Friday, August 29, 2014

Taking to the streets in a cause no one's heard of

I was delighted to receive this morning - slightly earlier than expected - a copy of James Meek's new book Private Island: Why Britain now belongs to someone else (Verso 2014). It's an exploration of the actual consequences of 30 years of privatisation, the selling off of public assets (gas, electricity, water, railways, the post office, etc) to private buyers. Has it created a nation of small shareholders? No, it has handed these assets, via the market, to mainly state-owned foreign enterprises. Was this the intention?

There's a flavour of Meek's powerful argument here. It looks to me that the book is essential reading for anyone interested in what kind of society we want the UK - or after September's vote, England, Wales and Northern Island - to be.

On Saturday, I will be joining a faithful few handing out leaflets and inviting people to sign a petition against TTIP. It's part of a 30 degrees day of action against a treaty few people have heard of. The transatlantic trade and investment partnership is currently being negotiated by the EU and the US - the world's two largest trading blocks. It threatens in its current form to hand huge amounts of power to global corporations and strip democratic assemblies at all levels of any power to decide what is best for their jurisdictions.

For example, the UK government will not be able to favour public provision in the health service; all branches of health care will have to be open to any bidder. The EU will not be able to continue its ban on genetically modified organisms in the food chain. It would almost certainly prevent the UK government from introducing a minimum price for alcohol or the sale of cigarettes in plain packs. The latter has happened in Australia but using a similar treaty, Philip Morris looks like being awarded vast amounts of compensation for lost sales (see here)

The key thing about TTIP is that I don't remember any political party asking me about it or putting it in their manifesto; the government has not informed parliament about the progress of negotiations in a way that allows our representatives to represent our interests in those negotiations; it was barely mentioned in the May European elections. Indeed the EU commissioner leading Europe in these negotiations has, apparently, complained that  his mailbag and inbox has been clogged up with submissions from concerned parties writing in response to a consultation he initiated. He has not complained, however, about the huge number of corporate lobbyists that visit and email to make their submissions as to why the treaty should offer companies a blank cheque.

So the thing about TTIP is the thing about democracy: do we value it? Do we want our voice to be heard? Are we prepared to stand up for it when it is under attack? At the moment the jury is out but I fear it will return with a shrug and a 'whatever' and we will kiss treasured freedoms and gains for ordinary people, hard-fought over the past two hundred years, a fond farewell

Friday, August 22, 2014

Soundtracking the revolution

Just a footnote to the last two posts.

My current favourite track on Bill Mallonee's new album soundtracks my response to the Bank America story. Casting his eye over the ruins, looking to see what face the devil is currently wearing Mallonee sings:

could be the new corporate terror
seducing the government
could be the war machine
could be the one per cent

That about nails it!

But it's also a call to arms to be the difference we need to see in the world, a soundtrack of the revolution:

time for banishing darkness
time to do what's right
time for loving the planet
time for stepping into the light

The song opens with Bill singing that it's 'time for closing the wounds up/time for opening hearts' because 'the whole nation is bleeding/how much longer can it last/goodwill and trust/are a thing of the past.'  

We have been left battered and bruised but we have the resources to turn things around. If we open our hearts to the light and start doing what's right, who know what will happen on our streets...

And still no one has gone to prison...

So Bank of America is to pay $16.65bn to avoid justice. Another financial institution uses petty cash to get itself out of jail.

Apparently, law enforcement in the US is saying that no institution is big or powerful enough to escape its clutches. I assume by that they mean that none of the long list of financial powerhouses that drove the world economy to its knees are unable to buy a deal with the supine regulators.

$7bn of the fine is going to help those who have been financial difficulties because they'd been sold one of the bank's junk mortgages back in the day. That's good.

But still no one has gone to prison. A while back the head of Standard Chartered was whining about how unfair people were being to bankers, about how new regulations were stifling risk taking. But still none of his peers have been brought to book, sent down for what their risk-taking dumped on the world.

The coverage points out that the payment is in settlement between the bank and regulators. The bank sold flawed mortgage securities that contributed to the near bankrupting of the world economy but the regulators have agreed a settlement. And the size of that settlement is tiny against the asset base of the bank.

As John Coffee (great name), a law professor at Columbia, pointed out 'there is another shoe that needs to drop before we can assess this settlement. This is the largest fine but yet again we have seen an ability, or a reluctance, to name and go after the individuals responsible.'

These dodgy mortgages didn't create and sell themselves. People created them, bundled them up and sold them on. And they they either knew what they were doing or they shouldn't been in the lucrative positions they held.

There was outrage this morning at the news that shop lifters stealing a little fresh food in the North East of England were not being prosecuted. The full weight of the law should be meted out against them to discourage this outrageous behaviour. I'll agree with that when the first banker responsible for stealing the livelihoods of many of these affected northeasterners goes to prison for a long stretch.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

More trenchant observations from an old beat up Ford

Well, it's been an age since I blogged. No excuses - except that I've been having a really good time, far too busy to write about it!

I've been in Sri Lanka - three weeks of heat and humidity with some of the loveliest people on the planet. I will reflect on that visit later as there's still quite a lot to process from it.

I've also been at Spring Harvest in France (way back in June) and had a really enjoyable time with a small group of people reflecting on how we are all God's works-in-progress. I was working with the lovely Pete James.

And I have been listening lots of new (and old) music. I was surprised that the new David Gray album (Mutineers) turned out to be really good. But I am not surprised that the new Bill Mallonee record, Winnowing, turns out to be a cracker.

He's called his backing band for this one 'the darkling planes' which suggest the mood of the album. On the liner notes he describes it as autumnal. Mallonee's genius has always been to write melancholy songs of faith and hope. Here the faith and hope seem fainter but are still present as Bill wrestles with the darkening landscape and seeks to find the pin-pricks of light in it.

The darkling planes turn out to be him and his wife (Muriah Rose). Between them they provide a lush and sombre backdrop for his reflections; lots of jangly guitars and flourishes of piano. At times - especially on got some explainin to do - he sounds like he's channelling Neil Young. But he is a unique voice in contemporary Americana and one that ought to be more widely heard.

Winnowing is the third album in as many years that reveal Mallonee to be a writer and performer at the top of his game. They are probably the best three records of his 50+ album career. He has hit a rich vein of lyrical and musical clarity and is producing some of the most of the most affecting music I've heard on a long time. Check the album out here - you'll be so glad you did