Thursday, 25 August 2016

What could train company owner Richard Branson possibly have to gain by attacking pro-nationalisation Jeremy Corbyn?

Holly Baxter in The Independent

Watching the absurdity that is TrainGate unfold last night, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a real David and Goliath moment. Isn’t it nice when a billionaire tax-avoiding business magnate with a knighthood takes on a cruel and calculating powerhouse like Labour’s autocratically-minded leader of the opposition and wins? Isn’t it heartening to see the mainstream media take Richard Branson’s side for once, rather than deferring to the statements of a political figure who probably has lots to gain financially from the renationalisation of the railways? After all, it’s not like Branson, the owner of a private company that operates trains, would be affected by things like that. So I think we can all agree that, at the very least, his motives are pure and driven by a rigorous pursuit of objective justice and truth. As for Corbyn, who knows what devious schemes he could have up his sleeve once he’s allowed to hand control of some public transport back to the taxpayer? Isn’t that how Nazi Germany started?

As a born-and-bred Geordie who moved to London for university and stayed for work, I’ve taken the same Newcastle-bound train from London that Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor of more times than I could count. In case anyone’s actually interested, I can categorically state that it was a lot more pleasant affair when East Coast Trains – the last nationalised arm of British railways – was running the show. The first thing that happened when it was sold off to Virgin was that prices went up and the loyalty scheme which allowed you to accrue points and use them to buy future journeys was stopped (it was replaced with a Nectar Points collaboration and a scheme that encourages you to collect Flying Club miles – two laughable air miles per £1 spent – which, you guessed it, can only be used on Virgin Atlantic planes).

Virgin might have released a press release (yes, for real) about Jeremy Corbyn’s journey this week, claiming that he’d find brilliantly cheap rail fares on their trains in future if he booked in advance, but the £120 return ticket to Durham that I bought weeks in advance for a friend’s wedding this weekend isn’t an anomaly. London to Durham is a journey of two and a half hours. The ridiculous fact that £90 is the cheapest I’ve ever seen a return ticket for it since Virgin took over speaks for itself.

Whether Corbyn sat on the floor to make a point, or because he didn’t look properly in all of the coaches for free seats, or because there were a couple of seats dotted about but he needed a few together for his team is immaterial to me. I’ve spent more than one Christmas Eve sitting curled up inside the luggage rack on the four-hour slow service back to my hometown because even the corridors are too packed to fit into, and I’ve paid extortionate amounts for the privilege. I know what Virgin Trains’ service on the east coast lines are like, even at their least crowded and their very best. A chirpy press release is, of course, going to talk up the “excellent offerings” available from London to Newcastle – but those people have never tried to eat one of their microwaved paninis or operate their on-board wifi, which, to put it kindly, exists more in the conceptual than the physical plane.

Privatised railways are a win for big businesses for obvious reasons: you can’t operate more than one train on one part of a railway line at one time; it’s not like selling a number of competing products together in a shop. Since new lines are hardly ever built, all a business really has to do is have enough money to buy up a monopoly on people’s journeys through whichever part of Britain it chooses. Then – hey presto! – guaranteed sky-high prices with the potential to increase exponentially, since your customer base has very little choice in the matter but to pay up or not travel at all. It’s a naturally uncompetitive business, which makes it a very good candidate for nationalisation and a very good profit-maker for companies with their eyes on the prize. Rail ticket prices, after all, go up like clockwork every year.

Astounded as I am by the fact that people have leapt on what is essentially one of the most boring political stories to have ever hit the headlines, I do support Corbyn’s policy of rail nationalisation in theory. Whether he sat on the floor and announced to camera that ram-packed trains are “a problem that many passengers face every day” as a publicity stunt or after only a half-hearted poke around for seats doesn’t concern me; the simple fact is that the statement is true.

What does concern me, however, is the way in which a discussion about one man sitting on the floor of a packed train has escalated into something which people are now referring to as TrainGate by anti-Corbyn factions, as if accidentally walking past a couple of unreserved seats on a train is genuinely comparable to one of modern America’s most controversial political scandals. I know this has been said a lot in the last few weeks, but really, Labour, have you lost your mind?

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

How tricksters make you see what they want you to see

By David Robson in the BBC

 Could you be fooled into “seeing” something that doesn’t exist?

Matthew Tompkins, a magician-turned-psychologist at the University of Oxford, has been investigating the ways that tricksters implant thoughts in people’s minds. With a masterful sleight of hand, he can make a poker chip disappear right in front of your eyes, or conjure a crayon out of thin air.

And finally, let’s watch the “phantom vanish trick”, which was the focus of his latest experiment:
What did he tuck into his fist? A red ball? A handkerchief?

Although interesting in themselves, the first three videos are really a warm-up for this more ambitious illusion, in which Tompkins tries to plant an image in the participant’s minds using the power of suggestion alone.

Around a third of his participants believed they had seen Tompkins take an object from the pot and tuck it into his hand – only to make it disappear later on. In fact, his fingers were always empty, but his clever pantomiming created an illusion of a real, visible object.

How is that possible? Psychologists have long known that the brain acts like an expert art restorer, touching up the rough images hitting our retina according to context and expectation. This “top-down processing” allows us to build a clear picture from the barest of details (such as this famous picture of the “Dalmatian in the snow”). It’s the reason we can make out a face in the dark, for instance. But occasionally, the brain may fill in too many of the gaps, allowing expectation to warp a picture so that it no longer reflects reality. In some ways, we really do see what we want to see.
This “top-down processing” is reflected in measures of brain activity, and it could easily explain the phantom vanish trick. The warm-up videos, the direction of his gaze, and his deft hand gestures all primed the participants’ brains to see the object between his fingers, and for some participants, this expectation overrode the reality in front of their eyes.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Sex on campus isn't what you think: what 101 student journals taught me

Lisa Wade in The Guardian

Moments before it happened, Cassidy, Jimena and Declan were sitting in the girls’ shared dorm room, casually chatting about what the cafeteria might be offering for dinner that night. They were just two weeks into their first year of college and looking forward to heading down to the meal hall – when suddenly Declan leaned over, grabbed the waist of Cassidy’s jeans, and pulled her crotch toward his face, proclaiming: “Dinner’s right here!”

Sitting on her lofted bunk bed, Jimena froze. Across the small room, Cassidy squealed with laughter, fell back onto her bed and helped Declan strip off her clothes. “What is happening!?” Jimena cried as Declan pushed his cargo shorts down and jumped under the covers with her roommate. “Sex is happening!” Cassidy said. It was four o’clock in the afternoon.

Cassidy and Declan proceeded to have sex, and Jimena turned to face her computer. When I asked her why she didn’t flee the room, she explained: “I was in shock.” Staying was strangely easier than leaving, she said, because the latter would have required her to turn her body toward the couple, climb out of her bunk, gather her stuff, and find the door, all with her eyes open. So, she waited it out, focusing on a television show played on her laptop in front of her, and catching reflected glimpses of Declan’s bobbing buttocks on her screen. That was the first time Cassidy had sex in front of her. By the third, she’d learned to read the signs and get out before it was too late.

'What is happening!?' Jimena cried. 'Sex is happening!' Cassidy said.

Cassidy and Jimena give us an idea of just how diverse college students’ attitudes toward sex can be. Jimena, a conservative, deeply religious child, was raised by her Nicaraguan immigrant parents to value modesty. Her parents told her, and she strongly believed, that “sex is a serious matter” and that bodies should be “respected, exalted, prized”. Though she didn’t intend to save her virginity for her wedding night, she couldn’t imagine anyone having sex in the absence of love.

Cassidy, an extroverted blond, grew up in a stuffy, mostly white, suburban neighborhood. She was eager to grasp the new freedoms that college offered and didn’t hesitate. On the day that she moved into their dorm, she narrated her Tinder chats aloud to Jimena as she looked to find a fellow student to hook up with. Later that evening she had sex with a match in his room, then went home and told Jimena everything. Jimena was “astounded” but, as would soon become clear, Cassidy was just warming up.

The cloisters at New College Oxford. Photograph: Alamy

Students like Cassidy have been hypervisible in news coverage of hookup culture, giving the impression that most college students are sexually adventurous. For years we’ve debated whether this is good or bad, only to discover, much to our surprise, that students aren’t having as much sex as we thought. In fact, they report the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age and are even more likely than previous generations to be what one set of scholars grimly refers to as “sexually inactive”.

