I have a piece on the Credit Ratings Agencies in today’s Scottish Review. Given the catastrophic effect these bumbling, incompetent and dishonest financial players have had on sovereign governments and the lives of ordinary people over the last month, I thought it was time to update and develop a piece I blogged last year.
Why anyone believes these flim flam merchants, I’ll never know.
No – I do know. Some people believe them because they can make a killing out of it. And we suffer.
A version of “The anger behind the public sector pension strikes” has appeared in today’s Scottish Review under the title, “Why I went on strike last week. And why I’m on a loser.”
Find it here: SCOTTISH REVIEW
A nice wee joke is doing the rounds on Facebook. A banker, a Daily Mail reader, a Tory MP and a teacher are sitting around a table on which there is a plate with ten biscuits. The banker scoffs nine of the biscuits and the Tory MP leans over and whispers in the ear of the Daily Mail reader “watch out, that teacher is after your biscuit.”
Yes, it’s a joke: but it sums up the appalling way ordinary people in this country are being treated, and why, along with millions of others yesterday, I went on strike. Unfortunately, though, I doubt anyone will listen.
Over the last two weeks, there has been a slew of government announcements and news items that have confirmed my belief that nobody in power gives a damn about people’s distrust of banks, or their sense of unfairness expressed through the summer riots and the Occupy movement, or their deep depression about their future prospects which, for the vast majority of the population, stare over the precipice at increasing relative poverty (in real terms, average Joes will be worse off in 2014 than they were in 2001).
Last week, the government announced a scheme by which they will underwrite part of the mortgages of first time buyers. But what exactly is this “concession”? It is, in fact, a subsidy to the banks. The promise is not that young people can buy their homes, but a promise to banks that they won’t lose out if they lend to those young people. Those buyers who lose their jobs will still lose their homes: unable to pay the mortgage, the fuel bills, the council tax, they will have to sell up anyway. All the government underwrites is the debt they already incurred to manage a deposit. Tom and Sheila will still be homeless, while HBOS gets a bung and a repossessed property into the bargain.
This does not make homes “affordable”, it does not reduce the cost of owning a home: it actually props up scandalously high house prices which have been driven upwards by bank lending to the point where home ownership largely depends on two incomes (so much for a family values government) and where the average age of the first time buyer is set to rise to 43.
Mucking about with homes was, of course, the original New Right Thatcher spearhead campaign to change our society beyond recognition and beyond repair. By forcing councils to sell their homes to tenants, Thatcher ensured that, in the long term, a whole swathe of people who were happy in secure rented accommodation would become serfs to the banks, and all that public property would become private, not owned by the people living in those homes but, at the top of the food chain, by the mortgage lenders.
The way to reduce house prices is to build social housing to provide a viable market competitor, and to return to a time when living in a council home was an absolutely acceptable alternative to owing tens of thousands to a bank. We talk of the population taking on debt beyond its means, and we usually mean credit and store cards: but the main driver of that debt rise has been the loss of a social housing stock that forces people to buy their own homes and to take out the largest debt they will ever have – a mortgage. Buying a house is the only game in town thanks to the prevalent economic winds since the mid-70s.
This policy of subsidising the failed economic system that has brought us to this crisis is absolutely apparent in other government initiatives. At the beginning of this week, Osborne an co. announced a scheme to improve UK infrastructure by investing £50billion in rail links, broadband networks and roads. Where was this money to come from? Well, it was suggested, UK pension funds could be encouraged to invest.
Excuse me? I’m striking because the conditions of my pension have been changed largely unilaterally by my employers. Why? Well, they say, there isn’t enough in the pension fund to pay for all the demands the retired will make in the future. I need to pay more, accept less and wait longer for it.
And, I am told, I enjoy a much more favourable position than people in the private sector. The real issue is not why public pensions are so generous, but why private pensions are so scandalously miserly. However, that’s not quite the case. The median annual private sector pension, at £5860, is actually a couple of hundred pounds more than a public sector pension. The problem is that very few private employers (12%) pay into any sort of final salary scheme, and that private sector pensions are therefore individual gambles on markets and investments. So private pensions are, once more, a subsidy to the failed economic system, and the government would love to divest itself of any schemes that do what they should – provide a decent standard of living for people in their old age – in favour of pensions that funnel money into the financial services sector for profit, regardless of risk.
I listened to a few commentators on these infrastructure plans, and not one asked the obvious question: if pension funds are inadequate to look after our elderly population, and if people are taking strike action because they are being forced to pay more, accept less and wait longer for a living pension, how on earth can these pension funds then afford to build roads and rail links, enterprises that are notoriously slow at providing a return?
