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My farewell to Mikis Theodorakis – Der Freitag

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 09/09/2021 - 5:22pm in

I must have been 6 or 7 years-old when I got whiff of the significance of Theodorakis’ music. It was around 1968 when my parents warned me not to tell anyone at school or in the neighbourhood that they owned records of his – and certainly not to admit that we listened to them. “Even singing one of his tunes can get you arrested”, I recall my mum telling me. Immediately I realised that, for our hated fascist dictators to be so scared of his music, it must have been powerful.

At first, I was not sure whether I liked Theodorakis’ music because it was illegal or because it was good. It was in 1970 when I knew I loved its musical structure. The realisation hit me when my piano teacher, Jenny Protopapas was her name, wrote up for me the music score of one of his songs, entitled “Mana mou kai Panagia” (Mum and Madonna). As I learned to play it, I felt every note hitting me like an emotional tornado. To this day, when I play that song, I forget who I am, where I am, everything – immersing my being within the universe that these few, brilliantly arranged notes create.

By the time the dictatorship collapsed in 1974 I had a long list of Theodorakis songs that I could play, well before the record shops were, once more, allowed to sell his records. So, when in 1975, I heard that Theodorakis would perform live at a football stadium in Neo Phaliro, near Piraeus, I rushed to buy my ticket – the first ever gig I attended alone. When the performance started, I joined the merger of a crowd starved for democracy and a music made to shake the heavens until tyranny crashed and burned. At some point, his body pulsating with his melodies, Theodorakis changed tack, moving from his Greek songs to Canto General (his orchestral work based on the exquisite poem by Pablo Neruda). Suddenly, the whole stadium was transported to Chile and began to throb with a sense of one-ness with every people in the world that had suffered despotism, fascism, exploitation and dictatorship. Having walked into the stadium a 15 year-old Greek boy, I left it feeling older and at once Latin American, Indian, Jewish, Arab etc.

Soon after, I got into blues-derived music – especially when I moved to Britain in 1978. But, Therodorakis’ music never left me. Every now and then, one of his tunes would pop up in my head and disrupt everything I was up to. It was then, however, I realised I was not the only one. People from all walks of life, from different countries and cultures, would confess to me that Theodorakis had somehow touched them. More recently, my friend – and musical hero – Brian Eno let me into the secret that Theodorakis’ music had inspired in him a sense of courage.

So, why was Mikis so important to people like myself? For a number of intertwined reasons.

His music touched strings in our soul that other tunes did not reach.

He helped re-invent Greek popular music by blending it seamlessly with some of the best modern Greek poetry – thus putting high brow poems, as lyrics, in the mouths and hearts of building site workers, cleaners, taxi drivers etc.

He transcended Greece’s borders with ecumenical orchestral music that touched people far and wide – for example, he composed the best music ever to have been inspired by the Holocaust (the Mauthausen Trilogy), the aforementioned Canto General, the splendid soundtracks to Costa Gavra’s movies Z and State of Siege or Sidney Lumet’s Serpico, featuring a young Al Pacino.

And, above all else, his music made it impossible to listen to it and be, in your soul, right-wing, authoritarian or xenophobic.

Farewell Miki

For the Der Freitag original webpage see here

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Rejection of new Australian coal mine is a rare win for community environmental campaigners

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/09/2021 - 2:52am in

Locals celebrate after eleven years of grassroots action

Originally published on Global Voices

No Coal Mining The Southern Highlands

A screenshot from the Battle For Berrima Inc. video Hume Coal and Its Plans For A New Coal Mine In Berrima 2015

Environmentalists are celebrating a victory over a proposed coal development in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) after 11 years of debate and community protests. The Independent Planning Commission (IPC) for the NSW Southern Highlands blocked the plans for the proposed mine, saying the potential impacts of the project were ‘too great to be reasonably managed, and the social risks to the community are high.’

Korean-owned Hume Coal proposed applied to build the coal mine in Berrima. The company argued that the mine would ‘create 300+ jobs for locals’.

The full IPC determination and background materials are available here. The review followed an earlier rejection by the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

The IPC identified a long list of issues raised by the project's opponents, including:

…mine design; subsidence; groundwater drawdown; risks to surface water, including to Sydney’s drinking water catchment area; impacts to local biodiversity; greenhouse gas emissions; impacts to Aboriginal and historic heritage; amenity impacts; adverse impacts to existing industries, including tourism and agriculture; social impacts, including ongoing stress and disharmony associated with the Project; and land use compatibility.

According to the Lock the Gate Alliance, a national grassroots organisation concerned with risky coal mining, coal seam gas and fracking, the mine would have emitted a massive amount of greenhouse gasses:

If it had been built, the Hume Coal project would have been responsible for more than 106 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over its lifespan.

There have been local concerns since permission was granted to drill exploration holes in 2010. High profile supporters over the years have included singers Leo Sayer, Cold Chisel's Jimmy Barnes and actor Nicole Kidman, who owned one of the 424 properties that would have been affected by the mine.

This video has an interview with Sayer, a local resident in 2015:

Sayer also made a statement for the public inquiry in June 2021:

…the mine is a danger to health, clean air, farm produce, and the nature of the Southern Highlands and the peace and quiet of this historically natural area.

Jimmy Barnes, who is another longstanding local, also made a written submission.

There has also been opposition from local small business groups such as the Moss Vale Rural and Chamber of Commerce. Their president, restaurateur and farmer Brigid Kennedy, was very pleased with the result, arguing that it would give businesses hope.

I think I have held my breath for 10 years and I feel I can finally let it out. I am so excited — the community will be doing cartwheels down the Berrima main street. There has been a lot of tears over this, marriage break-ups, divorce — this has caused a great deal of anxiety. Hopefully it will help businesses struggling though COVID hang on and flourish.

Tweets by community members Seamus Byrne and Clare Press showed both the elation and growing frustration of many online:

The IPC found that the greenhouse gas emissions were not justified ‘when weighed against the relatively minor economic benefits’.

However, Nature Conservation Council Chief Executive Chris Gambian was concerned that the overall issue of climate change was not properly addressed by the IPC, arguing that no new mines should be approved in NSW:

Yes, the water impacts of this ill-conceived project were extremely risky. And yes, the mine should have been rejected for these reasons alone.

But the fact the IPC barely touched on climate highlights the deficiencies of the planning system in coming to grips with the greatest environmental hazard we face.

The decision has been hailed as a victory for local community action. Groups such as Battle for Berrima have been active on the ground as well as online. The group celebrated the win on their Facebook page.

We would love to be celebrating with you tonight. Throughout, we engaged with the government planning process respectfully. Thank you everybody for your support, donations, volunteering and commitment. Hopefully, once lockdown is over, we can celebrate together. A massive THANK YOU to everybody

Community activist Jenny Hunter’s Twitter thread details the hard work that many locals put in over the 11 years of campaigning:

After the decision, Peter Martin, president of Coal Free Southern Highlands, posted to their Facebook page :

It’s been a ‘knock down and drag out’ struggle for the local community against the Korean steel maker which has used every weapon in its arsenal to push the project through against the determined opposition.

…Given the serious climate issues that we all face, it would have been a dereliction of duty for the State Government to let a coal mining project like this proceed. Coal is clearly at the end of its useful life.

Remembering Mikis Theodorakis – BBC Radio 4, The World Tonight

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/09/2021 - 6:32pm in

My first inkling that his music was significant was when my parents warned me – I must have been 6 or 7 yrs old – that merely whistling a Theodorakis tune was an arrestable offence – such was the fear that his music caused in the minds of our fascist rulers during the awful dictatorship (1967-1974) that was my childhood. My response to the ban was to try to learn on the piano as many of his songs as I could. During that same time, I remember how on returning from London to Athens we smuggled back to Greece some of his records inside Deutsche Grammophon classical music album sleeves.
Why was Mikis so important to people like myself? For two reasons. First, because over a couple of decades he helped re-invent Greek popular music by blending it seamlessly with some of the best  modern Greek poetry – thus putting high brow poems, as lyrics, in the mouths and hearts of everybody. Secondly, because he transcended Greece’s borders with ecumenical orchestral music that touched people far and wide – e.g. probably the best music ever to have been inspired by the Holocaust (the Mauthausen Trilogy), the wonderful music to which he put Pablo Neruda’s CANTO GENERAL, even splendid American movie soundtracks like the one for Sidney Lumet’s brilliant film Serpico featuring a young Al Pacino.
Farewell Miki

 

 

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Star Trek versus Imperialist Doctrine – Common Dreams & Project Syndicate

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 8:57pm in

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America’s liberal imperialist doctrine has been responsible for appalling carnage in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Central America. But America has also produced a liberal anti-imperialist doctrine that remains ensconced in a TV series that has been captivating US audiences since 1966.

