Friday, December 23, 2011

Layer 502 . . . Banking Reform, City Whingeing, Britain's Interests, Tax Havens, Tax Avoidance, Neuroscience, Punishment, Values, Virtues and Education

An interesting column by Vince Cable in the Guardian this week:

Put aside the City's whingeing

The threats posed by banking reform are exaggerated. The country's interests must come first


Simon Jenkins' column this week is, as usual, well worth checking out:
The government is so draconian, yet so casual towards dodgy private cash
At times like this we need an equality of misery. Yet public spending is slashed while Revenue & Customs caves in to the wealthy
In good times such stories merely water the envious eye. In bad times they induce blind rage. Why the hell should people be expected to lose their jobs, their houses, their lifestyles, when the government is a soft touch for the rich and powerful? This is not a matter of left or right, socialist or capitalist. Britons are now embarking on a journey into a dark night of economic gloom. Nothing will make them less inclined to co-operate than the sight of a lucky few rowing to safety in gold-plated lifeboats.
Fairness cuts both ways. Today's report on the tax leniency shown by the Revenue towards big corporations indicates that toughness towards the poor is not replicated by toughness towards the rich. The estimate was of some £25bn in taxes gone missing, the bulk of it concealed by an insistence on "commercial confidentiality", otherwise known as incompetent secrecy.
Goldman Sachs appeared to have paid £20m less than it should on bonuses alone, and was excused with a £10m payment ex gratia and a "handshake" with the boss of the Revenue. Vodaphone paid just £1.25bn towards a tax bill that should have been some £6bn. The reasonable assumption is that these cases were tips of an iceberg. Meanwhile the relevant inspectors were being wined, dined and offered jobs by the grandees of the accountancy firms overseeing the scams.
It may be a corny adage, but it remains glaring that almost no holder of high office in Britain at present has ever met a payroll, run a business or cut a corporate budget. They are children playing with sweets.
Osborne is the scourge of public sector unions and condemns tax avoidance, yet he refuses to end the scandal of crown tax havens, from Jersey to the Caymans, that enjoy the benefits of British citizenship while enabling individuals and corporations to evade British tax. Last week the European Union lectured Britain on financial regulation, while harbouring on its borders such fiscal black holes as Monaco, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The thesis, accepted by governments of all parties, that the rich should be allowed to escape tax for their "wealth-creating potential" has surely been exploded by the credit crunch. It is not the kind of wealth Britain can afford.
Just because lobbyists say bonuses and tax havens are "essential to Britain's recovery" does not mean they are. The government's tolerance of both is more than stupid. It induces cynicism in the public realm and recruits fair-minded people to the cause of St Paul's protesters and public sector strikers. Nothing is more crucial to national wellbeing at a time like this than a sense of equality of misery. 

There's an interesting piece in the Guardian by Vicki Helyar-Cardwell on the age of criminal responsibility, and sentencing policy:
Sentencing of young adults should take their maturity into account
Our criminal justice system should heed the latest research on neuroscience and the law
"The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control and cognitive control, is among the slowest parts of the brain to mature and is not fully developed until around the age of 20".
A University of Birmingham report, commissioned by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, has shown that "Development of those areas of the brain concerned with higher order cognitive processes and executive functions, including control of impulses and regulation and interpretation of emotions, continues into early adulthood; the human brain is not 'mature' until the early to mid-twenties."
While your [Guardian] article focuses largely on the implications of neuroscience for the age of criminal responsibility – undoubtedly far too low at 10 – the findings have equal importance for policy towards young adults, who are by and large treated as fully fledged adults from the moment they wake up on their 18th birthday. This was certainly the case in the sentencing following last summer's riots.
The public support these measures: a recent poll found that 69% think emotional and psychological maturity should be taken into account for those accused of breaking the law.
In Germany this is common practice: courts can choose to try young adults up to the age of 21 under juvenile law if the offender is immature or the circumstances of the offence are more typical of youth crime.
Our organisation [the Criminal Justice Alliance] has long argued that maturity, not just chronological age, should be recognised in the sentencing process. This latest report strengthens that argument.
The problem with all this is that it's crap. This isn't an issue about the "maturity" of the physical brain. It's an issue about intelligence - the personal, social, emotional and spiritual intelligences, to be precise. It's an issue about the failure to develop spiritual and personal intelligence through proper education that allows children to consider and to PRACTICE positive human values and human virtues.

