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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.

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Why I’m an Unashamed Bremoaner

The very people who voted ‘leave’ in the UK, and for Trump in the USA, are the ones most likely to suffer as a consequence.

Élite (ĕlët’), n. The choice part, the best, (of)

The above is from my ancient copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Confirming that ‘elite’ means best. So how did the expression ‘the elites’ become a term of abuse, used in contempt to describe those we believe have too much power and influence? And, if we accept that there are individuals who singly, or as a group, have too much power, what is the best way to deal with the situation?

For the most part such people are characterised by being better educated than the average citizen, having greater intelligence than the average citizen, being, in fact, the best at whatever they do. Whether they practice law or medicine, run successful businesses or become successful sportsmen or women, or entertainers, they are the leaders of their profession. Is that a reason to hold them in contempt? I think not.

And, when it comes to sportsmen/women and entertainers we take the diametrically opposite view, worshiping them like gods. It’s the lawyers, accountants and business people that we hold in contempt, not because they are the best at what they do, but because we believe they have access to the best of the resources that should be available to all. We want a bigger share for ourselves. So we take actions we believe will have the effect of taking away some of their power and influence, giving it to us instead.

That, of course, is a perfectly reasonable position to take. It’s the reason I involved myself in a small way in politics in the 1980s. But something strange has happened this year. Something that I simply cannot understand. In Britain people voted to leave the European Union. And, in USA, people voted in large numbers for Donald Trump.

Now, I am not going to say much about USA politics except this: faced with a choice between two members of ‘the elite’, one a billionaire property developer, the other a human rights lawyer, I have no doubt whatsoever as to which one is most likely to take actions to improve the lot of the least well off citizens.

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I do know rather more about the UK and Europe than about the USA. I know, for example, that one of the guiding principles of the EU is that very redistribution of opportunity and resources that those who voted ‘leave’ on June 23rd were seeking. The reason Britain is a net contributor to the EU budget is because it is one of the richest nations in the union. The European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, are two examples of how the EU redistributes resources to the poorest regions. Some of those poorer regions are in the UK and have benefited from those funds. And yet the residents of those regions voted overwhelmingly to leave. That makes absolutely no sense to me.

Another way of redistributing opportunities and resources is for people in deprived areas to travel to places

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Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London. The real person behind the legend.

where there are more of them. It has happened throughout the ages, from the legendary Dick Whittington who set out believing the streets of London were paved with gold, to Norman Tebbit’s father who notoriously ‘got on his bike’ to look for work in the 1930s, to the many young men and women of my generation who took advantage of assisted passage schemes to travel to Australia or Canada in the 1960s. It is also what the ‘freedom of movement’ clauses in the EU treaties seek to encourage.

The EU has been characterised by those who supported the ‘leave’ campaign as a ‘rich man’s club’. If that is the case, why are there so many rich people, so many so called ‘elites’, who supported ‘leave’, among them the foreign domiciled proprietors of many of the UK’s newspapers? Take a look at all those ‘eurosceptic’ Tories. Are they not part of ‘the elite’? Are they likely to continue policies that help support deprived areas, or are they eager to continue cutting social welfare?

This is why I said, back in June, that many in the ‘leave’ camp were deluded. And, it is out of a genuine concern for their well being that I continue to hope, and to campaign, for the reversal of this terrible decision.

New World Order

The following opening to a possible science fiction story came about in response to a writers’ group prompt: “the mist cleared to reveal …” I wanted to show a group of people arriving on a strange planet and seeing their new surroundings for the first time. To make the story work I had to decide how and why they got there and, most importantly, who they were.

My answers to those questions were prompted by the two big news stories of the summer. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to political prominence in the UK, and secondly, the mass migration into Europe of people from the Middle East and further afield.

The movement that propelled Corbyn has echoes elsewhere as the political left reacts to the austerity programmes adopted by governments in response to the banking crisis of 2008/9. Both events are manifestations of the inability of free-market economics to ensure the fair distribution of the planet’s resources. I invite you to join me in a discussion of this seemingly intractable problem after you have read the fiction piece below. At the end there is a link to a page where I explain why I think the group of people in my story are, like the alternatives proposed by the political left, doomed to failure. This is where you can tell me why I am wrong.

New World

A gentle vibration woke him from his slumber. A quiet voice in his ear. Quiet but insistent.

“It is time, Jason. It is time.”

He rolled over and rubbed his eyes. Memories began to flood his brain. He tested his limbs, wriggling his toes, stretching his arms, clenching and unclenching his fists. So far as he could tell from these initial tests the systems built into the machine had worked. Systems that manipulated his muscles and joints as he slept, simulating normal movement in order to prevent wasting of the former and seizure of the latter.

Cautiously he sat up. All around, the others were doing the same. Tom, Adam, Gill, Jane, Susan and Kate. Seven people. His heart skipped a beat. There should be eight. Where was Jim?

Jim had entered the slumber in the station between Kate and Susan. Jason’s mind began to race. Wide awake now, he thought again about those systems. If the wake-up call had failed in Jim’s station, what else might have failed? It was time to test his vocal cords. No-one had been able to devise a means of stimulating them during the slumber. Tests, however, had demonstrated that there was no loss of functionality during prolonged sleep. Subjects often talked in their sleep, even in the depths of drug-induced slumber. It had been impossible to simulate a slumber as long as that to which he and his companions had been subjected.

