Walmart’s Smartest Move Yet

American retailing giant Walmart, owners of ASDA in the UK, yesterday committed to paying their 500,000 workers at least $9 an hour by August, rising to $10 in 2016. This compares with a federal minimum wage of just $7.25, which President Obama has sought to raise to $10.10 (unfortunately blocked by Republican-controlled Congress). The move has been welcomed by America’s flourishing anti-low pay movement, despite it seeking a doubling of the federal minimum wage.

At the same time, Walmart going to give employees more ‘control’ over the hitherto erratic shift system that made life particularly difficult for employees with families to support and care for. To be sure, Walmart has taken significant steps away from its past as a bad employer.

I have conflicting views on this development. I certainly do not believe anybody should feel grateful to Walmart for finally living up to its most basic responsibilities as a highly profitable, multinational employer to pay more than the joke that is the federal minimum wage and give its workers a limited degree of security. When people are earning their income from you, you can’t leave them worrying if you’ll give them the hours they need to feed their children next week.

Retail lobbyists in the US have cited the move as proof that retailers do not need to be forced to pay higher wages. That is nonsense. There are tens of millions who languish on poverty pay still. A handful of chains, like Walmart and Ikea, raising their game barely dents that figure. Moreover, employers should not feel that they’re risking their competitive advantages by paying $9 or $10 an hour.

On the other hand, I would not dismiss the significance of the pay increase either. I doubt any commitment to guarantee pay above the minimum wage by the likes of Walmart would have been thought plausible ten or twenty years ago. Campaigning for a $15 minimum wage would have been thought nonsensical. It certainly would have been difficult to mobilise so many low-paid workers to that cause. The very fact that Walmart has made any concession to its employees at all represents a seismic social change.

Of course, Walmart might have calculated that this pay rise should be just enough to blunt the workers’ rights campaigns and alleviate pressure for future concessions. We don’t know. That calculation is wrong in any case: the same process is occurring in the American workforce as is beginning to occur in the UK’s: workers are beginning to organise and raise their aspirations in parts of the economy that never had trade unions. The supermarkets, the fast food restaurants, cleaning firms, industries where employees have rarely been a priority and are at last acting to improve their lot.

They won’t be waiting for Congress or the President to help them out, but they’ll get round to that in due course. (Who knows, they might even get the GOP on board… one day). Until employment regulations are improved, employees will have to fight for every dollar and every guaranteed hour.

Changing the law would be so much simpler.

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This Is What Obamacare Is For

The controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA) or ‘Obamacare’ has had most of its provisions in effect since the New Year, and the past months have seen a massive expansion in health insurance coverage across the American population. Although many Americans are suspicious of anything resembling ‘Big Government’ and the Republicans have made political capital out of the technical failures that affected the scheme, the benefits of Obamacare are beginning to be felt by the population. Soon, it will become politically impossible to return to the bad old days of the profiteering, shady and unregulated healthcare market.

Yes, the ACA is a pale reflection of the ‘ideal’ system (business should have no place at all in healthcare, for example) and its coverage is patchy, as individual states can vary the extent to which they implement it. However, one key provision is universal, namely the rule that health insurers can no longer charge higher premiums, or refuse coverage, to those with pre-existing medical conditions. The unjust situation in which those suffering from long-term illness were often financially crippled by bills they could not insure themselves against is pretty much a thing of the past. About time too. A rich society like the US which can afford to support the sick but chooses not to is not a healthy one as a whole.

In the news, we now hear heartwarming stories of low-paid and unemployed Americans being able to visit GPs (‘family doctors’) for the first time. Previously, the only occasion on which they ever saw a doctor would have followed life-threatening injury. As any medical professional or economist could tell you, there are enormous benefits to having diseases treated before they reach emergency stages, in terms of the patient’s wellbeing but also in that they can keep working and have less expensive treatment.

Moreover, I can’t imagine the relief that millions of newly insured Americans must feel now that they have a degree of security. When a person needs medical treatment, they should not have to worry about the cost. People were being scraped off of pavements by ambulances and worrying about the five-figure bill that would result, rather than than the painful injuries they had suffered. The fact that it only takes one accident to cost you, literally in many cases, everything you own isn’t something you can ever forget or ignore. It was just one more dimension to the emotional and mental drag that affects those living hand to mouth. That’s why Obamacare is one of the most progressive measures taken in the US for decades: it has lifted such a burden from so many people.