Very young children are usually aware of when something is "right" and when something is "wrong". The issue is whether they grow up in environments and circumstances that allow and encourage them to make positive choices rather than negative choices; places that discourage them from behaving selfishly and egocentrically. They need to develop the language of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence. In good schools and homes this can happen at a very early age.

Just waiting for the physical brain to "mature" is NOT the answer.

What needs to be taken into account when we sentence people for criminal behaviour is whether those people have been given opportunities to develop all of their intelligences - despite their physical brain not being "fully developed" or "mature". Sadly, in far too many cases, such education and such learning has NOT taken place, and young people are simply repressed rather than educated in the theory AND practice of living life virtuously, according to positive human values.

The really hard cases with high academic attainment sometimes go out into the world and get rich on tax evasion and avoidance, and financial scams. They then complain like crazy that young criminals are treated too leniently and aren't punished sufficiently.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Layer 501 . . . Strictly, Dancing, Singing, Cooking, Reality TV, Brucie, Jamie, Gareth, Gok and Education

Reality TV

The TV dance show thing is interesting, to say the least. In the first place, what's with the 'Strictly'? Obviously a reference to a crap 90's film called 'Strictly Ballroom' - but who cares? And now the whole silly TV phenomenon is known by practically everyone as "Strictly". It's silly because it manages to turn a very skilled and challenging activity - dancing - into a freak show cum peep show cum comedy show cum camp bitchfest.

Who watches? Every single age group, it seems. My 96 year old aunt thinks it's 'lovely'. For her it represents continuity and a link to the past. She has fond memories of years spent tuning in to the BBC to watch "Come Dancing" - a staple of my own family's viewing back in the monochrome years - when we had only one TV in the house, which we all huddled round in the winter, next to the coal fire. Impossible to escape to the bedroom in those days - too damned cold.

Aunt also has fond memories of our national treasure, the sainted Brucie, hosting popular 'family' shows such as 'Sunday Night at the London Palladium', with his stupid catch phrases and his dancing and his comedic schtick. How wonderful that Brucie is still with us, still doing his stuff. Not.

At the other end of the age spectrum there are teens and sub-teens who get off on the gorgeousness of the professional women dancers, the chance to check out the legs of popular celebs, and the attractiveness of certain of the male dancers. A family show indeed. There are saddoes all down the age range who love to letch at the participants, laugh at the bitchiness or nastiness of the judges, revel in the 'competition' aspect, and groan at Brucie.

And then there are the freaks. Thank you John Sergeant, Anne Widdicombe and others for providing such great entertainment. At least it's not the X Factor. At least they're not serious - they don't really believe they're amazingly talented and possess star quality. They aren't there to demonstrate their prowess as dancers. They do it simply to show that they can. Media whores will appear on anything - just as long as they're on the telly. Being famous and being a celebrity are serious occupations, it seems.

Thank goodness there are a few worthwhile 'reality' shows on TV. Gok Wan, Jamie Oliver and Gareth Malone have done some very interesting and worthwhile things. Jonathan Freedland wrote about them this week:

The success of The Choir's military wives suggests we're losing our taste for malice TV

No pantomime villain judges. And no losers. In the age of austerity we want shows that lift us up, not put us down

We've been told endlessly how shallow and materialistic, trivial and celebrity-obsessed, our society has become. It's another source of gloom, along with everything else life has thrown at us this year: earthquakes, war and scandal – all under a darkening sky of economic crisis. But this is the season when we try to focus on . . . causes for optimism, among them some small signs that our culture does not only elevate consumerism, cheap fame and a lust for riches, but other values too. And those signs can be found in the unlikeliest places, including the heart of crassness itself – reality television.

The military wives whose record is selling so fast are themselves a product of reality TV, the BBC series The Choir. The programme could not be more different from The X Factor. It is slow and gentle in style, but that's not the key difference to be celebrated.

Choirmaster Gareth Malone transforms a few dozen women on a Devon military base into a group able to sing together in beautiful harmony.

The months of rehearsal together turned them into something else. They started meeting at each other's houses, having informal rehearsals. They became bound together by the shared pressure to perform, whether at the local town or, eventually, at the homecoming ceremony for their returning men. "We feel like sisters now, helping each other out," reported one. 

