Uncle Sam’s Covid

whole and unabridged from the Irish Times, April 25, 2020, By Fintan O’Toole

THE WORLD HAS LOVED, HATED AND ENVIED THE U.S. NOW, FOR THE FIRST TIME, WE PITY IT

Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.

However bad things are for most other rich democracies, it is hard not to feel sorry for Americans. Most of them did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Yet they are locked down with a malignant narcissist who, instead of protecting his people from Covid-19, has amplified its lethality. The country Trump promised to make great again has never in its history seemed so pitiful.

Will American prestige ever recover from this shameful episode? The US went into the coronavirus crisis with immense advantages: precious weeks of warning about what was coming, the world’s best concentration of medical and scientific expertise, effectively limitless financial resources, a military complex with stunning logistical capacity and most of the world’s leading technology corporations. Yet it managed to make itself the global epicentre of the pandemic.

As the American writer George Packer puts it in the current edition of the Atlantic, “The United States reacted … like Pakistan or Belarus – like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.”

It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster, quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time – wilfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as, in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors of the pestilence.

The grotesque spectacle of the president openly inciting people (some of them armed) to take to the streets to oppose the restrictions that save lives is the manifestation of a political death wish. What are supposed to be daily briefings on the crisis, demonstrative of national unity in the face of a shared challenge, have been used by Trump merely to sow confusion and division. They provide a recurring horror show in which all the neuroses that haunt the American subconscious dance naked on live TV.

If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated.

Other than the Trump impersonator Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who is now looking to the US as the exemplar of anything other than what not to do? How many people in Düsseldorf or Dublin are wishing they lived in Detroit or Dallas?

It is hard to remember now but, even in 2017, when Trump took office, the conventional wisdom in the US was that the Republican Party and the broader framework of US political institutions would prevent him from doing too much damage. This was always a delusion, but the pandemic has exposed it in the most savage ways.

Abject surrender

What used to be called mainstream conservatism has not absorbed Trump – he has absorbed it. Almost the entire right-wing half of American politics has surrendered abjectly to him. It has sacrificed on the altar of wanton stupidity the most basic ideas of responsibility, care and even safety.

Thus, even at the very end of March, 15 Republican governors had failed to order people to stay at home or to close non-essential businesses. In Alabama, for example, it was not until April 3rd that governor Kay Ivey finally issued a stay-at-home order.

In Florida, the state with the highest concentration of elderly people with underlying conditions, governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump mini-me, kept the beach resorts open to students travelling from all over the US for spring break parties. Even on April 1st, when he issued restrictions, DeSantis exempted religious services and “recreational activities”.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp, when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on April 1st, explained: “We didn’t know that [the virus can be spread by people without symptoms] until the last 24 hours.”

This is not mere ignorance – it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity. There is, as the demonstrations this week in US cities have shown, plenty of political mileage in denying the reality of the pandemic. It is fuelled by Fox News and far-right internet sites, and it reaps for these politicians millions of dollars in donations, mostly (in an ugly irony) from older people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

It draws on a concoction of conspiracy theories, hatred of science, paranoia about the “deep state” and religious providentialism (God will protect the good folks) that is now very deeply infused in the mindset of the American right.

Trump embodies and enacts this mindset, but he did not invent it. The US response to the coronavirus crisis has been paralysed by a contradiction that the Republicans have inserted into the heart of US democracy. On the one hand, they want to control all the levers of governmental power. On the other they have created a popular base by playing on the notion that government is innately evil and must not be trusted.

The contradiction was made manifest in two of Trump’s statements on the pandemic: on the one hand that he has “total authority”, and on the other that “I don’t take responsibility at all”. Caught between authoritarian and anarchic impulses, he is incapable of coherence.

Fertile ground

But this is not just Donald Trump. The crisis has shown definitively that Trump’s presidency is not an aberration. It has grown on soil long prepared to receive it. The monstrous blossoming of misrule has structure and purpose and strategy behind it.

There are very powerful interests who demand “freedom” in order to do as they like with the environment, society and the economy. They have infused a very large part of American culture with the belief that “freedom” is literally more important than life. My freedom to own assault weapons trumps your right not to get shot at school. Now, my freedom to go to the barber (“I Need a Haircut” read one banner this week in St Paul, Minnesota) trumps your need to avoid infection.

Usually when this kind of outlandish idiocy is displaying itself, there is the comforting thought that, if things were really serious, it would all stop. People would sober up. Instead, a large part of the US has hit the bottle even harder.

And the president, his party and their media allies keep supplying the drinks. There has been no moment of truth, no shock of realisation that the antics have to end. No one of any substance on the US right has stepped in to say: get a grip, people are dying here.

That is the mark of how deep the trouble is for the US – it is not just that Trump has treated the crisis merely as a way to feed tribal hatreds but that this behaviour has become normalised. When the freak show is live on TV every evening, and the star is boasting about his ratings, it is not really a freak show any more. For a very large and solid bloc of Americans, it is reality.

And this will get worse before it gets better. Trump has at least eight more months in power. In his inaugural address in 2017, he evoked “American carnage” and promised to make it stop. But now that the real carnage has arrived, he is revelling in it. He is in his element.

As things get worse, he will pump more hatred and falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.

Either way, it will be a long time before the rest of the world can imagine America being great again.

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Arranging Deckchairs on the Pandemic

The story of 2020 so far has been dominated by Corovirus-19. Despite global efforts to the contrary, the balance of the year will be the same. This story has been full of heroic efforts by those on the medical and supply front line; stoic acceptance by the public of drastic measures and a government prepared to throw away the fiscal rule book after a decade of austerity. But has the focus been wise, let alone effective?

