Thursday, December 31, 2015

Buying Tax Breaks

The New York Times reports that with inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes, consisting of expensive lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend an array of tax-avoidance maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means. The ultra-wealthy “literally pay millions of dollars for these services,” said Jeffrey A. Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University who studies economic elites, “and save in the tens or hundreds of millions in taxes.” Whatever tax rates Congress sets, the actual rates paid by the ultra-wealthy tend to fall over time as they exploit their numerous advantages. The major industry group representing private equity funds spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year lobbying on such issues as “carried interest,” the granddaddy of Wall Street tax loopholes, which makes it possible for fund managers to pay the capital gains rate rather than the higher standard tax rate on a substantial share of their income for running the fund.

Operating largely out of public view — in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service — the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government’s ability to tax them. The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans.
 “There’s this notion that the wealthy use their money to buy politicians; more accurately, it’s that they can buy policy, and specifically, tax policy,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who served as chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “That’s why these egregious loopholes exist, and why it’s so hard to close them.”

“We do have two different tax systems, one for normal wage-earners and another for those who can afford sophisticated tax advice,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of San Diego who studies the intersection of tax policy and inequality. “At the very top of the income distribution, the effective rate of tax goes down, contrary to the principles of a progressive income tax system.”

Two decades ago, when Bill Clinton was elected president, the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in America paid nearly 27 percent of their income in federal taxes, according to I.R.S. data. By 2012, when President Obama was re-elected, that figure had fallen to less than 17 percent, which is just slightly more than the typical family making $100,000 annually, when payroll taxes are included for both groups. From Obama’s inauguration through the end of 2012, federal income tax rates on individuals did not change (excluding payroll taxes). But the highest-earning one-thousandth of Americans went from paying an average of 20.9 percent to 17.6 percent. By contrast, the top 1 percent, excluding the very wealthy, went from paying just under 24 percent on average to just over that level.

Each of the top 400 earners took home, on average, about $336 million in 2012, the latest year for which data is available. If the bulk of that money had been paid out as salary or wages, as it is for the typical American, the tax obligations of those wealthy taxpayers could have more than doubled. Instead, much of their income came from convoluted partnerships and high-end investment funds. Other earnings accrued in opaque family trusts and foreign shell corporations, beyond the reach of the tax authorities. The well-paid technicians who devise these arrangements toil away at white-shoe law firms and elite investment banks, as well as a variety of obscure boutiques. But at the fulcrum of the strategizing over how to minimize taxes are so-called family offices, the customized wealth management departments of Americans with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in assets. Family offices have existed since the late 19th century, when the Rockefellers pioneered the institution, and gained popularity in the 1980s. But they have proliferated rapidly over the last decade, as the ranks of the super-rich, and the size of their fortunes, swelled to record proportions. Family offices, many of which are dedicated to managing and protecting the wealth of a single family, oversee everything from investment strategy to philanthropy. But tax planning is a core function. While the specific techniques these advisers employ to minimize taxes can be mind-numbingly complex, they generally follow a few simple principles, like converting one type of income into another type that’s taxed at a lower rate.

Organizing one’s business as a partnership can be lucrative in its own right. Some of the partnerships from which the wealthy derive their income are allowed to sell shares to the public, making it easy to cash out a chunk of the business while retaining control. But unlike publicly traded corporations, they pay no corporate income tax; the partners pay taxes as individuals. And the income taxes are often reduced by large deductions, such as for depreciation. The IRS is not allowed to collect underpaid taxes directly from these partnerships, even those with several hundred partners. Instead, it must collect from each individual partner, requiring the agency to commit significant time and manpower. The budget deal that Congress approved in October allows the I.R.S. to collect underpaid taxes from large partnerships at the firm level for the first time — which is far easier for the agency — thanks to a provision that lawmakers slipped into the deal at the last minute, before many lobbyists could mobilize. But the new rules are relatively weak — firms can still choose to have partners pay the taxes — and don’t take effect until 2018, giving the wealthy plenty of time to weaken them further.

The wealthy can also avail themselves of a range of customized tax deductions that go far beyond writing off a home office or dinner with a client. One strategy is to place income in a type of charitable trust, generating a deduction that offsets the income tax. The trust then purchases what’s known as a private placement life insurance policy, which invests the money on a tax-free basis, frequently in a number of hedge funds. The person’s heirs can inherit, also tax-free, whatever money is left after the trust pays out a percentage each year to charity, often a considerable sum.

The inheritance tax has been a primary target. In the early 1990s, a California family office executive named Patricia Soldano began lobbying on behalf of wealthy families to repeal the tax, which would not only save them money, but also make it easier to preserve their business empires from one generation to the next. The idea struck many hardened operatives as unrealistic at the time, given that the tax affected only the wealthiest Americans. But Ms. Soldano’s efforts — funded in part by the Mars and Koch families — laid the groundwork for a one-year elimination in 2010. The tax has been restored, but currently applies only to couples leaving roughly $11 million or more to their heirs, up from those leaving more than $1.2 million when Ms. Soldano started her campaign. It affected fewer than 5,200 families last year.

For the ultra-wealthy, “our tax code is like a leaky barrel,” said J. Todd Metcalf, the Democrats’ chief tax counsel on the Senate Finance Committee.

Join the Union

Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, has urgedworkers to confront low wage growth and zero-hours contracts by joining a trade union. Unions have struggled to extend their reach to the kinds of workplace where the use of temporary or casual staff is widespread.

“To every worker – freelance, contract, temporary or permanent – I say: get a group of your colleagues together and join a union. Feel that support, that confidence and that pride that only comes when you stand with your workmates and use your collective sway to make working life better,” O’Grady said in a New Year message. “According to the government, we’re out of the doldrums and getting back to economic health. But not everyone is feeling it. It will take until 2018 for average earnings just to get back to the real value they held in 2008. Ten years of pay going backwards while everything else – transport, housing, bills – gets ever more expensive and debt piles up. A lost decade.”

 She expressed concern about the growing evidence of a two-speed recovery, with consumer spending and house prices expanding strongly, while manufacturing and exports have remained weak. Britain is at risk of turning into a ‘below stairs’ labour market – college leavers are eight times more likely to find work in the service sector than in manufacturing. And when they do find work, it’s too often dead end, with little chance to progress O’Grady said. 

Trade unions have come under attack from the government, which has introduced legislation to curtail industrial action. But with average wages growing at just 2% a year, and zero-hours contracts becoming increasingly prevalent. The TUC calculates the average worker is still £40 a week worse off in real terms than before the financial crisis – the equivalent of over £2,000 a year. The Institute of Directors (IoD) ,which speaks for business pointed out “The last few years have been a good period for larger business, as they have been able to borrow cheaply, and wage growth has been slow.”

Houses - profits before needs

Britain’s biggest housebuilders possess enough land to create more than 600,000 new homes, the Guardian has found.

The nine housebuilders hold 615,152 housing plots in their landbank, according to financial disclosures. This is four times the total number of homes built in Britain in the past year. Berkeley, Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey – the four biggest companies in the industry – account for more than 450,000 of the plots. They are also sitting on £947 million of cash and declared or issued more than £1.5 billion in payouts to shareholders in 2015. Ttheir profits and share prices are booming as they enjoy the benefits of snapping up land cheaply and as the average selling price of their property rises. The housebuilders also include Bellway, Bovis, Crest Nicholson, Galliford Try and Redrow.

