Dodgy Dave and his chums

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This is a difficult script to write. You could go with the no suggestion of impropriety, criminality or wrongdoing, and following good business practice [fill in any name here, for example, David Cameron, Pablo Escobar, Vladimir Putin]

You could go all jokey and imply  we’re all in it together and we’ve all done it, signing on, or someone else signing on for you, for example, Bahama residents including a part-time bishop, because you’re too busy that day, creating wealth. Perhaps fling in a bit of alliteration, Dodgy Dave the Downing Street landlord coining it in, and mention the Panama Papers.

But then you’d probably have to mention not just Panama, but London itself as a tax bolt-hole where rich people congregate and get fitted for a bespoke tax avoidance suit, tailored to their needs, by an army of experts, such as David Cameron’s dear departed father.

In the European Union there – this week discounted offers- of convenient parking spots in Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and Monaco. And if sir and his capital wants to take a break from all that onerous paperwork there are hotspots in Guernsey, Jersey, Sark, Gibraltar, Anguilla,  The Virgin Isles, Montserrat, Bermuda, Turks & Calicos Islands,   Cayman Islands and any other British Territories and Crown Dependencies you can think of and that can be expected to keep stuhm about how much loot you’ve looted and don’t really give a flying fuck where you got it from. As long as you’re filthy rich you are master of all you survey. Only mugs and poor people pay tax. Thomas Piketty on Capital showed an interesting anomaly, there is more money in circulation than can be accounted for. It doesn’t take a genius to suggest that turn over any of these stones and you’ll find lots of interesting facts about wealth squirming under the light of transparency.

We could go for the moral angle and the exposure of pious untruths. A biblical quote would be good here to set off the script. Perhaps something from Proverbs 22:16: Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, and gives to the rich will surely come to poverty.

But the problem with that is we are a nation built on that great lie of trickle-down economics that the poor might eat –eventually- from the scraps of the table of the rich man. The poor are always with us and it’s their fault for being poor is a stick. We have our masters grandstanding, telling us to work harder and dig deeper and stop being such a whinger and whiner, while quietly, money flows in one direction from the poorest to the richest at an increasing rate.  Paul Mason shows that before Lehman Brother’s collapse 40 percent of corporate profits in the United States were in the financial sector, four out of ten dollars. London, the most subsidized city in the United Kingdom, offers its own model of excess equalling success with everything for sale including the government. When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 he took artillery and about one million men of different nationalities, the finest fighting force on the planet, but he was no mug, somebody would have to pay for the invasion. Napoleon had roubles printed. Whoever paid the full cost to the bearer of such a note would not be Napoleon, nor will it be Cameron and his ilk paying for the NHS or road, or school or take your pick and mix .  Who’s paying for failure if it’s not the rich?

As a morality play it doesn’t work and as an economic template it works even less well, but ironically it offers the greatest chance of electoral success. Beat the drum.  Come clean and admit your faults. David Cameron is a good man. As is George Osborne and Boris Johnson. They are just doing what they have been brought up to do, which is to help the select few. What’s the problem with that?

 

Why I hate Downton Abbey

I know it’s the last series of Downton Abbey. It sells big in America where people like former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin things we live in stately homes.  Lots of people here watch it. It’s won sacksful of awards for best drama. I’ve never seen more than a clip of an episode, yet Downton Avenue has me reaching for my Kalashnikov.

There’s nothing down town about Downton Abbey. It’s a showcase of beautifully dressed people with impeccable manners showcasing all that was great about Great Britain. Let’s start at the top. Take away the gold frame from around the jug ear of Prince Charles, our future king, and perhaps someone can explain what particular skill set he, or his forebearers brought to the Industrial revolution, or to the modern world? There’s no answer to inherited land and inherited wealth. The people that own the land, like those portrayed in Downton Abbey, also owned the people on the land. Attend the right sort of schools. The right sort of University. Pull on a graduation robe and take the prizes of  public office and the trappings of power and the promise of yet more wealth. Look no further than our Prime minister and his Chancellor of Exchequer.  As Thomas Piketty, among others, have shown in the modern world wealth begets wealth, in spite of, not because of who owns it. Briton is a good place to be rich.

It’s not a good place to be poor. The antithesis of programmes such as Downton Abbey show mainly on channels 4 or 5 with the tagline ‘benefit’ attached. Type it into a search engine and see how many hits you get. Then add the Jeremy Kyle effect. There’s a Victorian cruelty to these programmes, a type of bear baiting, in which the working class are prodded and poked and made to dance and squeal for our master’s entertainment.  Upstairs, Downstairs, and while they are in the ascendency we’re downstairs where we belong, read the subtext, because we’re thick and left to ourselves would be primitive savages, what right wing commentators Charles Murray call a ‘feral underclass’. A recent poll at the Edinburgh Festival found the majority thought  Waynes and Waynettes and foul mouthed Vicky Pollard are not seen are representatives of Little Britain, but embodiments of the working class. But it fits a larger narrative.