“Jim.” His voice sounded strange to him but must have carried. Kate and Susan both turned towards each other, their faces transfixed at what they saw. Or, rather, what they did not see. They should have seen Jim’s smiling eyes and long nose, that cheerful grin they’d all become used to in training.

“Jim.” Both women spoke at once, echoing Jason’s cry. Both slipped from their stations. Jason was already striding towards them. The other members of the team, too, quickly joined in the common feeling of concern for their colleague.

Kate was the first to hit the resuss button. All crowded round and watched as the luminous green line on the monitor screen changed. There was a communal sigh of relief as the semi-cylindrical panel that covered Jim’s station began to slide into the floor of the compartment to reveal Jim. Not grinning yet, but his eyes open, a puzzled look on his face.

“What are you all staring at?” He eased himself into a sitting position.

“Some kind of minor malfunction,” Jason said. “The resuss system didn’t operate on your station. Kate activated it manually.”

Turning to the rest of the group, he continued: “OK, so we are all relieved to see Jim apparently hale and hearty, but we don’t know what other systems may have under-performed. All the more reason to follow the routine we were trained to undertake. Let’s all meet in the gym in twenty minutes.”

“Don’t be a spoil sport,” Alice complained. “I want to take a look outside.”

“That’s exactly why I said twenty minutes. I guess we all want to see what our new home looks like.”

Jason led the way to the observation platform. A bank of screens revealed what cameras on the outside of their vessel were picturing. Nothing much, except a swirling, milky mist.

Adam pointed to one of the screens behind Gill’s head. “Look.”

All eight turned and watched as the mist slowly cleared to reveal –

“Grass.”

“Trees.”

“And, look, a river.”

“No animals.” Gill, always the pessimist, joined the chorus.

“Or birds,” added Tom.

Jason was silent. The mist had not yet lifted above the highest ground. In one of the screens it was pierced by a bright glow that surely was this planet’s sun. Close to the horizon, lower than the high ground. “It’s still early in the day,” he said. “Come on, it’s time for our check-ups.”

By the time each member of the party had been subjected to a series of physical and mental exercises designed to establish that all were, indeed, hale and hearty, the sun was high in an azure sky and the mist had dispersed. Drops of dew like a million diamonds bedecked the grass and the leaves on the trees. White clouds floated above the hills.

“It looks just like home.” Jason heard the note of awe in Kate’s voice.

Before he could respond Gill spoke, returning to what was fast becoming a hobby horse. “Earth has birds and animals.”

“Well, the atmosphere checks out alright. A lot cleaner than the earth we knew. More like seventeenth century Europe, before the industrial revolution. The temperature is a comfortable 20 degrees. There is no reason to suppose it isn’t safe to go outside.”

“Look there!” Adam pointed to a small screen apart from the rest. With a collective gasp all eight watched as the image relayed by the robotic explorer revealed something even more homely: an array of spiders’ webs, their delicate threads be-jewelled by droplets sparkling in the rainbow hues of refracted light from the sun.

“Well, Gill, what do you make of that?” It was Jim who broke the awed silence.

“Spiders aren’t animals. Nor are the insects they live on. Don’t the rest of you get it? A planet with an atmosphere like Earth’s, a temperature, in this corner at least, the same as earth’s temperate zones, enough water to sustain plant life, ought to be teeming with animals and birds. We should at least be able to hear them, and yet the mike’s are picking up nothing more than the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. I don’t like it.”

Jane had said little since the group’s awakening. Now she touched Gill’s arm. “At least no animals means no humans either. Isn’t that what we wanted? To escape from the horrors our fellow humans had inflicted on Earth.”

A sombre silence followed Jane’s reminder of why they were all here. Each member of the team had been chosen, not just for their particular skills and experience, but for their personalities: tolerant, easy going and with a well developed sense of justice and fairness. Not only would they work together well, establishing a successful community on the new world, their genetic make-up ought to ensure that their off-spring continued the co-operative life style into future generations.

That, at least, was the underlying ideal of the foundation that had recruited the team three centuries before. Motivated by a desire to end the centuries of conflict that had devastated the home planet a group of wealthy individuals had come together initially to pool their resources, creating the Foundation. To begin with they had deployed their vast collective wealth on so called ‘good works’; like a project to green the deserts of North Africa, harnessing the power of the sun to provide clean energy some of which was used to run desalination plants to provide the necessary water.

Aware that uncontrolled population growth placed unbearable pressure on Earth’s natural resources they funded a programme of birth control education throughout those parts of the world where the problem was greatest. This had brought them into conflict with religious leaders but they had persevered, employing retired politicians and diplomats whom they had sent into war zones with a mission to reconcile differences and bring peace to regions torn apart by generations of violent antagonism. That mission had failed, the numbers of people displaced by war and famine continued to increase, threatening the stability of those nations who had finally, in the second half of the twentieth century, learned the value of peaceful coexistence. It was then, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, that the idea of establishing a new start for the human race on an alien planet had been conceived and implemented.

Can society ever be fair and just? Go to the discussion