One conclusion is to think that campus hookup culture is a myth, a tantalizing, panic-inducing, ultimately untrue story. But to think this is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is. It can’t be measured in sexual activity – whether high or low – because it’s not a behavior, it’s an ethos, an atmosphere, a milieu. A hookup culture is an environment that idealizes and promotes casual sexual encounters over other kinds, regardless of what students actually want or are doing. And it isn’t a myth at all.

I followed 101 students as part of the research for my book American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. I invited students at two liberal arts schools to submit journals each week for a full semester, in which they wrote as much or as little as they liked about sex and romance on campus. The documents they submitted – varyingly rants, whispered gossip, critical analyses, protracted tales or simple streams of consciousness – came to over 1,500 single-spaced pages and exceeded a million words. To protect students’ confidentiality, I don’t use their real names or reveal the colleges they attend.

My read of these journals revealed four main categories of students. Cassidy and Declan were “enthusiasts”, students who enjoyed casual sex unequivocally. This 14% genuinely enjoyed hooking up and research suggests that they thrive. Jimena was as “abstainer”, one of the 34% who voluntary opted out in their first year. Another 8% abstained because they were in monogamous relationships. The remaining 45% were “dabblers”, students who were ambivalent about casual sex but succumbed to temptation, peer pressure or a sense of inevitability. Other more systematic quantitative research produces similar percentages.

These numbers show that students can opt out of hooking up, and many do. But my research makes clear that they can’t opt out of hookup culture. Whatever choice they make, it’s made meaningful in relationship to the culture. To participate gleefully, for example, is to be its standard bearer, even while being a numerical minority. To voluntarily abstain or commit to a monogamous relationship is to accept marginalization, to be seen as socially irrelevant and possibly sexually repressed. And to dabble is a way for students to bargain with hookup culture, accepting its terms in the hopes that it will deliver something they want.

Burke, for example, was a dabbler. He was strongly relationship-oriented, but his peers seemed to shun traditional dating. “It’s harder to ask someone out than it is to ask someone to go back to your room after fifteen minutes of chatting,” he observed wryly. He resisted hooking up, but “close quarters” made it “extremely easy” to occasionally fall into bed with people, especially when drunk. He always hoped his hookups would turn into something more – which is how most relationships form in hookup culture – but they never did.

‘To think that campus hookup culture is a myth … is to fundamentally misunderstand what hookup culture really is.’ Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Wren dabbled, too. She identified as pansexual and had been hoping for a “queer haven” in college, but instead found it to be “quietly oppressive”. Her peers weren’t overtly homophobic and in classrooms they eagerly theorized queer sex, but at parties they “reverted back into gendered codes” and “masculine bullshit”. So she hooked up a little, but not as much as she would have liked.

My abstainers simply decided not to hook up at all. Some of these, like Jimena, were opposed to casual sex no matter the context, but most just weren’t interested in “hot”, “meaningless” sexual encounters. Sex in hookup culture isn’t just casual, it’s aggressively slapdash, excluding not just love, but also fondness and sometimes even basic courtesy.

Hookup culture prevails, even though it serves only a minority of students, because cultures don’t reflect what is, but a specific group’s vision of what should be. The students who are most likely to qualify as enthusiasts are also more likelythan other kinds of students to be affluent, able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual and male. These students know – whether consciously or not – that they can afford to take risks, protected by everything from social status to their parents’ pocketbooks.

Students who don’t carry these privileges, especially when they are disadvantaged in many different ways at once, are often pushed or pulled out of hooking up. One of my African American students, Jaslene, stated bluntly that hooking up isn’t “for black people”, referring specifically to a white standard of beauty for women that disadvantaged women like her in the erotic marketplace. She felt pushed out. Others pulled away. “Some of us with serious financial aid and grants,” said one of my students with an athletic scholarship, “tend to avoid high-risk situations”.

Hookup culture, then, isn’t what the majority of students want, it’s the privileging of the sexual lifestyle most strongly endorsed by those with the most power on campus, the same people we see privileged in every other part of American life. These students, as one Latina observed, “exude dominance”. On the quad, they’re boisterous and engage in loud greetings. They sunbathe and play catch on the green at the first sign of spring. At games, they paint their faces and sing fight songs. They use the campus as their playground. Their bodies – most often slim, athletic and well-dressed – convey an assured calm; they move among their peers with confidence and authority. Online, social media is saturated with their chatter and late night snapshots.

On big party nights, they fill residence halls with activity. Students who don’t party, who have no interest in hooking up, can’t help but know they’re there. “You can hear every conversation occurring in the hallway even with your door closed,” one of my abstainers reported. For hours she would listen to the “click-clacking of high heels” and exchanged reassurances of “Shut up! You look hot!” Eventually there would be a reprieve, but revelers always return drunker and louder.

The morning after, college cafeterias ring with a ritual retelling of the night before. Students who have nothing to contribute to these conversations are excluded just by virtue of having nothing to say. They perhaps eat at other tables, but the raised voices that come with excitement carry. At the gym, in classes, and at the library, flirtations lay the groundwork for the coming weekend. Hookup culture reaches into every corner of campus.

The conspicuousness of hookup culture’s most enthusiastic proponents makes it seem as if everyone is hooking up all the time. In one study students guessed that their peers were doing it 50 times a year, 25 times what the numbers actually show. In another, young men figured that 80% of college guys were having sex any given weekend. They would have been closer to the truth if they were guessing the percentage of men who’d ever had sex.


College students aren’t living up to their reputation and hookup culture is part of why. It offers only one kind of sexual experiment, a sexually hot, emotionally cold encounter that suits only a minority of students well. Those who dabble in it often find that their experiences are as mixed as their feelings. One-in-three students say that their sexual encounters have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle”. Almost two dozen studies have documented feelings of sexual regret,frustration, disappointment, distress and inadequacy. Many students decide, if hookups are their only option, they’d rather not have sex at all.

We’ve discovered that hookup culture isn’t the cause for concern that some once felt it was, but neither is it the utopia that others hoped. If the goal is to enable young people to learn about and share their sexualities in ways that help them grow to be healthy adults (if they want to explore at all), we’re not there yet. But the more we understand about hookup culture, the closer we’ll be able to get.

Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public

Richard P Grant in The Guardian

A video did the rounds a couple of years ago, of some self-styled “skeptic” disagreeing – robustly, shall we say – with an anti-vaxxer. The speaker was roundly cheered by everyone sharing the video – he sure put that idiot in their place!

Scientists love to argue. Cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description. So it’s not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in homeopathy, or deny anthropogenic climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food.

It makes sense. You’ve got a population that is – on the whole – not scientifically literate, and you want to persuade them that they should be doing a and b (but not c) so that they/you/their children can have a better life.

Brian Cox was at it last week, performing a “smackdown” on a climate change denier on the ABC’s Q&A discussion program. He brought graphs! Knockout blow.

Q&A smackdown: Brian Cox brings graphs to grapple with Malcolm Roberts

And yet … it leaves me cold. Is this really what science communication is about? Is this informing, changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future?

I doubt it somehow.

There are a couple of things here. And I don’t think it’s as simple as people rejecting science.

First, people don’t like being told what to do. This is part of what Michael Gove was driving at when he said people had had enough of experts. We rely on doctors and nurses to make us better, and on financial planners to help us invest. We expect scientists to research new cures for disease, or simply to find out how things work. We expect the government to try to do the best for most of the people most of the time, and weather forecasters to at least tell us what today was like even if they struggle with tomorrow.

But when these experts tell us how to live our lives – or even worse, what to think – something rebels. Especially when there is even the merest whiff of controversy or uncertainty. Back in your box, we say, and stick to what you’re good at.

We saw it in the recent referendum, we saw it when Dame Sally Davies said wine makes her think of breast cancer, and we saw it back in the late 1990s when the government of the time told people – who honestly, really wanted to do the best for their children – to shut up, stop asking questions and take the damn triple vaccine.

Which brings us to the second thing.

On the whole, I don’t think people who object to vaccines or GMOs are at heart anti-science. Some are, for sure, and these are the dangerous ones. But most people simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worries seriously; that someone cares for them.

It’s more about who we are and our relationships than about what is right or true.

This is why, when you bring data to a TV show, you run the risk of appearing supercilious and judgemental. Even – especially – if you’re actually right.
People want to feel wanted and loved. That there is someone who will listen to them. To feel part of a family.

