Saturday, April 16, 2011

Electoral reform after AV - What next?

I don’t know who will win the referendum next week - I hope it’s the Yes campaign - but whoever it is, we will still be a long way from a credibly democratic electoral system. To take only a few of the more grotesque blots on the face of our ‘democracy’, we cannot recall our representatives once they are elected. As the current government is constantly proving, there is no recourse against a regime that introduces major policies for which they have no mandate.

And of course we still have that running sore on the face of democracy, the House of Lords. No, it makes no sense to claim that they have some sort of proven wisdom or experience we cannot do without: any government that really wanted Melvyn Bragg’s opinion of culture or the arts can always just ask him, without conceding him the right to make law in perpetuity.

A slightly more obscure issue, but one that really bothers me, is the fact that our elections permit us to elect constituency representatives, even though it has been perfectly clear for a couple of centuries that most of the really important decisions are made by central government. Hence the persistent conflict between voting for a good MP and voting for the national government we actually want. They are not at all the same thing, and persisting with a constituency-based electoral system means that we half our local MPs are parachuted in by national parties even though they know nothing about the constituency and their primary allegiance is to the national party. Conversely, to the extent that we do vote on local issues, this precludes voting for the national government, which is by far the predominant force in most aspect of all our lives.

It is an absurd state of affairs that could be remedied with a very simple solution: divide general elections into two votes (held simultaneously), with the first remaining a vote for local constituency MP, and the second a vote for a national party. The second vote would then populate a senate (to replace the ridiculous and offensive House of Lords) by allowing national parties to assign senators based on their percentage of the national vote.

The new Commons and Senate could also be allocated different spheres, with foreign policy and defence going to the Senate and all local issues being the preserve of the Commons. Others areas could be shared.

Finally, I would suggest a different approach to how often elections are held. For both houses I would suggest a fixed period of six years, with the provision that a third of each house, chosen at random not more than a month before the election, would be subject to re-election every two years. This is important, as it permits a randomly chosen sample of the electorate to provide a running commentary on their representatives, but also, by being random, prevents the parties from buttering up local constituencies as the election approaches.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Our heroic bankers take on the evil dictators

According to the March 2011 edition of Private Banker International, 'at least $235 billion of illegal assets are held in offshore accounts opened by the wealthy, including those taking advantage of their government positions in the Middle East and North Africa. That is equivalent to 15 percent of the total $1.5 trillion held offshore by individuals from Arab and African states…', as 'over past decades these regimes have grown an entire ruling class consisting of family, friends, businesses, security forces and secret service that have transferred significant wealth out of their home countries.'

Bizarrely, the same article (aptly entitled 'Private banking’s ticking bomb'), having noted that 'The family of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is estimated to have as much as $70 billion of assets. Tunisia’s ex-president Ben Ali is said to have up to $10 billion and Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi and his family have an estimated $20 billion offshore', suggests that 'One big problem comes from trying to assess which assets originating from the region are legitimate and which are suspect'.

Really? How could any of these groups conceivably have acquired such staggering sums by legal means?

Equally bizarrely, a leading baker is quoted as saying that 'Your private bankers should be close enough to their clients to have alarm bells start to ring if what they are being offered, say £5 million, looks unusual in size and timing”. Well, they scored well on that one too: what 'timing' could possibly explain away wealth on such a gargantuan scale? Gadaffi has been in power for 42 years so, with $20 billion between them, his family must have deposited an average of $500,000,000 each year for decades on end. That’s the £5 million deposit our eager banker suggests might be a tell-tale sign of corrupt dealing every 5 days. But only when the people of Libya say that enough is enough do the Gadaffis' bankers wonder whether there might be something doubtful about this.

So when the previous article in the same journal celebrates how heroically Swiss bankers shut down the tyrants' assets in record time, we are entitled to ask, how did you manage not to notice the staggering scale of looting while it was happening?