The priority of saving the NHS from being overwhelmed has dominated. Since this has (so far) been avoided, media have focused on supply of protective equipment and, more recently, to the overlooking of serious infection rates in vulnerable care homes. Daily briefings have tried to keep the debate on flattening infection rates, hospital admissions and death statistics by a stringent ‘lock down’ of all but essential services. A ‘task force” to look into PPE supplies has been set up under Lord Dayton.

In itself, this all seems laudable. But plans for ending the lock-down and any timing for life to return to normal have been absent. The government gives the impression of having been caught unaware and more concerned with remaining on top of things than appears to be the case, claiming to be guided by science and simply repeating a simplistic mantra for public consumption. By this approach, deaths are not avoided, just delayed. The resulting economic damage from a long delay will likely cause more deaths.

This is simply not good enough. But, rather than curse their darkness, such a threat to everyone requires that we light a candle to guide them.

Strategy Lockdown in three week periods is not a strategy to address what will be required to sustain people over a year of hardship.

The epidemic will be mastered only when an antidote is administered to most people or herd immunity having around 65% of the population infected then recovered. This will require massive testing and rigorous tracking, rather than wait for an antidote. Before anything else, the provision of PPE and testing should be made to all care homes.

Testing & Tracking Despite ambition to test 100,000 each day, this is unlikely to occur without draconian, wartime efforts:

  • A task force of science, manufacture and distribution experts with sweeping powers, reporting to the PM similar to Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Aircraft Production in WW2.
  • International co-operation in developing an effective antidote
  • Recruitment and organisation of relevant laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturing and devolved distribution centres.
  • Development, distribution and enforcement of a phone app to track people who have been in contact with anyone tested as infected.
  • Much more pragmatic and honest public briefing on this plan, its realistic time scale and progress made to achieve it to keep people on-side,

Release from Lockdown Though no clear timetable will be possible before progress on first mass testing/tracking and then mass inoculation, nonetheless there must be a clear intention given on how the present necessary but unacceptable state of affairs will be moved towards a staged exit from lockdown. This should be in at least three stages, with release on multiple parameters:

  1. Red or Full lockdown (insufficient T&T)—essential services only; population indoors except for food & exercise.
  2. Orange or Serious (sufficient T&T; unlikely before June)—release of manufacturing, garden centres, DIY stores, takeaways that can keep social distance; release 18-35 year-old workers who live alone to return to work; restart creches, primary and nursery schools with half class sizes if social distance not possible under blanket testing, fully release pilot areas where access can be controlled entirely (Western Isles, Northern Isles, Anglesey, Isle of Wight)
  3. Yellow or Partial (widespread T&T; unlikely before September)—release small businesses that can test staff and keep social distance and agree staggered business hours to spread rush hour; restart secondary schools, colleges & universities with half class sizes if social distance not possible; release 18 to 35 year-old parents and couples to work where tasting is available and distance can be kept; allow small retail to re-open; release rural and isolated areas with low through traffic and high T&T ability.
  4. Green or Complete (universal T&T or vaccine; unlikely before December)—complete release of all areas, possibly in stages, dependent on on-going infection rates. Only at this stage would pubs, clubs, cafes, sports venues, theatres, cinemas and other events involving crowds be permissible. Transport would return to normal, except foreign travel, which would depend on the situation in other countries.

Such a template clearly requires research and refinement. But while all focus has been on the NHS, the economy has shrunk by a third. However generous government schemes may be, they can’t create consumer demand or international trade and travel. Each month in lockdown, increasing numbers and increasing size of businesses will go under, damaging business demand and supply and extending the period after we attain “Green” to years, not months. We are not entering a ‘V’-shaped recession of swift recovery. We are entering a full-blown depression on the scale of the 1930s. We need vision, guts and a plan to compare with Roosevelt’s New Deal to survive it.

Or we are just arranging deckchairs on the Pandemic while our future drowns.

 

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Compassion As Self-Harm

President Donald J. Trump and I have never seen eye-to-eye—a fact that distresses neither of us. This should not surprise readers of this blog. But that certainty shattered when he declared the Covid19 pandemic.

“…should last weeks, not months; the cure must not be made worse than the disease.”

For once, he may be right. Almost all other G20 governments disagree, largely on the advice of their highest medical authorities. In Britain, we have been bombarded by a mantra based on the simplistic “Get Brexit done” that won BoJo the December election:

  • Stay home
  • Protect the NHS
  • Save lives

The whole purpose of this “Slow” approach is to avoid a rapid rise in those infected and needing hospitalisation that might swamp limited NHS Intensive Care Units. The G20 nations that drive the world’s economy are taking draconian steps, similar to Britain, which prohibits movement, the lives of citizens and the economy on which prosperity rests,

The strategy of shutdown and isolation is presented as “squishing the sombrero”. i.e. making the graph of infections over time have less of a sharp peak. It is presented as our only chance.

But is it? It may slow the rate of infection but, without an antidote, the same number of people will be infected, only more slowly: the sombrero may get lower, but it gets squished wider by the same point. Are we—to be brutal—by being a bunch of softies actually creating hardship and misery for our global future?

Were this the 23rd century, with tedious production done by robots, we could each return to our 4-D hologram floatarium knowing our needs would be met and prosperity glide seamlessly onward. But we are all still living in the fiendishly interdependent 21st century, whose global economy underpins the affluence of 3 billion and is the aspiration of the other 5 billion.

