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The Poor Law Inspector – Update.

I can’t believe it is 6 months since I first posted about this project of mine. If anyone is interested, here is an update on my progress since then.

First of all I need to explain that this is part of a long term project which includes a non-fiction book about the Great Irish Famine, as well as the historical novel based on the activities of Capt. Arthur Kennedy and Colonel Crofton Vandeleur in Kilrush between November 1847 and 1851.

I have been working hard on the non-fiction work over the summer and have what I consider to be a decent draft ready for sharing. I am looking for beta readers but, meanwhile, I intend to publish it here in installments over the coming days. It will appear as pages rather than posts and those pages will be collected under a new menu item ‘Purgatory’ – see it in the menu bar above. I will post about each new page as it is created. A few elements of it have already appeared here as posts.

Why ‘Purgatory’?

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax. Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Great Irish Famine. Image from wikipedia

Well, I have chosen the working title of ‘A Purgatory of Misery: How Victorian Liberalism Exacerbated a National Disaster’. The words come from the following quotation: “except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity.” said by Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, approving the harsher measures contained in the Poor Law Extension Act of June 1847.

Today’s installment consists of the preface and introduction and you can read it here.

I have now recommenced work on The Poor Law Inspector and signed up to produce 10,000 words during October on Tim Pike’s ‘Chapter Buzz’ site. Why not follow my progress over there and join in by commenting?

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Must the Poor Always be With Us?

Yesterday, fellow blogger Sha’Tara, aka Burning Woman, posted up a collection of “Anarchist memes, facts and headlines”. I challenged one of them in the comments. Another demands a longer response.

The world spent  $1735 Billion dollars on war in 2012.  It would take approximately  $135 Billion dollars to totally eradicate (systemic) poverty.

For the sake of complete transparency I must admit a few things so that my readers can understand any bias I might bring to my analysis. First, I used to be a pacifist. I gave that up after giving serious consideration to the need to overcome tyranny – specifically that of dictators like Adolf Hitler – and concluded that the war that killed my father, along with several million others, many of them non-combatants, was unavoidable. There were enough pacifists who tried prior to 1939, but the point about tyranny is that it does not listen to reason.

Second, whilst I have the same distaste as most intelligent people for what President Eisenhower called ‘the military-industrial complex’, when I needed a secure job to see out the last decade before I retired, I had no qualms about joining one of the world’s largest defence companies.

With that out of the way, let me get down to analysng the above statement. I have no idea where the estimate of $135 billion dollars required to ‘totally eradicate poverty’ comes from. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it is accurate. The problem with the juxtaposition of these two ‘facts’ is that it seems to be based on the false notion that money is a ‘thing’, something like water in a pipe that can be diverted at the turn of a tap from one direction to another.

Money is not like that. Money is just an IOU. When you talk about changing priorities for spending, as the rest of the paragraph does, especially on such a grand scale, you are talking about moving resources around.

When I was young and learning about these things we used to call them ‘the three Ms’ – the factors of production, men, materials and machines. That was when women in the work force were invisible. Viewed like that, it is easy to see that switching resources from war to ‘ending poverty’ is not so simple as it sounds.

Let’s just consider some of the ways in which it might be possible to end poverty. The most obvious symbol of poverty is lack of food. If we are to increase the amount of food produced in the world, there are several ways it could be done.

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Image from BBC

We could destroy a few million more acres of rain forest and place them under cultivation. Disastrous for the environment, but who cares, we’re ending poverty here, the number one priority over all others.

Cutting out meat

And, of course, we don’t have to do it that way. We could cut down, or cut out altogether, our reliance on meat in our diet, and restore the pastureland presently used to graze cattle and sheep to growing crops for human consumption. I’m not sure how the reduction in methane production (good) that would result is balanced out by the additional energy and other inputs required (bad). I’m guessing it would work out as a positive for the environment, especially if we stuck to organic methods (although that requires that we continue to keep some animals for manure).

We could drastically reduce our consumption of alcohol, freeing up vast tracts of land already under cultivation for the production of food.

We could dramatically reduce the amount of food we waste, so long as we can move it from where it arises to where it is needed whilst it is still fit for consumption.

A better way

But there is a better way. One that is highly efficient and does not require an increase in the amount of land under cultivation. Hydroponics can be done on shelves, stacked in layers. It does have one draw back, however: the amount of energy used. I’ve heard that police forces can detect an illegal grow-house by reading the electricity meter. But so long as the energy used is not generated using fossil fuels, it’s all good. Although not according to the opponents of wind and solar power, who point out that they, too, involve the use of scarce resources, including land.

