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Monday, 30 September 2013

Genital Mutilation

If only out of the self-interest of their functionaries, all States have a special interest in children. Without new generations to labour and pay taxes, a State will wither and die. If the new generations are healthy, educated and willing, then States can achieve great things.

Non-democratic states are often better at recognising this than democratic ones. Democracies tend to discount children because they don't vote. Too busy placating needy adult voters, democracies underinvest in education and underprotect children.

That would be all right if parents could always be relied upon to care about their children. They can't.

Children are utterly vulnerable to the adults into whose hands they happen to fall. Those adults can make or break them. Many - probably most - children are lucky and find themselves in the hands of adults who care for them - and profoundly. It helps that these bundles of soft flesh have the power to enchant those around them.

But not always. Faced with that soft flesh, there are parents whose first thought is to mutilate it. Instead of thinking that it is their duty to protect their child from bodily harm at an age when the child cannot always protect itself, they want to inflict bodily harm - painful and bloody. And not for any medical reason.

Parents who have to agree to surgical intervention to protect the health of their child always face a cruel dilemma. On the one hand, they do not want to see their child's body cut and their child in pain. At the same time, they know that on this occasion it is necessary, it is for the best. The Doctor says so.

Genital mutilation of both male and female children is not medically necessary. No doctor mindful of his or her duty  should ever wield the knife.

You bring a child into the world and one of your first preoccupations is to mutilate its body. How can the relationship between child and parent ever recover from that? Genital mutilation is a terrible abuse of trust.

We struggle to see the world from the child's point of view. Democracies are very poor at doing so. They are listening only to adults - and adults are often enough listening to the Voices they hear in their heads which urge them on to perform terrible acts.

The State has a duty of protection towards children and it should say No Way, Never, Boy or Girl.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Question to British Politicians, Why Do You Believe in the Special Relationship?

Most British politicians believe in something called The Special Relationship. Some of them believe in it fervently, people like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Michael Gove and William Hague. These people have taken lifelong Vows.

Basically, it means that they think the United Kingdom exists to roll over and do whatever America asks. So when America asked us to clear Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean of its indigenous population (the Chagos Islanders) to make way for an American base, we did it without hesitation. The islanders had no say in their fate. 

And when President Bush wanted to show his Dad that he was a Real Man and not a Whisky and Cocaine Man, Tony Blair had no hesitation in sending British forces to invade Iraq – and lose badly.

When America told us that it wanted more powers to extradite people (UK citizens) from Britain, we rushed to agree – and, of course, we wouldn’t be asking for any reciprocal right to extradite US citizens to the UK. Oh no! Ditto for intelligence “sharing”.

And so it goes on. It’s deeply puzzling. Are you politicians paid to believe in the Special Relationship or is it just that you have never read a half-way decent book about America?

America is an AWFUL nasty dysfunctional state and has been that way for decades. 

Here is a short list of  20 Good Reasons to get a divorce from the Special Relationship:

1. America is one of the most unequal “Western” societies and is getting more unequal. It pays a price for this in terms, for example of
2. A vast, violent and cruel prison Gulag system which goes almost entirely unreported in the British press as does
3. Child Poverty 
4. Hugely unequal access to overpriced and second-rate medical care, sometimes needed because of
5. Guns
6. Guns ought to be enough to put anyone off the idea of a Special Relationship with these people, but if it isn’t then maybe
7. Nukes will do it from the only country that has ever used them

8. J.Edgar Hoover, heading a long list of powerful but corrupt  
9. Paranoids
10. Ready to attack anything that moves, but preferably poor non-white people in far away lands, targets for chemical and biological warfare experiments using, most famously,
11. Napalm
12. Though not forgetting that over ninety percent of conventional bombs dropped and missiles fired since the end of World War Two have been dropped or fired by America (Correct?)

13. The Republican Party, currently demonstrating that
14. America has a lousy Constitution, treated as if it were Genesis in the Bible, but actually leaving the political process at the mercy of 
15. America’s powerful and unpleasant minorities
16. Who for decades have tirelessly supported the world’s most vicious dictators (Trujillo, Duvalier, Stroessner, Saddam Hussein …) meanwhile
17. Directing decades of hatred towards Cuba as if you can put a country on
18. Death Row

19. America is scary
20. We could do a deal. America gets to have Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Michael Gove and William Hague. We get some space to breath the air of freedom

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Private Time Management, Public Time Mismanagement

We all know what Time Management is. It’s about making the best use of the finite amount of time available to us. It’s not just about work time; it’s about how we live our lives. When a book or a Time Management course – or just our own realisation – alerts us to the fact that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, that’s a liberating and empowering moment.
It’s the source of huge satisfaction to get a lot done in a day and, likewise, to complete a demanding work project without sacrificing the time we want to spend on other things.
I don’t need to elaborate. It’s all familiar stuff.