Our parents and grandparents who lived through the first half of the 20th century learned to be tough, self-reliant and endure hardships of many kinds. They suffered two world wars, a stock market crash, the Depression, the flu epidemic of 1918, scant medical care, risible pensions and no social safety net to catch those who stumbled.

In contrast, those living through the last 70 years have, in the 1957 words of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan “never had it so good”. Longevity, affluence, education, health and quality of life have all shown steady rises. Instead of bicycling through the rain to long shifts in factories or down mines, we drive in cars to offices with swivel chairs and espresso machines. Instead of holidaying in Ayr or Arbroath by train, we fly to vacation in Tenerife or Tampa.

Comfort has become widespread, equality, wealth and service standards have risen, fostering expectation of further rights and entitlement. All this would astonish our frugal, modest, class-ridden forebears of a century ago. Instead of former deference to doctors, a significant number now seem to treat docties as garage mechanics for their bodies; We expect miracles. Modern media focuses on “human interest” stories as news. Politicians respond to such opportunities to present themselves as champions of such causes, while avoiding anything that smacks of unpopularity. Modern life may not be “nasty, brutal and short”, but few seem to appreciate just how fragile the complex modern society that fulfils our many expectations has become.

As long as the great majority prosper, such a culture is stable. But, with little folk memory of personal resilience in the face of hardship (often referred to as “The Dunkirk Spirit”), what happens when the rigours of 1918 or 1929 or 1940 suddenly shock us all?

Such as now.

The Covid19 virus threatens the civilisation we enjoy much more than anything else since WW2. The Cold War, the 1970s slump, Black Monday, the 2008 bank crisis—all are trivial compared to this. By responding to squeamish sensitivities of modern society, have the UK and other governments made this shock worse than the “” approach of letting it run its course and get it over with?

We are not used to losing “loved ones”, except by natural causes. The NHS is our bulwark to prevent this. Our lockdown strategy is on the highest medical advice, given by doctors who have sworn a Hippocratic Oath to preserve life. Politicians wish to be seen to support this. But does this “Slow” strategy of compassion actually preserve lives in the long run?

Trump’s point is: if the cure is to lock down everyone, this may “squish the sombrero”, slowing the spread of those infected. Covid19’s fatality rate is 1%, highly concentrated among the elderly, those with respiratory disease or a weakened immune system. In Britain, that describes about 1,700,000 people. Of deaths recorded so far, roughly 2/3rds were expected to die within the next year from other causes, most being from those vulnerable categories.

Nobody wants to lose family or friends. With no vaccine against Covid19, nor any likely within a year, fatalities among the vulnerable will be severe, whether hospitalised or not.. Even with global travel curtailed and most people staying at home, the virus will spread most places within a year anyway, Essential services, food shopping and people ignoring isolation is still enough to spread infection among the population within a year. Based on statistics from Italy that the vulnerable who catch a severe case seldom recover because all hospitals can do is keep them breathing, lockdown simply delays the point at which hospitals are overwhelmed. The same number of people will die, just later. Once roughly 2/3rds of the population have caught it and survived, the immunity this confers will end the spread by so-called “herd immunity”.

At that point, 1.2m (2/3rds of the vulnerable 1.7m) will have caught the virus, with 80% recovering without hospitalisation and 240,000 requiring hospitalisation. As many as 200,000 of those will die. But 2/3rds of those would have died within a year from their vulnerabilities, leaving 66,000 extra deaths from the virus itself. Assuming 42m (2/3reds of 63,) will be exposed to reach herd immunity, and taking the German 0.4% fatality rate for non-vulnerable gives 168,000 Covid19-related deaths in the rest of the population. Tragic and severe as 243,000 additional deaths appear, this is one third of the 595,000 people who die from all causes in Britain each year—or about 1 in 300 people.

In other words, deaths will rise by a third for one year to 1.2% of the population, rather than 0.9%. All that lockdown will do is make this happen more slowly.

But the ‘Fast” and ‘Slow’ strategies do not result in equivalent outcomes. The fast approach lets the virus run rampant. 44m could get sick, 12m seriously, of which 0.6m would die within weeks. Bit it would soon be over. Though our economy would go into recession as people were sick and purchase less, by summer, the herd effect would have taken over and recovery both physically and economically would follow by autumn. This is the strategy chosen by South Korea, Singapore and Sweden, of which our media tells us little.

But we have chosen the ‘Slow’ approach. Hospitals in London are already close to overwhelmed, production is down by 13%. Airlines, catering, hospitality, retail, tradesmen, etc. are all shut down. Our £50bn car industry is at a standstill. The stock market has dropped 28%. The £ sterling is worth $1.15. This, after one month, with most of a year to go.

It doesn’t matter how profligate the Chancellor is to keep the economy afloat. People were already financially stretched. HMRC was already understaffed and will not move fast enough to stop businesses and families going under. Shell-shocked consumers will run scared for some time. Any recovery will be long and slow.

Worse than that, those hit hardest will be those on the margins, in service industries, on zero-hours contracts. The rescue package deferred mortgage, rent, VAT, etc. payment; it did not cancel them. So, we are likely to see a lot more poor, a bigger income gap, and more social isolation, unrest, or even deaths. And such will not be over by this time next year.

Such internal distress in Britain will absorb us just at a time when an international outlook will be most needed. For, if Britain stumbles into such a trap of economic self-harm, the Third World will run in full tilt.

If the NHS is unable to cope with even a flattened sombrero, what will it be like when health systems scarcely exist and people living on top of one another cannot isolate? Brazil’s 210m, India’s 1,349m, Nigeria’s 204m, Indonesia’s 263m all include unsanitary slums surrounding their cities where virus can spread like wildfire and medical help does not exist. Once Covid19 takes a hold there, the travails of our 600,000 extra British losses will be swamped by an epidemic surpassing the Spanish Flu.

