Posts tagged ‘capitalism’

April 29, 2020

Year of the Plague in 2020 a far from average year – self-isolation diary. Week 6

Week 6 was fairly uneventful. That is probably a good thing.

News and figures of casualties of Covid-19 continue to be grim. It’s a strange kind of reality that we grow accustomed to high numbers of dead and dying overnight from a single cause. It is a shock to the system that so many of those we are dependent on, carers and NHS staff of every level, have lost their lives to this terrifying virus. It is a sharp reminder that our complacent lives built around consumerist capitalism and celebrity banality are nothing compared with the force of a tiny virus with knobs on; rich 21st century nations brought to their knees.

We learn revelation by revelation prised from the mouths of politicians of rising numbers of dead. We learn there are so many different ways to count the dead – confirmed by tests, confirmed at hospitals, confirmed by GPs but some dead are omitted. Some in this case being around the same number again and way above the figure of 20,000 quoted by Sir Patrick Vallance on 17 March as the number below which would be a “good result.” As that figure has already been swamped by upwards of 100 per cent it appears the get-out-of-jail card “we are following the science” used as a shield by politicians has been exposed as not being quite THE science it was held up to be. THE science behind Westminster’s response to the virus is a secretive club called SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and includes Sir Patrick Vallance who is the government’s chief scientific adviser. Westminster has been forced to admit that SAGE includes Johnson’s political aids. So, the mantra should be – “we are following the political science.” The political science isn’t that good for as the Financial Times has been highlighting the real number of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is running in excess of 40,000. Perhaps SAGE should change its name to STAGED – Scientists and Tories Advisory Group for Emergency Deception.

The seeds are out of quarantine and sown so fingers crossed we’ll have good germination and a bumper crop of veg and herbs later in the summer. Some begonia plug plants arrived, too, for pots and containers which would normally be packed with annuals but as we can’t get out to buy them this year it’s going to be a begonia summer.

Walks have been largely uneventful although I did have a socially responsible social distanced conversation with a local man who cycles for exercise and was lugging around a plastic sack full of empty drinks cans thrown out of vehicles by litter louts or as they are known in these parts, minkers. I felt obliged to do my bit a few days ago and picked up yet another can, the usual Red Bull, and placed it in a recycling bin near at hand. Only then did I remember I should have been wearing gloves so had to do the whole washing of hands thing when I got home. Would love to walk along a beach but the nearest beach is 25 miles away so I’m making do picking over some delightful types of rock filling our ditches. Mainly granites there are other igneous rocks, some white quartz, lots of stones with shiny pieces of mica and bits of flint. You have to find interest where you can and rocks and minerals are fascinating – and every one is different.

Birds – house martins have arrived. Not yet building nests but flying overhead with that fast, darting movement. They are only in penny numbers where in recent years we would see lots of them. It’s beyond sad that some people actively prevent them from building their beautiful nests against gable walls. We love our house martins, waiting impatiently for them to arrive from the south, watching them build and following the broods fly for the first time catching insects in the air. Some folk need to get a life and stop complaining about bird droppings. In actual fact there was no mess beneath our martins’ double nest last year although that’s not always the case. Hanging plastic carrier bags on the end of houses and garages to prevent birds building nests is shameful – and looks mingin – adjective from the noun minker. Pulling down nests is criminal.

Those starlings still seem interested in nesting in the tree hole still under scrutiny from jackdaws. It’s a strange setup. These starlings are like cowboy builders – start a job, turn up once or twice then disappear for ages.

I’ve been re-reading some of Stewart Alan Robertson’s essays in A Moray Loon (loon is a youth in northeast Scotland.) Stewart from Loanhead in Midlothian was a teacher in Scotland and England and for a time an inspector of education. He wrote engagingly on all kinds of fascinating Scottish topics from Kale Kirks to the scientist Mary Sommerville (science writer and polymath – I bet she would have come up with better science than any emerging from SAGE.) Stewart used his extensive Scottish vocabulary to great effect in his articles – many largely forgotten terms such as halflin for a young loon (usually a farm labourer) and blackneb which was one who sympathised with the French Revolution.

I’ve just started J. MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie. MacDougall Hay hailed from Tarbert. Goodness know what sort of place Tarbert in Argyll was in the mid-19th century – this is where the novel is set. It’s dark. Very dark. Perhaps too dark to read during these dark times.

Keep safe.

March 19, 2020

Covid-19 – Coronavirus and the Libertarian

Guest blog by Textor

Things, as they say, are sometimes liable to come back to bite you.