President Obama was open about his desire the ACA to be his defining act at the helm of the US government. For all its limitations, its a fine legacy to leave.

Face It: We’ve Lost Crimea

The peninsula of Crimea held its rushed referendum yesterday. Voters in the Russian-occupied territory were asked to choose between joining the Russian Federation or a greater degree of autonomy for the devolved government. 93% of them voted for annexation by Russia.

Although the majority of Crimeans opposed to the annexation stayed at home, encouraged by the Ukrainian government, the EU and the US, who declared the ballot illegal, it was clear that the majority of Crimeans, mainly those of Russian descent, genuinely did favour annexation. Even when the questionable practices with ballot boxes that characterise elections (those in which Vladimir Putin is involved, anyway) are accounted for. Crimea wants to be part of the Russian Federation, and that is what its government is formally applying for today.

The reality is that, with a popular mandate from the Crimean people and unrivalled military forces in place, there is zero probability that the Ukranian government can hold on to the territory. Barack Obama achieves nothing by saying that the result will “never be recognised”: Russia doesn’t care if the West declares Crimea to be part of a federated republic with Swaziland; you cannot, in practice, ignore the situation on the ground.

This is not to say that Ukraine should be abandoned by the West: it needs all the help it can get if it is not to have its eastern provinces hived off by Russia in a similar manner to Crimea. My point is: our governments have missed the boat on Crimea. Today, European ministers are holding an emergency meeting to plan trade sanctions and asset freezes on Russia. Why did they not do this the second Russian military boots touched Ukrainian soil? Why not sanction Russia when its intention to annex Crimea became clear, rather than wait for the predictable outcome of a referendum we don’t recognise? There is no discernable thread of logic running through the actions of the EU-US bloc.

It is this intellectual wooliness that threatens to leave the fragile liberalism developing in Ukraine completely undefended. And the democrats, Tartars and minorities in Crimea who will pay for that have every right to blame us.

‘Kiev Spring’ Deserves Western Support

In eastern Europe, people living under an authoritarian regime grow restless and force their political class to move towards reform, and towards liberal Europe. Russia’s similarly authoritarian and corruption-ridden government, desperate to retain its political and economic domination over ‘its’ half of the continent, sends in its army to crush the fragile new liberal democracy. Does this story sound familiar?

That’s because it has happened before.

There are several parallels- albeit limited ones- between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the USSR’s oppression of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring half a century ago. In both cases, small countries’ right to determine their own destinies were denied by a superpower determined to make examples out of them in order to secure its own position.

Although Russia insists that it is merely “defending” the large Russian minority in eastern Ukraine, the pretext is a flimsy one. There is no evidence that the Russian community in Ukraine has anything to fear from the new government: indeed, many Russian Ukrainians support the cause of reform. It was in Russia’s power to demand referenda in Ukraine for the secession of the nation’s Russian-populated east and Crimea from Ukraine. Military intervention would be completely pointless… Unless Putin and his government are seeking to remove the new Ukrainian government and annex Crimea.

Personally, I think the international community is resigned to the predominately pro-Russia Crimea being annexed. However, I am saddened that such a feeble approach to defending the sovereignty of Ukraine has been taken by the US-EU axis. To be clear, I think it would be wrong to send in our own armies into Ukraine “with all guns blazing”- outright warfare must always be an absolute last resort, particularly when the world’s second biggest nuclear-armed power is involved. We should think very long and hard about the lengths the West should go to to defend the freedom of the Ukranian people. We are talking about the borders of the European Union, after all.

That is why I approve of the White House’s plans to impose economic sanctions on Russia unless it pulls out of Ukrainian territory. However, I note that the US is much less interdependent on Russia than Europe is, which is perhaps why the British government (which is also virtually owned by Russian oligarchs) is opposed to any restriction on trade with Russia whatsoever. Such a stance renders British foriegn policy morally bankrupt. A war between democracy and kleptocracy; underdog and giant; right and wrong is about to rage on our doorstep, and our leaders just shrug, doing nothing for fear of annoying the “Londongrad” billionaires club?! It’s true that Europe would endure some turbulence due to sanctions on Russia, not as much as the target. If Putin suffered the perfect storm of losing his nation’s oil and gas revenues, his friends complaining that their assets in London had been frozen, and the national humiliation of becoming the world’s outcast I think it would be him, not the West, that would blink first. Whatever help we offer to Ukraine, let it be more useful than empty words.

