Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Want your Right to Life? Best pay your taxes

More posts by me which are not, in fact, posts by me. If only I could write my thesis like this.
This one is a guest post from the lovely and talented Lizzie McClory:

Jack Straw has drawn rather a lot of attention to himself recently with his announcement of a green paper entitled ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. The bill is aimed at protecting citizens’ rights (such as the right to free healthcare and victims’ rights) and also monitoring citizens’ responsibilities (such as the duty to serve on juries, obey the law and to pay taxes). The idea is that the proposals in the green paper will effectively extend the Human Rights Act to social and economic rights.

Tempting as it is simply to swat aside Straw’s proposed bill by dismissing it as toothless and futile, I am more concerned with a problem identified by Chris Huhne.

The frightening concept implicit in this Bill is the conflation of citizens’ rights and human rights. It should be recognised that there is an important difference between:

(a) fundamental protections that should be available to all human beings, whatever responsibilities they have shirked; and

(b) benefits that are available to a citizen who enters into a contract with society, thereby acknowledging certain responsibilities.

The concern is, that assuming Straw’s mission succeeds, these social and economic rights will be seen as a mere expansion of the Human Rights Act. In other words, Straw wants “to build on the Human Rights Act” (which brings to mind Joni Mitchell: “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot …”).

There are two immediately apparent dangers:

1. The debasing of human rights by virtue of their association with these ‘secondary’ social and economic rights.

2. The threat to the universality of human rights.

Currently, human rights operate as a guaranteed basic minimum standard of humanity afforded to all.[1] This may not remain the case, as if social and economic rights are contingent on responsibilities, then by virtue of conflation with these rights, human rights could also become contingent on responsibilities.

There is a disturbing possibility, therefore, of access to human rights being dependent on whether, say, one agrees to sit on a jury or not. Surely this is not something any right-thinking government should promote. (A right wing-thinking government intent on bringing down the Human Rights Act, now that’s a different matter.)

[1] Of course the rights of wrongdoers are a separate issue here. Convicted criminals’ rights are balanced against the rights of the public / the state and sometimes the wrongdoer in question must forfeit a human right in the name of punishment - for example, forfeiture of the Article 5 right to liberty by way of imprisonment.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The financial crisis, the London Summit and Developing Countries

Another one that's actually from Rob, with me as proof-reader and editor.

On 2 April 2009, leaders from the G20 countries (19 of the world’s largest economies plus the European Union) and guest countries invited by the host Prime Minster Gordon Brown will meet in London to discuss the global economic slowdown.

Against the backdrop of worst economic crisis since the Second World War, central bank governors and Ministers of Finance will come together to discuss coordination of global economic policies needed to restore global economic health.

They will discuss what policies are required to stabilize the financial markets and actions needed to reform and strengthen the global financial and economic architecture to put the global economy back on track. So where should they start from?

Any reform of the prevailing economic and financial system should start with addressing the root causes of the current economic crisis.

As has been well-documented, and as I highlighted in an earlier post, the financial crisis started in America with excess liquidity in the money markets being invested in high risk financial instruments (Mortgage-backed securities) to earn higher returns in a low yield environment.

However, the crisis which began in America, has spread to the rest of the world and in doing so, it has exposed some deficiencies within the global economic and financial system that precipitated it.

Dr Yilmaz Akyuz (formely chief economist UNCTAD) in a presentation at the South Centre on 13 March 2009 identifies some of the key systemic defects in the current architecture that have created recurrent financial instability and crises in the monetary and financial systems.

According to the Dr Akyuz, there are three interdependent sources of international monetary and financial instability that any international reform should start by readdressing.

These are “(1) Policies in systemically important countries, including some of the larger emerging economies, (2) problems inherent to an international reserve system based on a national currency, and (3) unregulated financial and currency markets”.

The current economic crisis was partially created by unilateral macroeconomic, exchange rate and financial policies followed by strategically significant countries over the last decade or so.

Key macroeconomic policy pursued in the USA and within some parts of the European Union was markedly different to that pursued in the large emerging economies of Asia which focused on export oriented growth and reserve boosting policies after the Asian crisis in the late 1990s.

This created imbalances within the system that indirectly helped to trigger the crisis. The IMF which has the de jure obligation to carry out surveillance of macroeconomic policies and exchange rates had failed to impose any telling discipline over its non-borrowing member countries choosing instead to focus on lending to developing countries.

Paradoxically, policymakers within the advanced economies and emerging markets have been able to pursue diverging policies because the international reserve system is based on a single national currency (the dollar). Dr. Akyuz points out “this is a system which is inherently unstable because it depends on the reserve country running a current account deficit in order to fund world reserves”.

The system is negatively affected by the pro-cyclical behaviour of the financial markets and capital flows (which compels developing countries to hold large stocks of dollar reserves) and macroeconomic and exchange rate policy indiscipline in the systemically important countries.

Concerning the pro-cyclical behaviour of financial markets, Dr Akyuz suggests the establishment of an International Lender of Last Resort (ILOFLR).