ATHENS – On February 9, 1967, hours after the US Air Force pounded Haiphong Harbor and several Vietnamese airfields, NBC television screened a politically momentous episode of Star Trek. Entitled “The Return of the Archons,” the episode marks the debut of the Prime Directive – the supreme law of the fictional United Federation of Planets, and its Starfleet, banning any and all purposeful interference with alien people, civilizations, and cultures. Devised in 1966, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was sending another 100,000 troops into Vietnam, the Prime Directive constituted a direct, though well-camouflaged, ideological challenge to what the US government was up to.

Having remained central to the Star Trek series to this day, the Prime Directive is even more pertinent now. Military escapades always entail a variety of separate issues, making it hard to have a rational debate about their merits. For example, were the US invasions of Vietnam or Afghanistan motivated by good intentions, whether containing totalitarianism or saving women from radical Islamists? Or were those intentions invoked to provide political cover for cynical economic or strategic motives? Were they wrong because the US forces were defeated? Or would they have been wrong even in victory?

The beauty of the Prime Directive is that it cuts through this labyrinth of confusion and deception: the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota. The Prime Directive bans the deployment of superior technology (military or otherwise) for the purposes of interfering with any community, any people, or any sentient species. It is, in fact, quite drastic: Starfleet personnel must respect it even if it costs them their lives.

In the words of Captain James T. Kirk, “a starship captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” To which his successor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, adds: “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy … and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes … no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

Entrenching such a philosophy in a mainstream American TV series, and in the midst of the biggest escalation of the Vietnam War, was a bold move. There can be little doubt that it was an intentional critique of US foreign policy. In the episode “Patterns of Force” (1968), Star Trek’s screenwriters conjured up a Federation social engineer who tries to help a primitive planet develop by instilling in its people a humanist attitude while also building a state with the efficiency that only an authoritarian regime can muster. His well-meaning intervention soon unravels as the patterns of authority he introduced beget institutionalized racism, and the humanism he tries to nurture is crushed by a regime espousing genocide.

Star Trek’s writers were not naive moralists or isolationists. They understood that, as with all rigid moral imperatives, their Prime Directive could not be applied straightforwardly. Simply turning up in a foreign land, or on another planet, meant interfering in some way. Although Starfleet officers are shown prepared to die rather than violate the Prime Directive, in plenty of situations their moral outrage causes them to bend or even ignore it. In “A Private Little War” (1968), they encounter a planetary civil war where one of the two factions has been supplied with advanced weapons by the Federation’s arch foe, the Klingons. How could they respect the Prime Directive when the competing superpower is not?

Deciding that the best way to respect the Prime Directive is to violate it, they attempt to level the battlefield by providing almost identical weapons to the other faction. The result is an out-of-control arms race and a rare unhappy ending.

But not all violations of the Prime Directive lead to disaster. “A Taste of Armageddon” (1967) depicts a bizarre war between two planets whose leaders had agreed to simulate their battles on a computer in order to stop the endless destruction of infrastructure. But the people “killed” in the computer simulation are later taken to death chambers. Convinced that risking a return to full-blown war is preferable to letting the callous simulated-cum-actual killings continue, Kirk violates the Prime Directive by blowing up the death chambers.

Nonetheless, the screenwriters went to great lengths in such cases to show that good consequences resulted despite violations of the Prime Directive, not because of them. Or, more precisely, it is the belief, etched into the minds and souls of Starfleet personnel, that the Prime Directive is good and proper which makes it possible for violations of it sometimes to work out. Likewise, Western soldiers can occasionally do good in some far-flung war-torn country precisely because they do not believe it is sensible to try to build a coherent civilization at the barrel of a foreign gun.

Star Trek’s Prime Directive deploys popular culture to highlight the irrelevance of whether the stated good intentions used to justify imperialist escapades are real or bogus. It dramatizes brilliantly the manner in which top-down high-tech invasions planned in advance to save an “inferior” people from themselves can only lead inexorably to the nauseating lies, crimes, and cover-ups of the sort we encounter in the Pentagon Papers or Wikileaks.

The Prime Directive is also a necessary and useful reminder of the contradictions of American society – in particular, how it has produced not only the liberal imperialist doctrine responsible for so much carnage in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but also a liberal anti-imperialist doctrine which remains ensconced in a TV series that has been captivating US audiences for longer than most Americans have been alive.

Click here for the Common Dreams site and here for the original source in Project Syndicate

 

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Lessons from this summer’s calamitous Greek forests inferno – The Guardian

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 8:44pm in

After the second world war, Greece’s countryside experienced two debilitating human surges – an exodus of villagers, then a most peculiar human invasion of its fringes. These two surges, aided by a weak state and abetted by the climate crisis, have turned the low-level drama of naturally redemptive forest fires into this summer’s heart-wrenching catastrophe.

After heatwaves of unprecedented longevity, wildfires across the summer months have so far destroyed more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of ancient pine forests. They have blackened swathes of Attica, scorched parts of ancient Olympia and obliterated north Evia’s magnificent forests – whose rural communities lost their homes, not to mention their livelihoods and landscapes.

To grasp why this is happening, we need to understand the trajectory of urban and rural development in Greece. War and poverty caused a mass exodus from the countryside that began in the late 1940s. Villagers who did not migrate to countries such as Germany, Canada and Australia descended upon Athens. Combined with lax urban planning, this surge of humanity quickly turned the Greater Athens area into a concrete jungle. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, the same people dreamed of a partial return to the countryside, of a summer home in the shade of some pine trees, close to Athens and, preferably, in some proximity to the sea.

To these petty-bourgeois dwellings, which by the 1980s were strewn all over Attica, the mid-1990s added middle-class suburbia. Villas and shopping malls gradually invaded inland wooded areas bordering Athens, at a speed that reflected the economic growth fuelled with money borrowed from EU banks or provided via EU structural funding.

It is as if we were looking for trouble. Fire is a natural ally of Mediterranean pine forests. It helps clear the ground of old trees and allows young ones to prosper. By helping themselves to the wood daily and by employing tactical burning every spring, villagers once prevented these fires from running amok. Alas, not only did circumstances force the villagers to abandon the forests but, when they and their descendants returned as atomised urbanites to build their summer homes inside the untended forests, they did so bearing none of the traditional communal knowledge or practices.

Europe’s famous north-south economic divide has a counterpart in Greece’s forests. In countries such as Sweden or Germany, forests were intensely commodified. While this spelled the demise of ancient forests, and their replacement with arid plantations, farmland or grazing pastures, at least the countryside was not abandoned the way Greece’s was. In a sense, the sorry state of Greece’s countryside, the swift and unregulated urbanisation, and our feeble and corrupt state are all reflections of the country’s atrophic capitalism.

Volunteers try to extinguish a wildfire burning in the village of Markati, near Athens, on 16 August.

Two new wildfires in Greece trigger evacuation alerts for villages

Greek governments had been aware of the unsustainability of our model of land use since wildfires began to take revenge on us in the 1970s. Deep down, they knew: we had, collectively, violated nature, and now nature was exacting its long and drawn-out revenge. Convinced, however, that their re-election chances were doomed if they dared tell voters that maybe they should give up on the dream of that cabin in the forest, abandon the plan to suburbanise pine forests, governments chose the easy path: they blamed warm winds, fiendish arsonists, bad luck, even the odd Turkish saboteur.

Collective responsibility was the first casualty of every inferno. On 23 July 2018, at a seaside settlement north of Athens known as Mati, a demonic fireball incinerated 103 people within minutes – including a friend. The cause was obvious to anyone willing to take a disinterested look at the way the dense settlement had been inserted into an ageing pine forest, with narrow lanes offering no realistic chance of escape from the inevitable fire.

Alas, neither the government nor the opposition dared to admit the obvious: that we should never have allowed that settlement to be built. Instead, they yelled at each other endlessly, playing a blame game that disrespected the victims, society, nature.

Even when governments tried their hand at modernising their practices, they made things worse. In 1998, in a bid to professionalise firefighting, the bush firefighting unit (hitherto run by the forestry commission) was disbanded and folded into the urban fire brigade. The resulting economies of scale came at a cost: the termination of the large-scale forest clearing effort that the bush firefighting unit used to undertake every winter and spring.