The land held by housebuilders includes sites they own and sites that they have an contractual option to build on. Some housebuilders do not publicly disclose all the land they control, meaning their total landbank could be even bigger. For example, Bellway does not report land that has not got planning permission for house construction, while Persimmon says it controls 18,000 acres of “strategic land” on top of more than 90,000 plots that already have planning permission.

Shelter’s Toby Lloyd, head of policy for the housing charity, said: “Developers do need a pipeline of future sites – but when housebuilding is still stubbornly low and landbanks are this large it is a signal of how dysfunctional our housebuilding system is. These are private companies so it’s reasonable for them to seek profits. But when their profits are so high we should be questioning why the government is directing subsidies towards developers to build barely affordable starter homes and away from providing the genuinely affordable housing we so desperately need."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Destroying the sea

Decades of over-fishing, industrial pollution, plastic waste and threats to basic ecological stability posed by climate change all demonstrate how "humanity is collectively mismanaging the ocean to the brink of collapse," according to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Blue Planet Report. Now another threat is emerging: deep sea mining. New technology has made the exaction of copper, zinc, manganese, nickel, cobalt and gold from under the sea possible.

The world's first-ever commercial deep sea mining (DSM) project is due to start in under two years time - and environmentalists and scientists are worried.
"We currently have very poor understanding of deep sea ecosystems, few protected areas, and management regimes that are rudimentary at best," said marine conservation biologist Rick Steiner. "Thus, the potential for irreversible ecological damage due to DSM is high. We need a ten-year continuous time series of research before we will have even a vague understanding of the environmental impact."

The Solwara 1 deep sea mine, the joint venture between Canadian mining company Nautilus Minerals and the Papua New Guina government, located 19 miles off Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean, is the first project in the world to be granted a commercial DSM extraction license. Production is now expected to start in early 2018, and the company plans to mine deposits of copper, zinc and gold worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Nautilus Minerals claims mining the seabed will have less of an impact than terrestrial mining due to the smaller scale of its operation - with DSM, minerals are found in concentrated nodules associated with volcanic activity - and the fact that no roads or infrastructure would be required to gain access. However, independent science-based reports released in 2009, 2011 and 2012 detail deficiencies in the science and modelling used by Nautilus. The reports claim that DSM could cause irreversible ecological damage to sites that could contain hundreds of species previously unknown to science. It also says the mining activity would introduce light and noise pollution in pristine areas, and could produce sediment plumes introducing toxic metals into the food chain - harming tuna, dolphins and potentially humans. Deep Sea Mining Campaign, published a report in 2015 entitled Accountability Zero that was endorsed by economists, scientists and NGOs including Greenpeace Australia and Earthworks. The group analyzed the results of an environmental impact report conducted by the American consultancy firm Earth Economics, and commissioned by Nautilus, which compared the potential impacts of Solwara 1 to existing land-based copper mining. Accountability Zero claims the report failed to account for the unique social, cultural and economic values of oceans.

The number of companies seeking to mine in international waters has tripled in the last four years, and the US, UK, Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, Germany and South Korea all have exploration projects underway. Most of these are in the Pacific, while others are in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Separate projects have also been proposed in the national waters of Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tonga and New Zealand. The process regulating DSM is distinct. Permits to explore for minerals are issued by governments within their territorial waters - 200 nautical miles from shore - or by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in international waters. Formed in 1994, the ISA was established by the UN to regulate international waters, described as "common heritage of mankind" and not subject to direct claims by sovereign states. But a major criticism of the ISA has been the issuance of exploration permits without having first approved environmental standards. Despite issuing mining permits since its inception, it wasn't until July 2015 that the ISA began drafting a framework on environmental standards and regulations, which is still to be finalized. A policy paper published in Science called for the ISA to cease issuing permits until environmental controls are in place. Written by researchers from the Center for Ocean Solutions and co-authors from leading global institutions, the report proposes a strategy for balancing commercial extraction with protection for seabed habitats. But despite the paper's warnings, the ISA went ahead and authorized the latest Pacific exploration contract to China Minmetals. Altogether, the ISA has issued 27 permits for mineral exploration covering around 1.2 million square miles of seabed. All but eight have been issued within the last four years.

In the US, the Center for Biological Diversity launched a lawsuit against the government over its approval of the first-ever large-scale DSM exploration project between Hawaii and Mexico, claiming it lacked the required environmental assessment.

New Zealand is another country where anti-DSM campaigning has been strong due to the government's 2004 Foreshore and Seabed legislation, which created a series of prospecting permits for companies seeking to exploit the iron sand reserves in the west coast seabed. Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) was established in 2005 to protest DSM, and its biggest victory to date came against Trans Tasman Resources in December of last year. TTR wanted to mine 50 million tons of iron sand from the seabed, but was rejected by the country's Environment Protection Authority.
"To date seabed mining has been very much under the radar but it absolutely warrants a lot more attention," said Phil McCabe, chairman of KASM. "Greenpeace has stated that seabed mining has the potential to have the largest areal impact on the planet of any human activity - it's akin to deforestation on a massive scale, and we need to turn people on to what it is."

Yet again, capitalism is willing to sacrifice unique life-sustaining ecosystems for the short-term profit of some big corporation with very little thought given to the long-term environmental costs of such brazen exploitation of resources.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015



Having been demoted from Party Chairman for “overfirmly denying”
running a business whilst an MP, Shapps has now resigned because he
failed to act in the bullying affair where a young Tory committed suicide.

Farewell Grant Shapps, one of the chaps,         
That everyone could trust;                                   
Provided that he kept the bread,   
And left you with the crust!           
Described as, “Unreliable”,
The Guardian hath spoke; (1)
So it’s ironic one can’t say,
He’s a pig in a poke.

As one could always be assured,
Indeed be more than sure;
That somewhere lurking in the past,
Were more sacks of manure!

But other chancers still remain,
And law firm Clifford Chance;
Will make enquiries of a sort,
Or least adopt a stance! (2)

The Tory Party more than most,
Attracts the oily kind;
Who after they donate, expect
That they’ll be wined and dined.

The Party is the kind of place,
Where monkey business thrives;
And ‘dog-eat-dog’ the only way,
These ‘Pit-Bulls’ live their lives.  

(1) The Guardian 01/12/15.

(2) Law firm Clifford Chance have often worked for the
Tory Party so some are questioning their ‘independence’.

© Richard Layton

When Free Access Is Not Free Access

Facebook - gatekeeper to the internet

It is illegal in the United States for an internet service provider to discriminate between different types of data. America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to classify broadband internet as a public utility, ensuring that all data is treated equally. Large internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter (as well as non-profits such as Wikipedia) have convinced mobile operators to offer their services at no cost—so-called “zero-rating.” Net neutrality means that the Internet works the same for different users of the net, regardless of who you are.

All Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to do is make the world a better place for his new daughter, or so he would like us all to believe. Facebook is to provide a free but limited internet to the developing world. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, however, has asked Reliance Communications, Facebook’s sole operator partner in India, to halt the project. So-called “zero-rating” services have been criticized for violating net neutrality—principles that prohibit internet service providers from favoring, slowing, or restricting access to particular sites—and for threatening free speech and innovation. Net neutrality activists have long argued that provides a “walled garden” experience because the sites that users can access for free are determined by Facebook and its telecom partners, essentially making them gatekeepers to the internet for poor people. Millions of people already have a skewed perception of the web, believing Facebook to be the internet.

Facebook now boasts 1 billion people who visit the social network everyday and 1.5 billion who do so every month. Facebook see India as a huge untapped market and are aggressively going after new users there, even if it means having to provide them free access. It’s estimated that about 1 billion people in the country lack internet access, and most of them are expected to come online for the first time via cheap mobile phones. In a November call with investors, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg singled out India as the country “that benefits the most from connectivity.” As of last month, has connected more than 1 million people in India. Net neutrality activists take issue with this fact, arguing that Facebook and its partners are essentially acting as gatekeepers to the internet for poor people. The service in India is also known to be slow, spotty, and unreliable. Zuckerberg’s project to confuse hundreds of millions of emerging market users into thinking that Facebook and the Internet are one and the same.

When the poor, who can’t afford a net connection come to the Facebook Zero service confusingly called, they’re made to believe they’re on the internet while in reality they’re only on Facebook and a few hand-picked sites. And the sites too are picked in secret under some unknown process. For instance, Facebook chose to offer the distant-second search engine Bing instead of industry-leading Google. Why? Is it rivalry with Google? Or because of Microsoft’s stake in Facebook? And then Facebook’s Zero product features a tiny job site like Babajob instead of the industry-leading Naukri. Why? No one knows.

Indian journalist Nikhil Pahwa pointed out research after research that shows zero services around the world universally tend to do badly for the people who use them. It all seems to amount to economic racism—exploiting the poor in under-developed parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose. While offering them a shoddy, stunted version of the real thing. As Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of payments app PayTM, puts it: “It’s poor internet for poor people”. is a proprietary and secret Facebook initiative to ensure its competitors, and those of its “partners”, will face obstacles in reaching hundreds of millions of poorer users bought using the lure of “free”. Zuckerberg wants, is to take away from telecom operators the power to discriminate against websites, only so that Facebook can wield that power instead. The Internet should be neutral, he insists, so long as Facebook is allowed to play kingmaker in between. Zuckerberg’s ambitions become clear when, in his article, he says is open to “all mobile operators” and “as many internet providers” as possible. Who does he not mention? Internet sites and mobile apps. Because the power to decide which of them get on will rest with Facebook. is not open, and despite its name, is not the Internet.

You know who doesn’t have a say in Facebook’s You. Neither, Airtel Zero nor any other major zero rating platform gives the choice to the consumer. Instead, the decisions are made by big telcos working in partnership with large Internet companies. Smaller firms are forced to commercially lobby and sign up in order to prevent their competitors from being able to deal in and crush them.

The Odisha Chief Minister says that “While the underprivileged deserve much more than what is available, nobody should decide what exactly are their requirements. If you dictate what the poor should get, you take away their rights to choose what they think is best for them.”

We may find it advantageous that we do not have to pay (extra) for a particular type of traffic. Nevertheless, zero-rating lead to selected traffic from the Internet service provider itself or affiliated providers being favoured above other traffic. And this is exactly the kind of situation net neutrality aims to avoid – allowing the Internet service provider to decide how we use the Internet. Instead, the Internet should remain an open, neutral platform for all types of communication. Facebook is no doubt hoping that India’s and other countries interpretation of net neutrality doesn’t catch on, because zero-rated content is crucial to the social network’s growth strategy. Facebook want to be the ultimate portal to the internet – the average person’s starting point – and their best chance of playing this role for new customers is in emerging markets, where most people’s first internet experience is through the handset. Through deals with carriers in such markets, Facebook can to all intents and purposes be the internet, or at least the service new users most associate with being online. This was a major reason for Facebook’s $19 billion WhatsApp takeover – WhatsApp plays a similar role for many new internet users, and Facebook needed to both neutralize the threat and ride on WhatsApp’s own growing popularity.

Farming - The Middle Way

The World Bank says that “malnutrition contributes to infant, child and maternal illness, decreased learning capacity, lower productivity and higher mortality.” How many people does this affect? Almost 800 million people. Globally, at least one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That’s more than a billion tonnes of food a year.

Monsanto’s activity around the world is causing acute harm to our planet’s health.  Food and Water Watch has reported that the now widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, and genetically engineered seeds—many of them created by Monsanto—has resulted in herbicide-resistant “super-weeds” and the application of more and more chemicals to fight them. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate—the main ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—was “probably carcinogenic,” or cancer-causing

Nevertheless, Monsanto president and chief operating officer Brett Begemann called organic agriculture  “low-productivity” and “not the most sustainable solution” and argued that “High-productivity agriculture is actually the best that we can do for the environment and for sustainability.”

Begemann couldn’t be more wrong. The truth is this: The massive industrial agriculture system Monsanto and other agribusinesses have built over the last century is doing more harm than good. Organic agriculture is but one piece of the puzzle because for sure this is not n all black and white situation, there are grey areas. One of the most persistent arguments for modern, mechanized agriculture is that it produces a lot of food per acre, leaving more land for other purposes. However, in many poor countries, the smaller the farm, the greater its yields because when people only have a small amount of land to support them, they pour all their efforts into that land and eke more food per square foot than their neighbors with more land. The eco-modernists of the Breakthrough Institute countered that “the smallest African farms produced about 25 percent more yield per hectare than the largest African farms. But the average American farm produced about 10 times more yield per hectare than either. Yield gaps between farmers in rich nations and those in poor countries are profound.” They conclude we could grow more food on less land if every farm were as big and efficient as those in the U.S but the path to higher yields starts with farms getting smaller, rather than larger. That’s what’s happened in Asia — farms are getting smaller, using Green Revolution pesticides and fertilizers, and getting bigger yields. Creating big industrial farms in Africa or Asia would probably be a disaster. Linus Blomqvist, one of the authors of Nature Unbound, explained it would be a terrible idea, because it would mean that all those small subsistence farmers would have no way of supporting themselves.

Size just doesn’t matter (when we are talking about farm yields). You can have small farms with high yields, or big farms with low yields, and vice versa. Also, if we are chiefly concerned about environmental impact, farm size matters a lot less than the techniques and technologies those farms use.

In 2007, a group of researchers led by Catherine Badgley made a big-picture estimate of how many additional acres we would need to switch over to 100 percent organic. The number they arrived at was startlingly low: Zero acres. That is, they projected that we could go all-organic without increasing the amount of land used for agriculture one bit. But lots of other researchers disputed and protested, asking Are you really looking carefully at where you are getting your nitrogen?
Creating nitrogen fertilizer organically takes space. That’s because there are just two ways to get the nitrogen in our atmosphere into a form that plants can use: Bacteria can do it, or humans can do it by burning decomposed dinosaur goo (i.e. fossil fuel, mostly natural gas), through the industrial Haber-Bosch process. (There’s also some nitrogen fixed by lightning and internal combustion engines, but that’s hard to catch.) Both bacteria and humans start with nitrogen in the air and bind it to hydrogen, creating a form of nitrogen plants and use: ammonia, urea, ammonium, or nitrites.

