Sunday, 29 July 2012

London 2012 Olympics: The schism between media coverage and reality continues.

There has been continuing unanimous praise in the media for Danny Boyle’s silly Olympics show.

For example, on LBC talk-radio today, the question under discussion was, ‘Does Danny Boyle deserve a knighthood for the Olympics opening ceremony show that he produced?’

- that is, it is taken as a given that the show is praiseworthy; the only question is how praiseworthy.

But we also learn today that there have been a scandalous number of empty seats at various events, including even the much-hyped and –lauded opening ceremony.

The media deals with this schism between image and reality in its usual way: by ignoring it.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

In all the debate about the environment, one doesn’t hear much about ...

In all the debate about the environment, one doesn’t hear much about the oceans; it’s mainly about the atmosphere.

Well, here’s some fascinating stuff I’ve been learning from the documentary, ‘Sharkwater’ (DVD – 2008).

Sharks are being fished to exhaustion (‘long-line’ fishing). This is because shark-fin is very lucrative.

The reasons for the unopposed, though illegal, fishing-to-exhaustion include: there are no campaigns to save the shark, like, say, the panda, partly (largely?) because people aren’t bothered about sharks because they have a bad reputation – ‘man-eaters’, which, in fact, is the diametric opposite of reality. (But I understand that Steven ‘Jaws’ Spielberg has a habit of making trite films, e.g. ‘E.T.’, ‘War Horse’.)

All life came from the oceans.

Sharks are amongst the oldest animals on the planet – 400 million years old, essentially unchanged in all that time (whereas innumerable other species have evolved a great deal).

Shark-fin consumption is very popular because there is another myth (in addition to the ‘man-eating’ one) about sharks: they hardly ever get ill. The ‘logic’ goes: since sharks are very healthy animals, then by consuming shark-fin, that good health can transfer to the consumer. The reality, though, is that sharks are not especially healthy: they too are susceptible to the cancer that results from the toxins that we dump into the sea. Moreover, since they are at the top of the food-chain, these toxins are particularly concentrated in them. Thus, ironically, by consuming shark, one is more likely to contract, rather than stave off, cancer.

They are top predators, making them crucial in the balance of the oceans’ (and therefore earth’s) ecosystem.

The oceans, through plankton, are a major source of CO2 absorption (and CO2 is a principal global-warming gas).

Sharks feed on plankton-feeders. Without sharks, the plankton-feeder population explodes. This reduces the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2.

Thus, saving sharks would help us to save ourselves.

(You might like to watch this documentary if you’re not already familiar with this stuff; or you might like to watch it anyway for the great photography.)

Oh, and another interesting fact is that sharks have always been top predators.

This is the first time - in just the last 100 years of their 400 million years on the planet - that they have become prey (of man).

(That's of the order 10^-7 of their period of existence - a vanishingly small fraction.)