Our media has forgotten about Idlib province, about the war in Yemen, about mass drowning of refugees in the Aegean while they recite fatalities that will seem trivial when frustration breaks into rioting in the favelas of Sao Paulo or Dharavi in Mumbai.

Is the UK Government hiding behind medical excuses to pander to public sensitivities that we can’t afford? Not only is a recession now inevitable, but a full-scale depression (GDP falling by more than 10% is now on the cards. Dropping interest rates or giving people money had little effect when people can’t spend it. And if, as seems likely, the lockdown lasts most of this year, so many businesses will go to the wall that the much-touted ‘V’ shaped recession is unlikely and recovery slow and painful under the burden of massive government debt from their giveaways.

Many will die in developing countries because we are in no position to help, as we will have to support massive unemployment, poverty and social unrest among our own citizens.

Which a Fast strategy might have avoided.

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An Excess of Ego

There was a time when neighbourly consideration for your fellow man, let alone woman, was a downright impediment to the advance of the species. Primitive man was like the big vats—a lone hunter that followed where the prey went. Then came a succession of ice ages that necessitated co-operation to bring down the big beasts like mastodons that could survive the cold and individual ego had to be suppressed as hunting techniques shifted more to the pack method used by wolves to hunt large prey..

This required a leader. By being bigger, faster, more cunning or a combination of all three they could achieve more than scattered individuals, It was to hold this position against usurpers that the concept of ego was born. As mankind became more ambitious and sophisticated, packs became tribes, which evolved the concept of territories, which evolved into kingdoms and—eventually—into empires. At each stage, the economies of scale and of specialisation offered an edge to dominate and subsume the less advanced.

To hold increasingly sprawling territories together, a single leader was not enough. A hierarchy of leadership evolved. But the bulk of people were subservient to an elite who perforce had to use a combination of force, awe and showmanship to hold things together. But, without ego, without unshakeable belief in themselves, the kings, dukes, earls, barons and sundry gentry—the de facto owners of land and wealth and, therefore, power— could not keep their subservient masses in check.

This hierarchical ego system found its apogee (with notable exceptions in France and the USA) in the nation states and empires of the 19th century. kings and emperors were lionised; the aristocracy cocooned themselves in the wealth pouring from mines and factories and colonies. Their cult of ego was codified by the class system through distinctive education, accent, social circles and (especially) wealth, to which the masses could not aspire. As long as all classes benefited, no matter how unevenly, from the burgeoning wealth, the gross inequalities, such as:

  • crass exploitation of slaves in the 18th ©
  • crass indifference to the Irish potato famine of 1845/9
  • crass military incompetence in the Crimean War 1853/6)

most were happy, if not proud of their ‘station’, no matter how humble. Ego and affluence might be restricted to the upper class.. Dissenters were pressured by their peers, punished by a complicit judiciary or escaped to the colonies. Even today, many people wax lyrical about the lost style and opulence of those fin de siecle days when everyone knew their station—and were content with it.

Into this glittering world, the Great War burst like shrapnel. Whole empires were swept away and those ‘Great Powers” remaining found the effortless affluence for the rich a thing of the past as exports dwindled, industries grew antiquated, miners struck, the House of Lords had its feathers clipped and the grand “Downton Abbey” lifestyle of grand houses became impossible to maintain.

In the 20th ©, democracy and a bigger scare of wealth came to the people and the concentration of ego leaked away from the upper class. Universal health care, home ownership, private cars and real, non-forelock-tugging democracy came to the people. Regional accents mixed not just in the media but the Inns of Court, Oxbridge and among officers. Grants opened university education to all classes.  Bowler-hatted ‘Something in the City” pinstripes gave way to loud braces Loadsamoney” when the Big Bang hit the City in 1986.

The Scots had always valued an occasional, free-thinking “Lad o’ Pairts” but this now broadened with each succeeding generation. Deference declined as a sense of entitlement—and, with it, the ego of ambition—rose.  Politics, which has once been a matter of voting Liberal or Conservative as the estate or factory owner voted, fragmented. Politicians stopped being indistinguishable, remote toffs in top hats and wing collars. Flat accents beneath flat caps were elected. Women appeared. And, as forelock-tugging loyalty gave way to ego-driven “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” voters, the new science of Political Marketing was born.

The Blair administration 1997-2010 applied this with notable success. But they were riding the tiger. As presentation became more slick, media deference was discarded in trying to uncover the ‘real’ story.  As voters became more fickle and demanding, presentation trumped substance in winning them over. Even feminism played a role, with social progammes, care for the vulnerable and public services that for ‘loved ones’ usurped foreign relations and fiscal policies as political battlegrounds.

The broad electorate’s sense of entitlement meshed with the politician’s sense of needing to (or, at least appearing to) satisfy that has resulted in a 21st © spiral of disillusionment. Politicians avoid answering questions that might undermine their appearance of competence; media probes relentlessly for flaws at the expense of substance to justify their job and voter trust in the veracity and/or relevance of either declines. Because the paternalistic deference that held society together for centuries, despite glaring inequality has now shattered, broad self-made material wealth has provided most with an ego and a sense of rights and entitlement that go with it. Not only is this light years from destitute miners loving their filthy rich employers for distributing leftovers from the great house’s banquets but it is almost as far from the ‘Dunkirk Spirit of WW2, when people lived in ait raid shelters and eked out rations of snoek and whale meat, proud to show that they could ‘take it’.

