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Friday, December 27, 2013

British Weather and the RMT

Last week my wife traveled by national rail to visit her mother. There was nothing unusual in that. As she waited mid morning for the train to move away from the station the announcer advised all passengers “to be careful in this inclement weather as all surfaces may be slippery in the wet conditions.”  The cloud cover was patchy and sunny, it was a perfect winter day in sunny England and the rain held off until the evening.

Overseas travelers, particularly those who are used to trains leaving on time are often surprised by the penchant that we Britons have for stoically accepting the pathetic excuses rolled out by train operators, almost daily, for the incessant delays and poor quality service, which over the decades has seen year on year price increases that are usually well above the rate of inflation.  We have become oblivious to the contemptuous disregard that both train companies and their staff have for the traveling public.

It defies logic that private travel operators who enjoy monopoly conditions as well as the protection of the government (through an iniquitous system of state subsidies) can be so completely contemptuous towards the public that finances its existence.  And yet it is clear that the national rail system (and that includes the London Underground network) prioritize themselves in order of the following importance:  first comes the generous Staff and Executive Pay (and benefits) and then Company Profits. At no time does the British public figure in benefit calculations.

If we take the police as an example of public virtue as opposed to transportation greed, the police are classified as an essential public service. They do not strike (or cannot strike) and on dates of national significance (such as football tournaments and national holidays) they are drafted in from surrounding districts in order to safeguard the peace.

Contrast this with the National Rail system and on days of sporting interest or holidays the rail companies will find every conceivable excuse to fleece the traveling public – those that actually work will receive double pay, triple pay, time off in lieu, bonuses – the list goes on. It is extraordinary.  Of course they deserve a living wage – a better than living wage, but for years they have extorted with malice and inexhaustible amounts of greed enormous sums from the pockets of the public.

Bob Crow, since early in 2002 general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) once justified this greed by reference to Bankers pay.  Over the Christmas period London Underground appeared to be scheduling a regular service, but the Overground (a separate company) reported that it would not be operating any services at all due to the need to ‘carry out essential maintenance work.’ And National Rail companies reported (two weeks prior to Xmas) that due to severe weather conditions they would be cancelling services on entire routes during the Xmas holiday period.

What must be appreciated is that here in Britain our weather is overwhelmingly middling.  We do not suffer from extremes of hot or cold; strong winds are rare and flooding, is an annual occurrence caused by successive governments’ commitment to locating housing projects on flood plains.  So we rely on the BBC weather center for our very survival (or so it seems).  And they are barely competent.  At the start of this current winter season the Weather Service warned us all to expect three months of arctic conditions. All of November 2013 and most of December 2013 the country was unseasonably warm, occasionally chilly but rarely freezing.

Why mention the weather? Because trains are frequently delayed due to a) the wrong kind of snow falling on the tracks, b) leaves on the track and my personal favorite is c) the wrong kind of rain on the track.

And for the last week the weather center has been warning us to expect gales, high winds and torrential rains. The obvious point of all this is that in the build up to Christmas - New Year, National Rail employees enjoy a relaxing, extended holiday at our expense and do not provide the service they are overpaid to provide.

We were warned to expect extensive delays to our travel plans and offered advice on when to travel, when to delay our travel plans and when to bring them forward to accommodate the severe weather conditions.

The national rail companies warned us in the run-up to Christmas of massive service cancellations.  We cannot successfully predict our national weather 24 hours in advance but the rail companies were looking forward to their extended holiday break with their excuses aired nationally.

On the 23rd of December, having already postponed our travel plans on National Rail advice we were uncertain if we would be able to travel. Almost all trains had already been cancelled. Dire weather warnings juxtaposed almost clear blue skies.  We caught our usual train.  It became overcast, it was a bit chilly, and it even rained, lightly at one point in our journey.

The reality is that a conspiracy seems to exist between the government, private train operators and the RMT.  They fleece the traveling public and they display open contempt for the people they are meant to serve.  With tourism bringing around 30 million overseas visitors to Britain each year and London recognized as a global financial center nothing must be done to damage our reputation. In fact it was recently announced that Britain would spend 47 billion pounds on a fast rail system connecting the English North to London i.e. 78 Billion US dollars or 56 Billion Euros.