GOP Abandons Economic Blackmail

In an extraordinary turn of events in Washington DC yesterday, the House of Representatives passed an increase in the Federal debt ceiling without pushing America to the brink.

The Republican party has abandoned its policy of trying to blackmail the Democrat administration into approving savage budget cuts, using the threat of blocking any rise in the debt ceiling. After the events of last year, the American public has grown less tolerant of this form of blackmail that depends on the threat of bankrupting the federal government. Republican leaders realise that the public have looked into the eyes of the Tea Party congresspeople during the government shutdown and were terrified by the lack of limits they felt. Indeed, it almost seemed as if the rabid right wanted to drag the federal government to the abyss… and then throw it over. That doesn’t make for good election result for your party.

Accordingly, the Republican Party has conceded a bill that will allow government finances to run smoothly for a whole year. Well, I say “conceded”: over 200 of the 435 HoR members voted against the bill, so only a small section of the GOP actually backed its leadership’s moderate policy.

The Republican Speaker said:

Obama will n

ot engage in our long term spending problem. So let his party give him the debt ceiling increase that [Obama] wants.

The US does have a financial problem. It is running a budget deficit of $512 (£310) billion and a national debt of $17.2 (£10.4) trillion. However, it is uniquely placed, as the issuer of the world’s reserve currency, and the richest country (in terms of GDP and GNP) to be able to comfortably sustain a much larger debt than other countries. However, it is only prudent for a growing economy to look to balance taxation and public spending, and ideally pay down its debts. But one cannot eliminate a half-trillion deficit quickly in an economy still dependent on monetary stimulus. But most importantly, it’s a revenue, not a spending, problem that the US government has. Reagan, Clinton and the Bush presidents have all been complicit in the reduction of taxation to unsustainably low levels. By contrast, I think there are few parts of the federal government, other than the military, that are guilty of overspending. There is little to cut. Imagine how much the deficit could be reduced by if the top rate of income tax was increased from 35% to 45% in a country with the largest number of millionaires?

The Republicans genuinely don’t want to see the consequences of proper engagement with deficit reduction.

Obama is in an Impossible Position

Barack Obama gave his 6th State of the Union (SOTU) address to the people of the United States yesterday. He gave the speech in the knowledge that he is about as unpopular as he has ever been, and that he has precious little time to change his country any further before he enters the “lame duck” phase of two term presidencies.

Of course, Mr Obama cannot win, for the American electorate is a cruel creature. It swept Mr Obama to power under the weight of undeliverable expectations, then two years later it deprived the Democrats of the House of Representatives majority that they needed to pass the legislation for reform. Not only that, but voters have spent the four years since complaining that the moderate politician (to whom they denied a legislative majority) has failed to transform the United States. But note the suspicion and hostility that greeted Obama’s most important reform, Obamacare, even from Democrat voters.

It is tempting to think that Barack Obama is powerless to make the American public happy. Certainly, there is very little he could plausibly do unless he builds a majority in both houses of Congress. If he does, he can cut through the paralysis that plagues his administration in what should be its prime years of activity.

But that’s not the message that Obama wanted to send us yesterday. He was stressing that he is still alert to the problems that are affecting the United States, in particular that of the chronic inequality that continues to grow across the West. Obama says he’ll do what he can by bypassing Congress, such as by imposing a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour for all new federal employees. It is roughly equivalent to the UK National Minimum Wage- not a liveable rate, but a lot closer to it. Indeed, the whole policy is very limited in scope, but in all fairness it is a good start, about as much as Obama can do without Congress. Another thing that he can do, and plans to do by the next SOTU speech, is to close the authoritarian and disturbing scar on America’s libertarian ideals that is Guantanamo Bay.

Does that sound familiar? That’s because the same thing was said 5 years ago. So you’ll excuse my scepticism.

I make no secret of the fact that my politics are hardly a match for Obama’s. But I do wish him success in his aims, and hope he will get the powers he needs to implement long overdue “change we can believe in”.

Obama and Castro Shake Hands: So?

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Apologies if the above photograph is in a peculiar size or format: this is an experiment with the WordPress mobile app!

Nelson Mandela the statesman had a brilliant ability to spread goodwill and a more peaceful outlook on life. The leader and figurehead of the movement for racial equality in South Africa has become synonymous with peace and justice in the minds of billions. Now it seems that Mandela has managed to continue this work, even in death.

