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Sunday, 27 June 2010

Blood, Culture, Nation: Shlomo Sand on the Jewish People

I am reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso 2009). Much of it deals with very old and boring myth-cum-history. But it is a very interesting and sophisticated book.

European Jewish cultures before the Holocaust interest me and about the Holocaust itself, I have read the books. When in Jerusalem 15 years ago, Yad Vashem and Oskar Schindler's grave were the places I most wanted to visit. Parts of Yad Vashem I found moving: the black basalt pillars, the railway truck tipping over the precipice. But I was shocked by the signs acknowledging sponsorship by wealthy Americans. It did not seem a place where the living should put their names on a plaque.

When in Lithuania a dozen years ago, it was the Karaite (Karim) Kenessa at Trakai that I wanted to visit.

I have no interest in Judaism. To an outsider - especially someone like me who read avidly in Calvinism and Jansenism in my youth - it's most obvious manifestations are rather odd preoccupations with dress, food, women's hair and male genitals. It makes God into some kind of obsessive neurotic. It is hard to think of Judaism as something that nurtures the human spirit though it's rituals have clearly given comfort in many-times repeated periods of despair.

As for Israel, I have come to doubt its legitimacy entirely. In its willingness to resort to disproportionate and extra-legal violence, it is like a rogue state. Behind those violent actions lies a culture which is deeply racist - the nature and extent of which is something Shlomo Sand's book clarifies.

So I now incline to the idea of a one-state solution. Provided that the one state was secular and kept all the religions of the region in their proper, private place. Since that it a utopian dream, the two-state solution emrges as a second-best.

Shlomo Sand clarifies how cultures and nations can inter-relate in different ways, more closely or more loosely. Zionism, with which he is concerned, seeks to integrate what are really very different Jewish cultures by offering them a myth of shared Origin in the homeland of Palestine / Israel and a myth of a shared blood line, preserved through all the disaporas. Neither myth stands up to scrutiny. His most shocking claim is that the people most closely linked, genetically and by continuous occupation, with the Jews of ancient Israel / Judea are the peasants who till the soil today just as their forefathers did. And they are not Israel's Jews but Palestine's Muslims, many of them undoubtedly descended from Jews who converted when Islam arrived in their region.

The book has also made me think again about the United Kingdom. The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be greatly helped in the tasks which it discharges (badly - but that is another story) if the people it rules believed themselves to be United Kingdomish. But plainly they don't. They don't even have a football team, and yesterday's defeat of England by Germany in the World Cup will have brought satisfaction to those in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland who think - and maybe wear the T shirts - ABE: Anyone But England. These are the people who send Nationalist MPs to Westminster. In the case of Sinn Fein, once elected they do not even take their seats in Parliament. The stench is too great for them.

What the United Kingdom needs is not a one-state solution but a four-state solution, perhaps with a federal Parliament for the three mainland countries. Ireland could then proceed to a two-state solution, perhaps with a federal parliament. In these ways, culture, nation and state would be more closely aligned. Fortunately, blood is hopelessly mixed throughout the UK and no one need be called upon to prove a blood line. We are coffee coloured people and that is something to celebrate.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Pounds, shillings and pence

Quite soon, someone will propose that they be restored.

It's remarkable that the UK is able to export anything at all, since it no longer has a coherent system of weights and measures.

The education system flunked the challenge of Going Metric, market traders were bloody-minded, and eventually the EU gave up demanding that the UK join the modern world. Result? Chaos and confusion. Milk in pints, petrol in litres, cheese in kilos, dieting in stones and pounds, road distances in miles and fractions of miles (not even decimals!), marathons - take your pick; shirts, shoes, dress sizes, bras, hats, trouser waists: learn as many different systems as you can get your head around. Basically, ask an assistant to assist.

My favourites are the road signs counting you down to the Channel Tunnel. Ready-made entertainment for every European family driving back to sanity: 2/3 mile, 1/3 mile. Yes, I know that someone realised that if we Went Metric they could be cheaply changed to 1 Km and 0.5 Km. But we didn't. And so at the Gateway to Europe we are stuck with fractions of a mile ...