How will ‘the workers’ benefit from this limited service? No one will ask the obvious questions of who will and how will peace be guaranteed.  But it is the people into whose pocket the government will reach in order to pay for this massively expensive project.

When I first arrived in London all weekend travel by public transport was cheaper because all regular maintenance work took place on weekends (and as a consequence the service was inferior).  This arrangement worked.  The public received a tangible benefit for being inconvenienced. Today’s British travel is very expensive, inefficient, unreliable and untrustworthy.  It benefits shareholders and rail company employees but it benefits the traveling public only tangentially.

If we the public, are powerless to enforce good governance and fair pricing in the operation of the rail companies and the management of their employees, and if the state refuses to intervene on our behalf then we must consider that they do not serve the public as is their mandate.  The definition of a criminal conspiracy is:  “An agreement between two or more persons (or entities) to commit a crime”.  The rail companies, the RMT and the government fit that description.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The American Studies Association and Fascism

The American Studies Association or ASA approved a boycott of Israel and NOW we are concerned that these bigots will influence others by their eliminationist agenda.  I read an excellent piece by Peter Beinart, the bĂȘte noir of American Jewish literary circles and it is really well written as one would expect from him. In it he deconstructs the hypocrisy of the politically dubious ASA and what he refers to as its ‘morally myopic’ agenda in denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.

What is the controversy all about? Simply put, the ASA is a small association of American professors who teach a discipline that is called “American History.” On Monday 16th December they voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities. They did not vote to boycott any other country nor would they. Curtis Marez, chief gauleiter and association president did respond to criticism of their particularistic approach to Israel by limply telling the New York Times “one has to start somewhere.” But while I am not a betting man I would lay very long odds on the chance that the ASA will boycott any time in the foreseeable future any Muslim country, or for that matter, China, Russia or Venezuela.

The issue that the left has with Israel has been crystallizing over many years. The Left is not a hegemonic faith group – so to ascribe to them a universal belief system would be as bigoted as is the ASA. But the characteristic prejudice of the purist is a stain that many would publicly deny but privately wear with pride.  Here are the articles of faith:

  1. All Jews are Western.
  2. Following on from the crime of being Western, all Jews are colonizers and imperialists.
  3. Similarly racist is the contention that all Jews are white skinned.
  4. All Jews are middle-class.  Therefore they are the timeless enemy of the workers. This is justified by education and ‘cultural inclination.’

We have brought the problem onto ourselves and not because we have been insufficiently critical of Israel or ourselves as Jews. God knows that we are the most intellectually bellicose, argumentative and too often obnoxious know-alls on the planet.  Our group identity is based on us being a caring and therefore hyper-expressive, thinking people. But because we are not a hegemonic, a missionary faith, we do not silence our internal critics and by allowing a thousand flowers to blossom we are far too often not just at odds with ourselves but in open warfare against each other.  A person who is born of parents who profess a Jewish ‘identity’ who in turn professes a similar ‘identity’ but only in order to use this spurious distinctiveness to attack Jews is a too common intellectual instrument of our enemies.  Jews who use this weapon do so as racists, far too eager to gain acceptance from people they fear will never truly accept them as equals.

The final characteristic of this ‘leftist’ group is that they are fascists.  No matter what proof you provide in contradistinction to the four articles of faith to which I refer above, they will never accept the validity of your arguments because they adhere to formal fallacies or if you wish, fallacy by association.

Because Jews (those that do not agree with them in absolute terms) cannot be anything but as they see them (or us) we have no right to disagree with them and therefore any argument we put forward that contradicts them must be ipso facto, wrong.

Under these circumstances the only remedy is to use identical stratagems.