Incidentally, the reported figures surely understate the problem. As reported, the amounts stolen by Ben Ali, Mubarak and the Gadaffis come to $100 billion. If the total of illegal assets is only $235 billion, then these three groups account for 40% of the total. Surely that cannot be correct - not with all the other dictators, their families and their cronies, all the corrupt generals and arms dealers, and all the rest. What if this little groups represents only 5% of the whole - which I find quite believable, given the nature of these regimes - then the offshore stolen money comes to $2 trillion - that’s $2,000,000,000,000, or a little under $6,000 for every single Arab man, woman and child.

Perhaps our upright bankers can redeem themselves a little and tell us how much Mugabe and his grubby pals have stashed away? Or exactly how many of the 400,000 millionaires in the Middle East and North Africa did not acquire their riches by raping their countries? Given that 'Banks in Europe, the US, Switzerland and most other developed countries have to do background checks on so-called PEPs (politically exposed persons)', they surely know more than they are telling.

Conversely, what do they plan doing about it? Or do they just smugly assume that the new regimes will be as corrupt as their predecessors and be happy to let bygones be bygones? Perhaps the millions of poor in Arab countries can help them make up their minds, or at the very least make sure they not only get the money back but also demand that these shabby crooks (and no, I don't mean the dictators this time) are made to pay for the part they played in robbing some of the poorest people on earth.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

For want of a nail...

... the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost’. Or in the words of Benjamin Franklin’s own synopsis (in his Maxims Prefaced to Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1758), ‘A little neglect breeds mischief’. It is a simple truth, concisely and graphically put; however, one risks plunging wildly overboard as soon as one extends the chain of reasoning to more than a handful of terms. How far can one take it?- to a message, a battle, a kingdom, planet Earth, Milky Way South East, universal heat death?

Isaac Asimov once suggested (I forget where) an interesting analogy for how history really works, as a kind of 'bow wave' in time. At first there is immense tumult as the immediate effects of a cause (an event, a great personality, and so on) spread and proliferate; but then a phase of sublimation supervenes, assimilating those effects to the broader, deeper currents of Universal history. The same applies for Great Men. What if Hitler had won World War II? It would certainly still have mattered in 2000 and even 2100, but what difference would it have made by 20,000 AD? Or 200,000 AD or 2,000,000? Indeed, looking at the history of Europe since the end of the Cold War, it is striking that, at least in terms of international politics, things look remarkably as they might have in 1925, had the First World War not intervened.

The whole logic of 'For want of a nail' rests on two false assumptions: that the world is basically atomistic, and that what changes is more vital than whatever remains the same. They are equally curious opinions, although entirely compatible with a world of fragmentation and distraction we inhabit now. But the universe is not just a concatenation of atoms but is on the contrary deeply and universally structured, local quantitative variations may be rapidly countered and any potential qualitative effects generally suppressed. And although we may not be interested in the same old same old, the universe and its human expression, history, takes it all into account.

Popular (mis)interpretations of chaos theory make a similar error. Contrary to the way in which it is sometimes alluded to, chaos theory does not say that chaos is fundamental. On the contrary, it says that apparent chaos is often actually the expression of profound (if also somewhat obscure) order and simplicity. That is why the old saw about a butterfly in Rio de Janeiro causing a thunderstorm in Peking is so misleading: not because the effects of its wing beats could not trigger a storm on another continent, but because they are only one of a massive number of other more or less profound effective causes. Especially on the global scale, weather consists, by and large, of immense and highly stable systems controlled by forces and laws operating on an incomparably vaster scale than all the life forms on the planet put together. Of course, a single butterfly may tip a system that is either exceptionally sensitive or already in extremis into a new mode or phase, but that is hardly the same thing. Having the trigger does not mean you don’t need the rest of the howitzer.

So what is this really about? My own view is almost equally simple: it is about a popular ideology designed to accept the unintelligibility and uncontrollability of the world, be it through popular wisdom or pseudo-scientific explanation or (in a previous age) the Will of God, or indeed by any other means. The reasons why the world is fragmented and full of distraction are beyond both the understanding and the control of individuals, and there are vast forces ranged against anyone trying to create either a popular understanding of exactly what those forces are or a political organisation capable of combatting them.