The physicist Sabine Hossenfelder gets this. Between contracts one time, she set up a “talk to a physicist” service. Fifty dollars gets you 20 minutes with a quantum physicist … who will listen to whatever crazy idea you have, and help you understand a little more about the world.

How many science communicators do you know who will take the time to listen to their audience? Who are willing to step outside their cosy little bubble and make an effort to reach people where they are, where they are confused and hurting; where they need?

Atul Gawande says scientists should assert “the true facts of good science” and expose the “bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people”. But that’s only part of the story, and is closing the barn door too late.

Because the charlatans have already recognised the need, and have built the communities that people crave. Tellingly, Gawande refers to the ‘scientific community’; and he’s absolutely right, there. Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

It’s tribalism.

Why economic punditry leaves you worrying about the wrong big numbers

Ben Chu in The Independent

Big numbers are all around us, shaping our political debates, influencing the way we think about things. For instance we hear a great deal about the prodigious size of the national debt: £1,603bn in July according to the latest official statistics.

There has been a proliferation of stories about the aggregate deficit of pension schemes, which has jumped to an estimated £1trn in the wake of the Brexit vote. And how could we forget that record net migration figure of 333,000, which figured so prominently in the recent European Union referendum campaign?

Yet there are other massive numbers we seldom hear about. The Office for National Statistics published some estimates for the “national balance sheet” last week. This is the place to look if you want really big numbers. They showed that the aggregate value of the UK’s residential housing stock in 2015 was £5.2 trillion – that’s up £350bn in just 12 months. A lot of people are a lot wealthier than they were a year ago.

That’s property wealth. What about the total value of households’ financial assets? According to the ONS, that stands at £6.2 trillion – up £113bn over the year. It will be even higher since the Brexit vote. Why? Because those ballooning pension scheme deficits we hear about represent a part of the financial assets of households.

Incidentally, a majority of the national debt, indirectly, represents a financial asset of UK households too. We often forget that for every financial liability there has to be a financial asset.

There’s still a good deal of handwringing in some quarters about the supposedly excessive borrowing of the state. But we don’t tend to hear anything about the debt of the corporate sector these days. The ONS reports that the total debt (loans and bonds combined) of British-based companies in 2015 was £1.35 trilion, pretty much where it was back in 2010.

If debt is something to get excited about, shouldn’t company borrowing be a cause for concern? Not, of course, if companies are borrowing to increase their productive capacities.

Actually, the major problem with corporate balance sheets lies in a different area. The ONS data shows that the corporate sector’s overall stocks of cash rose to £581bn in 2015, up £41bn on last year and a sum representing an astonishing 31 per cent of our GDP. It should be seriously worrying that firms are still choosing to keep so much cash on their balance sheets at a time when we badly need them to invest.

We tend to fret about the wrong big numbers. Consider the data on the liabilities of UK-based financial institutions. If you want a large number try this: £20.5 trillion. And around a quarter of these are financial derivative contracts. Many of those companies are foreign firms with UK operations. But UK banks – which we taxpayers still effectively underwrite because they are “too big to fail” – have aggregate liabilities worth £7.5 trillion.

That’s around four times larger than our GDP, yet Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, has rather strangely suggested he would be comfortable with that figure eventually rising to nine times national income.

Sometimes we fail to appreciate what lies behind the big numbers that shape our debates. The headlines this week said total UK employment grew by 172,000 in the three months to June. But this only tells one part of the story. Other data from the ONS showed that 478,000 people without jobs got them in the quarter, while 317,000 people entered the ranks of the unemployed. That headline figure is a net change in employment figure. And this wasn’t an unusually busy quarter for the jobs market.

This churn goes on constantly, with hundreds of thousands of us leaving jobs and hundreds of thousands taking new ones. The economic threat from the Brexit vote aftermath isn’t just people being made redundant – it’s a slowdown in hiring and that mighty labour market churn.

There’s a similar issue with those ubiquitous net migration figures. Newspapers talk of immigration creating “a new city the size of Newcastle each year” (or some variation on that line). That is rhetoric designed to stir public anxiety.

Yet that’s in context of an estimate of 36 million tourist visits to the UK each year, flows equal to half of the British population. And there are double the number of tourists visits going the other way each year.

What these big numbers emphasise is that we live in a mind-bendingly busy, complex and internationally connected economy. The figures we hear about, and which pundits fixate upon, are often the differences between two, or sometimes more, very large numbers. That bigger context should not be ignored.

The economic risks and fragilities of our economy are not always where we’re invited to believe they are.

Follow the money: how left-behind cities can hold their corporate bullies to account

Paul Mason in The Guardian

If you walk along Britain’s poorest streets, the phrase “left behind” – in vogue again after many such places voted to leave the EU – takes on a complex meaning. It’s not just that they are lagging behind the richer, better-connected places. It can seem, as you survey the pound stores and shuttered pubs, that these towns have been discarded: left behind, as in “unwanted on the journey”. Wealth has flowed out of them to somewhere else.

The logical question should be: who did this? Sometimes it’s obvious: in Ebbw Vale, for example, the answer is the Anglo-Dutch steel company Corus, which closed the plant in 2002. In many places it’s not obvious. Jobs seep away; council services are privatised; bus timetables dwindle; the local school gets taken over by a “superhead” from somewhere else, outsourcing the dinner ladies on day one. You can get angry about it, but there is nobody specific to be angry at.

Faced with the same problem, union and community organisers in the US have, in the past 12 months, adopted a novel way of fighting back. Through a campaign group called Hedge Clippers, they have begun tracing the lineages of financial power behind the decisions that affect specific places, and targeting those financiers – pension funds – with a new kind of pressure.

Steve Lerner, one of the instigators of the 1980s Justice for Janitors campaign, which, for the first time, organised migrant cleaning workers in the US, explains how the tactic evolved. “We were organising janitors working for contract cleaning companies: but they’re just middlemen,” he said. “So we targeted the building owners. It turned out they, too, were dependent on banks and pension companies, so we got a trillion dollars worth of pension money to say it won’t invest unless there is decent pay. Then we asked ourselves: OK, what else do they own?”

It turns out, quite a lot. In Baltimore, the city’s privatised water industry hiked its bills. Then, when people started to fall behind in payments, the city agreed to bundle up their unpaid bills into a financial vehicle called a “tax lien” and sell it to investors. The investors can, after two years, evict people from their homes for non-payment.

When campaigners looked at who was buying up the debt, they included an anonymous company linked to one of the biggest hedge funds in America: Fortress Investments, with $23bn worth of assets invested in “the largest pension funds, university endowments and foundations”.

Since the 2008 crisis, with returns on government bonds negative, and stock market dividends depressed, pension funds have been pouring money into the hedge fund sector. “It’s a form of assisted suicide,” Lerner argues: “Workers are investing their pension money into firms whose mission is to destroy us.”

He set up Hedge Clippers, which aims to force pension funds to divest from companies whose investment strategies fuel the cycle of impoverishment.

If you apply the same approach to Britain, you’re dealing with a different ecosystem. No city has yet securitised the unpaid debts of the poor, as Baltimore did. While there is no shortage of predatory lenders to the poor, there are – after a campaign led by Labour MP Stella Creasy – at least elementary controls on them.

However, pension funds are now the biggest source of money for UK hedge funds, according to a Financial Conduct Authority survey last year, with 43% of their money coming from institutional investors. The most obvious act of financial predation is the private finance initiative (PFI), where schools and hospitals were built with vastly lucrative private loans. As a result, the taxpayer is committed to paying back £232bn on assets worth £57bn.

Many pension funds, either directly or indirectly, are investing in the so-called “infrastructure funds” who buy up PFI debt. The investment analyst Preqin found 588 institutional investors worldwide with “a preference for funds targeting PFI”, 40% of which were based in Europe.

Tracing the more complex ways institutional finance is funding the cycle of impoverishment is not easy. What you would want to know, in places such as Stoke-on-Trent or Newport, is not just who took the decisions to close high-value workplaces but, more importantly, who makes the decisions that lead to chronic under-investment now. Governments, including the devolved ones of the UK, spend a lot of time and money effectively bribing global companies to create jobs and keep them in Britain’s depressed areas. Communities themselves have little or no input into the process, which is in any case all carrot and no stick.

Lerner’s initiative in the US grew out of trade union activism, because the unions there learned to follow the money instead of wasting time trying to negotiate with the powerless underlings of global finance. They worked out that, in an age where the workplace and the community can seem like two different spheres of activism, it is the finance system that links the two.

