this ICTU pamphlet and by LEAP). For example, contrary to popular belief, the UK is not on the verge of bankruptcy and debt has been much higher at times in the past, for example after World War II.

But for me, the most spurious claim is that it’s all Labour’s fault - and Labour is not contesting it nearly as strongly as they should. Yes, there was failure to regulate financial institutions, which contributed to the crisis, but its roots lay in excess ‘financialisation’, which is increasing the ratio of cash loaned against assets owned and therefore increasing the risk of a default on payments (according to this new book by David Harvey). Thanks to Dr Baker, I have now discovered the phrase ‘countercyclical fiscal policy’, along with the need to dig out my old textbooks on Keynes.

Andrew Fisher told us about the work of LEAP in England, which provided some ideas about how CPE might develop. LEAP have gone for the bigger picture and propose a number of ways to increase revenue without making cuts in public services, as well as a programme of ‘green’ investment and building more social housing as ways to provide public benefit and create jobs. However, I preferred the smaller scale, more pragmatic approach of John Woods and the Green New Deal for Northern Ireland. The presentation gave most detail about the planned Housing Fund to retrofit homes to high standards of energy efficiency. The funding model includes both government grant and private sector loans, the latter to be repaid by households as their bills reduce.

So it was a very worthwhile morning. I left feeling more convinced of the arguments against cuts, and for spending our way out of recession. But the aspect of this vision which I don’t think is well enough developed is the question of what to do next.

That question is about economic growth. The mainstream debate takes for granted that we need it, without questioning the associated excessive and unsustainable patterns of consumption. Continuing to buy more imported stuff which is produced in awful conditions won’t contribute to the quality of life of the people who made it, or ourselves. But on the other hand, no growth means lost jobs, a reduced standard of living, and less opportunity for redistributive policies.

Or does it? Does the concept of the steady state economy mean that a new approach to production be envisaged, including for example the green economy, and socially beneficial services which can’t be delivered from India or China, and the knowledge economy? Who is left out of this mix, and who will pay for it given that so many proposals seem to require public subsidy?

There may well be convincing answers to these questions, which I have yet to discover. But if not, only half the argument has been made.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Is it time for a Labour government in the South?

This evening, Brian Cowen hoped that the promise of an election after a budget was agreed would keep the show on the road, although that’s by no means certain. Whether an election comes earlier or later, recent opinion polls show a level of support for Fine Gael and Labour which would allow them to form a very safe coalition.

However, what’s more interesting is whether there’s any possibility of Labour becoming the largest party. This would require Labour to do the following:

• Come up with a credible, comprehensive alternative approach to tackling the economic crisis, which doesn’t penalise vulnerable groups and ordinary working people who were not responsible for it. And.....
• Convince the Irish people that they are capable of implementing it – which requires international diplomacy as well as ability at home
• Keep coalition options open, unlike 2007
• Go on the offensive against Sinn Féin and the Greens, with a clear message that neither would govern in the interests of the majority. In particular, they mustn’t be fooled into dropping hints about including Sinn Féin in a coalition – a vote for SF must remain a wasted vote.

If Labour were able to pull this off – and it’s a very big if – it would provide an alternative model for dealing with the crisis and would provide hope internationally, at a time when the received wisdom is that massive cuts are the only way forward.

Regular readers of this blog and its predecessor will know I’ve had my differences with the Irish Labour Party. I still maintain that Labour is a short-sighted and partitionist party when it comes to the North. But I put that aside for the bigger picture. Here’s an opportunity for the Irish Labour movement to show the world how it’s done. See you in Co. Louth.....

Saturday, November 20, 2010

LookLeft magazine latest issue

I have an article about the UK Labour leadership contest in the November/ December issue of LookLeft Magazine. Here’s where you can buy it.

LookLeft is a project rather than a magazine, and one that deserves support. The magazine is bimonthly. The web page has additional content including a blog. You can keep up to date with new items on Facebook and Twitter.

LookLeft is published by the Workers’ Party, but don’t let that put you off - the articles include a wide range of left and centre left opinions. It has an all-Ireland remit, plus a respectable amount of international coverage.