Because the ego, once reserved for the few privileged leaders, who often abused the power it conferred, has spread to the majority, if not all, people. And that dynamic sea-swell of new egos is eroding any former sense of unity of purpose. As long as the great majority feel adequate benefit from society, the dynamism can act positively—as it was in the USA through the 20th ©.

Modern life is highly complex. Material wealth is sustained by multiple family incomes and extensive debt. Good jobs are competitive, involve moving to find them and seldom last a lifetime. Commuting great distances  is commonplace.  Relatives no longer live in the same town. Vacations are taken on other continents. Despite instantaneous global communication, such lifestyle is fragile. The delicate interdependent balance of commercial interests, government guidance and ambitious egos would not need anything as drastic as a nuclear war or an asteroid strike to upset, and even destroy it.

What if the self-interest of 8 billion egos were to insist, through their presentation-obsessed governments, that they must all be guaranteed protection against some much more minor threat that required clamping down on travel so that airlines and tour companies, restaurants and hotels went out of business, stock markets plummeted, distribution broke down and people became more concerned with starving than staunching loss of their wealth?

Say, something as innocuously small as a virus?

 

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A Promise the SNP Should Have Kept

Some 14 years ago, in the run-up to the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, the SNP campaign made a number of promises which won them the election for the first time ever. One with appeal right across the country was this:

SNPsCTpledge

A real chance to help poorer people and empower communities was scuppered here.

I was among the 32 council leaders who gathered at CoSLA that June of 2007 to hear John Swinney, the new Finance Minister promised a new “parity of esteem” between councils and government. In exchange for the SNP Government scrapping Council Tax, councils had to agree to council tax rates being frozen for the next couple of years while a fairer alternative was worked out. Although the SNP held no majority, CoSLA agreed to this. Among those in the room were Kevin Stewart from Aberdeen, Joe Fitzpatrick from Dundee and Derek Mackay from Renfrewshire—all of whom became MSPs and Scottish Government Ministers.

To be fair to the SNP, there were efforts made to find an alternative, but these were quietly dropped after the 2011 election, when the SNP won a clear majority. Despite now having a free hand, while council tax remained frozen, the 80% of council income provided by the government was steadily pared in real terms. Actual increases were “ring-fenced” for specific purposes and could not be spent as general funds. Parity of Esteem it most certainly was not. Councils were effectively tools of government policies and Aunt Sallies for public resentment at less popular ones.

Exactly eight years ago, a blog on this site , recognised unforeseen difficulties in finding a short-term alternative to council tax. It proposed a way of simply modifying the existing system to make it less regressive and provide a roughly 15% increase in its revenues to councils. This was brought to the attention of Derek Mackay as Finance Minister, Kevin Stewart as Local Government Minister and Joe Fitzpatrick as Housing Minister.  Eight years later, there has been neither response, nor any action beyond lifting the tax freeze two years ago.

For those interested in the (still valid) original proposal, here is the link to the post of March 9th 2012

Ma Faither’s Howff Has Many Mansions

 

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No Country for Old Men

America prides itself in being “The Land of the Free”, celebrating the ability of anyone to prosper in a land of opportunity. Compared to other countries, this is largely true. But, with this attitude comes a dislike of rules and restrictions and a political system that leans to what people describe as the ‘right’. There is a general mistrust of ‘Big Government’ and a tendency to celebrate those who succeed within the law‚or at least the appearance thereof.

As a result, the only two parties that matter are on an unusual political spectrum. The Democrats are considered ‘liberal’ but would be regarded as ‘centre-right’ anywhere else, The Republicans are conservatives, but verging on the extremist by standards elsewhere. While the country developed its apparently limitless frontier, a no-nonsense, ‘de’il-tak-the-hindmost’ attitude was almost essential. But now limits have been reached around 1970, amiable consensus between the two parties has eroded.

By the contested election of 2000, the gloves were off as George W. Bush’s brother Jeb was suspected of swinging the election his way as Governor of Florida, which held the balance. This came on the back of Republicans derailing Clinton’s attempt at health care reform and attempted impeachment in the 1990s. The bitterness was compounded by Bush’s attempt to cut taxes on the rich and scale back Soicial Security for the poor and the eldery and his laissez-faire approach to regulating big banks lay at the root of the financial crash of 2008.

Into the resulting mess stepped Barack Obama, seen as a beacon of hope, ad not just by  Democrats who elected him. While the rich had been getting steadily richer since that 1970 shift (CEO income had soared from 4 to 40 times workers’ pay), the poor were still poor and  middle class affluence had stagnated. Where this hit hardest was in affording the private and expensive health care available. Social Security eased much of the burden for the elderly through Medicare. Health insurance was provided to workers by good employers. But some 16 million Americans had no health cover at all. People were refused treatment in A&Es, or were ejected from hospitals when they could not pay.

Led by Obama, Democrats wanted to introduce universal health care, along European lines. Republicans claimed this was governmental interference in the market. The real reason was that not only the expensive (and therefore lucrative) medical and pharmaceutical sectors but the $1 trillion medical insurance business—all big donors  to Republicans—saw this as a major threat. They were right.

The result was a compromise in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) , signed int law on March 23rd 2010. This provided extended coverage of Medicaid and Medicare to those less well off. Iy was supposed to extend this to those earning 33% more than the income specified but Republicans fought this through the courts and the compromise arrived at was to allow individual states to decide whether the 100% or the 133% level would apply there.

