Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

How the Internet Became an Essential Part of Life

On Thursday, a German court ruled that people can sue internet service providers for unreasonable service disruption. The principle that ISPs are financially liable for inconvenience caused by disruption to their service is hardly a judicial revolution (although one actually being pinned down and forced to pay up is a pleasing novelty), but in doing so the court claimed that the internet was an “essential” part of life. This comes after the UNHRC received a report discussing freedom of expression and various other rights in relation to the internet, which was spun into “UN declares the Internet a human right!” in the media. Somewhat more substantially, four years ago the French Constitutional Court declared that access to the internet was a human right when striking down a law allowing the Government to disconnect people over copyright issues without a court order.

Some have, predictably, commented on the absurdity of the internet being labelled an “essential” part of life and talk of the internet as a “human right” has always attracted objections. People got along without it perfectly fine not all that long ago, how can it be essential or a fundamental right?

In a few short decades our world has been transformed by the internet, which plays an increasingly central role in our lives. It’s become our principle form of communication, many services are provided solely or principally online. Being disconnected from it, we can’t answer emails or effectively work from home. It’s much more difficult to search for a job or service. Our access to information, news and media would be hindered. As would our freedom of expression.

In the 21st century the right to free speech without the right to a free internet is the equivalent to, in 1913, having freedom of expression but no right to produce or read uncensored printed materials. Having economic rights without the internet is like having freedom of movement, but not be allowed to use an auto-mobile, train or aircraft when exercising it.

Digital rights and freedoms are under attack on many fronts, in the free world and beyond. Whether it be the threat of summary disconnections, censorship, proprietary standards, privacy or the criminalisation of “offensive” speech; as society and the economy become increasingly digital these become more than issues of fringe concern, they become issues which impact on our ability to participate in the society and economy of the twenty first century on the terms of our choosing.

Our lives are constantly revolutionised by tiny pieces of genius given physical form. In an age in which the world is increasingly digital, the cause of digital liberty has become the cause of liberty in general.

The Real Welfare Parasites

In keeping with their ideology, a core plank of the Conservative Party 2010 manifesto was to harness the ingenuity of the private sector to help get people back into work. As such, it’s rather a shame how far from their professed free market principles the Government has strayed with its current welfare policy.

Rather than harnessing the initiative and innovation of private enterprise to provide a service to those looking to get into work, a parasitical industry has grown up around the Jobcentre, feeding of DWP and ESF funding and the involuntary participation of jobseekers, providing largely junk courses and training schemes of questionable value.

It’s just a matter of common sense market economics that service providers who benefit from guaranteed demand, revenue and a stream of semi-willing participants won’t have an overwhelming incentive to ensure that the services they sell are high quality or valuable in terms of employability. Equally, if the state allocates a certain amount of funding to be spent on privately-provisioned training courses, the demand (and hence the price) of these courses will be artificially increased. When the trainee is not the customer the market just don’t function well. I’d be curious to kow what the price mechanism has done to successive Work and Pensions Secretaries to deserve such cruel treatment.

Do claimants benefit from this way of providing training? No, they would be much better catered for if they could pay for courses which are of direct use to them as an when required out of a slightly increased JSA cash payment. Does the taxpayer benefit? No, it would be much more cost effective to slightly increase direct payments to claimants so that they could purchase those private courses they feel would actually benefit them, rather than spend huge amounts of money on courses of limited value. Who benefits? The private training firms who have attached themselves to the state’s boated arse like a leech.

As somebody currently receiving jobseeker’s allowance, I’m entitled to state funded provision of secondary healthcare – those things the NHS doesn’t usually pay for, like opticians and dentists – I’ve already grabbed a nice new pair of glasses, my previous pair being rather old and shabby looking but still in perfectly functioning condition. I went out and “bought” the new pair sooner than I likely would have otherwise and, frankly, why wouldn’t I? This isn’t an efficient system for spending the total amount of money that is made available to a claimant. Do claimants benefit from this arrangement? No, we would be much better off if we received a cash lump sum which could then spend on healthcare services as and when required. Does the taxpayer? No, it would be much cheaper to make direct payments to claimants who then have an incentive toward allocative efficiency rather than to take advantage of whatever services they can get. Who benefits? The private service providers, again.

Meanwhile jobseekers are being forced into zero pay jobs, a policy which only makes it more difficult to get a job by reducing the demand for actual waged labour. Why would Tesco hire somebody at minimum wage to do an unskilled job when they can just get somebody to do it for free? It’s the very people who would be applying for these jobs who will end up being forced into them without pay a year later!