However, as he points out “.. this is neither feasible nor desirable. It would not address the question of global financial instability and may even aggravate it further by encouraging imprudent lending and investment”.

He proposes more consideration be given to establishing a genuine international reserves system that is based on Special Drawing Rights. Such a system would have the advantage of costs being incurred only when used.

In the upcoming summits, one of the key topics of discussion will no doubt be the regulation and supervision of financial markets and capital flows. The current financial crisis is testament that financial markets cannot be left to self regulate.

It is evident from the current crisis that the adverse global spillovers arising from the financial sector in developed countries can be equally as damaging if not more damaging than those arising from trade policies, however, unlike trade, international financial activities are not subject to multilateral discipline.

In order to reform of the international financial and economic architecture governments will need to consider the introduction of new multilateral arrangements and mechanisms or strengthen existing ones to correct this deficiency.

To this end Dr Akyuz highlights three regulatory systems;

  • A fully fledged system World Financial Authority (WFA);
  • a selective approach in which international supervisory bodies for large trans-national banks and credit rating agencies would supervise and oversee that the agreed standards and rules were adhered to; and
  • an eclectic approach which would expand the mandate and improve on the governance of existing bodies such as Financial Stability Forum, Bank of International Settlements, the Basle Committee on banking.

He points out the WFA and the selective approach would be constrained by complex issues of national sovereignty and the power of international regulatory bodies` vis-à-vis national regulators and as such would be resisted by developing countries.

For Developing Countries (DCs) the WFA and the selective approach also carry the added problem of one size fits all policies with uniform rules and regulations that would most likely be shaped by developed countries to meet the needs of their economies.

To make sure that any restructuring of the economic and financial architecture takes into account their needs, DCs will need to collectively develop an agenda on the reform of international financial markets, one which includes new modalities in reaching and implementing agreements on regulations, with a view to minimizing their vulnerability to external financial shocks.

For the upcoming G20 summit and the UN high–level conference on the financial crisis, Dr. Akyuz suggests DCs push forward an agenda that contains at least some of the following, without forgetting the long term systemic issues identified above:

  • Eliminating pro-cyclical behaviour of international lenders to DCs;
  • Increasing transparency and reporting for highly leveraged institution investing in DCs;
  • Imposing regulation to eliminate pro-cyclical rating and bias against DCs borrowers/issuers and restrictions of their investment strategies to reduce the destabilising effects on exchange mechanisms;
  • Recognising the rights of DCs to impose control over both inflows and outflows;
  • Creating a statutory framework for temporary debtstandstills and capital flows in countries experiencing serious balance of payments problems; and
  • Introducing an arbitration system for orderly and equitable restructuring and workout of sovereign debt for developing countries to both private and official creditors.

How much of this can be achieved is an open question. But if any genuine impact or resolution is going to arise from these processes then the needs of developing countries must also be taken into account. For as long the current imbalances remain the incentive to pursue unilateral policies will remain, further weakening an already shaky and unstable financial architecture.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Annals of smug (continued)

There's a pretty good formula for success in the study of International Political Economy which goes roughly like this:

1) Find an economist writing about macro-economics update: pretty much anything.
2) Read until you discover said economist neglecting some really obviously predictable political event that would affect their model
3) Proceed to slate them for not sufficiently considering "the political" update: one or more of "public choice theory", "interest groups", "politics" or "the political."[1]

Over at IPEZone, Emmanuel does a great job of this, using those folks who thought that US sovereign debt might lose it's AAA status as his punching bag:

As an IPE scholar, I am inclined to believe that no amount of red ink will make the major credit rating agencies--S&P, Moody's, and Fitch's--downgrade US debt. The reasons are political-economic. With the exception of Fitch's, these are all US-based firms. When push comes to shove, they will try to protect the national interest, provided not-too-subtle nudges from Sammy. For instance, American authorities have sole discretion for classifying these entities as nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (NRSROs). If American authorities catch wind of an impending downgrade, it is child's play to kick them out of the US credit rating business entirely by removing this designation (despite these being American firms). Being disqualified to rate a significant portion of dollar-denominated debt would endanger credit rating agencies in a way that the Asian financial crisis and the credit crunch failed to do.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, for a politics/economics commentator, Robert Peston talks some shit sometimes.

[1] Connoisseurs of the process will undoubtedly be able to think of many more, and will also notice that the terminology here has been ranked in ascending order of the likelihood that the user doesn't think of themselves as an economist.

Updated to achieve an even more preposterous level of off-the-cuff generalizing than was previously the case.

Why I can't (won't) tell the Home Office what to do

On Wednesday, the Refugee Council and partners will host a conference "Integration: Building a Life in the UK" with the idea of bringing together a bunch of people from within the VCS to talk about how the government can make policy on integration for refugees work.

To quote: "UKBA have agreed to respond to the key points which will emerge from the conference – and has asked that we include how we as practitioners can be involved in the solutions."

So, the general objective is for organisations working with refugees is to tell the Home Office what we want it to do, whilst also pointing out how we can help them do it.