It's not quaint or romantic. It's not functional. It defines the British (or the English or the United Kingdomish or whatever they call themselves - they can't even make up their minds about that) as a bunch of losers.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Governments and Quality of Life

Protecting us from foreign enemies is one of the things advocates of the minimal state accept that the minimal state should do, even if some think the job should be sub-contracted to private mercenaries. They will usually throw in policing. It's rather similar: it's supposed to protect us from domestic enemies.

In both cases, you need the state because you can't rely on your neighbours. They may be neighbourly but not neighbourly enough when it comes to laying down their lives to protect you and yours.

Unfortunately, it's a common complaint against modern policing that it's not there for really difficult and dangerous situations. The police as a government bureaucracy are much happier passing their time issuing fixed penalty notices than dealing with fathers threatening to kill their daughters and doing so (honour killings) or council estate teenagers targetting vulnerable people until they are driven to suicide. Why put yourself at risk when you could be sitting in the police station meeting targets? But that's another matter.

Sometimes overlooked is the capacity of the state to dramatically improve quality of life for people who would find it hard to organise themselves to achieve such improvements. In recent years, across Europe, the single most important government measure which has improved quality of life is the smoking ban. Dramatic, cheap and effective.

There are many other areas in which governments could have similar effects in freeing people from the anti-social behaviour of others, but have been slow to act. That is because there is no tax gain from acting unless punitive taxation is used as an alternative to an outright ban. Here are a few examples of things which would demonstrably improve quality of life:

- Ban dogs entirely from public beaches, public parks, and public pavements. Really, ban them from urban areas. Result? Quieter neighbourhoods, a big reduction in injuries to children and postmen, no dog shit to sit on or walk on.

- Ban car alarms.

- Abolish public holidays, add them to individual holiday entitlements and allow workers to negotiate their time off to suit their own preferences. Google returns 103,000 results for the phrase "Bank Holiday washout". Abolish public holidays and you could expect your Town Hall and Doctor's Surgery to remain open on all those Mondays that they currently shut, and for your refuse to be collected. In short, the public sector could discover the word Rota.

- Accept that in urban areas pigeons, rats, foxes and landgulls really do spoil things for people as well as creating an assortment of health hazards. Bring back proper pest control.

- Try to achieve a better balance between meeting the needs of those who work and want to sleep and those who don't work and want to party. Over the period 1997 - 2007the government freed up pub and club opening hours with the consequence that pubs and clubs in some areas deprived local people of the possibiliy of relaxing and sleeping peacefully at home. An odd choice of policy priority.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Safety Net: the Poor, the Unfortunate, the Feckless

In the previous post, I said that the argument for the minimal state was hard to beat.

Traditionally, the expansion of state activities has been most strongly defended where it seeks to provide a social safety net. No one will go to the wall because they are too poor, too afflicted or too stupid to climb out of difficulty unaided.

This is a powerful argument. If you are poor and healthy, to take out medical insurance may cost you no more than if you are rich and healthy. The snag is that as a proportion of your income, the health insurance costs you a lot more. An insurance policy is like a flat tax, a poll tax.

To this there are two possible responses.

One would suggest that the real task is to eliminate the poor by such means as (high) minimum wage legislation and by progressive taxation which takes the poorest out of the tax net altogether. This way, even the poor are not so poor that they canot fend for themselves in the way they think best.

The other response suggests that the sensible thing is to nationalise health care and make it free (or nearly free) at point of use. In this way, income is no bar to accessing doctors and hospitals. Everyone can get the (best) care, though that will not be the case if a parallel private health sector is permitted.