Following an urban bureaucracy’s natural instinct to favour hi-tech solutions, and to look down upon traditional practices, the unified fire brigade effectively withdrew from the forests and concentrated instead on a strategy of setting up firewalls around built-up areas, while bombarding forest fires from the air – using aircraft that more often than not cannot fly due to adverse conditions.

Then, in early 2010, came the Greek state’s undeclared bankruptcy. Soon, dozens of EU and IMF officials – the infamous troika – would arrive in Athens to impose the world’s harshest austerity programme. Every budget was ruthlessly slashed, including those aimed at citizen and nature protection. Thousands of doctors, nurses and, yes, firefighters were fired. In 2011, the fire brigade’s overall budget was cut by 20%.

In the spring of 2015, a senior fire brigade officer told me that at least another 5,000 firefighters were needed to offer basic protection in the following summer. As Greece’s finance minister at the time, I drew up plans to exact savings from other parts of the budget to rehire a modest number of firefighters and doctors (2,000 altogether). Upon hearing this, the troika immediately condemned me for “backtracking” and issued a clear warning that, if I insisted, the negotiations at the Eurogroup would be terminated – shorthand for announcing the closure of Greece’s banks.

Since then the only real change has been the steady rise of temperatures, courtesy of accelerating climate breakdown. This summer’s firestorm was utterly foreseeable – as was the inability of our state to respond effectively. And the EU? Did it send dozens of staff to micromanage events on the ground, like it had done when imposing austerity? Unlike the assistance Greece received from individual European governments, including post-Brexit Britain’s, the EU institutions were conspicuous by their absence.

The terrifying question is: what next? The spectre of a new threat to Greece’s forests is hanging over the land. It is the current rightwing government’s eagerness to subcontract reforestation to private multinational businesses. In search of a quick euro, they peddle fast-growing, genetically modified trees that have no place in the Mediterranean and are inimical to our flora, fauna and traditional landscape. Unlike the awful impact of the state’s bankruptcy on our people, which one day we hope to reverse, this assault on our native forests will be irreversible.

For the Guardian’s site click here

The post Lessons from this summer’s calamitous Greek forests inferno – The Guardian appeared first on Yanis Varoufakis.

Australia's iconic Kosciuszko National Park faces threats on two fronts

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/08/2021 - 2:59pm in

Economic development and wild horses pose major challenges

Originally published on Global Voices

Morning views from the summit of Mount Kosciuszko, Kosciuszko National Park

Morning views from the summit of Mount Kosciuszko, Kosciuszko National Park. Source: With permission Dhx1, (CC0 1.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Kosciuszko National Park, one of Australia’s iconic natural attractions, is facing threats from numerous government draft plans. Kosciuszko became a state park in 1944 and has been a national park since 1967, though it is now facing increasing pressures from government proposals — one concerned with economic development and the other about wild horse control.

Opponents argue that these plans could lead to overdevelopment, negatively impacting the park's fragile ecosystems. There is also controversy over how the government should handle the park's wild horses. Some argue that the horse population is ballooning, with wild horses destroying habitats such as waterways and wetlands and threatening native wildlife. Others claim the government statistics are inflated and argue that brumbies (wild horses) have a cultural significance for many Australians and should be protected.

The park is famous for its ski fields and hiking trails which can primarily be accessed through the town of Jindabyne. Mt Kosciuszko is the country’s highest mountain at 2,228 metres (7,310 feet) and is part of the Snowy Mountains region.

The park is primarily the responsibility of the New South Wales (NSW) state government through the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, though the Federal government also provides some support.

Economic development

According to a Department of Planning, Industry and Environment discussion paper, The Snowy Mountains Special Activation Precinct Draft Master Plan ‘aspires to create a year-round tourism destination for the Snowy Mountains which will provide more stable local employment and economic prosperity.’ In addition to new tourism opportunities, the 40-year strategic plan aims to ‘facilitate more accommodation and housing options, and improved community facilities.’

Their promotional video explains:

There has been considerable opposition to the plan from environmental and activist groups.

The National Parks Association of NSW and the Nature Conservation Council have launched a campaign criticising the government's plan to ‘increase the cap on resort beds by more than 40 percent (up from 10,915 to 15,360), build new and expanded carparks, allow helicopter flights onto the ski fields, and open walking tracks to four-wheel-drive vehicles.’ NSW National Parks Association Executive Officer Gary Dunnett said:

These reckless proposals overturn more than 40 years of careful planning and management of the park.

These plans treat the park as a commodity and get the balance between nature protection and recreation completely wrong.

Pearls and Irritations website posted two recent articles critiquing the plans, in which Park Watch NSW member, Carolyn Pettigrew, argued that:

…commercial interests will be dictating developments within the park with scant attention to nature conservation, landscape, and heritage values for which the park was dedicated.

Deirdre Slattery, coauthor of the book ‘Kosciuszko: A Great National Park’, shared her longstanding knowledge of the park and the pressures it faces:

It’s about imposing the culture of money on the carefully developed culture of nature conservation for the public good: a culture for which the great Kosciuszko National Park was once a world leader.

Her co-author Graeme Worboys introduced their book in a 2020 video, which presents both its major assets and its troubled history:

Tim Pallin, Managing Director of travel and outdoor retailer Paddy Pallin, posted his objections to the plan on their website:

It also takes direct control of the KNP Plan of Management away from the NSW Environment Minister and gives it to the Deputy Premier.

National Parks are there to preserve wilderness for all Australians to enjoy, but this plan will damage the delicate alpine environment by encouraging development where there should not be any.

His comment reflects ongoing tensions between the Ministers overseeing the park, especially over environmental issues such as the climate crisis.

The Snowy Mountains stakeholders website, which represents government agencies and ski resorts, strongly supports the plan:

The Plan addresses crucial issues that directly impact Snowy Mountains tourism stakeholders’ ability to sustainably thrive.

Submissions about the draft paper closed on August 23.

Wild horses

The second planning controversy concerns the future of wild horses in the park. Government officials estimate there are currently around 14,000 horses in the park — up from 3,000 in 2002. The Facebook group ‘Snowy Mountain Brumby Sustainability & Management Group Inc’ claims that those estimates are far too high.

A Wild horse heritage management plan was due in the first half of 2021 but has yet to be released.

The Invasive Species Council is currently taking legal action to gain access to the draft plan and other key documents. It is part of the Reclaim Kosci campaign to reduce the number of feral horses in the park:

The presence of brumbies (wild horses) in the park has been an ongoing issue for a long time, with divisions within the community and between politicians. Culling, which would involve shooting significant numbers of horses, has been one contentious suggestion.

Brumbies have long been a part of Australia’s cultural identity. Many high country people regard them as a vital part of the local identity. Banjo Paterson’s 19th-century poem ‘The Man from Snowy River‘ has embodied the bush mythology surrounding wild horses in the mountains and high plains of the southeast.

The Guardian's Calla Wahlquist reported in 2018:

The NSW government has been fighting an internal battle about the brumbies for five years. In 2018 it passed legislation, driven by the Nationals leader, John Barilaro, to ‘recognise brumbies as a heritage species’, and developed a policy of trapping and rehoming as its preferred method — a method that ecologists and the pro-brumby lobby say cannot remove more than a few hundred horses a year.

Ministers Barilaro and Kean have taken very different positions over The 2018 Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act. Broadcaster Wendy Harmer has criticised the deputy premier for his role in both issues:

ABC TV’s Landline aired The battle of brumbies on August 22, 2021:

For some, they are an Australian icon in need of protection; for others, a feral animal destroying a unique ecosystem.

…Pressure is mounting on the NSW government, including from federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

Ms Ley has threatened to intervene, using her powers under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act, if no action is taken.

Landline caused a stir on pro-brumby Facebook groups. In ‘Don't blame it on The Brumbies’, many blamed the media for inflammatory messages:

Well ABC’s program on our brumbies was definitely biased and skewed towards science . Still spouting 14,000 horses, no mention of the fires wiping out so many. Bitterly disappointed in the way ABC skewed this program.

The controversies about the future of the park will undoubtedly continue well into the future.

Climate change in the Pacific: “The time is now” to avoid catastrophe

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/08/2021 - 5:23pm in

Pacific island nations call on Australia to walk the talk

Originally published on Global Voices

Survive, thrive 1.5

Pacific Island Represent Fiji Action ahead of the Climate Vulnerable Forum — Suva, Fiji 2018. Photo courtesy © Kurt Petersen / Greenpeace. Used with permission.

