29 June 2009

Once More Unto the Brink?

The world has fallen silent on the issue of the financial collapse. This blog included, interest has moved elsewhere. Perhaps we are all hoping that we can take a summer holiday from the credit crunch?

Mervyn King, to his credit, is persisting with his doggedly conventional view that public borrowing of the level that we are seeing it is unsustainable. Intermittent but persistent warnings filter through the media - real news occasionally penetrating the celebrity gossip columns that our newspapers and radio programmes have become.

A recent article in the London Review of Books gives a thorough and lengthy account of the crisis, and shares my uneasy sensation that we are pausing for breath rather than breathing easy. The debt crisis has not gone away. Some portion of the debt has been pushed onto the public and out of the private sector. And with our money we have bought insurance that the rest of the debt will be repaid from future economic growth. Growth on the scale to make this bet pay off is unimaginable - even if it didn't signify the death of the planet.

Lanchester has calculated that the money given to banks so far means that each UK household is in debt to the tune of 160% of its annual income. He concludes that debt on this level is quite unpayable and goes as far as suggesting that capitalism - as a system - has failed. This is, presumably, why this message arrives via the London Review of Books and from a novelist, rather than in the American Economic Review and from an economist. (Lanchester extended version of the analysis - a book called Whoops! - is eagerly anticipated.)

The big lie that is circulating at present, and that we are all working hard to believe through various denial and displacement strategies, is that we stared into the abyss and stepped back. A financial crisis threatened but, through paying a huge price and now through working hard in future and tightening our belts we can get through this.

The problem is that this just ain't so. The crisis has been postponed not resolved. As Lanchester puts it the policies adopt are 'not so different from dressing up in a costume and dancing in a circle praying for the intervention of the Market Gods'. The marketeers and their politicians have reached that mental double-bind that leads to insanity. They cannot solve the problem without accepting that capitalism doesn't work.

22 June 2009

Subversion Lures

Bristol folk-hero folk-artist Banksy has returned to his roots to transform the city's Art Gallery and museum into a living exemplar of the best of modern art. Thought-provoking, wise and hilarious, it has been attracting throngs of visitors of varying shapes and sizes, ages and classes. It is a pleasure to be at an exhibition where rather than wondering what they should think or feel about the art people are just spontaneously laughing out loud. The show is on until the end of August and should not be missed.

The photo above is typical of Banksy's style - witty, provocative and challenging to contemporary culture, in this case the cheap flight. It is a prepared version of Claude Lorrain's Flight into Egypt, entitled 'Flight into Egypt: Budget Version'.

Amongst my favourites was the dildo that had been sneaked into the display case of stalactites and stalagmites, the gleaner who had skived off for a fag break, and 'the angel of the north' as a classical statue transformed into ladette. Banksy's history of run-ins with the law is a recurring theme - Mad-Max style riot police are found riding children's playground toys and skipping through meadows.

Start the Week this morning included a rather tame discussion about what civilisation means, which degenerated at one point into a sterile debate about the value of modern art. For me, the Banksy exhibition answered the question about what art is for, although questions of its monetary value continue to be problematic. While Banksy now sells internationally at a premium we cannot know how he spends his earnings. He has paid for all the costs of this exhibition, including the many additional staff needed to police the largest crowd seen in the Museum in a generation. Banksy himself obviously has little time for the mass-produced and unimaginative work of commercially focused artists such as Damien Hirst. One of his canvases is a spot painting attributed to 'Local Artist and Damien Hirst'. The spot painting is being covered with grey by a mouse with a stepladder and paint pot.

This rather poor photo illustrates Banksy's take on one of my favourite themes - the measurement of the unmeasurable. It is a graphic apparently illustrating crime data on the number of examples of street art experiencing a rapid increase.

The conservative minded commentator on Radio 4 was criticising the lack of nobility of modern art, its failure to show discipline and inspire higher thoughts. His female colleague was presenting her findings on the privatisation of formerly public space. Banksy seems to answer both their arguments. In an era when the complacent consider that we have reached the perfect apotheosis of humanity - the end of history - while children starve in their thousands every day, what could art do other than force us to question everything? And in an era of privatisation of everything from urban space to water supplies, one might well expect to find these questions raised by an artist who uses stolen public space as his preferred canvas.