None of this, of course, addresses the problem of distribution, getting the food from the point of production to the point of need. But that’s solvable too, after all, war involves a huge expenditure on logistics and that is one factor that can easily be diverted.

And there are other targets that might be considered for reprioritisation. Take sport for example, an industry valued at $620 billion per annum, a figure reportedly growing faster than overall GDP, a lot of it directed at encouraging us to increase our consumption of stuff that is not only bad for us, but does little in a constructive way to end poverty.

Changed lifestyle

So it is certainly possible. It requires significant changes in lifestyle for millions of us, but it is in a good cause. Or is it? Time to look at some of the likely consequences of ending poverty.

When people cease to be poor, their health improves; they live longer, their children are more likely to survive into adulthood. So the population increases, even without any increase in procreation. And increased population means the need for yet more food production.

And poverty is not just about food. It’s about the quality of housing. It’s about health care and disease prevention. All factors that I’m guessing are included in that $135 billion price tag. And all requiring land, labour, materials and machines. All resulting in greater longevity and a further increase in population.

Is it possible to reach a state of equilibrium, in which universal well being and a stable population exist side by side? Humanity has been trying for centuries, yet, it seems, is no nearer to achieving it.

No simple answers

Thinking about money, rather than what it represents, is how idealists fall into the trap of thinking there are simple answers to these intractable problems. People need to start thinking in terms of work. Nothing that sustains life, or makes it bearable, exists without work. If you live in a shelter you didn’t build yourself, wear clothes you didn’t make and eat food you didn’t grow, then you owe a debt of service to those who did construct your shelter, carry out all the different processes required to convert natural skins and/or fibres into wearable garments, and to the growers of the food you eat.

With that in mind, it seems to me that one of the most effective ways of ensuring a fair distribution of those things that make life worth living is to ensure the fair distribution of work. And I’m afraid that means accepting immigration and the export of jobs. Neither of them things attractive to supporters of Donald Trump’s presidency, or the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

One of the most frightening aspects of a Trump presidency is not what it could do to America but the fact that, if he is able to return jobs to the USA, he will impoverish those Pacific Rim countries that depend on exports to the USA. Likewise, if it is no longer possible for people from Eastern Europe to take up low paid jobs in Britain, the poorest of those countries will have lost an important route out of poverty. The irony of this is that farmers who rely on that labour will not recruit native Britons to do they work – they are already planning to use robots for much of that work.

It would be nice to think that, in 2017, we might see fewer over-simplifications of the problems that beset the planet and, instead, some serious thinking about practical solutions.

Society: what is it exactly?

Thanks to Stevie over at https://steviet3.wordpress.com/ for nominating me for the ‘Three Quotes for Three Days’ challenge.

The rules of the challenge are:

  1. Three quotes for three days.
  2. Three nominees each day (no repetition).
  3. Thank the person who nominated you.
  4. Inform the nominees.

For my 2nd contribution I am quoting Margaret Thatcher:

There is no such thing as society. Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, 1979-90, in an interview for Woman’s Own, September 1987.

Margaret Thatcher

Often quoted, frequently misunderstood, this single remark is held up as an example of her government’s belief that the state had no role to play in the personal lives of individuals. I think we need to look at the context of the remark before condemning it outright. You can see a transcript of the complete interview here. The two relevant passages are reproduced below. (Yes, she actually said it twice, although the wording on the first occasion was slightly different.):

[people] are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

And:

it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

To understand what she meant I think it is necessary to define what is intended when people use the word ‘society’. To many, certainly to me, that ‘living tapestry of … people … prepared to turn round and help … those who are unfortunate’, is a description of what I would define as ‘society’. So, in effect, she is contradicting her own statement with the sentence that follows it.

What she seems to be saying is that people use the word in a way that makes it interchangeable with Government, or at least, the generality of people with power. It is both a scapegoat for our ills and a comfort blanket to which we turn when in trouble. Children’s bad behaviour is deemed to be the result of society’s newly acquired tolerance for behaviours previously viewed as unacceptable. And it is certainly the case that, in 1987, British social mores were in the midst of a massive upheaval, experiencing changes that have continued to this day. My 2015 novel Transgression was predicated on those changes in so far as they related to attitudes to sexuality, gender and sexual morals.

But we have free will. We do not have to follow trends that we regard as harmful. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children proper respect for other human beings. If the ‘living tapestry’ in which they grow up contains idleness, violence, drunkenness, philandering, contempt for the property of others, children will quite likely become adults with the same ‘values’.