Because this was a federal program, funded by payments (called FICA) levied nationally, the federal government would have to provide the funds,, whichever was chosen. Most observers expected all 50 states to choose the higher threshold as their residents would benefit from federal money at no cost to themselves.

But a funny thing happened. Democrat-controlled states, without exception,  did take up the option. Most Republican controlled states declined the upper threshold—for reasons that defy logic. These states are a roll-call of the poorest in the nation. Even if you support small government, why would you deny your residents the benefit of free money? Other than dogma, no answer has presented itself in the intervening decade. And representatives from these states wee to the fore in 2018 supporting Trump’s failed attempt to repeal the ACA ( now known colloquially as ‘Obamacare’) in 2018. The map below shows the holdouts,

Ovamacare

This seems doubly bizarre, because Dixie Democrats used to rule the roost in America’s South. This because Abraham Lincoln, the president who freed the slaves and fought the Civil War to do so, was a Republican. The still-dominant white elite of the South did not forgive that party for the next century. Only Lyndon Johnson’s efforts on civil rights changed their loyalties.

 

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SPQR Begat SPAD

SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romani = the Senate & People of Rome) may be ancient history. But it was the first political system Britain ever knew. How those politics evolved to today is relatively simple.

Post Romans came chaos of internecine tribal warfare. This gave way to (mostly) strong kings who ruled by divine right. But when regal heads rolled, Parliament made the laws as a bulwark against chaos.

In all of this, the vast bulk of people had no say, but some vested interest, as it allowed them to get on with their lives in some sort of framework. They still had no say, as Parliament consisted entirely of aristocratic landowners. That they were divided into Whig (Liberal) and Tory (Conservative) parties had little meaning for the peasants who worked their estates, served in their houses or toiled in early factories and mines.

But, as the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions brought in rising wealth and a middle class, the idea that change was possible fomented the American and French revolutions, leading to growing worker agitation through the 19th ©.

After WW1, politics changed. Though most politicians still wore top hats and spoke with ‘received pronunciation’, the flat cap, the regional accent and the brazen iconoclasm that would culminate in Dennis Skinner\s ‘Beast of Bolsover’ presence became common (to turn a phrase) at Westminster.

But much of the gentlemanly deference and discretion continued, extending to the media and private lives.

The 1960’s started the change with the Profumo affair, when the media went for the jugular and the ‘News of the Screws’ invented the tabloid journalism of today. Forelock-tugging respect for politicians was damaged by their impotence in the face of de-industrialisation and devaluation in the 1970s ad -80s, compounded by Thatcher’s un-gentlemanly hand-bagging and the rise of Harry-Enfield-esque ‘Loadsamoney’ Masters of the Universe products of the City’s 1988 Big Bang. Deference and the rising gig economy were simply incompatible.

It was Blair who first realised that presentation was also needed in politics, who re-invented Labour as Proctor & Ganble might have re-launched a soap powder. Old Labour may have railed against Peter Mandelson not being able to distinguish guacamole from mushy peas but the new middle class with their shares, their semi and their sunshine getaways had no such problem.

But it was Alastair Campbell and his SWAT team of fresh-faced Special Advisers (SPADs) that made the 1997 landslide happen. Media training became the order of the day. Spokespeople became adept at avoiding the issue or answering a different question. As a result, media became more combative and looked deeper for the cracks the SPADs toiled constantly to paper over.

After Blair bestrode the noughties, other parties got wise, with the Tories and SNP adopting these methods and both being rewarded with electoral success. Strangely, Labour has regressed and fallen foul of factionalism in the dace f repeated electoral defeats.

But those in charge have not. The Johnson administration has taken the Blair model even farther, using Dominic Cummings as the quarterback in an American football team. While Tory Minister forwards block the public by appearing in the press, he snaps the policies back to the fast moving SPAD backs, who can throw policies about and touch them down with minimal public scrutiny.

What the public see is either endlessly boring or increasingly acrimonious sessions in parliament, substance-free interviews and debates n the media and news reporting that focuses on personalities and their mis-steps in true tabloid form.

Superficially, this has the trappings of democracy, but not, as Star Trek’s Dr McCoy might say, as we know it.

The general public, it looks evasive, abrasive and unedufying. Those most fluently devious are those who present to the public. As an exception, Lord Steel resigned for not having handled abuse by a colleague in the 1970s properly. Yet, the last politician with that sense of public propriety was Lord Carrington over the Falklands in 1982. Sajid Javid’s recent laudable stance was entirely over internal turf wars. Boris’s own resignation from the May Cabinet was grandstanding and calculated furtherance of career.

So it’s no wonder so many voters are scunnered wi’ the hale clamjamfrie. Were we considerng the board of the East India Company 200 years ago, nobody but the nobility would care. But in this modern democracy, these people run our lives while hosing £1 trillion of our money about the place. It’s even less wonder that young people who march with Greta Thunberg to save the planet are losing interest in being elected to anything.

Instead, many are thinking of becoming SPADs

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Row Wir Ain Boat

Among the many obstacles thrown by Unionists in the path of Scottish Independence is the issue of currency. This is a fair question and one that deserves a plausible answer. Unfortunately, due to partisan heat generated in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, there was les of a debate and more of a bun fight, with the media asking pointed questions and the independistas offering an incoherent and therefore less than persuasive set of responses, the most persuasive and seamless of which was “to keep the Pound”. This, however, ran into a further series of obstacles, including;

  • This would be blocked by Westminster
  • This would scupper any chance of keeping/regaining EU membership, as they insist any new members join the Euro.
  • This would tie Scotland to UK fiscal policy and therefore undercut the whole point of independence

Let’s consider these reasonable objections to Scotland using the Pound one by one.

