The “House of Cards” trilogy, starring the late Ian Richardson as the devious, urbane British politician, Francis Urquhart, is in a class of its own as a political drama. From Richardson’s career making performance to its direction (with Richardson occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, which turned out to be a brilliant tool for recruiting the audience to the villainous chief whip’s side) and themes (the first season has the camera constantly cutting away to rats!) it is just superb television. Throughout the series, Richardson is joined by some excellent co-stars including Susannah Harker, Michael Kitchen, Colin Jeavons, and the brilliant Diane Fletcher as Richardson’s Lady MacBeth, Elizabeth. Is this the best British political drama ever made? You might say that…
I recently dined in Kitchen, on South Anne Street, on a menu that could, I suppose, be best described as Modern European. It was good, simple and tasty, and the Tart Tartin will kill you stone dead, but you’ll die happy. You can check out their details here.
Firstly, let me say that I arrived earlier than expected, and was enthusiastically encouraged to remain, order a drink, use the Wi-FI or read the paper. It’s nice to be not regarded as a nuisance in a restaurant, which isn’t always the case. I haven’t eaten in Kitchen before, but the location, a few doors up from my old favourite Gotham, is really handy.
The food was excellent, and the general surrounds were very pleasant. I mention that because despite Kitchen being quite small, they have resisted the temptation (pay attention here Gotham!) to pack tables so close to each other that you accidentally wander into other people’s conversations/adulterous affairs/plots to overthrow the government. Kitchen, on the other hand, allows that level of privacy to chat or meet with political cronies. Which is not what I was doing. Oh no.
I mentioned to someone in work that I was going there, and they said “they’re always selling”, which I only understood when I was there, in that the staff are very “would you like garlic bread with that? Another drink?” but funnily enough, I don’t mind that. It is, after all, a business (something which seems to always surprise Irish people. The same people, by the way, who marvel at US customer service when they do the same thing) and they only asked us at appropriate times, when we were ordering, or when drinks were empty. It’s not like we were being hovered over, being willed into finishing the last mouthful of wine so that it could be replenished.
Overall? I’ll be going back, so make of that what you will.
It is fair to say that we live in a time of great economic turmoil and dissatisfaction, with many of the old accepted truths under question. At the heart of that debate must be the question of the current economic system of the west, and there are many on the left saying this too. However, they tend to propose solutions which have either been tried and failed, or indeed fail to take account of core factors in the human condition.
But supposing we were to seek a new economic model. What would be the principles at its core?
1. It is not unreasonable to state that at this stage of human development in the west we can eliminate poverty in a defined sense. We have the wealth to ensure a basic level of income, housing, healthcare and education for all of our people. No one need go hungry nor sleep rough if we as a society decided, assuming that we define poverty in a real material sense, as opposed to the theoretical gap between rich and poor.
2. That must be seperated, however, from our consumerist wants, something we would have great difficulty in accepting. We could fund a right to healthcare, but not the right to an iPad, and spending more money on poverty reduction means less money for disposable consumerism.
3. We must also accept that capitalism, for all its flaws, has still proven to be the most effective way of encouraging innovation and wealth creation. It is no accident that very few of the products produced by genuinely communist countries (China is not one) have survived communism, although I do hear that a stripped out Trabant makes a fine micro-glass house for an allotment.
4. If we are to fund a poverty free society, we must recognise that wealth production requires that the overwhelming majority of the adult populace must contribute. We also have to accept that the idea of people ceasing to be productive potentially from age 50-55 is an arbitrary concept founded on a retirement date decided in the age of Bismarck. It is simply not viable in an age where medical advances (another product of capitalist innovation) makes the idea of living to 100 no longer an outlandish concept. A society cannot have a large proportion of its population expecting to spend nearly half their adult lives being funded by the labours of others whilst they can still contribute to wealth creation. Retirement has to be more fluid and has to take account of increases in life expectancy and the quality of life of older people.
5. If capitalism is to survive, however, it must be with the consent of the great majority. This means that the great majority must feel that it works in the common good. This surely requires that an ordinary 40 hours a week worker has to be able to provide a reasonable life style for that effort. If this means that there must be wealth redistribution from the top, that is the price to be paid.