The message of “Te Mana o te Moana: the State of the Climate in the Pacific 2021” climate report is uncompromising — “THE TIME IS NOW.” According to the report, the Pacific island countries and their peoples “are facing some of the most severe climate impacts anywhere on earth.” It was launched the same day as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis.”

In the coming years, island nations could face rising sea levels, higher king tides, increased flooding, eroding coastlines, ocean acidification and increasing water table salinity, habitat destruction, and village relocation.

The Greenpeace Australia Pacific report identifies who is responsible for creating the crisis and who must change course to avert disaster. Based on 2018 data, the top 15 greenhouse gas emitters in the world produce 72.21 percent of global emissions, while the Pacific Islands account for 0.23 percent. Australia ranks as the world’s 15th largest emitter.

Its assessment of Australia’s climate inaction contains a strong warning:

…as an influential ‘middle power’, Australia also has potential to act as a fair broker at international climate summits and leverage its diplomatic influence with its allies to achieve more ambitious emissions reduction agreement outcomes, and a fairer result for Pacific Island Countries. This is all the more pressing, as runaway global heating will force Australia to bear the cost of resulting regional instability, including a new category of climate refugees.

Moreover, in an earlier assessment, the United Nations gave Australia the wooden spoon (last place) for its efforts to meet the climate sustainable development goal (SDG 13):

The country's progress in reducing carbon emissions is highly contested. The Australian government has claimed that greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 19 percent since 2005 — a figure that draws much skepticism. One estimate claims there has been a 7 percent rise in emissions over the same time frame.

Midnight Oil lead singer and former Australian environment minister, Peter Garrett, joined an online chorus of demands that Prime Minister Scott Morrison take decisive action against climate change:

The 2015 Paris Agreement requires countries to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) towards meeting the goal “to keep the rise in mean global temperature to well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels, and preferably limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).”

The NDCs are supposed to be updated every 5 years. None of the 15 countries has pledged reductions consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree limit, with India the only one with a 2.0-degree compatible goal.

The report highlights the plight of the people of the Fijian village of Vunidogoloa. They were forced to move two kilometers inland in 2014. Their story is not unique as 80 other Fijian communities face future relocation, according to a 2019 article in The Conversation, as do many others in the Pacific:

The Fijian Attorney-General and Minister for Climate Change, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, shared his views in a radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). He stressed the need for affordable finance to be able to build “resilience in our infrastructure, to be able to adapt.” He also called on Australia to “walk the talk.”

Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was blunt:

The report also includes several case studies of community activists and advocates in Vanuatu and Kiribati. Community mobilizer from Vanuatu, Leiwia Poki Yavions, called for the strongest response from global governments:

I want to say to the leaders of the world, please use your voices, your positions of power, to assist in stopping emissions and other activities that contribute to climate change. We are facing the effects of climate change every day, in every place in the world, but especially here in the Pacific.

The Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), one of the regional organizations supporting local efforts, tweeted:

Finally, Edward Morgan, a climate researcher at Griffith University, shared this message from Enele Sopoaga, former Prime Minister of Tuvalu:

Enele Sopoaga's preface to “Te Mana o te Moana” (The Spirit of the Sea) continued:

We in the Pacific are more than just sinking islands, broken seawalls and cyclones — we are your brothers and sisters. I want everyone to look into the child’s eyes and imagine what those eyes will see in ten or twenty years. Will they see Dantes’ hell or will they see a sustainable planet?

Barcelona City Council’s fight to shield flamingoes from rent-seeking flights of fancy: An excellent case study in municipalism vs corporate greed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 05/08/2021 - 7:23pm in

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English

Covid-19 forced billions of humans to re-assess the way we live, work and travel. Monstrous wildfires (from British Columbia to Greece and Croatia) and murderous floods (e.g. Germany) have confirmed that which we should have known: We, humans, have damaged the planet, possibly, beyond repair. Against this background, it is heartbreaking to observe how our governments are not losing an opportunity to add to the environmental damage in order to serve the ugliest minority who are motivated by the most hideous of urges: entrepreneurs seeking to milk public money to feather their own nests while destroying the last sanctuaries of wildlife near our cities. But, there is good news too: Municipalities are leading the fight to shield our remaining wildlife from both government and business vandals. Barcelona City Council is a case in point.

Barcelona’s airport is sitting next to one of the Iberian peninsula’s most important bird sanctuaries – and one of the few surviving ones. Covid-19 has massively shrunk the number of flights in and out of the airport. A rational person might have thought that this is the perfect time for both the Catalan and the Spanish governments to re-think the equilibrium between air travel, quality of life and the environment. But, no! Government and business are, instead, salivating over the EU Recovery Fund’s billions and, lazy as they are, came up with a ‘brilliant’ idea: Instead of finding green projects to finance (that create good quality green jobs and help with the struggle to reverse the damage we have inflicted upon the environment), they will use the monies to… expand the airport – to cement over the adjacent wildlife reserve – to eradicate the flamingoes so that more jets can fly frequent flyer humans in and out.

Against this alliance of idiotic evil (Spanish government, Catalan government and business ‘interests’), only one institution is standing tall: Barcelona’s City Council. Progressives must support them. If the City Council loses this battle, humanity loses. And if the City Council wins, municipalism will have demonstrated that it is probably humanity’s, and the environment’s, last resort.

Read also The Guardian’s relevant report here.

The post Barcelona City Council’s fight to shield flamingoes from rent-seeking flights of fancy: An excellent case study in municipalism vs corporate greed appeared first on Yanis Varoufakis.

What is money, really? And why Bitcoin is not the answer (even if blockchain is brilliant & potentially helpful in democratising money)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 02/08/2021 - 8:47pm in

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English, history

Recently, I argued that a central bank cryptocurrency can be a useful tool in the struggle to democratise money. Such a tool is, of course, not enough. The main task in democratising money is first to democratise the central bank – before deploying useful instruments like a central bank cryptocurrency. As many readers (correctly) pointed out, democratising the central bank is a tall order, given the stranglehold over it by the usual bankers. However, it is a gross error to imagine that the central bank can be bypassed and money democratised by means of apolitical cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. This fantasy of apolitical money liberating us from central banks is dangerous and based on a deep misunderstanding over what money is and how it works. To make the point, I am sharing here Chapter 7 of TALKING TO MY DAUGHTER (Penguin 2017). I hope you enjoy it.
Before reading on, let me recap the main point:

  • First, the demos must wrest control over the central bank from the bankers.
  • Then, a central bank cryptocurrency is deployed to democratise the payments’ system and ensure that the money tree is harvested for the many, not the very, very few!

Chapter 7, TALKING TO MY DAUGHTER

During the Second World War, the German authorities treated their prisoners of war differently, according to where they came from. Russians, the Roma, and certainly the Jews, they murdered. British, Canadian, American and French prisoners of war, on the other hand, they accorded to basic rights laid down by the internationally agreed Geneva Conventions.

In 1941, Richard Radford, an officer in the British Army, was captured by German forces and placed in a concentration camp for Western prisoners of war. When the war ended, Radford took the time to record his experience of life in the POW camp through the prism of his training as an economist.

In the camp, prisoners of different nationalities were kept in different buildings, between which they were usually free to move about. The Red Cross oversaw their living conditions and supplied them with packages at regular intervals from its Swiss headquarters. These packages typically contained food, cigarettes, some coffee, tea, a bar of chocolate and so on.

The arrival of the Red Cross packages broke the monotony of life in the camp and was eagerly anticipated, especially by the smokers. Even though the prisoners’ preferences varied considerably, in a rare instance of strict equality the packages were identical for all prisoners,. The first to spot the opportunity to profit from these differences in taste were some shrewd French officers. Knowing that the average Frenchman loves coffee and doesn’t care much for tea, while the opposite held for the average Englishman, they established a regular exchange of goods between prisoners of various nationalities.

Once the Red Cross truck had unloaded its cargo, the ingenious French traders approached their countrymen, borrowing from them the tea contained in their packages and promising an amount of coffee in return. Then they went to the building where the British prisoners were held and exchanged the tea for coffee, which they then returned to their French compatriots as they had promised. But why do this? What was in it for them?

The French traders’ gain took the form of coffee that they kept for themselves. How did they get away with it? By offering their compatriots less coffee for their tea than the Englishmen were prepared to hand over in exchange of that same quantity of tea.