Older ‘left-behind’ voters turned against a political class with values opposed to theirs

Union organising of the unorganised, and community activism in Britain have both traditionally been weak because top-down Labourism has been strong. Faced with PFI, predatory loans, rip-off landlords and privatisation, the British way is to demand legislation, not chain yourself to the door of a Mayfair hedge fund.

With or without Jeremy Corbyn, the near-impossibility of Labour gaining a Commons majority in 2020 – whether because of Scotland, boundary changes, a hostile media or self-destruction – has to refocus the left on to what is possible to achieve from below. We have to start, as the Americans did, by mapping the invisible forces that strip jobs, value and hope out of communities; make them visible; trace their dependencies and then use direct action to kick them in the corporate goolies until they desist.

Seven changes needed to save the euro and the EU

Joseph Stiglitz in The Guardian

To say that the eurozone has not been performing well since the 2008 crisis is an understatement. Its member countries have done more poorly than the European Union countries outside the eurozone, and much more poorly than the United States, which was the epicentre of the crisis.

The worst-performing eurozone countries are mired in depression or deep recession; their condition – think of Greece – is worse in many ways than what economies suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The best-performing eurozone members, such as Germany, look good, but only in comparison; and their growth model is partly based on beggar-thy-neighbour policies, whereby success comes at the expense of erstwhile “partners”.

Four types of explanation have been advanced to explain this state of affairs.Germany likes to blame the victim, pointing to Greece’s profligacy and the debt and deficits elsewhere. But this puts the cart before the horse: Spain and Ireland had surpluses and low debt-to-GDP ratios before the euro crisis. So the crisis caused the deficits and debts, not the other way around.

Deficit fetishism is, no doubt, part of Europe’s problems. Finland, too, has been having trouble adjusting to the multiple shocks it has confronted, with GDP in 2015 around 5.5% below its 2008 peak.

Other “blame the victim” critics cite the welfare state and excessive labour-market protections as the cause of the eurozone’s malaise. Yet some of Europe’s best-performing countries, such as Sweden and Norway, have the strongest welfare states and labour-market protections.

Many of the countries now performing poorly were doing very well – above the European average – before the euro was introduced. Their decline did not result from some sudden change in their labour laws, or from an epidemic of laziness in the crisis countries. What changed was the currency arrangement.

The second type of explanation amounts to a wish that Europe had better leaders, men and women who understood economics better and implemented better policies. Flawed policies – not just austerity, but also misguided so-called structural reforms, which widened inequality and thus further weakened overall demand and potential growth – have undoubtedly made matters worse.

But the eurozone was a political arrangement, in which it was inevitable that Germany’s voice would be loud. Anyone who has dealt with German policymakers over the past third of a century should have known in advance the likely result. Most important, given the available tools, not even the most brilliant economic tsar could not have made the eurozone prosper.

The third set of reasons for the eurozone’s poor performance is a broader rightwing critique of the EU, centred on the eurocrats’ penchant for stifling, innovation-inhibiting regulations. This critique, too, misses the mark. The eurocrats, like labour laws or the welfare state, didn’t suddenly change in 1999, with the creation of the fixed exchange-rate system, or in 2008, with the beginning of the crisis. More fundamentally, what matters is the standard of living, the quality of life. Anyone who denies how much better off we in the west are with our stiflingly clean air and water should visit Beijing.

That leaves the fourth explanation: the euro is more to blame than the policies and structures of individual countries. The euro was flawed at birth. Even the best policymakers the world has ever seen could not have made it work. The eurozone’s structure imposed the kind of rigidity associated with the gold standard. The single currency took away its members’ most important mechanism for adjustment – the exchange rate – and the eurozone circumscribed monetary and fiscal policy.

In response to asymmetric shocks and divergences in productivity, there would have to be adjustments in the real (inflation-adjusted) exchange rate, meaning that prices in the eurozone periphery would have to fall relative to Germany and northern Europe. But, with Germany adamant about inflation – its prices have been stagnant – the adjustment could be accomplished only through wrenching deflation elsewhere. Typically, this meant painful unemployment and weakening unions; the eurozone’s poorest countries, and especially the workers within them, bore the brunt of the adjustment burden. So the plan to spur convergence among eurozone countries failed miserably, with disparities between and within countries growing.

This system cannot and will not work in the long run: democratic politics ensures its failure. Only by changing the eurozone’s rules and institutions can the euro be made to work. This will require seven changes:

abandoning the convergence criteria, which require deficits to be less than 3% of GDP

replacing austerity with a growth strategy, supported by a solidarity fund for stabilisation

dismantling a crisis-prone system whereby countries must borrow in a currency not under their control, and relying instead on Eurobonds or some similar mechanism

better burden-sharing during adjustment, with countries running current-account surpluses committing to raise wages and increase fiscal spending, thereby ensuring that their prices increase faster than those in the countries with current-account deficits;

changing the mandate of the European Central Bank, which focuses only on inflation, unlike the US Federal Reserve, which takes into account employment, growth, and stability as well

establishing common deposit insurance, which would prevent money from fleeing poorly performing countries, and other elements of a “banking union”

and encouraging, rather than forbidding, industrial policies designed to ensure that the eurozone’s laggards can catch up with its leaders.
From an economic perspective, these changes are small; but today’s eurozone leadership may lack the political will to carry them out. That doesn’t change the basic fact that the current halfway house is untenable. A system intended to promote prosperity and further integration has been having just the opposite effect. An amicable divorce would be better than the current stalemate.

Of course, every divorce is costly; but muddling through would be even more costly. As we’ve already seen this summer in the United Kingdom, if European leaders can’t or won’t make the hard decisions, European voters will make the decisions for them – and the leaders may not be happy with the results.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

We won't trigger Article 50 until after 2017 – and that means Brexit may never happen at all

Dennis MacShane in The Independent

It is now eight weeks since we voted to leave the EU but it may be at least eight years before the UK is fully and totally out of Europe– if we finally leave at all. After a post-truth Brexit campaign, now the era of truth is dawning in Downing Street and they are discovering there was never any work completed by the Brexit team on what the costs of leaving the EU would be and how precisely it would be done.

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, who is coldly pragmatic, has given the three Musketeers of Brexit – Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – the task of getting us out of Europe as painlessly and quickly as possible. They are finding out that their two decades of demagogic condemnation of the EU and all its works is no preparation at all for turning Brexit into reality. Instead, there is the surreal sight of Liam Fox writing a letter saying that half the Foreign Office staff and responsibilities should be placed under his control. Ever since it was set up after Britain lost America at the end of the 18th century, the Foreign Office has been seeing off raids on its territory like these.

Having been told that leaving the EU would reduce bureaucracy and costs, there is the bizarre sight of Whitehall recruiters hiring lawyers expert in EU law on £5,000 a day and consultants from KPMG and Ernst and Young on £1,000 a day. The extra cost of negotiating Brexit is reckoned to cost £5bn – which taxpayers will have to pay for.

Fox has a name for unforced errors, as his abrupt dismissal as Defence Secretary in 2011 showed. He is finding out from the US Trade Secretary, and every other minister responsible for trade around the world, that no-one will talk to the UK about trade deals until we are completely outside the EU.

For years the Europhobes told us that the world would be queuing up to sign trade deals with Britain once we were out of Europe. Now Fox is discovering that it is illegal under World Trade Organisation rules to start negotiations with the UK as the EU has sole and exclusive responsibility for speaking for its member states on major trade matters.

Of course countries can negotiate small market openings. Spain has spent eight years negotiating a deal to export plums to China. The UK has spent just as long trying to get India to lift its 150 per cent tariff on Scotch whisky – so far, without success. The Indians are willing to let Scotch be imported duty-free but in exchange they want visa-free access for Indians to come to the UK. Over to Dr Fox to solve that conundrum.

When she was Home Secretary, Theresa May tried to abolish visa-free travel arrangements with Brazil, but was slapped down by David Cameron who judged the good relations with Brazil was worth the risk of some over-staying by Brazilians who came to London and then disappeared into the black labour market. The same dilemma faces UK exporters who have been told by all EU leaders, not just the wicked Eurocrats, but nationally elected leaders in Germany and France that there is no question of having access to the EU Single Market for 500 million middle class consumers without allowing those consumers the right to travel, live and work – the same rights that more than a million Brits in Spain enjoy too.