The way you create fertilizer organically is to fill a field with legumes: plants that harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Once they’ve grown, you plow those nitrogen-packed plants into the ground. That takes up time and land that’s not growing food. Of course, you can also feed these plants to cattle, but you lose a lot of the nitrogen in the process, even if you put all the manure back on the field. When you are simply pouring synthetic nitrogen out of a bag, you don’t need this fallow period. So instead of looking at how much food an acre of land can produce for just one crop, we need to look at how much food an acre of land can produce over multiple years — and account for those fallow years, when nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes are planted. Following the 2007 Badgley study, other researchers looked at this issue — but largely sidestepped the question, arguing that yields didn’t depend on farmers devoting their fields to nitrogen production for a long time. Even so, the new studies found that organic yields were lower than conventional; the best apples-to-apples comparisons had organic producing somewhere around 30 to 20 percent less.

But then other researchers protested again: What about manure?

It’s true that organic farm yields don’t depend on farmers dedicating growing seasons to nitrogen production, but that’s probably because the farmers that spend less time producing nitrogen with legumes apply more manure to their fields. Manure is a big source of nitrogen fertilizer for organic farmers, especially in richer countries. When farmers use manure to fertilize their fields, they are using nitrogen that has traveled through several steps: First it’s crafted by bacteria or people, then it’s absorbed by plants and turned into new growth, then it’s eaten by an animal and pooped out. In the U.S., a lot of the nitrogen that organic farmers get is really synthetic ammonia that has passed through livestock before reaching them in the form of manure. If we did away with this transfer, and instead set aside more land for generating this manure, how many additional acres would we have to clear? No one has done that calculation — it was just too thorny a problem for the researchers to solve.

According to available evidence it does look like we’d have to significantly expand our farmland if we switched all agriculture over to organic. Now, in theory, the amount of extra land you’d need to go organic could be much smaller if all the small farms in Africa performed as well as the Rodale Institute experimental farm in Pennsylvania. Pour research money into finding improvements, and we might be able to get the yield gap between conventional and organic to disappear entirely. But you could make the same argument on the other side of the ledger: If you were able to get more conventional farmers to use best practices, we’d also see even more food production from even less land area. This doesn’t mean we seek high yields at any cost. Organic agriculture requires more land upstream of production, because you have to grow nitrogen fertilizer before you can grow food. But conventional agriculture takes up more space downstream from production: Fertilizers wash into waterways creating dead zones; soil washes away, too, and that eventually creates the need for more farmland; the manure lagoons required for confined animal feeding operations dominate space, especially when they leak. The great strength of organic agriculture is in building up and restoring soil. Better soil structure, in turn, means less erosion and pollution. Perhaps we could do that good soil building, and use some synthetic nitrogen to keep our agricultural footprint from expanding. Rather than forcing a choice between organic and industrial, we should create hybrids out of whatever techniques work best.

We should also ask: Is it really so bad if we can’t produce the same amount of food on the same amount of land? If we wasted less food, and distributed it more equitably, and ate less meat, we could all feed ourselves well, even with significantly lower farm yields. As population grows over the next 35 years, however, we’re going to have to do it all: reduce waste, farm more efficiently, share more equitably, eat less meat, and increase yields. Jonathan Foley, calculated that, if we do all of those things, we might just be able to freeze agricultural expansion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and feed all the people who are going to be with us by 2050. It’s easy enough to note that we waste a ridiculous amount of food, and that many of us are getting fat and could use a reduction in calories, but it’s much harder to turn these trends around. To make matters worse, climate change is driving farm yields down as we struggle. Feeding ourselves is not going to be easy: If we simply dismiss the option of increasing production and try to make up for it in other ways, we will fall short. Falling short would mean converting more land to agriculture — more forests felled, more prairies plowed — which means more greenhouse gas emissions. It’s clear that cutting down forests for farmland is terrible from a greenhouse gas perspective. The total amount of land clearance for agriculture has leveled out for now; the forests burning in South-East Asia are balanced out by the forests that have returned to New England and Europe.

It’s important to be efficient in our land use with farming. But that doesn’t mean that we all need to stop worrying and love industrial farming. Organic production has a lot to contribute and industrial farming has a lot of room for improvement. As we strive toward sustainability, context always matters. In many places it will make sense to maximize production, so as to spare forests elsewhere. In some places, organic makes more sense — where there’s an abundance of manure, or no synthetic fertilizers available, or where there’s plenty of land best used for farms. Sometimes it feels as if the divide between organic and industrial farming is too wide to bridge — but we’re almost certainly going to need the best of both for a future that makes sense. There are zero barriers to adoption of successful organic techniques by conventional farmers. And where there are negative externalities like water pollution, they should be dealt with, e.g., by regulation or tax, for both organic and conventional agriculture. But throwing out all of the tools of BigAg, like being able to fix nitrogen or use biotech to create pest-resistant plants, as the organic believers do, is completely senseless and smacks of religious dogma. We should not forget that the great Dust-Bowl of the American mid-west was before the extensive usage of pesticides and was because of mono-cropping organic agricultural methods.

Plutocratic Philanthropy

Philanthropists are often lauded for helping to even the playing field for those less fortunate. Every week, millionaires flock from TED conferences to "idea festivals" sharing viral new presentations on how to solve the world's biggest problems. This acceptance of the philanthropic order was not always the case. In the era of Carnegie and Rockefeller, for instance, many distrusted these philanthropic barons, arguing they had no right to horde would-be tax dollars for their own pet causes, especially since these "donations" came from the toil of the workers beneath them. The term philanthrocapitalism was coined by Matthew Bishop, an editor at the Economist and expanded in a 2008 book co-written with Michael Green. They define the term in two key ways: First, they argue that philanthropy is becoming more business-like and results-oriented, with donors increasingly applying the profit motive to giving practices. Secondly, they suggest that capitalism is a "naturally" philanthropic practice, and therefore grants should be aimed at helping the private sector to solve social problems. What's not new about the "new" philanthropy is the emphasis on cost-effectiveness and strategic giving. Champions of philanthrocapitalism exhibit quite astounding historical amnesia when it comes to the history of large foundations such as Carnegie and Rockefeller, which were modelled on the corporate structures of their founders' businesses. Results-oriented, strategic philanthropy is a modern phenomenon, but it can be dated to the turn of the 20th-century and the late Gilded Age, not to the start of the 21st century.

 In her new book ‘NoSuch Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy’, Linsey McGoey challenges the legitimacy of philanthropy. McGoey investigates the Gates Foundation's interventions in US K-12 education and global health, raising serious concerns about the extent to which the massive philanthropic sector depletes funding for traditional social services and prioritizes the agendas of unelected foundation leaders. Institutions like the Gates Foundation take increasingly leading roles in policymaking and governance, McGoey argues, the line between traditional notions of charity and top-down consolidation of power becomes unclear; and with this largely unchecked influence, philanthro-capitalists, like Bill Gates, have pushed countries across the world to accept market based solutions for crises like education inequity and disease proliferation - despite evidence that these problems are often rooted in actions taken by those philanthro-capitalists themselves. McGoey asks, what is the place of such philanthropy in a democratic society? The answer seems to be "none at all."