Arbitrage

In economic terms, the French traders were effectively paying their countrymen a lower price for the tea they bought from them than the price they charged the tea-loving Englishmen. Of course, the price was measured – or denominated – not in pounds, marks or dollars, since the inmates of the camp had no actual money, but in ounces of coffee. In economic parlance, this practice of buying for a lower price in one market and selling for a higher price in another is called arbitrage.

Others quickly caught on and started doing the same. The greater the competition between them, the smaller the difference became between the quantity of coffee offered to the French prisoners in return for their tea and the quantity of coffee the Englishment forked out for the tea they received in exchange. This difference – or spread – was where the traders’ profit lay. The smaller the spread, the less profit they made.

 Consider Pascal, a late-comer in this business. To convince his compatriots to give their tea to him and not to one of his more established competitors, Pascal is forced to offer them more coffee than they might normally receive in exchange for the same amount of tea. It is as if he is offering them a higher price for their tea. As others follow Pascal, in order to gain or retain a foothold in the market, the price of tea in the French camp continues to rise, squeezing the traders’ (coffee) profits further.

At the same time, of course, the same bargaining over prices is taking place in the English camp, until finally it becomes common knowledge in the French camp how much coffee their tea will buy in the English camp and it becomes common knowledge in the English camp how much tea their coffee will buy in the French camp.

At this point, Pascal and all the other French traders can no longer get away with paying a little bit less coffee for their compatriots tea than they receive from the English – everyone knows what their tea and coffee is worth. In other words, thanks to their efforts, the traders have helped establish the price of tea and, in the process, they have done themselves out of a job.

Very quickly, all sorts of goods were being traded across the camp, with most of the POWs participating in this spontaneous, multinational market in which each person sought to acquire as many comforts as they could in the camp’s adverse conditions. As trade between prisoners developed, prices for all sorts of goods stabilised around what economists like to refer to as an equilbirum. Before the equilibrium had been reached, traders profitted according to their bargaining skills and salesmanship – one might buy a chocolate bar for 10 grams of coffee, while another might manage to sell a chocolate bar for 15 grams of coffee – but as trading continued and competition shrank the spreads, prices stabilised, profits collapsed and skilled traders lost all advantage. Now they had to conjure up new types of trade – new ‘markets’, in other words – if they were to exploit their trading skills.

This stabilisation of exchange values, or of relative prices, was helped along by the presence of noticeboards around the camp on which traders posted offers: for example, “I’m selling 100 grams of coffee for 10 chocolate bars”. In this way, prisoners could see at a glance the sort of prices that were available and would know not to accept 9 chocolate bars for the same amount of coffee, thus helping to establish stable prices all over the camp. Have you noticed in movies or on TV those large screens that traders have in the trading rooms of banks or the stock exchange? These are so-called Bloomberg screens, on which the shifting prices for oil, gold, company shares and government bonds appear in real time, and they are but more advanced versions of the noticeboards in Radford’s POW camp. Their job is to facilitate trade and to eliminate spreads, getting rid of opportunities for arbitrage in the process.

The emergence of a carcenogenic currency: cigarettes

In time, transactions in the camp became more complicated and the system of direct exchanges – tea for coffee, coffee for chocolate – was proving a drag.

Imagine, for example, that a Canadian is offering 100 grams of coffee in exchange for 10 bars of chocolate. A Frenchman who wants the coffee, doesn’t have any chocolate but does have tea would have to do some research before proposing something like the following: “I want your coffee, but I don’t have chocolate. I do have tea, though, and I know this Scottish guy in building C5 who is offering 15 grams of tea per chocolate bar. So who about you give me that 100 grams of coffee and in return I give you 150 grams of tea, which you can then exchange with the Scotsman for 10 bars of chocolate?”

That’s how things were in the beginning. But soon, a significant change came about: one particular commodity became established as a go-between that could mediate the sale of all he other commodities – in effect, it became a currency.

Obviously, cigarettes were amongst the best-selling goods in the camp. Smokers, courtesy of their addiction to nicotine, would sell their soul to the Devil, so to speak, to get more of them. Non-smokers were, as a result, at a great advantage, since their package contained cigarettes too; cigarettes that had no experiential value for them, but packed great exchange value. Immediately, cigarettes were in great demand both for their experiential value (to smokers) and for their exchange value (to everyone, including non-smokers).

It was only a matter of time before cigarettes were established as the unit for measuring exchange values, or relative prices, in the camps. Why cigarettes? Which goods end up evolving into a unit of currency has always depended partly on chance and partly on their having some basic properties: It must be durable so that it does not perish, unlike say bread or fish. It must be convenient to carry, preferably pocket sized. It must be easily divisible into smaller portions. And its appeal must be evenly spread throughout the community.

Radford’s account relates how cigarettes transformed from a simple, carcinogenic good into a special commodity with three distinct properties and roles. First, they were sources of the nicotine that smokers craved. Second, they functioned as a means of exchange and a measure allowing for an easy, immediate, comparison of prices. Third, cigarettes could now be stashed away, offering prisoners the opportunity to create a nest egg of exchange value in the harsh conditions of the POW camp.

This last use of cigarettes, as a store of exchange value, is perhaps the most interesting as its repercussions extended beyond the realm of convenience and trade facilitation: By giving prisoners the opportunity to save for a rainy day, new opportunities and new risks emerged. One obvious opportunity was the possibility of lending one’s saved cigarettes to another prisoner in return for interest. The risk that this brought was the possibility that the borrowing prisoner might not pay them back, known as the risk of default. For example, the borrower might spend all his cigarettes – or even smoke them all – and be unable to return them to the creditor.

But another risk came from elsewhere.

The exchange value of money: inflation and deflation in the POW camp

When I was your age I recall hearing a grown up saying something that I could not get my head around. I just did not get it, however hard I tried. Even when I thought I had understood it, I tried to explain it to a friend and realised that I didn’t. What was is that this grown up had said? That a one thousand drachma note (the currency we had back then) cost only twenty drachmas to produce. “How can it  be worth a thousand drachmas,” I kept wondering, “when it only cost twenty?”

Maybe you are smarter than I was but humour me nevertheless as I attempt to explain this puzzle in the context Radford’s POW camp: Periodically, the Red Cross would place a few more cigarettes in the prisoners’ packages, but keep the quantity of chocolate, tea or coffee the same. Here’s what happened when the extra cigarettes arrived at the camp: Each cigarette now bought less coffee, less chocolate, and less tea. Why? Since overall a larger number of cigarettes now corresponded to the same amount of coffee and tea, each individual cigarette corresponded to less coffee and less tea. The opposite also held true: the fewer cigarettes there were in comparison to the other goods that the Red Cross placed in the packages, the greater the exchange value, or purchasing power, of each cigarette. In short, the purchasing power of a unit of currency has nothing to do with how much it cost to produce but, rather, its relative abundance or scarcity.

Imagine that a prisoner has been storing his cigarettes in order to make a large purchase later on when suddenly the Red Cross sends tons of cigarettes to the captives. Suddenly, the exchange value of his cigarettes would drop and his parsimony and abstinence would have been to no avail.

In this way we see how having access to a currency lubricates transactions no end, helping the economy move more commodities more quickly. On the other hand, for a currency to function it requires trust and faith: the trust that everyone will continue to accept it in return for any commodity, which is in turn based on the faith that the currency’s exchange value will be maintained. It is no coincidence that in your second language, Greek, the word for ‘coin’ (nomisma) straddles the verb ‘to think’ (nomizo) and the noun for ‘law’ (nomos). Indeed, what gives value to coins and paper money is the legal obligation to accept them across the realm and the belief that they are and will remain valuable.

One night, Allied bombers hammered mercilessly the area where the camp was located. The bombs landed closer and closer, some falling in the camp itself. All night long, the prisoners wondered whether they would live to see daybreak. The next day, the exchange value of cigarettes had gone through the roof! Why? Because over the course of that endless night, surrounded by the exploding bombs, and driven by anxiety, the prisoners had smoked cigarette after cigarette. In the morning, the total number of cigarettes had shrunk dramatically in relation to the other goods. If previously five cigarettes had been needed to buy one chocolate bar, now only one cigarette was needed to buy that same chocolate bar.

In short, the bombardment had caused what is known as price deflation – a decrease in all prices as a result of a reduction of the quantity of money in relation to all other goods. The opposite, a general increase in prices as a result of a larger quantity of money in the overall system, is known as price inflation.