Unlike The X Factor or its imitators, The Choir is not a competition: the only prize is a sense of camaraderie and communal connectedness, a prize everybody wins.

The choirmaster never tells anyone they cannot sing. The result is not just a sense of solidarity that was previously missing but a boost to individual self-esteem. One woman after another tells their young instructor that they have found a confidence through singing that they had lacked before – that at last they had done something in which they could take pride.

In an earlier programme, Malone . . . took a gaggle of young men, who previously thought they could do nothing with aplomb except drink, and turned them into a tenor section. There, as on the military base, he took what were fractured groups and turned them into a community – and gave them a voice.

Malone's earnest belief in music and its power to transform, his patience with volunteers who have never sung a note, and their clear, expressed gratitude to him for changing their lives, is impossible to fake.

In among the rough of reality TV and the like, it's good to know there are diamonds like Malone – but he's not the only one. Gok Wan with his how-to-dress shows is in a similar business, taking women who have lost all self-belief and pushing them to see themselves in a new, more generous light. There are no withering one-liners, no pantomime villain judges, no losers – and no prize but an injection of confidence.

The pioneer of this sub-genre of reality TV, aimed at lifting up rather than putting down, may well have been Jamie Oliver. The Jamie's Kitchen series in 2002 followed the chef as he trained 15 disadvantaged young people, with the lure of a job in his new restaurant. He followed it with similar ventures, persuading both school drop-outs and school dinner ladies that they could raise their sights.

It would be cheery to see a trend here, with Malone's chart victory over Cowell presaging an era in which nice prevails over nasty, when the joy of collective solidarity edges out the cult of the narcissistic individual. Such a trend might even be a function of the age of austerity: after all, when there's so much real pain all around, who wants to see fake malice on TV?

But even if it reveals no such wider phenomenon, the military wives – freed at last to express through music the pain and yearning they had long held within – and their success, along with the man who made it possible, are something to celebrate. And in these straitened times, we need all the causes for celebration we can find.


Real Lives

The problem with all of this is that it's putting sticking plaster on people who are already injured and damaged. How did they get that way in the first place? Why do so many people in our society have such low self esteem? Why have they never before taken part in activities that promote solidarity and collaboration? Why do they have such low expectations, low skill levels, low self-confidence? Why have they never sung, danced, played an instrument in a band, cooked well, dressed with confidence, etc? How did they become so inhibited, so overweight, so withdrawn, so apathetic, so unhappy? Why is our society so bad at raising people who are self-actualised, who fulfil their potential?

The people who take part in Malone's programmes invariably thank him for 'changing their lives'. The point is - why do their lives need changing? Why does our society produce so many people whose lives are unfulfilled, unproductive and uncreative? What's wrong with our ways of bringing up children that produces such people? What's wrong with our system of education?

Check out the previous blog, and Mehdi Hasan's column. Start thinking about how we might educate our young people so that they grow up with a personal voice, the habit of creativity, and the habit of reading for pleasure and learning for its own sake. Start thinking about our need to have a national conversation about personal intelligence, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, physical intelligence, instinctual intelligence and spiritual intelligence. Start thinking about our worship of test and exam results and 'the intellect' - and the impact of such worship on underachievement in every other aspect of our lives and our learning.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Layer 500 . . . Education, Learning, Exams, Creativity, Money, Government, Civilisation, Protestors, Freedom and The Markets

"I didn't feel Oxford was teaching me how to learn - it was just teaching me a bit of German."

So said Sir Peter Moores on One To One (Radio 4) this morning.

He gave up university. ("A pretty cool thing to do," said the presenter, Lucy Kellaway - who has been asking questions about what having a great deal of money does TO people, rather than FOR them.)

"Instead I enjoyed going round the continent in a little car for two or three years."

He also learned to speak German by hanging out in Vienna and Germany.

Through the Peter Moores Foundation he now gives away money in order "to get nice things to happen." "You put money where it's going to be useful."

He's a great supporter of the arts, artists, performers and creativity.