Equally, if they experience a sober commitment to work, an atmosphere of trust and faithfulness in their parents’ and neighbour’s marriages, abhorrence of violence and respect for others’ property and opinions, they are likely to adopt similar standards in adulthood.

Notice that each of those contrasting environments is a description of a form of society. Neither has anything to do with government, except, perhaps, that the second is more likely to gain the approval of those we choose to rule over us.

After 40 years of welfare provision and of education and healthcare provided free of charge at the point of use, people had grown to take such things for granted; to believe that, should they fall on hard times, it was the fault of ‘society’ – by which they meant the state – and the same ‘society’ should protect them. Margaret Thatcher was, I think, trying to point out that, in that context, ‘society’ is all of us. It is only because we pay taxes that those protections are available. We ought not to assume that, because we have paid for these things, we have a right to abuse them.

It’s a sentiment that echoes John F Kennedy’s ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. And yet the former US President’s words are admired whilst Mrs. Thatcher’s are condemned.

Entitlement

Around 1970 a couple of large projects being undertaken by the company I worked for came to an end and there was no immediate replacement. Several colleagues were made redundant. I was fortunate in being employed on a project that still had several months to run. But the overtime upon which I had come to rely ceased. In an effort to maintain our standard of living, I took a part-time job in a pub. I remember overhearing a conversation between a couple of men, one of whom worked for the local council. It went something like this:

Council workman: I’m on the sick

Other man: Oh dear, what’s the problem?

Council workman: I’m not really sick, I’m on the sick. We are entitled to 4 weeks sick leave every year so I make a point of taking it.

That attitude, which shocked me at the time, is what I think Mrs. Thatcher was deploring. The belief that, because you are ‘entitled’ to something should the need arise, there is nothing wrong with taking it, even though you have no such need.

I would go further and suggest that, if a boon like healthcare free at the point of use is made available to you through the selfless sacrifice of society’s tax-payers, you ought to take steps to lead a reasonably healthy life-style. Going out and getting bladdered at the weekend and expecting the long suffering staff of the local A&E to sort out whatever injuries you incur as a result is not fair. Nor is stuffing your children with fatty and/or sugary foods to the point where they become obese and contract diabetes.

During her period as PM I was a political opponent and I remain so. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I believe she was blamed for much that was beyond her control. It is undoubtedly the case that many traditional industries disappeared on her watch. But it is also the case that those industries were doomed anyway. A combination of poor management and militant trades unionism made it impossible for them to compete with developing countries. The irony of this being that, in many instances, it was technologies developed in Britain along with machinery and training provided by British companies, often with government assistance, that had created those competing overseas industries.

Government attempts to encourage foreign investment in Britain failed, in part because of that reputation for past mismanagement. Some did come, notably Japanese car makers who brought an entirely new approach to management and industrial relations.

You can blame the Thatcher government for failing to oversee an orderly transition, and for what seemed then, and still seems to be, indifference to the plight of the men and women whose livelihoods vanished with those old industries. What you can’t do is blame ‘society’, or pretend that there is no such thing. Indeed, to the extent that communities that suffered have made any kind of recovery – and sadly many have not – it is society – that ‘living tapestry of men and women’ in those communities – that has done it, sometimes helped, more often hindered, by government intervention.

I nominate:

Christoph Fischer https://libdemfischer.wordpress.com/

Catherine Vaughan https://nouveaubohemian.com

Roberta Pimentel https://robertapimentel.com

Co-Housing and Community – Guest Post…

I lived for a while in the 1970s in a “co-ownership” development. That differed considerably from the concept described in Felicity Sidnel’s guest post on The Story Reading Ape’s blog and at http://cohousing.org.uk/what-cohousing. It did mean that residents had to communicate because they were jointly responsible for maintenance.
I also recall the co-operative Giroscope in Hull (http://self-help-housing.org/case-studies/case-study-1/) which employed previously unemployed workers to renovate dilapidated houses for their own use.
All private housing developments in Ireland include public spaces and care and maintenance of these is the responsibility of a residents’ association rather than the local authority as would be the case in the UK.
Judging by the contents of the website I linked to above, Co-Housing is a growing trend in the UK. Both the UK and Ireland need more housing to meet increasing demand. And there needs to be a lot more affordable housing. How far initiatives like this can go towards solving the problem remains to be seen. The same difficulties – planning controls, funding – have to be overcome.

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

co-housing

In this age of immediate connections though the ubiquitous i-phone, Facebook and other media, many people still long for “real community”.

