Spectating The Spectator: Trading places

Image source: Pindex

The Spectator’s 10th August, 2019 edition of The Spectator opened up with a piece called Trading places.

The article considers the argument that the UK should look positively on a trade deal with America in place of the trade deal which we already have with the EU.

“The reality is that free trade is almost always on balance a good thing, regardless of which country is it conducted with. That said, there will always be compromises to be made. Vested interests to be tackled. Product standards have to be reviewed…Good trade deals can even destroy native industries – but the overall effect of global trade is to boost the creation of wealth…The important thing is to make the right concessions.”

The U.K already has these concessions with the European Union but with the extra added benefit that, as a democracy, the United Kingdom also has a vote and therefore a voice in the passing of European law. The author of this piece is essentially trying to argue for a position that would make the UK worse off.

“Free trade with the US is opposed by some Remainers for no better reason than because it is advocated by Leavers.”

The author is clearly a hypocrite. What kind of bias does it take to argue that getting away from our closest allies (culturally and by locality) and toward the US would be preferential over the kind of deal we already have? To say that Remainers oppose a deal with America for no other reason than Leavers want it seems exactly what this piece is arguing…only the other way.

‘…the NHS has always outsourced some of its services – which last year accounted for 7 per cent of its budget. There is no reason why US providers should not be allowed to compete for this work on equal terms with British companies.”

That was not the line towed by Leave supporting parties and groups throughout the 2016 referendum and there is also solid reasoning why the US should not be competing on the same terms with British companies: American health care standards are lower than the UK’s. Not only are American health care standards lower, the introduction of more private interests within the NHS goes against public polling which shows that people want private companies kept the at the biggest possible distance from health care system.

The NHS is not the author’s only area of attack. On GM foods:
‘No one can point to ill-effects, and for good reason: GM foods are subject to far more scrutiny than non-GM foods.’

The reason for the GM foods being held to higher scrutiny is because…well…they are genetically modified. A crop created as opposed to one grown is no doubt going to undergo far more scrutiny because it has to pass myriad tests that would decide whether said food was safe for consumption.

The simple truth is that America uses GM crops as it helps mass production which ultimately makes the crop cheaper to make. European food standards are among the highest in the world whilst America have been time and again castigated for packing out their foods with copious amounts of highly addictive and highly fattening corn-syrup.

‘Then there is the practice of washing chicken in chlorine, which has been continuously cited as a reason why we shouldn’t do a trade deal with the US. Even the EU, when it banned chlorine-washed chicken in 1997, came to the conclusion that the practice was perfectly acceptable from a food-standard point of view – but banned it anyway on the flimsy pretext that it might provide farmers with a sense of false security. A better explanation is that it spied the opportunity to snuff out US competition for less efficient European producers.’

The pretext was far from “flimsy”. For instance, the European Commission decided that using chlorine to wash chicken dramatically lowered standards because it allowed farmers to get away with providing poor conditions. As highlighted by Ben Chapman writing for the Independent (Sunday 3 March, 2019) – “Advocates of this approach” (not washing chicken in chlorine) “say that it leads to higher standards of hygiene and animal welfare because farmers must take care at each stage of the process rather than relying on a chemical bath to kill any harmful pathogens after animals are slaughtered.”

The idea that European farms are supposedly “less efficient” is exactly because European standards are higher and do not lower themselves to mass-production quality levels, which results in questionable practices like washing chicken in chlorine. The author also argues that the EU was being protectionist in its endeavours, something which many conservative thinkers is one of the best outcomes of Donald Trump’s America. When the EU tries to put EU farmers and food safety levels first, it is chastised.

What it comes down to is facts. Is chlorine washed chicken okay to eat? Looking back on Ben Chapman’s piece for the Independent, the answer is quite clear.

Are we so loathing of the European Union that we would opt for subservience to the US and lower not only our standards but our global standing?

Rail fares hit environment

Rail Fares

Rail fares are due to rise by 2.8% as of January, 2019, hitting not only people’s pockets, but the environment as well.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) protested at key locations yesterday in response to the increase in fares which come at a time of slowing inflation. For example:

2017

Rate of inflation: 3.1%
Rail fare increase of 3.3%

2018

Rate of inflation: 2.48%
Rail fare increase of 2.8%

2019

Rate of inflation in 2019: 1.84% (predicted)
Rail fare increase: a 2.8% rail hike due in 2020

The cost of rail travel is the highest in Europe and it is only getting worse. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has stated that the “cost of train travel had increased by twice as much as wages over the past decade.” Since 2009, wages have grown by 23% whereas the overall cost of train travel has gone up by 46%.

The changes will add more than £100 to many annual season tickets.