Learning, Schools and Exams

Sometimes you come across a piece of writing that's so perfect you want to pass it on in its entirety. Mehdi Hasan is one of our most important progressive thinkers and writers, and in this one article he manages to sum up quite brilliantly everything Oxzen has been banging on about regarding education and learning throughout the course of the past 499 blogs. In this one piece he hits the nail right on the head as to why this country (ie England) should be ashamed of the changes that have taken place in education during the past three decades, whilst countries like Finland have been evolving educational philosophies and systems that are genuinely fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Our schools exam system is no longer fit for purpose
English pupils are the most tested in the industrialised world. The countries with the best education don't subject their kids to this misery

by Mehdi Hasan

It was a sorry sight. On Thursday, the heads of England's four exam boards, as well as three of their examiners, filed into the Thatcher Room of Portcullis House to be quizzed by MPs on the education select committee. The examiners had been secretly filmed by the Daily Telegraph offering teachers advice on how to boost their exam results – from telling them which topics their pupils could expect to be tested on, to advising them on how to "hammer exam technique" – and subsequently suspended by their boards.

However, in the midst of their litany of excuses ("We all make mistakes," whined one examiner; "It was a throwaway figure of speech," wailed another), some revealing remarks were made. Mark Dawe, chief executive of exam board OCR, told MPs there is "an enormous amount of pressure on the system". Suspended examiner Paul Barnes admitted there are "pressures to raise achievements", and that it is a "competitive world".

They have a point. The corruption of the testing regime is only a symptom. The disease is the tyranny of testing itself; a culture of relentless exams, spurious league tables and artificial competition between schools. Our exam system isn't fit for purpose.

English children are now the most tested children in the industrialised world (thanks to devolution, their Scottish and Welsh cousins do not suffer the same burden of examination); the average pupil will be subjected to at least 70 tests during his or her school career.

This preoccupation with testing is bad for schools, teachers and pupils. For schools, the costs have ballooned: spending on exam fees nearly doubled, to over £300m, between 2002 and 2010. Astonishingly, exams now account for the second biggest cost to schools after teachers' pay.

For teachers, it is deeply demoralising and demotivating to have to "teach to the test", as so many of them are forced to do. For many, teaching has become dull, narrow and uninspiring. There is no reward for creativity, only results, results, results.

For pupils, high-stakes tests are a well-documented source of stress and anxiety. According to children's charities, this can physically manifest itself as sleep-loss, bed-wetting or skin disorders.

Critics of the current system abound, and include the education select committee, the Children's Society, the Royal Society and various academics. In 2009, for example, a Cambridge University review of primary education described national testing as "the elephant in the curriculum" and noted that in the final year of primary school "breadth competes with the much narrower scope of what is to be tested".

In his book Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing, Warwick Mansell explains how a strategy of "pursuing results almost as ends in themselves has been forced on schools, in their desperation to fulfil the requirements of hyper-accountability". But, he writes, "this grades race is ultimately self-defeating. It does not guarantee better educated pupils, just better statistics for schools and the government." He documents how primary school pupils spend an average of 150 hours purely in preparation for the Sats tests: "England's education system is now an exams system," he says.

Mansell's book should be required reading for the test-obsessed education secretary, Michael Gove, and his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg. Politically motivated meddling in the examination system, by both Conservatives and Labour, has done little to boost school standards or pupil performance. Over the past decade, according to the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) global survey of 15-year-olds, Britain has slipped from fourth to 16th in science, seventh to 25th in literacy, and eighth to 28th in maths.

The OECD's Economic Survey 2011 points out how, in spite of school spending per pupil rising sharply over the past decade, improvements in educational outcomes have been limited, bolstered only by grade inflation. The OECD notes that "high-stake tests" have proliferated in England, and yet these can often "produce perverse incentives" and "lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation".

So what if we took a radically different approach? What if we scrapped all the endless exams, abolished the headline-grabbing school league tables, and freed our teachers to teach kids how to think instead of how to take a test?

Would our schools get better or worse? Finland provides a clue. The country has topped the various Pisa rankings over the last 10 years. But Finland has no league tables, no school inspections, no pupil-by-pupil tests. In fact, the first national test a Finnish child sits is when he or she is about to leave school, at 18. The government does carry out regular assessments of school performance, by testing representative samples of students, but these are only for internal use and the results aren't published.

The Finns prefer to empower their teachers, who tend to be better-qualified and better-paid than our own. But it's not just sandal-wearing Scandinavians. Take Japan. A recent report for the Japanese ministry of education said the country should "avoid school ranking and unhealthy competition". And in Shanghai, China, as Mansell points out, school-by-school exam results tends not to be published – yet this didn't stop Shanghai from taking the top spot in last year's Pisa rankings.