That is if you let your guard down.

And let’s face it many of us have in one way or another let our guards down.

Coronavirus aka Covid-19 has bought home to us that as content as we are in our privileged advanced (there’s a cultural joke) economies the world is other than it seems. Assuming we are not in the gig economy, not queuing at a food bank then things can only get better. We who have access to a fair number of the good things of life; we who thought the real world was little more than novelties in the digital market place – including the delights of Amazon Prime or Netflix – or ever more commodities; we have been brought up short in little over three months by the brute fact of Nature.  Bang! Nature has reared up and taken an almighty bite out of this hubris.

Yes, we are all more or less aware, all more or less concerned/unconcerned about climate change and the impact of the Anthropocene (the Age deemed to be when humankind’s effect upon the planet Earth has been sufficient to cause global, catastrophic change.) Regardless of the evident societal alterations required to alleviate a “far off” doom we – those lucky enough to avoid floods, devastating fires etc.- could in the short term just get on with it; recycle as if there were no tomorrow you might say. Waiting for the end of climate change.

But sometimes Nature does not allow us the luxury of waiting for the apocalypse: coronavirus is just such a time. For decades microbiologists have been predicting the coming of a pandemic. The so-called Spanish Flu provided a model of how devastating a modern microbiological disaster could be. Wikipedia gives figures as high as 100 million dying in the influenza pandemic of 1918-20; more than the man-made slaughter on the battlefields of the Great War. Science had the capacity to devise the most wonderful weapons of death but could not stop the ‘flu.

Evolution has “designed” a human organism capable of sophisticated speech with the capacity to adapt itself to wide variations of environmental conditions. At the same time, and perhaps a necessary part of being human, it put its stamp on Nature. Beavers might dam rivers and create lakes but humans could build the Grand Coulee Dam, produce electricity to power a so-called Second Industrial Revolution. Clever, even ambitious. But no matter how sophisticated is the vast commodity producing system that is industrial capitalism it is no match for the potential speed at which a micro-organism might evolve. Humans have brains big enough to predict outcomes and have the technical knowhow (probably) to design and manufacture anti-virals capable of slowing and even halting the spread of Covid-19 – yes humans could in the next few months do this. But for all this Nature remains unconquered. Natural selection continues without any mastermind operating behind the scenes. And we know, or should know, that this process of selection can be good for some species and bad for others.

And so, the long-predicted crisis has arrived. The pandemic is here and the search goes on for a solution. As with previous modern national and global health events the pharmaceutical industry play a crucial role. However, historically necessary component solutions come under the direction and control of local or national state apparatuses. In other words, individuals/institutions are first advised and then told what to do. Sanctions are threatened and sanctions are imposed.

Nothing new in this. Here in northeast Scotland as far back as the 15th century Aberdeen’s magistrates fearful of plague had the bell rung through the medieval town proclaiming the city’s ports (gates) close, lokit with lokis and keis, at night to prevent strangers entering unobserved. A compact medieval town could very swiftly succumb to viral and bacterial threats. Medieval doctors and apothecaries knew little of the causes of infectious diseases but empirically they were aware that for all claims of God expending his wrath on a sinful community, contagion could be slowed by isolating infected families and potential carriers. Whether this would thwart Divine justice was maybe a theological point not to be dwelt upon. And, it’s worth noting that certainly by the 17th century Aberdeen’s magistrates were also attempting to clean the city of middens, street filth and asking that households be kept clean. This lesson on the need for cleanliness was largely lost by the early 19th century when poorer parts of Aberdeen where people living cheek-by-jowl and in slum conditions were condemned to the horrors of cholera and dysentery. This was industrialising capitalism; the poor were there to be exploited and maybe pitied.

As the centuries progressed even more controls were imposed. Vessels were prevented from entering the harbour, merchandise was left in ship holds. On the other hand, when the threat was seen to be coming from internal migration strangers were banned from entering the town. Town ports were watched and at one stage in 1606 dealers in timber were told to stay away under paine of death. Trade suffered as commodities ceased to flow between manufacturers, tradesmen and consumers. In 1647, again in the midst of plague, draconian measures were introduced with, for example, all ydle stranger beggars . . .  forthwith removed and banished. Any who returned were to be scourged, branded and driven out.

Authoritarian management is a basic mechanism for control of epidemic-pandemic events. Our current crisis has stark contrasts. On the one hand the relatively fast and severe imposition of lock-down in parts of China. With over seventy years of state control the Chinese Communist Party has an apparatus better adapted to widespread controls than liberal democracies. Compare the Chinese response to the bumbling worlds of the UK and USA brought stumbling towards closing doors and mass quarantine.