Saturday, 21 July 2012

£13tn: hoard hidden from taxman by global elite
• Study estimates staggering size of offshore economy
• Private banks help wealthiest to move cash into havens
Aerial view of the Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands: a favourite haven from the taxman for the global elite. Photograph: David Doubilet/National Geographic/Getty Images
A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore – as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together – according to research commissioned by the campaign group Tax Justice Network.
James Henry, former chief economist at consultancy McKinsey and an expert on tax havens, has compiled the most detailed estimates yet of the size of the offshore economy in a new report, The Price of Offshore Revisited, released exclusively to the Observer.
He shows that at least £13tn – perhaps up to £20tn – has leaked out of scores of countries into secretive jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands with the help of private banks, which vie to attract the assets of so-called high net-worth individuals. Their wealth is, as Henry puts it, "protected by a highly paid, industrious bevy of professional enablers in the private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries taking advantage of the increasingly borderless, frictionless global economy". According to Henry's research, the top 10 private banks, which include UBS and Credit Suisse in Switzerland, as well as the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, managed more than £4tn in 2010, a sharp rise from £1.5tn five years earlier.
The detailed analysis in the report, compiled using data from a range of sources, including the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, suggests that for many developing countries the cumulative value of the capital that has flowed out of their economies since the 1970s would be more than enough to pay off their debts to the rest of the world.
Oil-rich states with an internationally mobile elite have been especially prone to watching their wealth disappear into offshore bank accounts instead of being invested at home, the research suggests. Once the returns on investing the hidden assets is included, almost £500bn has left Russia since the early 1990s when its economy was opened up. Saudi Arabia has seen £197bn flood out since the mid-1970s, and Nigeria £196bn.
"The problem here is that the assets of these countries are held by a small number of wealthy individuals while the debts are shouldered by the ordinary people of these countries through their governments," the report says.
The sheer size of the cash pile sitting out of reach of tax authorities is so great that it suggests standard measures of inequality radically underestimate the true gap between rich and poor. According to Henry's calculations, £6.3tn of assets is owned by only 92,000 people, or 0.001% of the world's population – a tiny class of the mega-rich who have more in common with each other than those at the bottom of the income scale in their own societies.
"These estimates reveal a staggering failure: inequality is much, much worse than official statistics show, but politicians are still relying on trickle-down to transfer wealth to poorer people," said John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network. "People on the street have no illusions about how unfair the situation has become."
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "Countries around the world are under intense pressure to reduce their deficits and governments cannot afford to let so much wealth slip past into tax havens.
"Closing down the tax loopholes exploited by multinationals and the super-rich to avoid paying their fair share will reduce the deficit. This way the government can focus on stimulating the economy, rather than squeezing the life out of it with cuts and tax rises for the 99% of people who aren't rich enough to avoid paying their taxes."
Assuming the £13tn mountain of assets earned an average 3% a year for its owners, and governments were able to tax that income at 30%, it would generate a bumper £121bn in revenues – more than rich countries spend on aid to the developing world each year.
Groups such as UK Uncut have focused attention on the paltry tax bills of some highly wealthy individuals, such as Topshop owner Sir Philip Green, with campaigners at one recent protest shouting: "Where did all the money go? He took it off to Monaco!" Much of Green's retail empire is owned by his wife, Tina, who lives in the low-tax principality.
A spokeswoman for UK Uncut said: "People like Philip Green use public services – they need the streets to be cleaned, people need public transport to get to their shops – but they don't want to pay for it."
Leaders of G20 countries have repeatedly pledged to close down tax havens since the financial crisis of 2008, when the secrecy shrouding parts of the banking system was widely seen as exacerbating instability. But many countries still refuse to make details of individuals' financial worth available to the tax authorities in their home countries as a matter of course. Tax Justice Network would like to see this kind of exchange of information become standard practice, to prevent rich individuals playing off one jurisdiction against another.
"The very existence of the global offshore industry, and the tax-free status of the enormous sums invested by their wealthy clients, is predicated on secrecy," said Henry.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Why We Can't Afford a Privatised Railway

Neil Clark


Why We Can't Afford a Privatised Railway

Posted: 17/07/2012 14:30

David Cameron has hailed it as the "biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian era". But we really shouldn't get too carried away about the government's £9.4bn programme of investment in the railways announced today, or believe it will do much to alleviate our transport problems. For a start, building work on the projects will not start until 2014 at the earliest. And even when the modernisation does get going, the basic problem of our railways will remain: namely that they are run for private profit and not as a public service. For that we have to blame a certain Mr John Major.
While there's stiff competition for the prize of barmiest Tory privatisation of the 80s and 90s, the sell-off of the railways has to be a strong contender. Yet despite widespread public opposition - including from within the Conservative party itself, the Major government, taking its cue from the pro-privatisation zealots at the Adam Smith Institute, pushed the scheme to destroy British Rail through and Labour, to its shame carried on with the privatised system when in office.
Twenty-six years on what have been the results? Privatisation means that we have by far and away the most expensive railways in Europe. Figures published by the 'Campaign for Better Transport' showed that the price of season tickets for commuter train journeys to the capital cost between 3.5 times and 9.7 times more than in other European countries, where railways are still publicly owned. Meanwhile, a Just Economics report by the RMT union, has shown that day return-tickets in the UK - at 26p per kilometer, are over three times more expensive than in France.
In late 2009 we saw Britain's first £1,000 rail fare, while this January the misery for rail passengers got even worse with average increases in fares of 5.9%. And that's not the end of it. Not only do we pay more when we purchase our rail tickets than our European neighbours, our privatised railways receive around five times more in public subsidy than British Rail did in the last year of its existence. So much for the claims then, made by the serial privatisers in the 1990s, that privatisation would lead to cheaper services and less cost to taxpayers.
We can't realistically expect the privatisation-mad Coalition to reverse John Major's disastrous policy, but what about Labour? Back in 2009, writing in the New Statesman, I urged Labour to support re-nationalisation.
The party unfortunately didn't go for it in its 2010 General election manifesto, but there could be a shift occurring now: it was recently reported that Labour is to consider re-nationalisation as part of its policy review.
Bringing the railways back into public ownership would be a hugely popular policy (polls show around 70% in favour) and Ed Miliband would gain support not only from the left, but also from frustrated and long-suffering Tory-leaning commuters in the south-east.
Pro-privatisation zealots will of course tell us that it can't be done and it would cost the government too much money. But re-nationalisation can be done: in New Zealand, the Labour government the brought the railways back into public ownership after the country's own disastrous experience of privatisation.
As to the question of cost, as The Huffington Post reported, a report from the think-tank Transport for Quality of Life says that renationalisation could save the taxpayer £1.2 billion a year "through cheaper borrowing costs, removing shareholders' dividends and reducing fragmentation".
The reality is that it's not re-nationalisation which we can't afford, but continuing with privatisation.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Women question the unusual zeal in pursuing Julian Assange for rape allegations