Why, indeed, are those infrastructure improvements not funded through taxation on those who have seen mammoth improvement in their living standards during this halcyon period for financial speculation? We all know the figures: last year, UK CEO pay rose by 32% at a time when pay freezes and cuts were foisted on workers on the basis that the companies those same CEOs lead are performing poorly. CEO pay has risen by 4000% in the last 30 years; we are told pension enitlements which rise at 4% per year are unsustainable, but, apparently, wage rises of 1,333% are just fine. These are, in the glib platitudes of the politicians, the people with the “broadest shoulders”, and yet Osborne’s ambition is to cut the upper tax rate from 50% to 40%. Meanwhile, he tinkers with tax credits and 3p fuel revenues and believes he can pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
And, in truth, he’ll probably get away with it, just as all previous Chancellors have – including Brown and Darling who had no appetite for the fight – since the sea change of the Thatcher years, when we were convinced that we would all be better off if we believed that the public sector was the enemy.
Perhaps, indeed, the fight is already lost.
Much kudos to Occupy Wall Street for bringing the spirit of the so-called “Arab Dawn” to the temples of Western corruption.
There has been much sniping at the demonstrators, mainly from the right-wing media which accuses it of having no focus. This, of course, is the same media that feted the Tea Party, with its keep-our-guns, no-taxes, end-state-healthcare, reduce-welfare, end-immigration, sack-our-Kenyan-President-for-daring-to-be-black agenda. How focussed was that? Of course, the left will always have its principles knocked, because the right doesn’t have any.
And there’s the usual nonsense about disruption: clean up after yourselves and then we’ll take you seriously, cry the doubters. Of course, they wouldn’t, but they’re much more happy to see assault rifles at a Tea Party demonstration than discarded coffee cups at an OWS bash.
And, of course, the police are doing their bit too, pepper-spraying freely; and even having been denied the use of a megaphone to get their message across, these dastardly subversives have come up with the fiendish ploy of repeating everything that’s been said to them in a rather ingenious version of Chinese Whispers.
They’re also attracting some heavyweight support in the form of the likes of Naomi Klein, a writer I admire very much. I doubt this will amount to much, but as long as it’s going, I’ll be cheering them on. Good for them.
Headline news this morning is that credit rating agencies have basically flushed the Italian economy down the toilet. More and more regularly, these scam artists are hitting the news, afforded some kind of guru status in the world of finance; the US recently lost its “AAA” status, and the UK found itself described as performing at “A+” level rather than “AA-“. Imagine bringing those grades home to your mum. The moral and financial panic that follows such announcements wipes billions off of economies.
And yet these rating agencies failed to spot the biggest banking crisis in living memory just three years ago. The US Department of Homeland Security reported last year that “credit rating agencies that investors relied on to provide impartial and accurate analysis of thousands of mortgage-linked securities instead used outdated models and inadequate data, were too influenced by investment bankers, allowed chronic resource shortages to undermine ratings, and delayed downgrading investments once problems in the mortgage market became clear.”
The fact is that these agencies are just another arm of the cash-guzzling financial services sector. They have no interest in accurate reporting – who holds them to account? – and merely help to create the conditions under which rapacious markets can fleece economies and bleed countries dry, leaving the ordinary populace to foot the bill with draconian austerity packages. Credit rating agencies are merely one part of the self-referential cesspool that is international finance, and no more.
For that reason, it’s wholly appropriate that they be investigated by Homeland Security: terrorism can be financial as well as physical. On the Today programme this morning, Nick Clegg defended his government’s obsession with the dismantling of the infrastructure of society by referring to the troubles of Greece and Italy. He spoke twice of those economies being “pushed to the edge” by the markets, and warned that the UK economy would be “harried from pillar to post” by the financial sector if it changed course. Just why on earth are we then making government policy that specifically panders to these bastards? When the mantra for so long has been that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, what is the justification for putting up with that kind of attack on our way of life?
We should call out these agencies for what they are: flim flam merchants who enable their fat cat buddies to rape worldwide economies. Every statement of theirs should be vociferously countered with any number of reports that show their incompetence and venality, and then we should tax and regulate the life out of them, and then, if that doesn’t shut them up, we should throw them in jail, regardless of whether or not they’ve done anything provably illegal: hell, lets rendition them to Guantanamo now that Libya won’t play torture ball with us.
Then we can all listen to their plaintive cries as they disappear round the u-bend.
In the light of news from Libya that British intelligence officers were apparently complicit in the illegal seizure, rendition and torture of foreign nationals at the behest of their US allies, David Cameron has taken a sober, sensible approach. The allegations are “significant”, he says. So serious are they that he will ensure that they are considered carefully, and there will be no “rush to judgement”.
What a thoughtful man he is, bravely resisting knee-jerk reactions to the revelation of potentially horrendous crimes.
If only he applied such careful calmness all the time. It’s barely three weeks since he was advocating a stampede to judgement in the aftermath of the English riots. Courts should dish out “exemplary” sentences, he said. Rioters should go to jail, he proclaimed, thereby preempting every court in the land from doing the independent job it is supposed to do: consider its judgement carefully. He praised sentences which threw the sentencing rule book out of the window, including one ridiculous case of four years for two men who failed to incite a riot on facebook.
What has prompted such a terpsichorean change of direction?