What do people like Mister Marez fear? It is oblivion. Money is what drives them – lots of it. The louder they are, the more well known they become – the greater their status, the bigger the wad of cash they can claw from the bodies that employ them. There is a balance – academic freedom is not about truth but about what we can ‘get away with saying.’   The professional political racist knows his audience.  Mr. Marez will not be attacking Afro Americans or Latinos nor will he be open to discussion on Chinese or Muslim crimes against humanity. He will certainly hold his tongue and look the other way when the right kind of bigots visits UC San Diego.  Student numbers are directly proportionate to the influence and wealth of the institutions themselves. So discouraging student numbers by attacking the group to which they belong would be an unwise strategy.

Selective morality is unusual neither in nations nor in their universities. Deceit in academia is certainly nothing new.  Self –justification for taking an amoral or actively immoral stand is always easier if we enjoy the support of our fellow academics.  When Iraq was torturing and slaughtering Shiites by the tens of thousand “the Left” kept silent because the anti-war movement deemed resolution of the conflict to be an expression of Western imperialism and therefore, “the Left” would not tolerate any discussion.  Humanitarian concern was met with violent opposition.

“The Left” is morally indigent, viewing any concept of morality as governed by purpose and result.  By this reasoning the “oppressed” can do no wrong and the “oppressor” can do no right.  If morality is an instrument of politics then terms are defined not by ethics but by ideology – concepts of morality become not just time specific but also location and community dependent.  Under these conditions the Law is at best a guide and at worst, a conceit.

Peter Beinart summed up the issue with perfect precision when he stated that the issue is “Not that the ASA is practicing double standards and not even that it’s boycotting academics, but that it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.”

And we should be concerned because outliers create unease but little else, until that is, they build a momentum dictated by fashion.   Hitler did not succeed because all Germans were genocidal racists but because a small and ideologically committed group was able to convince the rest that their way was acceptable; that violence and murder was alright.  And academia actively and enthusiastically collaborated in this program because in it, they saw the benefit to themselves.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Winter Deaths and Economic Myopia

A headline from ‘Metro’ 22nd November 2013 reads: “How winter kills more people in Britain than in -30C Sweden” and “There were 25,535 ‘excess winter deaths’ – people who died as a direct result of the cold – in Britain in 2011-12 compared with 3,385 in Sweden, it was claimed.”  Once we take into account the differing population sizes the excess winter deaths accounted for 4.61% of all fatalities in Britain compared to 3.76% in Sweden.

Sweden suffers far more from what is designated as ‘severe’ weather than does Britain. It has up to 120 days per year of snow lying on the ground (in London it is less than 5) and the temperature can fall to as low as minus 53 degrees Celsius.  In the UK the lowest temperature ever recorded was minus 27 degrees Celsius.

In 2012-13 the number of people who died due to the freezing conditions rose to 31,100. Most of those unnecessary fatalities were over 75 years of age (82%) and most of those fatalities were women.

It isn’t just energy inefficiency or sub standard accommodation that is at issue here. The attitude in Britain is that energy companies are entitled to make a profit even when, as monopolies, they enjoy protection from competition.  This state protectionism encourages contempt for the consumer and creates an abusive relationship with the public.
Government exploits the poor and the middle classes through its policies and then is coerced by fear of instability to subsidise the marginalised consumer.

People are unable to borrow from banks to purchase property and rents are too high for most workers.  This creates a situation in which government has to intervene to subsidise housing.  The banks profit from a subsidised property market.  The banks enter into a minimum risk relationship with the state to subsidise rental housing and keeps the price of home ownership artificially inflated. The rental market profits the banks that provide the loans to the well off to purchase their rental portfolio while the government controls the spigot of funds available for that housing.  The poor then have to be housed in rental accommodation they will never be able to afford to buy.

Many people have insufficient funds to keep their homes warm in the winter time. Remember that statistic.  The old people don’t complain, they just die - 31,100 people died from cold – the number of people who suffer in the winter (but survive) will be many times greater.

In Britain de-nationalisation was supposed to create competition and efficiency but the imperious attitude plaguing the larger corporations instead protects the economic behemoth.  Banking and Energy are the twin establishment beasts. We want to keep Britain ‘British’ at least in terms of our economic independence but true competition would open up the market place to hundreds of banks and dozens of energy companies. This would reduce costs and yes, it would save lives.  Energy companies would have to reduce their prices and take risks to survive. In Britain today they have no need to do either.