No-one in Europe wants to ”punish” Britain but no EU leader dare deny his or her own citizens the rights that Brits take for granted in order to give the UK a special privileged status.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has sensibly said that there is no point in beginning the initial withdrawal negotiations – the so-called 'Article 50 procedure' – until there is clarity on who will be in charge of Europe. In 2017 there are elections in France likely to produce a new president next May and right-wing challengers have called for the relocation of the Calais frontier to UK territory. Angela Merkel will have done 12 years as German Chancellor at the time of the federal elections in September 2017 and may decide to stand down rather than go on and on and on to the kind of unhappy career end of Helmut Kohl.

But Khan, a shrewd EU watcher, is right to say that inserting a rushed UK withdrawal into a crucial election year in both France and Germany is not smart.

He also has to speak for London and the $120tn volume of business in trading and clearing euros, which only takes place in London because we are in the EU. London is home to 350,000 French citizens alone, as well as hundreds of thousands other European professionals, and removing their right to live and work freely in the UK will send a disastrous signal around the world that London is no longer Europe’s hub for financial transactions.

In any event, Article 50 negotiations are not even foreplay to the main event. They only cover how to share out between Brussels and London the responsibility for paying the pensions of Brits who work for the EU and will now be dismissed, as well as existing retirees like Stanley Johnson, father of Brexiteer Boris.

Once Article 50 talks are over, Jean-Claude Piris, the EU’s former chief lawyer, reckons it will take at least eight years to write out any kind of satisfactory UK-EU deal on trade access and the rights of British citizens living in Europe. Pascal Lamy, the former WTO director general, also dismisses the idea that a final EU-UK trade deal is achieveable without years of negotiation. It has taken the EU and Canada eight years to agree a relatively modest trade deal which now has to be ratified by all 28 EU national parliaments. Any UK-EU deal would also have to be agreed by national parliamentarians from Ireland to Bulgaria.

To be sure, the 23 June vote must be accepted and respected, even if two million young citizens and two million Brits in Europe were denied a vote by the inefficient jobsworths at the Electoral Commission. But it is not the last word. There has been a major new surge led by young activists who refuse to accept, as with general elections, that a change in UK policy is impossible.

Theresa May is the leader of Tory MPs and most of them – like her – were Eurosceptic but not in favour of the Ukip-Johnson-Fox agenda on Europe. She returns from her Alpine walking holiday to find that her predecessor, David Cameron, has handed her mission impossible: to pull the UK out of Europe without huge economic damage and political anger.

Farage, Johnson and Fox have won their 15 year-long battle to obtain a vote for Brexit. But Britain is not out of Europe. And as the UK public realises the damage to their future that isolation represents, there will be a re-think.

May is no Europhile, but she does not want to lead a Britain that become poorer and weaker in wealth and status, with the ever-present shadow of Scotland leaving the UK too. The Europhobes who brought us Brexit may not have the last laugh.

Batsmen should begin spin training at an early age

Ian Chappell in Cricinfo

Australia have been whitewashed by Sri Lanka and in the process surrendered their No. 1 Test ranking. That may be just the beginning of their nightmare, with a challenging 2017 tour of India hanging over the players' heads like a hangman's noose.

It has been suggested Australia are doing everything possible to address an ongoing weakness in spin-friendly conditions. Pitches are specifically prepared at the National Academy to replicate spinning conditions, and more youth tours are being undertaken to Asian countries. Both good ideas but they don't begin to address the underlying problem.

Learning to play spin bowling is not something you do in your twenties. Correct and decisive footwork has to be learned from an early age so it's ingrained by the late teens and you have the confidence to utilise these skills under any conditions.

When I was ten, I was given some important advice by my old coach Lynn Fuller. He told me: "Ian, it doesn't matter how good I am as a coach. I can't help you when you're out in the middle. The quicker you learn this game for yourself, the better off you'll be."

More specifically on playing spin bowling, he advised: "Better to be stumped by three yards than three inches. Don't think about the wicketkeeper when you leave your crease, otherwise you're thinking about missing the ball."

I saw Australian players in Sri Lanka stumped by what looked like millimetres. An adventurous advance drastically changes the length of a delivery in favour of the batsman; a tentative, minimal move forward only improves the bowler's chance of success. A good player of spin alters the bowler's length to his desire, and by doing so he can manipulate the field placings.

By achieving these objectives and putting the loose ball away, a good spinner can be frustrated. A slogged six or a reverse sweep doesn't unnerve a good spinner; the maximum hit means he's still bowling to the same batsman. What drives a spinner crazy is batsmen constantly rotating the strike, using quick, decisive footwork to manoeuvre the ball into gaps and take singles. Once the spinner is tearing his hair out, then the loose deliveries come, and that's when a batsman has to pick off the boundaries.

The young Sri Lankan batsman Kaushal Silva did this to perfection in the second innings in Colombo.

To achieve this in a long innings under difficult conditions is exacting; by the end of a marathon innings a batsman should be knackered both physically and mentally. One of the great challenges of playing good spinners in difficult conditions is the batsman pitting his brain against that of the bowler.

This is not easy to achieve but it's impossible if you haven't learned good footwork at a young age. If you have the confidence that is only provided by a solid foundation, you won't be panicked into playing low-percentage shots. And with a clear mind provided by that confidence, there's a realisation there are actually some advantages for the batsman when the ball is spinning sharply. The bowler has to pitch further outside the stumps to hit them, and with the ball coming at a sharper angle, it affords the batsman an opportunity to work it into a gap.

A coach hurriedly preparing a young player for a lucrative T20 contract is incompatible with the education required for a successful Test career. However, a young batsman who is given a complete grounding can capably handle any form of cricket.

Batsmen must have a plan, especially when facing good spinners, but it must be personally devised, not one prepared by a coach. Some of the Australian plans in Sri Lanka were based purely on survival. If a plan doesn't revolve around scoring runs in a reasonably secure manner, then it might as well be a map of the London tube system.

Learning to play good spinners in conditions that suit them is not a 40-minute lesson, it's a complete education, university included. If Australia don't already have batsmen skilled in the art, then chances are the Test tour of India will only add to their Asian nightmare

The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics

Martin Jacques in The Guardian

The western financial crisis of 2007-8 was the worst since 1931, yet its immediate repercussions were surprisingly modest. The crisis challenged the foundation stones of the long-dominant neoliberal ideology but it seemed to emerge largely unscathed. The banks were bailed out; hardly any bankers on either side of the Atlantic were prosecuted for their crimes; and the price of their behaviour was duly paid by the taxpayer. Subsequent economic policy, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, has relied overwhelmingly on monetary policy, especially quantitative easing. It has failed. The western economy has stagnated and is now approaching its lost decade, with no end in sight.

After almost nine years, we are finally beginning to reap the political whirlwind of the financial crisis. But how did neoliberalism manage to survive virtually unscathed for so long? Although it failed the test of the real world, bequeathing the worst economic disaster for seven decades, politically and intellectually it remained the only show in town. Parties of the right, centre and left had all bought into its philosophy, New Labour a classic in point. They knew no other way of thinking or doing: it had become the common sense. It was, as Antonio Gramsci put it, hegemonic. But that hegemony cannot and will not survive the test of the real world. 

The first inkling of the wider political consequences was evident in the turn in public opinion against the banks, bankers and business leaders. For decades, they could do no wrong: they were feted as the role models of our age, the default troubleshooters of choice in education, health and seemingly everything else. Now, though, their star was in steep descent, along with that of the political class. The effect of the financial crisis was to undermine faith and trust in the competence of the governing elites. It marked the beginnings of a wider political crisis.

But the causes of this political crisis, glaringly evident on both sides of the Atlantic, are much deeper than simply the financial crisis and the virtually stillborn recovery of the last decade. They go to the heart of the neoliberal project that dates from the late 70s and the political rise of Reagan and Thatcher, and embraced at its core the idea of a global free market in goods, services and capital. The depression-era system of bank regulation was dismantled, in the US in the 1990s and in Britain in 1986, thereby creating the conditions for the 2008 crisis. Equality was scorned, the idea of trickle-down economics lauded, government condemned as a fetter on the market and duly downsized, immigration encouraged, regulation cut to a minimum, taxes reduced and a blind eye turned to corporate evasion.