To paraphrase R.H.Tawney (1913) what rich people call a problem of poverty is what poor people call a problem of riches.  A general post-second world war consensus and belief in a subsistence minimal under which no individual living in the UK should fall. The level at which national assistance or supplementary benefits were set as a monetary equivalent of a poverty line. Even then, in the 1950s, one in twenty household were said to be below it. And when Peter Townsend’s seminal work Poverty in the UK was published in 1979 seemed to be a call to arms. With empirical data, our Labour government would right a great wrong.

Yet, as Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack show in Breadline Britain in 2012 three in twelve fell below the poverty line. And the problem of child poverty has been solved, by our Eton-educated betters, by re-categorising it as a problem of poor parenting that can be solved by parenting classes. A moral problem. A story many of us are familiar with.

I’ve got a mate that’s got cancer and I’ll expect will die this year. He’s been knocked off the sick, told he’s fit to work. He’s appealed that decision. But in the meantime has zero income. His housing benefit is no longer paid. Local authority housing employees send him threatening letters demanding increasingly larger sums of money. He’s been told by his medical consultant to eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. He’s a causality, one among the many. Classifiable in that old throwback to Victorian society and notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. The underserving poor where those thought able to work and not willing to work. Those like my mate.  And the place for them was prison –for vagrancy – or the poor house, cast in with the old and sick where they’d be made to work. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, trailing and documenting these spikes prior to the Second World War, showed what little work there was for the men (and it was mostly men), wasn’t worth the cost of administration or effort, but it had to be seen to have a salutary effect as not being a soft option. Language we are familiar with today.  Weighty matters such as how much salt should be added to the gruel and whether sugar was a luxury inmates would come to depend upon where debated at parish level. Scotland was the most frugal of nations here.

The privilege of being rich and owning land and the servants on the land as they do in Downton Abbey extends to a policing role of the morals of the lower classes. Sarah Waters gives a fictional account of this in her novel The Little Stranger set in a decaying aristocratic pile, Hundred Hall, just after the end of World War Two. Doctor Faraday who visits the Hall, in a professional capacity, recounts to Lady Ayres how her mother had worked as a nurse maid in the same house in which they were sitting. She wore an identical uniform to the other nurse maids and had to stand with her hands out each morning while the housekeeper examined her fingernails. How the former Lady Ayres would often come unannounced into the maids’ bedrooms and go through their boxes one by one.  Dr Pamela Cox in the BBC programme, Servants – the true story of life below stairs, shows that such experiences were not unusual. It really was an us-and-them world. In 1911, one and a half million worked as indoor servants. Cox suggests that few in Britain would have an ancestor that was not a servant. When I watch clips of Downton Abbey I don’t see the leading actors, I look for subterranean tunnels, damp basements and attic rooms. I look in vain for a serving class on their feet and at the beck and call of their masters for sixteen hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week. I look for servants that cringe at the behest of the master and mistress and are urged to make themselves invisible – until needed. I rejoice that those days are gone, but mourn the lesson of two world wars have been forgotten and they have returned under the guise of neoliberal orthodoxy and extended choice.

Linda Tirado, who works –among other jobs –as a waitress, in the introduction to Hand To Mouth, feels the need to remind readers, ‘I’m a human after all’ and most poor people start their day in debt and end their days in debt and in between isn’t much fun either.  Her chapter titles show where the fault line in the propaganda war against the rich has been lost and the poor routed and tagged with epithet worthless, subhuman, scrounger.

‘It Take Money to Make Money.’ This is not Thomas Piketty telling the reader that money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate, but a working- mother’s view from the bottom rung, two jobs, living on fresh air and foodstamps. No matter which way you cut it, isn’t going to make any difference. Her car gets towed and she can’t afford to pay to get it out of the compound. You need money for that. More than she makes in a day. Martin Ford shows a different pattern. Waltmart is busiest at midnight when food stamps are first issued. Stores are least busy in the week before food stamps are issued. The end of the month is the end of the line for tens of millions.