20 June 2009

From Horsey Culture to Horticulture

I spent last Sunday at the delightful West Country Scything Festival. Having grown up in this part of the world I am deeply proud of its particularly relaxed take on life and it comes as no surprise to me that the Green Party did so well here in the recent European Elections. Unlike the South-East, where you can't help feeling that Cult of Caroline has a lot to do with the Party's success, in our neck of the woods Green voting feels like something that is spreading organically, or rhizomically, with no great media attention and no celebrities. For an increasingly large proportion of West Country people voting Green is becoming a natural thing to do.

The scything festival is a step further. It is an attempt, led by the excellent Simon Fairlie, to keep country crafts and skills alive. Men and women are taught scything and then compete with each other - and with strimmers - to show off their prowess. The whole event feels like a 21st century Medieval fair, with mummers and the inescapable morris men thrown in for good measure. There was also music - a band called Not Made in China and a singer known as 'badly horse-drawn boy', because his home is a gypsy caravan that converts into a solar-powered stage.

The festival crowd grows in size every year, but the scything festival reminds us that the land is for more than leisure. During a debate on the future of farming several speakers railed against the paddock culture, which means that farmers and smallholders cannot afford land because the rich are competing to use it to graze their horses. (In the West Country these people are always said to come from London - as though we didn't have enough home-grown aristocrats).

Just as the phrase 'market town' should remind us that, in a balanced economy, a town has no more citizens than can be fed from the surrounding land, so we should look to recreating the market gardens that have disappeared under car parks and paddocks. A working land is a land that feeds the people who live with it, rather than use being determined by profit maximisation.

17 June 2009

Banksters' Paradise

Alastair Darling's Mansion House Speech last night was intended to be the last word on the financial crisis and that word is: complacency. Apparently there is nothing wrong with the system of banking regulation. The intervention by the Mervyn King indicates that, for once, there is a split between the economists and the politicians: Darling dare not challenge the power of the banks, but King recognises the danger of their supreme power in the economy.

There is an important sense in which the Darling of the city is right: regulation is not the point. The banking system was designed to enable a small number of people to profit hugely from the economy while the rest of us labour for a shrinking share of resources. The system of regulation did nothing to prevent that; but then it was not intended to. The boom and bust that has been so spectacularly played out over the past year is not a temporary aberration; it is symptomatic of the economic system we live under.

It can't be a coincidence that Obama ,made his announcement about changes to the regulation of the US banking system on the same day. And here we see that, contrary to our preconceptions, there is a stronger sense of resistance to corporations (or 'trusts' as they were historically called in the US) on that side of the Atlantic. The attempt to begin to control the derivatives market is a small gesture in the direction of actually retaking political control over this most wayward section of economic life.

The cause of the financial crisis was the absence of any sort of democratic control, any representation of the views of the citizen, in the banking sector and this has remained unchallenged. Neither the FSA in the UK nor the Fed. in the US has any accountability to citizens. This is internal regulation within the financial elite. It is leaving power in the hands of exactly the same bodies that failed to prevent the crisis this time around. It is a refusal to question the nature of financial organisation under capitalism.

In a sustainable and just economy banking would be a peripheral rather than parasitical activity. Money would be created to faciliate exchanges. It would be impossible to use money to make more money, which is the source of our current woes. Nothing teaches this better than trying to create your own local currency, as we are here in Stroud. A real money system cannot work without a successful productive economy. Making money is easy, but in an economy that has lived parasitically off the rest of the world for centuries the next step, recreating living productive economies, is a seriously long haul.

13 June 2009

Enough is Enough

The expenses scandal has operated as a metaphor for many commentators on the state of our society, precarious state I might say. The hapless politicians, who were only really playing the game, have become the repositories of repressed desires from all sections of society, who relieve their own stresses and strains by these projections. Moat-owners manques and those envious of the owners of two homes have relished the destruction of the paragons of a former culture which is now passing into obscurity.

Because Greed is no longer good and is no longer fashionable. The Janus-headed crisis that we are living through - a crisis of capitalism perhaps - has forced a subconscious realisation that the long-held and much supported ideology of acquisition and accumulation was destructive for us all and, most importantly, for our beautiful planetary home. From this perspective, a home that has some minor semblance of Balmoral is no longer an obscure object of desire: it has moved through being a source of mockery to seeming 'So last paradigm, darling'.