There was a recent hullabaloo about Mark Zuckerberg's public announcement that he was going to "give away" 99% of his Facebook shares to charity - which turned out to actually mean a LLC under his control and exempt from non-profit rules against political expenditures and profit-making. Through setting up an LLC, Zuckerberg has skirted any requirements to publicly list any grants made to either for-profits or non-profits. His giving can take place in total secrecy: we'll know only about the grants that he wishes to disclose. When an entity such as the Gates Foundation offers grants to for-profit corporations, it needs to legally exercise "expenditure responsibility," which means that it needs to take measures to ensure that the grant is used for charitable ends, rather than private profiteering. There are no such restrictions on Zuckerberg's LLC. Zuckerberg can legally offer the bulk of his "philanthropy" to any for-profit recipients he wants and still receive public acclaim for "gifting" his fortune. We're seeing the rise of a new, horizontal philanthropy - the rich giving directly to the rich - at a level that's completely unprecedented.

Something that separates today's donors from famous benefactors of the past is that the bloodiest, most fatal effects of wealth extraction have been largely outsourced to developing regions, where brutal labor battles occur regularly but are less visible and therefore less salient for consumers in the west. When Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron, first called for the wealthy to spend their fortunes on the poor, his workers were engaged in very visible struggles over harsh working conditions at Carnegie's steel plants. These workers had a high degree of public support. Thus, while his philanthropic benefactors did curry some public favor, there was widespread skepticism over the motivations of his charitable giving. Also, high-profile, 19th-century authors such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens often wrote essays and fiction that satirized and denounced the way that philanthropy seemed to entrench inequalities rather than dissipate them. That literary thread seems almost absent today.

Philanthrocapitalism is seeking to make both charities and public sector institutions run more like corporations, both in structure (with the seeding of for-profit "social enterprises") and operation (as in the case of teacher evaluation reform). Garry Jenkins, a law professor at Ohio State, has done important work here, showing how large foundations such as the Gates Foundation increasingly refuse to accept "open-door" proposals from smaller non-profits: returning again and again to proven recipients. This tendency is undermining genuine competition. Grantees feel increasingly burdened by unreasonable expectations and short turnarounds for demonstrating a gift's impact. The education sector in the United States has gone through upheaval after upheaval as schools and school districts try and meet the mercurial demands of donors who are themselves accountable to no one other than a foundation's trustees or board of directors.

Philanthrocapitalists seek to solve problems of social inequality through market expansion - not because of their own "lust for profit" but because of a sincere faith in unbridled capitalism. Gates is not trying to position himself to profit personally. His foundation has offered tens of millions in non-repayable grants to some of the world's largest corporations, including Mastercard. IRS regulations stipulate that grants must be used solely for charitable gain. But clearly the foundation's giving is used in a highly commercial manner by recipients such as Mastercard. US taxpayers subsidize philanthropic foundations such as the Gates Foundation through displaced tax revenue. Where is the media and congressional scrutiny over whether the Gates Foundation's charity towards Mastercard is really a fair use of taxpayer money. If the Gates Foundation can offer a gift to Mastercard, there's nothing stopping the Koch brothers from directly subsidizing any corporation they want - as long as they can argue that the gift was in line with their own charitable mandate.

One tenet of this faith in the charity business: the idea that the "data-driven" and "market-based" philanthropic efforts of today are far more efficient and productive than social services provided by the government. Robert B. Reich place the yearly cost to the US treasury from philanthropic tax exemptions at $40 billion. In the United States, study after study has shown that less than a third of all charitable giving from foundations and individuals is geared towards people who are living in situations of extreme economic need. Poverty is rising in the United States; it's clear that this purportedly golden age of giving is not making a dent in reducing growing inequality. At the global level, there's evidence that a growing reliance on enrolling the private sector in service delivery can be extremely expensive for state actors. An organization called Eurodad, the European Network on Debt and Development, has studied the rise of public-private partnerships in global development and concluded that partnerships with the private sector can often double the costs expended by governments. We see this in the United States with for-profit prison services, something that even the Economist pointed out was often more costly for tax-payers than non-profit correctional facilities.

In the realm of American education and global health policy, much of the Gates Foundation's focuses seem based on personal whim rather than a "save the most lives" philosophy. Researchers argue that Gates' fight to eradicate polio, which has mostly been defeated in the developing world, siphons off both funding and crucial local state services away from TB and Malaria containment efforts. Nonetheless, the Gates Foundation is widely recognized for a utilitarian, data-driven attitude. People in the global health community are divided over whether polio efforts are worth their immense cost, given the fact that new cases are rare. Far, far more children die of, say, road accidents in the developing world than they die of polio. For years, global health scholars have pointed out that bequests from donors such as the Gates Foundation do not correspond well with the global burden of disease. A negligible amount of Gates Foundation money is put towards chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and obesity, which are biggest cause of premature death in both the developed and the developing world, outpacing deaths from infectious diseases. You don't see this reality reflected in the Gates Foundation's global health disbursements.

The philanthropy of Carnegie's day was, in part, a response to fears of militant labor uprisings. But "what's absent in the peppy optimism of today's TED Heads is recognition of the historical struggles over private profits and public gain that have shaped labor relations" since the Gilded era. The philanthropic impulse comes from growing recognition that wealth inequality inside wealthy nations and between nations is unsustainable and certain to foster ongoing civil strife. Inequality is fuelling the current philanthropic surge, but far too few people are examining whether this "solution" is actually making a difference to inequality levels - or simply entrenching existing wealth gaps. The last time the US Congress launched a significant inquiry into tax provisions and regulatory requirements for large foundations was the late 1960s. Many scholars, including Ray Madoff and Pablo Eisenberg, suggest that we need new regulatory mechanisms to ensure that charitable benefactions reach people in need. Proposals include mandating that some members of the public have a voice on the boards of family foundations; limiting the tax deduction; and capping the size of large foundations. Nothing will change unless large media outlets such as the New York Times nuance the fawning way they cover large foundations such as the Gates Foundation and start asking tougher questions.

Foster Fries, a Wyoming investor once declared, "It's that top 1 percent that probably contributes more to making the world a better place than the 99 percent. I've never seen any poor people do what Bill Gates has done." The bizarre statement implies that the 99 percent contribute almost nothing to the billionaire class' wealth - a ridiculous notion because it is the working class "ragged-trousered philanthropists" who are actually the ones relinquishing their wealth each and every day.

Individual charity may well be a commendable impulse but the idea that charity donors can "solve" the problems of poverty and inequality is untenable.  The amassment of wealth doesn't naturally endow any individual with virtue nor do we owe deference to individuals who part with their fortunes. Before philanthropy can be properly understood, one must understand what capitalism is. First it is a system based on capital. Capital is money (the value created by labor) that has been commoditized. If you want to help the poor, eliminate the rich. The wealthy think that money solves society’s social ills, but these are problems all created by money in the first place.