6. The creation of a permanent economic aristocracy of the mega wealthy is a threat to both democracy and capitalism itself, in that by sucking the finite resource of wealth away from the rest of society it calls into question the ability of capitalism to provide an acceptable living standard to the great majority, which could lead to dissatisfaction and eventual revolution.
7. This does not mean that we should follow the confiscatory policies of the hard left, because they advocate a short term solution which if followed will actually strangle the wealth creating abilities of the west. It should not be forgotten that the Iron Curtain was not built to stop westerners flooding to the communist states. The problem with the hard left is that they believe that wealth is a natural occurring phenomena, whereas capitalism believes, rightly, that wealth is created by the ingenuity of man, and requires that man be free to create and benefit from the fruits of his creation.
8. The key then, must be to balance the freedom to strive and create and benefit from that struggle with a level of regulation of permit the recycling of a proportion of that wealth back into society through redistribution. The question will be how one does that without stifling effort through punitive taxation? Estate Taxes, for example, have proven an effective means of doing so, in that they do not interfere with the wealth creation effort during the life of the creator. This does have to be balanced, on the one hand, with the maintaining of economically viable entities after their creator’s passing and also the very human desire to pass on wealth to one’s family.
9. Finally, a new ecomomic model must recognise that globalisation is a fact, and that the days of national sovreignty leading to control of the economic affairs of a state are now long passed, and that if the west wishes to protect its values, it must be willing to ensure cooperation, integration and common policy amongst its components to a scale unimagined before. It also has to be recognised that for proper free market competition to work, a strong state with an anti-monopoly/cartel regulatory function is vital.
Many years ago, when I was still active in politics, the concept of a Basic Income for every citizen was a very live issue. Interestingly, although it started out as a left wing concept, people on the right started to become interested in it as a means of getting better value from the social welfare budget. Indeed, many of those on the left who initially advocated it used to cool on the idea when they realised that if every citizen was granted a no-questions-asked universal payment, it would allow for the radical dismantling of the social welfare system, including very substantially reduced numbers of civil servants, as the need for policing and processing would be hugely reduced.
Of course, there were other issues. Even with huge savings made by abolishing most social welfare payments, and cutting the public sector pay bill, it would still require large amounts of taxation to fund it. Secondly, if every citizen were to receive it, including those in work, to ensure universal approval of it, and it were to be generous enough to fund a relatively decent lifestyle, what would stop large numbers of people just becoming layabouts and parasites living off the backs of others? I don’t know the answers, but as a concept it is worth further examination, and perhaps could be the bridge between right and left in terms of setting a minimum standard of living upon which no citizen shall fall beneath.
Am doing Leviathan tonight with Andrea Pappin. See here for details. There’s a piece in TheJournal.ie by me here outlining some of the issues. It seems to have made some people drop the monocle from their eyes in shock.
There’s a repetitive nature to every Irish referendum on the EU. The Yes side, normally a centrist establishment, will make the usual “Yes to Jobs/Heart of Europe/Seat at the table/Send the right signal” arguments. The No side will run their standard “Vote No to change things you don’t like” position. But will a No vote change anything?
Quite possibly, but perhaps not in the way many on the No side suggest. Will a No vote mean that we will have no access to funds to plug our spending gap from the end of 2013? Again, possibly. The treaty says yes, but you can’t rule out the acrobatic legal suppleness of EU politicians. But let us suppose that it does rule out those funds. Then what?
Well, some months ago, I wrote that many former Yes campaigners were telling me privately that they were almost hoping for a No vote, because it would finally call the No side’s bluff in terms of cold hard cash to fund welfare and pensions. A No vote would lead to an emergency budget in 2013 that would be forced to finally implement the surgical amputation of a large part of our post World War Two social safety net and our public sector as a major employer in the state. This prospect has some on the economic far right rubbing their hands with glee, because not only will it be seen as not ideological but a fact of mathematics, but it will be irreversible. Think about it: We will be forced to close the spending gap through a mixture of massive spending cuts and to a lesser degree, through taxation. That means that in the future, if a left wing government wishes to reverse those cuts, it will have little choice but to raise taxation which is politically poisonous in what is essentially an economically libertarian country.
I am amazed that the hard left don’t see this. They will argue that the treaty will force cuts and tax rises by limiting borrowing anyway, which is true. But the difference is that EU funding will allow us to do it at our own pace, and make more pragmatic choices as the economy recovers. There will still be pain, but there will also be a controlled return to the bond markets and not the short, sharp heart attack of an instant balanced budget brought on through hubris on the hard left and to the secret delight of the economic far right.