A documentary on the radio today investigated co-housing, an experiment in community living. There are hundreds of projects currently up and running in North America. The particular subject of this programme, was the Harbourside Co-housing for Seniors, in Sooke British Columbia. Denmark first developed this concept in the 1960’s, but now there are many projects of different longevities, and more currently in development, in Europe, the UK, New Zealand, USA and Canada, among others.

Are these the descendants of the nineteenth century Utopian dreams that so often ended in disaster if they got beyond the pages of a book? The founders and members of the co-housing movement are careful to address practicalities. So far they seem to be remarkably successful, proceeding through a long and careful preparation period which…

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Apple’s €13 billion: Yours? Mine? Whose?

Following the EU Commission’s findings released on 29th August, Irish politicians and commentators, as well as some further afield, have struggled to find the correct response. In the end the Irish government agreed to join Apple in lodging an appeal against the findings.

The methods that Apple, and some other large corporations, use in order to avoid paying tax are well enough documented. A complex series of financial transfers enables Apple to show the greater portion of its profits as eligible for tax in a jurisdiction where the tax rate is zero. It pays tax in Ireland at 12.5% on the tiny residual profit left after deducting the ‘expense’ of paying its parent company, registered in a tax haven, for the use of intellectual property owned by the parent.

Such schemes are widely regarded as immoral or unethical. I think there is another way of looking at it, especially with regard to this case and any others like it. The $14.5 billion tax bill with which Apple has been presented by the EU is retrospective. That is to say it relates to past business transactions. And that means the money has already been spent. Apple will now have to set aside a special fund of $14.5 billion in order to cover the possibility that its appeal might fail and that it will eventually have to pay up.

It will probably appear in Apple’s accounts as a ‘provision’ for future liability.

Over-taxed Irish citizens

The actual $14.5 billion that was not paid in taxes in past years was, of course, spent: in payments to suppliers and contractors, to employees, and as dividends to share holders. Each of these paid tax on that income. Some of them are Irish citizens. Like most Irish citizens they probably believe they are over-taxed, especially as they have to pay for some services that are free at the point of delivery elsewhere, notably in their close neighbour Britain. They might now believe that, had Apple and other large corporations paid more tax, they would have paid less. Is it really that simple?

Let’s start from the assertion that all money is nothing more than a token acknowledging someone’s work. So that $14.5 billion represents work undertaken by Apple employees, their suppliers, or contractors in various parts of the world, and their share-holders. Had they paid it over to the Irish government, the government would have used it to pay it’s employees, suppliers and contractors; to make welfare payments to its senior citizens, the unemployed and those on government sponsored work schemes. But Apple would have had less money available to pay to its employees, suppliers and share-holders.

So we come down to the question of which is the greater good? The private, corporate sector producing all the modern conveniences we take so much for granted, or the public sector? And what is the proper balance between the two? It’s a question that has formed the basis of election manifestos for many generations and that will not go away any time soon.

Ireland is presently in the throes of an escalating series of public sector pay disputes. No doubt some of those public servants who believe themselves to be under-rewarded would be delighted to get their hands on a share of the €13 billion, should it one day arrive in the government’s coffers. But then, I guess there are governments in other jurisdictions, not least the USA, who believe that a share of Apple’s unpaid tax properly belongs to them

The Proper Response to Famine

How should we respond to disasters? Natural events – earthquakes, floods, forest fires – usually evoke an outpouring of sympathy accompanied by the dispatch of all manner of aid. Engineers, medics, machinery and food are flown in to the disaster area to ensure that victims receive succour. Appeals raise millions of dollars to support such efforts.

Is our response to famine different? Should it be? Are we more inclined to seek the cause of the catastrophe before making a commitment to assist? How deeply ingrained in our knowledge of Judao/Christian history is the story of how Joseph taught his Egyptian captors the importance of conserving the surplus from good years in order to provide for years when the harvest failed? We may not subscribe to Malthusian theories about the relationship between population and food production, but common sense tells us that there is indeed some form of interdependence between the two.

Natural disasters are just that. Largely unpredictable events beyond our control. Science has provided us with tools that reduce the unpredictability of earthquakes. Engineers have shown us how to design buildings capable of surviving any but the most intense. The same is true of floods. Even so, there are few circumstances in which we would blame the victims of such events. We might argue, after the event, that warnings had been ignored, that building design regulations had been flouted, flood defences neglected. In such circumstances we would be justified in apportioning blame to those responsible for the neglect, not to the victims.

Earthquake in Nepal. Image from nbcnews.com

 

Flooding in Myanmar. Image from indianexpress.com

 

 

Often potential victims are able to insure against such risks, although the premium might be prohibitive if the risk is high. And an insurer’s reluctance to underwrite the risk should act as a warning to anyone choosing to dwell in an area prone to floods or earthquakes. In such circumstances we might well withhold our sympathy on the grounds that they were aware of the risk when they took the decision to build their home on a flood plain or near a fault line.