Two problems here. For a start, these organisations are doing a chunk of their work on Home Office funds. Both the Refugee Council and TimeBank hold contracts that pay them to deliver Home Office prescribed services using Home Office money. Now I'm not saying these services are bad, or that they are delivered badly (although let me be clear, I'm not saying they are good either). But there has to be a question of independence. How keen are they really going to be to tell the Home Office what they're doing wrong? How concerned are they going to be about keeping their contracts in the future?

Second, with even the 'supported rate' for voluntary organisations at £133 plus VAT, not to mention the cost of the travel down to London, there aren't going to be all that many regional organisations present who are working with refugees. In Newcastle alone, we have, off the top of my head, 7 organisations that work exclusively with refugees and asylum seekers (with many more targeting them amongst other groups). Two of them are under significant risk of going under in the next few weeks, due to lack of funding. Two of them are supported massively by church congregations, one is a branch of a major national charity, another holds a bunch of Home Office contracts. I'm fairly certain that at this conference, there will be no significant representation from Newcastle's refugee serving VCS. I imagine this will be similar for other regions.

Why? Because on what little money I have to run my organisation, I can justify neither the time nor the money to go and tell the Home Office how to do their job, so that they in turn can use that to try and tell me how to do mine. And to be frank, why I should pay to do this is beyond me. (I should add, that even if I thought it the most important thing to go to that conference, I would still be unable to finance it from our ever dwindling budget. And also, that they would never fund my organisation even if I wanted them to. Probably this rather bumps me down the list of people that they'd want there anyway - I am, after all, not very important at all!)

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that our job is to address social inequalities, to stop them, to work ourselves out of a job. We can't do that if we are in the pockets of the system that is compounding those problems. I find it harder and harder to defend the claim that Phil Woolas made all those weeks back that enraged me, regarding NGOs 'playing the system'.

I know that these organisations like the Refugee Council and TimeBank and those working in them, actually care. I know that they want to support refugees and asylum seekers and to promote their interests. But are they willing and able to truly defend those interests? Sooner or later, we are going to have to look at them and ask, are they really in the best position to hold our government to account for the way they treat asylum seekers? And if not, then who is going to step up to the plate and do it instead?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tipping Point

This animation is well worth a watch for explaining some of the issues surrounding climate change.

As Rob point out below, climate change is an economic issue, not an environmental one, not one of justice, barely even a political one. But that can change. Surely it has to?

Have a look here at the website where this film is from.

Monday, March 16, 2009

We don't have to be stupid

Climate change has never been my issue. I've recycled, used public transport and offset my carbon after flying, but I've never cared enough to do more, I never felt the need to do more. I've had more to worry about with refugees and racism and feeding the poor and all those other issues of social justice that make me angry and make me rant to my friends and write on this blog and sign petitions and organise demos and all kinds of things.

But last night, I realised that I was wrong.

The Age of Stupid premiered last night and I sat there and realised how wrong I had been. In 2055, it shows the world having been all but destroyed by climate change. 2055. That's not far off in the future. It is reasonable for me to expect to be alive then. I'll be barely even drawing my pension.

So, a high impact movie that really gets you, even people like me who start to think they have seen everything and nothing gets them in the gut anymore. Followed by a high impact reaction from Pete Postlelthwaite who promised to give back his OBE and never again vote Labour if plans for the Kingsnorth coal plant went ahead.

Powerful stuff, the look on Ed Miliband's face brought a sympathetic sigh from the people around me in the cinema. Even I may have felt sorry for him for a split second. However, he opened his mouth and sadly what came out of it was once again passing the buck to India and China and the UK was taking no responsibility at all.

I'm not willing to say that I will never vote Labour again, because I simply do not know what will happen in 20 years time and I'm not willing to make such false promises. But the truth remains that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK marched against the Iraq War in 2003 and not only did the UK go in, but six years later and we're still there.

Maybe it's time for us to exercise this democratic right that we hold. That principle that our government want to defend so strongly for other nations. Maybe it's time to say that if you're not going to listen to what we want, we don't want you.

Maybe we all need to see that if we don't deal with climate change, if we don't go to Copenhagen in December 2009 with the right kind of plan, then there might not be any other issues to fight.

I think Pete Postlelthwaite made a mistake when he said he would never again vote Labour if they don't get it right on this issue. But we have to hold our government to account for the decisions they make and the actions they take. Maybe, just maybe, this climate change issue might be the single issue that we should vote on.

(N.B. I shall, with the help of my mate Ben, endeavour to write something more to convince you all of the importance of stopping climate change than just my own conviction. In the meantime, watch the film. It can't hurt.

And finally... those avid readers amongst you must have been going cold turkey with a whole month without your IL fix (there must be a couple of you, surely?!).
What can I say? We've all been slightly busy with personal lives and trying to earn a crust in the last few weeks. I'm sure half the point of a team blog is that you don't all disappear at once, but that seems to be just what we did. Sorry. But never fear, my crust is now as secure as it's ever going to be and my personal life about to fly, so I for one will (probably) be writing more.
And that thought alone should be enough to scare the IL boys out of hibernation...)

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