Never mind EuroSocialists versus Capitalist Yanks, we have real problems.
There was once a time when the phrase “Far East”, referring to Asia and the Pacific Basin, made sense. After all, Europe had been the centre of the world, and so geographical locations were decided with reference to that fact. Yet today, it is Europe that is becoming a geo-political backwater. There is no question that China is the coming power, and that the United States will be seriously challenged to preserve its preeminent position as the world’s greatest power.
What is often forgotten in this scenario is that it is not just about a shift in geographical balance. It is also about the fact that the most populous nation on Earth is ruled by an ideology radically different from that upon which western values are founded upon. We in the west have become complacent about our values, believing that the post-1945 consensus of democracy and human rights and the rule of law is naturally superior and will therefore always triumph. Tell that to one billion Chinese.
The amazing thing is that the United States and Europe and our democratic allies spend so much time squabbling amongst ourselves over essentially minor differences whilst a force uncompromisingly in contrast to our way of live grows in power almost daily.
If we are not vigilant, and act upon that vigilance, we will awaken one morning to find that the centre of the world lies on the eastern coast of the Pacific, and we are living in the far west, the forgotten edge of humanity. And what will be the tool they utilise against us? Our own misguided nationalism, abandoning the multilateral ties of NATO and the EU which have bound both sides of the Atlantic together and which has kept us prosperous and free for 66 years, indeed spreading freedom throughout Europe post 1989. Old fashioned flag waving “ourselves alone” nationalism is on the march from Iowa to Dundalk to Marseilles to Vienna, the belief that retreat behind the barricades away from “them” will keep us safe.
The west does not need to retreat behind its individual borders as Sarah Palin or Marine Le Pen would have us do. Instead, we need to consider the idea of an Atlantic Union of North America and the European Union, based on free trade, shared employment rights and a common trade area, as well as a united approach to China and Russia.
Is it a radical concept? Absolutely. It’ll drive right wing Republicans and French National Fronters nuts. But let us be clear: At the moment, we are losing. It’s time to get back in the game.
There are two men who have a serious chance of being sworn in on the 20th of January 2013 as President of the United States. We cannot be sure as to which one it shall be. However, we can be sure of one thing from day one of the next presidential term, and that is that at least 40% of the American electorate will probably hate the president, deny him anything but the most perfunctory loyalty and regard him as a holder of values not just different from theirs but almost alien.
This is not good, nor is it normal. Across the western world voters are disappointed that “their” party is not elected, but even Margaret Thatcher had the respect of many voters who would not vote for her. The recent decision of Senator Olympia Snowe to not seek another term because of the poisonous atmosphere in US politics is a dire warning, as were the attacks on Jon Huntsman for serving his country as US ambassador to China. If the Democratic and Republican parties, and their respective hardcore voters now regard their political opponents as little better than an alien occupying power, then the US has to ask itself some very hard questions. Can it continue in its current format?
Or, should the United States look to the European Union model as one flexible enough to allow Americans of all persuasions and values to live peacefully? The EU is by no means perfect, and indeed needs to copy many of the US’s successes. But it also recognises within its 28 states a wide variety of different values and beliefs. Moreover, the EU, through its treaty mechanism, recognises the need to adjust its governing constitution as society changes.
Is it time for the US to follow suit? Is it time to draft a new US constitution which allows states more leeway on everything from abortion to same sex marriage to healthcare mandates, and to put such a constitution to the people? Some would say such a proposition is inherently conservative in its strict constructionism, but bear in mind that the more populous liberal states could also use such an opportunity to devolve powers on social issues to themselves, freeing themselves from over-represented low-population conservative states. They could also deal with the anomaly that so called low tax red states seem to be subsidisised by the blue states.
Would there be problems? Of course. For one, such a proposal, allowing states to anchor their social values into their own state constitutions, free from federal interference, would almost certain cause significant migration as women and gays and minorities fled certain states. For that same reason, it would probably cause considerable loss of foriegn direct investment as, say, European investors object to investing in states where gay bullying is subtly encouraged.
But so what? It would address the sore tooth at the heart of US politics, and allow for people in conservative states to share lunch counters with their own kind, whilst freeing up liberal states to make their own decisions.