‘We Do Not Have Babies For Welfare Money.’ What Tirado does not say is that she has the wrong kind of babies. Babies that are born poor, are likely to grown up to be poor as Robert Putman, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, shows.  She admits this herself. ‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive.’ They don’t swear like that on Downton Abbey, but then again, perhaps they don’t need to. Tirado in her penultimate chapter sums up where the propaganda war has been won and lost, ‘Being Poor isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’. Let’s be as honest as Tirado, when you’re the servant of the rich you’re going to get screwed, whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Rich men hold all the trump cards and they have a big stick at their back. The propaganda war was lost a long time ago. Hunker down or rise up. Winners such as those in Downton Abbey write the history and talk about traditions. It leaves a sour taste, but I don’t have to watch it – not yet. But it’s hard to hold your tongue or listen to such claptrap getting cheered.

Martin Ford (2015) Rise of the Robots

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Robots are pattern-recognition machines who have grown arms, legs and visual awareness. Each time we take a step, for example, we are continually falling. Robots face the same problem, but they have not had tens of millions of years of evolution to solve it. Moore’s Law comes into effect here. Computing power which provides the software for computer hardware; robot’s arms and legs and eyes (these are anthropomorphic attributes) doubles every eighteen to twenty-four months. Software engineers are coming up fast against the physical limitation of the materials used to encode machines. With the development of quantum computing that problem seems –temporarily- to have been solved, but few people can explain the mechanics. Martin Ford’s analogy of driving speeds highlights where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Imagine you’re in a car he says, driving at five-miles-per hour (mph). Drive for a minute. 10mph. fifth minute, 80mph. Imagine you’re on the twenty-seventh minute. We’re approaching the speed of sound. Then the speed of light. That’s Moore’s law. That’s where we are.

Another way of looking at it is to think of the brain power at Los Alamos around 1944 when plans were being developed to develop the first atomic bomb. Most of the great Western minds of maths and physics were working on the probability of different scenarios and outcomes. Unless you were a future Nobel winner, you were probably working in the canteen. Now that kind of mathematical grunt work could be done by a ten-year old boy or girl with an iPad. What direction are we going in? Think in terms of a continuum.

Where we are now, I’d guess is similar to the place where the Crow Indians were in Jonathan Lear (2006) Radical Hope: Ethics in The Face of Cultural Devastation; a place and time before the white man came, before around sixty million migrating buffalo were indiscriminately killed,  and with the mass cull went their food source and way of life. Lear writes of the Crows, but he might as well be writing of the Greek, the Roman, the Holy Roman, our own sense of the possible and the impossible: ‘The inability to conceive of its own devastation will tend to be the blind spot of any culture’.  Martin Ford suggests we are at endgame and the chess analogy is appropriate.

Graphic evidence comes from games. It was no great surprise when IBM’s software Deep Blue beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov over a six-game match. While the possibilities in chess are quantitatively enormous, we tend to think of it being on rails. Daniel Kahnerman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow uses the example of a chess master looking at a chess board, and intuition will suggest the best move for him or her to make. That’s thinking fast, but it takes years of training. Software such as Deep Blue travels all the lines of the board at speeds faster than human thought. Speeds that we think of as simultaneous.  And if it makes a mistake it learns from it. Software does not forget. Given such enormous computing power it seemed inevitable that the machine would beat the man.

IBM’s success on Jeopardy! was a different level of success. Deep Blue had been taken off the rails. The brute force of computing power was competing in a general knowledge quiz with idiosyncratic questions and an idiosyncratic format. Computers don’t do spontaneity or intuitive thought over a wide range of subjects. Yet Watson, IBM’s software, triumphed in two televised matches over Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in February 2011.

At one end of the continuum humans become grey gloop. Nothing is wasted. Eric Drexler one of the leading proponents of this theory suggests the combined effect of nanotechnology and increasing computer power to develop their own heuristic, and innate ability to shape the world in their own image, human will be little more than feedstock. If this sounds a bit corny (pun intended) then the co-founder of SunMicrosystems, Bill Joy, article in 2000, ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’ runs through the existential dangers of cross fertilisation in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Nobel winner Stephen Hawkins has also signalled his belief that this is a real danger. And Nick Bostrom (2014) in his New York Times Bestseller, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, argues the future is already here. We’re nurturing artificial intelligence and like a cuckoo’s egg it will outgrow the nest, feed on the hominoid family, and colonise space in its search for perfection.  These Jeremiah voices seem more science fiction than science fact. But look around you. Self-driving cars, drones and rocket back packs. Not in the pages of comic books, but on our roads and buzzing in the air.

Ford identifies other trends that any moderately sophisticated pattern-recognition software would immediately identify. One of them is climate change. He talks about the declining price of solar panels, technological innovation and government innovation. Or what the British Prime Minister called ‘all that green crap’ while withdrawing funding in the areas we really need to invest in.