No Longer "Middle Class"

The most recent US Census Bureau data showed that median household income — what people in the exact middle of the American spectrum earn — is $53,657. Americans in the highest 5 percent of the income distribution makes $206,568 or more. More than one-fifth of households earn less than the poverty rate for a family of four: $23,850.

Americans are not legally guaranteed any pay when they take time away from work for the arrival of a new baby or to care for a sick family member. According to a 2012 survey, about a third of people who get no or partial pay when they take time off for a new child end up doing things like borrowing money, dipping into savings or putting off paying bills. Fifteen percent enroll in public benefits.

Over the last decade and a half, fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as middle class, and a growing share says it is working or 

No Rosy Future

Almost 2 million more children than there are at the moment will be in poverty at Christmas in 15 years’ time, according to projections by the Fabian Society and Landman Economics. It suggested a family 10% off the bottom of the income distribution would expect to earn only another £90 a year – a rise of 1% – while those the same distance from the top would be 25% better off with an extra £1,600. Cuts falling disproportionately on single parents meant the number of children living in poverty would rise from 2.5 million (19%) to 4.4 million (28%), it said – far higher than was anticipated under the previous coalition government. That would include another 800,000 in “absolute” poverty: below a set benchmark representing the necessary income to afford the basics of life. 

Andrew Harrop, the Fabian Society general secretary, said: “If decisions made this year go unchanged, more British children will be hungry at Christmas 2030 than today. We will live in a country where food banks are an entrenched part of everyday life, not a response to short-term crisis. Is that the gift we want to leave the next generation?”

Monday, December 28, 2015

Waking up from the American Dream

The average family income in the United States overall rose 4 percent from 2010 to 2013 after falling 7 percent during the recession.

When adjusted for inflation, the average real income for the top 20 percent of Americans rose 10 percent from 2010 to 2013. Real income for the 40 percent below that, the ‘middle class’ and ‘upper middle class’, barely budged, meaning they didn’t recover the losses they’d experienced during the recession. The poorest people, the bottom 20 percent, not only didn’t make up their losses from the recession, they continued to lose ground.

The Pew Research Center issued a report titled “The American Middle Class is Losing Ground: No Longer the Majority and Falling Behind Financially.” It found that 49 percent of total income in the U.S. in 2014 went to households in the upper-income tier, up significantly from 29 percent in 1970. Forty-three percent of income in the U.S. went to middle-income households, down significantly from 62 percent in 1970.

One significant factor underlying the widening gap between the rich and others is a simple economic fact: The more resources you have, the more wealth you’re able to generate for yourself. In common parliance, money makes money and the rich get richer.

Income may have taken a dip during hard economic times, as it did for even wealthy Americans during the Great Recession, but when things start to improve, companies begin to gear up again, stocks and other investments start to rise, and real estate prices recover. The Americans who own such assets benefit from this, recovering faster than those who don’t. People in the lowest income levels who are living paycheck to paycheck — if they have a full-time job — find it difficult to save, let alone invest. For the ‘middle class’, a home has often been their biggest asset, which is why the middle class was hit particularly hard by the housing crash.

The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of Americans, and the wealthiest 1 percent own 42 percent of private assets. Since 2000, the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary earners dropped until they are lower than they were 40 years ago. The ranks of the working poor have exploded. Ninety percent of all Americans are getting poorer day by day, while rich families are becoming an in-grained aristocracy.

The American Dream was an opiate to soothe the masses while the rich rigged the system. In the case of the United States, Canada, France, and Germany, for example, much of the recent growth in personal wealth (more than 20%) is attributable to capital equity growth alone. There was no real value created here, just paper money for the most part. But paper money is power all the same.

A century ago, at the time of the First World War, the richest 20% of the world’s population earned eleven times more than the poorest 20%. By the end of the twentieth century they earned seventy-four times as much. When it comes to wealth, rather than income, the picture is more extreme. Globally, the richest 1% now own nearly half of all the world’s wealth. The poorest 50% of the world, by contrast—fully 3 billion people—own less than 1% of its wealth.

Total global wealth was estimated at $263 trillion in mid-2014, up from $117 trillion in 2000. That was the same year that the world agreed to bind itself to achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 (with the headline ambition of halving the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day). Those goals end this year, in 2015, in many cases not having been met. Meanwhile, global wealth keeps on growing: by 8.3% from mid-2013 to mid-2014 alone.

India's missing "middle class"

India's “middle class” lives barely above poverty line and below international poverty standards, a recent report by Research Unit forPolitical Economy, indicates. A large number of people who are considered as non-poor, are people living just above the poverty line. To put it simply, the report underlines that while there is no clear definition of middle class in relative terms, even by income, India's middle class continues to remain poor.

R Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Econometrics, Madras University, opined that comparing India's middle-class with that in western countries was meaningless as India didn't have an income distribution data.  “Only three per cent of India's population (around 24 million) are Income Tax Assessees. That means that a whopping 97 per cent of population will have annual income less than two lakh rupees. Even if you consider the lowest pay of a government servant, which is around Rs 20,000, you would realise that they fall under the 3 per cent of the population who are liable to pay income tax,” he explained, indicating that the income of only the ones who pay taxes is available for perusal by government organisations to undertake comparisons. “National Sample Survey (in 2004-05) suggested that in one in four people in India are below poverty line. This means that roughly 25 per cent of India's working populace earns less that Rs 12,000,” he said, adding that 72 per cent of working Indians were in the 'middle income' group, and no data regarding their actual income was available with the government.

A global wealth report by Credit Suisse in October this year, indicated that there were 24 million middle-class adults living in India.

World Socialism Party (India)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cocaine Capitalism

“Capitalism needs the criminal syndicates and criminal markets… This is the most difficult thing to communicate. People – even people observing organised crime – tend to overlook this, insisting upon a separation between the black market and the legal market. It’s the mentality that leads people in Europe and the USA to think of a mafioso who goes to jail as a mobster, a gangster. But he’s not, he’s a businessman, and his business, the black market, has become the biggest market in the world,” explains Roberto Saviano, a writer specializing in organized crime. “No business in the world is so dynamic, so restlessly innovative, so loyal to the pure free-market spirit as the global cocaine business.”

The drug cartels are not adversaries of global capitalism, nor even pastiches of it; they are integral to – and pioneers of – the free market. They are its role model. “Cocaine,” Saviano concludes, applying the logic of business school, “is a safe asset. Cocaine is an anti-cyclical asset. Cocaine is the asset that fears neither resource shortages nor market inflation.” Of course, cocaine capitalism – as brazenly as any other commodity, possibly more so – has “both feet firmly planted in poverty… and unskilled labour, a sea of interchangeable subjects, that perpetuates a system of exploitation of the many and enrichment of the few”. He continues, “Cocaine becomes a product like gold or oil but more economically potent than gold or oil. With these other commodities, if you don’t have access to mines or wells, it’s hard to break into the market. With cocaine, no. The territory is farmed by desperate peasants, from whose product you can accumulate huge quantities of capital and cash in very little time.” He adds, “If you’re selling diamonds, you have to get them authenticated, licensed – cocaine, no. Whatever you have, whatever the quality, you can sell it immediately. You are in perfect synthesis with the everyday life and ethos of the global markets”

“You can’t understand how the global economy functions if you don’t understand narco-traffic”, he says. A passage in ‘Zero Zero Zero’ Saviano’s latest book  explains why: a transcription of an FBI tape recording of a seasoned Italian mafioso in New York schooling young Mexican footsoldiers in the difference between law and “the rules”. Laws are there to be broken, he urges, but the rules of the organisation are sacrosanct, on pain of death. “The law is supposed to be for everybody,” Saviano tells me, “but the rules are made by the so-called men of honour. This is how narco-traffic explains the world, by embracing all the contradictions of the world. To succeed in narco-traffic, you apply the rules to break the law. And today, any big corporation can only succeed if it adopts the same principle – if its rules demand that it break the law.”