Here in the UK, though, we have fetishised exams and deified league tables; we have prioritised test results – statistics, numbers, scores – over the hearts and, crucially, minds of our children.

And to what purpose? Exams are means, not ends; they do not, of themselves, raise standards or produce better-educated children. Nor do they truly measure the qualities necessary for a well-rounded education – from independent reasoning to creative thinking. Instead, in the words of the US educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli, we have created a new version of the Three Rs: "ram, remember, regurgitate".

For far too long, the debate over exams in this country has revolved around "dumbing down". The issue, however, is not whether exams are easier or harder than they once were but what role they serve. To conflate mere test results with a high-quality education is to do a disservice to our children. The truth is that education by exam isn't an education worthy of the name.


It's also worth quoting extensively from this excellent piece by Jeffrey Sachs, the author of "The Price of Civilisation".
Western politicians are dire, but we mustn't despise government
Our leaderships, in thrall to big business, are failing in so many places all at the same time. But we can't give up on them

The year 2011 will be remembered as the year of failed summits. Governments proved themselves time and again to be failures at addressing the growing crises engulfing the world, whether the eurozone debacle, climate change, or budget politics in the US and Europe.

Why should governance be so poor in so many places at the same time? There are several factors at play. 

In the face of high unemployment, growing inequality and looming budget deficits, most governments are paralysed, in thrall to powerful interests. Wall Street, the City of London, the Frankfurt banks and other corporate lobbies hold politics in their grip, and block effective change. Top income tax rates are kept low; banks remain undercapitalised and under-regulated; and urgently needed public investments for education, job skills and upgraded infrastructure are being slashed in response to budgetary pressures.

The politicians are also in way over their heads. They are typically negotiators and public relations specialists, not experts on the policies needed to resolve the world economy's crises. The special interest groups write the scripts, but these scripts prove impossible to stage. Every European summit in the past two years has not only failed politically, but also technically. The policy prescriptions put forward by Germany's Chancellor Merkel are poorly prepared and designed, and impossible to implement. The euro is being killed not only by politics but also by incompetence.

The actual process of governing has descended to soundbites. In the US the Obama administration has failed to produce a major policy document on any area of key policy concern: the budget, taxation, energy, climate, financial regulation, healthcare or poverty. Policies and legislation are decided in the backrooms dominated by lobbyists and negotiators. Politics is by horse-trading among interest groups – not by reason, expertise and democratic deliberation.

The European Union processes are now equally bizarre. The entire union of 27 countries awaits the word of one member, Germany, whose policy logic in turn reflects a mix of post-traumatic stress, coalition politics, powerful yet crippled banks, and amateur politicians. The European commission seems to play little or no role.

A few countries, notably the northern European social democracies, are keeping their heads above water, at least for now. They are stable because income inequality and poverty are kept low by active government policies. Transfer payments to the poor and the social safety net are robust. Tax collections are ample and budgets are in balance or surplus. Even these countries flirted with financial deregulation in the 1990s, paid a heavy price and then got their banking sectors back under control. Tough financial regulation has served them well during the past decade.

So what can we learn from the few success stories? First, societies function properly only when they are judged by their citizens to be reasonably fair. Northern Europe has built its policies on a framework of equality and inclusion. In the US, the idea of fairness has been almost absent from political vocabulary for three decades. The Occupy Wall Street movement, thankfully, has brought it back to life. Most of Europe is somewhere between the fairness of northern Europe's social democracies and the glaring inequities of the US. Yet in much of western Europe there has been a clear shift away from solidarity, towards harsher policies that shield the rich from their responsibilities to the rest of society.

Second, economic success requires increased public investments in education, infrastructure, energy, job skills and more. Simplistic budget cutting will destroy governments rather than fix them. Higher taxes on top incomes and wealth must be part of any sound fiscal strategy. Yet till today, Washington politicians of both parties have been recklessly and thoughtlessly squandering American prosperity by prioritising tax breaks for the rich.