Money flows unevenly from the rich to the poor. The only place it sticks is with those with money or capital. That’s another trend or pattern. Ford suggests the evidence points to a longer-term trend in which  the five percent who claim ownership of the world’s wealth, and in particular the moneyed-class in the richer nation, those who have cannibalised the wealth of the other ninety-five percent, then the one percent will cannibalise the wealth of the other four percent. Winners take all. Losers take the fall.

“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”
― Karl Marx

Marx was wrong of course. Let us look at the data.  Losers are not sold the rope, only leased it and have to pay economic rent for their funeral. The triumph of capitalism is it is the only game in town. Communist China and Russia, for example, mirror the inequalities of the West. Martin Ford offers sobering statistics. An Oxford University report published in 2013 suggests 50% of US jobs will be automated. And a parliamentary report in the House of Lords in 2015 estimate 35% job losses in the UK. The flight to higher education with the promissory note of a well-paid job at the end of it is the same sort of myth building as, from a different era, Tony Benn’s ‘white hot heat of technology’ changing and modernising society. Thirty percent of employees are currently overqualified for the job they are in and while wages have declined in the last thirty years, the cost of education has more than doubled from £22 billion 2007/8 to £46 billion 2012/13 and that trend looks to continue.  This is one form of credit poorer members of society have access to and they are signing up in record numbers, both in the UK and the US. But not only is their grade deflation, but those printing presses we call universities, some of which  are more equal than others, can demand a premium for their gilt-edged qualification, in a race which our leading universities largely exclude the poor from entering. It would be interesting, for example, to look at what Oxford University defines as those in need of such a leg up. But this is hardly surprising when social housing is defined as costing up to £450 000. And our public-school educated Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, boasts of conducting ‘the most sustained squeeze on public spending for one-hundred years’. Back in 1918 the upper classes contact with the working class was likely to be a master and servant relationship, and as an employer. Those that owned the land owned the people on the land.  But in a contemporary global market as Ford notes, if cognitive ability follows the usual bell-shaped distribution curve, and India and China’s top five percent of intelligentsias adds up to around 130 million, almost double the population of the UK. Technology, based on deep neural learning models makes the universal translator inevitable. See, for example, Megaphoneyaku digital megaphone developed by Panasonic in 2014, which translates whatever language is bellowed into it according to the setting required.   If the offshoring of university graduates and teaching programmes move online, as they are likely to do, then the current crop of graduates will find it even more difficult to find paid work commensurate with their education. Software such as Geekie, launched in Brazil in 2011 because of a shortage of teachers, delivers the whole high-school syllabus, monitors pupils and designs courses based on individual responses and aggregate scores. A movement into higher education and universities with their expensive living costs seems inevitable.  It also seems to me likely that health care assistants will be the add on element of general health care practices with all the heavy lifting done by machines designed like Geekie to have the knowledge element built in and modified and upgraded with each interaction.

A trumpet it a wind instrument. It has the highest register in the brass family, which brings us nicely to Donald Trump and Trumpetism. We’ve had the bit player and actor whom Betty Davis called little Ronnie Reagan getting to play the role of US President. Then we had George Bush senior and then junior getting on the same horse. Anything is possible in the good old US of A. It’s dressed up in frontier ideology and the analogy of a rising tide of wealth lifting all boats. But as Chrystia Freeland says in Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich, ‘the super-rich don’t like to talk about rising income inequality’. The rising tide lifting super yachts that leave the rest stranded in their wake. They like to talk about the Kuznet’s inverted U-curve, how as societies become more complex and productive, high inequality peaks at the top of the U and falls. Wealth generated by a nation’s better-educated workforce is able to get a bigger slice of the national pie in terms of wages is proven to be a short-lived myth. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, using historical data going back to the eighteen century from twenty countries showed that the thirty years following the Second World War was a golden age in which wealth re-distribution did take place, but it took two catastrophic world wars for that to happen. Piketty and Ford both suggest the fallout from the golden age is toxic for all but the gilded few, and aligned with climate change and the rise of the robots it’s a good time to be rich. For the rest of us…man the lifeboats.

Robert D.Putnam (2015) Our Kids The American Dream in Crisis

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It takes a certain sort of courage to say that you are wrong. Robert D Putnam thought all the hoo-ha of kids not being able to grow up and get on – the essence of the American dream, work hard, play hard and you’ll get your just rewards – was belly aching from those that had failed to thrive. In any society there are winners and losers. He was a winner. He didn’t come from a rich family, and through hard work became Malkin Professor of Public Policy, at one of the grand old dames of American education, Harvard University. The same University attended by the current United States President and his wife. Winners and losers. The hard working commoner can make it to the top of the political tree. All he or she needed was true grit.