LookLeft provides a forum for debate for the broad left, which is badly needed both North and South.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Daydream believer

I’ve been reflecting on a news item last week, reporting that people are easily distracted. With wonderful pseudo-scientific accuracy, the research population in question ‘spent 46.9% of their time awake with their minds wandering’. The headline called this ‘daydreaming’, although it appears to actually mean thinking about something other than the task in hand. A psychologist friend tells me daydreaming is when the mind wanders of its own accord and is subject to random thoughts, whereas more systematic thinking about something else, such as what to have for supper, is just ‘thinking about something else’. Anyway, for me they both come into the general category of ‘not paying attention’.

At first I wasn’t prepared to take the research at all seriously, as it was carried out on possibly the least scientifically credible sample population ever: volunteer iPhone users. But apparently other research has also found high levels of mind-wandering. Surely this doesn’t surprise anyone – iPhone user or not.

I find both daydreaming and ‘thinking about something else’ to be extremely beneficial. I’ve had some of my best ideas through staring into space at conferences and meetings, or on public transport. It’s also true that problems get solved by allowing ideas to develop when doing something else. Perhaps this happens more than it used to and perhaps my attention span is being shortened by the internet and modern life in general, but the results are not necessarily bad. In fact, the ability to switch off when something is of little interest is good time management, surely.

I’d be interested to know who indulges most in mental multi-tasking. Men or women? Young or old? Richer or poorer? Busy or idle? Single or not? And what are the subjects of daydreaming? Is it more common to be distracted by thoughts of what has happened in the past, or by plans for the future?

One distinction was reported. Apparently, people who don’t pay attention are unhappier than people who do. This puzzles me. Surely mind-wandering is a great opportunity for both creativity and self-preservation. One of the researchers says ‘our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present’. That statement opens up fascinating new possibilities for understanding how we make sense of the world and how we cope with it.

Update: The Abandoned Bicycle has reflected further on this topic

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

East Belfast Speaks Out – loud and clear

To Ashfield Boys’ School this evening, for a packed to capacity and very lively ‘East Belfast Speaks Out’. The panel was chaired by the BBC’s Mark Devenport and included Liam Clarke, Martin McGuinness, Dawn Purvis, Peter Robinson and Hugo Swire – the last being a junior NI Minister, by the way. I think all the others require no introduction.

It was terrific that the organisers managed to put together such a high-powered group and equally terrific that the audience had so much to say. My main fear was that the event would be dominated by men droning on, but there were many contributions from women and an impressive lack of grandstanding all round.

The theme of the evening was ‘moving forward’ and the most comprehensive commentary is from Alan in Belfast on Twitter at #ebso (and subsequently on Slugger). Although Dan Gordon was funny, I would have preferred to do without the warm-up (clearly not needed) and a prepared question to start us off. The event was billed as 7.30 – 9.00 but ended at 20 to 10, and another 20 minutes or so on responses from the panel to audience questions would have been time better spent.

Even so, a wide range of topics were covered including:

• Governance
• The Historical Enquiries Team and failure so far to find an effective way to deal with the past
• The Cohesion, Sharing and Integration policy
• Abolition of community designation in the Assembly
• Does NI fail its young people
• The impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review
• Corporation Tax
• University fees
• The next twenty years.

The debate had its feet firmly on the ground throughout. A question about the Historical Enquiries Team promoted several passionate contributions from women working with young people about ongoing intimidation from paramilitary groups – or ‘Residual Terrorist Groups’, which is apparently the new jargon. The inability to agree on reconciliation led naturally into CSI, which gave the First and Deputy First Ministers a chance to admit that the process had been challenging and to pat themselves on the back for getting so far, while everyone else was saying it wasn’t by any means far enough. Dawn Purvis was excellent here. By now it was clear that this event wasn’t an abstract debate about constitutional niceties but a deeply felt discussion about people’s lives.