This photograph, of US President Barack Obama and the Cuban premier Raoul Castro shaking hands, has made headlines, shockwaves and news stories around the world. The gradual warming of relations between the superpower and the small quasi-Communist dictatorship that lies close to its shores, has accelerated under the Obama administration. Consequently, many analyses have been applied to The Handshake. Many of Obama’s opponents have condemned his “support” for a brutal dictatorship. How funny that many such people, especially Republicans, seem to have had little to say when former Presidents have met much more ruthless dictators of oil rich capitalist economies. Then there is the Castro administration itself, which has hailed The Handshake as the “beginning of the end of the US aggressions”. Hmm.

Or maybe, a handshake is just a handshake.

We’ve all shaken hands with people we may not like.

I think that there is massive potential to shape the democratisation of Cuba, as long as the global powers that be engage with the process. Obama was right to ease restrictions on travel and trade between Cuba and the US, for it is already paying dividends as the siege mentality of the Cuban regime ends. As a result, economic liberalisation is taking place and pressure for social reforms will follow with soft international and strong domestic pressure. The Cold War is over: there is no need to retain the confrontational approach that brought the world to the brink on so many occasions.

If it takes a handshake, and even a conference or two- one day- to encourage the Castro brothers to engage with the rehabilitation of Cuba into the community of nations, then so be it.

Syria

English: Emblem of the United Nations. Color i...

The UN emblem

Syria. The civil war. An issue which has become impossible to ignore as much of the world prepares to commit acts of warfare to remove the regime which is thought to have “crossed the red line” of attacking its own civilians with chemical weaponry. The ethical calculations required to decide on intervention do not lead to an indisputable answer. It would seem that the British and American public, whose governments are prepared to bypass the United Nations to intervene in Syria, clearly do not support the proposed air strikes. They’ve seen what has happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, and aren’t supportive of our interfering in the affairs of another distant country.

At present, nobody is suggesting that Western soldiers take part in actual combat. The allied forces currently wish to fire missiles directly at military bases operated by the Assad regime. Nevertheless, the anti-war lobby are saying that the West’s proposed response to the brutal slaughter of Syrians is the bombing of Syrians by our planes. I could talk all day about the issue of “collateral damage”, but that’s not what I want to discuss today.

David Cameron agreed to recall Parliament yesterday to secure a motion supporting British attacks on the Assad government- disturbingly, the British Prime Minister has the power to take the country to war without consulting Parliament, but he/she will generally respect Parliament’s wishes if given. However, the Whips go into overdrive to see that votes work to the benefit of party leaders. In my view, the only voice MPs should be listening to when deciding how to vote in an act of war is the collective one of their constituents. Warfare should always be above party politics.

Anyway, David Cameron was forced to backtrack when Ed Miliband announced Labour’s line on Syria: they would reject any intervention that took place before the UN weapons inspectors have reported (and presented ‘compelling evidence’ that international law had been breached) and the UN itself has voted on intervention. Labour would table an amendment to the parliamentary motion saying this. Let’s wait for the facts before we attack. Such a policy, which I personally endorse, received enough support from Lib Dem and SNP MPs that it seemed possible that the Government would be defeated. The the Leader of the Opposition would utilise public and parliamentary support to overrule the Prime Minister on the highest level issue that there could possibly be.

Say what you like about Ed Miliband, but he’s good in a crisis.

The PM promptly shied away from such a parliamentary confrontation, and within hours presented a new Motion to Parliament, which offers agreement in principle to a “strong humanitarian response” but delays a final vote on military action. A couple of hours ago Labour rejected that motion too, saying that they would vote against it unless their amendment was carried in full. The next few hours are going to be suspenseful ones in British politics.

The international community simply cannot permit any power to deploy chemical or biological weapons under any circumstances. If we don’t clamp down-  sharply so- on such war crimes then we put millions at risk from their use in future conflicts. However, we need rock solid evidence that such a war crime has been permitted before we send in the warships.

I leave you with one final thought, which was put to me when discussing Syria on Twitter yesterday: why is the UK and US so outraged at chemical weaponry when between our nations we control enough nuclear warheads to incinerate half the planet?