Displaced and forgotten

In 2015, much focus has been on Europe's migration crisis. But people are being displaced in many other corners of the world away from the media's glare. We are currently witnessing the largest and most rapid escalation ever in the number of people being forced from their homes. Millions of people are fleeing conflict. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, this year is likely to see worldwide forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time. Having realised that the existing framework for addressing the record-breaking number of displaced people around the world is a disaster, the rich are ready to try anything except letting them in, of course.

Apart from Syrians, Afghan nationals comprise the largest body of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. According to figures published by the UN, this year saw almost 190,000 Afghans reach Greece en route to other Western European countries. The significant deterioration in security following the withdrawal of international troops, economic stagnation, and extremely high youth unemployment are just some of the factors pushing Afghans to leave their country.
However, the journey through Iran, Turkey, and onwards to Europe is long and perilous, especially for the many Afghan children and teenagers who travel alone. Many experience violence at the hands of people smugglers or police, and risk drowning when attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Those who do survive face an uncertain future as they experience an increasingly unwelcomed reception in Europe.

Central Americans fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty back home endure perilous journeys through Mexico to reach safety in the US. Now they face additional hurdles as Mexican authorities implement a crackdown.
In the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, both internal migration and migration across borders is taking place on a staggering scale. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, extreme gang violence – including rape, kidnapping, murder, extortion, land expropriation, natural resource extraction, and the illegal trade in narcotics – is resulting in mass deaths, casualties and forced displacement comparable with conflicts elsewhere in the world. For example, in 2014 in El Salvador, some five percent of the entire population was displaced.
The threat of violence – combined with poverty and high unemployment – has driven thousands of people to seek safety and security in other Latin American countries as well as in the United States. Yet on their journey to seek refuge, many people fall into the hands of human traffickers and are exploited or even murdered. Unaccompanied children – of which there were 66,000 in 2014 alone – are particularly vulnerable.
Both Mexico and the United States have increased security along their shared border and increasing numbers of Central Americans are being deported rather than being given the opportunity to apply for asylum.

The Rohingya, a distinct Muslim ethnic minority group from northern and western Myanmar, are often described as the world’s most persecuted group. After years of persecution by successive governments, large-scale attacks in 2012 resulted in hundreds of deaths and forced thousands into displacement camps.
Since then, thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea, with many falling into the hands of human smuggling and trafficking rings. In early 2015, jungle prisons and mass graves containing the bodies of victims of traffickers were found, prompting Thai and Malaysian authorities to crack down on the trade in people. In May, hoping to avoid arrest, smugglers abandoned their boats, leaving at least 5,000 people adrift.
The Rohingya’s plight briefly caught the attention of the international media when Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia refused to allow the thousands of stranded refugees and migrants to land. Caving to international pressure, Malaysia and Indonesia finally agreed to accept some of the refugees for a limited time.
However, with continued anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, thousands of internally displaced people still living in dire conditions, and reports of smuggling rings resuming their trade, the Rohingya are continuing to take to the sea to flee poverty and persecution.

Nigeria has suffered decades of instability, successive military regimes and ethno-religious and regional tensions. But in recent years, the northeast has been torn apart by the fight against militant Islamist group Boko Haram. The conflict has displaced more than 2.5 million people in the Lake Chad Basin region since May 2013. The vast majority, an estimated 90 percent, end up not in camps but hustling out an existence in urban centres that are still in the conflict zone and were already very poor. Ongoing violence and counterinsurgency operations have made it impossible to deliver aid in many parts of the region. Hundreds of thousands of people remain without sufficient food, safe water, or health and education facilities. The cities and displacement camps to which villagers flee have themselves become Boko Haram targets, as have the border areas of the neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This is a vast and much neglected crisis.

Gaining independence from Sudan in July 2011, South Sudan descended into civil war in December 2013 amid a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. Fighting between government troops and rebel groups escalated, reawakening ethnic tensions between the Dinka people and the Nuer.
Brutal and ongoing violence against civilians has killed thousands and caused widespread displacement. By the time an internationally-mediated peace deal was signed in August this year, more than 2.2 million people had fled their homes, with 1.6 million displaced internally and over 600,000 forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
Food security has deteriorated at an alarming rate, with 3.9 million people now facing severe hunger. In October, three UN agencies warned that 30,000 people in Unity State were on the brink of famine. Without access to markets, jobs, basic services or social mechanisms, those displaced are particularly vulnerable. Even for thousands sheltering inside UN camps, there is little access to food, water and medical care and facilities are hugely overcrowded.

The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has endured years of instability and poor governance. After the 2011 revolution toppled president Ali Abdullah Saleh after more than 30 years in power, new president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was sworn in with international backing – but was never able to fully establish authority. Yemen descended into civil war in September 2014 when the Houthis – supported by Saleh – seized power, prompting Saudi Arabia to launch coalition airstrikes against the rebels in March this year.
The Saudi-led bombardments and fighting between competing forces on the ground has resulted in massive injury, loss of life, and damage to infrastructure, and has also triggered large-scale displacement. According to the UN's emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, as of mid-December the conflict had displaced 2.5 million people. Blockades at key ports earlier this year led to major fuel and food shortages, while damage to infrastructure and ongoing fighting continues to hamper delivery of aid, especially to the most vulnerable displaced communities. By August, more than 100,000 arrivals from Yemen had also been reported in countries in the Middle East, as well as in the east and Horn of Africa.

Almost a year-and-a-half of war, has displaced more than 1.4 million people and left hospitals in frontline areas short of essential supplies, while the elderly and the sick struggle to get by as they can’t access pensions or services provided by the Western-backed Ukrainian government. Many have been relying on aid from the Russian side or from a Ukrainian oligarch. UNICEF estimates that 1.3 million people’s access to water is at risk and 200,000 children are more vulnerable to death or injury due to restrictions on landmine education. Some 500,000 children up to 10 years of age urgently need polio vaccination in rebel-held areas, and many of the 8,000 tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS patients will die unless medicine is provided, the UN agency said.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Fact of the Day

The amount spent globally on eradicating poverty is estimated to be $66bn. According to the UK Ministry of Defence, the amount spent globally on the military is $1776bn

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Joy

The top-paid executives in Britain have salaries more than 180 times larger than average workers. At least 535 bosses are now paid at least £1million per year, while Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of advertising and PR group WPP, received £43 million.