Third, more expert policymaking is needed. The eurozone crisis, for example, requires urgent attention to Europe's decapitalised banks. Yet German politicians, driven by ideology and local politics, have been fixated on fiscal problems while allowing the banking crisis to fester and worsen. The US crisis is fundamentally about the under-taxation of the rich, yet the policy focus remains on budget cutting. In both Europe and the US, political debates consistently miss the mark by short-changing serious diagnostics and policy design.

Our temptation in the face of rampant government failures is to despise government, and even to cheer its demise. How can we avoid that feeling when we watch politicians preening on the TV screen? Yet we desperately need to make the US and European governments work again – not for the politicians' sake, but for ours. Unless we restore skill, fairness, and vibrancy to our democratic institutions, the unrest on the streets is bound to grow.


Both of the above pieces appeared in last Saturday's Guardian, as did this one by Nina Power:

The meaning of Time magazine's celebration of The Protester
The praise is welcome, but behind Time's sanitised image of the protester lie real people beaten and killed by police and armies
Time magazine's person of the year 2011 isn't a celebrity, an artist, an entrepreneur or a politician. The "person" is the anonymous marker of a global movement: The Protester.
As Time's editor, Rick Stengel, argues, to celebrate the protester is to defend the idea "that individual action can bring collective, colossal change". This collectivity has spread like wildfire in the last year or so – each protest, revolution and occupation triggering new uprisings against state oppression, class inequality and police brutality. "From the Arab spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow" declares the Time cover, with Stengel pointing out "the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history".
But how to represent this collective subject, to give a face to this global anger?

The other serious, radical, progressive thinker and writer I want to feature in this 500th blog is George Monbiot:
This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression
It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers' Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange. Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it's the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted: "No man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'." So, he argued, some people's freedom must sometimes be curtailed "to secure the freedom of others". In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. "If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral." It follows that the state should impose legal restraints on freedoms that interfere with other people's freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. They characterise any attempt to restrain them as tyranny. They refuse to see that there is a clash between the freedom of the pike and the freedom of the minnow.

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned "freedom" into an instrument of oppression.


The Masters of the Universe

One final serious thought for now. Thanks to the financial crisis, we now fully understand who really decides what goes on on this planet. Or what. "The Markets". Not the United Nations. Not the USA. Not the EU. They all operate in fear of "the markets", and in terror of the markets' Provisional wing - the credit rating agencies. The 1% who control the vast majority of the wealth on this planet also control what individual governments believe they can do in terms of aims and policies. Sensible governments in places like Scandinavia and China make damned sure they protect themselves (and their people) from being too beholden to "the markets". The rest do not. This is the end result of "globalisation", which is just what the Chicago Boys, the Friedmanites and the designers of the Washington Concensus intended it to be. Money rules.

Extreme capitalism/neo-conservatism lies one end of a continuum which should possibly be called the axis of evil, which runs from Washington through Wall Street and the City of London all the way to places like Pyongyang.

Give someone you know and like a copy of Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" for Christmas.
Have a Happy New Year.


Kim Jong-Dead

The Kim is dead. Long live The Kim.

I'm just saying.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Layer 499 . . . The Protestor, The Bank of Ideas, Occupy, Secrets, The European Union and Dave

The first real frost of the season last night - a perfect winter's day today: blue sky, bright sunshine and no wind.

Where does time go? Christmas is only a week away, yet autumn's hardly over. So what's been occurin'?

It seems Time magazine has chosen "The Protestor" as its "Person of the Year" -,28804,2101745_2102134_2102355,00.html,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html
Once upon a time . . . protesters were prime makers of history. Back then, when citizen multitudes took to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed, it was the very definition of news — vivid, important, often consequential. In the 1960s in America they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; in the '70s, they rose up in Iran and Portugal; in the '80s, they spoke out against nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Europe, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against communist tyranny in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe. Protest was the natural continuation of politics by other means.
And then came the End of History . . . globally triumphant "Western liberalism." The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war. The rare large demonstrations in the rich world seemed ineffectual and irrelevant. (See the Battle of Seattle, 1999.)
"Massive and effective street protest" was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.
Prelude to the Revolutions
It began in Tunisia, where the dictator's power grabbing and high living crossed a line of shamelessness, and a commonplace bit of government callousness against an ordinary citizen — a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi — became the final straw.
The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are literally dying to get political systems that roughly resemble the ones that seem intolerably undemocratic to protesters in Madrid, Athens, London and New York City. "I think other parts of the world," says Frank Castro, 53, a Teamster who drives a cement mixer for a living and helped occupy Oakland, Calif., "have more balls than we do."
In Egypt and Tunisia, I talked with revolutionaries who were M.B.A.s, physicians and filmmakers as well as the young daughters of a provincial olive picker and a supergeeky 29-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member carrying a Tigger notebook. 
The Occupy movement in the U.S. was set in motion by a couple of magazine editors — a 69-year-old Canadian, a 29-year-old African American — and a 50-year-old anthropologist, but airline pilots and grandmas and shop clerks and dishwashers have been part of the throngs.
Read more:,28804,2101745_2102132_2102373,00.html