It should be noted that, by historical standards, the neoliberal era has not had a particularly good track record. The most dynamic period of postwar western growth was that between the end of the war and the early 70s, the era of welfare capitalism and Keynesianism, when the growth rate was double that of the neoliberal period from 1980 to the present.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, pictured in 1984, ushered in the era of neoliberalism. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

But by far the most disastrous feature of the neoliberal period has been the huge growth in inequality. Until very recently, this had been virtually ignored. With extraordinary speed, however, it has emerged as one of, if not the most important political issue on both sides of the Atlantic, most dramatically in the US. It is, bar none, the issue that is driving the political discontent that is now engulfing the west. Given the statistical evidence, it is puzzling, shocking even, that it has been disregarded for so long; the explanation can only lie in the sheer extent of the hegemony of neoliberalism and its values.

But now reality has upset the doctrinal apple cart. In the period 1948-1972, every section of the American population experienced very similar and sizable increases in their standard of living; between 1972-2013, the bottom 10% experienced falling real income while the top 10% did far better than everyone else. In the US, the median real income for full-time male workers is now lower than it was four decades ago: the income of the bottom 90% of the population hasstagnated for over 30 years.

A not so dissimilar picture is true of the UK. And the problem has grown more serious since the financial crisis. On average, between 65-70% of households in 25 high-income economies experienced stagnant or falling real incomes between 2005 and 2014.

The reasons are not difficult to explain. The hyper-globalisation era has been systematically stacked in favour of capital against labour: international trading agreements, drawn up in great secrecy, with business on the inside and the unions and citizens excluded, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and theTransatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) being but the latest examples; the politico-legal attack on the unions; the encouragement of large-scale immigration in both the US and Europe that helped to undermine the bargaining power of the domestic workforce; and the failure to retrain displaced workers in any meaningful way.

As Thomas Piketty has shown, in the absence of countervailing pressures, capitalism naturally gravitates towards increasing inequality. In the period between 1945 and the late 70s, Cold War competition was arguably the biggest such constraint. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been none. As the popular backlash grows increasingly irresistible, however, such a winner-takes-all regime becomes politically unsustainable.

Large sections of the population in both the US and the UK are now in revolt against their lot, as graphically illustrated by the support for Trump and Sanders in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK. This popular revolt is often described, in a somewhat denigratory and dismissive fashion, as populism. Or, as Francis Fukuyama writes in a recent excellent essay in Foreign Affairs: “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Populism is a movement against the status quo. It represents the beginnings of something new, though it is generally much clearer about what it is against than what it is for. It can be progressive or reactionary, but more usually both.

Brexit is a classic example of such populism. It has overturned a fundamental cornerstone of UK policy since the early 1970s. Though ostensibly about Europe, it was in fact about much more: a cri de coeur from those who feel they have lost out and been left behind, whose living standards have stagnated or worse since the 1980s, who feel dislocated by large-scale immigration over which they have no control and who face an increasingly insecure and casualised labour market. Their revolt has paralysed the governing elite, already claimed one prime minister, and left the latest one fumbling around in the dark looking for divine inspiration.

Brexit was the marker of a working-class revolt. Photograph: Alamy

The wave of populism marks the return of class as a central agency in politics, both in the UK and the US. This is particularly remarkable in the US. For many decades, the idea of the “working class” was marginal to American political discourse. Most Americans described themselves as middle class, a reflection of the aspirational pulse at the heart of American society. According to a Gallup poll, in 2000 only 33% of Americans called themselves working class; by 2015 the figure was 48%, almost half the population.

Brexit, too, was primarily a working-class revolt. Hitherto, on both sides of the Atlantic, the agency of class has been in retreat in the face of the emergence of a new range of identities and issues from gender and race to sexual orientation and the environment. The return of class, because of its sheer reach, has the potential, like no other issue, to redefine the political landscape.

The working class belongs to no one: its orientation, far from predetermined, is a function of politics

The re-emergence of class should not be confused with the labour movement. They are not synonymous: this is obvious in the US and increasingly the case in the UK. Indeed, over the last half-century, there has been a growing separation between the two in Britain. The re-emergence of the working class as a political voice in Britain, most notably in the Brexit vote, can best be described as an inchoate expression of resentment and protest, with only a very weak sense of belonging to the labour movement.

Indeed, Ukip has been as important – in the form of immigration and Europe – in shaping its current attitudes as the Labour party. In the United States, both Trump and Sanders have given expression to the working-class revolt, the latter almost as much as the former. The working class belongs to no one: its orientation, far from predetermined, as the left liked to think, is a function of politics.

The neoliberal era is being undermined from two directions. First, if its record of economic growth has never been particularly strong, it is now dismal. Europe is barely larger than it was on the eve of the financial crisis in 2007; the United States has done better but even its growth has been anaemic. Economists such as Larry Summers believe that the prospect for the future is most likely one ofsecular stagnation.

Worse, because the recovery has been so weak and fragile, there is a widespread belief that another financial crisis may well beckon. In other words, the neoliberal era has delivered the west back into the kind of crisis-ridden world that we last experienced in the 1930s. With this background, it is hardly surprising that a majority in the west now believe their children will be worse off than they were. Second, those who have lost out in the neoliberal era are no longer prepared to acquiesce in their fate – they are increasingly in open revolt. We are witnessing the end of the neoliberal era. It is not dead, but it is in its early death throes, just as the social-democratic era was during the 1970s.

A sure sign of the declining influence of neoliberalism is the rising chorus of intellectual voices raised against it. From the mid-70s through the 80s, the economic debate was increasingly dominated by monetarists and free marketeers. But since the western financial crisis, the centre of gravity of the intellectual debate has shifted profoundly. This is most obvious in the United States, with economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Dani Rodrik and Jeffrey Sachs becoming increasingly influential. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been a massive seller. His work and that of Tony Atkinson and Angus Deaton have pushed the question of the inequality to the top of the political agenda. In the UK, Ha-Joon Chang, for long isolated within the economics profession, has gained a following far greater than those who think economics is a branch of mathematics.

‘Virtually no one foresaw the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn’, pictured at rally in north London last week. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, some of those who were previously strong advocates of a neoliberal approach, such as Larry Summers and the Financial Times’s Martin Wolf, have become extremely critical. The wind is in the sails of the critics of neoliberalism; the neoliberals and monetarists are in retreat. In the UK, the media and political worlds are well behind the curve. Few recognise that we are at the end of an era. Old attitudes and assumptions still predominate, whether on the BBC’s Todayprogramme, in the rightwing press or the parliamentary Labour party.

Following Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour leader, virtually no one foresaw the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in the subsequent leadership election. The assumption had been more of the same, a Blairite or a halfway house like Miliband, certainly not anyone like Corbyn. But the zeitgeist had changed. The membership, especially the young who had joined the party on an unprecedented scale, wanted a complete break with New Labour. One of the reasons why the left has failed to emerge as the leader of the new mood of working-class disillusionment is that most social democratic parties became, in varying degrees, disciples of neoliberalism and uber-globalisation. The most extreme forms of this phenomenon were New Labour and the Democrats, who in the late 90s and 00s became its advance guard, personified by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, triangulation and the third way.

But as David Marquand observed in a review for the New Statesman, what is the point of a social democratic party if it doesn’t represent the less fortunate, the underprivileged and the losers? New Labour deserted those who needed them, who historically they were supposed to represent. Is it surprising that large sections have now deserted the party who deserted them? Blair, in his reincarnation as a money-obsessed consultant to a shady bunch of presidents and dictators, is a fitting testament to the demise of New Labour.

The rival contenders – Burnham, Cooper and Kendall – represented continuity. They were swept away by Corbyn, who won nearly 60% of the votes. New Labour was over, as dead as Monty Python’s parrot. Few grasped the meaning of what had happened. A Guardian leader welcomed the surge in membership and then, lo and behold, urged support for Yvette Cooper, the very antithesis of the reason for the enthusiasm. The PLP refused to accept the result and ever since has tried might and main to remove Corbyn.

Just as the Labour party took far too long to come to terms with the rise of Thatcherism and the birth of a new era at the end of the 70s, now it could not grasp that the Thatcherite paradigm, which they eventually came to embrace in the form of New Labour, had finally run its course. Labour, like everyone else, is obliged to think anew. The membership in their antipathy to New Labour turned to someone who had never accepted the latter, who was the polar opposite in almost every respect of Blair, and embodying an authenticity and decency which Blair patently did not.

Corbyn is not a product of the new times, he is a throwback to the late 70s and early 80s. That is both his strength and also his weakness. He is uncontaminated by the New Labour legacy because he has never accepted it. But nor, it would seem, does he understand the nature of the new era. The danger is that he is possessed of feet of clay in what is a highly fluid and unpredictable political environment, devoid of any certainties of almost any kind, in which Labour finds itself dangerously divided and weakened.