Interest rates: the price of money in the camp

For all of 1942, when it was still impossible to tell how the war would end and the prisoners feared it might be many years before they’d be able to return to their homes, prices in the camp were relatively stable. Confident that the camp’s primitive economy would stay in place for a while, some – those with the most business-savvy minds and the most accumulated wealth –  began to function as, yes, bankers, offering loans in the expectation that they would get their savings back before death or liberty arrived.

If, say, Xavier had run out of coffee and didn’t have enough cigarettes to buy more, he might go to one of these bankers and ask for a loan of ten cigarettes. The banker would offer to lend Xavier the cigarettes provided that next month, when his package from the Red Cross arrived, he promised to pay back 12 cigarettes in return – an exorbitant monthly interest rate of 20%. Would Xavier agree? Yes, if he were pained more by the thought of waiting for a whole month before drinking coffee than by the prospect of having to do with 2 fewer cigarettes than he would otherwise have had afterwards.

Expected fluctuations in the overall quantity of money influenced interest rates significantly. For example, if the bankers anticipated that a large number of cigarettes would be sent to the camp in the coming month, causing their exchange value to fall and prices to inflate, this expectation led them to increase the interest rate they charged. Why? Because they were afraid that, one month later, the same quantity of cigarettes would be worth less. This is why in any economy the cost of borrowed money – interest – depends on expectations of what prices will be, on inflation or deflation.

To give an example: a banker predicts that the exchange value of each cigarette will fall by, say, 10% — in other words, that inflation will occur, and the price of goods expressed in cigarettes will rise by 10%. In the past he was ready to lend 10 cigarettes in return for 12 cigarettes next month. Now he calculates that a monthly interest rate of 20% will result in an increase for him not of 20% but of 20% minus 10%, which is only 10%. (This figures is known, intuitively enough, as the real interest rate.) Understandably, if the banker wants to maintain the same level of profit, he won’t be prepared to loan the cigarettes for 20% anymore. What rate would he accept? 30% per month, adding 10% to his normal interest rate in order to make up for the 10% less that his money will be worth.

If you hear people in some boring news report remark that “interest rates will probably rise because inflation seems to be picking up”, you now have no excuse not to understand what they are going on about. Radford’s POW camp is all you need…

Great Expectations

The weather and other natural phenomena do not give a monkey’s about what we think of them, or what we predict they will do. If it is to rain, it will rain regardless of what the Met Office has said or what you and I expect. But as we know from Rousseau’s stag hunt and from the two Oedipal markets, the economy, unlike Nature, is influenced, buffeted and, indeed, shaped by what we think of it. Radford’s POW camp demonstrates this interdependence superbly, with particular reference to the value of money.

News from the front had a particularly strong impact on the POW camp’s economy. When the prisoners got word that the German army was making gains in Russia – often by listening to makeshift radios they had built behind their guards’ backs – they calculated that they would remain captive for a very long time. As a result, prices tended to stabilise. But when they started to realise that the war was nearing its end, foreshadowing their liberation and the elimination of their little economy, the interest rates bankers offered to savers (rather than the ones they charged for loans) skyrocketed, since nobody wanted to save.

At some point, when the frontline had reached the German border, packages from the Red Cross stopped arriving. Knowing the war was about to end, the prisoners smoked the cigarettes they had accumulated and the debts that some of them still owed to the bankers literally went up in smoke. Before American troops had thrown the gates of the POW camp open, its remarkable little economy had collapsed.

From this, it is clear that a monetised economy cannot be sustained if everyone knows its end is nigh. Everything relies on trust in its longevity as the very anticipation of collapse is enough, in an Oedipal manner, to cause collapse.

This is true of all economies, from the one in Radford’s POW camp to our own today. There are, however, fundamental differences between the way money worked in the POW camp and the way it works in our market societies. In the POW camp it was the Red Cross who was in control of the ‘money’ supply. Of course, the Red Cross staff probably knew nothing about any of this. They simply delivered what goods they could to the POWs, going about their humanitarian work without a thought for the POW camp’s economy. In this sense, the ultimate authority that ruled over the camp’s money system was genuinely impartial.

Alas, in our market society, this is far from being the case.

From cigarettes to political money

Cigarettes have emerged as currency units in concentration camps and jails the world over. But for those at liberty, there are a wider choice of materials to choose from. Shells, salt and precious metals, such as iron, have all been used. Gold’s magical chemical properties, which prevents it from corrosion and allows it to retain its shine, has made it an all time favourite. When paper currency first replaced metal coins, at least for larger values, people were shocked – just as I found it hard to understand how a piece of paper that cost 20 drachmas to manufacture could be worth 1000 drachmas. Since then, as notes have grown smaller and lighter, currency has grown less and less tangible, even dematerialising altogether: today, we are increasingly au fait with the idea of transferring currency via some App on our smartphone. But as with the cigarettes in Radford’s camp, what makes a currency function – what gives it currency – is trust.

Since ancient times, rulers have had to protect the people’s trust in their currency, often from their own greed. In Mesopotamia, as we saw, the inscribed shells that acted as receipts of grain owed to farmers, as well as units of currency, would lose their credibility instantly if the ruler were to issue promises of an implausible quantity of grain or if he failed to control his officials who provided the shells and wrote the numbers on them. The same applied to coinage, where the issue was how much of a precious metal (like gold or silver) they contained. Counterfeiters had every incentive to melt coins down and remould them with less gold or silver, keeping the difference. The widespread scepticism this practice caused impeded transactions, as people thought twice before accepting a coin purporting to have a certain exchange value that it lacked.

To counter their scepticism, the authorities would stamp their coins with an image, usually that of the ruler, as a guarantee that the coins in circulation were under the sovereign’s constant watch. In ancient Athens, for example, the city-state had strict rules and official testing centres at ports and around markets that used advanced technical methods to perform random testing of coins (as well as of other commodities, such as wine, ensuring its purity and alcoholic content). The punishment for trafficking counterfeit coins were sharp, ranging from whipping all the way to execution. Since prevention is preferable to punishment, increasingly complex designs depicting feared gods or tyrants were used on the coins in the hope of staying one step ahead of the counterfeiters.

That was all well and good but, as the old phrase goes, “Who would protect us from the protectors?” The power to issue a state’s currency often proved too much for fallible rulers to enjoy without abuse. The incentives they faced to shortchange the public were powerful ones. Every time they wanted to wage a new war, or build a new temple or palace, the temptation to reduce the amount of precious metal that went into the coins, so as to produce more of them, proved hard to resist.

Their subjects were not stupid, of course: they learned how to distinguish between the older and the newer coins. It would not take long before the bad coins drove the good coins out of circulation, as people hoarded the good ones or melted them down to derive their relatively plentiful silver or gold. But with so much additional and debased currency in circulation, each coin would come to be worth less wheat, less corn, less meat. Price inflation would take hold, people would find their wages and savings losing value and the economy would falter, even throwing the entire currency into jeopardy if trust in it were to fail entirely. The Fall of the Roman Empire, for instance, was riddled with such episodes.

It is, therefore, quite understandable that many people feel that their rulers, their government, their politicians cannot be entrusted with such decisions, which should be kept as far away as possible from the machinations of powerhungry men – and yes, it was, and remains, mostly men that stick their snouts into the common trough.

Times have, thankfully, changed to some extent. Through a series of insurrections the rule of law was imposed upon the rulers by the ruled, limiting the extent to which the King could plunder his subjects, impose taxes at will, confiscate their land and incarcerate them when they resisted. Taxes became something much more than a levy on the poor for the further enrichment of the powerful. In response to popular movements demanding a fairer division of the surplus, taxes became a source of funding for various projects benefitting broader segments of the population. Even the rich began to realise that a welfare state was an excellent insurance policy against losing their property, their peace of mind, indeed their own heads. But the question then became: Who pays for this? As we have previously noted, the rich never like to pay the necessary taxes and the poor cannot afford to. So, what then?

One option, as we saw in Chapter 4, was deficit-financed state expenditure – or public debt. Another was to create more money, either via the banks or via the Central Bank that the state instituted to fund itself and to fund the bankers in their hour of need. Both options have their demerits. Politicians dislike public debt increases because their opponents go to town against them, accusing the government of condemning our children to a future of higher taxes in order to pay it off. A natural tendency, therefore, is quietly to instruct the Central Bank to create more money with which to pay for the things that society so badly needs.

But just as the POWs in Radford’s camp who had saved up a large stash of cigarettes disliked the arrival of new cigarettes from the Red Cross as they diminished the purchasing power of their own, so the moneyed classes have always bitterly resisted this solution. Citing the Fall of the Roman Empire, attributed partly to the failing Roman Emperors’ debasement of the currency, the wealthy went on a campaign to ‘depoliticise’ Central Banks and make them independent of government – taking away the politicians’ power to instruct the Central Bank to increase the money supply.

But leaving aside for now the question of whether it is really desirable to de-politicise money in this way, is it even possible?

The difference between the POW camp’s economy and monetised market economies

To answer this question, let us begin by noting another difference between Radford’s POW camp economy and our own. There, in the POW camp, currency was money and money was currency – the stock of cigarettes acting as the stock of currency, and the stock of currency being the only money that existed. However, outside the POW camp’s barbed wire, the volume of money massively exceeds the quantity of coins and paper notes in circulation. Why is this?

The short answer is: thanks to the bankers’ magical power to create money from nothing. As you will remember, when Myriam received her loan of half a million pounds, it simply appeared in her bank account; it never took the form of currency, of coins or paper notes. But it was money nonetheless, which she used in order to purchase the equipment that she needed for her bicycle workshop. This is possible in market societies because Myriam will go on to produce bicycles worth half a million pounds, plus a bit extra to pay the bank its interest and earn a profit on top. In the POW camp, by contrast, there was no production, only consumption, and without production there is no way of turning debt into profit in this way. Such a thing would have been more or less impossible. From this perspective, the camp’s economy was a fully-fledged market but the camp was nothing like a market society, since nothing that the POWs consumed was produced within it.

Let us also recall how this magical power of the bankers to create money and the overall demands of a market society generate an urgent need for public debt – the ghost in the machine, as I described it. It is public debt that pays for the infrastructure on which the whole functioning of the economy depends, that boosts the recycling process when it slows, that provides over-excitable bankers with their ‘most liquid of assets’, that is the elastic band that holds everything together when they get carried away. In turn, public debt engenders a new urgency for the state to collect taxes, if only to keep repaying part of the public debt. The crucial difference between the economy in Radford’s POW camp and the economies of market societies is that in the former debt and taxes were unrelated to the supply of money whereas in the latter they are inextricable.

After all, physical currency did not come about in order to facilitate exchanges, as it did  in Radford’s camp. It was invented to record debts – debts that the rich rulers used in order to pay poor farmers like Mr Nabuk – and to collect taxes. (Hence, while rulers have always been tempted to debase the currency in order to profit themselves, they have always been restrained from doing so by the knowledge that doing so would reduce the value of the taxes they would receive.)

If money were to be de-politicised, if its supply were to be separated from the world of politics, then we can now see that all of the following decisions would have to be made independently of politics: how much government spends and on what; how much tax the state collects and from whom; what bankers should be allowed to get away; how to deal with bankers when they go bankrupt. To the extent that these decisions are the very definition of politics, then can be undemocracatic, if these political decisions are taken by the oligarchy;, but it can never be apolitical.

Once more, let me remind you why money in Radford’s POW camp was apolitical: because its supply came from an independent source, the Red Cross, that did not know it was providing Radford and his fellow POWs with a currency. Everywhere else, the authorities in control of the money supply know full well the power they have over our economy. In such a position, given that they know the likely consequences of their decisions, the question is not whether they should act dispassionately – they cannot; the question is whether they should act in the interests of the many, not the few.

It is the case that the Central Banks of almost all of the world’s economically advanced democracies are formally independent. Has money been de-politicised, now that the Central Bank is no longer under the purview or influence of elected politicians? Given that money is intextricably bound up with the institutional management of debt (public and private) and taxation – an entirely political affair – the answer is no. What really happens when the Central Bank becomes independent of elected politicians is this: Rather than having a Central Bank as neutral as the Red Cross, we end up with a Central Bank whose decisions remain as political as ever, except that they are no longer supervised by Parliament. As a result, they end up more dependent than ever on the political and financial might of the powerful unelected few: the oligarchy and the bankers.

An attempt to depoliticise money: Bitcoin

Now let me take you to 2008, to that moment in recent history when you were only four and when the bankers’ bubble burst spectacularly. The loss of so many jobs and homes and hopes imbued western societies with unprecedented distrust of the money lords – the private bankers, the politicians in charge of our market economy and the theoretically independent Central Bankers in charge of the money supply. As Central Bankers from the twenty richest countries, the so-called G20, got together to agree on how to rescue the bankers, citizens around the world were incensed. Some began to dream of new kind of currency, one not dissimilar to the cigarettes in Radford’s POW camp: de-nationalized, apolitical and beyond the reaches of the high and mighty; a currency created by the people, for the people, which neither bankers nor the state could manipulate.

Who would issue the currency and regulate its quantity and quality if not a government or central bank? Such questions were unanswerable before the digital age. But ever since the Internet arrived, the vision of a democratic, safe and honest digital currency, with no physical form, existing only in our computers and smartphones, independent of any central control, has been growing in progressive minds with an anti-authoritarian bent. The challenge has always been this: unlike a banana or a $100 note that I cannot eat or spend twice, anything digital is just a string of numbers sitting on a hard drive and can therefore be copied and multiplied by anyone. If there’s nothing to stop me or you from forging as much currency as we want, how can we keep tabs of how much each one of us has the right to spend? Without a solution to this problem, a digital currency would immediately be destroyed by mistrust and hyper-price inflation.

A brilliant answer to this question was sent in an email to an online chatroom on November 1st 2008, a few weeks after the crash hit. The email was signed by Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym hiding a person, or team, whose identity hasn’t been uncovered to this day. In this email, Nakamoto presented a dazzling computer program – an algorithm – that solved this problem and that would become the basis for a new decentralised digital currency – the so-called Bitcoin.

Before Nakamoto’s email, all other solutions required a central authority of some kind. Banks and credit card companies, like VISA or MASTERCARD, deal with the problem by creating a central digital spreadsheet. Every time you pay for something on Amazon using my credit card, a number of dollars is taken out of the entry in that central spreadsheet – or ledger – next to my name and account number and is put next to Amazon’s name and account number on the same central spreadsheet. Before every purchase I make, the central system checks to see that there are sufficient funds next to my name, ensuring I never spend the same money twice.

The beauty of Nakamoto’s algorithm was that it did away with the central ledger run by a central authority but still managed to ensure that a single currency unit could never be copied or spent twice. “Who would take responsibility for policing transactions then?”, I am sure you want to ask. The fascinating answer is: Everyone! The whole community that uses Bitcoin would share in the task by each making available a small part of their computer’s capacity for this purpose. Everyone would observe everyone else’s transactions, ensuring their validity, while at the same time no one would know whose transactions they were observing, to safeguard privacy. Many people around the world were enthused and signed up.

Bitcoin experienced some terrible teething problems. Despite the fact that nobody was able to crack Nakamoto’s algorithm, a handful of malevolent entrepreneurs exploited people’s fear that their computers might be hacked, with the hackers escaping with the strings of digits that are their hard-earned Bitcoins. These entrepreneurs offered Bitcoing-rich customers to safekeep their Bitcoins by storing electronically their strings of digits on super-safe servers,  charging a small fee for the service. Yes, you guessed it: one or two unscrupulous safekeepers then disappeared into the night with other people’s Bitcoins worth several million dollars. What is truly interesting about this story is that it reminds us why money is, and must always be, political.

That money is political is not something Bitcoin’s supporters dispute. Their love for Bitcoin and other so-called cryptocurrencies stems from what they see as its anarchic, anti-Establishment, counter-authoritarian nature. This is as political as it gets. What Bitcoin supporters would not like, however, is what I am going to say next: the thought that money can be kept separate from the state and from the political process leading to the formation of our governments and their policies is a dangerous illusion.

The dangerous fantasy of apolitical money

When the scandal over the large-scale theft of Bitcoins erupted, many saw in it the proof that Bitcoin was flawed because no one protects people using it from fraud and theft. If bankrobbers break into a normal bank and leave with millions, the law ensures that your deposits are safe. But with bitcoin being outside the jurisdiction of any state, no one will come to your rescue.

This lack of a state-backed insurance scheme for users is a serious fault, no doubt. We might dislike it, but the state is ultimately our only insurance policy against organised crime. However, this is not the greatest weakness of state-less currencies like Bitcoin. Their greatest and most dangerous weakness is that, because they are founded on the notion that no intervention in the money supply should be possible, lest this intervention is manipulated by government or the bankers, it is impossible to adjust the  total quantity of money in the system in response to a crisis – and this makes a crisis worse, as we have seen.