But our personal Time Management takes place in a social and political context. The trouble is this, that there are people and organisations out there determined to waste our time, big time. And I’m not just thinking about Passport Control.

Consider the almost universal institution of Public Holidays. These are days on which governments require or advise employers to lock out their workers.  At a stroke, governments thereby deny employees the possibility of time-managing a part of their (valuable) holiday time – often a significant part, since public holidays may constitute a quarter or more of an individual’s annual holiday entitlement.
The most obvious fact about public holidays is that they lead to overloads – delays - on public transport systems. Instead of enjoying their time off work, people end up in queues of one kind or another. And though the committed Time Manager will find something else to do when in a queue, even if only chewing gum, this is going to be a second-best use of valuable time.

There are other frustrations. Here in the UK, Public Holidays – with the exception of Christmas Day - have never really responded to any popular sense that “This is when we would all like a day off together”. Instead (to take the worst example), Easter is dumped on us – and however much it is moved about by the astrologers, it always seems to coincide with bad weather. Google “Bank Holiday Washout” and you get a downpour of results.
So however good our personal Time Management may be, Public Holidays are pretty much a kick in the teeth. It’s worst in countries where they are compulsory; in the UK, they are  merely advisory – the Department of Business publishes the annual List of Days. The Prime Minister is entitled to interfere with the List, adding Days Off to make us stay at home and watch Royal Weddings and such like. But he never adds days for football matches or February 15th or November 6th.

Public Holidays are the paradigm case of organisational mismanagement of other people’s time.  Other examples are more complicated and vary between countries.

In the UK, the long-term failure of governments to have  housing policies or transport policies has condemned workers, especially in the London hub, to longer Home to Work commuting times than are found in other advanced economies.
Now for sure there are those who will insist that they would resist any reduction in their commuting time below the number of minutes needed to finish the crossword. But in truth, for most workers commuting time is better shorter. You can try to multi-task on the daily commute and many succeed, but it’s always a bit forced. As a result, sixty minutes bad; twenty minutes good.
It would be highly desirable for governments to have as a policy the aim of cutting average Home to Work commuting times. That would really improve Quality of Life for millions of people, because it would free up time for more productive and enjoyable activity.

Of course, the idea of working towards a Commuting Time target sounds either Utopian or silly. It is clearly beyond the wit of the kind of governments the UK is blessed with that housing policies and transport policies should be co-ordinated to get people closer to their place of work (or vice versa). Some people would say that it is beyond the capacity of any government. Policy would require endless tuning and re-tuning and though that’s possible for interest rates, infrastructure can’t be continuously re- configured.

But if London had a regional government rather than a glorified Town Council it might be possible to get the idea on the Agenda. That ain’t going to happen because central government needs London tax revenues to prop up the loss-making subsidiaries of Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales. A London regional government would almost certainly try to thwart these central government purposes. The Mayor of London has already caused trouble by suggesting that Stamp Duty on London house sales should go to his Town Council.

Central government in the UK is an organisation which camps in London but has no feel for it. That’s why when Parliament opens each year, governments think nothing of closing off London streets for a Ruritanian State Opening. So what if people, on an ordinary working day, are inconvenienced?

Public Holidays, Commuting Time. These are key areas where public policy or the lack of it wastes private time. The reader can no doubt begin to think of others. I will give one final example.

The clocks. It falls to government to synchronise our watches, to set the time. It is government which solves this co-ordination problem. Unfortunately, the UK government chooses a solution which suits the Highlands of Scotland and nowhere else in Britain, setting the clocks one hour behind those of our near neighbours in continental Europe.

There are compelling reasons for thinking that south of the Scottish border the clocks should be aligned with those of Europe (one hour ahead of their current setting). All the evidence is that road accidents would be reduced if Autumn and Winter afternoon darkness was not thrust upon us an hour earlier than necessary. More daylight at the end of the working day would save lives. In addition, more daylight after work and school increases the range of things which people (including children) can do with their time. More light enables people to get more satisfaction from their time.

At the beginning of the present Parliament, a bold Tory MP (Rebecca Harris) introduced a parliamentary bill to put the clocks forward one hour from their present settings. There was a lot of support. But our Prime Minister, David Cameron, blocked it. I am not sure what compelled him, but it was either the fear of upsetting Highland Scottish voters or upsetting Eurosceptics in his party who would reckon sharing clock time with our near neighbours as bad as sharing a currency with them.