So tell me, who are the real parasites? Is it the unemployed or is it the middlemen and the vampiric industry which sets itself up between them and the government, sucking out every drop of misdirected public spending they can? If the Tory government wishes to uphold the conservative, small state principles to which they claim to adhere, why not cut out these middlemen? Why continue to micro-manage how welfare expenditure can be spent (NHS vouchers, council tax credit etc.)? The mantra of the small-state conservatives has always been that government attempts at micro-managing society tend to make a small problem bigger and the history of government attempts to fine-tune the benefits system certainly bares that out. But the political currency of the government has never been conservative economic reliability, it has been prejudice, and so instead of reforming welfare along the lines of free market principles and choice, they talk about a food stamp system. How can a party which believes a bureaucrat knows how to spend money on your behalf better than you do claim to be the party of the free market?

Why not allow jobseekers to decide how to spend that money, whether a particular course is worth while, what to spend on secondary healthcare, what to spend on food and what to spend on booze? This doesn’t just help the claimant, it would reduce the cost to the tax payer due to the money being spent more efficiently. The only people who benefit from the status quo is Big Welfare.

Why not apply real free market economics to the benefits system and eliminate the cost of the massive, hideously inefficient bureaucracy required to maintain conditional benefits and kill off the parasitical Big Welfare industry which has grown up around it? The cost of conditional benefits is one of the largest bureaucracies in the country. It has created a Jobcentre that is obsessed with box ticking and hoop jumping but just isn’t fit for the purpose of helping people back into work and where the only people it has helped into jobs are the people who work in the Jobcentre itself.

Milton Friedman, the Chicago school libertarian whose ideas influenced both Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, observed these problems in the US welfare system over half a century ago. His solution, much to the incredulity of his right-wing peers, was to scrap the role of the bureaucrat spying on welfare claimants and restricting how their money can be spent and to replace benefits with a negative income tax, in which the government would pay out on negative taxable incomes in the same way they take payment on positive taxable incomes. It’s better for the unemployed, it’s better for the working taxpayer and it costs the state less. Milton Friedman had a point, and his is one certainly worth taking seriously.

In keeping with the ideology, a core plank of the Conservative Party 2010 manifesto was to harness the ingenuity of the private sector to help get people back into work. As such it’s rather a shame how far their professed free market principles the Government has strayed with its current welfare policy.

Rather than harnessing the initiative and innovation of private enterprise to provide a service to those looking to get into work, a parasitical industry has grown up around the Jobcentre, feeding of DWP and ESF funding and the involuntary participation of jobseekers, providing largely junk courses and training schemes of questionable value.

It’s just a matter of common sense market economics that service providers who benefit from guaranteed demand, revenue and a stream of semi-willing participants won’t have an overwhelming incentive to ensure that the services they sell are high quality or valuable in terms of employability. Equally, if the state allocates a certain amount of funding to be spent on privately-provisioned training courses, the demand (and hence the price) of these courses will be artificially inflated. When the trainee is not the customer the market just don’t function well. I’d be curious to kow what the price mechanism has done to successive Work and Pensions Secretaries to deserve such cruel treatment.

Do claimants benefit from this way of providing training? No, they would be much better catered for if they could pay for courses which are of direct use to them as an when required out of a slightly increased JSA cash payment. Does the taxpayer benefit? No, it would be much more cost effective to slightly increase direct payments to claimants so that they could purchase those private courses they feel would actually benefit them, rather than spend huge amounts of money on courses of limited value. Who benefits? The private training firms who have attached themselves to the state’s boated arse like a leech.

As somebody currently receiving jobseeker’s allowance, I’m entitled to state funded provision of secondary healthcare – those things the NHS doesn’t usually pay for, like opticians and dentists – I’ve already grabbed a nice new pair of glasses, my previous pair being rather old and shabby looking but still in perfectly functioning condition. I went out and “bought” the new pair sooner than I likely would have otherwise and, frankly, why wouldn’t I? This isn’t an efficient system for spending the total amount of money that is made available to a claimant. Do claimants benefit from this arrangement? No, we would be much better off if we received a cash lump sum which could then spend on healthcare services as and when required. Does the taxpayer? No, it would be much cheaper to make direct payments to claimants who then have an incentive toward allocative efficiency rather than to take advantage of whatever services they can get. Who benefits? The private service providers, again.

Meanwhile jobseekers are being forced into zero pay jobs, a policy which only makes it more difficult to get a job by reducing the demand for actual waged labour. Why would Tesco hire somebody at minimum wage to do an unskilled job when they can just get somebody to do it for free? It’s the very people who would be applying for these jobs who will end up being forced into them without pay a year later!