The second response has been the one most commonly adopted in Europe. But it has drawbacks. Free services can be overused and misused. In the UK, for example, the over 60 age group do not pay for prescriptions. Evidence suggests that, partly as a result, this age group is overprescribed drugs, some of which they do not use and some combinations of which, if they do use them, are toxic. Both doctors and patients behave irresponsibly. As another example, consider that Saturday night in a city centre Accident and Emergency department is often dominated by the needs of the feckless - those who have drunk too much and drugged too much. It may be that the drunks and druggies should not be asked for their credit cards at point of use; but there is a case for saying that they should be sent a bill after they have been stomach pumped and sent away.

In the light of such considerations, the pursuit of a more egalitarian income distribution - the first response I listed - may have more to recommend it than Statist and Nannying thinking allows.

Statist or Nannying thinking always has a strong streak of paternalism about it which assorts badly with a supposedly democratic society. To stay with the example of health, it says to people: This is the kind of health care we think is good for you. It removes the element of individual choice.

The Safety Net argument is only one line of response to the minimal state argument. There is another, which I will consider in my next Post

What Governments Are For

The claim of the state to our allegiance rests on its ability to provide services which individuals could not provide (or provide efficiently) for themselves, even by clubbing together. The perennial problem for the state is that such services are ones which will benefit those who do not contribute towards the cost - the free riders. So the provision of collective or public goods goes hand in hand with the coercion of those reluctant to contribute their share of the cost.

The defence of the realm against foreign enemies is the core example of the collective goods and services which states provide to their citizens.

Taxation is by its nature something which can be more easily evaded than can payment for goods which you are buying over the counter. Even in the most advanced and sophisticated societies there are large Black Economies - in some countries in Europe, the black economy may be responsible for a quarter or more of a country's total GDP. So taxation turns even the best organised states and their governments into rather inefficient middlemen - the costs of revenue collection are always going to be large and sometimes disproportionate and vast areas of legally taxable activity will escape taxation.

Over time, states and governments have expanded the range of services they provide to include many which could quite clearly be paid for by individuals at point of use. So they are not part of the "core" remit of public goods provision. In general, this is seen as politically progressive because it ensures that everyone regardless of means has access to things like schools and hospitals.

However, this expansion creates a second problem. On top of the inherent inefficiency of tax gathering, there is now added the inherent inefficiency of not-for-profit bureaucracies administering not-for-profit services. You pay a lot of money and end up with third-rate schools and dirty hospitals.

If you have the misfortune to live in North Korea, even your food is provided by the state, through the state food distribution system. And you starve. In very large numbers. It was Amartya Sen who originally made the absolutely fundamental remark that famines do not occur in democracies. The business of electing governments at least guarantees a minimum of responsiveness to the satisfaction of basic needs.

It's hard to avoid the logic of the argument that when governments expand the acitivity of the state into the provision of privatisable goods and services, they inevitably turn into very expensive middlemen, charging a lot to collect taxes and charging even more to spend them on goods and services of indifferent quality. It is unknown for government departments to operate with the efficiency of Ryanair.

Governments do have advantages arising from their size. They can achieve economies in such areas as bulk purchasing. The trouble is that the bulk purchasing is often of the wrong things. Historically,the bulk purchases end up in Army Surplus shops. But there are no shops which will help you offload your stockpiled swine flu vaccine.

The average family, apparently, gets back in goods and services (schools, doctors, libraries) roughly what it pays in taxation. So they are quits. The case for the minimal state is that they would be much better off paying no taxes and instead paying for the services they need at point of use. They would be better off because the middleman's costs would be eliminated. In all likelihood, the services would be of better quality.

It's a hard argument to beat.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Adjectives and Politics

"Go easy on the adjectives". That's Tip Number One in any Do It Yourself cookbook of Creative Writing. Adjectives are the stuff of editorialising, moralising and intruding yourself where you don't need to.

"Lay them on thick" is, however, what it says in Handy Hints and Tips for Aspiring Politicians.

The government has decided to publish the Treasury's database - where the money comes from and where it goes. Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat and Chief Secretary to the Treasury (for all of two days) glosses the decision like this, "The previous government acted as if the public had no right to know where their hard-earned taxes were spent".