There are a few worrying trends in this data. The first is that the rate of inflation over the past years has been sluggish due to uncertainty over Brexit. The second is that prices are exceeding the rise of inflation, therefore putting more people either further out of pocket or else unable to use such methods of transport as stated by Bruce Williamson from campaign group Railfuture that travellers “will either find another job or another form of transport.”

The problem is that other modes of transport are fossil-fuel intensive meaning raising many concerns that greener methods of transport are being unfairly overpriced making them unacceptable for many members of the public.

With many annual tickets touching four figure sums, cars and buses might very well become the next alternative and whilst this could result in an increase in car-sharing schemes, the amount of cars that would be put on Britain’s, adding to the already congested road transport network, is incalculable.

The End of GDP?

‘The GDP was contrived in a period of deep crisis and provided an answer to the great challenges of the 1930’s. As we face our own crises of unemployment, depression, and climate change, we, too, will have to search for a new figure. What we need is a “dashboard” complete with an array of indicators to track the things that make life worthwhile – money and growth, obviously, but also community service, jobs, knowledge, social cohesion. And, of course, the scarcest good of all: time.’

– Rutger Bregman – Utopia For Realists

One of the problems with GDP is that it does try to combine all of human welfare into one number, and fails…

– Annie Quick

Social scientists often recommend that measures of subjective well-being should augment the usual measures of economic prosperity, such as GDP per capita.’

Esteban Ortiz-Ospina & Max Roser

The GDP model was invented in the inter-war years before being properly adopted in 1941 as a means to understand how much economy activity was taking place in order to determine what resources could be allocated for the war effort.

Since then GDP has become a globally recognised measure of progress and prowess. With a high GDP should come a better standard of living, the general consensus being that hard work pays off.

With polarisation between the rich and the working and welfare “classes” widening, with fiscal inequality rising and with social care, health and welfare systems being drastically underfunded. The trickle-down economic system – the system by which wealth is created in the upper echelons and eventually trickles down to smaller businesses whilst providing welfare support through taxes for those in need – has been shown to be more or less fanciful thinking than a reliable model.

The trickle-down economic model relies on the philanthropic and altruistic endeavours of wealthy individuals and organisations, companies abstaining from using automation and, most importantly, everyone paying the correct amount of taxes and not squirrelling their money away in off-shore tax havens.

Recent research suggests that off-shore tax havens are hiding half of the world’s money.

If the trickle-down model theory was put into practice, the United States, China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom (the top 5 strongest economies) would not be experiencing such vast levels of criminality, an abundance of mental health issues, homelessness, shortages of social care for the elderly, strangled social-mobility and ever-increasing levels of “working poor.”

Perhaps an answer to the failings of the GDP measuring system and to the trickle-down economic model; last week New Zealand made public that they were going to replace the GDP model with a new “welfare budget” in which the plan is to ‘prioritise well-being over economic growth.’

The change was announced last week by Prime Minister Jacinda Arden as part of her reformist agenda. Jacinda said: ‘Today we have laid the foundation for not just one wellbeing budget, but a different approach for government decision-making altogether.’

The Welfare Budget will focus on 5 key areas:

– Improving mental health
– Reducing child poverty
– Supporting indigenous people
– Transitioning to a low emissions economy
– Thriving in a digital age

There has been opposition to the welfare budget by (none other than) opposition parties who claim that the budget will starve essential services, including healthcare, education and housing. It has also been pointed out that the welfare budget has come at a difficult time, as the trade crisis has worsened between the United States and China – New Zealand’s biggest trading partner. Critics have also pointed out that the N.Z government are also putting more money into defence and army departments which seems to be at odds with the welfare budget.

Amy Adams of the opposition National Party had this to say about the Welfare Budget: ‘Apparently it’s about measuring your sun and moon feelings, improve you locus of control, and understanding your ability to be yourself…I have no idea what that means and, outside the Wellington bureaucracy, I’m not sure anyone does.’

A particularly derogatory statement but not one without reason. After all the welfare budget moves from providing immediately available and quantifiable results to a long-term approach at battling NZ’s dominating issues. It is a fact that budgets cannot provide cash injections of equal value into every aspect of life, but the five prioritised areas outlined above have been highlighted as New Zealand’s most pressing problems.

However, upon closer inspection, the welfare budget is arguably a more comprehensive system to improving New Zealand’s economy than through small, intermediary solutions.

20% of New Zealand’s population struggle with mental health issues, a figure not that dissimilar from the U.K. Countless studies show that preventative measures, or early-intervention, would help save billions through both easing the pressure on reactive healthcare services and also on businesses. Globally, mental health issues are the leading cause of work days missed.

By approaching and dealing with mental health issues in the early stages pressure would be alleviated from New Zealand’s health service (on which they currently spend 5% of GDP or $12 billion on acute mental health services) and businesses would benefit by avoiding the costly disruption of absenteeism and lost productivity.