Top 10 earners

1. Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP, £42.978m a year

2. Tony Pidgley, Berkeley, £23.296m

3. Ben van Beurden, Shell, £19.510m

4. Jeremy Darroch, Sky, £16.8895m

5. Erik Engstrom, RELX Group, £16.176m

6. Peter Long, TUI Travel, £13.333m

7. Rob Perrins, Berkeley, £12.357m

8. Tidjane Thiam, Prudential, £11.834m

9. Breon Corcoran, Betfair, £11.627m

10. António Horta-Osório, Lloyds Banking Group, £11.544m

We don’t want to be a kill-joys but….Bah, humbug

Merry Xmas. In this season of good-will when people wronged and abused by the world, make an attempt to be merry, and to offer a message and a greeting of good cheer to their fellow men, our gift to the ruling class is our hatred.

At this season of the year when the air fills with prayers, songs and speeches about “Peace on Earth” and “Good-will to men,” it is fitting to ask in all seriousness whether the system of capitalism, which dominates the earth, can bring about that peace and good-will so ardently desired.

The charitably minded will attempt to lighten the woes of the down-trodden with philanthropic gestures but it is not an indication of the goodness of man, but it is an arraignment of the capitalist system by those of us who recognize the indignity that a small minority has the wherewithal to be charitable.  

Christmas is jolly enough, a day that brings kindliness enough, but you must be able to pay for it. While happiness cannot be bought on the open market, there are many things which, unless they are bought, will cause misery. The position of the working class, now more than ever before, is one in which suffering must result. Gloss over the matter as the apologists can, there still remains the fact that this charity is the outcome of a most deplorable condition.

For many the usual Christmas festivity and pomp is somewhat stifled because of the “spectre” of austerity. For a privileged few, a lavish abandon to luxurious feasting, without limit or restraint; and for many more others, the meagre essentials for keeping body and soul together. Capitalists have no sympathy with the workers’ poverty and misery. Capitalism, in fact, requires such deprivations, in order that the employing class may have their lavish Christmas dinners.

Our position is clear. Down with capitalism and class exploitation. Away with palliatives of any sort, and forward with the revolution. Christmas is the symbol of new birth. Let it symbolise the birth of the working-class consciousness. The yearning of the peoples of the world for lasting peace on earth and good will among men can be fulfilled only through a social system based on human needs. That is world socialism, the goal of humanity. It is the only way to have peace and security. Socialism is everybody sharing. A system based on human need, not human exploitation.

Christmas after Christmas goes by, and still the workers forget to learn the lesson of standing by one another, and demanding with one voice that the capitalist system should cease, and should be succeeded by a system in which the wealth of the country should be made “commonwealth,” and should be produced, distributed and managed for the common weal.

Christmas Greetings for the Revolution.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Plight of the Afghans

As the news media reports the failing war in Afghanistan where Taliban insurgents are prevailing and UK troops are again being sent into combat Britain turning away majority of Afghan refugees.

While almost 90 per cent of Syrian asylum seekers and three quarters of Eritreans have their applications granted, the figure for Afghans stands at little over a third. Debora Singer, from UK charity Asylum Aid, said there was a “culture of disbelief” at the Home Office that leaves vulnerable refugees struggling to prove their right to protection. “That gap often demonstrates the level of risk perceived by the Home Office."

“The UK grant rate (for applications) on average is 41 per cent but the average for Afghans is much lower,” she told the Independent. Italy grants 97 per cent of asylum applications from Afghan refugees. The average across Europe is under 60 per cent.

Afghans, who make up 21 per cent of arrivals coming over the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea according to United Nations (UN) statistics. More than a third entering the EU are unaccompanied children and teenagers. Laura Padoan, from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), told the Independent that the number of refugees from Afghanistan arriving on European shores had been rising rapidly over recent months and appeared to be linked to the renewal of the Taliban’s bloody insurgency.

The Population Squib

The latest U.N. population report says 48 countries around the world are expected to see their populations decline by 2050. It also identifies 11 countries that, for reasons such as declining birth rates and emigration, are expected to lose more than 15 percent of their population in the coming decades. If trends continue, things could get even more dramatic. According to the latest U.N. prediction, some countries are expected to lose more than half of their population by 2100.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Festival of Commerce (1991)

Editorial from the December 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the jamboree of commercialism known as Christmas approaches, we take the opportunity of expressing our attitude to it and wishing you a tolerable and enlightening New Year.

Christmas developed from an ancient pagan festival: both the date and superstitions like the mistletoe are of pre-Christian origin. It is supposed to celebrate the birth of "Jesus Christ", a possibly legendary figure claimed as the Messiah and as a demigod. He is the focal point of one the most powerful and widespread, oppressive and stultifying religious movements that have tortured humanity.

Religion cannot be reconciled with a rational view of the universe and society. Inverting Genesis, we say "humans made God in their own image". The rule of God in the universe reflects and serves to justify rule by human masters in society. Why else is he called "King"? Indeed. why else is he "he" rather than "she"? Like our real rulers, he is portrayed as powerful yet merciful, presiding sadly over the labyrinth of human misery. If God exists, he is our enemy.

Nowadays Christmas is primarily a secular festival. The rat-race is suspended for a few days to give the morale of the wage and salary slaves a midwinter boost. During the festivities, those that can afford it try to enjoy themselves. The limited extent to which they succeed is evidenced by their frantic efforts to drown out the consciousness of their alienation by loud music, over-eating and—above all—getting pissed.And then back to the grindstone.

Expensive and unwanted gifts are purchased and exchanged, to the great profit of all the business interests involved. This custom is scarcely a spontaneous expression of affection. On the whole it is more like a ritual duty. A significant point is the way people are embarrassed to receive a present and to have none to give in return. The exchange economy not only fragments society into a myriad of isolated competitors; it also produces the poisonous ethos of "you don't get or give something for nothing", which penetrates personal life.

It is customary at Christmas to speak of Peace on Earth and Good Will To All Men. But the tragedy of an outmoded and insane social organisation continues as usual. Think of its delights. Poverty and destruction in the midst of actual or potential plenty. Slums, famines, pollution, commercial destruction of wildlife, waste, more waste, social divisions and strife of all kinds. Built-in obsolescence, advertising, the domination of money. Uniforms, tanks, bombs, prisons, muggings, alcoholism, prayers, prostitution, national anthems, bigotry, fear, ignorance, loneliness, AIDS, Neil Major and John Kinnock. Feeling better now?

Humanity has the means—technical, material, organisational—to build a new world of freedom, harmony and enough for all. A world in which the enormous potential of modern knowledge and technology, released from the service of commerce and war, can be realised. A world in which the human species owns its means of life in common, and controls them democratically in the interests of all. A world in which the direct satisfaction of human needs of all kinds had replaced profit and the "national interest" as the moving force of social life. A world which will know nothing of money or coercive government or national frontiers. A world fit to live in.

We think humanity is fully capable of constructing such a socialist society once it has the understanding necessary. We must establish the new society soon of the species is to survive. Helping people grasp this is the purpose of the Socialist Party. Don't just wish us luck if you sympathise (we don't believe in luck, either). Contact us for more information; and you might feel inclined to join and help us in the new year.