  1. Permission from Westminster. This would not be the first example of such practice. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man already do. And there is better precedence in the number of countries pegged to or using the US dollar, including most of the Middle East and Latin American countries like Panama and Cuba, the latter being twice the size of Scotland. None of them ask permission from the US Treasury to do this.
  2. EU & the Euro. Membership of the EU may be desirable but membership of the Euro isn’t. It has helped major countries like France but even medium-sized ones like Spain have been trapped in an economic bind, unable to adjust their exchange rate. A single currency without a single government is unstable and counties like Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Hungary have been wise to avoid it indefinitely. Scotland could do the same.
  3. Locked into UK Fiscal Policy. Initially, this would be true.  But this would also be a time when both economies were still compatible and Westminster fiscal policy would still make sense. It would also provide stability for foreign investment and time to set up our own central bank and associated fiscal mechanism. But it need not be permanent.

Being fully fiscally aligned may suit Scotland initially. Indeed, this is the situation we are in now, with Scottish banks issuing notes that are technically for a Scottish currency, which is fully equivalent to an English pound sterling. Upon independence, this would continue and there is little that a UK government or the Bank of England could do to prevent it. Indeed, there is some advantage to them, as the Scottish economy would effectively be tied to and add some 10% more weight to the pound in the world.

At a pace set by Scotland, they would develop their own fiscal structures, including a central bank and a true Scottish pound that would be pegged to the UK pound, Though this would limit fiscal policy, especially exchange and interest rates, the stability gained would promote inward investment and ease borrowing. To invest in a renewed Scottish economy, this latter would permit the serious spending necessary on infrastructure but the existing debt would not weigh on the pound sterling as Scotland’s economy would remain small (<10%), as compared to the UK.

This situation could continue indefinitely, provided UK fiscal policy remained appropriate  for Scotland’s growth. Should, however, some serious economic downturn, such as happened to Spain, especially its property market over a decade ago, having all the trappings of a full currency, Scotland would have the option of decoupling its pound from the UK pound and either devaluing it or allowing it to float as a countermeasure not available to counties like Spain  tied to the Euro.

 

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The Antiquated States of America.

The USA is rightly regarded as the birthplace of many ideas that now underpin the modern world.  From mass production to  household white goods to air travel to semiconductors to genetics, to computers, mobile phones, space travel, not to mention fast food, fast cars and Facebook, Even if they didn’t invent it, they found a way to develop lucrativel markets from it. All this made them the richest country on the planet.

But there is one key area where thus bustling modern state seems stuck in the 18th century—civic geography and government. Their system, born in the crucible of their War of Independence from Britain worked well in forging a nation out of 13 highly individual colonies who jealously guarded their right to do things their way within the umbrella of a union.

As the country prospered, spilling over the Appalachians, absorbing the Louisiana Purchase and the spoils of the Mexican War, territories were carved out with simplistic, straight-line boundaries with little reference to actual geographical features. In a short time these grew into states, with little reference to whether a system born on the Delaware still made sense on the Columbia.

What is true of states is also true of the counties and cities into which states are sub-divided. Away from the East Coast, counties are almost always rectangular boxes on the map, paying little heed to geography,. In California, the Gold Country, where the states prosperity started is split into a half-dozen counties with populations of a few thousand. In contrast, San Bernadino County contains not just a city of a quarter-million of the same name but suburbs like San Dimas (home to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), plus half the Mojave Desert. Cities often occur in agglomerations with convoluted boundaries, often with lumps of unincorporated county land embedded within them. While prosperity boomed, the inefficiencies inherent in this for services like individual police and fire departments did not much matter. But there has been no redrawing or consolidation since these boundaries were set to adjust to modern population patterns, as there has in Europe.

Restructuring a prosperous and litigious country of 4,000,000 square miles and 328,000,000 people is a massive, if not impossible, task.  But there a few places crying out for reform where a stat could be made. California (pop. 39m) sends two senators to Washington. Several states, including Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska, Vermont and both Dakotas have populations under 1m. Yet all send two senators to Washington. If strongly Democrat California sent senators in proportion to its population, Trump would have been impeached by the Senate.

One obvious and simple answer (arrived at a century ago, but never implemented) is to split California into two states. The North and South elements are already culturally distinct so this might even prove popular.

If Americans were game for biting the bullet with urgent reform, they should consider their main metropolitan areas, currently split among states, as well as cities. Although these may cause conniption fits (as they might say) among Americans, here are some suggestions how things might be better organised:

  1. New England, Fold Rhode Island into Massachusetts and merge New Hampshire and Vermont with Maine, giving states with populations of 7m an 4m respectively.
  2. New York. Split the city and lower Hudson off from the state (which would retain ~9m population) and combine with Connecticut and Northern New Jersey to make a metropolitan ‘state’ of ~17m people.  Southern New Jersey would become part of…
  3. Philadelphia, which would split from Pennsylvania (leaving it with 10m people) and taking in Delaware to form another metropolitan ‘state’ of some 5m people.
  4. Washington would cease its amorphous ‘DC’ status expand to include Maryland and Northern Virginia, leaving 6m there and forming a metropolitan ‘state’ of ~9m
  5. Chicago would expand to include the adjacent urban counties of Illinois (leaving it ~7m people) and those around Gary in Northern Indiana to result in a metropolitan ‘state’ of some 5m.

America tends to regard Europe as archaic. Oncem Germany was indeed a myriad of statelets and Italy a jigsaw with larger pieces. But Bismarck and Garibaldu sorted that out 150 years ago And cities like Munich, Amsterdam or Barcelona boast transport, planning and services more coherent than Americans city-dwellers enjoy.