Putnam looks backwards to the 1950s, his generation and his town Ohio, which was a bellwether of the United States. He extrapolated the narrative of winners and losers and looked at the data and he found a scissor like movement between rich and poor, not only in wealth, but in education, social and economic opportunity. A gap that did not exist in the cohort that he belonged to, a gap that he did not believe existed. The American Dream he found to be a nightmare for the majority of Americans.

Putnam tells the reader ‘class differences were not absent in Port Clinton in the 1950s’. But kids from the different social backgrounds attended the same school. Frank’s parents, for example, owned much of Port Clinton, but he went to the same school as the farmer and fishermen sons and daughters. He charts the success of the two black students, Jesse and Cheryl, who gained doctorate degrees at a time when the colour bar was at its highest. Frank was smart enough to play down the social and economic difference between him and his classmates. Indeed his father warned him when he went to a café he was to order only what his classmates ordered and could afford. The rules were different outside Ohio.

The rules are different but the pattern is the same for modern (or postmodern) industrial nations. Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century charts how as economic growth slows money flows at an increasing rate from the poor to the rich. In Britain, for example, the top 20% own an estimated 100 times more than the other 80%, even before the planned £12 billion of austerity cuts scythes its way through the economic system, increasing the gap even further. Data released a few weeks ago by OECD shows inequality in the UK growing even faster and further. But there is also a gap opening between the top 1% and those other 19% which is also increasing. The tail doesn’t wag the social and economic dog, the tip of the tail does.

Putnam’s graduation class of 1959 did well for themselves.

Humble class origins did not prevent them from using their talents and work ethic to achieve greater upward mobility.

Half of his class went off to college. Race was an issue, but in a climate of greater job instability and declining relative earnings that have fallen in real terms since the 1970s for those outside the top tier, being rich or poor is all about class. A class, an untermensch, in which divorce rates have steadily increased, non-marital births have increased and the number of ‘fragile families’ with absent fathers in prison have grown, as have the number living in child poverty, increasing from just under 10%  of American children in 1999 to 40% in 2013. The mark of a ‘fragile family’ is the rigid boundary of the neighbourhood where they live and where they are educated. The mixing of different social classes that Putnam fondly remembers from the 1950s is, like the Waltons, and John Boy, from a different black-and-white era in which having the right colour of skin was a passport to more.

In a more-it-ocracy those that have the best homes, the best education, the best health prospect and the most political power, demand increasingly more. And they get it. One mother for example demanded her daughter get a school prize, misguidedly awarded by teachers to another pupil, or she’d go to her friends the school governors. Her daughter deserved it. She got it.  The scissor gap between those in the high-income bracket gaining a college degree cuts the tie between rich and poor in terms of opportunity and social mobility and shows a steady upward progression from under 40% in 1970 to 80% in 2011. Those in the low-income bracket also shows a progression for those in the third-quartile (poorish) income group from just under 15% to 23%. For those in the bottom quartile its stasis. 10% to 12 or 13%. Putnam defines education as social and economic success. Those with a college education are more likely to have better jobs, better housing and be more likely to be in a stable marriage. It’s a two-income virtuous circle in which their children reap the benefits of prosperity.

Poverty is marked in other ways. Verbal interactions for example. Children of professionals with an upper-class dual income are richer in verbal encouragements and the words they are exposed to 166 000 by the time they start school, in comparison  – I’ll beat the hell out of you if you don’t stop that now – non-professional children’s exposure to 26 000 words. The patterning and division of class begins before children begin kindergarten. Children are marked out to fail even before they begin school. But those that are poor and show a greater aptitude in tests to succeed than their rich counterparts are far less likely to go onto to get a college degree. Wealth is a physical marker and guarantor of social and economic success.

Richer kids are less likely to drink or take drugs. Less likely to have been in a serious fight. Less likely to have had premarital sex (I guess that goes down as a negative, but not at my school). Less likely to be suspended from school. Stop the world. Poor kids need to get off. In a decade of zero growth and declining wages poor kids are screwed in every way.

Putnam suggests,

If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for American children is not good.

The prognosis for British children follows the American pattern. Those with the least social and economic capital do the least well. The only growth is in unequal opportunity.   Nobel Laureate economist James Hackman estimates that the opportunity cost of writing off our youth costs the economy around 6% to 10% GDP. Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz calls The Great Divide ‘immoral’ and counterproductive. But investment is a dirty word. More and greater austerity is called for in a failed economic experiment. Class disparities accumulate. In a tick-box society the answer is quite simple. Don’t have children unless your income is at least three times the median income. Both in absolute and in relative terms – we’re fucked.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole