House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence – Submission by Prof Toby Walsh.

Written Submission to
House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence
Prof. Toby Walsh FAA, FAAAI, FEurAI.
1. Pace of technological change.
Recent advances in AI are being driven by four rapid changes: the doubling of processing power every two years (aka Moore’s Law), the doubling of data storage also every two years (aka Kryder’s Law), significant improvements is AI algorithms especially in the area of Machine Learning, and a doubling of funding into the field also roughly every two years. This has enabled significant progress to be made on a number of aspects of AI, especially in areas like image processing, speech recognition and machine translation. Nevertheless many barriers remain to building machines that match the breadth of human cognitive capabilities. A recent survey I conducted of hundreds of members of the public and as well as experts in the field (https://arxiv.org/abs/1706.06906) reveals that experts are significantly more cautious about the challenges remaining.
2. Impact on society.
Education is likely the best tool to prepare the public for the changes that AI will bring to almost every aspects of our lives. An informed society is one that will best be able to make good choices so we all share the benefits. Life-long education will be the key to keeping ahead of the machines as many jobs start to be displaced by automation. Regarding the skills of the future, STEM is not the answer. The population does need to be computationally literate so the new technologies are not magic. But the most valued skills will be those that make us most human: skills like emotional and social intelligence, adaptability, and creativity.
3. Public perception.
The public’s perception is driven more by Hollywood than reality. This has focused attention on very distant threats (like the fear that the machines are about to take over) distracting concern about very real and immediate problems (like the fact that we’re already giving responsibility to stupid algorithms with potentially drastic consequences on society).
4. Industry.
The large technology companies look set to benefit most from the AI revolution. These tend to be winner-take-all markets, with immense network effects. We only need and want one search engine, one social network, one messaging app, one car-sharing service, etc. These companies can use their immense wealth and access to data to buy out or squash any startup looking to innovate. Like any industry that has become rather too powerful, big tech will need to be regulated more strongly by government so it remains competitive and acting in the public good. The technology industry can no longer be left to regulate itself. It creates markets which are immensely distorted. It is not possible to compete against companies like Uber because they don’t care if they lose money. Uber also often doesn’t care if it breaks the law. As to fears that regulation will stifle innovation, we only need look at the telecommunications industry in the US to see that regulation can result in much greater innovation as it permits competition. Competition is rapidly disappearing out of the technology industry as power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few natural monopolies who pay little tax and act in their own, supra-national interests. For example, wouldn’t it likely be a better, more open and competitive market place if we all owned our own social media and not Facebook?
5. Ethics.
There will be immense ethical consequences to handing over many of the decisions in our lives to machines, especially when these machines start to have the autonomy to act in our world (on the battlefield, on the roads, etc.). This promises to be a golden age for philosophy as we will be need to make very precise the ethical choices we make as a society, precisely enough that we can write computer code to execute these decisions. We do not know today how, for example, to build autonomous weapons that can behave ethically and follow international humanitarian law. The UK therefore should be supporting the 19 nations that have called for a pre-emptive ban on lethal autonomous weapons at the CCW in the UN. More generally, we will need to follow the lead being taken at EU on updating legislation to ensure we do not sacrifice rights like the right to avoid discrimination on the grounds of race, age, or sex to machines that cannot explain their decision making. Finally, just as we have strict controls in place to ensure money cannot be used to influence elections, we need strict controls in place to limit the already visible and corrosive effect of algorithms on political debate. Elections should be won by the best ideas and not the best algorithms.
6. Conclusions:
The UK is one of the birthplaces of AI. Alan Turing helped invent the computer and dreamt of how, by now, we would be talking of machines that think. The UK therefore has the opportunity and responsibility to take a lead in ensuring that AI improves all our lives. There are a number of actions needed today. The UK Government needs to reverse its position in the ongoing discussions around fully autonomous weapons, and support the introduction of regulation to control the use and proliferation of such weapons. Like any technology, AI and Robotics are morally neutral. It can be used for good or for bad. However, the market and existing rules cannot alone decide how AI and Robotics are used. Government has a vital responsibility to ensure the public good. This will require greater regulation of the natural monopolies developing in the technology sector to ensure competition, to ensure privacy and to ensure that all of society benefits from the technological changes underway.

***

Toby Walsh is Scientia Professor of AI at the University of New South Wales. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and received his Masters and PhD from the Dept. of AI at the University of Edinburgh. He has been elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and the European Association for Artificial Intelligence. He is currently Guest Professor at TU Berlin. His latest book, “Android Dreams: The Past, Present, and Future of Artificial Intelligence” is published in the UK on 7 th September 2017. 5 September 2017

Christchurch Earthquake. The only survivor of 13, from a ‘dark place’ to Parliament – Ann Brower.

At 12:51 on 22 February 2011, 12 people died beside me. The parapet and facade of an unreinforced masonry building on the main street of Christchurch, New Zealand, crushed the bus that I was riding. I’m the only one left, the lucky 13th. My leg, my hand, and my soul will never be the same. I broke more bones than the surgeons were willing to count, spent two months in hospital, and most of a year off work. I walked, slept, and dreamed in a fog for four years. It cost half a million dollars to save my left leg. I treasure that leg, scars and all, but still feel the earthquake in every step.

In this article, I share my story – from the earthquake, to the Bright Light, to the Dark Place, to the hospital, to the Dalai Lama, to the halls of Parliament. I also share the story of a nation coming to grips with its home on the Ring of Fire. The story ends on 8 May 2016, when Parliament passed the new Building Act, complete with a ministerially-titled “Brower Amendment” that halved the remediation time for unreinforced masonry parapets and other falling hazards. I conclude with the lessons I’ve learned on making a difference.

Introduction

It’s not normal to feel your pelvis break. It’s less normal to feel brick after brick land on your left hip, and wonder how long you’ll last. It’s most unusual to be dug out from under a collapsed building by strangers, and taken to hospital in the back of another stranger’s truck. It’s decidedly abnormal to plead with those strangers who are risking their lives to save yours to get the others first, only to find out that there are no others. It’s extraordinary to discover you’re the only one left.

Such an experience tends to be life-changing. It changed me from an economically-oriented political scientist focused on land and the environment into a reluctant activist for science-informed law reform of unreinforced masonry buildings in New Zealand. Before the earthquakes, as a Fulbright scholar with a newly-minted Berkeley PhD, I had accidentally instigated a science-informed national land law reform in New Zealand (Brower 2008). So I had a few tricks up my sleeve, ready for action on building safety. I was also not alone. Engineers, geologists, and others renewed and amplified calls to acknowledge the island nation’s home on the Ring of Fire. In this article I share our story – from earthquake to Building Act – and conclude with some lessons from Christchurch on making a difference.

The story begins while reading The Economist on a bus on the main street of Christchurch, New Zealand. Before the quakes, Colombo Street looked like any other main street in NZ. It was full of precariously perched parapets, loosely tied awnings, and blissfully unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings, of which there are thousands across New Zealand (Russell and Ingham 2010; GNS Science 2014), Oregon (Paxton et al 2015), Washington state (Gilbert 2016), British Columbia (Paxton et al 2017), and even California (Paxton et al 2015), and beyond. URM buildings did not fare well in Christchurch (Moon et al. 2014). Those of us next to these buildings fared even worse (Giaretton et al 2016).

Sixteen people died and one person was paralysed on one block of Colombo Street, the main street of Christchurch. Twelve people died on or beside a red bus travelling from my seaside village of Sumner (Figures 1, 2). I was the lucky one. It only took me 2 months to get home, and another 18 months to get back to running, jumping, and playing the fiddle. The earthquake is an indelible part of my left leg, and of my life story.

Part 1: From the earthquake to the Dark Place

The bus stops, jumps in an aftershock. I look up from The Economist. Never having been in the city centre for a shake, I think “Cool! This time I want to watch.”

I look out the window, see bricks fall. This is definitively no longer cool.

I see buildings all along the other side of the street crumble. I hear buildings on our side explode into the street, ejecting bits onto the footpath, into the street, and onto our bus. Bricks hit bus. One by one, by 10, by 50, by 100. They stop.

They start again. No. Not bricks, chunks. Windows. Bus seats.

The sounds stop. I don’t hear chunks, I feel them. On my left hip. Chunks don’t clatter or clunk. They push. They press. They crush. The bus roof and my left hip fuse, become one.

Pelvis breaks. More than once. All sounds, all scents, all colours fuse.

Pain. Lights. Flashes.

Bright Light. I float. I watch.

No. This is not my life. This is not me. This is not an acceptable situation. I am not OK with this. This is not my story. No.

Bright Light fades. Dark Place arrives.

Part 2: From Dark Place to first surgery

In the Dark Place, I feel the involuntary death throes of a 14 year old boy, a 78 year old woman, and 10 others in between. My leg, my hand, and my soul will never be the same.

When I enter the Dark Place, I do what any rational person would do. I scream at the top of my lungs. A sizeable gang of kind souls have already started clearing the rubble off the collapsed roof of the bus. When I scream, they stop.

They already knew I was alive, but the scream confirms it in spades. It also attracts Rick and Paddy, an ex-cop and a tunnellist, to the rescue effort. Rick heard it from 2 blocks away.

The gang quickly sends down an emissary to ever so politely ask me to please shut up. That’s when Mike appears outside my window. He repeats over and over “we’re going to get you out. We’re going to get you out.” And they did.

None of my rescuers was a professional first-responder. But they did an extraordinary thing that day. Doug and the gang dug a meter of bricks and concrete off the collapsed roof of the bus and ripped the roof off with their bare hands. Rick and Paddy crawled into the bus, and freed my left leg from the bus seat that was crushing it. They lifted me through a broken window. Scotty held my hand as I lay in the middle of Colombo Street. Josie splinted my left leg. Garry flagged down a truck, convinced the driver to take us to hospital, parted the already gridlocked traffic, told me jokes and stories, and delivered me to hospital. Garry stayed with me in the Emergency Department for hours, through aftershocks, sirens, power outages, and the reassuring calm of the doctors and nurses. I nearly broke his hand when they reset my leg. When the hospital kicked Garry out, he gave careful hand-holding instructions to a medical student, Adele, who stayed as I floated into and out of shock. When they took me off oxygen, she explained “They have to ration the oxygen for the second wave of survivors.” She took me up on the bet that my leg wasn’t broken. I lost. When surgeons took me away, she went home to check on her flatmates.

The rest of Christchurch had to wait for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) to mobilize from all round the world. I had my very own Ann Search and Rescue, or ASAR for short. During two months in hospital, nearly every member of ASAR came to visit. For some it was as much for them as for me – in the hopes of easing the night sweats and incessant replays. Two sent their mums to visit, with brownies. In August 2011, I hired a band and a pub, and threw a Rescue Party to celebrate the kindness of friend and stranger. Despite the cold winter rain and All Blacks-Wallabies match on that night, a festive crowd including many of my rescuers, nurses, and physios turned up. A good time was had by all.

And we mustn’t forget Rob. As the others were clearing the rubble, he crawled into the bus and took it upon himself to hold my hand. The dark shadows in his bright blue eyes told me in no uncertain terms that I mustn’t look around me. So I didn’t. I looked only at Rob, who had somehow crawled into my small pocket of crushed-ness.

Rob quickly ascertained that I was a keen tramper, and a general lover of the outdoors. So he told me his favorite fishing stories while we waited to be dug out. When Rob grabbed my hand, I went from being crushed, trapped and alone, to just being crushed and trapped.

It’s an incredible gift they gave. When I think back to the earthquake, I do not see the horrors of Colombo Street. All I see is my rescuers. And I smile. It’s a wet and salty smile, but a smile all the same.

Part 3: The Dalai Lama

Less than a week after getting off crutches in June 2011, I received a text message from the hospital. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was requesting the honor of my company in Ward 20 of Christchurch Hospital at 2pm that afternoon. I skipped physio that day.

The Dalai Lama’s visit helped me and five other seriously injured survivors start to make peace with the pain. Three were in wheelchairs, one was still on bedrest. His Holiness told us to let go of the shoulda-woulda-couldas that haunt survivors. The point isn’t that we could’ve died; it’s that we didn’t.

Strongly and gently, the Dalai Lama empowered us to give something to the world. We all had something, he assured us, but we needed to traverse the pain and anger. If we allowed the pain to become part of us, the anger would subside. That would leave room to each give our something to the world.

Part 4: Royal Commission Inquiries

Also in 2011, the government commissioned a Royal Commission of Inquiry into building performance in the Canterbury earthquakes (CERC 2011). I was invited, but not required to testify. In preparing to testify, it became clear to me that the thirteen of us who were crushed suffered not from a sin of commission, but from manifold sins of omission. In reading the evidence about the building that collapsed onto our bus, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Parliament, the building owners, and the City Council had, each in their own way, left us there to die.

The six-inch pile of evidence compiled by the Royal Commission made it searingly obvious that there was nothing natural about the disaster that befell the thirteen of us. It wasn’t the earthquake. It was the building, decisions made about the building, and the failure to enforce those decisions. This building, and hundreds like it, had been deemed “earthquake prone” for 30 years.

At the time, the newspapers were saying we should label unsafe buildings, to let the market squeeze them out of existence or into compliance. I’d seen such plaques in California, and watched as they were politely hidden and universally ignored. Market-induced voluntary compliance would have done nothing to protect us because most of those killed and injured by brick buildings were on the footpath or in the street. All of my training in public policy told me that this is precisely the type of market failure where central government should step in.

In the Royal Commission hearings, the owner of each building that caused death testified. The building that collapsed on us was divided into 4 addresses, owned by 2 owners. The owner of the first 3 addresses wasn’t required to tie back the parapets and façade after the September 2010 earthquake, so didn’t. The owner of the 4th address strapped his building after September. Bits of it fell onto another bus, but no one was hurt. Strapping his building cost $180,000 he said. At the tea break in the hearings, the families of the dead and I could not contain our rage. If anyone had had the courage to require tie-backs, not just encourage them, many of the 12 who died beside me might still be alive.

Being a numbers type, I went straight home and issued an Official Information Act request to the national health service asking about my medical expenses. They answered, that saving my left leg had cost taxpayers $504,000.54. Approximately.

Part 5: From Royal Commission reports to Government proposals

In late 2012, the Royal Commission recommended that the Government change the Building Act in ways that would do the following, among other things (CERC 2012; Holmes, Luco, Turner 2014): 1) bring all existing buildings into the national Building Act instead of leaving decisions about earthquake prone buildings to the local authorities as the Building Acts of 1991 and 2004 had done; 2) create timelines for retrofitting all earthquake prone buildings to bring them up to 34% of “New Building Standard” within 15 years; and 3) fast-track the retrofitting of parapets and other unreinforced masonry components that may fail out-of-plane, to bring these non-structural bits up to 50% of code within 7 years. This 3rdrecommendation was already a watering-down of engineering advice to the Commission.

During the Royal Commission hearings, many of us had begun a journey of trying to inspire a policy change. The team, loosely organized at best, comprised engineers, geologists, families of the dead, and me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I started my journey from a place of anger for those who died beside me, sorrow for my own pain, and terror of brick buildings. I expressed that raw anger in newspaper opinion pieces calling URM more risky than valuable (Brower 2013), and decrying the city council for failing to secure falling hazards before re-opening the city streets after September.

The day after the Royal Commission published its recommendations, the Government issued its proposed changes to the Building Act (MBIE 2013). To my eyes, of the three main recommendations about URM, the government proposed to do 1 and 2, but not 3. The Minister of Building and Construction admitted the Royal Commission’s recommendations did “go further” than the Government’s proposals (Williamson 2012).

I felt ill for a day. I had no place in the world; and the world had no place in me.

Part 6: Parliamentary hearings, round one

As the proposals continued towards Parliament, I replaced the anger with pragmatism and efficiency. In other words, I forced my angry heart to step back and let my science-informed-policy head take over. I looked again at the Royal Commission’s research (Ingham and Griffith 2011a,b) and recommendations (CERC 2012). Following their lead, I started to soften my stance. To acknowledge our seismicity, NZ should prioritise fixing the riskiest bits of the most exposed buildings. Allowing falling hazards to remain unattached was inadvertently using NZ’s public health system to subsidise building owners.

In New Zealand, the public is invited to submit our ideas on proposed government policies at least twice – when the Ministry publishes a proposal, and then when the Parliamentary Select Committee considers draft legislation. This is similar to the US’s process called “notice and comment” (Yackee 2005). NZ’s Ministry for Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) handles the buildings portfolio. Currently the Minister for Building and Housing is the Honourable Dr Nick Smith, who is also Minister for the Environment (see Part 7).

In October 2013, USGS and its NZ equivalent GNS Science, invited me on a study tour of American cities with under-appreciated seismic risk — Seattle, Memphis, Charleston, and Washington, DC. I used it as a crash course in structural engineering, seismology, and risk. It also served as a team-building event for those of us quietly advocating seismic retrofitting.

So I combined what economic data I could gather with what I had learned on the study tour to write the best submission to Parliament that I could. I heeded Olshansky’s (2005) lessons of offering clear solutions to identified problems to an appropriate audience within an optimal window of opportunity. Following the Royal Commission’s lead (Ingham and Griffith 2011a,b; CERC 2012), I suggested fixing the parapets, chimneys, and other “fally-offy” bits of URM first because they appeared to be the cheapest to fix, the first to fall, and the deadliest when they do fall.

I noted that the Ministry’s research on earthquake-prone buildings paid close attention to (1) the cost of retrofitting, borne by building owners. It paid less close attention to (2) the cost of failing to retrofit, borne by the public. It paid no attention to (3) the value of the buildings in question (MBIE 2013). So I used government property valuations to re-frame the question from the costs of retrofitting to the costs of failing to retrofit URM buildings (Table A2, Appendix 1). The building that collapsed onto our bus was valued at $30,000.

Much of the modern scholarship on good governance and science-informed policy states or implies that governments should aim for the 3 Es – efficiency, effectiveness, and equity (Andrews and Entwistle 2010). I added 3 more Es — using economics to talk about efficiency, engineering to talk about effectiveness, and emotion to talk about equity (Brower 2014).

I used the three additional Es and the aforementioned tricks up my sleeve to be strategic. In public policy classes at Berkeley, they taught us never to fear speaking truth to power. But they also taught us to be cunning. Though I tried to ground my submission in cold hard logic, I did not shy away from pulling at heartstrings. I will even admit to consulting Riker’s (1986) “art of political manipulation” to counter the building owners’ inevitable argument that full retrofits can cost more than the building’s worth. I was not alone in this. Parliament received many other submissions supporting strengthening from many quarters: 24 community groups, 40 local and central government agencies, 17 engineering and geology firms or organisations, and 28 individuals. They also received submissions opposing further regulation, including 4 building owners’ collectives and 5 businesses.

Further, many of my rescuers on Colombo Street were engineers and builders. Many of them knew and shared my passion for changing the law. Many engineering firms and the professional associations of earthquake engineers were preparing submissions, and many shared my interest in prioritizing URM. So several of my rescuers who worked for engineering firms asked if their firms could use parts of my submission in theirs. The city of Christchurch also asked. Building owners were already arguing that the costs of the new legislation would outweigh the benefits, though they seemed to count only risk of total building collapse in a large earthquake, rather than the higher likelihood of URM failure in a moderate earthquake (Tailrisk Economics 2014); the Property Council argued the government should subsidise any mandatory remediation; and heritage advocates argued for longer timelines (http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/216415/govt-grants-extension-for-quake-strengthening). Given the contested political landscape, I shared my submission early and often with anyone who asked and even many who didn’t (Brower 2013a,b; 2015a,c,d).

In New Zealand, anyone who submits to Parliament can speak their mind, in five minutes or less. For my five minutes, I used cold-hearted political strategy thinly wrapped in emotion. I told the Parliamentary Committee that I did not envy their task. They would hear lots from the economic interest of building owners, but the voices for public safety will always be quieter (Wilson 1989; Olson 1965). They were not likely to hear from many of the victims of the quake because being crushed by a building is not an empowering experience; it doesn’t do wonders for the confidence. The voices of the dead and injured would be quiet at best. So I pleaded with the Committee to listen to the voices that they will never hear, and to hear those who have no voice. Sometimes, those least able to speak have the most to say.

When the Select Committee reported out the changes they’d made to the Bill in the autumn of 2014, there was still no special provision for URM and falling hazards like parapets. I first heard about it from a reporter, as I was walking in the sharply volcanic hills above Lyttelton Harbour where I live. “Ah well,” I thought, “at least I tried.”

Part 7: Parliamentary hearings, round two

The following week, there was an earthquake in Dunedin, about five hours south of Christchurch. Two of my colleagues at university told me I simply must write another opinion piece. “It’s done,” I said, “there’s nothing left to say.” “Doesn’t matter,” they said. “Write it anyway. Tell Parliament they’re wrong,” they said. So I did (Brower 2015a).

New Zealand being a small country, I bumped into my local Member of Parliament (MP) at the farmers market that weekend. She had read my opinion piece. She told me in no uncertain terms that I must send that opinion piece to Clayton (another Christchurch MP). “He’s on the Select Committee,” she said. “But Ruth,” I said, “it’s done; there is nothing left to say.” “Ann,” she said (rather sternly, if I’m honest), “it’s not done; there is more to say. Send it today, not next week.” If you’ve ever met the Honourable Ruth Dyson, you will know that she is not to be disobeyed. So I sent it.

On Tuesday, the Select Committee announced another round of submissions, hearings, and consideration. Having taught a first year undergraduate course about NZ Government to undergraduates for years, I knew this was rare for Parliament.

The only people who could submit in the second round were those who had submitted in the first round. Again, our loose national team of engineers, geologists, and others advocating seismic upgrades worked together on submissions. We all drilled in on our most important points, while applying them to the changes already proposed. This time I tried to push emotion to the side, and focus on pragmatism. In looking at the benefits of reinforcing masonry (Ingham and Griffith 2011b), I marveled that a safety conscious and fiscally conservative centre-right government would do anything other than fix the most dangerous bits first and leave the rest for later (Brower 2015b).

The second round of Select Committee hearings fell right in the middle of the university semester when I teach first-year Introduction to Government. We have MPs from all seven parties in Parliament give guest lectures. Many of the local MPs were on the Select Committee considering the Building Act amendments. So following Riker (1986), I abused my access and asked each and every one what was happening behind-the-scenes. They said the opposition parties were very much on the side of prioritizing URM and falling hazards, but the Minister wouldn’t move. In NZ, if the Minister won’t move, his party colleagues can’t either.

So once again I spoke to the Select Committee for five minutes, by phone this time, between classes. I crossed my fingers, but did not hold my breath.

Part 8: Five minutes with the Minister

Amonth later, and two weeks before the Select Committee was due to report out a second time, I got a phone call from a business reporter at the National Business Review (NBR) weekly newspaper. She was all fired up, and had been writing a series of articles about the Building Act saga. With a speck of hope, I rang a friend in Wellington to see if the Minister was coming round to our side following NBR pressure. Not a chance, he said.

With a slightly bruised speck of hope, I noticed that the Minister of Building, Housing, and Environment was to speak at an environmental conference in Auckland the following Friday. New Zealand being small, I was to speak at the same conference. It was a snowy August weekend and I had no plans. So I dusted the bruises off the speck of hope, and wrote one last opinion piece. I said the same thing that I and many others had said many times before, in slightly different words. Both Christchurch’s The Press and Auckland’s NZ Heraldpublished it two days before the conference (Brower 2015a,b).

I knew the Minister’s private secretary for environment from previous work on the land law reforms. So at the conference, I asked for five minutes with the Minister. “You want to talk to him about buildings don’t you,” he said teasingly. “Yep,” I replied.

I got my five minutes. The Minister empathized with the idea of equity, he said. Parapets are a danger to those outside, not inside; and that’s not fair. My hopes rose, only to fall flat when he went on to say that he didn’t see a difference between a parapet and an “aircon” unit. I gulped and responded, “well Minister, I’d rather get hit by an air-conditioner than a parapet because air-conditioners are smaller and parapets fall further.” My hopes also rose when he said that he had an “open mind,” only to fall flat when he said “open mind” approximately 47 times in his 30 minute conference speech. “Ah well,” I thought, “I tried.”

The following week, I got a call from the Minister’s private secretary for buildings. Might I have time to have coffee with the minister on Friday? “Oh yes,” I said, “I think I can fit that into my schedule, thank you.”

On Friday, I had an hour-long meeting with the Minister in an inner city café. He told me about the changes he had made to the bill. He had halved the required time for fixing parapets and other URM falling hazards in the high and medium seismic zones of the country. The Select Committee was going to report out the following week, and might I be available to announce the changes with him? I hadn’t got all I wanted, but I had got most. So I invited a couple of my rescuers to join me, to meet the Minister and announce the changes (Smith 2015; Otago Daily Times 2015). I had to miss an hour of class.

On 8 May 2016, I watched Parliament pass the Building (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2016, complete with the section the Minister calls the “Brower Amendment”. After festering for years with neither cross-party nor public support, the changes from both rounds of Select Committee hearings transformed a contentious bill to one that passed 120-1. MPs who spoke to the Bill were visibly proud to work together and listen to the public they serve and the scientists they fund.

During the Parliamentary dinner break, the Minister bought me dinner in the Beehive cafeteria. We had sticky date pudding for dessert, just to celebrate.

Part 9: Larger policy questions

It is easy to say that since 13 of us were crushed by a building, that building should have been fixed. It is much more difficult to know whether the new Building Act would have prevented all of the deaths in the streets due to falling masonry. If all of the following were true, then fewer facades and parapets would have fallen on people and vehicles: 1) the next earthquake had waited for the allowed remediation time to pass; 2) the central government had enforced the inspection timeframes on councils; 3) local councils had rigourously enforced the remediation timeframes on owners; 4) owners could organize finance and repairs within the timeframe; 5) there are enough qualified engineers and builders in NZ to carry out the inspections and repairs; 6) all the repairs were done well. That is a lot of “if”s. Indeed in January 2017, central government decided to mitigate items 1-4 by drastically shortening the remediation timeframe to 12 months and subsidizing repairs on URM buildings (Beehive 2017; MBIE 2017) within the Kaikoura M7.8 (14 November 2016) aftershock zone (Bradley et al 2017: p. 7), which contains the nation’s capital of Wellington.

Hindsight aside, there are economic reasons why buildings like the one that crushed the 13 of us had not been fixed. And there are political reasons why URM buildings are often left out of modern building codes (Olshansky 2005). In 2011, New Zealand had thousands of URM and other earthquake-prone buildings, many in struggling provincial towns with low building values. As Tables A1 and A2 in Appendix 1 suggest, full retrofits might not make sense if the costs exceed the value of the building. There are a few ways to think about how much of whose money to spend fixing which parts of what buildings. At the centre of such questions are considerations of public vs. private in risks, costs, and benefits.

One idea is to prioritise public benefit from culturally significant buildings. We could ask local councils to identify the most culturally significant heritage buildings, subsidise their retrofits, remove the heritage status from the less outstanding buildings, and make it easier to remove falling hazards (or entire buildings) previously protected with heritage status (Crampton and Meade 2016).

Another idea is to prioritise mitigating public risk. Parapets and other URM falling hazards are a public problem because the public bears the physical risk as parapets and facades pose a threat to passers-by more than inhabitants. Under NZ’s accident insurance scheme, public also bears the financial risk because the government absorbs all liability, no matter who is at fault. Owners of falling hazards thus receive an indirect subsidy. This can create a moral hazard, unwittingly encouraging risk by cheaply insuring against it. If there are to be subsidies, it is better to subsidise safety than risk. If there are not subsidies, then a national standard that prioritises fixing the most dangerous bits first and leaving the rest for later is another way to allocate limited resources efficiently, effectively, and equitably.

Part 10: Lessons from Christchurch

Changing New Zealand’s Building Act to prioritise “fally-offy bits” of buildings was not in my life plan. But extraordinary events can change ordinary life plans. I share the lessons I’ve learned on how the Little Guy can make a difference

Lessons from Christchurch on Making a Difference

Politics is an exercise in strategic hypocrisy. Choose your battles. The Little Guy can make a change, sometimes. What happens after the change is up to the public. If we revert to apathy, old patterns re-emerge. Write your point clearly, and share it. Early and often. To make a change, carefully seek and forcefully proclaim the truth as you see it. And never, ever, ever give up. Politics is a team sport. Catalysts do achieve change But almost never alone.

Don’t be afraid to change your position if it becomes necessary. And don’t be afraid to state things a bit too confidently or a bit too simply. In my successive newspaper opinion pieces, I changed both tone and message radically. I started with angry absolutism and ended with cold pragmatism. Similar to Olshansky’s (2005) findings, the more pragmatic the solution offered, the more positive the response I received.

Decisions are often not rational, and they often ignore technical advice (Stone 2001). Knowing that, as professionals interested in seismic preparedness, you’ve got to choose your battles carefully. There’s an optimum ratio between sleeping, trying, and failing. The battles you need to fight are those where you can’t count on sleeping if you failed to try. There’s a big difference between trying but failing, and failing to try. Ability to sleep lies in the balance.

In the 11th hour of the Building Act saga, I learned that the Little Guy can make a difference and MPs do listen, sometimes. But we Little Guys must team up, and play all the cards we’ve got very strategically (Pralle 2006).

Previous experience had taught me that we Little Guys have to remain vigilant even after a change occurs. If we spend too much time with the champagne after our victories, old patterns re-emerge (Brower 2008). If we Little Guys stop watching, we allow the Powers that Be to give the rhetoric to one side but the victory to the other (Edelman 1960). In other words, if we don’t participate actively in the implementation of NZ’s new Building Act, the rhetoric might favour safety while the decisions on individual buildings favour letting it slide.

This is neither conspiracy nor government malfeasance, just power imbalances. The decks are stacked against public interest groups. The economic interests behind the desire to avoid retrofitting will usually be stronger than the public interest behind the desire for safety (Olson 1965).

It can feel uncomfortable purporting to know The Way Forward for The Nation. To me, it felt arrogant and presumptuous. Who was I to impose my will on the nation? But when other people imposed their will, I realized it was well within my rights to do the same. In the end, it’s up to Parliament to decide. All I did was ask Parliament to consider a few things.

People often say that politics is a game, and it should get out of the way of rational decisions. But politics never gets out of the way (Stone 2001). For engineers, geologists, and other earthquake professionals reading Earthquake Spectra, it’s worth considering whether activism in some form is part of what you signed up for (Olshansky 2005; Porter 2016). In other words, earthquake preparedness at its best is more about people than models.

Conclusion

You might wish to take this as a Call to Arms. I will leave that up to you. But I will say that you create your world. Others will try to shape the world according to their vision. So it is your right, and perhaps your responsibility, to at least try to shape your world to your vision. Trying but failing is better than failing to try. I have no wish to tell you what your vision for the world should be, but I hope the lessons I’ve shared might help you to realise it.

In realizing your vision, consider taking a page from Margaret Mead. She is reported to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Star Media

GUANTÁNAMO DIARY – Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi was born in a small town in Mauritania in 1970. He won a scholarship to attend college in Germany and worked there for several years as an engineer. He returned to Mauritania in 2000. The following year, at the behest of the United States, he was detained by Mauritanian authorities and rendered to a prison in Jordan; later he was rendered again, first to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, and finally, on August 5, 2002, to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he was subjected to severe torture.
In 2010, a federal judge ordered him immediately released, but the government appealed that decision. He was cleared and released on October 16, 2016, and repatriated to his native country of Mauritania. No charges were filed against him during or after this ordeal.
Larry Siems
*
Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Every time we had a hurricane warning in Guantánamo Bay, I had the same daydream. I imagined the prison camp wiped away and all of us, detainees and captors alike, fighting side by side to survive. In some versions I saved many lives, in others I was saved, but somehow we all managed to escape, unharmed and free.

This is what I was imagining on October 7, 2016, when Hurricane Matthew was building in the Caribbean. The forecast was predicting a direct hit on Guantánamo, so the camp command decided to move all the detainees, about seventy of us, to Camp 6, the safest facility in GTMO. I was told that my belongings might not survive the hurricane, so I took my family pictures, my Koran, and two DVDs of the TV sitcom Two and a Half Men. The NCO in charge, a sympathetic Hispanic sergeant first class in his forties, arranged for another detainee to lend me his portable DVD player, but the machine died within minutes.

Outside my cell, an argument broke out between one of the detainees and the guards over the temperature in the block, an argument we all knew was futile, but the detainee had started and now couldn’t stop. “You Americans, even if I treat you as human beings, you don’t respect me,” he was yelling. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” the guards were yelling back.

I did my best to tune them out, and I spent the night listening for the sound of the heavy wind battering the cell, daydreaming another dramatic escape. The structure was so strong that I never even heard the storm.

But in the morning the camp was buzzing with rumors about detainees who were going to leave. One rumor said that there was a comprehensive plan that I was going be resettled along with Abdul Latif Nasir, a Moroccan detainee, and Soufiane Barhoumi from Algeria. We had all heard so many rumors over the years that turned out to be just that, rumors, that we knew not to celebrate; this would prove to be another.

For me, though, the real news came that afternoon. The bearer was our brand-new officer in charge. She had just taken over and I had not even met her yet, but now this army captain was sticking her head through my bin hole and giving me the broadest smile I’d seen in many years. “Do you know that you’re going to leave soon?” she said.

It was the best introduction to a new OIC ever: I’m taking over, and you’re going home. I was moved to a different cellblock. I met with representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross, who officially informed me that I was to be transferred.

The U.S. government dreads the mention of detainees being freed, so it uses its own vocabulary of “transfer” and “resettlement,” as if we were cargo or refugees. Yazan, a Jordanian representative I knew from previous ICRC delegations, asked if I would accept resettlement to my home country of Mauritania. I told him I would take any transfer I was offered, quoting the title of a Chris Cagle country song: “Anywhere but Here.”

The next day, my attorneys Nancy Hollander and Theresa Duncan called me from the United States to confirm the news. Only then I could say to myself, Now it’s official: I’m leaving this prison after so many years of pain and humiliation.

“You have the Gold Meeting tomorrow,” the new OIC told me when I got back to my cell after the call. Her smile still hadn’t faded. The “Gold Meeting” takes place in Gold Building, a structure that was built for interrogation. At first, the interrogations there were not so bad by Guantánamo standards. We answered all kinds of questions from FBI, CIA, and military intelligence officers, as well as investigators who came from around the world at the invitation of their American colleagues. But the building was given a face-lift in 2003 and then was used along with the so-called Brown and Yellow buildings for torture sessions. It was in this same Gold Building that I spent many sleepless and cold nights that year, shivering in my shackles, eating countless tasteless MREs, and listening to “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” in an endless, repeating loop.

Now the bushes around the building were growing out of control, and the old Delta Three camp next door looked like a graveyard. Romeo block, where I spent my last days before I was dragged into a boat in a fake kidnapping, existed only in bits and pieces. Everything was old and rusted and dirty. It looked like a scene after one of my hurricane daydreams.

Inside Gold Building, though, nothing had changed. Its rooms were now assigned for FBI and Army Forensics, for phone calls to lawyers, and for meetings with the ICRC. But they were still set up the same way, with their one-way mirrors and the adjacent control rooms where a bunch of idle Joint Task Force (JTF) personnel would sit chewing on their cold cheese-burgers, watching me, and asking themselves how I’d ended up in this place. Even the smell was the same: at the first hint of it, I was hearing the sound my heavy chains made the day I was dragged down the corridor to a room where I would meet Sergeant Mary, one of the main interrogators on my so-called Special Projects team.

One night in August 2003, I sat shackled in one of those rooms listening to a phone conversation one of my interpreters was having. She was calling her family back in the United States, and she had forgotten to close the door behind her. English seemed like her first language, but she was speaking to her family in Arabic, with a soft Lebanese or Syrian accent. To hear her casually sharing mundane stories about life in GTMO, very relaxed, completely oblivious to the man suffering next to her, was surreal, but it was just what I needed on that cold, unfriendly evening. I wished her soothing, musical conversation wouldn’t end: she was my surrogate, doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself. I saw in her a physical and spiritual conduit to my own family, and I told myself that if her family was doing well, my family must be doing well, too.

That I was mitigating my loneliness by listening to someone else’s intimate, personal conversation posed a moral dilemma for me: I needed to survive, but I also wanted to keep my dignity and respect the dignity of others. To this day I am sorry for eavesdropping, and I can only hope she would forgive my unintentional transgression.

Now, for the “Gold Meeting,” my interpreter was a small brown Arab-American in his early thirties, with short, receding black hair. “Are you from West Africa?” he asked in Arabic as I was led into a room and shackled to the floor. My ankle chains provided a musical backdrop to our conversation, echoing throughout Gold Building.

What do other people think about us being shackled? I always wondered in these situations. Do they find it normal to interact with a restrained human being? Do they feel bad for us? Do they feel safer?

“Yes, Mauritania,” I answered in Arabic, smiling. “Do you understand when I speak?” The room was packed with people I didn’t know, mostly high-ranking military officers, and he seemed eager to show how essential he was to the proceedings. My escort team pushed the desk close enough that I could lean on it and hide my shackled feet underneath, giving the impression of a relaxed, free man. A recent picture of me adorned the door.

We waited. Like everywhere on earth, the big boss did not need to show up on time. Finally the voice of a service member, shouting as if an assault was under way, roused the room to its feet. “Colonel Gabavics, JDG Commander, on site.” The door opened and there he stood, in the flesh. It was the first and last time this man would speak to me. “You will be transferred to your country in one week. Do you have any questions?”

Because I could hardly imagine life outside Guantánamo after so many years of incarceration, I had no idea what questions to ask. I made a request instead. I told the colonel that I wished to bring my manuscripts with me—I wrote four in addition to Guantánamo Diary during my imprisonment—and some other writing and paintings I had made in classes I took in GTMO. I said I would also like to take several chessboards, books, and other presents I had received from his predecessors and from some of my guards and interrogators, gifts that had great sentimental value. I named those who had given me these presents, hoping he would honor my request for the sake of his friends. “I’ll talk to the people in charge,” he said. “If it’s okay, we will send them with you.”

I thanked him, smiling, wanting the meeting to end on that good note and not to screw things up by saying things I wasn’t supposed to say. The colonel disappeared as quickly as he came. The escort team took me to the room across the hall, where I found two women in uniform. A skinny brunette Army sergeant sat in front of an old Dell desktop that was running Windows 7. She kept smiling, even though her computer was a classic recipe for frustration; she typed everything at least twice, and the PC kept passing out on her.

On her right sat a woman who seemed to be her boss, at least by rank, a short blond Navy lieutenant with a neat ponytail. She was friendly, too, and even asked my escort team to remove all my shackles. There followed a photo shoot that had me posing five different ways: face the camera, face right, face left, and forty-five degrees to both sides. I had to give my fingerprints in about a dozen ways on an electronic pad. They recorded my voice as I read a page written in English: “My name is fill in the blank. I’m from fill in the blank. I love my country,” and the like. That was as literary as it got. I must have been nervous, because I passed this voice recognition test only on the second try.

Through it all, the sergeant struggled to save my biometric data into the old computer. My escorts restrained me again and took me to another room, this one with an FBI team. “If you promise to behave, I’ll let them take off your restraints,” a Turkish-American agent said with an honest smile. The FBI team fingerprinted me, using the old method of sticking my fingers in ink and pressing them on a paper. It was a long, tedious process, which gave me time to try out my Turkish with the agent. As we talked, his finger slipped and made its own print on the paper. He freaked out, grabbed a fresh paper, and we started again. “I hope this will be the last time you ever have to do this,” he said, laughing and handing me some sandy soap to clean my fingers.

There were four other standard-issue FBI agents in the room, two middle-aged women and two other men. The whole team was having a good time with me. “You don’t need to hope,” I assured him. “You can bet your last penny.” I was taken to my new home, the transfer camp. I had seen this camp a million times: it was right next to the Camp Echo isolation hut, where I lived for twelve years. If I believed in conspiracy theories, I would have said that the government purposely put the transfer camp right next to my cell for all those years to make me suffer even more. So many detainees were transferred out during those years, and I would be the last one to bid them farewell. We would speak to each other through the fence that separates the two camps. It was comforting to see innocent men finally being freed, and I was happy for every detainee who passed through the transfer camp, but it stung to watch them leave.

Now that detainee was me, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty. It hurt to think of leaving other innocent detainees behind, their fates in the hand of a system that has failed so badly in matters of justice. “We missed you, 760,” one of my old regular Camp Echo guards greeted me as I was unstrapped from the seat of the transport van.

As we walked through the camp, a small, blond female sergeant with a southern accent went over the new rules. “You can go anywhere you like in the camp, but you’re not supposed to cross that red line. Honestly, I don’t care if you do, but don’t hang out long, because if they see you on the camera, we could get in trouble,” she told me as she led me to my new home. “We push the food cart all the way to the white line,” she went on, going over procedures I would be hearing for the last time. In one of the strange tricks of Guantánamo, the sergeant and I walked and conversed like old friends, completely overlooking the fact that I was shackled.

Because of the hurricane, many of the mesh sniper screens on the windows had been removed from the Camp Echo huts, and the contractors—mostly so-called Third Country Nationals, who make very low wages and struggle to maintain the facilities—had not finished putting them back up. From my cell, I saw a whole world that had been surrounding me for many years, so close but so elusive: the maze of interrogation rooms; Camp Legal, where detainees meet their lawyers; the hut where the translators and teachers watched TV, waiting for their next encounter with detainees; and the two buildings where detainees come to call and Skype with their families. In a parking lot nearby, people parked their big American vans and climbed out of them, looking bored and sick of their tedious jobs.

Through the fence that separates my old Camp Echo Special hut from the transfer camp, I could see that my garden was gone, except for the untended grass and the few trees whose resilience is matched by those of us detainees who had managed to remain in one piece.

For the next several days, JTF staff kept pouring in to brief me about what was happening with my transfer. The news was coming thick and fast, from guards, from the OIC, the NCO in charge, from an officer from the Behavior Health Unit, and from the senior medical officer.

Everyone brought good news. I was told that my items were packed and had been sent to the transport people and that they would be loaded onto the plane with me. An Air Force captain from the BHU said that she had been planning to see me the following Monday, but she now doubted I would still be here. The senior medical officer, a Navy captain, came in person to hand me malaria medication, a sure sign that my departure was imminent.

In between these visits, I spent most of my time talking with the guards about what kinds of electronic gadgets I would need to acquire when I got out, and the best ways to watch all the movies I had been forbidden to watch in GTMO. They taught me about streaming sites like Netflix and Putlocker, and even about illegal downloading.

And then the day came: Sunday, October 16, 2016. All day, people in uniform kept coming and going, most saying little, if anything at all. It was surreal—as if the whole base now had only one detainee to worry about. My new favorite OIC showed up again and again with her broad smile. My night shift didn’t show up at all. “Where’s the other shift?” I asked one of the guards, a guy who had been tutoring me on how to deal with the new technologies that were waiting to overwhelm me.

“I would love it if they let me be the one leading you out of here, and the last one to say goodbye to you,” he said. The specialist’s prayer was answered; he would put the shackles on me for the last time. He grew less talkative as the afternoon wore on. Everyone seemed solemn, and a complete and utter silence descended when the smiling captain came to me and said, “You have two hours left. We’re going to lock you down.”

“Now it’s for real,” I told myself. I went inside the cell and heard one of my guards trying to lock the door manually, a very familiar sound. Whenever civilians like teachers or contractors would come from outside the camp, we would be locked like this inside our cells. I took a shower and shaved. I dressed in the new detainee uniform I had been given. My old clothes, like all my belongings in the cell, had to be left behind.

I tried to watch TV, then read a book, but I could do neither. I just kept pacing inside my room, praying and singing quietly. It was the longest two hours of my entire life. “Are you ready?” the captain finally said as she looked through my bin hole. “Yes.” “Can you stick your hands outside the bin hole?” one of the guards asked. I offered my hands, and the guards put the shackles on my wrists, gently yet firmly, asking whether the cuffs were too tight. I shook my head. After my hands were restrained, the guards opened the door to finish my upper body and my legs.

I was shocked to see how many people could fit in that small place. I saw people in uniform everywhere I looked, including the overeager translator from my meeting with the colonel. But this time he watched and said nothing. The only place I’d ever seen such solemnity was when I attended funerals. I hardly spoke, just nodding when someone asked a question. The female captain was guiding the guards, telling them what to do next. “Take him to the red line.” The red line was about sixty steps away from my door. I felt as though I could hear people’s hearts beating as clearly as the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow.”

My escort team seemed nervous, and they went too far. The captain had to shout at them, “Do not cross the red line. Step back. Step back.” The guards obeyed, leading me backward and stopping just in front of the line. A huge gate opened, and a new escort team emerged. They quietly took control of me from my guards. They did not do the usual inspection of my restraints; they did not say anything as they led me outside the gate.

Another group was gathered there, including the senior medical officer and a very tall white man in uniform who was wearing a backpack and whose rank I couldn’t see. It was dark outside, but I could see that he was holding a printout with a recent picture of me. He placed the picture beside my face, looked back and forth, and shouted, “Identity confirmed.” The whole team looked as if they’d just arrived from a long trip. They all seemed sleepy, even the small black woman who’d been pointing her video camera at me from the moment I left my cell. A skinny blondish specialist would join her in the bus that transported us to the airport, and they would take turns on the camera all the way to Nouakchott.

“Do you have any complaints?” the senior medical officer asked. I shook my head. “No.” A slight smile broke across his face, and he almost shouted,

“760, I declare you fit to fly.”

We passed through two more gates. We boarded a bus that drove onto a ferry, and the bus danced like a dervish in a trance as the ferry crossed the bay. We pulled out onto the airstrip and up to the back door of a cargo plane big enough to drive a truck inside. The engines were roaring, and everyone had to shout to convey the simplest message. I was led up a long cargo ramp. As soon as we stepped inside the plane I was earmuffed and blindfolded, just as I had been when I was taken from Bagram Air Base to Guantánamo Bay. This time, though, there was no beating, harassment, or degradation.

I was strapped into a hard seat that was set nearly at a right angle and that did not recline. I didn’t dare to complain for fear someone would change his mind and take me back to the camp. I lost track of time during the flight, fighting against the pain that began in my back, spread to my ears and head, and soon overwhelmed me from all directions.

The plane landed with a heavy thump, and I felt someone peeling off my blindfold and my earmuffs. The first thing I saw was a digital clock on the wall of the plane in front of me—a little past 14:00, it read—and a bunch of half-asleep recruits who looked like they had not had their best night. I felt gentle hands playing with my shackles, starting from the middle and working up and down. “Did we arrive? I asked tentatively, barely in a whisper. “Yes,” a guard beside me said. “Is this the local time?” “Yes.”

There was no mistaking the Mauritanian weather. It was a good day, not too hot—just the right, warm welcome I needed. I was escorted, unshackled, down the ramp and onto the tarmac, where several Mauritanian government officials and an American official waited. We exchanged casual greetings, and my U.S. service member escorts went directly to stand in formation near their countryman.

After a few pleasantries, the American started toward his car. “Who’s that?” I asked one of the Mauritanians. “The U.S. ambassador,” he said. “Can I say hello to him?” I asked.

He dispatched a man standing near him. The ambassador came back to me and we shook hands. “Welcome home,” he said.

*

from GUANTÁNAMO DIARY

by Mohamedou Ould Slahi

get it at Amazon.com

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ARE WE AS BRAVE AS LABOUR IN THE 1930s?- Bryan Gould.

New Zealanders like to think that we are, in most respects, up with – if not actually ahead of – the play. Sadly, however, as a new government is about to emerge, there is no sign that our politicians and policymakers are aware of recent developments in a crucial area of policy, and that, as a result, we are in danger of missing out on opportunities that others have been ready to take.

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The story starts, at least in its most recent form, with two important developments. First, there is the now almost universal recognition that the vast majority of money in circulation is not – as most people once believed – notes and coins issued on behalf of the government by the Reserve Bank, but is actually created by the commercial banks through the credit they advance, using bank entries rather than cash, and usually on mortgage.

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The truth of this proposition, so long denied, is now explicitly accepted by the Bank of England, and was – as long ago as 1994 – explained in a letter written by our own Reserve Bank to an enquirer, and stating in terms that 97% of the money included in the usually used definition of money known as M3 is created by the commercial banks.

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The proposition is endorsed by the world’s leading monetary economists – Lord Adair Turner, the former chair of the UK’s Financial Services Authority and Professor Richard Werner of Southampton University, to name but two. These men are not snake-oil salesmen, to be easily dismissed. They have been joined by leading financial journalists, such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

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The second development was the use by western governments around the world of “quantitative easing” in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. “Quantitative easing” was a sanitised term to describe what is often pejoratively termed “printing money” – but, whatever it is called, it was new money created at the behest of the government and used to bail out the banks by adding it to their balance sheets.

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These two developments, not surprisingly, generated a number of unavoidable questions about monetary policy. If banks could create billions in new money for their own profit-making purposes, (they make their money by charging interest on the money they create), why could governments not do the same, but for public purposes, such as investment in new infrastructure and productive capacity?

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And if governments were indeed to create new money through “quantitative easing”, why could that new money not be applied to purposes other than shoring up the banks?

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The conventional answer to such questions (and the one invariably given in New Zealand by supposed experts in recent times) is that “printing money” will be inflationary – though it is never explained why it is miraculously non-inflationary when the new money is created by bank loans on mortgage or is applied to bail out the banks.

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But, in any case, the master economist, John Maynard Keynes, had got there long before the closed minds and had carefully explained that new money could not be inflationary if it was applied to productive purposes so that new output matched the increased money supply. Nor was there any reason why the new money should not precede the increased output, provided that the increased output materialised in due course.

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Those timorous souls who doubt the Keynesian argument might care to look instead at practical experience. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used exactly this technique to increase investment in American industry in the year or two before the US entered the Second World War. It was that substantial boost to American industrial capacity that was the decisive factor in allowing the Allies to win the war.

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And the great Japanese (and Keynesian) economist, Osamu Shimomura, (almost unknown in the West), took the same approach in advising the post-war Japanese government on how to re-build Japanese industry in a country devastated by defeat and nuclear bombs.

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The current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is a follower of Shimomura. His policies, reapplied today, have Japan growing, after years of stagnation, at 4% per annum and with minimal inflation.

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Our leaders, however, including luminaries of both right and left, some with experience of senior roles in managing our economy – and in case it is thought impolite to name them I leave it to you to guess who they are – prefer to remain in their fearful self-imposed shackles, ignoring not only the views of experts and the experience of braver leaders in other countries and earlier times, but – surprisingly enough – denying even our own home-grown New Zealand experience.

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Many of today’s generation will have forgotten or be unaware of the brave and successful initiative taken by our Prime Minister in the 1930s – the great Michael Joseph Savage. He created new money with which he built thousands of state houses, thereby bringing an end to the Great Depression in New Zealand and providing decent houses for young families (my own included) who needed them.

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Who among our current leaders would disown that hugely valuable legacy?

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Bryan Gould, 2 October 2017

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BryanGould.com

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Noam Chomsky Diagnoses the Trump Era – Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian.

The president has abetted the collapse of a decaying system; Chomsky explains how.
This interview has been excerpted from Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, the new book by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian to be published this December.
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David Barsamian: You have spoken about the difference between Trump’s buffoonery, which gets endlessly covered by the media, and the actual policies he is striving to enact, which receive less attention. Do you think he has any coherent economic, political, or international policy goals? What has Trump actually managed to accomplish in his first months in office?
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Noam Chomsky: There is a diversionary process under way, perhaps just a natural result of the propensities of the figure at center stage and those doing the work behind the curtains.
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At one level, Trump’s antics ensure that attention is focused on him, and it makes little difference how. Who even remembers the charge that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton, depriving the pathetic little man of his Grand Victory? Or the accusation that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower? The claims themselves don’t really matter. It’s enough that attention is diverted from what is happening in the background. There, out of the spotlight, the most savage fringe of the Republican Party is carefully advancing policies designed to enrich their true constituency: the Constituency of private power and wealth, “the masters of mankind,” to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase.
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These policies will harm the irrelevant general population and devastate future generations, but that’s of little concern to the Republicans. They’ve been trying to push through similarly destructive legislation for years. Paul Ryan, for example, has long been advertising his ideal of virtually eliminating the federal government, apart from service to the Constituency—though in the past he’s wrapped his proposals in spreadsheets so they would look wonkish to commentators. Now, while attention is focused on Trump’s latest mad doings, the Ryan gang and the executive branch are ramming through legislation and orders that undermine workers’ rights, cripple consumer protections, and severely harm rural communities. They seek to devastate health programs, revoking the taxes that pay for them in order to further enrich their constituency, and to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank Act, which imposed some much-needed constraints on the predatory financial system that grew during the neoliberal period.
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That’s just a sample of how the wrecking ball is being wielded by the newly empowered Republican Party. Indeed, it is no longer a political party in the traditional sense. Conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have described it more accurately as a “radical insurgency,” one that has abandoned normal parliamentary politics.
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Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the US as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.
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The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. Others are of little concern to the “masters of mankind” but are designed to hold on to segments of the voting bloc that the Republicans have cobbled together, since Republican policies have shifted so far to the right that their actual proposals would not attract voters. For example, terminating support for family planning is not service to the Constituency. Indeed, that group may mostly support family planning. But terminating that support appeals to the evangelical Christian base—voters who close their eyes to the fact that they are effectively advocating more unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, increasing the frequency of resort to abortion, under harmful and even lethal conditions.
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Not all of the damage can be blamed on the con man who is nominally in charge, on his outlandish appointments, or on the congressional forces he has unleashed. Some of the most dangerous developments under Trump trace back to Obama initiatives—initiatives passed, to be sure, under pressure from the Republican Congress.
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The most dangerous of these has barely been reported. A very important study in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published in March 2017, reveals that the Obama nuclear-weapons-modernization program has increased “the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three—and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.” As the analysts point out, this new capacity undermines the strategic stability on which human survival depends. And the chilling record of near disaster and reckless behavior of leaders in past years only shows how fragile our survival is. Now this program is being carried forward under Trump. These developments, along with the threat of environmental disaster, cast a dark shadow over everything else—and are barely discussed, while attention is claimed by the performances of the showman at center stage.
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Whether Trump has any idea what he and his henchmen are up to is not clear. Perhaps he is completely authentic: an ignorant, thin-skinned megalomaniac whose only ideology is himself. But what is happening under the rule of the extremist wing of the Republican organization is all too plain.
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DB: Do you see any encouraging activity on the Democrats’ side? Or is it time to begin thinking about a third party?
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NC: There is a lot to think about. The most remarkable feature of the 2016 election was the Bernie Sanders campaign, which broke the pattern set by over a century of US political history. A substantial body of political science research convincingly establishes that elections are pretty much bought; campaign funding alone is a remarkably good predictor of electability, for Congress as well as for the presidency. It also predicts the decisions of elected officials. Correspondingly, a considerable majority of the electorate—those lower on the income scale—are effectively disenfranchised, in that their representatives disregard their preferences. In this light, there is little surprise in the victory of a billionaire TV star with substantial media backing: direct backing from the leading cable channel, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, and from highly influential right-wing talk radio; indirect but lavish backing from the rest of the major media, which was entranced by Trump’s antics and the advertising revenue that poured in.
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The Sanders campaign, on the other hand, broke sharply from the prevailing model. Sanders was barely known. He had virtually no support from the main funding sources, was ignored or derided by the media, and labeled himself with the scare word “socialist.” Yet he is now the most popular political figure in the country by a large margin.
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At the very least, the success of the Sanders campaign shows that many options can be pursued even within the stultifying two-party framework, with all of the institutional barriers to breaking free of it. During the Obama years, the Democratic Party disintegrated at the local and state levels. The party had largely abandoned the working class years earlier, even more so with Clinton trade and fiscal policies that undermined US manufacturing and the fairly stable employment it provided.
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There is no dearth of progressive policy proposals. The program developed by Robert Pollin in his book Greening the Global Economy is one very promising approach. Gar Alperovitz’s work on building an authentic democracy based on worker self-management is another. Practical implementations of these approaches and related ideas are taking shape in many different ways. Popular organizations, some of them outgrowths of the Sanders campaign, are actively engaged in taking advantage of the many opportunities that are available.
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At the same time, the established two-party framework, though venerable, is by no means graven in stone. It’s no secret that in recent years, traditional political institutions have been declining in the industrial democracies, under the impact of what is called “populism.” That term is used rather loosely to refer to the wave of discontent, anger, and contempt for institutions that has accompanied the neoliberal assault of the past generation, which led to stagnation for the majority alongside a spectacular concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
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Functioning democracy erodes as a natural effect of the concentration of economic power, which translates at once to political power by familiar means, but also for deeper and more principled reasons. The doctrinal pretense is that the transfer of decision-making from the public sector to the “market” contributes to individual freedom, but the reality is different. The transfer is from public institutions, in which voters have some say, insofar as democracy is functioning, to private tyrannies—the corporations that dominate the economy—in which voters have no say at all. In Europe, there is an even more direct method of undermining the threat of democracy: placing crucial decisions in the hands of the unelected troika—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission—which heeds the northern banks and the creditor community, not the voting population.
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These policies are dedicated to making sure that society no longer exists, Margaret Thatcher’s famous description of the world she perceived—or, more accurately, hoped to create: one where there is no society, only individuals. This was Thatcher’s unwitting paraphrase of Marx’s bitter condemnation of repression in France, which left society as a “sack of potatoes,” an amorphous mass that cannot function. In the contemporary case, the tyrant is not an autocratic ruler—in the West, at least—but concentrations of private power.
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The collapse of centrist governing institutions has been evident in elections: in France in mid-2017 and in the United States a few months earlier, where the two candidates who mobilized popular forces were Sanders and Trump—though Trump wasted no time in demonstrating the fraudulence of his “populism” by quickly ensuring that the harshest elements of the old establishment would be firmly ensconced in power in the luxuriating “swamp.”
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DB: Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. What significance do you see in that, and what does it mean for broader Middle East policies? And what do you make of Trump’s animus toward Iran?
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NC: Saudi Arabia is the kind of place where Trump feels right at home: a brutal dictatorship, miserably repressive (notoriously so for women’s rights, but in many other areas as well), the leading producer of oil (now being overtaken by the United States), and with plenty of money. The trip produced promises of massive weapons sales—greatly cheering the Constituency—and vague intimations of other Saudi gifts. One of the consequences was that Trump’s Saudi friends were given a green light to escalate their disgraceful atrocities in Yemen and to discipline Qatar, which has been a shade too independent of the Saudi masters. Iran is a factor there. Qatar shares a natural gas field with Iran and has commercial and cultural relations with it, frowned upon by the Saudis and their deeply reactionary associates.
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Iran has long been regarded by US leaders, and by US media commentary, as extraordinarily dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous country on the planet. This goes back to well before Trump. In the doctrinal system, Iran is a dual menace: It is the leading supporter of terrorism, and its nuclear programs pose an existential threat to Israel, if not the whole world. It is so dangerous that Obama had to install an advanced air defense system near the Russian border to protect Europe from Iranian nuclear weapons—which don’t exist, and which, in any case, Iranian leaders would use only if possessed by a desire to be instantly incinerated in return.
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That’s the doctrinal system. In the real world, Iranian support for terrorism translates to support for Hezbollah, whose major crime is that it is the sole deterrent to yet another destructive Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and for Hamas, which won a free election in the Gaza Strip—a crime that instantly elicited harsh sanctions and led the US government to prepare a military coup. Both organizations, it is true, can be charged with terrorist acts, though not anywhere near the amount of terrorism that stems from Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the formation and actions of jihadi networks.
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As for Iran’s nuclear-weapons programs, US intelligence has confirmed what anyone can easily figure out for themselves: If they exist, they are part of Iran’s deterrent strategy. There is also the unmentionable fact that any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) could be alleviated by the simple means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Such a zone is strongly supported by the Arab states and most of the rest of the world and is blocked primarily by the United States, which wishes to protect Israel’s WMD capabilities.
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Since the doctrinal system falls apart on inspection, we are left with the task of finding the true reasons for US animus toward Iran. Possibilities readily come to mind. The United States and Israel cannot tolerate an independent force in a region that they take to be theirs by right. An Iran with a nuclear deterrent is unacceptable to rogue states that want to rampage however they wish throughout the Middle East. But there is more to it than that. Iran cannot be forgiven for overthrowing the dictator installed by Washington in a military coup in 1953, a coup that destroyed Iran’s parliamentary regime and its unconscionable belief that Iran might have some claim on its own natural resources. The world is too complex for any simple description, but this seems to me the core of the tale.
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It also wouldn’t hurt to recall that in the past six decades, scarcely a day has passed when Washington was not tormenting Iranians. After the 1953 military coup came US support for a dictator described by Amnesty International as a leading violator of fundamental human rights. Immediately after his overthrow came the US-backed invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, no small matter. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed, many by chemical weapons. Reagan’s support for his friend Saddam was so extreme that when Iraq attacked a US ship, the USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors, it received only a light tap on the wrist in response. Reagan also sought to blame Iran for Saddam’s horrendous chemical warfare attacks on Iraqi Kurds.
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Eventually, the United States intervened directly in the Iran-Iraq War, leading to Iran’s bitter capitulation. Afterward, George H.W. Bush invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in nuclear-weapons production—an extraordinary threat to Iran, quite apart from its other implications. And, of course, Washington has been the driving force behind harsh sanctions against Iran that continue to the present day.
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Trump, for his part, has joined the harshest and most repressive dictators in shouting imprecations at Iran. As it happens, Iran held an election during his Middle East travel extravaganza—an election which, however flawed, would be unthinkable in the land of his Saudi hosts, who also happen to be the source of the radical Islamism that is poisoning the region. But US animus against Iran goes far beyond Trump himself. It includes those regarded as the “adults” in the Trump administration, like James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the secretary of defense. And it stretches a long way into the past.
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DB: What are the strategic issues where Korea is concerned? Can anything be done to defuse the growing conflict?
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NC: Korea has been a festering problem since the end of World War II, when the hopes of Koreans for unification of the peninsula were blocked by the intervention of the great powers, the United States bearing primary responsibility.
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The North Korean dictatorship may well win the prize for brutality and repression, but it is seeking and to some extent carrying out economic development, despite the overwhelming burden of a huge military system. That system includes, of course, a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, which pose a threat to the region and, in the longer term, to countries beyond—but its function is to be a deterrent, one that the North Korean regime is unlikely to abandon as long as it remains under threat of destruction.
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Today, we are instructed that the great challenge faced by the world is how to compel North Korea to freeze these nuclear and missile programs. Perhaps we should resort to more sanctions, cyberwar, intimidation; to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, which China regards as a serious threat to its own interests; perhaps even to direct attack on North Korea—which, it is understood, would elicit retaliation by massed artillery, devastating Seoul and much of South Korea even without the use of nuclear weapons.
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But there is another option, one that seems to be ignored: We could simply accept North Korea’s offer to do what we are demanding. China and North Korea have already proposed that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The proposal, though, was rejected at once by Washington, just as it had been two years earlier, because it includes a quid pro quo: It calls on the United States to halt its threatening military exercises on North Korea’s borders, including simulated nuclear-bombing attacks by B-52s.
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The Chinese-North Korean proposal is hardly unreasonable. North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by US bombing, and many may recall how US forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left. There were gleeful reports in American military publications about the exciting spectacle of a huge flood of water wiping out the rice crops on which “the Asian” depends for survival. They are very much worth reading, a useful part of historical memory.
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The offer to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in return for an end to highly provocative actions on North Korea’s border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even bring the North Korea crisis to an end. Contrary to much inflamed commentary, there are good reasons to think such negotiations might succeed. Yet even though the North Korean programs are constantly described as perhaps the greatest threat we face, the Chinese-North Korean proposal is unacceptable to Washington, and is rejected by US commentators with impressive unanimity. This is another entry in the shameful and depressing record of near-reflexive preference for force when peaceful options may well be available.
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The 2017 South Korean elections may offer a ray of hope. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in seems intent on reversing the harsh confrontationist policies of his predecessor. He has called for exploring diplomatic options and taking steps toward reconciliation, which is surely an improvement over the angry fist-waving that might lead to real disaster.
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DB: You have in the past expressed concern about the European Union. What do you think will happen as Europe becomes less tied to the US and the UK?
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NC: The EU has fundamental problems, notably the single currency with no political union. It also has many positive features. There are some sensible ideas aimed at saving what is good and improving what is harmful. Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 initiative for a democratic Europe is a promising approach.
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The UK has often been a US surrogate in European politics. Brexit might encourage Europe to take a more independent role in world affairs, a course that might be accelerated by Trump policies that increasingly isolate us from the world. While he is shouting loudly and waving an enormous stick, China could take the lead on global energy policies while extending its influence to the west and, ultimately, to Europe, based on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the New Silk Road.
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That Europe might become an independent “third force” has been a matter of concern to US planners since World War II. There have long been discussions of something like a Gaullist conception of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals or, in more recent years, Gorbachev’s vision of a common Europe from Brussels to Vladivostok.
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Whatever happens, Germany is sure to retain a dominant role in European affairs. It is rather startling to hear a conservative German chancellor, Angela Merkel, lecturing her US counterpart on human rights, and taking the lead, at least for a time, in confronting the refugee issue, Europe’s deep moral crisis. On the other hand, Germany’s insistence on austerity and paranoia about inflation and its policy of promoting exports by limiting domestic consumption have no slight responsibility for Europe’s economic distress, particularly the dire situation of the peripheral economies. In the best case, however, which is not beyond imagination, Germany could influence Europe to become a generally positive force in world affairs.
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DB: What do you make of the conflict between the Trump administration and the US intelligence communities? Do you believe in the “deep state”?
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NC: There is a national-security bureaucracy that has persisted since World War II. And national-security analysts, in and out of government, have been appalled by many of Trump’s wild forays. Their concerns are shared by the highly credible experts who set the Doomsday Clock, advanced to two and a half minutes to midnight as soon as Trump took office—the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the US and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. But I see little sign that it goes beyond that, that there is any secret “deep state” conspiracy.
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DB: To conclude, as we look forward to your 89th birthday, I wonder: Do you have a theory of longevity?
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NC: Yes, it’s simple, really. If you’re riding a bicycle and you don’t want to fall off, you have to keep going—fast.
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***
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Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor emeritus at MIT, has written many books and articles on international affairs, in particular on Israel and Palestine. His latest book, Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, will be published in December 2017.
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David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado
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The Nation

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Out Of The Wreckage – George Monbiot. A story of our times, ‘The Politics of Belonging’.

We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

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Our astonishing tendencies emerge so early in our lives that they seem to be innate. In other words, we appear to have evolved to be this way.

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We survived despite being weaker and slower than both our potential predators and most of our prey. We did so through developing, to an extraordinary degree, a capacity for mutual aid. As it was essential to our survival, this urge to cooperate was hard-wired into our brains through natural selection. It has not been lost.

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The emotional pain caused by isolation from other members of our group drove us to return to them, so that we did not get picked off by predators or die of starvation. Social pain and physical pain are processed in our brains by the same neural circuits (emotional pain, at some point in the evolution of social mammals, seems to have hijacked the physical pain network).

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Social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation, which might explain the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

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Social pain can be harder to bear than physical pain, which could be why some people self-harm in response to emotional distress: it could be interpreted as an attempt to replace emotional injury with physical injury. As the prison system knows too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement. We, the supremely social mammal, cannot cope alone: we need connection – togetherness – just as we need food and shelter.

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Our extraordinary capacity for altruism and our remarkably social nature are the central, crucial facts about humankind. Yet we remain, to an astonishing degree, unaware of them. This is partly because our minds – which are always on the lookout for signs of danger – emphasise the rare but spectacular acts of violence a small proportion of the population inflicts on others, but not the daily acts of kindness and cooperation the rest of us perform, often unconsciously. This tendency is reinforced today by news reports.

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We remember, for example, the two terrorists who murdered twelve people in Paris in January 2015, and our recollection of that horror persuades us that evil is a central feature of the human condition. Less prominent in our minds are the 3 million people in France and the millions elsewhere who gathered, lit candles and marched in public places in solidarity with the victims. These people, not the two terrorists, represent the human norm. Our innate tendency is to stand together against threats to our well-being, to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.

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This is what we are. But something has gone horribly wrong.

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An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. Once considered an affliction of older people, it is now tormenting people of other generations. Our time is distinguished from previous eras by atomisation: the rupturing of social bonds, the collapse of shared ambitions and civic life, our unbearable isolation from each other. There are over 7 billion souls on Earth, but many people are unable to find anyone with whom they can connect.

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We live in an era of astonishing material wealth – albeit poorly distributed. But the great general advance in material conditions has not been accompanied, as our forebears might have expected, by general happiness. Instead, this age of atomisation breeds anxiety, discontent and dissatisfaction – conditions that afflict even the wealthiest classes.

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Craving contentment and a sense of connection, we succumb to compulsions that often find expression in a frenzy of consumption. We chase brief spikes of satisfaction, which soon subside, to be replaced by the urge for another hit.

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Consumerism – ever restless, never sated – threatens us with climate breakdown, helps catalyse a sixth great extinction, imperils global water supplies, and reduces the many wonders of the living world to the same grey waste. We rip the Earth’s living systems apart to fill the gap in our lives, yet the gap remains. This compulsive, joyless hedonism consumes not only the wonders of nature, but also ourselves.

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Society, the world’s living systems, our happiness, our self-control, our sense of belonging: all are falling apart. Why has this happened?

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The pursuit of material satisfactions dulls our concern for other people and for the living planet. It blinds us to our place in the world and the damage we impose on others. It propels us down a narrow corridor of self-interest, self-enhancement and immediate gratification.

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These tendencies are reinforced by an economic system that puts a price on everything and a value on nothing; a political system that promotes economic growth above all other aims, regardless of whether it enhances human welfare or damages it; and organisational and technological changes that could scarcely have been better designed to drive us apart. We were once brought together by work, travel and entertainment. Now these activities tend to estrange us.

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Globalisation has weakened our connections with our neighbours and neighbourhoods. Jobs are outsourced to cheaper workforces, causing, in some cases, the collapse of local economies and the communities that depended on them. Power is outsourced to global institutions we cannot influence, undermining our sense of self-ownership and political community. A globalised media creates the impression that, wherever we might be, life is elsewhere.

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But above all, I believe, the trend towards social breakdown is driven by the dominant political narrative of our times. This narrative is a reiteration of the story told by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651. He asserted that the default state of human relations is a war of everyone against everyone else. Life in the state of nature, he famously observed, was ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’.

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Competition and individualism are the values at the heart of the twenty-first century’s secular religion. Everywhere we are encouraged to fight for wealth and social position like stray dogs over a dustbin: competition, we are told, brutal as it may be, will enhance our lives to a greater extent than any other instrument. This story is supported by a rich mythology of rugged individualism, and advanced through an inspiring lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. The word ‘people’ has been widely replaced in the media by ‘individuals’. The most cutting insult we can throw at someone is ‘loser’.

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Seeing some people grab vast wealth while others go hungry (at the time of writing, the world’s eight richest people have the same net worth as the poorest half of its population) reinforces the sense that this is a dog-eat-dog world. We either join the fight in the hope of triumphing over others or face destitution.

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Many economists insist that we are typically selfish and self-maximising. They use a term to describe this perception of humanity that sounds serious and scientific: Homo economicus. Most of them seem to be unaware that the concept was formulated, by J. S. Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

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We have heard the story of our competitive, self-maximising nature so often, and it is told with such panache and persuasive power, that we have accepted it as an account of who we really are. It has changed our perception of ourselves. Our perceptions, in turn, change the way we behave.

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One result of this mistaken belief is the loss of common purpose. Our tendency is to stop seeing ourselves as people striving together to overcome our common problems, and to view ourselves instead as people striving against each other to overcome our individual problems. Never mind that these problems are often much bigger than we are, and arise from structural forces that no person acting alone can tackle. As individualism is the religion of our times, it must be the solution to whatever crisis we face.

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Everywhere we seem to hear the same low, insistent whisper: ‘You are on your own.’ Neither the state nor society will save us. They will not solve our problems, even if these problems – such as climate change or economic crises or public health disasters – cannot be addressed by other means. No solutions are proposed for insecurity, precarity and desperation. Indeed, as the cruel eighteenth-century doctrines of Thomas Malthus and Joseph Townsend – ‘it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour’ – are disinterred, precarity and desperation are recast as the necessary incentives to encourage the poor to work harder.

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The loss of common purpose leads in turn to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change. Many, in recent years, lost their belief in the promise of democracy: that, through voting, mobilising and campaigning, we can make our political systems work for all of us, rather than just a select few. We have tended to face our crises with passivity and resignation. Faith in democratic norms is collapsing. A study published in the Journal of Democracy revealed that, while 72 per cent of those born before the Second World War in the United States believed it was essential to live in a democracy, this figure fell to just 30 per cent of those born in 1980. One in six of the people surveyed asserted that army rule would be a good or very good development – a proportion that has more than doubled in twenty years. A similar slump in political faith has taken place in other countries.

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If politics as usual no longer delivers, people look elsewhere for answers. This ‘elsewhere’ often means demagoguery: movements characterised by the extreme simplification of political choices, the abandonment of reasoned argument, and scapegoating. The reaction against democratic failure has licensed a clutch of suppressed hatreds – of women, immigrants, racial and religious minorities, difference of all kinds. We witness the resurgence of the kind of politics that until recently seemed to be everywhere in retreat.

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The potential consequences are grave. Governments founded on lies and exaggerations are making promises they cannot possibly keep, and blaming an ever wider array of scapegoats when they fail to materialise. If jobs are destroyed en masse by automation, this will enhance the need for distraction. As people become angrier and more alienated, the net of blame will be cast wider.

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Eventually the anger that cannot be answered through policy will be turned outwards, towards other nations. Lacking other means of disguising their failures or establishing legitimacy, governments will discover the potential of foreign aggression. Terrorism provides ample opportunities for justification. Major war, which seemed until recently a distant prospect, begins to look like a plausible threat.

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We are better than we are told we are, better than we are induced to be. By recognising our good nature and coming together to express it, we can overcome the multiple crises we face that cannot be solved alone. By reconnecting with each other we can conquer loneliness, unhappiness and the loss of our sense of meaning and purpose.

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Though we still need it, we can no longer rely only on the state. Nor can we rely on the workplace to supply either social connection or economic security. But we can find some of the help we seek in community. By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can recover the best aspects of our humanity. We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours.

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We will no longer walk alone. We will no longer work alone. We will no longer feel alone. We will restore our sense of belonging: belonging to ourselves, belonging to our communities, belonging to our localities, belonging to the world. In turn, we will develop a politics and an economy that belong to us. By rebuilding community, we will renew democracy and the hope we invest in it. We will develop political systems that are not so big that they cannot respond to us but not so small that they cannot meet the problems we face. We will achieve something that, paradoxically, we cannot realise alone: self-reliance. By helping each other, we help ourselves.

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The strong, embedded cultures we develop will be robust enough to accommodate social diversity of all kinds: a diversity of people, of origins, of life experiences, of ideas and ways of living. We will no longer need to fear people who differ from ourselves; we will have the strength and confidence to reject attempts to channel hatred towards them.

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By rebuilding community, we become proud of our society, proud of our institutions, proud of our nations, proud of ourselves. By coming together we discover who we are. We ignite our capacity for empathy and altruism. Togetherness and belonging allow us to become the heroes of the story.

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We are astonishing creatures, blessed with an amazing capacity for kindness and care towards others. But this good nature has been thwarted by a mistaken view of our own humanity. We have been induced by certain politicians, economists and commentators to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other, and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.

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Though it is not the only factor, this has helped to usher in an age of loneliness, in which, on this crowded planet, we are disconnected from each other as never before. The result is an epidemic of unhappiness and of psychological and physical illness. The atomisation we suffer has eroded our sense of common purpose and sapped our belief that, by working together, we can change life for the better. It has undermined democracy, and allowed intolerant and violent forces to fill the political vacuum. We are trapped in a vicious circle of alienation and reaction.

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By coming together to revive community life, we, the heroes of this story, can break the vicious circle. Through invoking the two great healing forces – togetherness and belonging – we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid.
Where there is atomisation, we will create a thriving civic life. Where there is alienation, we will forge a new sense of belonging: to neighbours, neighbourhood and society. Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we will develop a new economics that treats both people and planet with respect. Where we are ignored and exploited, we will revive democracy and retrieve politics from those who have captured it.

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In doing so, we can reclaim our happiness, reclaim our self-reliance, reclaim our pride, and reclaim our place. We will belong once more both to society and to ourselves.

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I propose a name for this story: ‘The Politics of Belonging’.

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Community, togetherness and belonging are values invoked across the political spectrum. Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke might have agreed on little else, but in this respect they seemed to be as one. Paine wrote: ‘The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together.’ Burke famously insisted: ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.’ Few people would disagree with either writer on this point.

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Many of those who have voted for demagogues and extremists have stumbled into this choice through disillusionment, alienation and the absence of stories that make sense of their lives. Most are not ill-intentioned. When they heard someone calling through the political void – someone who, instead of speaking in robotic platitudes, named their problems and promised solutions, however crude and unlikely those solutions were – they responded. A few years previously, they might have voted for parties that emphasised entirely different values.

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The task of effective politics today is to reach across the divides and find common ground.
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I have sketched out the basic components of a new story. But if it is to help to catalyse change, we need to know more. We need a deeper understanding of the problems we confront.

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The central task of this book is to show how community can be rebuilt and how the politics of belonging might develop.

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I see this book as just one of the many building blocks required to construct a new politics. It sits upon the foundational work of many inspiring people, and I hope it will encourage others to contribute to a new political architecture. Like all the best things in life, this is something we should build together.
***
Out Of The Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis
by George Monbiot

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get it from

Amazon.com

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My brilliant and troubled friend Lou Reed – Anthony DeCurtis.

People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you get along with critics?’” Lou Reed told me one night in 2012. “I tell them, ‘I get along fine with Anthony DeCurtis.’ Shuts them right up.” We were sitting in the dining room of the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach creative writing. I’d brought Lou down to do an interview with me in front of 50 or so invited guests and to have dinner with a dozen students, faculty members, musicians, and local media luminaries. As with so many things with Lou, it was touch and go until the very end.
I always felt that one of the reasons Lou and I got along well was that we met socially before we ever met as artist and critic. In June of 1995, I got stuck at the airport in Cleveland, where I had gone to cover the concert celebrating the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. My flight back to New York was delayed for hours, and I was settling in for the wait when I ran into a record company friend, who introduced me to Lou and Laurie [Anderson, musician and Reed’s partner]. There’s nothing like an interminable flight delay to grease the gears of socialisation.

“You reviewed New York for Rolling Stone, right?” Reed asked, referring to his classic 1989 album.

“Right.”

“How many stars did you give it?”

“Four.”

“Shoulda been five,” he said. But he was smiling. The ice had been broken

continued in The Guardian

Political economy, social policy, the coming end of Neoliberalism . . . and other facts of our times.