This can only bring relief to a green economist. As we need an end to economic growth, so we inevitably need an end to the culture of frenzied accumulation that has dominated our popular culture for the last 30 years or so. Before the advent of Thatcherism there was a memory (affectionate in some quarters) of the frugality of the war years and a balancing reaction from the post-materialist hippy generation of according a value to simplicity. Marshall Sahlins's Stone Age Economics , with its tales of the satisfaction of pre-capitalist indigenous societies, is a leading example of academic work in this vein.

People with less sophisticated cultures than our own know when they have had enough. Once they reach that point they stop working, sit about, natter, and generally enjoy themselves. Remember what that felt like? Changing our culture to one of sustainability will mean restoring the concept of 'enough' to our economic and social lives. It will mean a focus on satisfaction and sufficiency rather than greed and growth. This was the consumption ethic that characterised societies of the past, and still characterises peasant societies today.

Gary Snyder describes this as a subsistence economy. He makes clear how such an economy, being well-grounded in all senses, is also respectful of other forms of life and of our dependence on it for our survival:

‘A subsistence economy is a sacramental economy because it has faced up to one of the critical problems of life and death: the taking of life for food. Contemporary people do not need to hunt, many cannot even afford meat, and in the developed world the variety of foods available to us makes the avoidance of meat an easy choice. Forests in the tropics are cut to make pasture to raise beef for the American market. Our distance from the source of our food enables us to be superficially more comfortable, and distinctly more ignorant.’

The disarray amongst MPs is only a reflection of our own individual struggles with the daily temptations to over-consume and to over-compensate for our spiritual want with material excess.

9 June 2009

A Word in Your Shell-like

Today should surely see the hammering of the final nail into the coffin of the concept of CSR--corporate social responsibility. This trite phrase has always been a contradiction in terms and the implicit admission by oil-giant Shell of their collusion with the Nigerian government in the execution of 11 Ogoni activists including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa tears away the remnants of the thin veil covering the naked greed of the global corporate elite.

Shell was a leading proponent of CSR, or a leading exponent of Greenwash , depending on your point of view. The global reach of the oil corporate's activities had left a similarly extensive trail of shame reaching all the way from the Niger delta to the North Sea, where Shell's attempt to dump the disused Brent Spar rig in the Atlantic was successfuly opposed by Greenpeace. Shell was also a founding member of the Global Climate Coalition, which fought against the evidence of climate change and may have ensured the extinction of the human species.

As a timely response of questionable scope Shell set up a Foundation and started distributing a tiny proportion of its profits to worthy causes, including environmental organisations naive enough to take the filthy lucre. Attempts to rebuild the company's reputation in Nigeria itself were particularly criticised. Health centres and schools were launched across the Niger delta, only to be left half finished when the TV cameras moved on.

The complaints by international leaders about the poor standards of governance that prevent African governments from improving the lives of their people are illuminated as the rankest hypocrisy by the story of the joint project by the Nigerian elite and Shell to serve their limited self-interest at the cost of the millions of Nigerians. The courage of Saro-Wiwa and his comrades in drawing the world's attention to these iniquities has been vindicated by the court judgment.

6 June 2009

Conspicuous absence

I'm going to get a little personal in today's post because I need to get something off my chest. Quite a few months back I was invited to be part of a team of Welsh Greens who will put on a series of lectures in the Smithsonian Museum - yes the very one that they have helpfully just made a Hollywood movie about. The idea is to showcase Welsh Green expertise. I was included with some top names and felt rather pleased with myself.

The problem is that I don't fly any more. I'm not saying never, but my last flight was in 2003 and I'm seriously hoping it stays that way. I have missed exciting opportunities in North America that would have helped my career no end and also had to tolerate more personal sadnesses like missing friends' weddings. But as a green economist and green party speaker I just don't want to be a hypocrite and feel morally bound to do my best to keep to my one-tonne limit.

The lecture series is organised by the Centre for Alternative Techology and so I was sure they would understand. And indeed they were planning to arrange a live video-link to Washington from Machynlleth - the concept itself is worth travelling to Mid Wales for! I imagined myself and my Welsh Green mates would have a few pleasant days at CAT but this won't happen because only one of the other contributors has refused to fly. Everybody else has taken the Welsh Assembly funding and the chance of a free beano stateside. I am shocked and saddened by this and left feeling isolated and punished for sticking to my principles. I really don't think I am self-satisfied or pompous about this; I just can't personally think of any other way.

Together with the other contributor who will not be in Washington in person, I have been reduced to 10 minutes of the programme. Thus the people who are most committed to carbon limits will be allowed to say the least. It appears that our contributions will now be short films, made in advance, and we will not get the chance to join in the debates.