The ‘big six energy suppliers’ refers to Britain's largest energy companies.  According to Wikipedia they supply gas and electricity to over 50 million homes and businesses in the UK and they control 96% of the energy market. Similarly, the retail and commercial banking markets are dominated by only five banks.

Economic and financial resilience is the key to weathering any downturn in the economy.  But the protected juggernauts have no incentive to keep the cost to consumers low or to take any risks with their low value consumer customers and if the government bails them out in the bad times it encourages their recklessness in their high value commercial transactions.  It is the reason that the global financial crisis which has now been running since late 2008 has not touched the energy company’s profits and why the banks in Britain were able to weather the storm – they retain their centrality to Britain’s economy as the government fights to protect them from European interference.

Better policy making by the government (any government) would deliver a strong economy without being reliant on high unemployment, cheap foreign labor and high government protectionism. But an economy that has so many monopolies must create movement of senior personnel between those monopolies but no advantage to those people that utilize their activities.  If that distorts the economic model then social policy is created to prevent frustration from spilling over into violence and disorder. That social policy can only be financed effectively if the government has sufficient revenues to fund it.  With an economy that is so besotted with central control that situation can only become less stable as more people become dependent on government assistance.

The State is influenced in its guiding principles by obsessive regulation of society which is expressed through paternalistic policies offering short term solutions to ameliorate but never solve any of the problems afflicting the economy.  This paternalism has constructed a fool’s paradise in which ‘anything goes and anything is possible’ or at least that is what society, through the media, instructs us to believe.  But then the reality is something entirely different. It is this contradiction that is creating much of society’s stresses and it is also the reason that nine million Britons, (that is fifteen percent of us) has a criminal record.

We are psychologically conditioned to respond to stress reactions but the purpose of that reaction is survival. We aim to return our situation to a manageable level. If we are unable to exercise effective control in our lives we become stressed. So, on the one hand we encourage unrealistic expectations and then we are dumbfounded by the panoply of medical conditions that appear to be increasing in complexity even as our medical knowledge and sophistication expands exponentially.

The unspoken question that no-one is asking is how we prevent our society from creating enormous pockets of inequality, of deprivation and violence?

And that brings me to my final economic issue.

Mark Zuckerberg believes (FP Magazine December 2013) that “the story of the next century is the transition from an industrial, resource-based economy to a knowledge economy” but that smacks of a “let them eat cake” mentality.  It makes assumptions which are unsustainable without recourse to negative eugenics programs or an apocalyptic vision of death camps in our ‘green and pleasant land’.

It isn’t bureaucracy that keeps unemployment and poverty doggedly high but the attitude of politicians and business leaders that people can adapt to anything.

A member of the British governing classes very recently stated that fifteen per cent of Briton’s have an IQ that is less than 85. OK then, what are this fifteen percent going to do in the knowledge economy?  They won’t become doctors or nurses and they won’t be able to compete with cheaper immigrant labor.

The politicians tell us all to buckle under. They tell us immigration is good for Britain. But they don’t have to compete for jobs. I have a friend who is a master tradesman. He was unemployable because he did not speak Polish.  I am not anti-immigrant. I am ‘anti’ the idiots in government who think that the not so smart and the not so ruthless don’t matter. I am anti the politicians on all sides of the house that dismiss the ‘expensive’ tradesman who has spent most of his (or her) life perfecting his (or her) art because they assume they cannot always find a solution to the problems they created. And I am anti the educators and their bureaucratic henchmen who insist that people are machines to be engineered.

In the 21st Century, in the giddy rush to progress no-one, no group, no party has a vision for the future that has people, all people, at its centre.  In a world obsessed with the rights of the individual we have raised the individual as a group identity onto a lofty peak, as gods, while we ignore the individual as if they are worthless because as individuals they distract us from the ideal.

In the 21st Century no one should freeze to death, or live in fear of the cold. Government has condemned too many to suffering and too many to permanent insecurity.  We possess today a model for a society that drives the expectations of the many for a consumerist heaven that does no more than to enrich the coffers of the state and to betray the long term interests of the people.