Bitcoin’s algorithm specifies that the number of Bitcoins in existence is essentially fixed. (To be more precise, the quantity grows slowly until it reaches a maximum number – 21 million Bitcoins, to be precise – sometime in 2032.) But this is very problematic for two reasons: first, it makes a crisis more likely and, secondly, it makes it harder for the state to ameliorate the crisis when it hits.

Let’s first see why the fixed quantity of Bitcoin makes a crisis more likely: its so-called deflationary effect. As businesses create more products, each bitcoin will become relatively scarcer and so be worth more and more. Which means that the price, measured in Bitcoins, of each car or gadget falls even faster than the pace dictated by automation. And this will happen across the board: price deflation. This is not a problem in and of itself but becomes a huge problem if wages fall faster than prices and, thus, workers can only afford to buy fewer of the multiplying products. This fall in sales due to Bitcoin’s deflationary effect adds a destabilising factor to the bankers’ standard overexuberance and sparks a crash more readily.

Once the crash has happened, the second problem of a Bitcoin-powered economy emerges: the impossibility of reflating the economy by increasing the quantity of money. After a crash, when the money bankers had conjured up (by giving loans to the various Myriams, to governments etc.) evaporate, the government must replace some of that lost money quickly, bailing out banks (though not the bankers), spending on the poor, on public works etc.

Unless it takes swift action to increase the money supply, the chain reaction of insolvencies will push everyone into a 1930s-like slump. But this is not possible under Bitcoin, whose supply is fixed and outside the authorities’ grasp.

None of this is speculation. It is what happened before and after the Crash of 1929, when governments were determined to keep the money supply in unchanging proportion to the amount of gold they possessed – a policy known as the Gold Standard, in principle very close in spirit to the aversion of political money that lies behind Bitcoin. It was only after the British government in 1931 and President Roosevelt’s so-called New Deal government in 1933 de-coupled the quantity of currency from gold holdings that some relief came.

But of course, as soon as someone, e.g. a government or a Central Bank, is managing the money supply, political money has returned.

A concluding remark

To recap: controlling the money supply is our only faint hope of charting a course that avoids the Scylla of bubbles, debt, and unsustainable development on the one hand, and the Charybdis of deflation and stagnation on the other. But as any such intervention will affect different people – the rich and propertied on the one hand, the poor and powerless on the other – in different ways, it can never be impartial. Having accepted that money is inescapably political, there is only thing we can do to civilise it: Democratise it! Give the power to control it to the people on the basis of one person, one vote. It is the only defensible way we know.

Of course, to democratise our money we will need to democratise our states first. And this is, admittedly, a tall, tall order. But it may not be impossible. When I finished writing this chapter, I asked your grandfather, my dad, if cigarettes had ended up becoming currency units in the prison camps where he spent several years as a political prisoner during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) – on the islands of Makronissos and Ikaria. I suppose I was asking partly in order to find out how universal Radford’s POW story might be. His answer surprised me, I must say.

“No”, your grandfather said. “We shared whatever packages each of us received. Once, despite the fact that I didn’t smoke, I asked my aunt to send me cigarettes. As soon as I received them, I passed them on to others who smoked – without expecting anything from them in return. That’s how it was. We helped each other out.”

There is a lesson somewhere here but I shall leave it to you to tease it out. 

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A central bank cryptocurrency to democratise money – Project Syndicate & Jordan Times

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 02/08/2021 - 8:12pm in

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English, Op-ed

The history of money has been the history of the struggles to control the payment system and the money tree. Today, with control over both resting in the hands of bankers, central banks’ efforts to boost business end up amplifying inequality while failing to address either economic stagnation or the looming climate disaster. The time for ending this scandalous cartel is now; the way to do it is by creating a central-bank cryptocurrency.

Whether you are charging a cup of coffee to your debit card or wiring money, the transaction passes through a digital system fully owned by bankers. What should be a public utility, like roads or sewers, is a lucrative cartel. Similarly, every time bankers lend, they mark up the balance of the borrower’s account, thus creating new money. Dollars, pounds, euros, yen and so on are conjured mostly by private bankers out of thin air.

Defenders of the status quo will protest that bankers’ access to the money tree is constrained by the central bank. By imposing on bankers a minimum ratio of safe debts (such as US government bonds or real estate collateral) for every loan they make, the central bank limits the production of new money. But while that may be true in theory, during a crisis, debts turn bad en masse, forcing the central bank to choose between letting banks fail and accepting increasingly worthless collateral.

Society’s reliance on banks for its payments system has meant that since 2008 — and more so during the pandemic — central-bank money has been showered, via private bankers, on the ultra-rich, while everyone else suffers stagnation and austerity. Once caught in this trap, it became impossible for central banks to revive the economy while keeping financiers on a leash. To escape, it is necessary, though insufficient, to end bankers’ dual monopoly of the payment system and the money tree. But how?

Bitcoin-like, non-state cryptocurrencies do threaten the bankers’ monopoly over the payment system, domestic as well as international. But they are a terrible alternative in every other respect. Of their many defects, the one that stands out is that the crypto money supply cannot be adjusted to reflect economic activity.

If such currencies had prevailed before the pandemic, governments would not be able to support locked down workers and firms. As for developing countries that do not borrow in their own currencies, turning a bitcoin-like cryptocurrency into legal tender, as El Salvador did recently, promises to cause even worse problems than those caused by dollarisation.

The aim ought to be termination of bankers’ monopoly of payments and money creation, albeit without passing their exorbitant power to the central bank’s bureaucrats. Central bank digital currencies based on bitcoin-like transparency-enhancing technologies are a promising way to achieve three objectives: Liberating the payments’ system from rentiers, guaranteeing unprecedented transparency regarding how much money is plucked from the money tree, and democratising access to the tree’s fruit.

Interestingly, the idea of central bank digital currencies is gaining support from the financial establishment such as the Bank for International Settlements, known as the central bank of central banks. These financial gatekeepers are embracing central bank digital currencies because they can see that, if they do not, someone else will, whether it is the People’s Bank of China, whose own digital currency is at an advanced stage of development, or, more ominously, Big Tech. Their objective is to usher in digital currencies that preserve the current oligarchy’s monopoly over money. The objective of progressives must be to wrest control away from them in order to promote shared prosperity with monetary stability.

The first step is to separate payments from the bankers’ money tree. This can be achieved easily if the central bank automatically granted every resident (but also selected non-residents trading with residents) a digital account, a PIN, and a web/phone application that enables free, immediate money transfers.

In addition to the lure of free payments, a tax discount of, say, 5 per cent on funds transferred to one’s central bank account and used to extinguish taxes a year later would attract idle savings from commercial banks and give the government access to prepaid taxes. Bankers will have to offer customers genuine services to keep their business.

As for concerns about privacy, it is possible to anonymise central-bank accounts with digital tags that only an independent ombudsman, a post created in the spirit of a new separation of powers, can trace to physical persons. After all, lest we forget, our current payments system (with the strict “Know Your Customer” rules imposed on bankers) offers next to no privacy.

The second step will be to end socialism for the ultra-rich, also known as quantitative easing. Instead of the central bank financing banks that lend to corporates, which then use the money to buy back their own shares, thus boosting their wealth without a cent of actual investment, the central bank would automatically credit a monthly sum to every resident’s account — with the government taxing, at year’s end, the receipts of well-to-do folk. As economic conditions change, this direct dividend would fluctuate accordingly.

This system should be built on a Bitcoin-like transparency-enhancing distributed ledger for two reasons: Resilience and trust. Any central-bank digital currency would be extremely vulnerable. But a distributed ledger architecture would be impervious to hacking or physical damage. And since the quantity of money would be set by the central bank, there would be no need for Bitcoin-like mining which requires planet-endangering electricity consumption. Furthermore, it would give us common knowledge of the quantity of money in the system, thereby preventing the central bank from covertly inflating the economy while preserving anonymity.

Central-bank digital money will happen sooner or later. The great struggle over who will control the payment system and the money tree will continue. But we have a chance to use new technology to democratise money, to reclaim control over the money supply, to offer savers a decent interest rate without precipitating a new depression, and to lay the groundwork for a universal basic dividend — in short, to press the money tree into the service of people and the planet.

Who controls transactions, interest rates and money creation controls politics. That’s why the powers-that-be will fight this proposal tooth and nail.

Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, is leader of the MeRA25 Party and professor of Economics at the University of Athens. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

www.project-syndicate.org

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