These manoeuvres will probably bring howls of anger from libertarians both right and left – those who don’t want to be told what to do by the state. Their individual rights, some might say entitlement, trumps (if you’ll pardon the expression) all else. Allowing for the nastiness of all three states mentioned (China, US and UK) this form of libertarianism smacks of, at best, infantile petulance and at worst disintegrative individualism which fails to recognise a larger vision of human community even one within a capitalist formation. Remember the outcry about seat belts and crash helmets – with cries of freedom from state tyranny? Of course the consequences of a libertarian freedom to roam in a time of a modern plague threatens not only the lives of the defence of freedom lobby but ultimately the well-being of global communities. 

And the bite of Nature? As much as humankind imagines itself master/mistress of the world the reality is otherwise. From small nibbles such as occasional volcanic eruption to the all-encompassing bite of climate change Nature exists, not dependent on human imagination, not caring one way or another what happens to humans or any other species. It, if that’s the correct word, does what it does.Humans although in Nature and of Nature are different insofar as this species can make choices. It can gather knowledge, can know history and can act. There lies the rub.

June 22, 2013

Millionaire Carpetbaggers

 

How on earth have we come to the point where a company can be successful, pay its directors big bucks and substantial dividends to its shareholders and be in receipt of public subsidies?

Large-scale farms, high profile entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical giants, multi-national corporations surely should not be taking public handouts – but they are.

Every successful business knows you have to speculate to accumulate but with whose cash?

220px-Carpetbagger

Innovation often comes at the end of years of research. Good research costs and success is never guaranteed but there are ways of alleviating overheads. Super successful giant Apple was helped on its way by a $500 000 research programme paid for by the US government. But once Apple became successful where was the quid pro quo? There was none.

Where a private enterprise uses publicly funded and operated facilities shouldn’t there be some means by which the intellectual property becomes a stake in the enterprise for which a percentage comes back to the public body in profits?

It’s not just Apple, Google too built its empire on an algorithm funded by the National Science Foundation, a government funded agency in the US. Shouldn’t some of that success have been shared with the NSF?

That is not how the world of entrepreneurship works. Not only do companies walk away with all the benefits provided by the taxes of Mr and Ms Average but many of them take advantage of every loophole to avoid paying taxes which support the social fabric which underpins the lives of Mr and Ms Average.

When I hear people proclaim how successful capitalism is I wonder how they calculate success. Being dependent on state subsidies is not being successful.

They provide jobs it is claimed. But where? Not necessarily in the countries where they got the leg-up. Large parts of Apple’s production takes place outside the US.  Can you think why?

And it’s not just in the USA.

Every year £4bn of our cash is paid to subsidise franchise rail companies in the UK. I don’t object to paying for utilities. I do object to paying private companies subsidies which are integral to their success and allow them to pay out handsome salaries to directors and dividends to shareholders.

Why have access costs to Britain’s rail tracks been slashed since the 1990s? Because public money is being poured in to offset the actual charges which should be made by rail companies which then appear more efficient than they are and enable them to pay dividends to their investors. Whatever happened to the free market? Network Rail issues private bonds that are publicly guaranteed – to the tune of around £30 billion which means that it can then charge, say Branson’s Virgin Rail, artificially low charges for track access.

The £½ billion profits made by the Virgin rail franchise tells its own story: charismatic entrepreneur shakes up inefficient public institution and transforms it into a success.  Believe that if you like.

The billions that have gone on subsidising the rail system disguises the truth about privatisation. Money not only goes to allow them to operate but to finance their management and pay out to shareholders.

Everyone knows about the profits enjoyed by pharmaceutical companies. They, of course, have their own laboratories but they also benefit from research funded from the public purse as we’ve seen in the US. Fair enough but what isn’t fair is that once a drug has been proven a winner and being sold around the globe there is no pay-back in the form of sharing that success with the state that funded its new multi-billion drug. Instead we pay for the development of the new medicine and we pay to buy that same medicine. We pay and we pay again.

Where is the public interest in this arrangement? If we are paying for research why aren’t pharmaceuticals nationalised to provide us with cheaper medicines? If the pharmaceutical companies can do without publicly funded research why aren’t they?

If Virgin and the rest are able to pay dividends to their shareholders why aren’t they able to pay back public subsidies? More to the point why are they recipients of any public subsidies? Why do we have franchised rail companies if they cannot operate without state help? Why are they taking our money and labelling them as their ‘profits’?