It's been interesting spending some time in and around the camp at St Paul's and also the occupied Bank of Ideas.
The Bank of Ideas is situated on Sun Street, Hackney in an abandoned office block purchased several years ago by the bank UBS. It is an enormous space complete with a 500-seater lecture hall. We’re open to visitors and guests from 12 noon to 11 pm from Tuesday to Friday an from 10 am to 11 pm on Saturday and Sunday.
It has been opened to the public for the non-monetary trade of ideas to help solve the pressing economic, social and environmental problems of our time.

There is also room for community groups and other public services that have lost their space due to Government spending cuts to come and adopt a space for free.
Artists, performers and creatives are welcome to come entertain and to help transform the space. We also encourage games, workshops and skillshares on anything from yoga to yahtzee.
The only prerequisite is that this space is not for financial transactions. Trade in ideas or skills, but no one should need to pay to take part in the Bank’s activities.

Room 101 at the Bank of Ideas contains just three tents. And within those three tents . . .

Meanwhile down stairs in the main meeting room Caroline Lucas MP addressed an audience that eventually grew to about 60 mainly young people who sat together on the carpet. Like all good politicians she's impressively confident and articulate . . . And like all bad politicians she underestimates her audience, who nevertheless sit and listen patiently & politely to the usual stuff - standard critiques of the government and its policies.

What's odd is that there's no mention in her 20 minute spiel specifically about banks, bankers and financiers. Yet there we all were - sitting and squatting in an abandoned building owned by UBS bank, for the specific purpose of discussing ideas about the financial crisis brought about by reckless and irresponsible banks. Caroline's answer to a question about the role of banks was so bland and uninspiring I can't even remember what she said. So much for fhe Bank of Ideas. Caroline may be the leader of the Green Party but I don't see her leading this movement for a counterculture and a better way of running societies.


Occupy movement plays it smart

The London protesters' wholesome, inclusive approach is sensible because it leaves little room for ranters – who are waiting in the wings on both left and right


Secret Shopping and Profit Sharing

Tell no-one. Keep this to yourself. There's now a way to shop with ease in London. No hassle and no queueing to get in . . . and no queueing to get out. As long as not too many people know about it.

We all need to shop occasionally - even those of us who hate the whole business. The commute to a major shopping centre is usually a nightmare on its own. What happens when you get there is often even worse.

So now . . . you simply drive to Car Park B at Westfield Stratford. You park for free for two hours. You leave your car right next to the entrance to John Lewis. You buy stuff and you go home. Excellent!

Other shops are available, obviously. But I really like the whole operating principle of the John Lewis Partnership.
The John Lewis Partnership's 76,500 Partners own the leading UK retail businesses - John Lewis and Waitrose. Our founder's vision of a successful business powered by its people and its principles defines our unique company today. The profits and benefits created by our success are shared by all our Partners.
What's more, they sell good stuff.
The business was founded in 1864 when John Lewis set up a draper's shop in Oxford Street, London, which developed into a department store. In 1905 he bought the Peter Jones store in Sloane Square. In 1920 his son, John Spedan Lewis, expanded earlier power-sharing policies by sharing the profits the business made among the employees. The democratic nature and profit-sharing basis of the business were developed into a formal partnership structure and Spedan Lewis bequeathed the company to his employees. As of 2011, there are 76,500 partners – the majority full-time – working for the John Lewis Partnership.
Warning - do not go to Westfield East when groups of noisy teenagers are on the loose. Do not go at weekends or on school holidays. Otherwise - it's very good. Lots of natural light, wide walkways, decent toilets, 300 shops and plenty of places to hang out for coffee and free wi-fi.