The same can be said for reducing children’s poverty. By providing children with means, with education and with access to services, the welfare budget may break the poverty cycle thus easing welfare costs in subsequent generations and, more importantly, improving the lives of New Zealanders.

Whilst certain branches of capitalists might consider the idea of properly funding the welfare state “fluffy”, the truth is that the new welfare system would do more to combat the inequalities faced by New Zealanders than relying on the aforementioned trickle-down system which does very little to tackle social issues head on. When talking on podcast ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, senior civil servant and economist Gus O’Donnell said; ‘People using GDP as a measure of how well you’re doing really do need to kind of grow up…’

New Zealand’s plan to move to a low-carbon economy is not revolutionary. It is, if anything, well overdue. Green energy economic models have been put forward for decades in pursuit of a sustainable future and it does not take a great deal of insight to see that the green energy market is being gripped by nations and companies alike.

Wind-farms, electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cells, hydrofoil technology, wind-sail and of course solar power are shaping domestic and business infrastructure and green energy design, production and maintenance will likely take the place of oil production and distribution as the dominating global market force.

In an age of nanotechnology, biotechnology and gigafactories, it is nothing short of embarrassing that we are still using fossil fuels to power our cars and aeroplanes.

So no, New Zealand is not doing anything revolutionary, it is simply taking a step in the right direction. When it comes to the future of the planet, the battle to fight rising temperatures, rising sea-levels, rising levels of pollution and particulates, the only people who would see this move as in any way reductionist behaviour would be those who have interest in fossil-fuel companies or else those economists who fail to see the necessity and profitability of a green energy market.

The long-standing argument that the move to green energy would lead to a loss of jobs is demonstrably true because, yes, of course it would lead to a loss of jobs, within that sector. However, within the U.S, solar power alone employs more people than oil, coal and gas combined. By offering to teach new skill sets or by altering knowledge to suit the new green energy market, job losses would be minimal and the production of new jobs would far outweigh any interruption during the changeover.

In regards to thriving in the digital age, Yuval Noah Harari speaks widely of the issues that humankind will face in the rise of the digital world. From recognising and combating ‘fake news’, the rise of automation, the change from a product-driven economy to a service-driven economy to the proliferation of biotech (the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes) and information technology. In the face of such vast and complicated change, any nation, business and individual would do well to prepare themselves.

By making “thriving in a digital age” an objective of the welfare budget, New Zealand is taking a step toward future-proofing their economy. Digital education has the potential to increase business reach and maybe even divert some of the entrepreneurial talent from places like Silicon Valley. There is also the benefit of teaching people how to spot fake news articles, recognising malware, and safeguarding children from malicious intent/content.

Social media has the ability to change the political landscape. The influence of Russian bots on twitter and facebook throughout the referendum of 2016 to leave the European Union and throughout the presidential campaign of the same year cannot be overlooked or underestimated. MP Bob Seely noted in his paper put before parliament; Russian Federation activity in the UK and globally, the danger of Russian interference within political processes throughout the world. China is also doing the same.

Having protection against this kind of intervention (digital warfare?) is absolutely key in a world where 2.1 billion people use facebook or facebook owned services every day.

There has been no hiding the fact that the welfare budget is an attempt to stymy the progress of populism within New Zealand.

Changing from the GDP to a more representative model (or from objective well-being to subjective well-being) has the ability to continue allowing nations to monitor their progress, but also take into account sustainable and improved living. As said by Christoph Schumacher; ‘GDP is a good measure of economic growth but doesn’t provide us with any information about the quality of the economic activity or the well-being of the people.’

The extra benefit of the welfare budget is that it means politicians can no longer use the GDP as evidence that all is well. It is the difference between objective well-being and subjective well-being.

Nobel Prize winning economist and inventor of the GDP system, Simon Kuznets: ‘The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.’

The creation of wealth is integral to our way of life but the problem with only focusing on the GDP model is that it does not provide solutions long-standing problems. At least, not in decent time. Trickle-down economics has, until the date of writing this piece, never officially worked. So the hell with it. Why not try something new?

Donald Trump arrives in the U.K in the midst of controversy

Donald Trump was in U.K airspace when he tweeted about Mayor of London Sadiq Khan:

Before President Trump landed, LBC’s Rachael Venables spoke to Jeremy Hunt (who was ready at Stansted to greet the president) regarding the tweets. Jeremy Hunt brushed off the behaviour with standard there-or-thereabouts remarks in a bid for democracy. Hunt sided with Trump stating that: “He” (Trump) “has been shown great discourtesy.”

Donald Trump has previously endorsed Boris Johnson for Prime Minister and Nigel Farage to lead Brexit and has recently offered platitudes on the Queens grand-daughter in-law, Meghan Merkel. Despite this, Trump is due to meet Prime Minister Theresa May and have a reception at Buckingham Palace.