Some might rail at the demise of historic states but their identity could be retained, even if the civic power isn’t.  other might protest that it implies (assuming two Californias) a net loss of two states to equal  the earlier 48. This could be redressed by splitting the remaining two larges states:Texas (28m) and Florida (20m) in two. This would restore the total to 50 and make a better senatorial balance at the same time.

But civic incoherence is not solely the province of our American cousins. The City of London (pop. 8,000) is only a small part of, the city of London (pop. 8m). Neither Berwick-on-Tweed, nor North Berwick are within the county of Berwickshire.

As those Americans might say: “Go figure!”

 

 

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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

In the brouhaha surrounding Sajid Javid picking up his abacus and going home, the media has paid much less attention to what the Sorcerer of No 10 and his Apprentice were doing that triggered it. Post-December 12th, a reshuffle was always on the cards. Some pundits even predicted the idea that a whopping majority of 80 relaxed the need for orthodoxy in building a broader church within Cabinet.

That did not turn out to be the case. Even loyal leavers like Andrea Ledsome and Esther McVey both got their jotters—the former for having a mind of her own; the latter for not showing enough leadership, as in response to last weekend’s floods in Calder Valley. More significant than either was the removal of Julian Smith from Northern Ireland. This was both unexpected and undeserved. Not only had be brought a fractious Assembly back to life after three years of dissolution, but significant politicians from Arlene Foster to the Taoiseach had good words to say about his efficacy.

He was removed for agreeing that investigations into deaths caused during the Troubles could be made. This did not sit well with backwoods Tories, who object to former soldiers being put on trial after half a century. This may have deeper long-term effects than the loss of a Chancellor.

The media have also been conveying the plausible story that effectively merging No10 and No 11 makes sense. Chancellors and Prime Ministers must get along—Osborne did with Cameron and Brown did with Blair. Examples of poor teamwork are Hammond with May or Howe with Thatcher. These did cause friction (both public and private). But there is an equally cogent argument that a strong Chancellor is necessary to balance the spending tendencies of government.

Were this all, uneasiness at such centralisation might be unfounded. 21st © communications facilitates a web of unity, leading to clarity. This may seem desirable. But consider who sits at the centre of such a web: Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, (a.k.a. Boris & The Dominator). The former hides a robust ego and unswerving ambition under a cloak of affable buffoonery. The latter is on record as early as 2014 that the Treasury must be brought under control; more recently that all Cabinet special advisers (SPADs) become subservient to him as Chief of Staff, just as Ministers are to the PM. This will be much more than a smoothing out of workings between No11 and No 10. The reshuffle has set the tome.

You need look no farther than our ‘Special Relationship’ to find the model on which such an approach is being built. America has long been boastfully proud of its Constitution. Its democratic lock derives from a balance of power among three elements: Executive (= President), Legislature (= Congress); Judiciary (= Supreme Court). While everyone behaved themselves within the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution, all went well for over 200 years. Only in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich and frustrated Republicans tore up etiquette and went for Clinton’s jugular did flaws start to show..

Over the last three years. America’s President has taken his powerful jalopy out on the highway and put his foot down. Prior to Trump, partisanship was downplayed by predecessors. But Trump’s partisanship is of a new kind: it’s personal. His success in dropping taxes and boosting the economy has thirled the Republican party to his personal cause. By behaving like the big wheel mogul he sees himself as, he has flat-footed conventional political opposition. He has no scruples about using all levers under his control to further personal interests. The failed impeachment shows Legislature to be disabled as a check on his power. And, had that impeachment been approved, it would have been struck down by the Supreme Court, to which  Trump has appointed right-wing judges unlikely to censure him.

This behaviour is consistent and disturbing. The Miller report condemning Trump’s actions was ignored and Miller subjected to a Twitter lambasting by the President himself.  Various Trump appointees have fallen like flies by either daring to contradict him or resigning in frustration. The latest is the Attorney General William P. Barr (in post for a year) who has complained in public, along with the four judges involved, that Trump has demanded the 9-year sentence recommended for a friend of his be reduced.

More disturbing than Cabinet turnover is US spending. The voodoo economics of tax curs for the rich paying for themselves has not come to pass. US national debt has climbed to $22 trillion (over £50,000 for every American). The UK’s massive £2 trillion debt is half that per person. Unlike the deficits of the mid-20th century, the money is not being invested in infrastructure like highways and dams.

powers.

Boris and The Dominator may not have presidential powers, but they are taking the unwritten—and therefore more amenable—British constitution that way. And who’s to stop them? An inexperienced Chancellor? SPADs from all departments subject to the Chief of Staff ? Labour leader contenders more focussed on transgender than transport? The temptation to mimic an autocratic White House beckons. Centralisation reduces disputes and imposes speedy decision-making. And there lie serious dangers. It goes beyond a pliant Treasury allowing the government to spend like drunken sailors and Just ask the Germans or the Russians about their last-century experiences with centralisation.

Ironically, the one hope of salvation from Boris and The Dominator’s Trump adulation may be the backwoodsmen of the Tory party, referred to above. They may have kept quiet so as not to frighten the voters during the election. But now they have Brexit under their belt, they are gathering their pitchforks and re-lighting their torches to take on HS2 and figuratively re-deploy steam gunboats in the Channel to see off Johnny Foreigner. Cue Huawei’s impudent bid to provide 5G or CMCC cheek in undercutting rail-building barons. A dozen bolshie Tory backbenchers could be our best defence against rampant Tumpian triumphalism.

 

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