If you can’t afford to operate a rail franchise or are not some cool dude with a keen eye for a canny business setup then there are still ways of raking in public money. You could take a piece of land out of agriculture for example.

Anyone who owns land may be able to pick up Farm Woodland Payments which run from £121 to £60 per acre.

The less you earn through agriculture in relation to your overall income the lower the subsidy you can claim but if you own a country pile, let’s say, and perhaps earn your living elsewhere, perhaps in a rail franchise, then you might think of setting up a separate farming business on that country plot. Do this and your other income is ignored and you will be free to pick up your public subsidy. If you remember to register your farming business for VAT you will be able to save in running this agri concern, whatever it is.

How does £85 an acre each year sound? For townies an acre isn’t much land but we’re not talking the odd acre here. This handy sum can be had under the Single Farm Payment. Add to this the Environmental subsidy which goes from £12 to a whopping £121 an acre and you’re talking lots and lots of cash for just being you. These two subsidies alone for doing sweet nothing amount to around £200 for every acre around your pile. Not to be sniffed at – enough not to worry about having to have the oiks constantly traipsing around your grounds and charging them for the privilege.

In Scotland under 19 000 landowners/businesses receive £484,528,467 in Single Farm Payments  and if you think, single payment sounds puny then how about Torphins farming business Frank Smart and Son who were the lucky recipients of a cool £3.2 million in 2012. I’ve rounded it down for simplicity. And don’t go away with the idea that times are tough and we’re all in it together – the Smarts subsidy from us rose by £781,853. 93 from their previous handout. In 2009 the Smart business was handed a mere £1.2 million – does this mean it has become less efficient to the tune of £2 million?

You may want to pause for a cup of tea to digest these figures. They amount to money. From you and more importantly, from me.

I can’t get my head around the fact that anyone who can claim £3 million is in any way entitled to public handouts. The lists of land subsidy winners is a who’s who of estate owners and big knobs from British society. Outside of Scotland the Queen and Duke of Westminster also benefit from public handouts.

http://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/Article.aspx/3269422

Landowners, at least farmers, can buy up entitlements to subsidies – that is buy land away from their main holding which may or may not be farmed but which adds to their business portfolio.  

If you’re serious about your land you might actually farm it and then you can claim some of the £21 918 281 paid out to Scotland’s nearly 8 000 beef producers (farmers).

If your land is not up to supporting beasts don’t worry. You can still get your hands on public dosh through the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme. Last year 11 000 Scottish land owners were able to claim £66 533 651.

It is a very very long time since farming went it alone in this country. Fear of food shortages led to agri subsidies and, well, have you ever tried to get money off a farmer?

The president of the Scottish Farming Union recently declared the arrangement for SFPs was wrong. He was responding to complaints that some farmers are unable to claim subsidies but why are we still paying out subsidies to them at all?

There are other agri subsidies such as Weather Aid. This is a pot of £6 million to cushion the blow of the impact of extreme weather on farming production such as loss of stock or arable crops.

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/transport-environment/revealed-the-scots-farmers-made-millionaires-by-eu-subsidies-1.1026316

But back to the railways. New Labour in government completed the privatisation of Britain’s rail services and so enabled the system where private rail franchises are able to claim subsidies higher than the premiums they pay to the government for the franchises they claim to be able to run efficiently.

Where is the sense in that?

Virgin receives 3.6 p per passenger mile to the tune of £133 million. Of £41 million pre-tax profits it provided £29 million to shareholders. At the same time the east coast service receives 0.5 pence each passenger mile.

Virgin has denied any imbalance.

The system of subsidies in this country is a win win for those who are prepared to work the system. At a time when seriously ill and disabled claimants are having their incomes reduced by changes to DLA is it acceptable that multi-nationals, landowners, pharma giants and the rest are being provided with non-returnable public money collected from our taxes? Talking of taxes – another day.

Any private company reliant on the state for subsidies is a failing business. If the state has to act to finance any private organisation then the state should take over its business.  Don’t tell me the state is necessarily more inefficient. What we have now is subsidy-junky culture which camouflages failures in private enterprise. Why are we pretending private is better than public in cases when it is patently incapable of supporting itself or unwilling to do so? It used to be that the free market was a risky place to enter but for some that element has been removed knowing failure will be underwritten by those of us who pay our taxes.

See also

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/01/farm-subsidies-blatant-transfer-of-cash-to-rich