Just as I was wondering why no-one had mentioned the cuts, along came the questions about the future of youth services, university fees, Corporation Tax, water rates and so on. I have to say Peter Robinson was very good, especially as part of exchanges over Corporation Tax reduction, when he and the DFM ganged up on the Junior Minister and batted for Northern Ireland together. McGuinness weighed in about cuts to the capital budget, which Swire blamed on Labour, the global recession obviously having passed him by. Robinson and Purvis both came back strongly on university fees, Robinson saying the Assembly doesn’t have to do the same as England and Purvis quite rightly railing against elitism. In a general comment on cuts, Robinson said the Assembly would try to protect the most vulnerable – it may of course not end up like that in practice, not least due to the welfare cuts imposed by Westminster.

The panel membership didn’t entirely work; inevitably it was dominated by the MLAs and Mark Devenport had the unenviable job of trying to balance the many audience questions and comments with allowing time for responses from the panel. However, it was still quite an evening. One question was about how more people could be encouraged to take an interest in politics. With more events like this, it wouldn’t be a problem.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

CSI: should try harder - but probably won’t

The deadline for responses to the Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration consultation draft has passed, and no doubt we won’t hear any more from OFMDFM on the subject until after the Assembly elections next May. Many submissions are available online and there’s a consensus that the document is dire. But why is it so bad? And why has the NI Executive struggled to produce anything at all - and arguably only done so in response to pressure from David Ford in relation to the Justice Minister’s job?

There are two aspects of our social and economic life in Northern Ireland that point towards the need for change. First, people across NI appear to want it. It’s widely reported that 80% of us would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood. This figure, from the Life and Times Survey, has increased from 71% in 1998 to a steady 80% since 2007 (2009 being the latest available), fairly consistently apart from a dip to 66% in 2001, perhaps in response to the interface violence of that time. Since 2005, the NILTS has also asked: Some people think that better relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland will only come about through more mixing of the two communities. Others think that better relations will only come about through more separation. Which comes closest to your views? In 2009, 88% supported more mixing, slightly up from 85% in 2005. Even taking into account the ‘halo’ effect of these questions, and their aspirational nature, these are high figures for a society that has become a global byword for division.

The second element is what I’ve started to call the political economy of segregation. Again, it’s often quoted that it costs an extra £1.5bn a year to provide public services in our divided society. Given the current economic situation, the imperative to reduce costs points towards the importance of shared services for economic as well as socially equitable reasons. For example, it’ll become less and less tenable to award funds for social housing in one area while vacant housing exists nearby on the ‘other side’. The same applies to schools. If we can’t learn to share, the alternative to duplicated services will be nothing.

Therefore you might think there would be a strong imperative for our politicians to prioritise the promotion of a shared society. Instead, we’ve had the ditching of the perfectly adequate Shared Future strategy, apparently for no better reason that that it was introduced under Direct Rule, followed by a three-year hiatus including the release of two drafts during 2009 because the DUP and Sinn Féin couldn’t agree.

I’m not going to go into the details of the current draft’s failings here, as these are covered more than adequately in the Labour Party’s critique. Instead, I want to concentrate on what I believe is the answer to the question ‘why is it so bad’? – and to the additional puzzle of why it took so long to appear. Criticism of CSI has rightly noted that the document is concerned with symptoms rather than underlying causes of sectarianism and other forms of discrimination. It’s true that there’s not enough of a commitment to integrated education or housing, that LBGT issues are excluded, and that much energy has gone into the debate over whether the Community Relations Council should be retained. All are important, but they are not the most fundamental issue.

The real problem is with the political structure. As it was expressed in Labour’s consultation meeting: ‘turkeys won’t vote for Christmas’. A political system based on communal division cannot provide the required leadership for a policy to abolish such division. The majority of our political parties are dependent for their support on maintaining the mindset that perpetuates separation, even when it appears that many people in Northern Ireland want to live differently. Who knows - if a shared society were to really catch on, people might want to vote differently.

We need a new political paradigm that is not based on territorial issues – or, at the very least, a mixed system that gives voters a real choice between parties that base their ideology on territoriality and those that prioritise economic and social issues. Then we might get a meaningful CSI policy.