And so public policy continues to manage our time inefficiently – sub-optimally, if you like. Time for those who value their time to start protesting.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter on Time Mismanagment in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Monday, 23 September 2013

Britain's Housing Problem

Small wars often continue for many years because there are stakeholders on all sides with an interest in their continuation. Most often, those stakes are financial: people make money out of wars. So if you want to bring a small war to an end, a good strategy is to look for ways of reducing the financial attractiveness of war making.You put the squeeze on the stake holders. Freezing their bank accounts may be more effective than bombing their bases.

Britain has a chronic housing problem - not enough houses, overpriced, in the wrong places, badly built and badly maintained - because there are a lot of stakeholders in the continuation of the problem.

Most obviously, house owners fund lifestyles on  house values which increase faster than the rate of inflation. It is the foundation of debt-financed consumption.

Then there are house builders who sit on building land because it is increasing in value at such a rate that it is profitable to keep it unused for as long as possible. Why build on it when you could make as much money by simply selling it on at a later date?

If you do build on it, no need to build solid, durable houses or sensible apartment blocks. People will buy anyway. They don't have much choice. There are no builders offering well-built moderately priced homes. They all offer Exclusive Developments and Boutique Collections - in other words, Crap.

And as for maintenance, home owners who have bought as far up the price range as they can possibly afford don't have enough money to repair. They chronically underspend on maintenance.

Landlords who buy to rent are happy to treat their properties as a wasting asset because, actually, they won't waste at all however much they are neglected. They will still increase in value however many generations of university students have trashed them.

Faced with this array of stakeholders, it would be a foolhardy politician who would try to confront the problem. The moment you tried to put the squeeze on any of these stakeholders, you would lose votes.

As a result, Britain is doomed to crap housing and not enough housing indefinitely. There is no way that it can break in to a virtuous circle where building more houses and more good houses (or apartments) turns out to be good for every body - as it is in countries like Germany or the Czech Republic

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The British Parliament and Syria

For the first half of the 20th century, the United Kingdom operated in the Middle East on its own initiative. After the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, it picked up League of Nations Mandates to run Iraq and Palestine (France got Syria). As is the way with the UK, at times it behaved well and at others badly - notably, during the 1920s, in using Iraqi villages to test new techniques of terror bombing civilian populations from aeroplanes flying free of any risk of retaliation. Iraqi villagers did not possess anti-aircraft missiles.

In the early 1950s, the UK co-operated with the USA to topple an Iranian government intent on nationalising the country's oil reserves. As a result, the Iranian people got the Shah and his secret police, the Savak.

But in 1956, the USA refused to endorse the Franco-British-Israeli invasion of Egypt, designed to stop control of the Suez Canal passing to the country it passes through.

Since then, the UK has only intervened in the Middle East to do America's bidding, however ill-conceived. So it was that we got involved alongside the Americans in the invasion of Iraq, tried to punch above our weight in Basra, and ended up both defeated and humiliated - and at the same time making matters worse for Iraqis.

In the past week, it seemed that President Obama had finally made up his mind to Teach the Assad Government of Syria a Lesson and was going to launch against the country powerful missiles fired into it from a safe distance in the Mediterranean or the skies.

Taking his cue - this is what the Special Relationship is about - Britain's Prime Minister announced that the UK would join in. We would fire some missiles too, at targets chosen by the Americans, thus demonstrating to the world that we still have the capacity to do that sort of thing.

Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, the British Parliament vetoed the plan. This is an important moment in British politics.

For the first time in a century, Parliament has backed away from the idea that the Middle East is part of our backyard - a place where we are entitled to topple rulers we don't like or teach them costly Lessons. In this case, Mr Cameron's plan was to kill some Syrians with very high explosive missiles to show that we disapproved of President Assad killing Syrians with chemical weapons which are Banned.

You can phrase it in such a way that the whole US-UK plan sounds like a tasteless joke.

But Parliament has also backed away from the idea of doing America's bidding. This is the main source of outrage among those members of the Conservative Party who see their role as working to serve the US. Mr Hague and Mr Gove are behaving a bit like teenage girls, who feel that their role in life is to do what their boyfriend wants. They are very upset to have been thwarted.

Finally, Parliament has backed away from the idea that We Know Best - that we can launch our missiles confident that we are going to make things Better for the Syrians. This is perhaps the most important outcome of all. The situation in Syria is awful, of that there is no doubt. But the realisation that we cannot guarantee that using our missiles will improve the situation may, in the long run, serve people in the Middle East better than "humanitarian" missile strikes which fail to achieve what they are supposed to achieve.