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Laurie Penny, on the streets with Bloomberg's "private army"

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

The Brookfield Winter Garden is the sort of aggressively bland corporate un-place where scuffles with the NYPD are not supposed to happen.

The financial district of New York is full of spaces like this: soulless private-public atriums full of force-grown unseasonal greenery, glistening 1980s marble and glaze-eyed commuters on their way to meetings. It's a place for "passive recreation" -- the stated function of Zucotti Park, also owned and run by Brookfield industries.

Absolutely nothing of emotional or political significance is ever supposed to happen here, ever. Right now, though, scores of members of the police force Mayor Bloomberg called his "private army" are arresting people seemingly at random just for looking like they might be working against the world's largest investment bank, rather than for it.

Just after eight in the morning, several hundred protesters from Occupy Wall Street had gathered in front of the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, banging drums, blearily slurping coffee and carrying a large, wobbly papier-mache squid. The latter was a reference to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's iconic denotion of the bank as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Some of the protesters also wore homemade cardboard squid hats. Yeah, take that, everyone who used to be skeptical about radical writers' ability to change the world using only the power of humorous metaphor.

Black bloc it wasn't. But this wasn't New York's day of action, not really. The demonstration was called in solidarity with the workers and occupiers attempting to block major ports along the West Coast of America, many of which happen to be controlled by subsidiaries of the Goldman group. Which also owns much of America's university system. And the shipping industry. And your mortgage. And your soul.

The fact that angry chanting and heavy policing have become routine features of life in the financial district is perhaps only appropriate in a country where four million families have been made homeless by a banking industry that was recently rewarded for trashing the economy with trillions of dollars of public money.

After a noisily peaceful march around the Goldman building, which entirely failed to collapse like the walls of Jericho, some of the protesters broke off to march through the World Financial Centre, adjoining the Winter Garden Plaza. Which is when the police freaked the hell out.

Red-eyed, astonished businesspersons held up their smartphones like protective talismans as emissaries of the 99 per cent danced around the ornamental ferns. Police poured in as someone dropped a West Coast Solidarity banner above the escalators. Protesters stood and shouted "everybody pays their tax, everyone but Goldman Sachs" -- well, close enough, the company paid only one per cent tax in 2008 -- just a little too long. On the turn of a penny, the arrests began.

By now we're used to hearing about protesters being arrested for taking part in peaceful actions, but this is the first time I've truly witness young people being grabbed at random just for standing near a demonstration with a phone or camera.

At least two of the 18 arrestees were journalists, including Radio Dispatch's John Knefel, and it is pure luck that the officer who shoved me through the atrium doors, shouting "your turn now", when he saw me tweeting, did not decide to arrest me too. As citizen journalists and members of the marching band sat in the back of the police van, a chant started: "Whose tweets? Our tweets!"

In the face of this sort of paranoid over-protection of a degenerate financial elite, you have to pun, because otherwise you might put your fist through a wall.

Funnily enough, last week, when hundreds of protesters and local campaigners really did take over a foreclosed property in East New York technically belonging to Bank of America, Bloomberg's army was almost nowhere to be seen.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.