Anthropogenic Extinction & Plastic

Last week scientists provided the starkest report yet warning of a man-made extinction level event.

Also known as Anthropogenic or Holocene extinction, the findings give evidence that we are going to see the eradication of 1m species which will have catastrophic effects on food chains and on levels of biodiversity needed to sustain our environment.

From the images we see on our television screens and social media news feeds of animals suffocated by plastic to the air pollution monitoring systems accessible online, we can see almost in real-time the devastating impact that we are having on the planet.

We are not only polluting the atmosphere through the overuse of fossil-fuel-rich sources but we are reducing ground level carbon sinks such as peat bogs and rainforests as cut down trees for commercial purposes, to build roads and for property development. Our effects on the planet are not slight, but monumental in their brevity as reported by Camilla Cavendish in The Financial Times: “Three quarters of the land, two thirds of our oceans and 85% of wetlands have already been altered or lost.”

Despite this information there is not enough being done to combat climate change. In certain areas of society climate change is ignored or described as a “hoax.” Donald Trump has time and again shooed the idea of climate change as a threat by claiming that there is evidence on both sides of the argument or else citing jobs as a reason to ignore climate change action.

The same was recently reiterated by Nigel Farage during an interview with Andrew Marr in which Nigel Farage claimed that he would not pursue climate action because of the loss of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs. This statement either highlights the lack of information that Nigel Farage is privy to regarding the vast scale of employment levels that would be achieved through a green energy market, Nigel’s willingness to overlook the signs of looming devastation in a bid to appeal to fossil-fuel companies like his friend Donald Trump, or perhaps just trying to appeal to the older voters of the U.K who remember with fondness the days of coal mining and oil extraction.

We don’t have the time to entertain regressive energy politics when we are seeing the destruction of 1/8th of the species that inhabit and contribute to our planet’s ecosystem.
Labour have recently announced that (if they were in power) they would D-list companies that do not follow strict environmental procedures. This at least provides incentive to work in a cleaner and more environmental way were Labour not facing embarrassing losses through both local elections and through the upcoming European elections.

Another worrying piece of information was put forward yesterday by television icon and environmentalist, David Attenborough: plastic pollution kills up to 1m people a year in developing countries. The awareness of environmental issues has skyrocketed, especially in the last year, but there is still little being done about it, predominantly by corporations whose products are found floating in waters the world over. While people recycle and do their best to limit water usage and take part in local clean-up operations, there needs to be a movement by corporations to become plastic free.

There are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently littering the oceans, as mentioned by the The Ocean Cleanup, an Dutch organisation currently leading the world’s largest ocean plastic removal scheme. Corporations and citizens need to work together to come up with innovative new ways to distribute products whilst eliminating plastics. At present, immediate convenience seems to trump full-scale catastrophe.

Trump and the Environment

Image courtesy of AllVector

President Donald J. Trump is a controversial figure. He faces questions about possible collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, fraud and money laundering. We know for certain that he paid off Stormy Daniels. Bank account transactions and testimony from Trump’s previous confidante are proof to that effect.

The most dangerous aspect of Donald Trump’s presidential cabinet, however, is the absolute refusal to believe that climate change is a danger. Or, in some cases, is even happening.

As written by Simon Johnson in the i newspaper:

“Just 24 hours after the United Nations warned that a million species were at risk from environmentap degradation by humans, the United States has refused to sign an agreement on protecting the Arctic.

“Diplomats said the US objected to wording in the deal that stated climate change was a serious threat to the Arctic. The Trump administration has consistently downplayed or even denied climate change.”

The reason for America’s choice is clear; the melting Arctic ice holds a potential 13% of the planet’s untapped oil.

The Trump Whitehouse is overseeing the abolishment of scientific findings and irrefutable fact. Essentially ignoring common sense.

That being said, the world must pick up the slack in the green energy market. Whilst America tinkles with fossil fuels and sits firmly in a residual industrial phase, a new global player can take the leading position of innovative change.

We can only hope that the recent predictions of a decline in fossil fuels within the next five years is accurate.

Going Green (er)

The photo may not look like much but this is a big achievement. Only two days ago these peas were a third smaller and their vines are now clinging tightly to the trellis. That’s life right there.

When I was younger I tried to go vegetarian. I was studying at the time and the lack of meat sent my energy levels through the floor. This later turned out to be because my diet as a not-very-well-off-sudent was pretty shocking. Predominantly bread, cheese, beans and sausages. Yup.

I read an article recently that one of the most effective ways to combat climate change was to plant more trees and increase green spaces. So growing my own vegetables is a two bird with one stone kind of deal. It will help me go veggie and I can do my bit in going a little greener.

All you conservationists and die hard environmentalists can rest assured by the next half of my plan which is to plant more trees in my local area!

I will let you know how that goes.