Letters, Guardian 9 December 2010
Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations (Report, 8 December). Women in Sweden don't fare better than we do in Britain when it comes to rape. Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased. On 23 April 2010 Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that "up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported". They endorsed Amnesty International's call for an independent inquiry to examine the rape cases that had been closed and the quality of the original investigations.

Assange, who it seems has no criminal convictions, was refused bail in England despite sureties of more than £120,000. Yet bail following rape allegations is routine. For two years we have been supporting a woman who suffered rape and domestic violence from a man previously convicted after attempting to murder an ex-partner and her children – he was granted bail while police investigated.
There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don't take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.

Katrin Axelsson
Women Against Rape

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Syrian opposition: who's doing the talking?

The media have been too passive when it comes to Syrian opposition sources, without scrutinising their backgrounds and their political connections. Time for a closer look …

Friday, 13 July 2012

nhs privatisation, care uk

Going private? My reply to a job offer from a private health company

by Alex Nunns

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Would really help if Heather Brooke could point to some evidence of this.


Monday, 2 July 2012

Monbiot: the narcissism shines through - "I", "I", "I", "my"

Monbiot: I don't like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I'm not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.

His conceit is amusing. He thinks that he is raising this problem (of 'not peak oil'); he thinks that he (a mere journalist, not a scientist, engineer, economist or politician) would be amongst those to see a solution.

He doesn't like having to tell us such unpleasant truths, but he does so because he is a good parent to not only his own children, but to us, his readers, too.

Monbiot is such a prima donna: touchingly mentioning his beloved children at the melodramatic conclusion to this piece, demonstrating what a heroic father-on-a-mission he is.

Monbiot persistently gives hints about his true nature and motivations: he needs to see himself, and needs others to see him, as a person of significance.

Owen Jones hinted at this weakness/conceit too: his suggestion/fear that if one is not seen in mainstream media, then one is ‘irrelevant’.

I’ve never had much time or patience for the Buddhist stuff that comes out of ML, but it is apparently relevant in this instance: If I recall rightly, David Edwards recently cited some words about how true happiness and inner-peace only comes when you stop seeking to be someone. And this is why fulfilment persistently eludes celebs, because, however big a ‘someone’ they become, they are always acutely aware of what a ‘nobody’ they are compared to other celebs. And that’s what mainstream journos are to a large extent: celebs.

I think this also helps explain the reaction to Assange. I have been continually puzzled by the line that so many journos spout: ‘Assange is just seeking attention’ (e.g. when he runs to the Ecuador Embassy). I thought, ‘How’s he seeking attention? He has no control over whether people choose to talk about his ‘antics’. If he is indeed just an attention-seeking little twit, then why write about him at all? You’re giving him attention; he’s not extracting it from you.’

Now I think I understand that line of theirs: they’re projecting their own mindset onto him. They themselves are always seeking attention, so they presume that that is what he’s doing too.

The Super-Rich and the Rest of Us: Some Outrageous Facts About Inequality

July 02, 2012

Studying inequality in America reveals some facts that are truly hard to believe. Amidst all the absurdity a few stand out.

1. U.S. companies in total pay a smaller percentage of taxes than the lowest-income 20% of Americans.

Total corporate profits for 2011 were $1.97 trillion. Corporations paid $181 billion in federal taxes (9%) and $40 billion in state taxes (2%), for a total tax burden of 11%. The poorest 20% of American citizens pay 17.4% in federal, state, and local taxes.

2. The high-profit, tax-avoiding tech industry was built on publicly-funded research.

The technology sector has been more dependent on government research and development than any other industry. The U.S. government provided about half of the funding for basic research in technology and communications well into the 1980s. Even today, federal grants support about 60 percent of research performed at universities.

IBM was founded in 1911, Hewlett-Packard in 1947, Intel in 1968, Microsoft in 1975, Apple and Oracle in 1977, Cisco in 1984. All relied on government and military innovations. The more recently incorporated Google, which started in 1996, grew out of the Defense Department’s ARPANET system and the National Science Foundation’s Digital Library Initiative.

The combined 2011 federal tax payment for the eight companies was just 10.6%.