Labour may be in intensive care, but the condition of the Conservatives is not a great deal better. David Cameron was guilty of a huge and irresponsible miscalculation over Brexit. He was forced to resign in the most ignominious of circumstances. The party is hopelessly divided. It has no idea in which direction to move after Brexit. The Brexiters painted an optimistic picture of turning away from the declining European market and embracing the expanding markets of the world, albeit barely mentioning by name which countries it had in mind. It looks as if the new prime minister may have an anachronistic hostility towards China and a willingness to undo the good work of George Osborne. If the government turns its back on China, by far the fastest growing market in the world, where are they going to turn?

Brexit has left the country fragmented and deeply divided, with the very real prospect that Scotland might choose independence. Meanwhile, the Conservatives seem to have little understanding that the neoliberal era is in its death throes.
‘Put America first’: Donald Trump in Cleveland last month. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Dramatic as events have been in the UK, they cannot compare with those in the United States. Almost from nowhere, Donald Trump rose to capture the Republican nomination and confound virtually all the pundits and not least his own party. His message was straightforwardly anti-globalisation. He believes that the interests of the working class have been sacrificed in favour of the big corporations that have been encouraged to invest around the world and thereby deprive American workers of their jobs. Further, he argues that large-scale immigration has weakened the bargaining power of American workers and served to lower their wages.

He proposes that US corporations should be required to invest their cash reserves in the US. He believes that the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) has had the effect of exporting American jobs to Mexico. On similar grounds, he is opposed to the TPP and the TTIP. And he also accuses China of stealing American jobs, threatening to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports.

To globalisation Trump counterposes economic nationalism: “Put America first”. His appeal, above all, is to the white working class who, until Trump’s (and Bernie Sander’s) arrival on the political scene, had been ignored and largely unrepresented since the 1980s. Given that their wages have been falling for most of the last 40 years, it is extraordinary how their interests have been neglected by the political class. Increasingly, they have voted Republican, but the Republicans have long been captured by the super-rich and Wall Street, whose interests, as hyper-globalisers, have run directly counter to those of the white working class. With the arrival of Trump they finally found a representative: they won Trump the Republican nomination.

The economic nationalist argument has also been vigorously pursued by Bernie Sanders, who ran Hillary Clinton extremely close for the Democratic nomination and would probably have won but for more than 700 so-called super-delegates, who were effectively chosen by the Democratic machine and overwhelmingly supported Clinton. As in the case of the Republicans, the Democrats have long supported a neoliberal, pro-globalisation strategy, notwithstanding the concerns of its trade union base. Both the Republicans and the Democrats now find themselves deeply polarised between the pro- and anti-globalisers, an entirely new development not witnessed since the shift towards neoliberalism under Reagan almost 40 years ago.

Another plank of Trump’s nationalist appeal – “Make America great again” – is his position on foreign policy. He believes that America’s pursuit of great power status has squandered the nation’s resources. He argues that the country’s alliance system is unfair, with America bearing most of the cost and its allies contributing far too little. He points to Japan and South Korea, and Nato’s European members as prime examples.He seeks to rebalance these relationships and, failing that, to exit from them.

As a country in decline, he argues that America can no longer afford to carry this kind of financial burden. Rather than putting the world to rights, he believes the money should be invested at home, pointing to the dilapidated state of America’s infrastructure. Trump’s position represents a major critique of America as the world’s hegemon. His arguments mark a radical break with the neoliberal, hyper-globalisation ideology that has reigned since the early 1980s and with the foreign policy orthodoxy of most of the postwar period. These arguments must be taken seriously. They should not be lightly dismissed just because of their authorship. But Trump is no man of the left. He is a populist of the right. He has launched a racist and xenophobic attack on Muslims and on Mexicans. Trump’s appeal is to a white working class that feels it has been cheated by the big corporations, undermined by Hispanic immigration, and often resentful towards African-Americans who for long too many have viewed as their inferior.

A Trump America would mark a descent into authoritarianism characterised by abuse, scapegoating, discrimination, racism, arbitrariness and violence; America would become a deeply polarised and divided society. His threat to impose 45% tariffs on China, if implemented, would certainly provoke retaliation by the Chinese and herald the beginnings of a new era of protectionism.

Trump may well lose the presidential election just as Sanders failed in his bid for the Democrat nomination. But this does not mean that the forces opposed to hyper-globalisation – unrestricted immigration, TPP and TTIP, the free movement of capital and much else – will have lost the argument and are set to decline. In little more than 12 months, Trump and Sanders have transformed the nature and terms of the argument. Far from being on the wane, the arguments of the critics of hyper-globalisation are steadily gaining ground. Roughly two-thirds of Americans agree that “we should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems”. And, above all else, what will continue to drive opposition to the hyper-globalisers is inequality.

Can we really justify spending £5.5m per Olympic medal at Rio 2016

Janet Street Porter in The Independent

Winning medals in Rio certainly makes us feel good, and the sight of dedicated, super-fit young people celebrating years of hard work is absolutely inspiring and moving. But the big question must be this: are the Rio Olympics anything more than high grade TV entertainment?

Our national success has been at a large financial and, possibly, social cost. UK Sport, which decides how to allocate tax and lottery money, has a ruthless policy. Put bluntly, its remit is to focus on backing winners, to hunt out the rare people who can achieve the remarkable. This highly controversial strategy means that sports which didn’t deliver predicted results at the London Olympics in 2012 – table tennis, swimming and volleyball, for example – had their funding cut.

Two thirds of UK Sport’s money goes to specially selected 14-25 year olds – the winners of the next decade and the 2024 Olympics – and they also fund an elite group of “podium level athletes” with extra cash for living expenses and training.

This policy has brought massive success in Rio, where the UK stands second above China in the medals table, when we were ranked 36th in Atlanta just two decades ago. But the picture on the other side of the television set is far from encouraging.

Slumped on sofas all over the country, we sit glued to the screen with spreading bums and tums and atrophied leg muscles. One in four of us now resemble Neil the Sloth from the Sofaworks advert.

In spite of the government spending millions on public health campaigns, Brits do less than 30 minutes of any exercise (including walking at a normal pace) in a week. Worse, new research reveals that years spent hunched over laptops, tapping on smart phones and playing video games has resulted in a generation of young men having weaker hand grips than 30 years ago. Their muscles are starting to atrophy and shrink.

How to address this lack of motivation in our national psyche, and make exercise part of everyday life? That’s the way it is here in Sweden, where I’m on holiday (I’ve seen very few fat children).

Sport England launched a four-year strategy last May to encourage more grassroots participation in sport, but the task is daunting. The truth is that Olympic success simply doesn’t galvanise ordinary people to take a walk, go for a swim, play a game of tennis or learn to box.

We look on our gold medal winners as gorgeous pinups, who we revere and cherish, but who perform in a way we cannot relate to. They have nutritionists, wear aerodynamic clothing, and are 100 per cent driven. They are not normal shapes, their bodies have adapted to achieve maximum potential through specialised training. Laura Trott, Jason Kenny and their teammates are modern gods, not role models.

The discrepancy between the impressive achievements by Team GB and a lack of motivation in the population at large is increasing. The number of adults playing any sport has dropped since 2012. In the poorest areas like Yorkshire and Humber, 67,000 fewer people are involved in sport. In Doncaster the decline is over 13 per cent, whereas in well-heeled Oxford, it’s up 14 per cent.

Overall, more than 350,000 people have taken to their sofas and given up exercise of any kind in the four years since London 2012.

David Cameron might have given an extra £150m to fund sports in primary schools until 2020, but that sum is pitiful given the way sport has been systematically downgraded by the Department of Education over the last 10 years. Now, the amount of time children spend each week playing sports and participating in PE has dropped to one hour and 42 minutes a week – that’s 25 minutes less than 2010.

To make regular activity part of a normal mindset, you have to start in primary schools. All over the country, ageing swimming pools are being closed by councils anxious to save money on repairs. Most will be in the poorest areas. Local authority cuts have seen playing fields sold off and opening hours of existing facilities curtailed.

It’s been estimated that each medal in Rio has cost £5.5m of public funding. There are some tough questions to be asked about whether financial priorities should be re-aligned to focus on the many, rather than the few.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Creative Visualisation - Your Mind Can Keep You Well


Did you know that it is only recently that medical doctors have accepted how important the power of the mind is in influencing the immune system of the human body? Many decades passed before these men of science decided to test the proposition that the brain is involved in the optimum functioning of the different body systems. Recent research shows the undeniable connection --the link-- between mind and body, which challenged the long-held medical assumption. A new science called psychoneuroimmunology or PNI, the study of how the mind affects health and bodily functions, has come out of such research.

A psychologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Lean Achterberg, suggests that emotion may form the link between mind and immunity. “Many of the autonomic functions connected with health and disease,” she explains,” are emotionally triggered.”

Exercises which encourage relaxation and mental activities such as creative visualization, positive thinking, and guided imagery produce subtle changes in the emotions which can trigger either a positive or a negative effect on the immune system. This explains why positive imaging techniques have resulted in dramatic healings in people with very serious illnesses, including cancer.

OMNI magazine claims (February, 1989), in a cover article entitled “Mind Exercises That Boost Your Immune System”:

“As far back as the Thirties, Edmund Jacobson found that if you imagine or visualize yourself doing a particular action - say, lifting an object with your right arm - the muscles in that arm show increased electrical activity. Other scientists have found that imagining an object moving across the sky produces more eye movements than visualizing a stationary object.”

One of the most dramatic applications of imagery in coping with illness is the work of Dr. Carl Simonton, a radiation cancer specialist in Dallas, Texas. “By combining relaxation with personalized images,” reports OMNI magazine, “he has helped terminal cancer patients reduce the size of their tumors and sometimes experience complete remission of the disease.”

Many of his patients have benefited from this technique. It simply shows how positive visualization can help alleviate - if not totally cure - various diseases including systemic lupus erythomatosus, migraine, chronic back pain, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure, hyper-acidity, etc.

However, individual differences have to be taken into consideration when discussing each patient’s progress. It’s understandable that individuals have varying abilities to visualize or create mental images clearly; some people will benefit more from positive-imagery techniques than others

Nevertheless, if visualization can help people overcome diseases, it could possibly help healthy individuals keep their immune system in top shape. Says OMNI magazine: “Practicing daily positive-imaging techniques may, like a balanced diet and physical exercise routine, tip the scales of health toward wellness.”

The Simonton process of visualization for cancer

Dr. Carl Simonton, a radiation cancer specialist, and his wife, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, a psychotherapist and counselor specializing in cancer patients, have developed a special visualization or imaging technique for the treatment of cancer which is now popularly known as the Simonton process. Ridiculed at first by the medical profession, the Simonton process is now being used in at least five hospitals across the United States to fight cancer.

The technique itself is the height of simplicity and utilizes the tremendous powers of the mind, specifically its faculty for visualization and imagination, to control cancer. First, the patient is shown what a normal healthy cell looks like. Next, he is asked to imagine a battle going on between the cancer cell and the normal cell. He is asked to visualize a concrete image that will represent the cancer cell and another image of the normal cell. Then he is asked to see the normal cell winning the battle against the cancer cell.

One youngster represented the normal cell as the video game character Pacman and the cancer cell as the “ghosts” (enemies of Pacman), and then he saw Pacman eating up the ghosts until they were all gone.

A housewife saw her cancer cell as dirt and the normal cell as a vacuum cleaner. She visualized the vacuum cleaner swallowing up all the dirt until everything was smooth and clean.

Patients are asked to do this type of visualization three times a day for 15 minutes each time. And the results of the initial experiments in visualization to cure cancer were nothing short of miraculous. Of course, being medical practitioners, Dr. Simonton and his psychologist wife were aware of the placebo effect and spontaneous remission of illness. As long as they were getting good results with the technique, it didn’t seem to matter whether it was placebo or spontaneous remission.

The Simontons also noticed that those who got cured had a distinct personality. They all had a strong will to live and did everything to get well. Those who didn’t succeed had resigned themselves to their fate.

While the Simontons were exploring the motivation of cancer patients, they were also looking into two interesting areas of research at that time: biofeedback and the surveillance theory. Both areas had something to do with the influence of the mind over body processes. Stephanie Simonton explains in her book The Healing Family:

In biofeedback training, an individual is hooked up to a device that feeds back information on his physiological processes. A patient with tachycardia, an irregular heartbeat, might be hooked up to an oscilloscope, which will give a constant visual readout of the heartbeat. The patient watches the monitor while attempting to relax…when he succeeds in slowing his heartbeat through his thinking, he is rewarded immediately by seeing that fact on visual display.

The surveillance theory holds that the immune system does in fact produce ‘killer cells’ which seek out and destroy stray cancer cells many times in our lives, and it is when this system breaks down, that the disease can take hold. When most patients are diagnosed with cancer, surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy are used to destroy as much of the tumor as possible. But once the cancer is reduced, we wondered if the immune system could be reactivated to seek out and destroy the remaining cancer cells.

The Simontons reasoned that since people can learn how to influence their blood flow and heart rate by using their minds, they could also learn to influence their immune system. Later research proved their approach to be valid.

For instance, according to the Time-Life Book The Power of Healing, “chronic stress causes the brain to release into the body a host of hormones that are potent inhibitors of the immune system”. “This may explain why people experience increased rates of infection, cancer, arthritis, and many other ailments after losing a spouse.” Dr. R.W. Berthop and his associates in Australia found that blood samples of bereaved individuals showed a much lower level of lymphocyte activity than was present in the control group’s samples. Lymphocytes are a variety of white blood cells consisting of T cells and B cells, both critical to the action of the immune system. T cells directly attack disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and toxins, and regulate the other parts of the immune system. B cells produce antibodies, which neutralize invaders or mark them for destruction by other agents of the immune system.

The Power of Healing concludes: “The idea that there is a mental element to healing has gained acceptance within the medical establishment in recent years. Many physicians who once discounted the mind’s ability to influence healing are now reconsidering, in the light of new scientific evidence. All these have led some physicians and medical institutions toward a more holistic approach, to treating the body and mind as a unit rather than as two distinct entities. Inherent in this philosophy is the belief that patients must be active participants in the treatment of their illnesses.

Using visualization for minor ailments

Today, many scientific breakthroughs have proven that minor infections and viruses may be healed, or at least lessened in severity by employing mental techniques similar to those used by cancer patients who have successfully shrunk tumors through positive imaging or visualization.

The theory is that creative visualization can create the same physiological changes in the body that a real experience can. For example, if you imagine squeezing a lemon into you mouth, you will most likely salivate, the same way as when a real lemon is actually being squeezed into your mouth. Einstein once declared that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

In the 1985 World Conference on Imaging, reports OMNI magazine (February 1989), registered nurse Carol Fajoni observed that “people who used imagery techniques to heal wounds recovered more quickly than those who did not. In workshops, the same technique has been used by individuals suffering from colds with similar results.” The process has been hailed as a positive breakthrough and is currently being used by more enlightened doctors, according to OMNI magazine.

Visualize that part of your body which is causing the problem. Then erase the negative image and instead picture that organ or part to be healthy. Let's say you have a sinus infection. Just picture your sinus passageways and cavities as beginning to unclog. Or if you have a kidney disorder, imagine a sick-looking kidney metamorphose into a healthier one.

“In trying to envision yourself healthy, you need not view realistic representations of the ailing body part. Instead, imagine a virus as tiny spots on a blackboard that need erasing. Imagine yourself building new, healthy cells or sending cleaning blood to an unhealthy organ or area.”

“If you have a headache, picture your brain as a rough, bumpy road that needs smoothing and proceed to smooth it out. The point is to focus on the area you believe is causing you to feel sick, and to concentrate on visualizing or imaging it to be well. The more clearly and vividly you can do this, the more effective the technique becomes.”

Another method for banishing pain was developed by Russian memory expert, Solomon V. Sherehevskii, as reported by Russian psychologist Professor Luria. To banish pain, such as a headache, Sherehevskii would visualize the pain as having an actual shape, mass and color. Then, when he had a “tangible” image of the pain in his mind, he would visualize or imagine this concrete picture slowly becoming smaller and smaller until it disappeared from his mental vision. The real pain disappears with it. Others have modified this same technique and suggest that you imagine a big bird or eagle taking the concrete image of the pain away. As it flies over the horizon, see it becoming smaller until it disappears from your view. The actual pain will disappear with it.

Of course, the effectiveness of this imaging technique depends on the strength of your desire to improve your health and your ability to visualize well. But there is no harm in trying it, because unlike drugs, creative visualization has no side effects.

Practice any of these visualization techniques three times a day for one week and observe your health improve.