So tell me, who are the real parasites? Is it the unemployed or is it the middlemen and the vampiric industry which sets itself up between them and the government, sucking out every drop of misdirected public spending they can? If the Tory government wishes to uphold the conservative, small state principles to which they claim to adhere, why not cut out these middlemen? Why continue to micro-manage how welfare expenditure can be spent (NHS vouchers, council tax credit etc.)? The mantra of the small-state conservatives has always been that government attempts at micro-managing society tend to make a small problem bigger and the history of government attempts to fine-tune the benefits system certainly bares that out. But the political currency of the government has never been conservative economic reliability, it has been prejudice, and so instead of reforming welfare along the lines of free market principles and choice, they talk about a food stamp system. How can a party which believes a bureaucrat knows how to spend money on your behalf better than you do claim to be the party of the free market?

Why not allow jobseekers to decide how to spend that money, whether a particular course is worth while, what to spend on secondary healthcare, what to spend on food and what to spend on booze? This doesn’t just help the claimant, it would reduce the cost to the tax payer due to the money being spent more efficiently. The only people who benefit from the status quo is Big Welfare.

Why not apply real free market economics to the benefits system and eliminate the cost of the massive, hideously inefficient bureaucracy required to maintain conditional benefits and kill off the parasitical Big Welfare industry which has grown up around it? The cost of conditional benefits is one of the largest bureaucracies in the country. It has created a Jobcentre that is obsessed with box ticking and hoop jumping but just isn’t fit for the purpose of helping people back into work and where the only people it has helped into jobs are the people who work in the Jobcentre itself.

Milton Friedman, the Chicago school libertarian whose ideas influenced both Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, observed these problems in the US welfare system over half a century ago. His solution, much to the incredulity of his right-wing peers, was to scrap the role of the bureaucrat spying on welfare claimants and restricting how their money can be spent and to replace benefits with a negative income tax, in which the government would pay out on negative taxable incomes in the same way they take payment on positive taxable incomes. It’s better for the unemployed, it’s better for the working taxpayer and it costs the state less. Milton Friedman had a point, and his is one certainly worth taking seriously.

The motivation behind the current system of conditional welfare and micro-managed spending isn’t cost saving or economic efficiency, it’s the political capital which comes with attacking the unemployed.

Its Time Come Round At Last

Forty years have passed since the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community and thirty eight years have passed since that decision was retroactively consented to by the citizens of this country in the first ever UK-wide referendum. Much has happened in the time since. The division in the Labour Party over membership of the common market, the original ‘No’ campaign having been all but led by left-wing figures like Tony Benn, has faded with no trace of Euroscepticism to be found among the party’s leaders. The Tory Party, however, have spent the last three decades waging civil war over the matter.

Used under GNU Free Documentation Licence 1.2

The left, having become conservative, headed the opposition to EEC membership in the first referendum.

The character of the union itself has changed. The common market required common regulations and common laws which required a Parliament to consent to them, institutions and a large bureaucracy to implement (and draft) them, and courts to enforce them. It required a transfer of some small degree of sovereignty to Europe. Soon we had a European Union, a continental proto-state, with its own legislature, civil service and currency. There was a common visa and customs union, freedom of travel, residence and work and equal rights for all EU citizens in every member state. Individual states were held to account for the laws that they passed and the actions of their governments and British politicians, being unaccustomed to constitutional governance, were not always best please. Suddenly it seemed the European Union just wasn’t what we had signed up for.

And nobody asked us.

Instead the process of integration happened bureaucratically, backroom deals were negotiated by politicians and officials, treaties were signed and rubber-stamped while all we could do was watch it happening on telly. The bureaucratic nature of the integration process was reflected in the form of this Union of which we are now citizens: we have an elected parliament, sure, but one with no powers of legislative initiative and not so much as a veto on the matters deemed too important for directly elected representatives; real power is concentrated in the hands of the technocrats appointed as Commissioners; the non-elected upper chamber of the legislature, the Council of the European Union, has superiority over the elected lower chamber; monetary policy within the Eurozone is set by unelected officials (almost entirely former private bank executives) within the ECB. A union founded by bureaucratic rather than democratic means was always going to be a bureaucratic entity rather than a substantive democracy.

Big business is terrified of the prospect of being locked out of the European integration process, it needs the common market and a say in the regulations that govern that market, it wants the single currency so that they are no longer disadvantaged by the unstable, yet rarely favourable, exchange rate between the Pound and the Euro. Renegotiations and referenda put all that at risk, along with the competitiveness and productivity of British industry and the implications that has for employment, wages and working hours; which is exactly what they should be saying to the British worker, but have entirely failed to do so, relying – instead of treating them like adults and arguing democratically for integration – on cutting them out of the decision making process at every stage. Now the British worker, who could be their greatest ally in the fight for European integration, resents the Union, its institutions, the people who have forced it upon them and everything it stands for.

