The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Tories throw it in

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Cons., Richmond-Yorks) has gone to His Majesty and requested to dissolve Parliament, calling for an election on July 4th:

Rishi Sunak has called a surprise general election for 4 July in a high stakes gamble that will see Keir Starmer try to win power for Labour after 14 years of Conservative-led government.

Addressing the nation outside Downing Street, Sunak said it was “the moment for Britain to choose its future” as he claimed the Tories could be trusted to lead the country during a time of global instability.

The rain-soaked prime minister was almost drowned out by the New Labour anthem, D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better, blasted out by the anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray, as the surprise early election was called.

Sunak’s words were met with alarm by senior Tories who are concerned that their party, trailing 20 percentage points behind Labour in the polls, could face electoral wipeout, with some MPs even considering submitting letters of no confidence.

It will be the first July election since 1945, when Labour leader Clement Attlee won a majority of 145. The campaign will also be fought during the Euro 2024 football tournament, with polling day falling just before the quarter finals.

Two things. First, it's about fucking time, as the Tories have driven the UK into the ground, giving the country two of the worst PMs in history and certainly the worst Home Secretary in my lifetime.

Second, what bliss only to have a six-week public campaign period! But then again, the UK government does get things done even when the ruling party has such low polling numbers.

I remember the big vote the UK took in June 2016 and what that said about our own politics. I will watch the July 4th election intently for clues about our own future.

Smelly criminals appeal to SCOTUS

Yesterday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Johnson v Grants Pass, Ore., the result of a 2018 lawsuit against the rural Southern Oregon town (pop. 39,000) for imposing fines of up to $1250 for the heinous crime of sleeping in public. Naturally, the usual suspects seem to think that's just fine:

Kelsi Brown Corkran, representing the challengers, argued that because Grants Pass defines a “campsite” as anywhere a homeless person is, within the city, with a blanket, it is “physically impossible for a homeless person to live in Grants Pass” without facing the prospect of fines and jail time. The order barring the city from enforcing its ordinances, she insisted, still leaves the city with an “abundance of tools” to address homelessness.”

At the oral argument on Monday, the court’s liberal justices largely seemed to agree. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the city’s ordinances only apply to homeless people who sleep in public. Police officers in Grants Pass, she suggested, don’t arrest others who fall asleep in public with blankets – for example, babies with blankets or people who are stargazing.

By contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas emphasized that the law at issue in Robinson barred both the use of drugs and being addicted to drugs. Do the city’s ordinances, Thomas asked, make it a crime to be homeless?

The justices also debated whether they needed to address the Eighth Amendment question at all, or whether the challengers’ contention that they cannot be punished because they have nowhere else to go would be better addressed through a “necessity defense.” Justice Neil Gorsuch was one of the justices to broach this prospect, suggesting that it would apply to bar fines or prosecutions for actions like eating or camping in public.

I'm reminded of two videos I've seen recently. The first, from British comedian Jonathan Pie, could have been about Grants Pass but actually came out of a new UK law that does approximately the same thing:

The other, from 2020, explains the thinking behind "since we can't solve homelessness in one go, what's the point of trying?" Essentially, conservatives think in binaries: either we have homelessness, or we don't. Here's Ian Danskin:

But I do find it interesting that the Tories and the Republicans came up with the same inhumane idea. Hm.

In other news...

Despite the XPOTUS publicly declaring himself a fascist (again), the world has other things going on:

Finally, Google has built a new computer model that they claim will increase the accuracy of weather forecasts. I predict scattered acceptance of the model with most forecasters remaining cool for the time being.

A tale of two health systems

The US and the UK share a common language, a common legal tradition, and a common scourge of right-leaning political parties trying to destroy anything that the government does better than private industry. Despite over a century of evidence that many public services are natural monopolies, and therefore will provide poor quality at inflated prices whenever personal profits get involved, the electorates of both countries keep believing the lie that "industry does it better."