I'm going to conclude my short presentation by asking those present to think very seriously about their own commitment - to look inwards rather than outwards. Our economy looks ever outward. It focuses on what Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption, and on global expansion and material growth. Lapping up media attention and jetting around the world is just one part of this.

A friend of Mark Lynas told me about a conversation they had after he flew to New Zealand to publicise his book on the dangers of climate change. She told him his journey wasn't worth it. I agree. Barack Obama's flight to Cairo to try to achieve peace in the Middle East is worth the carbon emissions. A bunch of Green academics addressing a couple of hundred US citizens, no matter how posh the venue, is not.

A green economy would encourage us rather to look inward and keep in mind the wisdom of Lao Tzu from his Dao De Qing:

‘In ruling men and serving Heaven
Nothing is comparable to a prudent economy’

In a time of crisis the temptation is to rush into desperate activity, but I would caution against this and suggest the importance of reflection and the exercise of judgement. Rest is as important as action and we need to exercise the same careful management of our inner resources as our outer resources.

3 June 2009

The Beautiful Game for Beautiful Minds

I enjoyed Larry Elliott's game of Fantasy Economic Football, if only for the entertaining mental image it conjured up of all the economists I have ever known in shorts. The scene would only be enhanced if they were forced to show their intellectual colours by choosing from the range of shirtwear available from Philosophy Football. Danny Blanchflower was sadly overlooked - the Monetary Policy Committee rebel who taught me briefly years ago before I was an economist.

Larry's problem may be that he is looking for his world-class players in the wrong place. Although the intellectual Premier League might be expected to be at Cambridge and Harvard, the control of publication, esteem and promotion by research assessment exercises of various types has in fact ensured the advancement of the mediocre while creative thinkers are showing off their paces in the intellectual equivalent of the Sunday morning leagues - campaign groups, think-tanks, lower level Universities and colleges, and within other faculties.

Who is an economist? Larry Elliott cites two contemporary examples, both of whom are academics. Yet the list of defunct economists he sets on a pedestal achieved their best work in a role that is more like that of a public intellectual. Unconstrained by the need to impress colleagues and succeed in a system of blind peer review they could think freely and address the important issues of political economy that troubled their times.

Larry is right - and I know this to my cost - that considering the world as it is, rather than as it can be represented in a mathematical equation, represents a serious handicap when trying to work as an academic economist. The 'world outside the window' holds you back from elegant theorising and professional advance. Making reference to the fleshy substance of human existence - far less, the gross and energetic mass of nature - disturbs and disorientates the tidy world of the econometrician. My own proposals for funding research into a re-embedded bioregional economy based around human interactions and natural resources are met with apoplectic incomprehension.

Academic economists could, in fact, learn much from playing more football - a venture into the outdoors would be salutary, not to mention the move from 'rational economic man' to 'emotional physical men'. The more open-minded might come to share Albert Camus's view, 'All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football'

1 June 2009

A Load of Old Balls?

Puns like this could be everywhere by the end of the week, if they pundits are right and disastrous results for labour lead to a cabinet reshuffle that goes almost to the top. Gordon Brown's bag-man Ed Balls is a tabloid headline-writers dream - my colleague the Green Bean Counter worked with him at the Treasury many years ago and says they have a large collection or pre-made plays on his name they are no doubt willing to share.

Now Darling himself, whether fairly or unfairly, has been caught up in the gutter politics of allowances he is unlikely to survive. I was slow to catch onto the expenses scandal, considering it a distraction from the real issues and an example of political displacement activity. But it seems to be more of a touchstone for a general resentment with the unequal nature of our society and a token issue for the backlog of fury and disillusionment that the economic and financial crisis are causing.

The journalists and the public have the wrong target, but their anger is valid. The rage against the unfair distribution of resources may be expressed in terms of moats and duck-houses but has been seeded by the fury at the realisation that the elite class in this country have created a framework of laws and regulations that has enabled them to extract the value of the economy that the working people of the country have created.

My accountant friend informs me that 'flipping' your primary residence to avoid Capital Gains Tax is quite within the rules, and that people who are privileged enough to have two houses do it all the time. (I do live on the edge of the Cotswolds, remember.) The public revulsion is not that people have done anything illegal but that the laws that make this acceptable are laws designed by the rich to benefit the rich. The Capital Gains Revenue that should have paid for hospitals and schools was legaly, but immorally, avoided.