3. The sales tax on a quadrillion dollars of financial sales is ZERO.

The Bank for International Settlements reported in 2008 that total annual derivatives trades were $1.14 quadrillion. The same year, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange reported a trading volume of $1.2 quadrillion.

A quadrillion dollars is the entire world economy, 12 times over. It’s enough to give 3 million dollars to every person in the United States. But in a sense it’s not real money. Most of it is high-volume nanosecond computer trading, the type that almost crashed our economy. So it’s a good candidate for a tiny sales tax. But there is no sales tax.

Go out and buy shoes or an iPhone and you pay up to a 10% sales tax. But walk over to Wall Street and buy a million dollar high-risk credit default swap and pay 0%.

4. Many Americans get just a penny on the dollar.

– For every dollar of NON-HOME wealth owned by white families, people of color have only one cent.

– For every dollar the richest .1% earned in 1980, they’ve added three more dollars. The poorest 90% have added one cent.

– For every dollar of financial securities (e.g., bonds) in the U.S., the bottom 90% of Americans have a penny and a half’s worth.

– For every dollar of 2008-2010 profits from Boeing, DuPont, Wells Fargo, Verizon, General Electric, and Dow Chemicals, the American public got a penny in taxes.

5. Our society allows one man or one family to possess enough money to feed every hungry person on earth.

The United Nations estimates that $30 billion is needed to eradicate hunger. Several individuals have more than this amount in personal wealth.

There are 925 million people in the world with insufficient food. According to the World Food Program, it takes about $100 a year to feed a human being. That’s $92 billion, about equal to the fortune of the six Wal-Mart heirs.

One Final Outrage…

In 2007 a hedge fund manager (John Paulson) conspired with a financial company (Goldman Sachs) to create packages of risky subprime mortgages, so that in anticipation of a housing crash he could use other people’s money to bet against his personally designed sure-to-fail financial instruments. His successful gamble paid him $3.7 billion. Three years later he made another $5 billion, which in the real world would have been enough to pay the salaries of 100,000 health care workers.

As an added insult to middle-class taxpayers, the tax rate on most of Paulson’s income was just 15%. As a double insult, he may have paid no tax at all, since hedge fund profits can be deferred indefinitely. As a triple insult, some of his payoff came from the middle-class taxpayers themselves, who bailed out the company (AIG) that had to pay off his bets.

And the people we elect to protect our interests are unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Paul Buchheit teaches Economic Inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (,,, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at

Learning to live in a changing climate

Environmentalists rejoice: ExxonMobil is on your side. Well, sort of. In his characteristically plain-speaking way, Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s chief executive, last week set out a view of climate change that could not have been more clear: the planet is warming because of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Before they get too excited about the repentant sinner, though, environmentalists should follow the rest of his argument. Mr Tillerson sees climate change as a “manageable” problem, best addressed not by trying to stop it but by adapting to it: re-engineering our societies and economies so that they are able to withstand a warmer world.

He makes some valid points, in particular about the drawbacks of many renewable energy technologies and the difficulties in finding substitutes for fossil fuels. Yet his answer is incomplete.

Adaptation is an essential part of the response to climate change, but cannot be the whole of it. Measures such as strengthened flood defences are likely to be necessary because some warming has happened already and more is now locked in. Even if all carbon emissions were to stop tomorrow, temperatures would continue to rise for decades. Of course, they are not going to stop; not tomorrow, nor at any time in the foreseeable future.

The International Energy Agency, the rich countries’ think-tank, warned last year that the “door is closing” on the chance to avoid damaging climate change. International efforts to agree global emissions limits are moving torturously slowly, and may never reach a successful conclusion. The world relies on oil, coal and gas for about 80 per cent of its energy, and is shifting away from them only very slowly, while economic development creates an ever-growing demand for fuel. It is only prudent to prepare for the consequences.

Simply letting climate change rip and tidying up the damage as it occurs, however, is not a viable strategy. As Mr Tillerson points out, there is great uncertainty in forecasts generated by climate models. The possibility of extreme changes that would overwhelm mankind’s ability to cope suggests emission curbs are a precaution that we neglect at our peril.

Even in less catastrophic scenarios, the costs of climate change will be unevenly distributed, with the greatest harm falling on countries that already have the lowest incomes and are least able to defend themselves. In poor countries, higher temperatures will mean an increased risk of hardship and societal collapse, and rich countries will be forced to respond.

The warmer the world gets, the more likely it is that those costs will outweigh the price tag for curbing emissions through greater energy efficiency and increased use of renewables, nuclear power and carbon storage.

Controlling carbon is politically difficult, as the sorry history of international climate negotiations has shown. It is, however, likely to be unavoidable. The sooner the world gets to grips with it, the lower the eventual costs will be.