America Finally Acts on Climate Change

It pains us environmentalists that the world’s second biggest polluter and most influential nation has barely conceded that climate change is a real phenomenon, and that those Americans who do clutch their copy of An Inconvenient Truth to their hearts as if it were the new Bible often do little in practice. (Though I do wonder how far Al Gore would have got in greening the US had the true result of the 2000 presidential election been respected). But fortunately for those of us who are still going to be around in forty years time, Obama is honouring his commitment made in his inauguration speech to tackle the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, the United States will make a legal commitment to cut its carbon emissions by 4% of 1990 levels over the next seven years. It will achieve this by imposing pollution limits on power stations, as these are often coal-fired and responsible for one quarter of the country’s pollution. Further to this, there will be a new mechanism to allow businesses to develop renewable energy projects on federal and state-owned land.

4% doesn’t sound like a significant reduction. But consider the fact that US emissions peaked in 2005, and so the reduction is 17% of that level. 4% in the US is also equivalent to 33% in the UK, considering differences in population and the use of resources. On the other hand, the EU on its own cannot make a tangible reduction in the pace of climate change, but if the US showed any inclination to match the modest actions that Europe is doing, we’d see real results within years. Who knows, we might actually avoid an apocalyptic disaster!

Imagine an America which makes use of the diverse and amazing forces of nature within in to produce solar, wind and geothermal energy. Imagine an America which uses resources with care: no more gas guzzlers, less emphasis on the acquisition of objects, and a healthy understanding of food. Imagine an America in which people share more and do so more often. We’re watching the first tentative steps being taken towards that future.

Although it may be difficult not to dismiss Obama’s new targets at pitifully limited, it is important to realise that this marks a sea change in this aspect of American thinking.

Obama’s Broken Promise

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Barack Obama remains very popular in Britain. Though bound by the balance of power in Congress, the need to tackle a large budget deficit, and excessive political caution by both himself and his party, Obama has led the United States into a new era of social, if not economic, liberalism. Compared to the state the country was in after the disastrous administration of George Bush, the US has advanced hugely over the past five years.

It looks possible that even the thorny issue of gun control might be tackled, albeit not as satisfactorily as West European standards would dictate. But there is one problem that symbolises the failure of Obama to live up to the high expectations that were created of him in 2008: Guantanamo Bay. The prison, with which we are all familiar, is the place in which many of the American war crimes during Bush’s War On Terror took place. It is well known that illegal torture methods were used on inmates who were often in Guantanamo despite having never been tried, and public outrage was such that Obama pledged to close the site by 2010, with the intention of transferring most prisoners to a high security prison in Illinois, where American law (in theory, at least) would apply in full.

Unfortunately, the site remains open today, after about 40 inmates were shipped out, leaving the majority to suffer indefinitely. 52% of the remaining detainees have been cleared for release; the rest are not to be released despite a lack of evidence to prosecute them; and all have heard multiple plans for their transfer. In response to the failure to build on these and the generally appalling conditions that they have been kept under, a hunger strike of at least 40 (and up to 130) people has been taking place. Further to this, there was a fight between guards and inmates in which ‘non-live’ ammunition was fired to restore order. The majority of strikers, however, are now too weak to commit any acts of violence, and are essentially ignored until they are force fed, which itself has been classified as illegal torture since the 1970s.

There is something deeply sinister about a Government which considers the law only worth respecting if it’s not too inconvenient for its foreign policy. In particular, when it is ‘due process’ that is being avoided, the question has to be asked: ‘Is anybody safe?’ None of us are free until all of us are free. The Republicans have rightly maintained a steely silence on the matter, aware that the contradiction between their obsessive libertarianism and legal authoritarianism is difficult to justify- particularly with the more idiosyncratic wing of the Tea Party warning of an imminent Communist coup by President Obama. The people who claim to stand for ‘freedom’ are those who destroyed it when in power. It’s clear that the American public, if they wish to end the stain on their national reputation that is Guantanamo, will not be able to pressure their Government by threatening to take their votes elsewhere. Instead, the civil libertarian and peace movements must become as vocal as they were exactly a decade ago, when the Blair-Bush axis pushed the world towards the War on Terror on primarily unjust grounds.

Barack Obama has been the most forward thinking President his country has seen since Jimmy Carter. There may be a number of domestic policies that will be vetoed by an unsympathetic Republican Party- like Carter, Obama runs the risk of losing the opportunity to fulfill his full potential. Nevertheless, his constructive foreign policy will be core to his legacy, and that will be incomplete until Guantanamo Bay is shut down for good. The President would be doing himself and his country a great disservice by failing to act.