Well, Cameron has nothing in common with the mass of underprivileged people in this country, whether they rioted or not. They are, in the words of that other paragon of restraint in word and deed Kenneth Clarke, the “feral underclass” which must be corralled, contained, taught a tough lesson. There’s nothing wrong with “rushing to judgement” of them now, is there? Who ever complains about a hoodie being locked up?
Now the intelligence service, that’s another thing, isn’t it? Just the name – “Intelligence”. We’re taking about intelligent people here, aren’t we? My goodness, many of them come from the same public schools and universities as Mr Cameron and his chums in both the Labour and Conservative parties. They’re pillars of the establishment. All round good eggs.
If kidnapping a man, flying him half way round the world, handing him over to Libyan thugs and psychopaths, standing outside the door while he is tortured to screaming point and then rubbing your hands with glee at the “information” he has offered just to please make it stop isn’t a “feral” act of abject inhumanity and barbarity, I don’t know what is.
“Rush to judgement”? The gears of any inquiry will grind ever so slowly, and at the end of it, as in the de Menezes and Baha Mousa cases, no-one will be held to account, no-one will lose their jobs, no-one will spend time in jail – and the establishment will shrug its shoulders and carry on its hypocritical way.
No judgement. No justice. That’s the Cameron way.
For Jean Charles de Menezes, Harry Stanley and a whole host of other ordinary people whose lives have been ended by apparently unaccountable British authorities, add Baha Mousa, killed not by the police but by the British Army.
The case is now well known, but an independent inquiry is about to exonerate the Army of systematic torture and mistreatment. Ninety-three injuries were noted on Mousa’s body: one wonders if he had to top 100 to qualify for “systematic”.
The need, of course, is to preserve the system. Chains of command cannot be brought into question, senior officers and bureaucrats and politicians must never be blamed. If anything goes wrong, it must either be swept under the carpet as far as possible or blamed on a few “bad apples”.
But the system also depends on defending those “bad apples” in order to buy their silence and to ensure that the dirty work can keep going on. We see that in a different context, with Glen Mulcaire’s legal expenses paid by the NotW, despite their apparent “horror and disgust” at his activities, or in the constant promotion through the ranks of police officers involved in the de Menezes shooting despite their incompetence being responsible for a conviction of the Met under the Health and Safety Act. In this case, the “bad apples” were seven soldiers hauled up before a court martial in what was the army’s version of justice. One of the seven – Corporal Donald Payne – was captured abusing prisoners on video; faced with such undeniable evidence, he pled guilty to mistreating prisoners and served one year in prison, three times more than a housewife who accepted a pair of shorts from a rioter.
I actually have a little sympathy for people like Payne: just like Simon Harwood – the PC who struck Ian Thomslinson – and the Abu Ghraib GIs, photographic evidence meant he had to be hung out to dry for a system which may well be rotten to the core. The courts, unencumbered by such public evidence on the other six and faced by what the judge described as “a more or less obvious closing of ranks”, cleared them.
So, yet again, and ordinary man dies and no-one is to blame and no-one explains to Baha Mousa’s family how he came to sustain 93 injuries and end up looking like this.
And if I wonder about these things, how do they look to those who would use genuine anger at these kinds of incidents to fuel fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism?
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Well, that didn’t take long, did it?
The IPCC released a statement today which cast further light on the way in which its instinctive reaction in the event of police shootings is to protect the officers involved.
It stated “… having reviewed the information the IPCC received and gave out during the very early hours of the unfolding incident, before any documentation had been received, it seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to believe that shots were exchanged, as this was consistent with early information we received that an officer had been shot and taken to hospital. Any reference to an exchange of shots was not correct and did not feature in any of our formal statements, although an officer was taken to hospital after the incident.”
Given the unhealthy relationship between the media and the police which has been revealed by the News of the World scandal, it is obvious that no-one in the supposedly independent IPCC has learned any lessons since it’s chief, Moir Stewart, was implicated in exactly this kind of misleading briefing over the Jean Charles de Menezes killing.
This is in the wake of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee report into the work of the IPCC which was highly critical of its predilection for hiring ex-police officers like Stewart as investigators. The conclusion is inescapable: rather than being independent, the IPCC is actually a shadow arm of the police service which thinks like the police and which perceives the world as the police do.
When people like Jean Charles de Menezes, Harry Stanley and Mark Duggan are shot in circumstances which are at best questionable and at worst actionably incompetent, that is unacceptable.
I have a piece in today’s Scottish Review on the civil unrest in England.
It was prompted by an interview on the “Today” programme with Boris Johnson, a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a man who seems to walk into any job he wants regardless of his apparent lack of qualifications to do the job, and a man who, along with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, is a former member of the Bullingdon Club, famed for acts of anti-social behaviour and criminal damage.
When Johnson, without a trace of irony, accused kids from backgrounds blighted by inner city deprivation and who have little chance of anything but the most menial employment of having an “endless sense of entitlement”, I just about choked on my cornflakes.
Thanks to the Scottish Review for publishing my thoughts on the matter.