That's why 13 years of Conservative rule has hollowed out the UK's National Health Service (NHS), and why 25 years of Republican obstructionism has allowed corporate mergers to gut US health care.

First the NHS. As journalist Sam Freedman recently explained, NHS administration plus the Tories cutting funding to the NHS repeatedly have left the UK almost as badly off as the US in health-care outcomes:

It is well known within health policy circles that the NHS is severely undermanaged compared to other systems. The UK spends less than half the OECD average on management and administration, which is why I bang my head against the nearest wall whenever I see a newspaper splash bemoaning fat cat managers, or yet another politician promising to get more resources to the “frontline”. It is, of course, the case that if frontline staff are not properly supported they end up becoming expensive admin staff themselves (see also policing). Meanwhile the number of managers per NHS employee has fallen by over 25% since 2010 due to deliberate policy decisions from the centre of government, particularly Andrew Lansley’s disastrous “reforms”.

Meanwhile the central bureaucracy has grown to manage all this complexity. There are fewer managers but more managers managing the managers. .... The lack of clarity as to what they are supposed to be achieving is concerning, and we’ve already seen the Secretary of State slash their funding, which can hardly help.

Overall though we are drifting further into crisis due to a stubborn refusal to accept the obvious. Doctors need to be paid more. There needs to be significantly greater capital investment – in beds, equipment and IT. We need more managers, with greater autonomy. Yes this all costs money but at the moment we are wasting enormous sums on a low productivity system.

Meanwhile, the ever-more-desperate search for higher returns has led private equity to invest heavily in US health care providers, even though (a) they know nothing about health care and (b) it elevates profit-seeking behavior to actual rent-seeking, not to mention driving doctors and nurses out of practice:

E.R. doctors have found themselves at the forefront of these trends as more and more hospitals have outsourced the staffing in emergency departments in order to cut costs. A 2013 study by Robert McNamara, the chairman of the emergency-medicine department at Temple University in Philadelphia, found that 62 percent of emergency physicians in the United States could be fired without due process. Nearly 20 percent of the 389 E.R. doctors surveyed said they had been threatened for raising quality-of-care concerns, and pressured to make decisions based on financial considerations that could be detrimental to the people in their care, like being pushed to discharge Medicare and Medicaid patients or being encouraged to order more testing than necessary. In another study, more than 70 percent of emergency physicians agreed that the corporatization of their field has had a negative or strongly negative impact on the quality of care and on their own job satisfaction.

Concerns about the corporate takeover of America’s medical system are hardly new. More than half a century ago, the writers Barbara and John Ehrenreich assailed the power of pharmaceutical companies and other large corporations in what they termed the “medical-industrial complex,” which, as the phrase suggests, was anything but a charitable enterprise. In the decades that followed, the official bodies of the medical profession seemed untroubled by this. To the contrary, the American Medical Association consistently opposed efforts to broaden access to health care after World War II, undertaking aggressive lobbying campaigns against proposals for a single-payer public system, which it saw as a threat to physicians’ autonomy.

Throughout the medical system, the insistence on revenue and profits has accelerated. This can be seen in the shuttering of pediatric units at many hospitals and regional medical centers, in part because treating children is less lucrative than treating adults, who order more elective surgeries and are less likely to be on Medicaid. It can be seen in emergency rooms that were understaffed because of budgetary constraints long before the pandemic began. And it can be seen in the push by multibillion-dollar companies like CVS and Walmart to buy or invest in primary-care practices, a rapidly consolidating field attractive to investors because many of the patients who seek such care are enrolled in the Medicare Advantage program, which pays out $400 billion to insurers annually. Over the past decade, meanwhile, private-equity investment in the health care industry has surged, a wave of acquisitions that has swept up physician practices, hospitals, outpatient clinics, home health agencies. McNamara estimates that the staffing in 30 percent of all emergency rooms is now overseen by private-equity-owned firms. Once in charge, these companies “start squeezing the doctors to see more patients per hour, cutting staff,” he says.