For a brilliant view of the Olympics site go to the 2012 shop in John Lewis and walk through to the special observation room. Sunset is a good time to go, as the room faces west.


Secret Cinema

This is a very interesting phenomenon. More to follow.


The European Union

It's showtime! Finally . . . . positions are clear, and our Conservative-led government is exposed. The Europeans want to regulate the financial sector, and the Cameroons don't. Ergo - we're not really European and the rest of the EU will move forward on that basis. Europeans (including right-wingers like Sarkozy and Merkel) want to introduce better regulation of capitalism, plus a Tobin tax, and Cameron doesn't. Probably, in due course, the USA will want to introduce better regulation of capitalism. Probably the rest of the entire sane world will want to introduce better regulation of capitalism. If they have any sense they'll then treat the UK like the stinking, putrid bankers' toerags that we appear to be. That will be interesting. Well done Dave. What a true statesman our forty-something PM is turning out to be, now that he's showing his true colours, and the true colours of his entire government, including the toerags' toerags - the LibDems.


Christopher Hitchens has died at the age of 62.
"A pugnacious, eloquent, brilliant asshole."

And still unforgiven for his support for Bush and the invasion of Iraq, as far as Oxzen is concerned.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Layer 498 . . . No Fixed Identities, The Unity of Opposites, Heraclitus, Taoism, Education and Exams . . . . . . . . And Comedy

"In Our Time" on Radio 4 this week considered Heraclitus and his philosophy.

"It's wise to agree that all things are one", said Heraclitus.

He also believed in 'The Unity of Opposites', and said that the road up is also the road down.

There are many different perspectives, but there is a greater unity to everything.

"It's difficult for humans to have a full grasp of underlying unity."

We learned from the programme that we need an open, fresh, childlike attitude in order to get closer to 'God'.
The problem is that even children these days, in our society, aren't allowed to be open, fresh and childlike.

"This is like training rats to run through a maze!"
So said Jim Naughtie on the Radio 4 'Today'  programme, describing the preparation of teachers and pupils alike for teaching to tests and exams. The Telegraph has suddenly discovered that exam boards coach teachers in how to coach children in how to do better in exams - even letting slip which subjects are likely to appear on exam papers. Wow! Fancy telling teachers how to help their children to do better in tests and exams!

Heraclitus rejected learning by rote. He advocated looking within in order to know yourself properly.

2000 plus years later, and what have we done to implement the insights of Heraclitus? Absolutely nothing.


The bizarre thing about the In Our Time programme is that there wasn't a single mention by either the blessed Melvyn Bragg or the three academics that Heraclitus's philosophy has much in common with both Buddhist and Taoist thinking. Heraclitus spoke of life being like a river or a stream - constantly changing and moving. Taoism is often called The Watercourse Way.

Lao-tzu likens Tao to water:
 The great Tao flows everywhere, to the left and to the right,
 It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them. 
For as he comments elsewhere, water always seeks the lowest level, which men abhor, because we are always trying to play games of one-upmanship, and be on top of each other. But Lao-tzu explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree, but then if they do the tree will collapse. That is the fallacy of American society. 
The watercourse way is the way of Tao. Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, lazy, spineless, and altogether passive. I am always being asked when I talk about things, "If people did what you suggest wouldn't they become terribly passive?" Well, from a superficial point of view I would suggest that a certain amount of passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture because we are always creating trouble by doing good to other people. We wage wars for other peoples benefit, and attempt to help those living in "underdeveloped" countries, not realizing that in the process we may destroy their way of life. Economies and cultures that have coexisted in ecological balance for thousands of years have been disrupted all around the world, with often disastrous results. 
- Alan Watts
Excerpt from: "Tao: The Watercourse Way" (1975)
Critic Erik Davis notes the freshness, longevity, and continuing relevance of Watts's work today, observing that his "writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity."
Lots of good stuff by Alan Watts on YouTube, including Fear of Enlightenment -


On a lighter note, I'm posting this whilst listening to this week's Have I Got News For You. Sheer brilliance. Haven't laughed so much in a very long time. 42 series and still going strong.

Totally love Reginald D Hunter, especially when he's on HIGNFY - my favourite American. Apart from Rich Hall, who's the host tonight on Live At The Apollo. Rich is a real genius. Listen to his stuff on Sarah Palin -