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©UK Independence Party
The unnatural bureaucratic abomination that is the EU (and the process that spawned it), has allowed the rise of reaction under the banner of democracy.

Bred of this resentment, a cancer has spread throughout the British corpus politicum, poisoning the debate as much as the europhilic elites have. The bastard child of the Tory Party, UKIP clings onto the European bureaucracy like an addict, dependent upon its funding for growth and feeding off its hypocrisy for sustenance, the taboo of a referendum being at once both its raison d’etre and its inevitable coup de grâce. Citizens have not suddenly become any more aggrieved by their treatment in the name of progress yet the swelling purple tumour has been drawing more and more lifeblood away from the Tories, enough that they could pay a price in marginal seats.

This was the context for yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister, possibly the first speech in history to have been analysed to death several weeks in advance of it having been made, in which he promised, finally, after all this time, a second in-out referendum on our continued membership of this much changed union.

Except that’s not actually what happened at all. He hasn’t actually promised us a referendum, so much as cynically dangled the possibility in the distant future in the desperate hope it will help him get re-elected. Worse, the referendum that’s been suggested isn’t actually an in-out referendum at all, we won’t be given the choice between embracing or rejecting “ever closer union,” rather we will be given the choice between leaving the integration process behind and settling down as a second class economy on the European periphery, or leaving altogether. It’s less “in-out” and more “out-even further out”.

The British electorate are still not being offered a democratic choice on Europe. Instead of bureaucratically forcing through integration with total disinterest to the will of the people, Cameron’s proposal will, if ever realised, force through disintegration against the will of the people.

The demand for a renegotiation of Britain’s place within the EU, whatever specifics the Prime Minister has in mind, amounts to one of two things:

Either the nonsense of remaining subject to EU laws (common markets requiring common regulations) but having no say in them, in order to appease the forces of reaction that have such a hold on his party.

Public Domain

Appeasing its uncompetitive farmers, Norway is subject to EU laws but has no say in making them.

Or the equal nonsense of expecting Britain to be uniquely grated exemptions from the disadvantages of membership while enjoying all the advantages – though, of course, what Cameron considers the advantages and disadvantages to be are almost polar opposites of what the advantages and disadvantages are to British workers.

Naturally neither of these are outcomes he truly desires, his wildest ambition being a few token concessions to offer up if he’s somehow still Prime Minister in 2017. It’s obvious the Tories’ big capitalist backers won’t tolerate the first and that Cameron can’t reasonably expect the second in anything but a purely token measure. He’s flag waving and banking on the hostility of European leaders: all the better for stirring up nationalistic sentiment in the run up to an election. The government have no interest in pushing for the kind of democratic reform the EU needs for precisely the same reasons they have no interest in reaching a settlement with Argentina over the Falklands: unresolved they present too convenient an opportunity for nationalistic chest-thumping and political point-scoring in times of failing economic policies and, today, political paralysis within the coalitions – both the coalition between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and the coalition within the Conservative Party between its liberal bourgeois wing and its parochial reactionary wing. At PMQs yesterday, Cameron asked “Who goes into a negotiation hoping and expecting to fail?” You do, David, apparently you do.

The received wisdom has long been that the British public hate the EU and would likely vote to leave it if given a choice. While the attitude of the British public to the EU is undeniably a negative one, it is important to remember that this attitude is a result of the process that forged it and, treated like adults, given a democratic choice and engaged in an honest, frank and open debate the opinion of the electorate would doubtless swing drastically. If the federalists accept the flaws of the union and make a compelling case instead of whitewashing the EU’s problems, a victory could be won.

In response to Cameron’s ploy the Labour leader Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet jumped into action, condemning the move on the grounds that investors wouldn’t be happy. And you mustn’t upset the investors, they hold us all hostage after all.

Of course the Labour Party leadership are correct to point out the threat to Britain’s triple-A credit rating caused by the medium and long term uncertainty introduced by a hypothetical 2017 referendum. The City will happily use the Tories as leverage against the threat of European regulation but ultimately they need barriers to European finance like they need an uncontrolled default on Greek debt. But if the Labour Party is going to be worthy of its name it needs to defend the Union in the interest of working people, not bankers. Instead it’s investors first and workers last. In opposing a referendum, Labour bowed to the will of the financial rentiers over the will of the electorate.

The left should demand that a Labour government offers a real in-out referendum in 2016 so that the case for integration can be made democratically. Only then can a movement toward essential democratic reform of the European Union be born.