Drought afflicted maize in Malawi earlier this year. Image from anglican.ink

The causes of famine – crop failure, drought, floods – are potentially just as predictable as are earthquakes. Tools and techniques to mitigate such events are well known. Could there, then, be some justification in attributing blame to the victims of famine? Maybe they failed to install proper irrigation systems; they chose not to plant disease resistant strains of their preferred crop; they did not make use of other agricultural techniques, such as spraying with insecticides, or sensible crop rotations to conserve soil fertility whilst allowing the disease bearing organisms to die before re-planting with the susceptible crop.

The Elephant in the Room

There is another factor in all these situations: population pressure. As populations grow, demand for food and housing increases, forcing people to build their homes, or to grow crops, in unsuitable locations. The corollary is true also: in good times people reproduce. Infant mortality reduces. The elderly survive for longer. Population increases. The likelihood of disaster grows. So, too, does the likelihood of war. Another lesson from Judao/Christian history concerns the wresting of the “promised land” from its occupants in order to provide a fertile home for former exiles.

Were I not an optimist I would say that, even without climate change, our planet is headed for catastrophe driven by the inexorable rise in population. Why do I remain optimistic? Because I believe in the power of education, of science and of technology. There will be great suffering, for sure, there always has been. Wars, natural disasters and famines will continue. Perhaps they will intensify.

In the past these would often have been attributed to providence, or the wrath of some invisible deity. The response would have involved religious rituals and invocations. But the advance of knowledge has given humankind an understanding of the causes of these calamities and the means both to mitigate their effects and to prevent their recurrence. I believe it will give future generations the power to find a sustainable balance between population and resource use.

Nineteenth Century History – a new project (or two) for me?

The story began a few years ago when a certain gentleman (I’ll call him Paddy) joined our local writers’ group. Some years previously he had suffered serious injuries in a road accident and had subsequently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. From being a successful professional, keen golfer and member of Toastmasters, he was facing the frustrations of a debilitating condition that makes communication difficult. Nevertheless, he was determined to produce a collection of anecdotes and stories from his family history, humorous incidents from his long career, and adaptations of Irish folk tales. With help from members of the group he succeeded in producing a small volume which sold well among friends and acquaintances.

I hadn’t seen him for a long while until he contacted me towards the end of last year seeking help with the compilation of a history of the organisation for which he had worked for more that two decades. I completed that task in January.

Family History

Meanwhile, he came to me with the idea for a book based on the life of one of his aunts. He hoped we could, together, create another ‘Brooklyn’. I produced about 8500 words for the beginning of this novel but got stuck because of the gap in Paddy’s story, between the courtship and marriage in 1931 and events some 40 years later. I could have invented material to fill the gap but feel I don’t know enough about life in Ireland in those years. Not that such lack of knowledge prevented me writing about Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries, but there are too many people still living who know the recent period intimately.

More recently, Paddy began studying the Irish Famine of 1845-51. I helped him transcribe notes he’d made based on a couple of books he had read. I also began doing my own research. Paddy’s intention was to produce, with my assistance, his own book about this terrible period in British/Irish history. For my part, I could see the possibility of another historical novel, this one set in that period and featuring a young woman who experiences the horrors of starvation and forced migration first hand. I already have the first couple of chapters drafted for the novel and am continuing to gather material for the non-fiction book and as background to the novel.

Lessons for today

Discussing the latter with Paddy earlier this week, we were unable to come up with a unique “angle” that will make our book different from those already written. After all, most of those have been written by professional historians and academics. Paddy told me a librarian had conducted a search for him and found no fewer than 130 books on the subject.

I think I have the answer, and the germ of it is in my earlier post about the famine, in which I pointed out how easy it is to move from scapegoating a particular group to genocide. From what I have discovered so far, it seems to me that there are many parallels to be drawn between the events of 1845-51 in Ireland and Britain and things happening today. They include forced migration and attitudes to migrants in the destination countries; the division of resources between rich and poor with great wealth existing alongside terrible poverty; the dominant economic, social and political ideologies, and conflicting religious beliefs.

Illustration found at historyplace.com

African migrants off the Tunisian coast, June 2011. Photo from AFP found at Mail and Guardian Africa.

Expect more posts from me on this subject in future. Meanwhile, if you have anything you would like to contribute to help me and Paddy to understand these terrible events, books you’d like to recommend, for example, or individual stories passed down to you through your own family history, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.