As demonstrated repeatedly in public services as diverse as transport and drinking water, taking the profit (or rent-seeking) motivation out of the equation leads to better outcomes for everyone—except the private monopolists. But that's what governments are for.

The overdue defenestration of Boris Johnson

Former UK Prime Minister and professional circus clown Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Cons.—Uxbridge and South Ruislip) resigned his seat in Parliament this week ahead of a damning all-parties report recommending he be suspended for 90 days:

The death certificate for Boris Johnson’s career in politics read June 12th. A government statement appeared that evening appointing Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as “Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern”, the title MPs accept, according to Britain’s absurd constitution, in order to resign. He went because an inquiry into whether Mr Johnson deliberately misled Parliament found that he had. Not only that, he’d also impugned the investigating committee and joined a campaign of abuse and intimidation against it. Mr Johnson faced suspension as an MP for a remarkable 90 days. Given forewarning of the report, the former prime minister quit.

Conservatives are losing everywhere. But support is falling fastest in the northern constituencies the party was so proud of winning. Across the country Labour enjoys a 14-point poll lead. In “Red Wall” constituencies, this rises to 23 points, according to one pollster.

Andrew Sullivan, who attended Oxford with Johnson, wishes the US Republican Party would treat their former leader the same way:

And now we have Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. This past week saw two official reports into the abuse of their respective offices, and their lavish lying about it. The Smith indictment alleges that Trump knew full well that the documents he took from the White House and stored haphazardly at Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster were highly classified and not his own. But rather than hand everything back, Trump ignored the best legal advice, lied to his own lawyers, ordered an underling to move boxes to conceal them from the FBI, and threw out his usual barrage of excuses, distractions and falsehoods.

In an eerily similar fashion, the British parliamentary committee set up to investigate whether Boris Johnson lied to the House of Commons about his breaking of social distancing rules during Covid, published its final report this week. It’s as authoritative as the Trump indictment — first-hand witnesses, photos, sworn testimony, due process. And it too focuses on a very basic fact: just as Trump knew he was not authorized to keep top secret documents, so Johnson knew that crowded office-parties were quite clearly banned across the UK. But this awareness of the rules did not stop either man from flagrantly breaking them — and then complaining of a “witch-hunt” when called to account.

And it would be “utterly incredible” — unless you had a pulse and two ears at the time, because the ban on workplace parties was incandescently clear to the entire country. When the Queen had to sit alone at the funeral of her husband, it was obviously not ok for the prime minister to have “bring your own booze” parties at Number 10.

And as with Trump and his bizarre behavior with “his boxes,” it’s very hard to see some profound, malign motive here in pursuit of something important. It’s just mindless egotism, married with an infinite capacity for deceit.

[T]here is almost nothing in the narrative of these men’s late careers that isn’t exactly replicated in every previous episode of their lives. A mature democracy will throw up these characters every now and again, and use them. But a healthy one will also test them, and cast them out if they threaten the integrity of the system as a whole. The Brits and Tories have done that, in the end, with Boris — and it speaks well of the remaining integrity of their democracy.

The GOP needs to do the same with Trump. And soon.

Oh, completely unrelated, of course: today is the 165th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's address to the Illinois Republican Convention in Springfield, Ill., also known as the "house divided" speech. It's worth a re-read.

Tories strike again

Thanks in part to Conservative Party mismanagement of the UK transport sector for the last 13 years, things have gotten a bit fraught in the Old Country. And now, I get to spend a bit of extra time getting from Gatwick to my hotel on Saturday:

The Gatwick Express takes about 30 minutes from the airport to London Victoria Station. There is no other train option.

Instead, it looks like I can take a cab straight to my hotel for about £90, or a bus to bloody Heathrow and the Elizabeth Line for about £25. The former will take about an hour. The latter about 2 1/2.