Yes, you've spotted it. "Hard-earned".

Well, to be honest,I don't know if the taxes I pay are hard earned. I have an occupational pension, which is taxed, and an income from my business as a stamp dealer, which is also taxed but which does not strike me as particularly hard-earned. I'm not down the coal mine. I might prefer them not to take my money away from me, but that's a different matter. I'm not going to climb on a moral high horse about it.

But if you're a politician you just have to say these things. It's part of the ritual, the tradition and the dysfunctionality.

It used to be said of old-style Communist China, the newspapers had whole phrases pre-cast in lead ready to bolt together as and when the Imperialist running dogs and their lackeys were due for a bit of denunciation.

Here we have politicians who think that ordinaryhardworkingfamilies is one word.

People in universities follow where politicians lead. See the previous post. When you put the word "sustainable" in front of anything you do it just to signal that you are on-message. And right now "sustainable" will do the trick.

Off-message academics are probably an endangered species.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Sustainable Mobilities

Yesterday, wanting something to read on the train, I picked up a copy of THE [Times Higher Education], the trade paper for University staff. It's ten years since I gave my last University seminar - I was teaching on a Creative Writing MA - and I rarely look back. I probably haven't picked up a copy of THE for a couple of years and when I flicked through the pages yesterday, I found it hard to imagine myself back in a university.

At the University of East London they want to appoint some Research Fellows on two year contracts worth up to £38k a year. I was a Research Fellow for six months in 1973 - 74. Funded by the British Film Institute, I studied the February 1974 General Election as it unfolded on TV - the write-up was published as "Television and the February 1974 General Election". You can find the 15,000 word essay on my website

At East London, they are seeking "an outstanding candidate to plan and conduct sociological research into sustainable mobilities....walking, public transport, virtual mobilities, freight and car use". More about those words in a moment.

I can imagine some interesting research. For example, my guess is that the Free Bus Pass has created a culture among the over 60s which has both positive and negative aspects. It is a disincentive to walking, so probably has a negative effect on physical fitness. It has turned buses into mobile Day Centres for the elderly, so probably has a positive effect on mental well-being - older people have more opportunities to talk with each other. It gets older people into town centres, so probably is good for the business of high street cafes. In the context of very low state pension entitlements, it probably creates a culture of dependence and gratitude among those over 60 who are not affluent. They feel entitled to their Freebie Pass and it does not occur to them that their self-respect might be better served with a higher pension which allowed them to make their own decisions about how to travel. For example, for a big weekly shop, a taxi might be a more sustainable way to get home than a swaying bus. You are less likely to sustain an injury.

Oh, I nearly forgot. The Free Bus Pass is presumably very good news for the private bus companies. How good I don't yet know.

And so on. Not a bad first shot for a piece of research which is pretty clearly sociological?

But to get there, I had to get past the coding and confusions of this advert. The word "sustainable" alerts you. You ain't gonna get that research fellowship unless you have figured out that there are some forms of mobility which are not sustainable and you had better guess right what they are. In advance. You aren't being invited to conduct a piece of research to assess whether a form of mobility is sustainable or not. You must know the answer before you start.

Hence the confused phrase "freight and car use", which looks as if it is there in the interests of Balance. Freight isn't a mobility. Freight is what gets transported, whether on the back of a bike or in the back of a white van.

At which point, another piece of research occurs to me. I'd like to investigate whether there is any sustainable alternative in urban areas to white vans as a way of moving stuff around - supplies to the kebab shops, building materials for the loft conversions, alcohol to the student bars at the University of East London. If there isn't, then I'd like to ask how the urban environment and the political culture can be made more friendly for White Van Man so that he doesn't feel he has to be quite so defiant towards the rest of the world. And I don't mean the flags of St George - everyone flies them, regardless of race or culture. I just mean his sense of grievance that no one appreciates that he's doing a useful job.

Now there's a piece of research ....