So, I'm on vacation. No expense account. No schedule. Should I spend the extra $55? Sigh. 

Notes to self

The sun finally came out around 3:30 this afternoon, as a high overcast layer slid slowly southeast. Of course, the temperature has fallen to -11°C and will keep sliding to -18°C overnight, but at least the gloom has receded! January will still end as the gloomiest ever, however, with around 18% of possible sunshine all month, plus whatever we get tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I want to come back to these articles later:

Finally, looking back a little farther (about 13 billion years), the James Webb Space Telescope has picked out some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. And they're really weird.

The Tory catastrophe

Two writers in the Times looked at two different aspects of the Conservative party's ongoing vandalism to the United Kingdom. First, David Wallace-Wells tracks the post-Brexit economic declines:

By the end of next year, the average British family will be less well off than the average Slovenian one, according to a recent analysis by John Burn-Murdoch at The Financial Times; by the end of this decade, the average British family will have a lower standard of living than the average Polish one.

On the campaign trail and in office, promising a new prosperity, Boris Johnson used to talk incessantly about “leveling up.” But the last dozen years of uninterrupted Tory rule have produced, in economic terms, something much more like a national flatlining. In a 2020 academic analysis by Nicholas Crafts and Terence C. Mills, recently publicized by the economic historian Adam Tooze, the two economists asked whether the ongoing slowdown in British productivity was unprecedented. Their answer: not quite, but that it was certainly the worst in the last 250 years, since the very beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Which is to say: To find a fitting analogue to the British economic experience of the last decade, you have to reach back to a time before the arrival of any significant growth at all, to a period governed much more by Malthusianism, subsistence-level poverty and a nearly flat economic future.

As Burn-Murdoch demonstrates in another in his series of data-rich analyses of the British plight, the country’s obvious struggles have a very obvious central cause: austerity. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, and in the name of rebalancing budgets, the Tory-led government set about cutting annual public spending, as a proportion of G.D.P., to 39 percent from 46 percent. The cuts were far larger and more consistent than nearly all of Britain’s peer countries managed to enact; spending on new physical and digital health infrastructure, for instance, fell by half over the decade. In the United States, political reversals and partisan hypocrisy put a check on deep austerity; in Britain, the party making the cuts has stayed steadily in power for 12 years.

Over two centuries, a tiny island nation made itself an empire and a capitalist fable, essentially inventing economic growth and then, powered by it, swallowing half the world. Over just two decades now, it has remade itself as a cautionary tale.

The Tories' lazy malfeasance in promoting and then implementing Brexit may also unwind 25 years of community-building on Eire in ways literally everyone predicted, says writer Christopher Caldwell:

Ireland remains part of the European Union but Northern Ireland no longer is — and yet the two parts of the island are bound by trade and a 25-year-old peace treaty that helped defuse a terrorist conflict between Protestant unionists and Catholics.

Those loose ends were tied up in a little-understood clarification of Brexit called the Northern Ireland protocol, ratified in January 2020. It looked like a mere codicil three years ago; now it looks like a serious diplomatic blunder that could threaten Britain’s territory and the region’s peace.

[Former Prime Minister Theresa] May promised — too hastily, in retrospect — to honor the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement among Britain, Northern Ireland’s political parties and the Republic of Ireland. One of the main things the agreement did was to bind together the economies of Ireland’s north and south. But adapting that arrangement to a post-Brexit world came at a steep constitutional price for the north. To protect the European single market against smuggling and the transfer of unauthorized goods through Northern Ireland, a customs border would be established between Northern Ireland and Britain. To administer the single market, the European Court of Justice was given authority to interpret E.U. law in Northern Ireland.

Caldwell seems to favor UK independence from the EU, but he makes a good point. Something has to give. And it looks like even odds whether Brexit winds up unifying Eire into one Republic of Ireland, or reigniting the Troubles. Can't wait to find out...